Isabela I of Castile and Leon was the Queen of the majority of what is now Spain, at the very beginning of its time as a Great Power. She is generally spoken of as one half of Isabela and Ferdinand, the Catholic monarchs of Spain. She reigned as Queen of Castile and Leon (which is the majority of what is now Spain) from 1474 until 1504. Her husband Ferdinand reigned as King of Aragon from 1479, which united most of what is now Spain under a joint head of State. Their motto was “Tanto monta (or monta tanto), Isabel como Fernando”, “They amount to the same, Isabel and Ferdinand“.
Isabela was born from her father’s second marriage, and when she was born, was third in line to the throne of Castile, after her half brother Henry, and her younger brother Alfonso. Henry became King, and she and her brother were left in his care, by the terms of her father’s will. Henry wasn’t particularly interested in them. Rather, he was keen to have his own children succeed him to the throne. Unfortunately, he didn’t have much luck there, with no children from his first wife, and the only child from his second marriage (Joanna) being strongly rumoured to have been fathered by someone else.
So after her brother Alfonso died, Isabela was regarded by many in Spain as the most legitimate heir available. Henry tried to control her by controlling her marriage, and during a 10 year period she was betrothed to four or five different princes or Kings from the region. In the end, though, she took matters into her own hands, and arranged her own marriage with Ferdinand, who was heir to the neighbouring Kingdom of Aragon. After considerable subterfuge, they married in 1469, with Isabel sneaking out of court pretending to visit her father’s tomb, and Ferdinand disguising himself as a merchant to visit the kingdom of Castile.
Her brother did name her formally as his successor, so when he died in 1474, Isabela was theoretically Queen. A considerable faction, however, preferred her brother’s daughter Joanna, and the neighbouring King of Portugal provided considerable support for Joanna’s claim, which he backed up by marrying her himself. The resulting war lasted five years, with victory eventually going to Isabel, helped greatly by troops from her husband’s Aragon Kingdom. Once Isabela had her first son, John, in 1478, that cemented her claim, with the succession an important job for any Queen in those times.
Once she was firmly Queen, and Ferdinand had succeeded to the Aragon throne, they ruled their Kingdoms separately (there was no political union, save at the top) but jointly. Their motto, “Tanto monta (or monta tanto), Isabel como Fernando”, “They amount to the same, Isabel and Ferdinand” helped them to effectively run things in the other’s absence.
Although they didn’t make major changes to government structures, what they did do was to make the current government structures work. Isabela restored the finances of her Kingdom (Henry had sold off many estates to cement relationships at well below their true value) and abolished the key government positions who were there purely for patronage purposes, making sure that anyone who had a government position was there to do a particular job, rather than to deliver patronage and reap the benefits.
But these key changes are not what Isabela and Ferdinand are famous for. In 1492, they expelled Jews from Spain, completed their reconquest of Arabic Spain with the capture of Granada, and agreed to finance Christopher Columbus’ expedition to the Indies (where he eventually discovered America). After the expulsion of the Jews, they ramped up the Inquisition (which they had established as a particularly Spanish organisation in 1480) and used it to ensure the orthodoxy of those who converted from Judaism and Islam to Catholicism (often with the use of torture to extract confessions).
Once their reconquest was complete, they devoted their time to setting up the Kingdom for future empire, with a series of dynastic marriages for their children, and the Inquisition devoted to making Spain a country with a single faith – Roman Catholicism. At the same time, the Spanish explorers quickly moved to exploit their discoveries in South America, and the riches that were on offer there. Their grandson, Charles V, ended up with an enormous empire, including the low countries, much of Italy, large parts of South America, as well as Spain itself.
Isabela died in 1504, leaving her husband Ferdinand as the regent for their daughter Joanna (known as Joanna the mad) and grandson Charles. The territory she brought to the marriage made her the senior partner in the joint monarchy. This article talks in feminist about how much power she actually had.
The general view is that she had the lion’s share of the power in the relationship, with the sharing of power more about the territories they controlled than the overall decisions. So Isabela, jointly with her husband Ferdinand set up Spain as a unified, well-governed, rich, Catholic country. It was ready for their grandson Charles V to transform it into one of the biggest empires the world has seen. The decisions they made improved governance, but at the same time persecuted those of their citizens who couldn’t agree with them on religion. They share the credit for the decisions that history judges them kindly on (the improvements in governance, and reduction in corruption) and the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews (1492) and Moors (1502) to bring to an end a long period of religious tolerance on the Iberian peninsula.
This is part of a serious of notable women from where we are as we travel the world. I’d love suggestions for future subjects – our itinerary is here.