Isabella of Castile - O. O. Howard


"Many the chapters dark with fear and failing,

Or bright with hope of conquests yet to be;

There wrote we how the land was rent with wailing,

Blent with exultant sounds of jubilee.

"Round the red chronicles on every border,

Illuminations done by Mercy's hand

Show fair, amid fierce battling and disorder,

Her white tents gleaming up and down the land."


The Calm of Isabella's Nature—The Second Birth —Clearness of Mind — Without Smallness—Habits of Endurance—Sovereign's Responsibility—Her Courage and Moderation—Her Purity—The Sombre Side—She Favored "Holy Office"—She Contemned a Heretic—She Expelled The Jews—The Clouds of Bigotry and Superstition Environed the Queen—Her Genuine Nobility as a Woman Shone through the Clouds.

In almost every particular Isabella reaches our ideal of a queen. The calm of her nature, that quality which the ancients considered as characteristic of their gods, endued her with a majesty greater than that which royalty can confer. From mere extraneous splendor such a quality cannot come. The solitude of her youth, when the new heart, "the second birth," doubtless came, had been a soil from which abundant virtues had sprung; beginning early, she went through many tribulations, and in one case only it is recorded that her equanimity failed her. The clearness of her mental vision astonished her counsellors; no question arose that she could not seize upon and weigh in all its bearings. Her good sense, or natural wisdom, never was duped by the most brilliant gifts offered. Once she declined even the crown of Castile—and posterity is convinced that she did well then to do so. Anything mean was repugnant to this great soul. When she was advised to obtain money—most necessary money, by means often employed by her predecessors, yet contrary to her sense of justice, though Ferdinand would have gladly followed the advice, she frowned the expedient out of sight in a moment. Her constancy and endurance were wonderful. It is undoubtedly true that during the Moorish wars she did more work than her energetic husband, and that but for her the siege of Baza, and later that of Granada, would have been abandoned. Her understanding of the responsibilities of a sovereign was such as only the greatest of rulers have possessed. Her courage was under all conditions unflinching. History, as we have seen, records the illustrative circumstance that, when thinking her presence necessary, she appeared suddenly and almost alone among infuriated crowds, and settled the pending quarrel without fear or favor. Her moderation was that of a noble masculine nature; she desired victory and not vengeance. The purity of the court, which followed after the opportune death of King Henry, as soon as she controlled it, was the pride and perpetual delight of every Spanish heart. Never was there a time when a counsellor could smile censoriously at her opinion, never an occasion when a Spaniard doubted her word, and never an instance when a breath of scandal touched her fair fame.

But after this deserved tribute there is, unfortunately, to her history a sombre side; it is that of the undoubted bigotry which, apologists confess and say, she imbibed from the lessons of her mother and of her Church. There is probably in every man something that belongs to him, and something that belongs to his age or to the circumstances in which he was born. She allowed the Inquisition to be introduced into her kingdom, and favored it. And she, like the Russian Czar to-day, countenanced, if she did not actively engage in, the expulsion of the Jews. The black pall of these two wrongs yet darkens all Spain. How could. that large mind, ordinarily so clear, have been thus clouded? Here was the fallacious bias. She had been taught from childhood that whosoever did not believe in that branch of Christ's Church which men name the great hierarchy of Rome was a heretic. She believed that a heretic was given over to the Evil One; and it appeared a bounden duty to hate the Evil One. A heretic to her was hardly a human being; and such feelings as love, friendship, and pity could not apply to him; or rather, that if applied to him, unless he recanted, they were unnatural feelings—they were crimes. When Jerome of Prague was burned by the council of Constance he saw a poor old woman approach the stake with an armful of wood to add to the heap. "Sancta simplicitas" (holy simplicity), said the martyr with his dying smile.

And we also may say, in speaking of Isabella's abnormal bigotry concerning heresy, as we would say of the slayers of the Salem witches, "Sancta simplicitas." In their times, strange as it may now seem, Washington and Taylor could hold slaves; but, thanks be to God! in our times Lincoln and Grant could free them. In the fifteenth century Isabella, for the sake of an external Church unity, could allow and favor the holy office, the terrible Inquisition; but again, thanks be to God! an advanced understanding of the teachings of Jesus gives to the kindred soul of a Castelar a more appropriate idea of what is best for the spread of true religion and what is needful for the advancement of the Spanish people.

May a complete deliverance from the thraldom of such bigotry and superstition, whose roots still have some life, soon be consummated in beautiful Spain.

As Abraham Lincoln once said concerning the criticisms upon one of his generals after Gettysburg: "While we are deeply grateful for what was done, let us not be hypercritical as to the rest!"

No woman with Isabella's great soul would to-day hate any man whom God loves and for whom Christ died.

There was that in her last days, as we have been able to record them, which lifts Isabella to the higher plane of the Christian living and teaching. Her behavior toward her husband, overlooking his faults, forgiving him for the wrongs which so often he had done her, meanwhile always guarding his reputation, so as to preserve for him the esteem of the court and of his children, is certainly remarkable. Her patience with poor Juana, and all her dealings with that erratic child, when herself ill and suffering, indicated a character well trained by affliction and adversity. Her steady resistance to the forces of nature, under sorrow after sorrow, when gloom came over her like a heavy pall, continued marvellously to the very end. Her will and testament show her ideas of royalty, which were at variance with the theories of a government by the people; but there was in the document respect for the rights of the people, patriotic devotion, and a strong sense of justice to the lowliest of her subjects. Certainly Isabella in those last solemn hours gave evidences of purity of heart, modesty of deportment, and love toward God and man.

History has justly ranked her among its heroes and heroines as a fearless ruler and a true woman.

May the great souls of to-day, through whom our Lord is to rule, enlighten, and bless the world, study the life and character of Isabella of Castile, and avoid her errors of theory and judgment, which are now so evident, and which in the main belonged to her age and environment; and may they imitate the abounding virtues which greatly prevailed in all her eventful career.

We conclude with a wish—a hope—that this phenomenal Columbian period, four hundred years after America's discovery, may bring a renewal of grateful recognition to the generous and glorious woman who gave success to the Genoese prophet, and thus brought a New World to mankind.