Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Isabella I of Castile, "the Servant of God"

Isabella I of Castile, queen regent of Castile and León, queen consort of Aragon (crowned 13 December 1474)


Isabella of Castile,
a portrait now in Windsor Castle
Isabella of Castile has figured in many of my posts this year, including the one just two days ago on Juana of Castile, her niece (the daughter of Isabella's half-brother, King Enrique IV) and "rival" for the throne of Castile and León.* 

And, next to the Tudor queens, the queen of Castile is probably the most familiar early-modern queen for American readers today--if for no other reason than her association with Christopher Columbus. 

Rather than rehearsing her biography here, I thought I'd write a bit about her crowning, which may be a less familiar story. 

As I wrote in my post on Juana of Castile, when Enrique IV died in December of 1474, the question of who would succeed him was not altogether clear.

When his daughter Juana was born in 1462, both the king and the Cortes had recognized her status as his heir, successor to the crown of Castile if no son were to be born. But in crisis and under duress, the king had been persuaded to name his half-sister as his heir and successor in 1468, disinheriting his daughter. 

But, although Isabella had agreed that she would not marry without Enrique's permission, she did so anyway. She wrote to Enrique announcing her intention and seeking his permission. She began by reminding him of their agreement: "I agreed to submit to your wishes . . . in which it was agreed that the true succession of these said your kingdoms would belong to me as your legitimate heir and successor." Then she sought his permission for her proposal, asking that "Your Highness would . . . consent to the marriage with the . . . prince of Aragon." 

Although Enrique's permission was not forthcoming, Isabella and Ferdinand were married on 18 October 1469. The terms of the marriage contract ensured Isabella's rights and her independence: Ferdinand would be prince-consort of Castile, not its king. Ferdinand had to promise "virtual obedience" to Isabella; among other "capitulations," he agreed to live in Castile, to seek permission before leaving the kingdom and before taking any children they might have out of the kingdom, to renew none of his father's claims to Castilian possessions, and to make no government appointments without Isabella's consent. Further, he agreed to provide Isabella a sizeable marriage gift and to serve as her military defender. 

By February 1970, Isabella was pregnant. At last, on 26 October, more than a year after his half-sister's marriage, Enrique replied. Declaring Isabella could no longer be considered his heir, he declared Juana once more his legitimate daughter and, therefore, his heir. Despite Enrique's assertions of her legitimacy, the succession question had not been settled when the king died on 11 December 1474. 

Two days later, on 13 December 1474, Isabella was proclaimed "Queen Proprietess" of Castile. Ferdinand, "as her legitimate husband," was recognized as king. At the church of San Miguel in Segovia, the royal standard raised above her, Isabella took up an unsheathed lance, a symbol of sovereign authority; in the procession that followed, she was proceeded by a rider carrying an upraised naked sword, a symbol of royal justice. Neither ceremony had ever been performed by and for a queen. 

Ferdinand, meanwhile, was in Aragon. On 16 December he received a letter from Isabella telling him of Enrique's death but not of her coronation. The chronicler Alonso Palencia was with Ferdinand when he received a letter three days later, on 19 December, describing his wife's coronation and the ceremonies. 

According to Palencia, Ferdinand was surprised--"I have never heard of a queen who usurped this male privilege." His secretary Gonzalez registered more than surprise, shocked not only by Isabella's "insolent action" but by her appropriation of male symbols. He wondered aloud if there were "in antiquity" any "precedent for a queen to be proceeded by this symbol." "Everyone knows that these are conceded to kings," he continued," "but never was known a queen who had usurped this masculine attribute."

