Queen Isabel of Castile and Spain—traditionally known in the English-speaking world as Queen Isabella—was an extraordinarily influential woman in her own time. Her impact and decisions continued to influence both the Old and New Worlds long after her death. Too often portrayed as merely a loyal spouse to her husband, Fernando of Aragon, in reality she was a strong, independent, and ambitious figure in her own right. She survived numerous challenges to become queen of Castile in 1474. Her marriage to Fernando, then heir to the neighboring kingdom of Aragon, eventually resulted in a unified Spain. Isabel took the lead in the conquest of Moorish Granada, the kingdom of the Spanish Muslims. A product of her times, she also forced Spanish Jews to either convert to Christianity or be expelled from Spain. Her support of Christopher Columbus and his voyages saw Spain develop the largest empire in the Western Hemisphere. Her grandson, Charles V, became the greatest monarch in Europe in the sixteenth century, and his son, Philip II, ruled Spain and challenged England with a naval armada.
Attempting to rectify the relative neglect of Isabel, whose previous portrayals in Spanish historiography often have been excessively romantic and pious, Peggy K. Liss has written one of the first historical assessments in English of Queen Isabel since William Prescott’s work in the mid-nineteenth century. Based upon many years of travel and study, Liss’s work largely succeeds in bringing to life the world of Isabel and her Spain, a confusing, violent, and difficult world.
Born in 1451, Isabel was not expected to become Castile’s queen. Her father, King Juan II, had been married previously, and the son of the first marriage, Enrique, inherited Castile’s throne. Isabel also had a younger full brother, Alfonso, who, because he was male, also had precedence over her claim. Alfonso died at the age of fifteen in 1468 and Enrique, nicknamed “the Impotent,” died in 1474. Although Enrique had a daughter, his rule had been unpopular, and rumors circulated that he was not the father of his supposed daughter. When he died, Isabel, his half-sister, became queen of Castile.
Five years earlier, at the age of eighteen, she had married Fernando, heir to the throne of Aragon, a smaller and less populated kingdom than was Castile. Several months younger than Isabel, Fernando already was a figure of considerable fame at the time of their wedding. He had served his father, another Juan II, in the latter’s wars. By the second half of the fifteenth century, the Iberian Peninsula contained five separate states. In addition to the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile, there were also the kingdom of Portugal, the Muslim state of Granada, and the small principality of Navarre in the far north. The medieval history of Spain, and thus Isabel’s heritage, was a history of war, often motivated by religious rivalries. Myth and fact were mixed in that heritage. One of the supposed founders of Spain’s earliest civilization was Hercules, whose “pillars”—later named the Straits of Gibraltar—connected Europe and Africa. Spanish royalty also traced its heritage to the German Goths who conquered Spain during the collapse of the Roman Empire. In the eighth century, the Moors had invaded and established their control over most of the peninsula. In an intolerant age, the Moorish conquest set off a long series of wars and battles known as the reconquista. By the time of Isabel and Fernando, the process of reconquering Spain from the Muslims had gone on for centuries, and the Muslim presence had been reduced to Granada in southeastern Spain.
The political and religious divisions in Spain were not only between Muslims and Christians; there also was a large Jewish community. Jews had been there since the Roman era, and Spain’s Jewish community was perhaps the largest in Europe. Until the late fourteenth century, Jews were looked down upon but generally tolerated and protected by the rulers because of the financial and other services they rendered the monarchs. In the aftermath of the Black Death and economic depression, the Jewish community became a scapegoat, a victim of the fears and prejudices of the times. Many Jews died, some fled, and others converted to Christianity. There were numerous conversos among the leading advisers to the various rulers; they were a significant element in intellectual circles, and many were members of the Catholic clergy.
Other divisions had long existed in Castile and in the rest of...
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