Isabel la Católica

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Biography of Isabel la Católica. The Catholic Monarchs, inseparable in life and in history. They are responsible for the beginning of the unification of Spain as a country, and the discovery of America in 1492.

Isabel resolutely opposed all the marriage commitments she had before Fernando.

Fernando was the intelligent and faithful husband during the 35 fruitful years of her marriage to Isabel.

For many historians and scholars, Isabel is the greatest of the queens of Spain. Actually, after Isabel and Fernando, Spain was ruled by foreign kings. Many believe that this changed the course of the history of this great country.

Family history of Isabel de Castilla

Isabel, daughter of King Juan II of Castile and of his second wife, Isabel of Portugal, was born in Madrigal de las Altas Torres, on April 22, 1451. Two years later, her brother Alfonso was born.

Birthplace house
Birthplace of Isabel la Católica, in Madrigal de las Altas Torres, near Ávila. Credit: photographer: Cruccone

Her father had been married to María de Aragón, and in 1425 their son Enrique had been born.

In 1454, Juan II died, and Isabel’s stepbrother occupied the throne of Castile, under the name of Enrique IV.

Isabel was sent with her mother and her brother Alfonso to the town of Arévalo. There, little Isabel witnessed the attacks of madness that her mother suffered.

Isabel Castilla
Canvas in the Prado Museum, depicting Isabel la Católica, looking at the corpse of her father, Fernando II of Castile, in the Cartuja de Miraflores. Painter: Luis Álvarez.

In 1461, Isabel and her brother Alfonso were sent to Segovia, to the Court, to be close to King Enrique IV of Castile and his wife, Juana of Portugal.

Doña Juana daughter of Enrique IV

The daughter of the kings: doña Juana, was born in February 1462,

Enrique IV wanted to commit Isabel in marriage to King Alfonso V of Portugal, who was 20 years older than her.

In 1464, he managed to reunite them in the Monastery of Guadalupe. Isabel, who was just 13 years old, rejected him.

The following year, a part of the nobles of Castile faced King Enrique IV, with the intention of proclaiming in his place the brother of Isabel, the young Alfonso, who was twelve years old.

But, Alfonso died in 1468, Isabel refused to proclaim herself queen while her stepbrother Enrique IV was alive.

Later, when she was 16 years old, Isabel was engaged to Pedro Girón, 43, the master of Calatrava; Girón died of unknown causes while making the journey to meet his fiancée.

On September 18, 1468, Isabel was proclaimed Princess of Asturias and sent to live in the city of Ocaña, near Toledo.

Portrait Isabel
Portrait of Isabel la Católica, which is part of an altarpiece made by the Flemish painter Gerard David, in the Collegiate Church of Santa María la Mayor, in Toro, Zamora

Negotiations for the marriage of Isabel de Castilla

Again Enrique IV tried to arrange a marriage of Isabel with Alfonso V king of Portugal. Enrique IV’s proposal included the clause that her daughter Juana would marry the son of Alfonso V of Portugal.

It was a good strategy to unite the two kingdoms, but Isabel again refused to compromise.

After this fiasco, Enrique IV tried to marry his rebellious sister with the Duke of Guyena, brother of Luis XI of France; again Isabel flatly refused.

Meanwhile, the King of Aragon, Juan II, was trying to negotiate the wedding of her son Fernando with Isabel.

There was a big drawback: being both second cousins, they needed a dispensation from the Pope. The courtiers of both courts invented a papal Bull, and the negotiations continued.

On this occasion, Isabel accepted the commitment, and on March 5, 1469, the marriage agreements were signed; in secret, because in Ocaña Isabel was closely guarded by Don Juan Pacheco.

Obviously Isabel gave her consent to this secret plan, also motivated by the candidate’s youth, who was a year younger than her: Fernando had been born in 1452.

Fernando II
Portrait of Fernando II, King of Aragon. It is deposited in the Alcázar of Segovia. Credit: Wikipedia

Marriage of Isabel with Fernando de Aragón

Fearing that Enrique IV would abort his plans, Isabel left Ocaña with the excuse of going to visit the grave of her brother Alfonso, who was in Ávila.

For her part, Ferdinand crossed Castile in secret, disguised as a merchant’s mule waiter.

Finally, on October 19, 1469. Isabel and Fernando got married in Valladolid.

This marriage cost Isabel the confrontation with her stepbrother, King Enrique IV of Castile.

The children of Isabel and Fernando

Isabel and Fernando had 4 children, all of them intelligent and beautiful. They provided the best education in literature, philosophy, history, music, diplomacy, management, and languages.

