Isabella of Castile - O. O. Howard

Old Alfonso at Toro

"A Perfect woman nobly planned,

To warn, to comfort, and command,

And yet a spirit still and bright,

With something of an angel's light."


Old Alfonso at Toro—Isabella's Genius Under Trials—Prompt Measures—Ferdinand Northward, Isabella Going North-Westward and then Southward—At and Near Toledo—Archbishop Avoids Interview—Army of 42,000 Brought Together before Toro—Old Alfonso Declines Battle—No Siege-Guns Against Him—Ferdinand's Army Melts Away—Isabella's Reprisals—Small Successes in Combats, Raids, and Sieges—Alfonso, Harassed by Troubles in His Army and at Home, Negotiates —Isabella Refuses His Terms—Isabella Raised Money with the Church Plate—How She Kept Her Promise—Her Illness at Tordesillas—She Defeats a Sally from Toro—Ferdinand at Zamora—Isabella's Help—The Siege of Zamora—The Great and Decisive Battle Near Toro—Isabella's Thanksgiving at Tordesillas—Ferdinand's Absence from Castile—Alfonso's Campaign Of 1477-79.

Great emergencies are necessary to show what genius can accomplish. The surprise, the consternation of everybody around her, in which even young Ferdinand shared to some extent, only gave the youthful queen inspiration and resolve. When Juana's announcement of queenship reached the sovereigns, they did not have at hand to exceed five hundred horse—a mere court escort. Which way should they look? "Go, Ferdinand," Isabella said, "hasten to Valladolid and raise levies from the northern provinces as fast as you can; and I will take another direction." He and she set out at once; and he soon succeeded in raising a considerable force of cavaliers and militia, but his army had little coherence or discipline. Some movement or rumor of it made the wary Alfonso draw back a little toward Portugal. He halted at Toro, where he had good cover in the shape of a fortified city. Meanwhile, Isabella with her small escort, moving in a northwest direction, pushed on obliquely toward him till she reached the town of Tordesillas, which she put into condition of defence, and caused to be garrisoned. Then she went on southward, drawing all loyal hearts toward her, till she reached the special domain of the treacherous Archbishop of Toledo, who had not yet taken the open field against his queen. He was in a small city, Alcala, in the neighborhood of his capital, Toledo, when she approached.

She sent messengers ahead to confer with him. He declined an interview, and escaped from her immediate presence with threats that he would again reduce her to the distaff from whence he had elevated her. She was greatly chagrined and disappointed, but she reaped abundant fruits from this long and arduous journey. Friends were strengthened in their devotion, the wavering were brought over, and town after town was fairly well fortified, and raiding parties along Alfonso's border sent to do him and his people irreparable mischief.

Before the end of that dreadful summer, by the unremitting labor of the young sovereigns and those who still adhered to their cause, an army fairly well equipped and supplied was gathered and led out to confront the old king at Toro. Don Ferdinand in person, always ambitious of generalship, took the command. Reckoning his infantry at 30,000, his cavalry at 8000, and cavaliers and irregular bands at about 4000, he estimated his host when assembled outside the walls of Toro at 42,000 men.

Besides this array, Ferdinand learned on his approach that the central stronghold—that is, the citadel of Toro—was still in the hands of his friends. Alfonso had now only half of Ferdinand's number of fighting men.

Sitting down before the walls of Toro, Ferdinand, after the war fashion of that day, invited his enemy to battle. It is said that the chivalrous old king could with difficulty be kept from either marching out and fighting, or from closing in with Ferdinand's offer to stake everything on the issue of single combat; but wiser counsels prevailed, and it was not done. Ferdinand had no siege-guns, and could not reduce the place, neither could he stay there long for want of supplies. His men, moreover, without discipline, could not be controlled. Suspicions of all sorts, quarrels, and insurrections peculiar always to the Spanish soldiery in their own country and outside of it, when there was poor discipline, forced a disastrous retreat; and, as has been the case in many other civil wars, the army melted away, and the men, especially the militia, scattered to their homes. Military writers blame Alfonso, first, for remaining so long idle at Arevalo; and, second, for not sallying forth and striking Ferdinand's forces when they were retiring from Toro in disorder. Doubtless he constantly hoped that all the Castilian people would finally resort to him and Juana, as in the American Rebellion General Lee hoped that the people of Maryland would flock to him during his northern march and on the approach of his army.

