Previously on Keeping Up With The Castilian And Portuguese Royal Families…
A clever and ambitious young woman named Isabel of Portugal wound up with a terrible husband named King Juan II of Castile. Juan’s first wife, Maria, had probably been poisoned to death by Juan’s evil henchman del Luna because she was too old to have any more babies. The only surviving baby Maria had had was Prince Enrique aka El Impotente, so-called because he grew up and went through two wives without having any of his own children. Juan wanted to have some new kids to be his heirs, which is why he married Isabel. Together, they had a son and a daughter — Isabella and Alfonso. When Juan died, El Impotente sent his step-mother and two little half-siblings to live in poverty in a ghost castle. Isabel, pretty understandably fed up with ALL of this, began spending her time in a fugue state, screaming at ghosts. Which brings us to this week’s heroine, Isabel’s daughter, Isabella of Castile.
Little Girl, Big Ghost Castle
Isabella of Castile was born on April 22, 1451, the first child born to King Juan II of Castile and Isabel of Portugal. Her younger brother Alfonso was born when Isabella was three; later that same year their father, Juan died. Although Juan had left instructions in his will that El Impotente (his older, useless, adult son) should take care of Isabel, Isabella, and Alfonso, El Impotente… basically, did not do this. He sent Isabel — still in the throes of post-partum along with likely PTSD from traumatic Medieval childbirth and her own tendency toward depression — along with her newborn baby and toddler-aged daughter to live in the Castle of Arévalo. How did this go? NOT WELL.
Isabel’s mental state, already precarious, began to worsen as she found herself stranded in a mostly-abandoned castle in the middle of nowhere. El Impotente didn’t send them as much money as they should have received, meaning that the three-person family didn’t have enough food or clothes or furniture, etc., and also possibly the castle was haunted by ghosts (Isabel, the Mom, spent a lot of her time screaming at ghosts she said were chasing her). Little Girl Isabella lived in this situation from ages three to nearly eleven, meaning that she and her brother Alfonso were mostly fending for themselves. Even in this situation, though, Isabella distinguished herself for being extremely clever and intelligent and basically for not giving up despite living in a pretty dire underdog situation. All of the members of the family drew strength from their Catholic faith, which is important to mention as perhaps Isabella’s experience of religion mixed with deep personal trauma and psychological distress could have something to do with her world view later on. #spoilers
But why, when Isabella was about eleven years old, did El Impotente invite her and Alfonso to join him at the royal court in Segovia? Well, it’s because, after seven years of marriage, El Impotente’s wife Juana of Portugal was having a baby! As this baby would supplant both Isabella and Alfonso in the line of succession, El Impotente was feeling more kindly towards his much-younger half-siblings. After all, once he had his own heir, those two wouldn’t be threats to him, right? OR SO HE THOUGHT.
A New Baby Rival
Now, a few words on El Impotente’s wife Juana of Portugal. Like all the women who surrounded El Impotente, Juana had developed a reputation for being “crazy”. In her case, this mostly meant that she voiced her opinions, sometimes wore lower-cut dresses than the Castilian nobles preferred, and was seen to be bossy towards El Impotente. Also, rumor had it that she was carrying on affairs with various lovers, while still married to El Impotente. Now, based on everything we know about El Impotente (namely, that his personality was terrible and his penis wasn’t shaped in such a way to go inside of vaginas), this all seems reasonable to me. Honestly, it’s very Henry VIII of El Impotente to always be like, “We all know I’m totally fine, it’s just these crazy women all around me who keep not having sons and are crazy, am I right?” But the point of all this is: Juana suddenly became pregnant after seven years together with El Impotente, and everybody pretty much agreed right away that there’s no way El Impotente was possibly this baby’s father.
Juana’s rumored lover was a man named Beltrán de la Cueva, which is an amazing name, and I bet he was super-hot. When she gave birth to a daughter, she and El Impotente named her Baby Juana (aww) but everyone started referring to the baby as Juana La Beltraneja, meaning, basically, “Beltrán’s baby”. Now, if El Impotente had been a more popular King and less of a horrible human being, maybe this nickname wouldn’t have stuck. But he was both a terrible King and a really useless person, and so even in history books, Baby Juana is referred to as Juana La Beltraneja. But her father was officially El Impotente, which made Juana La Beltraneja the new heir to the throne of Castile, shoving Isabella and Alfonso down to second and third in line. El Impotente decided to let his half-siblings stay, and I’m sure they were like “YES PLEASE” and so Isabella finally got to begin having a proper education from non-ghost tutors.
