Isabella of Castile

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 Isabella of Castile
Isabella of Castile

Isabella of Castile (April 22, 1451November 26, 1504) was queen of Castile and Leon. With her husband Ferdinand II of Aragon she was the first ruler of a unified Spain.



The Castilian version of her name was Ysabel or Isabel. The English language equivalent of the modern Spanish version Isabel is Elizabeth but she is most widely known as Isabella in English. She and her husband Ferdinand were granted the title Catholic Monarchs by Pope Alexander VI. She is also known as Isabel la Católica (Isabel the Catholic in English).


She was great-great-granddaughter of both Henry II of Castile and his half-brother Peter I of Castile and their respective wives Joan of Villena and Maria de Padilla. She was also great-great-granddaughter of Peter IV of Aragon and his wife Leonor of Portugal, daughter of King Afonso IV of Portugal, as well as of her half-brother Peter I of Portugal and his mistress Teresa Lourenço. Through John of Gaunt she was great-great-granddaughter of King Edward III of England and his wife Philippa of Hainault and through his first wife of Henry of Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster and his wife Isabel de Beaumont. Finally she was great-great-granddaughter to Nuno Alvares Pereira, Count de Barcelos and his wife Leonor Alvim, Countess of Barcelos.

She was great-granddaughter of John I of Castile and his wife Eleanor of Aragon, a sister of Kings John I of Aragon and Martin I of Aragon. She was also great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and his second wife Constanza of Castile, a daughter of Peter I of Castile. Her third set of great-grandparents were King John I of Portugal and his wife Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt from his first wife Blanche of Lancaster. Her final set of grandparents were Afonso, Duke de Braganza, a son of John I of Portugal by Inez Perez, and his wife Beatriz Pereira, countess of Barcelos.

Her paternal grandparents were King Henry III of Castile and Catherine Plantagenet of the House of Lancaster, a half sister of King Henry IV of England. Her maternal grandparents were Prince João of Portugal, Grand Master of Santiago, who was a brother of Henry the Navigator, and his wife Isabella de Bragança.

Her parents were King John II of Castile and his second wife Queen Isabella of Portugal.

She belonged to the House of Trastamara that had been established by Henry II of Castile.

Early years

Isabelle was born in Madrigal de las Altas Torres on April 22, 1451, her brother Alfonso came three years later. When her father John II died in 1454, her much older half-brother Henry IV became king. As soon as he ascended to the throne, he sequestered both his half-siblings and his stepmother to Arevalo, a virtual exile. Henry IV, whose first marriage to Blanca of Navarre was not consummated and had been annulled, remarried to have his own offspring. His wife gave birth to Joanna, her nickname "La Beltraneja" however indicating the problem of her paternity. When Isabel was about ten, she and her brother were summoned to the court, obviously to be under more direct supervision and control by the king. Henry proved to be a poor ruler and his nobles were restless. In the Representation of Burgos the nobles challenged the King and among other items demanded that Alfonso, Isabelle's brother, should be named the heir to the kingdom. Henry agreed, provided Alfonso would marry Joanna. A few days later, he changed his mind. The nobles, now in control of Alfonso and claiming him to be the true heir, clashed with the forces of Henry in the battle of Olmedo in 1467. It was a drawn battle. One year later Alfonso died at the age of fourteen, and Isabelle became the hope of the rebelling nobles. But she refused their advances, instead she acknowledged Henry as king, and he, in turn, recognized her as the legitimate heir. Henry tried to get Isabelle married to a number of persons of his choice, yet she evaded all these propositions. Instead she chose Ferdinand II of Aragon. They were married October 19, 1469 in Ocaña; another source suggests Valladolid (perhaps the place of betrothal).