Canvas by the painter Isidoro Santos, who represents Isabel la Católica while she observes the classes her children receive. It is kept in the Prado Museum
  • Isabel, born in 1470. She married successively two Portuguese kings: Alfonso and Manuel. She died in 1497.
  • Juan, born in 1478, in Seville. He married the Archduchess of Austria, the beautiful and intelligent Margaret, for love. He was in very poor health all his life; he died in October 1497, frustrating hopes that he would become king of Castile and Aragon.
  • Juana, born in 1479. She came to master Latin perfectly, even at a colloquial level. She married Margarita’s brother (her sister-in-law), Felipe de Habsburgo, with whom she had 6 children, the best known of them is Carlos V.
  • Catherine, born 1485. She married Henry VIII of England.

In 1471, Pope Sixtus IV sent Cardinal Rodrigo de Borja to Spain to deliver the Papal Bull, which dispensed Isabel and Fernando from consanguinity.

The cardinal negotiated with them: he would give them the bull in exchange for them, as soon as possible, granting the city of Gandía to his son Pedro Luis.

Isabel was proclaimed Queen of Castile

Three years later, Henry IV of Castile died. Isabel was proclaimed queen of Castile, on December 13, 1474, in Segovia.

Then war broke out between Isabel’s supporters and those of her niece Juana, the daughter of Enrique IV and Juana de Portugal. It was called the “war of succession” and lasted four years, from 1475 to 1479.

Proof of Isabel’s bravery and courage is how she faced the mutiny that took place in the Alcázar of Segovia in 1476.

Portrait Isabel
Portrait of Isabel de Castilla. Anonymous painter. The painting is kept in the Prado Museum

There the Court resided. The first-born daughter of the kings, was in the care of Beatriz de Bobadilla and her husband, the governor Andrés Cabrera.

Taking advantage of the absence of Queen Isabel, who had gone to visit the powerful Cardinal Mendoza, some provocateurs disguised as peasants, harangued the population to remove the warden and put the previous one in his place.

An enraged mass of people, armed with tools, sticks and stones, made their way towards the Alcazar.

As soon as she found out what was happening, Isabel mounted a horse and, accompanied by three guards, rode 60 kilometers to Segovia.

At the entrance, the bishop tried to stop her, because of the great danger she was running; but Isabel ignored the advice and advanced to the Alcazar.

She went in and left the doors open, inviting the mutineers in to make their complaints. After listening to them, she kept Andrés Cabrera in place. From that day on, the people of Segovia kept absolute loyalty to Isabel de Castilla.

Isabel and Fernando proclaimed kings of Castile

In 1479, the war of succession was ended. The Peace Treaty recognized Isabel and Fernando as kings of Castile in exchange for certain concessions to Portugal.

After the war, Isabel had the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes built in Toledo.

As soon as she could, Isabel reorganized the government and administration system, centralizing powers previously held by the nobles; and carried out an economic reform to reduce the debt that the kingdom had inherited from Henry IV.

Isabel was a great promoter of education and cultural instruction for women.

The outstanding humanist Antonio de Nebrija and the great scholar Beatriz Galindo (the Latina) received all their effective help.

Isabel unconditionally supported that Luisa Medrano could become a “professor” no less than at the University of Salamanca at the beginning of the 1500s !!

Isabel de Castilla an extraordinary and brave woman

During Fernando’s military campaigns, Queen Isabel was always in the rear, accompanied by her children, and pending to provide what was necessary.

Queen Elizabeth was the forerunner of field hospitals, as she was accompanied by medical personnel and assistants to attend to the wounded on the battlefield. It was a Florence Nightingale in the 15th century.

Portrait Isabel Católica
Portrait of Isabel la Católica, made by Joaquín Domínguez. Credit: Seville City Council

Another example of her courage, audacity and leadership occurred in the city of Baza, in Granada, which had been surrounded for a long time by Castilian and Leonese troops; the population of Baza did not want to surrender and the Christian soldiers were already beginning to become demoralized.

King Ferdinand asked his wife to appear on the battlefield, to boost the morale of the troops.

The Queen was accompanied by several ladies and her first-born Elizabeth.

The impact of their presence before the city was immediate, not only for the Christian troops, but also for the besieged population that began their surrender, but not before the warrior king, but before the brave queen.

Isabel de Castilla and the discovery of America

Isabel de Castilla believed in the projects of Christopher Columbus, despite much criticism and adverse political reactions from the Court and scholars.

Thanks to her personal support, the great navigator was able to set off into the unknown and discover a new world.

The magnificent Spanish writer, Borja Cardelús y Muñoz-Seca, in his book “Hispanic civilization: the encounter of two worlds”, says: “The encounter of Spain with America was an event of transcendental importance, since it transformed the geographical bases, it revolutionized food, induced substantial demographic changes, and generated a new cultural space, the Hispanic Civilization, which spans more than 500 million people.

