Previously on Basically Game of Thrones In Spain But Actual History With No Dragons: Isabel of Portugal dealt with a terrible husband and stepson in the best way she could, leaning into madness; her daughter Isabella of Castile escaped a haunted childhood castle to elope with a man named Ferdinand, overthrow her awful half-brother, force her half-niece Juana La Beltraneja out of the country, and declare herself Queen of Castile via coup-parade. It was, as they say, A Lot, and Isabella’s story was just getting started. If you haven’t read part one, you probably should, even just to learn about everybody’s names. Click here for part one!
Isabella and Ferdinand were officially co-monarchs of both the huge kingdom of Castile and the smaller but important Aragon. They were truly an equal pairing, with Isabella given the same level of respect and responsibility as her husband. This feels like “so what” until you remember that this was the first time in Western history that a woman actively ruled a country. This was pre-Elizabeth I, pre-Catherine the Great, during a time and place where the word Queen usually just meant “the King’s wife”. When Isabella, twenty-three years old and slightly built, paraded down the street with a giant sword and declared herself Queen the people were like, “What?” But by the middle of her thirty-year reign, those same people were like, “She is the greatest human being that the world has potentially ever seen, at least in the past 500 years.” So what made Isabella such a notable Queen?
Well, first of all, she was able to turn around the Castile’s finances through her careful and meticulous leadership. The past two kings—her half-brother El Impotente, and her father who had been the puppet of his evil pal Evil Del Luna—had been straight-up awful at the job. She inherited a country that was in massive amounts of debt due to her predecessor’s financial mismanagement, including El Impotente’s short-sighted plan to increase the country’s money by just minting more coins. Guess what, that never works. Isabella had paid close attention during her time in El Impotente’s court and came into the job with numerous ideas about how to salvage this particular situation like, for instance, putting an end to the excess coin manufacturing and also forcing nobles to pay off their debts to the crown.
The ongoing war between Castile and Portugal had also been putting too much pressure on the country’s budget, so she used her brilliant strategic mind to put an end to this war with a number of peace treaties. Among the terms of these treaties was Portugal’s agreement that Juana La Beltraneja would be confined to a convent for the rest of her life, and forced to do lots of compulsory prayers. This is a peculiar clause, but it’s a hint at the way that Isabella would proceed to wield piety and religious devotion as a kind of punishment.
Yet another terrible thing about the reigns of El Impotente and his father was that criminals had never really been tracked down or punished in any sort of organized manner. This kind of made sense because the country’s laws had never actually been written down in a book, so Isabella also hired a scholar to write out an eight-volume set of all of the laws of the land. She saw herself as the divinely appointed arbiter of all that was good and holy, and she was determined to have a ZERO TOLERANCE POLICY against criminality, especially rape and sexual crimes. More rapists were tried and convicted during her reign than ever before.
BUT, IMPORTANT NOTE: Isabella considered homosexual acts in the same league of unforgivable criminality as she did rape, and the punishment for men convicted of sodomy was to be castrated and hanged (also the punishment for heterosexual rapists).
And because you can’t have Medieval Spanish law without Medieval Spanish order, Isabella also invented the concept of a state-sanctioned police department. Up to this point, justice had mostly been meted out by ad hoc gangs of men called brotherhoods or hermandads, so Isabella called her new royally appointed squad La Santa Hermandad (The Holy Brotherhood).
Her predecessors had been largely under the thumb of powerful aristocrats, who themselves gave and accepted bribes for their own self-interest. Isabella and Ferdinand put an end to this whole situation by positioning themselves as absolute monarchs. Now, obviously being a dictator isn’t ideal under most circumstances, but this was one situation where it was their best and only option. The country’s allegiances had been scattered, and the new monarchs were determined to coalesce all support behind them. This also meant that they removed all power from the nobles, consolidating it all for themselves. Isabella had the nobles moved from active participants in government to mere audience members, replacing them with actual administrative staff like lawyers who would perform the actual tasks of running the country.
Basically, Isabella and Ferdinand got a stronghold over the country by just having a vision and a plan. The pair of them—especially Isabella—also wound being really effective in other ways, but their first steps were to take a struggling country and make it over into something actually productive. And in a sort of triage scenario, once they’d gathered all control into their own hands and had established law and order, they moved onto phase two: unify the country under a single religion.
he and Ferdinand were so pious that the Pope bestowed upon them the name The Catholic Monarchs. So it should come as no surprise that they wanted everyone in their newly-unifying Spain to convert. This wasn’t conversion for conversion’s sake: Isabella truly saw herself as God’s hand on Earth, and her role as savior to all non-Catholics. Now, at the time that Isabella took over, Spain was populated not only by Catholics, but also by some Muslims, and the largest concentration of Jews of anywhere in Europe. So did this mean she ran around like a missionary, converting Jews and Muslims? No, this meant that she initially created policies forcing non-Catholics to convert, then later decreed that all non-Catholics were to be expelled from Spain without their money or possessions (which were then given to the crown, which also helped Isabella out financially).
It was a horrifying time for Jews and Muslims in Spain, which there isn’t room here to get into, so here are some articles explaining how horrendous this whole thing was and the effect it had on world history:
Simultaneous to the expulsion of Jews and Muslims, Isabella and Ferdinand were also hard at word conquering the remaining Muslim strongholds in their area, which were run by the Nasrid dynasty. Isabella was actively involved with this multi-year campaign, helping to plan campaigns and accompanying troops near the field of battle. Using the newly increased treasury, she amassed a larger arsenal of weapons than any previous monarch had ever acquired, including cannons strong enough to destroy castle walls. Her tactics and arsenal forced all armies in Europe to change their battle strategies.
The final stronghold of the Nasrid empire was Granada, which finally surrendered to the Catholic monarchs in 1492. Isabella and Ferdinand entered the city and were ceremonially presented with the keys to the city, and then set out converting not only the people but the place itself—reconsecrating the primary mosque into a Catholic church, for instance. Their success in defeating Muslim expansion forever altered the global balance of power, which to this point had been in favor of the East. Spain was becoming the first Western superpower, paving the way for the domination of France, then England, and then the United States on the world stage. More on that in this article: ‘These are the keys of this paradise’: how 700 years of Muslim rule in Spain came to an end.
Isabella and Ferdinand had achieved massive success in their plans to consolidate the various parts of Spain into a single empire with themselves as supreme rulers. Rather than spreading themselves to the East, Isabella’s interest was piqued by a persistent Italian adventurer named Cristoffa Corombo, or as his Anglicized name is better known, Christopher Columbus. Corombo approached the Catholic monarchs numerous times for support for his goal to voyage across the Atlantic to find a new trade route to the Indies, but it was only when he dropped his price to something Isabella found acceptable that she agreed to fund his trip. The money she had seized from the expelled Jews and Muslims was reappropriated to fund this trip.
Now, Corombo’s actions in North America are fairly well known and in case you weren’t sure how truly awful he was and the things he perpetrated were, here’s some reading material:
What’s interesting about this whole scenario is that Isabella was never comfortable with the idea of enslaving or mistreating the Indigenous people of the Americas. This was partly because she viewed Corombo’s colonies in the Americas as subsidiaries of Castile, which made the Indigenous people—to her—Castilian subjects. And the law of the land was that Castilian subjects could not be enslaved. Furthermore, she was keen to convert the Indigenous people to Catholicism—and, to her, Catholics could also not be enslaved. (But, to her, Black people captured during her conquest on the African continent could be enslaved).
Of course, her desire to convert people to Catholicism was not limited to Indigenous people of the Americas. Isabella and Ferdinand were also consistently obsessed with ensuring that every single person living in Spain practiced the same religion they did, to the point that they began mistrusting people who claimed to be Catholic. Their goal was to build a country that was entirely homogenized—100% Catholics, 100% of whom fully supported the Catholic monarchs. And so they founded a royal Inquisition aka The Spanish Inquisition. They weren’t the first people to do this, but they were among the most successful at it, by which I mean they captured and killed more than most other Inquisitions did. Here’s more info on this point:
Isabella’s religious fervor was not limited to her subjects; she applied similar high standards, and problematic/abusive methods on her own family members as well. And it is in her home life that Isabella found herself caught in a sequence of events she was not able to defeat with her cleverness or ruthlessness.