At this stage, the royal couple was only King and Queen of Sicily, all the Spanish realms were in the hand of others. Worse yet, Henry, upset that Isabelle had married Ferdinand, replaced Isabelle as heir with Joanna. Fortunately, the Cortes supported Isabelle's legitimacy. When Henry IV died on December 10, 1474, Isabelle acted quickly. Three days later, she had herself crowned Queen of Castile at Segovia. While she and Fernando started to reorganize the court, Alfonso of Portugal crossed the border and declared Joanna the rightful heir and his intended bride. Ferdinand beat the invaders back at the battle of Toro in 1476, and the challenge to the crown of Castile was rejected. In a series of separate marches Ferdinand and Isabelle went on to subjugate renegade and rebellious towns, fortresses, and points of power that had developed over time. In 1479 Fernando's father died, and they ascended to become King and Queen of Aragon. In 1480, the couple assembled the Cortes of Toledo where under their supervision five royal Councils and 34 civilian representatives produced a codex of laws and edicts as the legal groundwork for the future Spain. This established the centralization of power with the royals and set the basis for economic and judicial rehabilitation of the country. As part of this reform, and in their attempt to unify the country, Ferdinand and Isabelle solicited the Pope Sixtus IV to authorize the inquisition. In 1483, Tomás de Torquemada became the first Inquisitor General in Seville.



The Capitulation of Granada by F. Padilla: Boabdil before Ferdinand and Isabella
The Capitulation of Granada by F. Padilla: Boabdil before Ferdinand and Isabella

The conquest of Granada took ten years. This kingdom had been held by the Moors since their invasion of Spain in the 8th century. Protected by natural barriers and fortified towns it had withstood the long process of the reconquista. But, in contrast to the determined leadership by Isabelle and Ferdinand, Granada's leadership was divided and never presented a united front. When the Spaniards early on captured Boabdil, one of the rulers, they set him free - for a ransom - so he could return to Granada and resume his reign. The Spanish monarchs recruited soldiers from many European countries and improved their artillery with the latest and best cannons. Systematically, they proceeded to take the kingdom piece by piece. In 1485 they laid siege to Ronda which surrendered after extensive bombardment. The following year, Loja was taken, and again Boabdil was captured and released. One year later, with the fall of Málaga, the western part of the Moorish kingdom had fallen into Spanish hands. The eastern province succumbed after the fall of Baza in 1489. The siege of Granada began in the spring of 1491. When the Spanish camp was destroyed by an accidental fire, the camp was rebuilt, in stone, in the form of a cross, painted white, and named Santa Fe (i.e. 'Holy Faith'). At the end of the year, Boabdil surrendered. On January 2, 1492 Isabel and Ferdinand entered Granada to receive the keys of the city and the principal mosque was consecrated as a church. The Treaty of Granada signed later that year was to assure religious rights to the Islamic believers. Spain was united and in Isabel and Ferdinand's hands.


Columbus before Isabella and Ferdinand
Columbus before Isabella and Ferdinand

After two failed attempts, Columbus approached the Queen again after the fall of Granada. Again she sent him home empty-handed, but possibly after intervention of Ferdinand (that is what he claimed later), she changed her mind. Her guard called him back and his request for support to explore the transatlantic route to India was granted. His conditions, the position of Admiral, governorship for him and his descendants for lands to be discovered, and ten percent of the profits, were met. On August 3 his expedition sailed off. He returned the next year and presented his findings to the monarchs, bringing natives and gold under a hero's welcome. Spain entered its Golden Age of exploration and colonization. In 1494, by the Treaty of Tordesillas, Isabella and Ferdinand divided the Earth - outside of Europe - with Portugal. Isabella tried to defend the American aborigines against the abuse of the colonists. In 1503, she established the Secretary of Indian Affairs, which later became the Supreme Council of the Indies.

Expulsion of the Jews

With the institution of the inquisition, Isabelle and Ferdinand set a policy of "religious cleansing". On March 31, they issued the Alhambra decree for the expulsion of the Jews (See main article on Spanish Inquisition). Approximately 200,000 people were forced to leave, others converted, often only to be persecuted further by the inquisition eager to uncover Marranos. The Muslims of the newly conquered area had been initially granted religious freedom, but pressure to convert increased, and after some revolts, a policy of forced expulsion or conversion was also instituted after 1500 ( see article on Moriscos).

