Isabella of Castile - O. O. Howard

Court of the Sovereigns

"Thy form benign, O Goddess, wear;

Thy milder influence impart,

Thy philosophic train be there

To soften, not to wound, my heart.

The generous spark extinct revive;

Teach me to love and to forgive;

Exact my own defects to scan,

What others are to feel, and know myself a man."


The Year 1480—How Isabella Held the Reins of Control—How She Dealt with Two Young Lords—An Instance of Justice —The Riot of Segovia—Independence of Character—An Account of the Court of the Sovereigns.

It was not long before Ferdinand's presence in Aragon (during 1480) was again demanded. Whether he were present or absent, according to the marriage contract in matters pertaining to Castile and Leon, Isabella had evidently held the reins of control very much in her own hands. A few instances of record which follow show how, as at Seville, she decided matters at once, and sometimes acted without the least consultation.

Two young men, sons of noble families, one Don Fadrique, a cousin of Ferdinand, and the other, Don Ramiro Nunez, had a petty quarrel concerning a young lady, Dona Maria Manuel. It came to notice in the queen's rooms, where it went so far as to an exchange of high words and taunting insults. As soon as Isabella knew of this occurrence she put both offenders under arrest, and ordered them to keep to their own quarters till the matter should be investigated. Ramiro obeyed the arrest, but Fadrique, trusting to his rank, being a son of the admiral and own cousin of the king, the very next day left his apartments without permission. Isabella, hearing of this daring breech of the discipline of the court, at once released Ramiro from his confinement, and gave him a formal "safeguard." The violent youth, Fadrique, as soon as he was informed that Ramiro was at large, sent three of his followers in masque against him. They surprised the young man in a public square of Medina, and sadly beat him.

Just as soon as the queen was made aware of this additional outrage and second insult to her authority, she called for her palfrey, and set off at once to the admiral's castle at Simancas. Her old friend, the admiral, met her at his gates, and told her Fadrique was not there; but she took possession of this castle and also of another, that of Rio Seco, using her cavaliers, who had mounted in haste and followed the incensed queen. It was a very stormy day. The wetting rain, the journey of twenty-five miles to Simancas and back to Medina, and the great vexation of her spirit made Isabella quite ill, causing her, in fact, to take to her bed; but she declared that she was ill from the young lord's misconduct, saying, "This body is sore with the blows given by Don Fadrique to my safe-conduct."

Of course the admiral caused the young man to submit to punishment, but pleaded his extreme youth—only nineteen years. He, however, could obtain no mitigation. Fadrique first suffered a considerable period of solitary confinement at Arevalo, and then was banished to Sicily, where he was made to remain several years. Ramiro, full of revenge, now began to stir up a family feud, planning a bold attack on the admiral himself, which fortunately was parried by the admiral's own men. Again the queen intervened. Neither this young lord nor any other should thus attempt to avenge himself in Castile. His estates were taken from him, and he went to Portugal. It was some eight years, in his case, before he was suffered to return and to resume his possessions. Had the king been in Medina, she doubtless would have called upon him to execute the laws, but it is evident that she had a strong will of her own, and would brook no insult to her royal authority, not even from those highest in rank and nearest of kin.

An anecdote of Isabella's administration of justice about this time exhibits another phase of character, which belongs to the honest and impartial ruler. During 1480, while she was holding her court tribunals at Medina, a rich man, De Lugo by name, had secured to himself additional property by means of a false deed. As a matter of precaution De Lugo had murdered the notary who aided him in the forgery. There was no witness to the deed except a servant, whom the murderer trusted. The widow of the deceased, however, half suspecting the crime, brought the matter to Isabella. A thorough search was instituted and the body was at last found on the rich man's premises. Confronted with his horrid crime, the wretch made a full confession. He knew how eagerly the queen desired to carry on a war which was already dawning upon her vision—a war against the Moors; so he offered her a large and tempting sum of money to be used in its prosecution, provided his life should be spared. Many prominent advisers urged her to make this bargain. "Did not this great and desirable object justify the means?" Isabella, with instant decision, said, "No! Justice must take its course. "When the law not only caused the man's death, but accomplished the confiscation of his estate and put it at her disposal, she, in her review of the proceedings of the court, gave back the estate to the innocent families interested.

Another case in point. The well-known story of Isabella's personal efforts and success in suppressing a riot at Segovia shows both her courage and her practical wisdom at a very early period of her administration. It was when the people, deceived and stirred up by schemers among the dissatisfied nobles, rose in a body against their governor, Cabrera, the Marquis of Moya. The governor himself was absent; but the leaders, seizing parts of the citadel, imprisoned his deputy and Isabella's little daughter, the Princess Isabel, within the defences; and matters were indeed in a bad condition at the very heart of Castile.

The queen, then in a neighboring city with a few members of her court and a small escort, hastened to Segovia. A committee of the turbulent multitude stopped her outside the city limits, and entreated her to leave behind certain unpopular members of her party there en route, particularizing the Duchess of Moya and Count Benavente. Isabella replied without hesitation, "I am Queen of Castile; the city of Segovia is mine, moreover, by right of inheritance; and I am not used to receive conditions from rebellious subjects." On she went into the city, and reached the citadel.

The cry of the angry multitudes might well have made her tremble and seek shelter. Rioters were heard to say, "Death to the governor!" "Assail the castle!"

Her friends, in terror, begged her to shut, barricade, and defend the gates; but Isabella did just the contrary. She ordered the gates thrown open. The people then thronged the avenues and approaches to the alcazar. She went boldly to the open court, and facing the leaders, asked of them the cause of all that tumult. "Tell me what are your grievances, and I will do all in my power to redress them, for I am sure that what is for your interest must be also for mine, and for that of the whole city." The rioters met the unexpected in this calm and fearless woman. They answered, "All we desire is the removal of Cabrera from the government of the city."

"He is deposed already," rejoined Isabella, "and you have my authority to remove such of his officers as are still in the castle, which I shall entrust to one of my own servants on whom I can rely."

A sudden revulsion followed, when the late angry men now shouted, "Long live the queen!"

The next step was to examine carefully into the grounds of complaint, and finding that they had proceeded from the slanders of enemies of rank, the queen fearlessly so reported to the leading spirits, and restored the acquitted Cabrera to his office. Prescott, after relating this incident, justly remarks: "Thus, by a happy presence of mind, an affair which threatened at its outset disastrous consequences was settled without bloodshed or compromise of royal dignity."

The preceding incidents certainly indicate a strong character. Isabella held tenaciously to royalty. To her mind, the rights of kings were real and sacred; so she manifested her faith in the sovereignty of her administration as Queen of Castile and Leon. She was doubtless easily offended by the least want of respect shown her by any one of her lofty friends, and she had the nerve to assert herself and maintain the dignity of her office. She had a strong and abiding sense of justice. In some few instances, however, where she could not rise altogether above the bigotry and superstition of her environments, she is known to have departed from right-doing; still her inmost soul loved justice and inclined to mercy.

It is refreshing to meet so courageous a woman. She is not afraid of timid or criminal deputations. She can meet and stop mob violence and convert rudeness and riot into immediate friendly support.

Frequently during Isabella's reign the Court of the Sovereigns passed from Medina del Campo to its favorite southern point of sojourn—that is, to the charming city of Seville. Pausing for a few moments in the chronological order of this story, we will attempt a brief picture, such as was often there exhibited, of this "Court of the Sovereigns." Little by little the personnel of Isabella's court, while remaining pure and of good repute as she desired, had increased in its numbers, and all that pertained to it had assumed the grandeur that her ideas of sovereignty demanded. An elite society of envoys, ambassadors, and their families clustered around her own officials and friends. Here took place the formal receptions, fetes, and solemnities usual in all public life. The preceding kings of Castile had drawn around them, the customary dignitaries, domestics, and favorites, with followings more or less numerous. But the coming of a woman to the throne enhanced the importance of the feminine element, which, taking a complexion after the color of Isabella's tastes and character, soon made altogether a new community, in every part of which her potent influence was felt.

There were several daughters of the nobles who were almost brought up in the palace with her children. Jealous supervision was uniformly exercised till they became of age, and the queen gave them dowries when she approved their marriage. As arranged, there were substantially several courts united. The court of the young Prince John, for example, was indeed a copy, on a smaller scale, of that of his parents.

Masters and servants made up a world by themselves. This world had its peculiar constitution—i.e., its organization, its rules of government, its judicial features. Wherever the sovereigns halted and remained for any considerable time, their presence in a community changed the ordinary methods of administration, both executive and judicial; "court alcaldes" were substituted for city magistrates. They took cognizance of such crimes and torts as were committed within the court groups, and the jurisdiction was usually temporarily limited to a fifteen-mile radius. In fact, the city and its suburbs where the court resided became during its sojourn the royal domain.

The court authority was declared by a visible standard or symbol. It had a police of its own, and was provided with whatever machinery might be essential to its civil, religious, or material life.

As was natural, after a few removals it became a sort of travelling city, whose inhabitants, as far as possible, had been selected from the best of the different classes of society.

This city was at last so complete that it did not have to borrow soldier, priest, or magistrate from without. There was the finished arrangement for Divine worship—the confessors for each sovereign; the almoner to distribute royal charities; the chaplain for the chapel service, and a sacristan, with his assistant, guarding the keys of the sacred chests, where the holy vestments and sacred relics were kept; then there was a master for the music choir of children to use their young voices in the hymns; an orchestra for the chant, and men with stringed and other instruments for religious edification. The children of Isabella. themselves loved to participate in the music. A French writer remarks: "While the music was not magnificent, the sacred services were sufficient to satisfy the most exacting devotion."

The royal household had many officials under the senior major-domo. This high personage himself supervised the expenses and ordered all payments by the paymaster. A comptroller united with him in auditing accounts of purchases. His "trenchants" cut up the viands, the physician of his Highness tasted all the meats, and the cup-bearer had similar functions. There was a master of the kitchen. In the prince's house were four subordinates under the master, but he never abandoned the keys of the kitchen. Two porters guarded the kitchen entrance. There were also chamberlains who had charge of the prince's bed-chamber; there were layers of the tables and custodians of the plate, which included all the silverware, etc. At the bottom of the list of employees were the sweepers, who often had boy assistants. These details, so carefully recorded in annals of the period, give us the idea of a wealthy establishment, provided with a great number of servants, but an establishment where order prevails, every official being required to perform some task or carry out the duties of his calling. The grand chamberlain held near the king the same rank as the major-domo in the palace. He became an intimate companion. In the morning he gave a shirt to the king, and presented the silver basin for ablution. At the little court of Don Juan, when the chamberlain had finished like work, he then sent in the shoe servant and the barber. "The attending barber," probably here at Seville, "was Guttiere de Lunar, a good man and a fine talker. He delighted the prince with farcical stories, and was without malice, never speaking ill of anybody." Twenty-four Espinosa guardsmen watched at night over the king. They were uniformly recruited from the noble families of the city of Espinosa. Twenty-four more guarded the son. Always at nightfall they came to the palace and virtually took possession. Twelve at a time were on duty. Some slept at the entrance to the royal chamber, which was never locked, except by the express order of the sovereign. The others made the rounds of the halls and corridors, the lance in poise, the sword by the side, keeping themselves assured that there was nothing to disturb the peace. Whoever entered the palace after the gates had been closed and attempted forcibly to pass this patrol was in danger of his life. At sun-rising these Espinosa guards retired, giving place to the chamberlains and employees before named.

At the beginning of Isabella's reign there was no such guard. The continos, so called, were a local police, but did not, like the regular guard, undertake to escort the sovereigns from place to place and make a garrison wherever they halted or sojourned. After the famous attempts upon the lives of the sovereigns they even armed their servants, such as the hostlers and equerries. At last the court was arranged and protected like a citadel, and was furnished with every means to this end. This extra guarding, including escort troops and the increasing establishment, brought in a multitude of officers, high and low, medical men and attendants, tradesmen, butchers, pastrymen, armorers, furbishers, builders, saddlers, farriers, clothiers, and even fishermen and water-bearers.

When the sovereigns in their best days put themselves in march, their going forth appeared like the migration of an Eastern tribe, where there were innumerable tents. The old nomadic Eastern princes, it will be remembered, pitched their pavilions and tents and decorated them amid the drummings of their followers, the noisy outcries of the multitude, and the neighings of their steeds. All the canvas came down the next day, leaving no trace except a vast trodden flat, muddy streams, and some camp debris. It became so here; for, properly speaking, there was as yet no capital to this kingdom. Some cities, like Segovia, Medina del Campo, and Seville, where the court in 1490 found itself, were simply favorite places of sojourn.

The several "alcazars" were usually large chateaux, often with walls around them. These castle-like structures symbolized the power of the ruler or some grandee. They grew up in the numerous internecine wars. Now the sovereigns made use of them, encamping their court-city near at hand. Here were held the court festivals, with their pomp and rich ceremonials, with their processions, including ladies. Isabella loved these solemn exhibitions, in which royalty was strengthened by a splendid environment superior to that of any noble lord's undertaking. Much lay in the luxury and richness of dress. She herself often appeared in velvet robes, adorned a with her jewels and precious stones—ornamentation which at times was more resplendent than beautiful. As a woman and a queen, magnificence of toilet, which added brilliancy and freshness, a sort of royal completeness to her natural beauty, gave her no little pleasure.

Her favorite confessor, Talavera, never ceased to speak against this "vanity." At one time he reproached her severely for an outlay incurred in Barcelona, for the sumptuous manner in which, when receiving the envoys of Charles VIII , she clothed her attendants and ladies of the court, and even for the expensive dresses that she herself wore during the diplomatic solemnities and festivities. He complained, too, that she led in the dance. All this, he said, had a corrupting tendency at home, and gave the ambassadors a false idea of Castilian manners, which always had demanded gravity of deportment.

These reproaches were at the confessional. The pious queen made a gentle apology, saying: "Somebody has exaggerated the part I bore, for it did not occur to me to dance. There were no new toilets, no new dresses for my ladies; only one new silk dress, costing three marcs-d'or, the most economic possible—that was the extent of my 'fete de fetes'!"  The priest was surely too exacting!