The Tragic Daughters of Isabella

by Donna Sue Berry

It is a startlingly modern question. What becomes of the daughters of a warrior queen, a devoted and exemplary mother who ensured they were well-catechized in the Faith and well-educated in the world? 

Isabella, John, Joanna, Maria and Catherine were the five children of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella of Castile and Leon.  They were raised to adulthood during a time of turmoil, with scandal and battles revolving around the throne of Castile. Theirs was a life lived in a monarchial world filled with duties and danger. All their lives, the children, each with royal titles and expectations of sitting on a European throne, found the roads to and from those seats of power to be filled with joy, pain and sorrow.

AT AGE SEVEN, WHILE HER PARENTS WERE OFF FIGHTING THE WAR IN PORTUGAL, Isabella was trapped in the Alcazar in Segovia, while civil unrest raged around her. 

ISABELLA OF ARAGON, born October 2nd 1470, was the eldest and heiress to the throne of Castile. Her life as the crown princess in a royal court was no bed of roses.  She spent a considerable part of her youth on campaign with her parents as they conquered the remaining Muslim states in southern Spain.

With the birth of her brother, John, Isabella lost her place in the royal line to become queen, and with the end of the war with Portugal, Isabella found that she was part of the terms of the Treaty of Alcacovas.  The treaty required her to marry Don Afonso, grandson of Afonso V. Not only would her parents pay a large dowry for their daughter, but the princess would have to live in Portugal, guaranteeing that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella would abide by the terms of the treaty. 

WEDDING PORTRAIT: Their arranged marriage in 1490 quickly became a happy one as Don Afonso and Isabella were quite attracted to each other.

However, their marriage would end abruptly as a year later Afonso was killed in a riding accident. A distraught Isabella was convinced that her husband’s death was a sign of God’s displeasure that Portugal had become a sanctuary for the Jews her parents had expelled from Spain. She resorted to fasting and harsh penances, vowing to never marry again. 

She eventually returned to Spain, but in 1497 the King and Queen offered her hand to Manuel I, who had succeeded the throne in Portugal.  Isabella refused, however, as the question of the Jews in Portugal was still on the table. She would only marry Manuel if he would expel all Jews who would not convert to Christianity; he did this and they married.

That same year, her brother John died, leaving Isabella heir to the throne of Castile and Aragon. Within a year, however, Isabella died within an hour of giving birth to a son; the constant fasting and penances had taken their toll. Her child, too, would die just two years later, and this death would leave Isabella’s younger sister, Joanna, as the next heir to the throne of Spain.

IN HER GRIEF, JOANNA REFUSED TO BE SEPARATED FROM HER HUSBAND’S CORPSE, often opening his coffin to kiss and caress him. She even had his embalmed body travel close to her on his way to his final resting place in Granada. 

JOANNA OF CASTILE WAS WELL EDUCATED, as were her siblings, in canon and civil law; she excelled in the fine arts and spoke a few languages.  Formally prepared for a significant marriage as a royal alliance, Joanna married Archduke Philip the Handsome, son of the German King Maximilian I, and in 1500 she gave birth to the future emperor, Charles V. In all, Joanna would give birth to six children and each would ascend thrones as emperor or queens.

But Joanna’s marriage was destined to be unhappy one. Philip was often unfaithful; he abused her physically and psychologically. Her jealous reactions and neurotic behavior in no small part strengthened the rumors of her insanity; at one point she attacked one of his mistresses with a pair of scissors, hacking off some of the woman’s hair.

As the family deaths left Joanna in line to inherit the throne in Spain, she became Queen regnant of Castile when her mother, Queen Isabella I died in 1504. This caused her father King Ferdinand II to lose his status as a monarch, and her husband Philip to fight with all he had to gain that status. For a while the duties of government were undertaken by her father and for a short while by her husband. 

