Isabella of Castile - O. O. Howard

Sickness and Death

Tomb of Isabella and Ferdinand


"Our very hopes belied our fears,

Our fears our hopes belied;

We thought her dying when she slept,

And sleeping when she died.

"For when the morn came, dim and sad,

And chill with early showers,

Her quiet eyelids closed—she had

Another morn than ours."


Isabella's Sorrow—Some Christian Resignation—Despondent View of Her Work—Past Energy and Life Power Contrasted by Isabella with Present Weakness—News from Juana Brought on a Fever—How She Revived Her Forces—Her Attention to Business—Her Will and Testament—It Recognizes Certain Rights of the People —Isabella's Death, November 26, 1504, at Medina Del Campo—The Solemn Funeral March to Granada—The Entombment.

From 1474-1504, during thirty years, Isabella was a ruler indeed. Her last thoughts concerned the welfare of her people. Never during this administration of the affairs of Castile and Leon had she deemed herself unequal to undertake any task that seemed to her mind to involve the best interests and honor of the nation. And now, in the last years, crushed, as we have seen, with sickness and family afflictions, she still retained the will and energy to think and plan for her kingdom. Seven years prior to this (1504) she had buried her cherished hopes for the monarchy and for her posterity in the grave of her only son, Don Juan. She had followed him to the grave while her grief for the loss of her much-loved mother was still fresh. One short year after the loss of Don Juan, her daughter Isabel, who had inherited many of her mother's most attractive traits of character, had died at child birth. Miguel, the babe, no less beloved on account of his weakly condition, had been left to the grandmother, and brought to her heart for a short space the comfort of his sweet child life; then he too was taken. The queen under all these afflictions gave clear evidence of pronounced Christian character. She ever manifested "an admirable and touching composure." Yet there was evidence of what we call a breaking heart. In spite of every effort, like the gradual darkening of the sky after sun-down on a cloudy evening, a gloom set in which increased as the days and months came and went. Every new calamity, public as well as private, shook her now over-sensitive soul and added to her forebodings of evil. It was not simply the mother-love that had been smitten and disappointed, but now this blow after blow had made it evident that her great labor for a united, happy, and extended sovereignty, carried on for thirty years with care, persistency, and seemingly wise methods, had left that sovereignty only hanging by a thread. Humanly speaking, all that her devoted life had built up would be demolished by her death. For was not the heir-apparent of Castile and Leon her daughter, Juana, whom the people already denominated "the mad"? And she was the wife of the unpromising Philip, the archduke. The actual government would then fall into the hands of this man, a selfish, careless foreigner—a government that she had long administered with a firm but gentle grasp of authority, and always with a view to the weal of the Spanish people.

There was bitterness even in the retrospect and dark forebodings of the future, which just then foreshadowed ignominy and overthrow. It was under this load of troubles, seen and feared, that Isabella's spirit, hitherto sanguine and courageous, gave way. She had not yet fully discovered that strongest faith which can rest in the fact that "man's extremity is God's opportunity."

She had once thought herself to be strong. In her earlier womanhood her health seemed perfect. Perhaps it had been injured by her indefatigable efforts both in peace and war. During those first years of public life she went rapidly from place to place, and always on horseback. Her horses had to be the best to be found and full of speed. She would appear in person, often unexpectedly, upon the scene, to raise money, collect supplies, encourage dispirited soldiers, or perform any mission which necessity or duty demanded. She would ride all day and dictate letters and instructions to her secretaries at night. This all came to her memory; but she was a weak woman now, and perhaps these very faithful and prolonged labors had brought on the weakness and caused the melancholy which was so hard to bear. It was in some such state of mind and body that more evil tidings from the erratic Juana found her. Juana had performed some new freak, to which such minds as hers, subject to intermittent attacks, are liable. This news, with her husband's temporary illness, which appeared serious, threw Isabella at once into a violent fever. There was no recuperative energy left in her system to resist the ravages of the disease, and she was evidently fast sinking. Numerous old and tried friends who surrounded her bedside saw plainly that this was the last sickness of their noble mistress. As soon as the news was spread abroad among the people by that hopeless phrase, "The queen is dying," the manifestations of grief were universal and deep—like those of grown-up children weeping for a worthy and much-beloved mother. They had, as it were, bound about her forehead the words, "Purity, peace, justice, and honor."

The people, priests and laymen, went in procession to their houses of worship, and fervent prayers ascended in her behalf. It is a good time, amid such lamentations and supplications, for a great soul, never without its stains or scars of sin and error till the blood-cleansing has fully come, to pass away. Yet, according to Pietro Martire, a worthy priest to whom she gave her confidence, she lived her life to its close. Loathing food and consumed by fever, which caused her an unquenchable thirst, she at last rose above all these sufferings, and gave her attention, as usual, to her family and her reign—to important counsels for the present and to provisions for the future. She still heard, and decided difficult matters at home and abroad. One stranger who came to her said, that from her sick-bed she ruled the world; and indeed, if not that, her heroism up to the last was marvellous.

Her will doubtless had been long considered, and now was dictated from a memory that had not faded. According to it, Juana was to be proclaimed queen proprietor, and Philip to sustain her as Ferdinand had sustained herself in the government of Castile. She enjoined them to keep to the laws of the land, and respect the customs of the people; not to introduce foreigners to office, and to look upon their father (Ferdinand) as the wisest counsellor. In the absence or incapacity of Juana—so much to be dreaded—Ferdinand would be the regent for the young prince, Don Carlos, Juana's eldest son, administering affairs during his minority.

Notwithstanding Ferdinand's derelictions—which Isabella well knew—she extolled his wisdom, his virtues, his achievements, and then settled upon him half the revenue from the New World and 10,000,000 maravedes (about $30,000) from other sources. She warned her successors never to alienate any of the public domain. Gibraltar was specifically included in this restriction.

Isabella's testament provided for numerous and characteristic gifts, such as endowments for poor maidens, ransoms for Christian captives then retained by the Moslems in Africa, and donations to those who were dear to her heart, especially to that friend of her youth, the Marchioness of Moya, whom she commended to hqr successor in most flattering terms. The payment of all debts and the reduction of household expenses were ordered in the document. A single item of this will is best given in its own terms, which evinced her devotion to her husband: "Beseech the king, my lord, that he will accept all my jewels, or such as he shall select, so that the sight of these may remind him of the singular love I bore him while living, and that I am waiting for him in a better world, by which remembrance he may be encouraged to live the more justly and holily in this."

There were also essential provisions for the manner in which she wished to be buried. Her body must be carried to Granada. No vain pomp and ceremony should be at the funeral. The money thus saved was to kind distributed to the poor. The xerga, a kind of coarse frieze of which the Castilians had made mourning garments, was interdicted. It is said that this showy material was never used again in the kingdom. After the will and testament had been disposed of, the constant review of important matters by her restless mind at last caused a codicil to be prepared and attached. This was finished but three days before the queen's death.

In the codicil she directed the preparation of a new digest of the statutes; for she had often been annoyed and perplexed by the uncertainty and contradictions of the pragmaticas—i.e.  the laws and royal orders as recorded.

She here recommended, as before mentioned, her subjects (the native Indians) of her western domain to the justice and charity of her successors. The principal income of the crown came through the alcavalas. A commission must examine whether this revenue had been given with the free consent of the people and in perpetuity. If it had been so given, then it was the wish of the queen that it should be so levied as to cause as little oppression as possible. Should this source of revenue be found to be illegal, then the Cortes should provide for the public expenses as they deemed fitting. Then Isabella, as testatrix, remarked incidentally and with emphasis that these fiscal dispositions should derive their validity from the good pleasure of the subjects of the realm.

The American Declaration of Independence, over two centuries later, did not more clearly recognize these rights of the governed. Thus Isabella's life slowly spent itself in purposes and plans involving kind feeling and the rights of humanity. None of her children were there at the Castle de la Mota; but some of her best friends stood by her bedside ready to meet every wish and minister to every necessity. Once she said: "Do not pray for my recovery; it is in vain. Pray for the salvation of my soul." Her delicacy and modesty, even up to the hour in which she received the extreme unction, were afterward spoken of by her kind friends, and incidents given which called these qualities to memory.

She expired November 26th, 1504, in the fifty-fourth year of her age, thus closing a reign of thirty years.

The next day (November 27th) following the death of the queen the funeral procession, with her remains, set out upon its sad journey. Such a storm had broken upon the land that the superstitious of the Castilians always connected it mysteriously with her departure from the earth. The cavalcade was composed of the nobility and high functionaries of the Church who were at the time in and near Medina del Campo. In the midst of floods and tempests they kept on their solemn march southward without a sunbeam to brighten them—through Arevalo, Toledo, and Jaen to Granada. Her wish was respected. No pomp, no display—nothing beyond the simplest ceremonial was observed after the arrival. She was at first laid away in an appropriate receptacle at the Alhambra. There she remained till years afterward, when she was removed and placed, as she had requested, beside the remains of her husband in the cathedral of Granada.