A great ruler was Isabella, as history admits, but also a great woman, a great wife and mother. Hers was not a long life – 1451 to 1504 spans a mere 53 years.
The daughter of Isabella of Portugal and John II of Castille, Isabella absorbed the chivalry, the patriotism, religion and proud sense of independence of the Castilians.
Her pious mother’s first care was to train her daughter in practical piety, to fill her with that spirit of religion, which was the most evident characteristic of her later reign as queen. Uninfluenced by the licentious and frivolous court, the maturity and balance the growing girl displayed was remarkable in one so young – the direct result of her early training.
Described by one of her household as ‘the handsomest lady whom I ever beheld and the most gracious in her manners,’ it was little wonder Isabella had many suitors. Factions sought to use her in the political game, but Isabella knew her own mind. Marriages were arranged for her for reasons of State. She rejected them. Confederates sought to proclaim her queen of Castille. She refused. The crown belonged to her brother.
She was proclaimed queen against her wish. Surely now a young girl would acquiesce – fancy refusing a kingdom! Refuse she did, but agreed, as was her right, to be recognized as heiress to the crown, only on condition that she would not be forced to marry against her wish.
At 19, she married Prince Ferdinand of Aragon, eloping to him at Valladolid. At the time of marriage, the couple were so poor that they had to borrow money to defray the expenses of the ceremony. When Isabella was 23, her brother Henry died, and she succeeded to the throne. Castille was dismembered by factions, the treasury bankrupt, and public and private morals were a byword.
This Augean stable, Isabella set herself to clean. Crowned, her first act was to go with a great procession to the Cathedral to sing the solemn Te Deum. (‘You, O God, we Praise.’) She then prostrated before the High Altar to invoke God’s blessing for the future. And blessed she was, for in her rule one has little difficulty in discovering the Providence of God.
Trouble came quickly. Portugal declared war on the weakened Castille. Isabella met this first great care of State with the decision that characterized her. Long and tedious journeys on horseback were her daily lot. She saw to everything. Spanish chivalry warmed to this valiant woman, and in six months, the whole kingdom acknowledged the supremacy of Isabella and Ferdinand. Castille and Aragon, separated for more than four centuries, were united.
Justice characterized Isabella’s reign, abuses were reformed. She herself sat in judgment. Robbers and bandits who had been terrorizing the country were quickly suppressed.
In a few years, the country was transformed. The Moslem power in Granada was destroyed forever. It had lasted over seven centuries. In the wars, Isabella pioneered military hospitals and supported them from her own purse. The Moslem wars were a veritable crusade; and the inspiration was Isabella, who was determined to replace the Crescent with the Cross.
Isabella had one son and four daughters. She, personally, saw to their education and they all inherited her own virtues.
One daughter was that Catherine of Aragon, shamefully repudiated by Henry VIII of England in favour of Anne Boleyn. Sorrow marked Isabella’s reign. Prince John, her only son, died at the age of twenty; the eldest daughter, Isabella, Queen of Portugal, soon afterwards. Joanna, wife of Emperor Maximilian’s son, Philip, became mentally deranged.
If John’s death was a mighty blow, Isabella’s crushed her heart. But her truly religious spirit, resigned to God’s Will, made her realize that the sorrows of this life, like its joys, are but passing. Nevertheless, the combined sorrows must have contributed to her early death in 1504.
Isabella’s last will has been called a famous will. Her funeral was to be as simple as possible (the money saved to be used for the poor). She gave money to charities; marriage portions for the daughters of poor parents; money for the redemption of Christian captives in Barbary; and for the conversion of the Indians; her jewels to Ferdinand, that seeing them, he may be reminded of ‘the singular love I always bore him.’
Her last words were typical of Isabella, the Catholic. ‘Do not weep for me, but pray rather for the salvation of my immortal soul.’
Even hostile critics regard Isabella, the Catholic, as one of the greatest rulers of all time. An historian, Irving, has summed it up: ‘Contemporary writers have been enthusiastic in their descriptions of Isabella, but time has sanctioned their eulogies. She is one of the purest and most beautiful characters in the pages of history.’