In 1506, Philip died suddenly, reportedly of typhoid fever or poisoning. Joanna believed the latter. Pregnant with their 6th child, she was reportedly completely unhinged by Philip’s death

Afterwards, an unstable Joanna was unable to resist the encroachment of her father, Ferdinand, on her power as Queen. He eventually had her confined to the convent Santa Clara in Tordesillas. After several years and the death of Ferdinand, Joanna’s son, Charles V, would become emperor, and Joanna would continue to remain as queen in name only. She would never leave the convent again but would die there after being confined for fifty years.


Born in 1482, it was thought that her hand would be given in marriage to King James IV of Scotland, but with the death of her oldest sister, Isabella, Queen of Portugal, it became necessary for her marry her sister’s widower, Manuel I of Portugal. They were married in October 1500. Of their ten children, eight reached adulthood, including King John III of Portugal, Holy Roman Empress Isabella of Portugal, and Beatrice, Duchess of Savoy. Tragically, Maria died in March 1517 at the age of 35; she is buried at the Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon.

Catherine and Prince Arthur were duly wed at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in 1501. The 16 year old bride then moved to Ludlow Castle on the Welsh border.

CATHERINE OF ARAGON WAS BY FAR THE MOST WELL-KNOWN OF KING FERDINAND AND QUEEN ISABELLA’S CHILDREN. This future Queen of England was born in 1485; she was betrothed to Prince Arthur, son of Henry VII and heir apparent to the English throne, at three years of age.

Less than six months after their wedding, however, Arthur died from a disease known as the ‘sweating sickness’.[1] Catherine, now a young widow, would become the object of King Henry VII’s determination to keep the alliance with Spain — as well as the very large dowry she had brought with her. 

Initially, Henry VII wanted her betrothed to his younger son, Henry VIII, though he was too young to marry. Regardless, a little over a year after Arthur’s death, Catherine and Henry VIII were betrothed.

Curiously, at this point several years passed and King Henry VII lost interest in Spain as an alliance. He then forced young Henry to repudiate his betrothal to Catherine. Catherine would live the next four years in uncertainty until the King died; it was then that the new young King Henry VIII married her, and on June 24th, 1509 Henry and Catherine were both crowned in a double ceremony.

Not long after they were married, Catherine found herself pregnant, but their first child, a daughter, was stillborn. After this tragedy, the next twenty years brought a succession of miscarriages, stillborn births, and two sons who lived only a few days. Their only child to survive was a daughter, Mary.

Regardless, Henry wanted a male heir, and considered himself childless. Despite his former devotion to Catherine, he began to pull away from her.  He cavorted with two mistresses and ended up falling in love with the sister of one them, a lady-in-waiting to Catherine. Anne Boleyn had captured the King’s attention, and he began to formulate a plan for gaining an annulment of his marriage to Catherine from the Church.

With the declaration from Pope Clement VII refusing to annul the marriage, Henry rose up to defy the Pope and declared himself ‘Supreme Head’ over religious matters, and his marriage to Catherine was deemed invalid.  He was therefore free to marry Anne who had become pregnant.  Henry was now both King and Supreme Head of the Church of England; Catherine was no longer acknowledged as Queen, but simply Dowager Princess of Wales.

Most cruelly, Henry sent Catherine to live the remainder of her life separated from her daughter.

Though physically and emotionally ill as a consequence of this extreme mistreatment, Catherine was known to seldom complain. She resorted to prayer and died at age fifty at Kimbolton Castle, in the cold January of 1536. She was buried, with the ceremonies of a Princess Dowager and not a Queen, at Peterborough Cathedral, where her body lies today. 

(Editor’s Note: In a case of possible mass inherited guilt, Catherine’s ghost is said to haunt Kimbolton Castle today a school.)


THE MAN SHE THOUGHT SHE WAS MARRYING: When 16 year old Catherine left Spain forever to marry Arthur, the Crown Prince of Wales, she had no idea he would be dead within six months.

THE MAN SHE WAS LEFT WITH: At the behest of her father-in-law, Catherine remained in England for several years until Henry was of age to marry her. Their 20-year marriage would founder when he abandoned her and the Catholic Faith for her lady-in-waiting, Ann Boleyn. (Henry famously ordered Boleyn’s beheading just three years later, accusing her of committing adultery with five men, including her own brother, George.)



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