Sunday, August 5, 2018

Women in Power: Who was Queen Isabella of Castile? - Part 3

After leading her country to the age of exploration and under the spell of the Inquisition, Isabella also exerted effort in other matters of state.

Building a Kingdom

Though Isabella and Ferdinand united crowns, their kingdoms refused to share the union. Castile and Aragon remained administered as 2 separate states, with its own laws, customs, and government organization intact. This situation prevailed beyond Isabella’s lifetime and dragged for centuries until 1715 when the kingdoms were abolished.

Besides successfully concluding the Reconquista, supporting the exploration of the unknown world, and establishing the most notorious institution in the land, Isabella exerted her energy in other pursuits. The Church played an influential role and the Kingdom and the Queen had an active role in its affairs within the country. She also supported reforms aimed to strengthen the position of the monarchy as well as Spain’s in the international stage.

As a pious Catholic monarch, Isabella allowed the Church to rise in power, influence, and wealth. Many of the closes officials and advisers to the Catholic monarchs came from the clergy. Men like Cardinal Cisneros, Archbishop Hernando de Talavera and Fray Tomas de Torquemeda held positions within the clergy and counseled the Catholic monarchs. The Inquisition displayed the strong alliance between the Church and the State.
Cardinal Cisneros
Nevertheless, Queen Isabella made sure that even though she gave power to the Church, she had also power over them. She supported the reforms of Cardinal Cisneros towards the religious orders, reinstating discipline, for example the vows of celibacy of clerics. She mildly and graciously opposed some Papal appointments to the Spanish Church once she viewed it undermining the Crown’s power. Furthermore, together with her husband Ferdinand, they exerted control over numerous powerful military religious orders operating in the country, especially the Orders of Alcantara, Calatrava, and Santiago. Slowly, Ferdinand took control of the orders by becoming its grand master, first in 1487 with him becoming the leaders of the Order of Calatrava and in 1499 of the Orders of Alcantara and Santiago.

The reigns of Isabella and Ferdinand coincided with the Renaissance, an explosive era in terms of knowledge and the arts. Isabella supported scholars such as Pietro Martire d’Anghiera who recorded the Spain’s expansive exploration of the unknown world with his work with the De Orbe Novo. She gave her patronage as well to Antonio de Nebrija who in 1492 completed his work Gramatica Castellana. She also allowed the establishment of schools for sons of the nobility.

In other fields, Isabella and Ferdinand committed themselves in expanding Spanish realm within Europe. But first, the military had to be strengthened to match its major rival France and the Holy Roman Empire. Isabella pledged along with husbands support in this efforts. She favored the rise of the Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba who revolutionized warfare with the unit of infantry called Tercio, a mixture of pikemen and arquebusers that displayed deadly effect in the field. The Tercio and the military of Spain helped Spain to expand its influence to the Italian Peninsula and became a major European power.
Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba
in the Battle of Cerignola
Sometimes, rather than with an army, Isabella and Ferdinand secured alliances and influence through marriage, the same way how Castile and Aragon formed Spain with their marriage. The Catholic monarchs married off their children to powerful houses in Europe. For instance their eldest daughter married King Manuel I of Portugal. But when Isabella passed away, had her sister Maria married the Portuguese King. Then the Infante Juan (or John) married a Hapsburg Archduchess. The similar fate came to Joanna (who later known as Joanna the Mad or Juana la Loca), who married another Hapsburg prince Philip the Handsome, son of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. Lastly, Catherine married to the house of Tudors of England, first to Prince Arthur, then later to Henry VIII, becoming ill-fatedly his first wife and the first to be divorced. The marriages connected the House of Isabella and Ferdinand, the Trastamara, with other well-known names in Europe such as the Hapsburg and Tudors, creating alliance for future wars and tensions.

Later Years

Before the end of the 15th century, Isabella and Ferdinand met with tragedy within their family. Many of their children passed away. It began with the death of their eldest son Juan (1478-1497) followed by their eldest daughter Isabella (1470-1498). Then their grandson destined to be King of Portugal, Castile, Leon, and Aragon passed away.

The deaths precipitated a quick change in the line of succession. With the death of her eldest children Isabella and John, and the death of their grandson Miguel. The future of Spain went to the children of the third child Joanna. And so, Joanna’s child Charles destined to become Holy Roman Emperor (ruling later as Charles V) and King of Spain as Charles I.

Though her last years met family tragedy, she remained firm in her duty as Queen until she passed away in November 26, 1504.

Summing Up

Isabella I of Castile displayed extraordinary courage and strength of will to survive in a political world dominated by men. Though a woman, she waged war to secure her position as Queen and later her Kingdom in the international affairs. She had the guts to support a venture that led to the creation of a Spanish Empire where the sun never set. 

Nevertheless, Isabella remained a human with faults. Her extreme piety led to the expulsion of thousands of her own subject for the sole reason they had a different religion. She supported an institution that sent many innocent more to their deaths under suspicion of being heretics.

Isabella might not be a saint, but she was a formidable woman that created a huge impact into her country's history. For her strength she raised the banner of women, and according to some story, the reason the Queen in the chess became a formidable piece.

See also:

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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