It was here that Isabella’s extreme intelligence started to become apparent. She was brilliant in all of her studies, including science and math and religion and dancing. Basically, she was the real deal and was especially interested in learning about politics. Namely, the politics of Castile and Portugal and what was going on in the world she was living in. She learned about how her half-brother El Impotente was an extremely terrible King, and how Portugal and other countries were constantly trying to attack Castile. She learned that there was a strong faction who wanted to make her brother Alfonso the new heir, instead of Juana La Beltraneja. Basically, she laid low and paid attention and was the smartest teen girl in the castle. Meanwhile, in the outside world, battles were fought and treaties were brokered, and eventually, El Impotente agreed with the rebels that he’d name Alfonso his heir but only if his half-brother married his daughter Juana La Beltraneja. And before we can all screw up our faces at that weird incestuous child marriage situation, Alfonso died under MYSTERIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES. (Spoiler: basically everybody in this story dies of MYSTERIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES, it’s that sort of story).
Isabella of Castile, Teen Crisis Negotiator
With Alfonso now dead, there were two potential heirs left for El Impotente: his half-sister, the brilliant Isabella, or his potentially illegitimate baby daughter, Juana La Beltraneja. Both girls had their own supporters, none of whom cared about them as people, but mostly for what they represented. Isabella’s genetic profile was seen as preferable since nobody doubted who her parents had been. Juana La Beltraneja was tainted by association with her mother’s “crazy” reputation, and also everybody hated El Impotente. Isabella knew that she had the chance here to seize power, but had to play her cards right. As a girl who’d gone from royal Princess to living in an abandoned ghost castle, she knew how quickly luck could change. She was also a bit of a busybody and couldn’t just sit by while her half-brother El Impotente ran around being a terrible King. She had to intervene, for the good of the country that she was hoping to one day inherit!
Seeing how the country of Castile was literally engaging in a civil war over who would inherit from El Impotente, Isabella took it upon herself to sort things out. She sat El Impotente down at a negotiating table and forced him to make a peace treaty with her. Bear in mind, she was at this point seventeen years old, and her half-brother the King was forty-three, and she had all the power because that’s just how amazing she was. Isabella proposed that she’d get all of her supporters to stop fighting against El Impotente if he named her, Isabella, as his heir instead of Juana La Beltraneja. El Impotente countered by saying “Sure, but you have to marry someone I choose.” Isabella was like, “Okay, but I get veto power and you can’t make me marry someone I don’t want to marry.” And El Impotente was like, “FINE, but you can’t get married without my permission.” You know they were both already thinking of sneaky ways around all of these terms, but they still shook hands that day and agreed to the terms. Isabella got her supporters to stand down, and the civil war was ended. Which meant it was time to find a husband for this seventeen-year-old master negotiator!
So, as a princess in late Medieval Europe, obviously, the question of Isabella’s marriage had been discussed since basically the day she was born. Her first betrothal had come about when she was just a little six-year-old princess living in the ghost castle, and her child fiance had been a boy one year younger than her named Prince Ferdinand of Aragon. But one year later this all went belly-up due to various infighting and shenanigans between the people of Castile, Portugal, and Aragon. In fact, as evidence that Ferdinand’s family was just as much the most as Isabella’s, these failed marriage negotiations wound up with one of Ferdinand’s relatives thrown in jail for plotting to kill his own father. Reminder: every single person in this whole saga is highly dramatic and yet it’s just the women who get called “crazy” like: I see you, misogyny.
Shortly after seventeen-year-old Isabella signed the treaty with her useless King-brother, King Afonso V of Portugal contacted El Impotente with a proposal of marriage for Isabella. Note, his name was Afonso, one letter removed from Isabella’s dead brother, Alfonso. But more important than his name was Afonso’s scheme-iness, as he worked with El Impotente on a double-treaty that would marry Isabella (aged seventeen) to Afonso (aged thirty-six) AND ALSO marry Juana La Beltrenaja (aged four) to Afonso’s son Juan (aged thirteen). The end result of these inter-family marriages would be that Isabella would wind up the Queen of Portugal, with Juana La Beltraneja as the heir to the thrones of both Portugal and Castile. I think? Somehow, this arrangement would cut Isabella out of the entire line of succession for Castile (in a way that Isabella keenly understood but I don’t, but I trust her, so let’s go with it). Isabella was like, “I would like to use my VETO POWER” and refused to agree to these terms. But because she didn’t trust El Impotente, she also began working on her own super sexy secret marriage plans. To marry… Ferdinand, her childhood fiance!