Isabella of Castile,
portrait by Antonio del Rincón
Ferdinand was nevertheless confident that he could assert his rights as king. Palencia wrote that Ferdinand felt he would conquer Isabella "with patience"; he "felt certain he would triumph through satisfying assiduously the demands of conjugal love, with which he could easily soften the intransigence that bad advisors had planted in his wife's mind." Speaking for himself, Palencia judged that Isabella was "after all, a woman." His reading of Castilian law led him to conclude that "in the marriage of a crown heiress, even though the husband be of inferior lineage, he must enjoy the scepter and the title of him together with her as well as all the other priorities accorded to males all over the world." 

Despite Ferdinand's hopes and Palencia's reading of the laws of succession, Isabella and the Castilian nobility persisted in asserting her role as queen regnant and Ferdinand's as king-consort. Isabella herself announced her position in a letter of 16 December to the towns of Castile, "inviting" them to recognize her as "natural queen" and Ferdinand as "the very illustrious and most powerful Prince . . . , [her] lord, . . . [her] legitimate husband." 

Fernando del Pulgar, the queen's secretary and chronicler, assembled historical support for Isabella's succession, citing the precedents of a number of queens regent, including Sancha of León (d. 1067), the wife of Ferdinand I of Castile, who became queen of León in her own right after the death of her father Alfonso V in 1037; Sancha's daughter Urraca of Zamora (1033-1101), who inherited absolute sovereignty over the city of Zamora and the title of "queen"; Urraca, queen of León, Castile, and Galicia (1079-1126), about whom I posted earlier this year; and Berenguela of Castile (1179-1246), who was regent of Castile for her brother, and then succeeded him as queen regent after his death in 1217.

Ferdinand and his allies in Aragon and in Castile, on the other hand, argued that natural and divine law gave precedence to a man over a woman; while law and custom might not exclude women from a throne, in practice, when a woman succeeded, it was her husband who ruled. They also argued that Ferdinand's independent claims to the throne of Castile gave him precedence over Isabella: Ferdinand was the nearest male descendant in the Trastamara line. 

There matters stood, unresolved even when Ferdinand joined Isabella in Segovia on 2 January. The king-consort was further provoked by learning that, should the queen predecease him, the Castilian throne would pass not to him but to their daughter Isabel, who had been born in 1470. Despite Isabella's efforts at conciliation, Ferdinand threatened to return to Aragon. At last the matter was placed before a council in Segovia on 15 January. About this confrontation Isabella's biographer Nancy Rubin writes: "That meeting proved to be one of the most extraordinary examinations of female inheritance rights in prefeminist Europe, one whose highly emotional tone would finally be resolved by Isabella's cool logic."

The subject of the succession, Isabella began, addressing Ferdinand,  "need never to have been discussed because where there is such union as by the grace of God exists between you and me, there can be no difference."  As her husband, Ferdinand was king of Castile: "Already, as my husband, you are king of Castile, and your orders have to be obeyed here. . . . But since it has pleased these knights to open this discussion, perhaps it is just as well that any doubt they have be clarified, as the law of our kingdoms provide[s]." 

Isabella of Castile,
portrait by Jan Flanders
As she reminded him, Castilian law preferred the inheritance of legitimate daughter in the direct line to a male in a collateral line. And beyond law, Isabella also reminded Ferdinand of the vagaries of male inheritance. If Ferdinand were to die, another, more distant, male relative might claim Castile if women were excluded from succession.

In the end, Ferdinand accepted Isabella's arguments, their agreement reflected in the motto, now famous, which they adopted: "Tanto monta, monta tanto, Isabel como Fernando--To stand as high, as high to stand, Isabella as Ferdinand." That he agreed is clear. Why he agreed is another matter. 

Motivated by self-interest, fear, or, perhaps, love, Ferdinand accepted the terms Isabella offered, and the two thus established what historian Rafael Altamira calls a "diarchy," a "joint government by two monarchs." There is a qualification to their shared arrangement, however. As Altamira notes, this equality "existed between husband and wife with regard to the Crown's government of Castile. That co-participation was in no wise reflected in the government of Aragon, which was exclusively Ferdinand's prerogative." 