Later years

Queen Isabella's Will, by E.Rosales. On the left: Juana and Ferdinand, on the right: Cardinal Cisneros (black cap)
Queen Isabella's Will, by E.Rosales. On the left: Juana and Ferdinand, on the right: Cardinal Cisneros (black cap)

Isabella, a very religious person, received with her husband the title of Catholic monarchs by Pope Alexander VI, a pope of whose secularism Isabella did not approve. Along with the physical unification of Spain, Isabella and Ferdinand embarked on a process of spiritual unification, trying to bring the country under one faith (Roman Catholicism). As part of this process, the inquisition became institutionalized. After an uprising in 1499, the Treaty of Granada was broken in 1502 and Muslims forced to either be baptized or to be expelled. Isabella's confessor, Cisneros was named Archbishop of Toledo and instrumental in a program of rehabilitation of the religious institutions of Spain, laying the groundwork for the later counter-reformation. As chancellor he exerted more and more power.

Isabella and her husband had created an empire and in later years were consumed with administration and politics; they were concerned with the succession and worked to link the Spanish crown to the other rulers in Europe. Politically this can be seen in attempts to outflank France and to unite the Iberian peninsula. By early 1497 all the pieces seemed to be in place: Juan, the crown prince married Margaret of Austria, establishing the connection to the Habsburgs. The oldest daughter, Isabelle, married Manuel I of Portugal, and Juana was married to another Habsburg prince, Philip. However, Isabella's plans for her children did not work out. Juan died shortly after his marriage. Isabella died in childbirth and her son Miguel died at the age of two. Queen Isabella's titles passed to her daughter Juana the Mad ('la Loca,') whose marriage to Philip the Handsome was troubled. Isabella died in 1504, before Philip and Ferdinand became enemies.

She is entombed in Granada in the Capilla Real, which she ordered built, alongside her husband Ferdinand, her daughter Juana and Juana's husband Philip, and their son (Isabella's grandson) Miguel. The museum alongside the Capilla Real contains her crown and scepter.


Isabelle had five children with Ferdinand.


Isabella and her husband established a highly effective coregency under equal terms. They utilized a prenuptial agreement to lay down their terms. During their reign they supported each other effectively in accordance to their joint motto of equality: Tanto monta, monta tanto, Isabel como Ferdinand ("same difference, I. like F.") Their achievements are remarkable - Spain was united, under the crown power was centralized, the reconquista was sucessfully concluded, a legal framework was created, the church reformed. Even without the benefit of the American expansion, Spain would have been a major European power. Columbus' discovery set the country on the course for the first modern world power.

The dark side of their reign also had long-term consequences. The inquisition and their intolerant treatment of religious minorities was harsh and cruel. A negative historic model was set. The brain drain hurt Spain as well.

The regime of Francisco Franco claimed the prestige of the Catholic Monarchs. As a result, Isabella was despised by opposers to Franco.

Some Catholic Spaniards are trying to get Isabella declared as blessed and later saint. This has met opposition by Jewish organizations, Liberation theologists and Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger. She had many Moors killed after her entrance to Cordoba, but was a protector of the Spanish poor and the Native Americans against the rapacity of the Spanish nobility. At any rate, miracles have reportedly been attributed to her. In 1974, Pope Paul VI opened her cause for beatification. This places her on the path towards possible sainthood. In the Catholic Church, she is thus titled Servant of God.

Isabella was the first named woman to appear on a United States coin, an 1893 commemorative quarter, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus's first voyage. In the same year she was the first woman to be featured on a U.S. postal stamp, also in celebration of Columbus.

Isabella has been represented in film by actresses such as Lola Flores and Sigourney Weaver.


  • Miller T: The Castles and the Crown. Spain 1451-1555. Coward-mcCann, New york, 1963
  • Isabel Of Spain: The Catholic Queen by Warren H. Carroll, PhD.
  • Isabel: Jewel of Castilla, Spain, 1466 (The Royal Diaries) by Carolyn Meyer

Isabelle: Spain

See also

External links

Preceded by:
Henry IV
Queen of Castile
Succeeded by:
Queen of León

with Fernando V

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