This part of the story is amazing. Like, there are so many stories about women who ran away to get secretly married (often because they knew that Queen Elizabeth I wouldn’t approve **cough Lettice Knollys** **cough Mary Grey**). But this is the first story I’ve encountered where the bride-to-be arranged for a secret sexy papal dispensation, which is part of what Isabella was up to. She wasn’t just secretly marrying some random noble, she was going to marry Prince Ferdinand of Aragon, and they had to do it all very legally. So she secretly exchanged messages with Ferdinand’s father, THE KING OF ARAGON, and also with THE POPE, because Isabella and Ferdinand were second cousins and had to get special permission from the Pope to get married due to their family relationship. ANd while she was sorting that all out, El Impotente was still trying to find a way to marry Isabella off in a way that would also get rid of her. He busied himself trying to arrange a marriage to a French Prince named Charles, which would mean Isabella would be shipped off to France and out of his way, but little did he know, Isabella was MILES AHEAD OF HIM, scheming-wise.
So, Isabella and Ferdinand couldn’t straight-up ask the Pope for a dispensation for their marriage because the news might get back to El Impotente. But one of them knew someone who knew someone who had access to the Pope’s personal stationery or something like that, and one way or another they acquired a falsified letter from the dead previous Pope, a man who had been dead for five years, that said basically, “Ferdinand can marry his second cousin, or his third cousin, no big deal” and that was that! They were good to go!
Once the paperwork was all in place, Isabella casually was like, “Hey, I’m just going to go pay tribute to my dead brother Alfonso and visit my increasingly unhinged mother outside the city, don’t wait up for me, byeee!” And she took off. Meanwhile, Ferdinand left his castle DISGUISED AS A SERVANT, and they headed out to meet each other for their secret sexy wedding. Honestly, from being a little toddler in a spooky ghost castle to running away for a secret marriage to a Prince, through which she’d screw over her awful half-brother and position herself to take over most of Western Europe: THIS STORY IS EVERYTHING. And because these two were so smart and their plan was so good, Isabella and Ferdinand met up and got married basically immediately, on October 19, 1469, in the Palacio de los Vivero in Valladolid. Isabella was eighteen at the time, and Ferdinand was seventeen. Ah, young love!
The War of the Castilian Succession
Isabella’s secret wedding was basically a declaration of war against her half-brother El Impotente. She’d broken their brother-sister treaty (where she’d agreed to get his permission before getting married) and had landed herself a powerful alliance with Ferdinand’s country of Aragon. Isabella and Ferdinand got to work right away having an heir because that would help solidify their strength as a new super couple. While a son would have been ideal, their first child was a daughter they named Isabel (because so far, everyone in this story named Isabel or Isabella is AMAZING so: good name). But El Impotente was super mad about this sneaky marriage, and so amended his will to name Juana La Beltraneja, not Isabella, as his heir. And guess who wanted the 12-year-old Juana La Beltraneja to be Queen? Her mother, Juana of Portugal. Remember her?
FLASHBACK: As we all recall, Juana of Portugal had a reputation for being “crazy” which really seems to mean that she “didn’t put up with El Impotente’s bullshit so he badmouthed her and then she took a lover and here we all are.” Eventually, El Impotente had kicked her out of his Royal court and she was like, “Is that supposed to be a punishment, because THANK YOU” and peaced out of there. She went to stay with a Bishop friend of hers, and then she fell in love with the Bishop’s sexy nephew and took him as her new lover, and had two out-of-wedlock children with him, and was just living her best life. El Impotente had eventually declared their marriage invalid and also divorced her, which might have been good for his self-esteem but put their daughter Juana La Beltraneja in a tricky position as she was now sort of illegitimate.