To ravage the country from Arevalo was not then his policy. At Toro the citadel now gave up and capitulated to Alfonso, and at the same time the Archbishop of Toledo, seeing such favorable symptoms in this direction, came with his quota of five hundred men. A masterly inactivity was just then Alfonso's policy, and probably, as he desired immediately to govern the people as his own, it was not, according to the outlook, an unwise plan.

Notwithstanding these unparalleled disasters, few of the friends of Isabella followed the lead of Toledo. In every new place from which the confederates tried to draw a contingent or provisions they were disappointed and persistently opposed. Nobody seemed ready to help the ally which specious promises had allured into the country. Ferdinand kept a small army at work besieging and recovering places like Burgos, with limited garrisons; and Isabella's more southern cavaliers rendered greater service by crossing the frontiers of Estremadura and Andalusia, and carrying into Portugal a sort of guerilla warfare, attended with plunder and devastation.

Alfonso, worried by the outcries of the Portuguese, that came from his army and from home, and vexed at the real want of loyal feeling for him and his betrothed in his present neighborhood, at last determined to offer to the young sovereigns terms of settlement. He would recognize Ferdinand and Isabella as king and queen, if Toro, Zamora, and all of Galicia were ceded to him, and if the sovereigns also would pay, as in later years France did to Germany at the end of their war, a stipulated sum of money. Even Ferdinand was ready to yield; but Isabella said with such a spirit of determination and emphasis, "Not an inch of our territory, not a stone of our fortresses!" that negotiations were at once broken off.

Once more Isabella and her friends put forth their energies. Money and men must be raised to clear the country. She would not yet tolerate the weakening methods of selling benefits to dukes and other aristocratic leaders, or of bartering away to towns, cities, and provinces privileges that her predecessors, soon after the emergency, had not been slow to modify or recall. As the distress was great, she wisely appealed to the love and confidence of her people, sentiments that were now on the increase. The result was a singular financial operation. Half the church-plate in Castile was surrendered into the royal treasury, under Isabella's promise to redeem the same in three years, at thirty millions of maravedis ($150,000). It is said that churchmen already had such implicit confidence in the piety and ability of the young queen, that they aided her by Scripture arguments in overcoming some scruples of con science that she herself had entertained against so touching the church property. It is certainly to Isabella's lasting honor that she did not fail, in time, to meet her promise in the punctual payment of the obligation.

After her unparalleled fatigues in her long and arduous journeys, the queen left the neighborhood of Toledo, May 28th, 1475, and went to Segovia for the purpose, it is said, of getting Cabrera to issue coin from the treasury for the immediate and pressing necessities of the war. This is the time that she left her daughter in Cabrera's hands as a pledge of repayment, or as a hostage in case of disaster to her cause. She then journeyed on through Medina to Tordesillas, where her strong foremost garrison was facing her rival's army at Toro. Here she became extremely ill. Her expected accouchement at the time she set out for Tordesillas and thence for the central and southern provinces of Castile gave great anxiety to her household friends. But who could bring back timid landholders and time-serving aristocrats to their true bearings like the queen? Who else could possibly interview the old Archbishop of Toledo, and save to the kingdom himself perhaps and his numerous followers? There was, in fact, no other who, with any hope of success, would attempt these feats. She accomplished wonders, as we have seen, but the physical effort and the mental strain were too much. A sickness of great severity naturally resulted, and brought her to the verge of the grave. Her confinement at this time was premature, and it was some weeks before she could leave her chamber or engage in any concerns of State, however pressing and important they might be. But this strong woman's recuperative power soon brought her to her husband's side, prepared for further counsel and for effective executive action.

