A contemporary of Anne of France, who we explored last week, was Queen Isabella of Castile. She was one of the most powerful women of her era, and along with Anne dominated European politics and “set a precedent for the female rulers of the sixteenth century”.
Isabella’s rise to Queenship wasn’t easy (there was literally a war) but she was strong-willed and determinedly set her country on a new course. With her husband Ferdinand by her side the Catholic Monarchs set a course of unification for their respective domains. Isabella is described in an anonymous manuscript, prior to the beginning of her rule in 1474, as having “blue-green eyes with long eyelashes, full of sparkle along with great frankness and dignity…her hair was very long and golden-red, and she would often run her hands through it, to arrange it so as better to display the configuration of her face”. I especially love the last bit of this description, as so often mannerisms and quirks are lost in the annals of history. She and Ferdinand had 5 children that survived to adulthood: Isabella, Juan, Juana, Maria and Catherine. They had high hopes for their dynasty, particularly their son Juan who was the only child they raised for rulership.
Despite being a warrior queen (who was known to bring her daughters on campaigns!) she did not raise her daughters to follow in her footsteps as a Queen Regnant*. She was traditional and, like Anne of France, raised her daughters to be pious Catholics. Religious division was probably ‘the’ issue of sixteenth century Europe, and Isabella was a significant player. She was a devout Catholic but her intense piety led her into intolerance; ultimately expelling Muslim and Jewish populations from Spain. Her actions are horrifying. Unfortunately she was not unusual for her time and many contemporaries applauded her efforts, although even some of them were taken aback by her zeal with Machiavelli accurately remarking on her “pious cruelty”.
Her eldest daughter and namesake Isabella was also extremely pious, especially after the death of her first husband Prince Alfonso of Portugal which is thought to have been a love as well as political match. When Manuel I inherited the Portuguese throne he wanted Isabella’s hand in marriage, but she was reluctant. After a lot of stalling she finally agreed, but a condition for the marriage was that Manuel expel the Jewish population of Portugal. They were expelled in December 1496 with Isabella and Manuel married in September 1497. It would be interesting to know how much Isabella was involved in this decision, but it gives the impression of like mother like daughter. Her reign as Queen of Portugal was short-lived, as she died in childbirth. Manuel didn’t look far for his next wife, marrying Isabella’s sister Maria.
Whether Maria minded marrying her sister’s widower we’ll never know, but despite its potentially awkward beginnings the couple appear to have had a successful marriage. Maria followed her mother’s teachings and was known for her piety, contributing to the foundation of the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon. I’ve actually visited this UNESCO World Heritage site on holiday a few years ago and the architecture is incredibly impressive. The monastery became the site of Maria and Manuel’s final resting place. Maria had 10 children over the course of 14 years so was consistently pregnant. This took a major toll on her health and she died at the age of 34. Manuel decided to make a third marriage, and he didn’t look very far marrying Isabella and Maria’s niece Eleanor of Austria, who was the daughter of their sister Juana. It really was a small weird world on the European marriage market.
Juana is commonly known as Juana ‘the mad’ and it is what she is known for. This is a cruel moniker and although Juana likely suffered mental health problems ‘mad’ is derogatory term. Juana wasn’t as devout as her mother (although really who could be?) and there are reports she was ill-treated because of this, but we don’t know for sure whether this is true or not. Juana like her elder sisters made a political marriage in her case to Philip the Handsome, Duke of Burgundy. After the premature deaths of her older siblings Isabella and Juan and their children, Juana became her mother’s heir to Castile (her father’s domain Aragon did not allow women to inherit). Isabella had dedicated her life to Castile so before her death would have thought seriously about who should inherit the region on her death. Whatever people said about Juana, Isabella obviously trusted her to follow in her footsteps and in her last will and testament clearly states Juana as her heir with Ferdinand the governor of the kingdoms. After Isabella’s death in 1504 Juana was completely side-lined by her father as he and her husband vied for control. Philip was a horrible husband, constantly having affairs and treating Juana badly. Like Maria she was consistently pregnant (6 children over 9 years) which would have taken its toll on her, potentially fragile, mental health. When Philip died suddenly in 1506, Ferdinand ultimately took control of Castile with Juana spending the rest of her life in a gilded cage, a Queen in name only until her death in 1555.
And Isabella’s youngest daughter Catherine? Well she made a political marriage to Prince Arthur, the heir to England. The Tudors were a new dynasty and the marriage of Catherine to their heir was highly desired. Arthur’s mother Elizabeth of York wrote to Isabella in 1497 saying “we wish and desire from our heart that we may often and speedily hear of the health and safety of your serenity, and of the health and safety of the aforesaid most illustrious Lady Catherine, whom we think of and esteem as our own daughter”. Catherine married Arthur in 1501, but he died unexpectedly in 1502. Isabella must have been beside herself with worry about her teenage daughter, but fortunately Catherine was betrothed to Arthur’s younger brother Henry securing the Anglo-Spanish alliance. Isabella wouldn’t have known her death in 1504 would decrease Catherine’s standing in the marriage market, and the years in difficult limbo she would face at her father-in-laws court. Catherine wrote to Ferdinand (who you can probably tell by this point was really not a great father) about her dire financial conditions, but he didn’t really help her. A cool but often missed fact is that Catherine during these limbo years became the first female Spanish Ambassador to the English court, showing the resilience and political savvy she inherited from Isabella. She would later marry Henry in 1509 and they had one surviving child Mary. Their divorce was messy as hell, but Catherine once again showed her inner strength in the face of adversity before her death in 1536.
The daughters of Castile were taught by an intelligent, complicated and formidable women. Isabella wanted her daughters to succeed, she raised them to be traditional, pious women who could secure alliances for their dynasty with all four becoming Queens. Isabella made a big impact on the world in which she lived and her daughters and grandchildren would go on to shape, make and break Europe in their own ways.
What do you think of Isabella and her daughters? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.
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*A Queen Regnant is a queen in her own right, whereas a Queen Consort is married to a King.
Game of Queens: The Women who made Sixteenth Century Europe by Sarah Gristwood
The Medieval & Early Modern World: Primary Sources & Reference Volume by Donald R. Kelley & Bonnie G. Smith
Last Will and Testament of Queen Isabella: http://www.spainisculture.com/en/obras_de_excelencia/archivo_general_de_simancas/testamento_de_isabel_la_catolica.html
Intimate Letters of England’s Queens by Margaret Sanders
England’s Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York by Elizabeth Norton
Isabella of Castile: Europe’s First Great Queen by Giles Tremlett
Juana of Castile: The Real Story Of Spain’s Mad Queen by Ann Foster: https://annfosterwriter.com/2019/06/10/juana-of-castile/
Jeronimos Monastery: https://www.lisbon.net/jeronimos-monastery