BACK TO OUR STORY: Just two days after El Impotente did us all a favour by finally dying, Isabella marched int Segovia (where the Royal court was) to pull a full-on coup. She was, at this time, twenty-three years old just for reference. She literally paraded in a procession down the street wearing JEWELS and carrying a SWORD and who was going to cross her now?? No woman had ever taken over like this, and she was so impressive the nobles basically just let her become Queen because she was so terrifying and incredible. I mean: she launched a COUP PARADE with herself as Grand Marshall. She believed that she was God’s choice to be in charge of Castile, which helped soothe the hurt feelings of all the misogynists around her who normally wouldn’t support a woman in power. But when the options were the 23-year-old parade-holding political genius versus her 12-year-old possibly-illegitimate half-neice, Isabella seemed like the better of two options.
To complicate (or maybe simplify?) things, Juana of Portugal died at around this time too, leaving Juana La Beltraneja in her own sort of ghost castle underdog scenario. But she still had lots of powerful supporters like the entire Portuguese royal family, including a man you might remember from a few paragraphs back, King Afonso V! His proposal to marry Isabella hadn’t worked out, and he now had his sights set on marrying Juana La Beltraneja and, through her, taking over Castile.
And so, just five months after Isabella had been crowned Queen, Afonso and his troops marched from Portugal into Castile and he seemingly picked up Juana La Beltraneja and married her just like that. (If you’d like to visit the site of their nuptials, it’s in the Spanish city of Plasencia, which looks gorgeous, I’m so sorry for Juana that she had to get married there at age twelve to this old ambitious King). Again, this was marriage was an act of war, and the next four years comprised the War of the Castilian Succession. On one side: Juana La Beltraneja and Afonso; on the other side: Isabella and Ferdinand. Lives were lost, battles were fought, four years pass by and now it’s 1476 and it’s the Battle of Toro, where the whole war was ended when Ferdinand invented PR stunts.
Here’s the thing: neither side was sure who had won the Battle of Toro. So Afonso’s troops went back like, “I guess we won?” And Ferdinand went around spreading Fake News that he had won in a huge victory, and his Fake News spread to some of Afonso’s allies who were like, “Oh wow, I guess we lost, let’s go back home to Portugal or whatever” and so many of Afonso’s troops mistakenly left that, in fact, Ferdinand’s side won. It was a victory for mind games and strategy and wound up with Juana La Beltraneja and Afonso heading back to Portugal where they stayed, basically, forever. (*More on this next time)
And back on the home front, Isabella was busy with a parallel PR stunt. In front of witnesses, she had her daughter Isabel officially declared the heir to the crown of Castile. So not only was Isabella herself the Queen, by naming her daughter her heir, she was basically swearing herself in as Queen. Both Isabella and Ferdinand were just really aces at this sort of thing, using The Secret to basically will themselves into the positions they wanted to be in.
But the team-up wasn’t just Ferdinand being a warrior and Isabella being a political mastermind back at home. Oh no, because Isabella was also a literal warrior Queen/ negotiating genius. For instance: later that same year, while Ferdinand was off fighting random other enemies, a rebellion broke out against Isabella and Ferdinand. Isabella was like, “I’m off to go and quash this!” All of her (male) advisors were like, “But what if you just stayed home with your baby daughter?” and she was like, “Sorry can’t hear you! I’m busy riding off on a horse to single-handedly negotiate with the rebels!!” And that’s just what she did, and the rebellion ENDED, because she’d been negotiating peace treaties since she was a teenager and could outsmart anyone at any game.
So she was a political mastermind, had married a man who seemed to be her true equal in terms of scheming and ambition, had given birth to a daughter and heir, had driven her tween half-niece back to Portugal… what more was left to solidify Isabella’s place as Queen? Basically, because of patriarchy and misogyny, she still needed to have a son. And lo and behold, she gave birth in 1478 to a son who was named Juan, Prince of Asturias. With this baby boy now supplanting his sister Isabel as heir, there was really no argument to be made why Isabella shouldn’t be in charge of everything. She had the pedigree, she had the son, she had the record of military battles, she had the charisma and the intelligence… she was IT. She’d raised herself up from a toddler in a ghost castle to one of the most powerful monarchs in Europe, and she was just getting started.
Join us next time as we look at Isabella’s thirty-year reign in a tale that includes: Christopher Columbus, various conquests and genocide, religious fanaticism, literal child torture, so much death, her influence on her daughter Katherine of Aragon, and Isabella’s particularly Catholic strain of divine madness.
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter