Within two decades an awestruck German would declare that: “This queen of Spain, called Isabella, has had no equal on this earth for 500 years.” This was not hyperbole. Europe had never seen a female monarch achieve so much, even if merit was shared with her husband, Ferdinand – who brought the junior territories of Aragon into a marital alliance that created modern Spain. Isabella was Europe’s first truly great queen regnant – the founding member of a small club of women whose influence spread well beyond their country’s borders and which includes England’s Elizabeth I and Victoria, the Russian empresses Catherine the Great and Elizabeth, as well as Maria Theresa of Austria. Yet of all these strong women, none had as lasting an effect as Isabella.
The thrill of power
Isabella was coquettish, but there was never anything sexually scandalous about her (though her husband sired several illegitimate children). Instead, she got her thrills from power. As Castile’s Muslims and Jews would learn to their cost, this she sometimes wielded in a way that, today, shocks and repels. Yet contemporaries, while admitting she was harsh, were rarely outraged. She was an ‘Iron Queen’, as tough and determined as other female leaders who gained similar nicknames. By insisting on keeping power to herself and her husband, she imposed order on a chaotic country, where monarchs had been weak and whose ordinary people lived in fear of crime, violence and the lack of proper justice.
Isabella’s reign is best measured in two ways: firstly, for reversing decades of shrinkage of western Christendom in the face of Muslim encroachment (with Constantinople lost two years after her birth); and, secondly, as the start of a steady but unstoppable shift of global power away from the sophisticated, wealthy orient, towards the countries of the Atlantic rim – starting with Spain itself, then Great Britain and, finally, the United States.
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Few of those who watched Isabella process through Segovia would have foreseen this. She was the daughter of a former king, Juan II, and of a princess from the adventurous Portuguese royal family. Yet the paucity of Grandees (Castile’s grandiose, self-regarding magnates) and powerful bishops in Segovia that day proved that she had few backers. A small, delicate-looking young woman was easy to underestimate. Those who knew Isabella, however, were already aware of how single-minded, even stubborn, she was. She had first shown that mettle aged 18 – when she snubbed her half-brother, King Henry IV of Castile, and a powerful faction of Grandees by choosing her own husband, rather than accept one foisted on her (candidates had included the future Richard III of England). Seventeen-year-old Ferdinand, already bloodied in battle, had to sneak through Castile disguised as a servant boy, but his willingness to brave hostile territory in order to reach his princess fitted perfectly with Isabella’s ideal of romantic, masculine chivalry. More importantly, both already realised the power they would accrue by joining Castile and Aragon.
This precocious act of rebellion cost Isabella dear. An angry Henry reversed a decision to make her his heiress – naming his daughter Juana ‘la Beltraneja’ instead. Henry was an awkward, tragic, figure. Nicknamed ‘The Impotent’, he suffered a form of gigantism, known as acromegaly, which meant that he grew oversized hands and feet as well as thick facial features. He was also reported to have a bulb-shaped penis, making sex difficult. His wife was subject to the world’s first reported experiment in artificial insemination after doctors manually obtained what was reported to be “watery and sterile” semen that was then delivered down a thin gold tube. When the queen eventually had a daughter, some claimed his chief steward, Beltran de la Cueva, was the real father. Whatever the biological reality, ‘la Beltraneja’ was the proper, legal heiress.
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None of this bothered Isabella. She hated her half-brother for dragging her to his court as a child, after being “inhumanely and forcibly torn from our mother’s arms”. She was happy to put her claim to the throne to the ultimate test – on the battlefield where, it was accepted, God chose the winners.
When they married, Isabella had forced Ferdinand into a humiliating deal that gave her far more authority than him. But once war broke out (with Portugal supporting her rival) they shared power as, in effect, equals – enabling them to ride off separately in order to raise troops, chivvy allies and harass her enemies. It became a working relationship without par in the history of royal couples – an executive partnership based on mutual respect.
In those heady, early years, Ferdinand chastised her for not writing. “One day we will return to our first love. But if your ladyship does not wish to be responsible for homicide, you must write and let me know how you are,” he said. Their re-encounters were joyful and fruitful (on one occasion taking just days for Isabella to get pregnant). It was also a punishing, nomadic way of life. Isabella rode for days as she rushed around the country to intervene in disputes and rebellions, with one such venture costing her the loss of an unborn child. Within six years, however, she had defeated her enemies, and most of Spain was theirs. No one dared challenge her again.
Castile itself was named after the castles that dotted a country that had slowly been carved out of Muslim lands after Iberia was overrun by invaders from north Africa in the eighth century. Centuries of slow ‘reconquista’ had left the Muslims with just one Spanish kingdom, based on the Nasrid dynasty’s magnificent Alhambra palace complex in Granada. Crusading against the ‘infidel’ fitted Isabella’s idea of herself as a God-appointed saviour of her country. The attacks she now launched on Granada also kept the troublesome Grandees busy.
Challenges of war
Isabella, a self-taught Latin speaker who made sure her four daughters and one son were properly educated by Italian humanists, kept the story of Joan of Arc on her bookshelf. She was no frontline warrior herself – as a traditionalist, she saw that as man’s work – but she enjoyed the challenges of warfare and became her own army’s quartermaster-general and armourer, plotting campaigns alongside Ferdinand. She built up a contingent of artillery so powerful that it turned the art of medieval warfare on its head. Thick castle walls, previously a guarantee of safety, crumbled before her cannon.
On 2 January 1492, the last Nasrid king Boabdil was forced to leave the Alhambra, leading his family through what is still known as the Pass of the Moor’s Sigh. The Christian world was delighted. In London, Henry VII ordered a hymn of praise at St Paul’s. In Rome, a Spanish cardinal called Rodrigo Borgia (father to the infamous Cesare and Lucrezia) organised bullfights and processions. Eight months later, Borgia became Pope Alexander VI, putting a Spaniard in the Vatican.