Isabella and Ferdinand had five children: Isabella (let’s call her Isa, to avoid confusion) of Aragon; Juan, Prince of Asturias; Juana of Castile; Maria of Aragon; and Katherine of Aragon. Isabella ensured that all of her children were provided with extensive education, hiring Italian humanists as tutors. It had not been standard for children to be educated to this extent, especially not girls. Isabella presented herself as a role model to her daughters in other ways too, such as by bringing them with her when she accompanied troops into battle.
Isabella, having grown up in a ghost castle and having spent her adolescence leading a coup to steal the throne, hadn’t received much schooling in her childhood, and so worked to ensure her children would all get the best possible education. Isa, Juan, Juana, Katherine, and Maria were all taught basically everything possible for that era and location: various languages, science, history, politics, archery, dancing, music, and more. As Juan was trained in how to become the new King, the girls learned both the skills required to be a wife and mother alongside their other studies. Isabella and Ferdinand ensured that their family would be impervious to criticism, and each of the children was recorded as having been both accomplished and gorgeous. The girls all seem to have inherited many of the personality traits of their mother, as they all wound up expressing tenacity alongside very powerful streaks of stubbornness. Of all of the children, Isabella clashed most often with Juana, perhaps because these two were more alike than any of the others.
One final part of Isabella and Ferdinand’s strategy for complete Spanish domination was to connect their dynasty with royal families in other countries. As such, they arranged the best possible matches for each of their children. Isa was shipped off to marry the Portuguese king, while Juan and Juana were each married off to a Habsburg royal. Isa’s husband died suddenly at a very young age, after which Isa begged to be allowed to remain unmarried and to life as a nun. But she was needed to help firm up the alliance with Portugal, and so Isabella sent her daughter back to marry the new Portuguese King. Isa died in childbirth a year later, her baby son soon passing away as well. At around this same time, Juan—who Isabella had always favored, referring to him as her “angel”—also died. This meant—much to Isabella’s grief and frustration—that her seeming least-favourite daughter, Juana, was suddenly and unexpectedly heir to the thrones of Castile and Aragon.
Isabella’s youngest daughters, Maria and Katherine, were sent off shortly for their own politically advantageous marriages—Maria, to be the second wife to Isa’s widower, the King of Portugal, and Katherine off to marry Arthur, the English crown prince. (This did not go particularly easily for Katherine, which is what the new show The Spanish Princess will be about).
These deaths in quick succession, combined with the heartbreak of having her children move away, severely affected Isabella’s health, including her mental health. She turned to prayer and fasting for strength, which only weakened her constitution. Isabella slowly succumbed to the effects of dropsy, but kept enough of her wits about her to be able to compose her will. This document is part advice and instruction to Ferdinand (who would go on to rule for another twelve years) as well as their successors, in which she charges them to remain vigilant against the Devil and his minions (including Muslims and Jews), as well as to continue working to conquer the African continent and to continue the Inquisition. She also notes her desire for the Indigenous people of the American colonies to be treated fairly, and not to be abused.
Queen Isabella died at age 53 on November 26, 1504, at the Medina del Campo Royal Palace, where she had been living bedridden for her final months. Her tomb is in Granada, the site of one of her greatest military and political victories, in the Capilla Real. Queen Isabella is laid next to her husband, Ferdinand, as her daughter and heir Juana (who died 55 years later), Juana’s awful husband who we don’t care about, and Isa’s dead baby son, Miguel.
Isabella forever changed the course of world history. She founded the first cross-Atlantic colonial empire, creating a template to be used later by both the French and the English. Her successes in the wars against Muslim areas paved the way for Christianity to become the dominant religion through most of Western Europe. She was also the first European woman to be recognized as a monarch in her own right, changing the meaning of the word Queen to mean “a woman who rules” rather than just “the woman married to the King.” There are echoes of her story in the character arc of Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones. Like Isabella, the character of Daenerys went from a forgotten, sidelined young woman to am ambitious would-be Queen to a seemingly power-mad colonizer. Isabella’s legacy is complex and impossible to label as entirely positive or entirely negative; what I can say without a doubt is that hers was one of the most consequential and important reigns in European history.
Note: a previous version of this essay suggested that Isabella had physically abused and tortured her daughter Juana during her childhood. The idea that Isabella or Ferdinand had applied torture methods to Juana seems to have originated in letters from, some of which can be found here. However, as further verification of this cannot be found, all references to Isabella abusing Juana in this manner have been removed from this essay.
References And Further Reading
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