About the time of her reappearance at court the King of Portugal, still in Toro, tried by a sally to send out some aid to his friends; but Isabella, whose thoughts seemed to be everywhere, had anticipated his designs, and so frustrated them. New levies were again made, and this time sent to the different drill-grounds. All loyal fortified places were supplied with garrisons, and their works repaired and strengthened. Towns filled with malcontents, for men became restless too often on the very account of the robberies and other crimes they had previously committed, were one after another reduced to obedience, so that very soon after the revenue became sufficient scarcely any of the people, except the heads of Juana's and Alfonso's confederacy, would render the insurgents any aid.

In fact, the invader with his army, though occupying a strong place in the heart of the country, was gradually being cut off from the necessary supplies, and reduced to uncomfortable straits. Isabella instinctively knew that there were more ways than one to make effective war against this ancient foe, and she ardently sought them out and followed them up sans pitie.

In December, 1475, Zamora, a town nearer to Portugal than Toro, became weary of Alfonso's rule. The loyal citizens outside the citadel, which a Portuguese garrison still held, begged for Isabella's troops. Ferdinand went thither at once, and arrayed as large a force as he could bring together against the citadel. This time he had with him between 25,000 and 30,000 men of all arms fairly well equipped, well drilled, and, better than all, in junior officers well commanded. The old admiral, always reliable, and the Duke of Alva were prominent among his subordinates. Alfonso, finding his communications cut off, sent with all speed to his son in Portugal to hasten reinforcements. Prince John with extraordinary promptness marched 10,000 soldiers, of whom but 2000 were horse, in a circuit, so as to give Zamora a wide berth, and came with them to Toro. The junction was made February 14th, 1476. It was a happy St. Valentine's day in old Alfonso's bivouac; but it is inconceivable how such a scanty accession could have raised even Alfonso's sanguine mind to such a pitch of bravado and over-confidence. Note his bragging letters to the French king, to his own subjects, to his allies of Spain, and also to the Pope of Rome: "Now will we crush the pretensions of Ferdinand and Isabella!" Having garrisoned Toro, he marched at once with all his effective troops, probably over 10,000 in number, and came to the vicinity of Zamora. His army drew up in battle order quite near that city; but for some reason—probably taking the advice of some cautious engineer—he revealed his lines at dawn, February 18th, to Ferdinand's astonished gaze on the opposite side of the river Douro.

Here were the contending armies in array, with only a river between them. Surely a great battle was now at last to be fought; but Alfonso's generalship was not of the best. Young Ferdinand was the abler warrior. Some things outside of Ferdinand's immediate camp will interest us. Isabella, always raising revenues, supplies, and troops, had gone up to Burgos. Hearing rumors of the situation of affairs near Zamora, and in order to help her lord in this emergency, she hastened to Tordesillas, and established herself there. She had gathered a number of squadrons of light cavalry, which, like the Uhlans of the Prussians or the Cossacks of Russia, were forever harassing an enemy or cutting off his wagons or pack-animals loaded with supplies. Isabella also, to inspirit the army at the front, sent word that she was exerting her best powers to forward all the troops that could be brought together; for she, as well as Ferdinand, fully felt that the crisis of their lives was near at hand. Ferdinand kept his army on the ground well in command. He managed by his long-range projectiles to inflict much injury upon the exposed camp of his foe, but on account of his own cover he received scarcely any damage in return. Alfonso did not now dare to cross over the Douro and risk an engagement, for he perceived that the tables of the Toro affair the year before had now been turned upon him.

Just then the announcement of large reinforcements to Ferdinand, who already outnumbered him, came to his attentive ears. He had hoped to throw in some help to the beleaguered citadel of Zamora, but instead he was himself daily in peril of being cut off forever from his most important stronghold at Toro. So the chivalrous old Alfonso, but two weeks after his boastful circular, in great mortification ordered a retreat. He commenced his backward march to Toro, March 1st, 1476. Ferdinand hastily repaired the broken bridge, which cost a few hours' delay, and then took up the pursuit. He overtook the Portuguese in a narrow defile near Toro. Without much hesitation he attacked them. It was a memorable battle. It is said that Alfonso's men fought hard; that the royal standard-bearer lost first his right and then his left arm, and after this he seized the sacred flag with his teeth. The Archbishop of Toledo, the commander of the right, was again in the carnage, and Prince John bore his part on the left of the old king. Three hours of fierce resistance were all the Portuguese could make. Ferdinand's left wing commander, the Duke of Alva, had at last turned their flank, thus changing a sudden disorder into an absolute rout. King Alfonso fled to Castro Nuno, several leagues from the field, where his son, more sullen, had also found a refuge. The place was soon filled with friends and foes. It was a Spanish massacre of the olden time which followed, and terrible to think of. Only the quickly coming darkness saved the utter annihilation of the scattered battalions. Many soldiers who escaped to the frontier were killed by the peasants, who sought in this way to take revenge for the privations and sufferings caused by this invasion. Don Ferdinand at this battle kept a cool head. As opportunity offered, he showed humanity. He gave paroles and safe conducts to some of the Portuguese prisoners, and clothing and even money to others, while he sent them as soon as possible to their own country. After the passion of the conflict is over, the kindness of a magnanimous captain is always recalled to his advantage. Two thousand of Juana's and Alfonso's followers fell on this dreadful field near Toro. Castile had that day a great triumph. Of course the citadel of Zamora and the strong town of Toro surrendered before many days. Quickly, almost on the wings of the wind, the news was brought back to the headquarters of the anxious young queen at Tordesillas.

Instantly on hearing the welcome tidings she caused a procession for thanksgiving to be formed, and she herself conducting it, "led the way barefooted to the Church of St. Paul in the Suburbs." This news caused the bitterest sorrow to poor little Juana, herself the daughter of a queen; but to Isabella it brought intense joy. It was to her the expression of the Divine will, and so her soul-rendered thanks to God. However we may interpret history, we cannot help feeling that His ways are far beyond our ken. Can His blessing to one innocent soul be at the same time a curse to any other equally pure? With a dim upward gaze we wait for eternity to balance the scales of justice.

The indomitable spirit of the Portuguese king, who after reaching his capital was looking pitifully upon his young and dependent betrothed, could not yet give up effort in her behalf. He would make no peace. He first hastened with a petition to King Louis XI. of France. That monarch received him with feasts and other marks of distinction, but played upon him the then discovered and fashionable diplomatic tricks which Alfonso too late unveiled. He then fled to some obscure resort and surrendered his kingdom to his enterprising son; but after a time, induced by faithful friends, he returned. His trusty son abdicated at once in the old king's favor. The picture of the kindly, unselfish relation of these two men is phenomenal in those times of intense selfishness, egotism, and ambition. Once more, in the fall of 1477, Alfonso, fired with passion, made another effort to break the growing power of Isabella.

When the final blows against Castile were attempted, Ferdinand again was away from the court. He had gone to look after enemies in the north and to aid his aged father in Aragon and in that troublesome border province of Navarre. France, Aragon, and Castile that very fall had made an arrangement by treaty stipulations which caused Louis of France to cease his alliance with Portugal. Imagine the chagrin and disappointment of King Alfonso, after being foiled in Estremadura, to receive the news of this new transaction!

The messages from her absent lord increased Isabella's conviction that her queenship was approved of Heaven, for her enemy was left by France to fight his battles alone. Another item of information about this time came to reassure her and strengthen her cause. The Sovereign Pontiff had reversed his decision permitting the old monarch and Juana to wed.

This campaign of the Portuguese king, commencing late in the fall of 1477 and continuing through the ensuing winter, spring, and summer of 1478, was a most remarkable military effort. He undertook to imitate Isabella's previous methods of raiding. In forays he sent from his own country numerous small expeditions into Andalusia and Estremadura.

His men-at-arms, like partisan commanders in all civil wars, would ravage the country, carry off animals and grain, and often destroy buildings and rob the people, till the fertile regions became almost depopulated and the villages and small towns deserted.

Promptly and fearlessly our young queen, like an experienced general, brought forward her best-drilled cavalry, and escorted by the most enterprising cavaliers of Castile, marched them into the provinces already overrun by the Portuguese, to meet fire and sword with fire and sword.