Muslims weren’t the only people forced out of Spain in 1492, for, just three months after conquering Granada, Isabella and Ferdinand ordered the expulsion of the country’s Jews.
A century earlier, Spain’s Jewish community (the largest in the world) was subjected to a campaign of violence orchestrated by fellow Spaniards. Many were forced to convert to Christianity, and these ‘new Christians’ – called marranos, or pigs, by ‘old Christians’ – become the target of racially inspired hate.
Previous kings had discounted rumours that the new Christians remained secret Jews and heretics. Isabella, however, chose to believe them. She set up a royal Inquisition to pursue so-called judaizers and – egged on by her Grand Inquisitor, the sulphurous Tomas de Torquemada – decided to rid Spain of a community that had arrived before Christianity. Her aim was to homogenise Castile – previously famous as the land of three religions – and she followed this up nine years later with the forcible conversion of all Muslims. Christian Europe applauded.
The remarkable year of 1492 brought yet another move of momentous import. For seven years, a colourful Genoese sailor called Christopher Columbus had been in and out of Isabella’s court, hawking plans for a voyage into the unknown – by sailing west across the ocean to what he assumed would be the coast of Asia. He was turned down several times but, apparently at Isabella’s behest, there was a change of tack. He needed only a modest sum of money for his three small boats, and promised huge returns. Instead of finding Asia, Columbus bumped into the Caribbean islands. He was not the first European to reach the Americas (Nordic sailors had done so before), but Isabella was the first monarch to claim land and order that it be colonised.
Columbus brought back tobacco and hammocks, but also indigenous Taino islanders – a people who would be wiped out by disease, hunger and war. Isabella at first approved of his plans to fund further discoveries with slavery. But she was troubled by whether – under church law – people from the Eden-like islands that she now ruled could be treated like black Africans, whom she had no qualms about enslaving. It was one of the few moral issues to weigh on her conscience.
A queen in decline
As Spain’s power increased and large parts of Italy fell under its control, Isabella’s personal and family problems grew. Her only son Juan (“my angel”) died aged 19.
Her beloved first daughter, Isabella, died in childbirth, leaving a baby grandson whom she cherished, but also watched die. Her three other daughters were sent abroad (with Catherine of Aragon marrying first Arthur, Prince of Wales, and then his brother, Henry VIII). The eldest of these – Juana ‘The Mad’ – fought with her mother and looked set to turn the crown of Castile over to her Habsburg husband, Philip the Handsome, Duke of Burgundy.
Yet, by the time she lay on her deathbed in November 1504, Isabella knew that Castile and Spain were transformed. “Everyone agrees that the greater part of it all should be attributed to her,” the Florentine ambassador, and historian, Francesco Guicciardini commented a decade later. Spain was becoming Europe’s new superpower, to the fury of France. Soon it would have the first empire of lands on which, as England’s lord high chancellor Francis Bacon commented, “the sun never sets… but ever shines upon one part or other of them: which, to say truly, is a beam of glory”.
The focus of world power, trade and technological progress moved slowly to the Atlantic rim. The fortunes of what would become known as western civilisation had been turned around by Isabella, surely Europe’s greatest ever queen.
Giles Tremlett is author of Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen (Faber & Faber, 2010) and Isabella of Castile: Europe’s First Great Queen (Bloomsbury, 2017).
In Isabella’s shadow: who were the next best European queens?
Decisive, but wielded little global influence
Perhaps Elizabeth’s (1533–1603) greatest feat was to keep England out of the grasp of the ever-expanding Spanish empire. In 1588, Phillip II, Isabella of Castile’s great-grandson, launched his disastrous Spanish Armada as a crusade to return England to Rome’s obedience. England had long been losing continental territory. Yet Elizabeth’s reign reinforced national identity and institutions that would eventually help Britain take the baton of empire from Spain.
Maria Theresa of Austria
She bolstered the ailing Habsburg empire
Maria Theresa (1717–80) had 16 children and ruled for 40 years. She lost Silesia but shored up the Habsburg empire based on Austria and Hungary – and which stretched from Transylvania to Milan – by refloating a bankrupt government and reinforcing a diminished army. She was the last of the pure Habsburg line, but her son founded a successor branch – the House of Habsburg-Lorraine – that continued to rule over much of central Europe.
The first great Russian empress
Peter the Great’s daughter Elizabeth Petrovna (1709–62) personally roused and led the Lifeguard Preobrazhensky regiment to overthrow the child emperor Ivan VI and his regent in a bloodless coup in 1741. She inherited her father’s natural ability for government, with military campaigns, gaining her territory from Sweden and seeing off the threat of Prussia. She was also famously extravagant, spending lavishly on magnificent buildings.
Catherine the Great
A Russian power player
Often remembered for her supposedly voracious and eccentric sexual tastes, Catherine (1729–96) was one of the great Russian monarchs. As empress and autocrat of All the Russias, after ousting her own husband in a coup, she pushed Russia’s frontiers south to the Black Sea and west into Poland. She is seen as the natural successor to Empress Elizabeth, at a time when male emperors proved especially useless.
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Influential, but not in charge
Under Queen Victoria (1819–1901) Britain ruled the waves and covered the globe with the pink of empire. The long-lived monarch also styled herself Empress of India. Yet Victoria had relatively little to do with achieving this. She was a constitutional monarch, the figurehead ‘leader’ of one of the most advanced democracies of the time. Prime ministers Palmerston, Gladstone, Disraeli, Salisbury and others were the architects of the glories of her reign.
This article was first published in the February 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine