The Drama of Isabella the Catholic

Featured image: CONTEMPORARY PORTRAIT: Isabella (far right) was ‘a beautiful blonde, of queenly figure, exquisitely chiseled features, and with mild blue eyes.’

By Beverly Stevens

She is an enigma. Was Isabella of Castile a shining example of queenship in late medieval Europe, a feminist ideal? Was she a Catholic heroine, worthy of sainthood? Was she a vicious anti-Semite, responsible for the expulsion of hapless Jews and Muslims from Spain? Moreover, why is Isabella such a point of contention, more than five centuries after her death?

She Wore White Into Battle

The romance of her life is astonishing. After a courtship that defied her royal family and enlisted the covert aid of a prince of the church, the 19 year old Isabella married the 18 year old Ferdinand II of Aragon.

Contemporary sources describe them — a young prince, exceedingly handsome, tall, fair, and with an intellectual, expanded brow. He was well educated, temperate in all his habits, of courtly manners, and so devoted to useful activity that business seemed to be his pleasure. “Isabella was,” says a contemporary, “the handsomest lady whom I ever beheld, and the most gracious in her manners.”

ISABELLA AND FERDINAND HAD A PRECIOUS TWO HOURS ALONE, protected by the Archbishop of Toledo, before their wedding took place in secret in Valladolid in 1469. For the next 23 years, they would fight, side by side, to unite Spain and drive out the Muslims who had invaded in 711.

More than thirty generations of Christians fought a bitter, unprecedented 780-year long campaign to expel the Muslim invaders from Spanish soil. It would be Isabella and Ferdinand, however, who would bring the Reconquista to fruition. In 1491, their Christian forces at last succeeded in forcing the Caliph to abandon his ancient palace, the Alhambra in Granada.

THE CALIPH CONFRONTS THE CATHOLIC MONARCHS: Isabella wore shining white on horseback, often pregnant, as the pair led their soldiers into battle across Spain. The Christian soldiers named her ‘la Catolica’ and contemporary sources attest to their great loyalty to their fearless warrior queen.

The First Santa Fe

Granada is perched on a high bluff overlooking the Andalusian plain. The siege forces of the Catholic monarchs were encamped below in a vast white tent city, ‘Santa Fe’ (‘Holy Faith’). It was this overwhelming show of force plus a ‘perpetual guarantee’ of the tax proceeds from several towns by Isabella and Ferdinand that persuaded Boabdil to leave peacefully.

WRENCHING FAREWELL: In exile in Láujar de Andarax, Almería, at a place now called ‘the Door of the Caliph’s Sighs’ Boabdil reportedly wept. His mother mocked him, “go ahead and weep like a woman for a land that you failed to defend as a man.”

It had been a bad time for Boabdil, as he’d fought a civil war against his father for the caliphate, only to be overtaken by the Catholic Kings. Moreover, the monarchs were to renege on their deal with the hapless Caliph. He died in Fez in 1528, nicknamed ‘the Wretched’ by his fellow Muslims.

Meanwhile, in the tent city of Santa Fe, Christopher Columbus watched as a shining cross was erected over the battlements of Granada. He and his fellow Christians knelt in their thousands below, intoning the great hymn of thanksgiving, the Te Deum of St Ambrose and Augustine. The war of eight centuries was over.

A 19TH CENTURY PROTESTANT VIEW OF COLUMBUS (center) in the Alhambra presenting his case to Isabella and Ferdinand after the fall of Granada. The sinister Catholic Cardinal – in red, bottom left – is depicted as the true force behind a wavering Isabella. Painting by the German American artist Emanuel Leutze.

Isabella the Monster

Once queen of a united Spain, did Isabella become a monster? This is exceedingly difficult to discern.

Classic historical perspectives written in English or German are of little use, tainted by the anti-Catholic bias of the ‘Black Legend’ of Spain invented by the Protestant historians in the 16th and 17th centuries. Even today, almost five centuries later, the portrait of Isabella which emerges depends almost wholly on the biases of the writer.

Recent feminist historians extol her virtues as a ‘strong’ woman and learned queen, betraying their almost complete ignorance of the fact that Isabella’s female contemporaries were often respected and highly educated, such as the accomplished Latinist Dona Beatriz de Galindo, Isabella’s teacher. They also disparage her husband Ferdinand, claiming that Isabella was the actual monarch and painting Ferdinand as a feckless, faithless adulterer.

Jewish historians focus on the sufferings inflicted on the Jews of that time – variously estimated at 60,000 to several hundred thousand emigres – and paint Isabella as a cruel tyrant and religious fanatic. Modern European historians, anxious to show their broadminded view of Islam, are quick to point out the tolerance and cosmopolitanism of the Muslim Spain that Isabella and Ferdinand swept away.

The Truth About Muslim Spain

The truth about Muslim Spain is of course far more nuanced. Although the accomplishments of medicine, mathematics and philosophy in Muslim Spain are not in dispute, in point of fact at various times in their nearly 800 years of occupation, Muslims carried out periodic persecutions and mass pogroms against both Christians and Jews. (Editor’s Note: See St Leonidia, a Spanish Christian martyr.) Even when times were more tolerant, both Jews and Christians in Spain were dhimmi (second class citizens) permitted the private practice of their faith on the condition that they remained unarmed and paid onerous taxes to support their Muslim overlords.

However, the ruling Muslims had ceded control of much of their finances to Jews, who alone of the three religions had no prohibition against the charging of interest. The economic and financial system which underpinned Spain was therefore largely in Jewish hands, and their support buttressed the Muslim caliphate. Hence, they were seen by the Christians as essential supporters of the enemy occupiers, and Isabella was advised that they should be expelled along with the Muslims.

At the fall of Granada, Jewish representatives sent a deputation to Ferdinand and Isabella at Santa Fé with a present of thirty thousand ducats to aid in paying the expenses of the Moorish war. Strapped for cash after an expensive war, Isabella and Ferdinand nevertheless rejected the offer.

Instead, they gave Jews who would not convert a scant three months to leave Spain and forbade them from bringing their riches with them. Many of the descendants of conversos became illustrious academics and clerics, such as St Teresa of Avila, who was born just 23 years after the expulsion. Others converted only in appearance and continued to practice their faith in private.

Thus began the saga of the Sephardim, the Jews who left Spain for North Africa, Italy and Portugal. In a great historical irony, many Sephardim settled in Rome, where their descendants live to this day. The first Jews to settle in North America in the English colonies of Newport, Rhode Island and South Carolina, were Sephardim.

In 2014, the Spanish government issued an official apology for this ‘shameful episode in Spanish history,’ offering Spanish citizenship to anyone who can prove that their Jewish ancestors were forced to leave Spain.

Isabella the Mother

What is not in dispute is Isabella’s lasting legacy as an outstanding mother to her five children. Herself a classically-trained linguist with a command of several languages, and a lifetime of experience in politics, strategy and warfare, she ensured that her son and four daughters were superbly educated and married into the leading courts of Europe.

Isabella’s youngest, Catherine of Aragon, was raised in the Alhambra and later married to the infamous Henry VIII of England. We are told that Isabella accompanied the bridal party to the shore and wept as she said farewell to her beloved daughter, whom she would never again see in this world.

The loss of Prince John to a sudden fever was a blow that his mother never recovered from, however. When she learned of his death, she said “The Lord gave him to me, the Lord hath taken him from me, glory be His holy name.”

Isabella died at the age of 51 in Valladolid in 1504 and she is buried in the Royal Chapel at Granada alongside Ferdinand.

Isabella the Saint
In 1958, the canonical process for Isabella was begun by the Bishop of Valladolid on the basis of more than 100,000 documents in the archives of Spain and the Vatican. 3,500 of these are included in 27 volumes which in 1972 were officially submitted to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. This process was approved and Isabel was given the title “Servant of God” in March 1974.

Since then, Isabella’s life has become the object of intense scrutiny, attracting the interest of writers and historians with various current-day political perspectives, as we have seen, particularly those who see her through a feminist or a post-Shoah lens. Perhaps as no other late medieval figure, Isabella continues to fascinate – a commentary on our own times as much as on hers.

ISABELLA’S CROWN & SCEPTRE and Ferdinand’s sword are preserved in the Royal Chapel of Granada, where they are buried.

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