Christine de Pizan

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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Isabella Jagiellon: A Queen Who Pursued Peace and Toleration

Isabella Jagiellon, queen of Hungary (born 18 January 1519)

Born in the same year as Catherine de' Medici, Isabella Jagellion, a Polish princess, was raised in Cracow, where she received an excellent education that included the study of Polish, Italian, Latin, and, as is evident from her life, a training in politics that she would need and that she would put to good use.*

Isabella Jagiellon, c. 1550
In 1539 Isabella Jagellion was married to the fifty-two-year-old king of Hungary, John Zápolya, who, like Isabella's father, was resisting the eastward expansion of the Holy Roman Empire. Zápolya had recently concluded a ten-year war with the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand I, the terms of which divided Hungary.

(In 1515, Ferdinand, then duke of Austria, had married the Jagiellon princess Anna, the older sister of King Louis II of Hungary and Bohemia. When Louis died, Ferdinand thought he should claim the kingdoms through the right of his wife.)

Under the terms of the treaty of Varda, the western section of Hungary was joined to the empire, with Ferdinand recognized as king of Hungary; the eastern portion was granted to Zápolya, recognized as king of Transylvania. If he died without an heir, Transylvania would become part of the empire.

But John Zápolya did not die without an heir. A year after his marriage to Isabella, she gave birth to a son, John Sigismund. After the child's birth, Zápolya formally rejected the treaty he had made with Ferdinand. Two weeks later he died, naming his wife as queen regent for his newborn son. In historian Roland Bainton's words, "Isabella took up the campaign for the infant." 

On hearing the news of Zápolya's death, Isabella's father, the Polish king, Sigismund I, sent a letter of advice to his daughter. "Do not allow yourself to be crushed by grief," he wrote. "The course of prudence is that reason should rule the emotions. It becomes a prince to bear with composure that which cannot be altered. To succumb to immoderate weeping is to contest the will of God, whose judgments are a great abyss." 

Isabella's mother, Bona Sforza, wrote as well, and she too advised Isabella not "to be mired in grief." "After the sorrow of the night comes the joy of the morning," she reminded her daughter.

Isabella seems to have followed her parents' advice about overcoming her grief, but during the course of the next few years, she faced a great deal of political turmoil. Immediately after her husband's death, one of the guardians he had named for his son usurped Isabella's authority, but by 1542 the Estates of Transylvania "confirmed Isabella as queen regent and recognized Sigismund as their prince." When the emperor laid siege to the castle of Olah where Isabella was residing, relief came to her from the Turkish sultan.

Suleiman I (the Great) with Isabella Jagiellon and her son
 John Sigismund, an image from c. 1550
After breaking the siege, the sultan asked to see Isabella's son. As recorded in a contemporary chronicle, "She was frightened and suggested to her advisers that she go alone with presents, or, if this would not do, that she take the boy."

Her advisers recommended that she should send her son to the sultan, as he had asked. Despite Isabella's concerns, the sultan returned the boy to her unharmed: "The queen thanked the Sultan for returning her son, begged to be taken under his protection, promised not to remarry and sent a present to his daughter." The sultan, for his part, "promised to do his best" for Isabella.

For the next five years, as David Daniel indicates, there was an "endemic triangular contest for hegemony" between the the Habsburg empire, the Turks, and Isabella.

But in 1547 the emperor and the sultan signed a truce, and Isabella was forced to retire with her son to the territory of Opole, assigned to her by the emperor. Isabella refused to give up; instead, she "began to prepare the way for a return to Transylvania," negotiating with the Turks and with opponents of the Habsburgs.

By 1555, she had "established a residence on the Polish-Hungary border"; by 1556, the Estates had "reaffirmed her sixteen-year-old son as their prince." The Habsburgs, Daniel notes, "did not regain control of Transylvania until the end of the eighteenth century."

From 1556 until her death on 20 September 1559, Isabella ruled as queen regent for her son, "actively" governing Transylvania. Like Catherine de' Medici, she extended a measure of religious toleration to her subjects, viewing this as a necessary concession to bring peace to the kingdom and strengthen her political influence and security.

Through her edict of 1558 she became, as Bainton notes, "the first ruler to issue an edict of universal toleration." Like Catherine de' Medici's 1562 edict of Saint Germain, Isabella Jagiellon's own act of toleration, passed forty years before the edict of Nantes, has not received nearly the recognition of Henry IV's, always praised in all our history textbooks.

While her own religious views can be debated, what is clear is that Isabella used her edict "to fulfill her dynastic and political responsibilities." As Daniel concludes, "She used the Reformation and its advocates as she saw fit, on her own terms, for her own reasons, to secure for her son the rightful inheritance of the father he never knew."

There is no complete biography of Isabella Jagiellon in English. I rely here on accounts by Roland Bainton, in his Women of the Reformation: From Spain to Scandinavian and David P. Daniel's "Piety, Politics, and Perversion: Noblewomen in Reformation Hungary," in Sherrin Marshall's Women in Reformation and Counter-Reformation Europe: Public and Private Worlds.

And a couple of additional notes: the Holy Roman emperor of Ferdinand I was the son of a woman we have mentioned before, Queen Juana of Castile, and about whom we will hear more as the year progresses. Ferdinand was also one of the Habsburg children reared by Margaret of Austria.

For Isabella Jagiellon's mother, Bona Sforza, click here. For more about Isabella's sister Anna Jagiellon, click here, and for her sister Catherine Jagiellon, click here.

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

Update, April 2022: For the HistoryExtra podcast episode "The Jagiellonians, the Dynasty that Shaped Central Europe," click here