Sunday, July 22, 2018

Women in Power: Who was Queen Isabella of Castile? - Part 1

A formidable woman who strongly stood in the political world dominated by men led her kingdom to be united country. With her patronage, she laid the foundation for a colonial empire. But like men, she had flaws that led to the deaths of thousands and an exodus of thousands more out of her realm. Who was Isabella, the Queen of Castile?

Name: Isabel 
Country: Kingdom of Castile
Position: Queen of Castile and Leon
Tenure: 1474 - 1504
  • Continued and completed the Reconquista 
  • Financed the expedition of Christopher Colombus to the New World
  • Promoted Catholicism through the Spanish Inquisition

Early Life

Born on April 22, 1451 in Madrigal de las Altas Torre in Castile, Isabella of Castile or Isabella the Catholic came to the world as the daughter of King John II (Juan II) of Castile and Isabella of Portugal. She grew up in an atmosphere of political tension and rivalry as his father passed away in 1454 when she was only 3 years old. Her half-brother Henry IV (Enrique IV) assumed power. Being impotent, Henry had been undermined by the nobility and viewed his half-sibling Isabella and her brother Alfonso as a threat to his reign. His mistrust led Isabella and Alfonso in 1462 to seek refuge in the Alcazar of Segovia.
Alcazar of Segovia
by David Roberts, 1838
While in Segovia, Isabella continued her studies. Her future as a monarch unknown then and with a brother ahead to seat in the Castilian throne, Isabella took the studies of a Medieval lady had – music, arts, language. Nonetheless her experience being in a political battle taught Isabella to be emotionally strong and highly observant.

In 1464, Isabella and Alfonso returned upon the orders of Henry to court in Madrid fraught with danger. The political dynamics of Castilian politics, however, altered when in July 1468, Isabella's brother Alfonso passed away and the faction supporting him turned towards her as a new candidate for the throne. Though unsure and fearful, she mustered her courage and took the role as a contender to the throne.

Few months later, on September 19, 1468, Henry IV and Isabella’s faction agreed to a settlement known as the Accord of Toros de Guisando. Under the accord, Henry IV recognized Isabella as his successor under the condition she marries someone of his choosing. And Isabella waited whom would be his new husband.

2 candidates appeared: King Afonso V of Portugal, and Prince Ferdinand of Aragon (Isabella’s 2nd Cousin). On October 19, 1469 in the Palace of Juan de Vivero in Valladolid, with the desire of Aragon to a union with Castile, Isabella married Prince Ferdinand without the knowledge of her half-brother, thus violating the Accord of Toros de Guisando. Despite being close relatives, 2nd degree cousins, they continued the wedding ceremony with a fake dispensation from the Pope.
Wedding portrait of Ferdinand and Isabella, 1469
Isabella and her allies knew that their actions would result to a reckoning by Henry IV, and indeed it came. Henry renounced Isabella as her heir and placed instead her daughter Juana. However, many questioned Juana’s legitimacy as daughter and heir of Henry. Henry being a known impotent, many called Juana a daughter of another man, the favorite of the King, Beltran de la Cueva, Duke of Albuquerque, thus she being labelled as La Beltraneja. Regardless of the true paternity of Juana, Henry threw his whole support to Juana, even engaging her to the powerful King of Portugal Afonso V.

In 1474, Henry passed away and the two factions declared their own monarchs. Isabella went up against Juana and Afonso V. The War of Castilian Succession began. Isabella remained strong with her claim and she waged war for 5 years until in 1479 when Afonso V desiring to abdicate agreed to drop his and his wife’s claim to the Castilian throne under the Treaty of Alcacovas. Isabella won the war.

In the same year as the Treaty of Alcacova, John II, Ferdinand’s father, passed away making Isabella’s husband the new King. Thus the crowns of Castile and Aragon united. The slogan for the 2 rulers became Tanto Monta, Monta Tanto, Isabella Como Ferdinand (They amount to the same, the same they amount to. Isabella like Ferdinand) signifying the equal standing of the 2 monarchs.

Chapman, Charles. A History of Spain. New York, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1918.

Pierson, Peter. The History of Spain. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999.

General Reference:
Boruchoff, David. "Isabel I of Castile." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History. Edited by Bonnie G. Smith. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Tarver, H. Michael & Emily Slape. "Isabella the Catholic, Queen of Castile and Spain (1451-1504)." In The Spanish Empire: A Historical Encyclopedia. Edited by H. Michael Tarver and Emily Slape. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2016.

Highfield, J.R.L. "Isabella I." In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed on July 22, 2018. URL:

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