To most people in the Western Hemisphere she is best known as the Spanish Queen who financed the voyages of Christopher Columbus, but Queen Isabella I was far more than a banker for explorers.
Isabella was the daughter of King John II of Castile and his second wife, Queen Isabella of Portugal. She was born in Madrigal de las Torres on April 22, 1451. When she was three years old her parents presented her with a brother, Alfonso. Tragedy entered her young life when her father died in 1454 and her older half-brother, Henry, became king of Castile and Leon. One of the first acts of the new king was to send his stepmother to Arevalo and his half-siblings to Segovia to live in virtual exile. Henry IV then married the daughter of Alfonso V of Portugal, Princess Juana. It is widely rumoured that Henry was impotent as his first wife, Blanca of Navarre, remained virgin throughout the thirteen years of their marriage. It was surprising, therefore, when Juana gave birth to Princess Juana in 1462.
Child C166: Queen Isabella I - commemorating the 500th anniversary of her birth.
Meanwhile, ten-year-old Isabella and her brother were summoned back to Madrid where Henry could keep a closer eye on them. The question of the paternity of Juana came to the fore at the Representation of Burgos and the nobles demanded that Isabella’s brother, Alfonso, be named Henry’s heir. At first, Henry agreed, provided Alphonso marry his daughter Juana. He soon changed his mind and Castile was plunged into civil war when the nobles, supporting Alfonso, met the king’s armies at the Battle of Olmeda in 1467. The battle was indecisive and, the question of 14-year-old Alfonso’s succession died with him a year later.
Spain #656: King Ferdinand the Catholic, husband of Isabella.
The rebellious nobles now turned to Isabella and proclaimed her the legitimate heir. The princess refused to join with them and pledged her support to Henry. The king, in turn, accepted Isabella as his heir after she managed to convince him that his wife Juana was an adulteress and he could not possibly be the father of her daughter, now married to the King of Portugal.
Henry attempted to steer Isabella in the direction of his choice by marrying her to a man of his choosing. A number of selections were brought forward, but Isabella evaded them all. The princess was determined to make her own choice and selected Prince Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Aragon. On October 19, 1469, they were married in Ocana and the stage was set for the eventual union of Spain.
Five years later, on December 10, 1474, Henry IV died. Isabella lost no time in having herself crowned Queen of Castile three days later. She knew that her claim would be contested and wanted to have as strong a position as possible.
Columbia #C276: Royal couple wearing their crowns and regal finery.
Before long, Portugal’s King Alfonso V declared that his wife, Juana, purportedly Henry IV’s daughter, was the true Queen of Castile. Isabella dismissed the claim and Alfonso declared war.
The first battle of the War of Castilian Succession was fought at Toro where Ferdinand met and successfully defeated Alfonso’s army in 1476. A series of rapid campaigns followed as Isabella and Ferdinand subjugated all the rebellious towns and fortresses which questioned their right to reign.
The couple’s power was increased even more in 1479 when Ferdinand’s father died, and he succeeded to the throne of Aragon uniting the two Spanish kingdoms. A year later Ferdinand assembled the Cortes of Toledo where a codex of laws and edicts was produced by a combination of royal councils and civilian representatives. This set the foundation of the economic and judicial rehabilitation of the country and established the centralization of powers under Isabella and Ferdinand.
Determined to unite all of Spain under their control, Isabella and Ferdinand convinced Pope Sixtus IV to authorize the Inquisition and set about the expulsion of all Jews and Muslims from Catholic Spain.
Since the 8th century, the Moors had been in control of part of the southern Iberian peninsula. Well protected by fortified towns and natural barriers, the area had successfully staved off previous attempts of reconquista. By the time of Isabella, Moorish leadership had become weak and divided. Still, it would take ten years of fighting and negotiating before Spain was united.
Little was left to chance. Isabella recruited the finest mercenaries from all over Europe, adopted the most advanced techniques in artillery usage and systematically recaptured Spain a piece at a time.
Spain C132: Ferdinand and Isabella accepting the surrender of Boabdil at Granada.
An extensive bombardment of Ronda brought that city into the fold in 1485. One of the Moorish leaders, Boabdil was captured when Loja fell a year later. He was released but Malaga was in Spanish hands a year later and with it control of western Spain. By 1489, with the fall of Baza, the eastern section had fallen. The spring of 1491 saw the beginning of the siege of Granada. Despite the Spanish camp being accidentally destroyed by fire, the siege was successful and Boabdil surrendered at the end of the year. Isabella and Ferdinand entered Granada in triumph on January 12, 1492. A year later the Treaty of Granada assured religious freedom for the Islamic followers.
Nicaragua C317: Queen Isabella and a map of her claims on the New World.
Now that peace had been assured on the Iberian peninsula, Isabella could turn her attention to other matters, such as the persistent Genoan known as Christopher Columbus. She eventually agreed to sponsor his voyage of exploration, appointed him admiral and granted governorship over any lands he discovered plus ten percent profit. She sent him on his way on August 3, 1492 and turned her attention to other matters.
Of primary concern to the monarchs was the "religious cleansing" of their newly united kingdoms. Not only did they want a politically unified country but one united under a single religion, Roman Catholicism. In March, 1492, the Alhambra Edict had been issued which called for the expulsion of all Jews and Muslims from Spain. Some 20,000 people left the country, some converted, others went into hiding. Pope Alexander VI granted Isabella the title Reina Catolica.
When Columbus returned in 1493 and presented his findings to the Queen, he received a hero’s welcome. The Golden Age of exploration had begun. Spain was on her way to becoming a world leader in colonization and exploration. The Treaty of Tordesillas, signed in 1494, divided the world outside of Europe between Spain and Portugal.
Religious persecution continued. In 1499 a Moorish uprising was quashed and the Treaty of Granada rescinded. Muslims now had the choice of expulsion or conversion to Christianity.
Isabella’s later years were confined primarily to administering the empire she had established with her husband. Their motto "They amount to the same, Isabella and Ferdinand" remained constant throughout their lives. She died in 1504 at Medina del Campo. Ferdinand would live until 1516. Of their five children, Isabella and Juan predeceased her; Juana the Mad married Philip the Handsome; Maria of Aragon married King Manuel I of Portugal; and Catherine of Aragon married King Henry VIII of England.
United States #2626: Columbus seeking Royal Support.