Isabel of Spain: "The greatest woman ruler in all history"
ISABEL OF SPAIN:
The Catholic Queen
by Warren Carroll
(Christendom Press, 385 pp, $29.00, ISBN: 978-0-93188-843-3. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Warren Carroll's biography of Queen Isabel (Isabella) of Spain (1451-1504) is a touching personal portrait by an obviously ardent admirer. However, any reader who thinks this means it is inaccurate or uncritical can look at the extensive bibliography (including three pages of primary sources) and delve into them to see whether Carroll's assessment is fair.
The author certainly makes judgments on Isabel's decisions on the major issues she had to deal with in her reign. They are on the whole favourable but he gives his reasons and the reader is free to disagree. I think, as does Carroll, that history has vindicated most of Isabel's decisions, at least from the Catholic viewpoint.
Isabel had a sad childhood, alone and in danger. Her father, King Juan II of Castile, died when she was three. Her older, very unpopular half-brother took the throne while Isabel and her baby brother, Alfonso, were sent to live in a remote castle with their mother, Isabel of Portugal. There Isabel lived for the next 11 years in relative obscurity, she and her brother being the only solace of their mother who slowly sank into depression.
At age 11 she made her public debut standing as godmother to her half-brother's daughter, by his second wife Juana of Portugal who was to become her main rival to the throne of Castile and the cause of the war of succession with Portugal that raged for the first years of her reign and devastated the countryside.
Isabel's vulnerable teenage years were spent in the midst of scheming, ruthless and avaricious men using her as a pawn in the battle for the throne of Castile. As early as this she showed the discernment and good judgment that were, with clear and firm purpose, the hallmarks of her reign.
By her good sense, and right-ordered conduct in refusing to depose her half-brother when her younger brother died, and promising publicly to be loyal to him to his death, Isabel was assured of the succession to the throne of Castile and was accordingly proclaimed Princess of the Asturias.
Showing that judgment which was her hallmark Isabel chose her own spouse, Fernando (Ferdinand), heir to the throne of Aragon, a neighbouring Spanish kingdom and natural ally of Castile. Thus began one of the most successful marriages in history.
Isabel and Fernando became renowned for discussing every decision in governing their kingdoms. Isabel's will was paramount in Castile but she always had Fernando co-sign all orders. In Aragon Fernando was in charge and Isabel always stayed out of decisions to do with Aragon except to offer her opinion.
As the sacrament of marriage does, when its graces are availed of, the spouses brought out the best in each other. Warren Carroll's assessment is that Isabel was the morally stronger character and that it was her support that kept Fernando on track, making good governing decisions while she was alive. After Isabel's death he made errors of judgment and perhaps tarnished his reputation by marrying again and by losing the Roussillon region north of the Pyrenees to the French, a region over which he and his father before him had fought all their lives.
Isabel was a towering figure while Fernando was the best he could have been. He was brave, loyal, and faithful and, after a rocky start, accepted Isabel's gift for governance with a "graciousness and sound good sense that would be rare in a man in the public eye even today."
The first challenge Isabel faced on ascending the throne was to secure her succession as rightful Queen of Castile against the Portuguese.
Then there was the deadly and drawn out battle against the intrigues of the Spanish nobles, including certain "princes" of the church, cardinals and archbishops, who plotted to use or disinherit her during the troubled years until her succession was established. Isabel won.
Next on the agenda was the enormous task of restoring order to a lawless and bandit-ridden realm which had been ill-governed by her weak father and then her sad, disturbed half-brother.
Perhaps the high point of all her successes was overseeing the surrender of the last Moorish stronghold of Granada on 2 January 1492. As Carroll chronicles, Isabel was the 24th generation from Pelayo in 722 to fight the Moors to retake Spain for its Spanish inhabitants. For a time, until 1502, the Moors experienced the toleration of the Catholic Queen and her husband who allowed them to retain their Muslim faith as long as they did not rebel against her.
Much needed reform to the Church was another challenge. This encompassed religious life (the reforms of St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross being the best known examples), rooting out abuses of privileges (appointment of absentee and sometimes even child bishops) and the problem of religious liberty in respect of Jews and Muslims.
In relation to the last problem, the Spanish Inquisition comes mostly to mind.
Warren Carroll does not seek to excuse the excesses of the Inquisition, but he puts them in perspective. In Isabel's reign of 30 years there were about 2,000 burned as against the 15,000 who were found guilty but were reconciled. Further, the vast majority of those questioned by the Inquisition were completely cleared, among them St Ignatius of Loyola and St Teresa of Avila.
Finally, Isabel's patronage of "a lone and penniless sea-rover from Genoa", known to us as Christopher Columbus, opened up a "new world" of wealth and of souls for God which were ever Isabel's first concern.
Along with these successes, Isabel saw to the royal future of her children and, in the final years of her life experienced great sorrow at the harsh blows life dealt them. Her only son died suddenly at 18, his young wife miscarrying the expected heir whose birth would have softened the blow. Her beloved first born daughter was widowed, childless, at 20 and then died within an hour of the birth of her only child to her second husband. That child, the heir to the throne, died at two years while Isabel's second daughter Juana, next in line to the throne, descended slowly into madness.
Despite these sorrows and cares Isabel never once publicly complained or blamed God for her misfortune.
Warren Carroll calls her "the greatest woman ruler in all history – one of the supreme champions of the Holy, Roman Catholic Faith across two thousand years."
My favourite image of Isabel from Carroll's biography is of her riding across the plain of La Mancha, red-gold hair streaming behind her in the moonlight, her blue-green eyes straining ahead to the rescue of her small daughter from the hands of her enemies. More memorable than any Don Quixote.