Beyond miscegenation and the spread of the Spanish language and Christianity, the cattle system, the exchange of food, the creation of cultural and urban mestizo forms that, among other issues, resulted in the formation of a Hispanic identity.

The Black Legend has highlighted the cases of abuse of the native population and falsified the reality of Spain in America. Without rejecting the undeniable existence of these individual abuses, the position of Spain was the one deduced from the Laws of the Indies, which protected the Indian at all costs.

In the long term, this reality led to biological and cultural miscegenation, to the mixture of customs, characters, principles and values ​​that make up the soul of Hispanic Civilization.”

Ship SantaMaria
Replica of the Santa María ship, sent to the Chicago Exposition in 1893. The ship is 23 meters long and 7 meters wide. Credit: Wikipedia

Important events during the reign of Elizabeth

During the common reign with Fernando, events of great importance occurred, not all of them worthy of praise:

  • In 1480, the establishment of the so-called “Holy” Inquisition.
  • Creation of the “Holy” Brotherhood, a police force for the repression of banditry, thus creating much safer conditions for commerce and the economy.
  • Incorporation of the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada.
  • Religious unification of the Hispanic Crown, based on the forced conversion of Jews and Muslims.
  • After the discovery of America in 1492, the process of evangelization of the native Indians began and the incorporation of these into the crown of Castilla y León.
Christopher Columbus
Painting made in 1850 and representing Christopher Columbus before the Court of the Catholic Monarchs. Credit: Clark Sui.

The kings were concerned with the conversion and fair treatment of the Amerindians.

They limited the enslavement of the natives initiated by Columbus, to the cases foreseen in the Castilian laws of the time; and they prohibited, although with little success, the division of the natives among the Spanish settled in the Caribbean.

Relations with Portugal and Isabel’s last years

In 1494, Isabel and Fernando signed the Treaty of Tordesillas with Portugal, which delimited the spheres of influence of Spain and Portugal in the Atlantic Ocean.

Two years later, in 1496, Ferdinand and Isabella received the title of “Catholic Monarchs” which was awarded to them by Pope Alexander VI. This title has been transmitted to the descendants on the throne.

In her later years, family misfortunes embittered her life and plunged her into a deep depression:

  • The deaths of her mother; that of Juan, her only son; of her first-born, Isabel; of her grandson Miguel, son of Manuel I of Portugal.
  • The alleged insanity of her daughter Juana, who openly challenged her.
  • The slights of Felipe el Hermoso, Juana’s husband.
  • The uncertainty of her daughter Catalina’s situation with her English husband.

Death of Isabel de Castilla

The Court was in Medina del Campo. The queen was there when she declared her serious illness, dropsy. She died shortly before noon on November 26, 1504, in the Royal Palace.

In her will, released a month earlier, on October 12, she asked:

My body is buried in the monastery of San Francisco, in the Alhambra of the city of Granada (…) in a low grave, which has no bulk, except for a low slab on the ground, flat, with her letters on it. But I want and command, that if the King chooses burial in another church or monastery in any other part or place of my kingdoms, that my body be transferred and buried there together (…) ”.

According to her wish, she was buried in the monastery of San Francisco de la Alhambra, on December 18, 1504, in a simple grave. Later, her mortal remains, along with those of her husband Fernando el Católico, were transferred to the Royal Chapel of Granada. Her daughter Juana and her husband, Felipe el Hermoso, also rest there.

The Royal Chapel museum houses the queen’s crown and scepter, an important group of paintings by Botticelli, Dirk Bouts, Rogier van der Weyden and Hans Memling, among others, and many of her personal belongings.

Isabel death
Canvas representing Isabel la Católica on her deathbed when she dictates her will in the presence of her husband, in Medina del Campo, in the year 1504. This portrait is kept in the Prado Museum.

In her testament the queen stipulated that King Ferdinand would administer and govern Castile in her name, until the infant Carlos, Juana’s first-born, turned 20. However, the Castilian nobility did not support Fernando and he chose to retire to Aragon.

Isabel asked her successors to strive to conquer North Africa for Christianity, continuing the peninsular reconquest; and that the inhabitants of America be converted to Christianity and treated fairly.

It took a long time for Spanish society to give way to the participation of women in political life: Clara Campoamor, Loyola de Palacio and many others.

The original testament of the queen is preserved in the Royal Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe. A copy was sent to the “Monastery of Santa Isabel la Real de Granada“, located in the Alhambra; and another, to the Cathedral of Toledo, although from 1575 it passed to the General Archive of Simancas.

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