But, while no similar shared rule was negotiated in Ferdinand's kingdom, he ultimately named Isabella his co-regent in Aragon.
. . . . 

Isabella and Ferdinand, the great monarchs, who succeeded in uniting Spain, were not very successful in their offspring. Isabella and Ferdinand did have one son, Juan, but he died before succeeding his parents on their combined Spanish throne. 

I've already mentioned Isabella's daughters on occasion throughout this daybook, none of whom had a particularly happy or successful life (click the labels below to read more). Their eldest daughter, Isabel, princess of Asturias, was married first to Afonso of Portugal and then, after his death, was forced into a marriage with Afonso's uncle, Manuel of Portugal. Born in 1470, Isabel died in 1496, just twenty-seven years old. 

The Spanish monarchs' second daughter, Maria of Aragon, was married to her dead sister's widower, Manuel of Portugal, in 1500. Born in 1482, she gave birth to ten children (eight of whom survived infancy) before dying in 1517, at the age of thirty-four.

The story of Catalina--Catherine--of Aragon is well known and hardly a happy one. Born in 1485, she married, first, Arthur of England, and then, after his death, Henry VIII. She gave birth to at least six children (and may have suffered miscarriagaes), but only one daughter, Mary, survived. Abandoned by her husband, her marriage disolved, Catherine of Aragon died in 1536, just fifty years old.

I've written a lengthy post here about Juana of Castile, whose bizarre and tragic life was certainly long--she died at the age of seventy-five--but not at all happy. 

I've also written here about Isabella of Castile's daughter-in-law, Margaret of Austria, Prince Juan's wife. His life was short--he died at age nineteen. The formidable Margaret lived a full, successful, and remarkable life, the only one of Isabella's "daughters" who seemed to profit from the model of Isabella of Castile.
. . . . 

Isabella of Castile was a formidable queen, though not entirely an admirable one, at least from a twenty-first century perspective. On 31 March 1492 she issued the Alhambra Decree, an edict of expulsion to be carried out against Spanish Jews, who were accused of posing a great danger to Christians: a "great harm" is enacted on Christians because of the "contact, intercourse and communication which they have with the Jews, who always attempt in various ways to seduce faithful Christians from our Holy Catholic Faith."

Jews were given four months to convert to Christianity or to leave the country; if they left, they necessarily had to leave behind all their property, though they were allowed to take with them what they could carry--except, of course, for gold, silver, or "minted money." The numbers of Jews forced to leave Spain was considerable, though estimates vary from 130,000 to 800,000. For those who "converted," between 50,000 and 70,000, the Inquisition was a constant danger. Added suspicions of the Jewish conversos was an ever-more-rigid view of the "purity" or "cleanliness" of Spanish--that is, not Jewish Spanish--blood.

While the terms of the 1491 Treaty of Granada, ending the Reconquista, had guaranteed rights and religious tolerance to the surrending Moors, there were increasing pressures on the Moors to convert. Revolts in 1499 and 1500 led to a change in policy, with the Spanish Moors, too, forced either to convert to Christianity or to face expulsion. Those who converted and remained in Spain, the moriscos, also faced the persecutions of the Inquisition. (In 1609, Philip III of Spain issued a final expulsion order for all moriscos.)

Despite these unpleasant realities, in 1958, a process of canonization was started for Isabella of Castile. In 1970 the commission of experts examining the case reported that "A Canonical process for the canonization of Isabella the Catholic could be undertaken with a sense of security since there was not found one single act, public or private, of Queen Isabella that was not inspired by Christian and evangelical criteria; moreover there was a 'reputation of sanctity' uninterrupted for five centuries and as the investigation was progressing, it was more accentuated."

In 1972, her case was submitted to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Isabella of Castile was awarded the title "Servant of God" in 1974. (This title represents the first stage in the canonization process, followed by "venerable," "beatified," and, finally, "saint.")

*Parts of this post have been adapted from The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan).