Isabella of Castile - O. O. Howard

Close of the Portuguese War

"The quality of mercy is not strained;

It droppeth, as the gentle rain from Heaven,

Upon the place beneath; it is twice blessed;

It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.

'Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown;

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty,

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

It is an attribute to God Himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God's,

When mercy seasons justice."


Cathedral at Toledo


A Slight Review—Isabella Closing the Portuguese War (1477–79)—Toro Again, and Donna Maria Sarmiento—Visit to Madrid—The Sovereigns Part Company—General Count de Feria—After-Plans for Clearing the Frontier—Isabella's Court —Journeys to Seville—How Justice Was Administered — The Amnesty — Heretics are Excepted from the General Pardon —The Extent of Confiscations — The Archbishop of Toledo Punished — The Birth of Isabella's Second Child, Prince Juan—The Baptism and the Thanksgiving, with Grand Ceremonies.

The surrender of the citadel of Toro has already been mentioned. To present, however, a little of the work of the busy queen during this time of pacification—a work by no means completed when the aged Alfonso crossed the border and went with Juana to his own capital—let us go back and follow her steps awhile a little more in detail. She had reached Segovia when a message was brought to her from the citizens of Toro, begging for her presence as soon as she could make the journey. It was a long and wearisome ride, but she went at once. The submission of the town was made upon her arrival. Very soon Don Ferdinand joined her there. The citadel had been stoutly maintained and defended by a woman, Doha Maria Sarmiento, widow of Juan d'Ulloa, who had something of the force and energy of Joan of Arc. Her continued challenge and persistent opposition to the queen's forces was doubtless intended to excite admiration in the bosom of Isabella, and so to obtain from her terms apt to be given to a valiant foe; and indeed she succeeded in procuring an honorable capitulation. Next the young sovereigns went together to Ocana, Toledo, and thence to the city of Madrid, a city now large and thriving, with 500,000 people, but at the time of this visit very small and surrounded by forests—in fact, but a tributary outpost of Toledo. It was here they heard of the renewed conflicts along the Portuguese border, and of the wasteful raids into the territories of Badajos and Ciudad Rodrigo. The general who was despatched thither in advance of the queen to make prompt resistance was Count de Feria. We have already seen how Isabella and Ferdinand had here separated, he going toward Aragon to bring walled towns to terms and on other imperative business, while she, in spite of all protestations of her friends, went straight to Estremadura. Her husband en route through the upper provinces conquered many places of great military strength, while his wife, from the fall of 1477 till the spring of 1479, assumed the task of driving out the Portuguese, of making a permanent treaty, and putting the relations of the two adjoining kingdoms on the firm basis of peace and close alliance. Meanwhile, by the energy of her loyal General, Feria, and his hardy troops, she succeeded in reducing Badajos and numerous other fortresses. The garrisons were generally replaced by new and trusted men, and the formal submission of the populace openly received and pledged. But without much delay here in her first visit, during the winter of 1477-78, Isabella and her little court proceeded fearlessly through all the turmoil in Estremadura to the already famous city of Seville, replete from that time till to-day with Roman, Moorish, and Spanish constructions, and with public exhibitions which are as unique as the carnivals of Southern Italy. Pedro the Cruel had left an Alcazar or royal residence, where the gentle Maria de Padilla exerted the only magic influence that could reach and subdue his savage nature. Here Isabella set up her court. Immediately we behold the brave young woman playing a new part.

She set apart one day in each week to hear such grievances or charges as the people desired to make. Like Nehemiah and Ezra of old, she had evidently been reading the books of the old law of her realm, and so revived a custom which for several reigns had not been in vogue. Every Friday the queen entered her hall of justice, probably that which is usually called the Hall of Ambassadors, and took her chair of state. It is said that this veritable throne was a seat covered with gold and placed upon a raised platform at the farthest end of the hall. On each side (according to Mariana) were the members of her privy council, gentlemen, prelates, and lawyers. Arranged in front were the secretaries or chosen readers of documents coming from those who sought redress. Back of these readers were placed the alcaldes, judges, constables, and other functionaries. Cases coming before this curious court were generally disposed of without delay. Where some light had to be thrown upon a given matter before decision could be made, the case was handed to some member of the council, with instructions to investigate and "report, as a rule, within three days." Except Fridays and Sundays, the queen's officials themselves gave audience to all petitioners. There was, indeed, no laxity on the part of those ministers of the court who were with her. Hosts of cases were heard and disposed of within two months. Vast amounts of property taken wrongfully from others by the powerful and unscrupulous, through this process went back to the lawful proprietors. Many convicted of capital offences were executed, and even the high rank of the criminals was not sufficient to keep them from trial, condemnation, and death.

The character of this ancient city can be imagined when we read this extraordinary historic statement: "Upward of 8000 persons, whose consciences, at the sight of these summary proceedings, convicted them of guilt, fled from Seville!" The city officials and the priests became alarmed at this depletion. They recalled to Isabella some of the unusual causes of crime: for example, the civil war, the feuds between great houses and the quarrels among their followers, and other innumerable private affairs in which men felt obliged to take justice into their own hands, somewhat as we have known excited men, in the practice of lynch law in unsettled communities in these later times, to violate all law. These leaders repeatedly came to the queen and urged more leniency. They declared that, should such strict inquiry be long made, no family could pass unscathed, at least in some of its members. Isabella began to see the need of more gentleness and more forgivingness in dealing with communities. She soon had a proclamation of pardon and amnesty carefully drawn and promulgated. Yet she insisted upon the virtue of restitution; all property taken by theft, by force, or in any way illegally acquired must be returned to its rightful owner. Yet just here this wonderful woman betrayed a perversion of mind that had not appeared before; and the sight of it fills the hearts of her modern admirers with sorrow. It is, that she made this exception to her rule of merciful and honest dealing: "No one need restore anything which has been taken from a heretic." It was a decree that could hardly have been, a natural expression of her soul. It was doubtless a graft from the bigotry and superstition around her, from which even this noble queen could not keep her spirit free. That little scion has borne a fruitage in Spain which even to-day shames the Roman Church, in view of the horrid cruelties and tortures inflicted upon innocent men and women; in view of the diabolical crimes committed by the Holy Office which cannot be palliated or denied. Yet we later Christians love to think that Isabella was herself rather a victim than an intentional promoter of any crime.

The common view of historians, if we except Anita George and perhaps Prescott, is that the course of Isabella touching "heretics" was not inconsistent with her sense of justice; for she was habitually rigid in judgment and unsparing in the execution of law against all crimes, such as murder, robbery, arson, and the like; and that she had been taught from infancy that what Rome called "heresy" was a crime, and, worst of all, a crime against the Church and the State. Her own mother, her convent-teachers (all that she ever had), and her several father-confessors, to whom she submitted in sacred things with little or no question, had steadily instilled into her mind this wicked dogma. At any rate, this bigotry, as we shall further see, was the one vulnerable point in her armor. The proclamation of amnesty was well timed. It stopped, above all, the continuous stampede from Andalusia into Portugal. One more instance of pacification, which afterward redounded greatly to the advantage of Spain, is given as belonging to this visit of the queen to the southern provinces. A dreadful feud had for a long time existed between the houses of Guzman and Ponce de Leon. Frequently had these persistent foes and their satellites met in the streets of this historic city and filled them with riots and bathed them in blood. As pacificator the much-loved queen succeeded in bringing together the champion chiefs and in establishing a permanent peace. There is, however, later in the story of Isabella another version of this important reconciliation.

A remarkable conviction must have dawned upon Isabella's mind after the defeat of Juana's conspiring friends. She saw plainly that the powerful barons or nobles who had extensive estates and numerous followers, and who desired greatly to have over them a weak rather than a powerful sovereign, in order that they might pursue their own unruly ways, had indeed formed and pushed the conspiracy against her. She then quickly, as we have said, became convinced that the good of the whole realm would result from crippling the power of these barons or nobles. One aristocrat after another came to offer his allegiance. She fearlessly conditioned his pardon at the price of a considerable portion of his possessions. Among the last to return and seek Isabella's pardon was the old Archbishop of Toledo. It is said that even the king, her husband, pleaded in vain with Isabella for him. At length she gave him a pardon, but not till she had punished him with great severity. A writer aptly says: "Then but a vestige remained of the colossal estate by the aid of which he had elevated her to the throne, and by the revenue of which he came so near removing her forever from that elevation."

An English historian further remarks: "The power thus lost by the high barons went to increase and consolidate that of the crown, and the Commons (that is, the Cortes), gratified at the immediate comfort that accrued to them from the new system, willingly lent their co-operation to sustain it."

Early in June, 1478, King Ferdinand, leaving his field-work of besieging Castro-Nuno, hurried south to join his wife upon receiving an affecting message from her. She was again to be ill. It was seven years since the birth of their first child. The last day of June, her husband being present, the next child appeared upon the scene. These parents, manifesting much joy, which on this occasion the nation shared, named the little prince Don Juan.

Nine days thereafter (July 9th, 1478), with a brilliant procession and ceremonial after the Roman Catholic forms, the child was taken to the church Santa Maria, and baptized by Don Pedro de Mendoza, the Cardinal of Spain. Mendoza was at the time also Archbishop of Seville. On the street, in the church, and returning there was a fine spectacular show which made joyous the people of the city. It was composed, in part, of the church officials, the city fathers in black, bearing on poles a large canopy over the heads of the nurse and child, who were mounted on a palfrey; several noblemen, cavaliers carrying the plate, the offerings, and the appropriate presents; the godmother, a rich duchess, riding on a pillion of honor, followed by nine finely dressed young women of rank; and the whole baptismal group gladdened by the ceaseless music of numerous instruments. In vain we try to depict the linings of the streets, the roofs, and balconies filled with the happy multitude, who shouted themselves hoarse at beholding that cavalcade which seemed to them to hold in embryo the hopes of an empire of blessings and of glory.

It was a month later, August 9th, 1478, when Isabella herself appeared. That was a day of thanksgiving. Her husband and herself, richly clad in showy vestments, were well mounted. It was difficult to tell which were the most beautiful and costly, their own royal robes or the superb gilt housings that adorned their steeds. They led a long procession of nobles, churchmen, and dignitaries of the government to the church, where high mass was held. Before leaving it, Isabella gave the offering of two gold coins. They were denominated excelentes. An excelente  was about $4.40 of American money. Each coin was valued at fifty excelentes, so that the offerint for herself and the young heir of the crown given to the church amounted altogether to $440.50. Here at Seville, notwithstanding the severity of Isabella's court decisions, the royal family, as the days, weeks, and months passed, had become stronger and stronger in the popular favor; but, as we know, there were some serious drawbacks to the maintenance of their authority. The large confiscations, for example, especially those that came upon such as were called "the converts" (i.e., Jews in Castile, who had nominally accepted Christianity), were deeply affecting the powerful aristocracy; and, indeed, on the part of the Jews themselves, who were numerous and exceedingly well-to-do in Andalusia, a secret conspiracy against the throne, during the fall, winter, and spring of 1477-78, was claimed to exist, and so reported to the queen. So that strong political reasons, fully as much as wrong religious convictions, instilled from infancy into their minds, biased the judgment of these sovereigns, and led them to their primary deleterious action touching the Jews and the Inquisition. But the Inquisition itself had not yet become a synonym for unrelenting torture. "As an ordinary tribunal, similar to those of other countries, the Inquisition had existed in Spain from an early period. Its functions, however, in these times were little more than nominal; but early in this reign, in consequence of alarms created by the alleged discovery, among the Jews and the Jewish converts, who had been required either to emigrate or to conform to Christianity, of a plot to overthrow the government, an application was made by Ferdinand and Isabella to Pope Sixtus IV. to permit its reorganization." The time of the application referred to "early in the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella" was in 1478, and most probably soon after the birth of Prince Juan, for the Sovereign Pontiff granted the petition in November of that year. The order for the expulsion of the Jews was not formally promulgated till years later, and indeed the Inquisition (the Holy Office) "began its terrible career under Thomas Torquemada," not till 1483, five years after the permission of the Pope had been obtained.

Queen Isabella must at first have been very hopeful that mild measures would gain over the Jews, and further, that even heresy might be rooted out without severe measures.

But, as is plain enough now, the bigotry which would permit the thought of the whole-sale expulsion of the Jewish people from her territory, so contrary to the example and teachings of Christ, was the opening fissure in the dike which let in the floods of an infamous persecution, and led to the tortures and deaths of so many of the best people in the land.

As we are endeavoring to follow the steps of Isabella's eventful life somewhat in a chronological order, let us leave the notorious Holy Office for the present. The city of Seville, so turbulent and unruly when she arrived, owing to prompt justice and a well-timed amnesty, and doubtless owing also to the effect of the presence of a court of such good repute as Isabella's, found itself for the most part a quiet and happy community. After the acts of thanksgiving the sovereigns went from one principal city to another through Andalusia. They found a similar failure of justice everywhere—in fact, disorder and anarchy prevailing.

The same remedies were applied. Where they could not delay long enough for the Friday courts Isabella appointed the corregidores, a sort of judicial commissioners with power. These functionaries replaced the sovereigns so far as to demand the immediate and continuous hearing of cases. They also made note of all illegal action, and either remedied it themselves or reported the matter to the court for correction. There appeared to be a singular charm in Isabella's presence, for peace and order followed her visits as she passed on through this long-troubled province.

Ferdinand remained with his wife till, going northward, they reached Truxillo. And here, not only were the same tribunals of justice re-established or supervised, but the business, so enormous in that age, of fortifying frontier towns was pushed with vigor lest old Alfonso should spring some new trap upon them. Here they were when the news of the death of Ferdinand's father came.

This monarch, John I., the King of Aragon, was eighty years of age. He had been indeed a warrior and a statesman. The day of his death, January 19th, 1479, although he bequeathed a kingdom to his son, it is said that he was "so poor that his jewels, including the rich collar of the garter which he had worn, were pawned to defray the expenses of his funeral." Ferdinand gained a kingdom, but he lost the counsel both of a devoted parent and also of a far-seeing coadjutor. This news caused the king at once to leave his wife and children, for he feared the action of the Cortez, which at Zaragoza had immediately met, and was inclined to show its independence of the heir to the crown. In the natural order of events, it was during this separation that Queen Isabella so greatly added to her renown. Here at Truxillo, toward the close of the campaign, she took up her quarters with her moving court. It was just the place, in a military sense, from which to operate in all directions.

Her anxious friends cried out, "Not there, not there!" Her men of State deemed it the height of imprudence to be so near the front, and came to her with a strong remonstrance. Her answer is a key to her whole life and character: "It is not for me to calculate perils or fatigues in our own cause, nor by an unseasonable timidity dishearten my friends, with whom I am now resolved to remain until I shall have brought the war to a conclusion."

One can hardly estimate the enthusiasm awakened in the hearts of her chosen leaders by such inspiring words and conduct. They went forth briskly to lay siege to places still held by the enemy. They met fearlessly the raiding bands, and defeated them, driving back the fugitives across the border, as at Toro. But the fury of Alfonso and the strong operations of Isabella's enterprising battalions could not help the increasing horror and desolations of this continued war. The two peoples, the Spanish and the Portuguese, were too much alike to war against each other. When Scotchmen fought Englishmen the borders of both countries grew wild, and much precious blood was shed in vain. It was little better here. Old Alfonso's heart was rankling with chagrin at his failures, and seemingly fervid with passion for revenge; while on the other side of his border sat the vigilant young queen, full of expedients, determined in purpose, and well sustained by her men-at-arms. How might such a war be ended? For every move there was a countermove; for every castle taken there was one or more lost. The monarch plainly saw, even with his vision obscured by his hates, that he was making no progress, and all the world appeared now to array itself against him. There was a woman of ability and of as exalted a character as Isabella's own, whose relationship to both parties afforded grand opportunities for the intervention which she undertook. Indeed, it is refreshing to be able to find in that heroic age so fine a model, one so much, in heart and temper, like the Master, who diligently studied the Lord's sayings and successfully sought the promised blessing of the Peace-Maker. It was Beatriz of Portugal, Alfonso's brother's wife, and own aunt to Isabella, whose heart was sore at all this misery springing from endless war. She so far gained his ear as to get from him permission to carry a white flag to her august niece, bearing with her an outline of what he would agree to in a treaty. As soon as the preliminary message reached Truxillo, Isabella showed no reluctance to confer with her good aunt.

They came together in Alcantara, a town near the border, and spent there with each other eight fruitful days. The terms, which were most thoroughly canvassed, and probably prayerfully considered, were drawn up; but the assent of Beatriz was not sufficient for the establishment of peace. She was but an ambassadress. She now hastened back to Portugal to lay her important document before the exacting old king. He was to resign his claim to the hand of Juana, and they two to the throne of Castile. Juana must either leave Portugal, or, strange to say, arrange to marry Isabella's infant son, Don Juan, when he should become of sufficient age. The terms gave her another privilege, that of shutting herself up in a nunnery for life.

As usual in the diplomacy of those days, a royal marriage presents the other side of the covenant—namely, young Alfonso, son of Prince John and grandson of Portugal's king, was to marry Isabel, the Infanta of Castile. This was the second marriage sought for this baby daughter before she was five years old. The proposed treaty was indeed a little one-sided, but Isabella thought not. Did she not offer to Portugal the best that she had—two priceless gems, a son and a daughter? The old king was for a time sullen and obstinate, while Isabella pressed the war with more and more vigor; so that at last, yielding to what came to him as a blind necessity, he gladdened the heart of his waiting sister by putting his name to the unwelcome treaty of Alcantara (February, 1480). His claims to Juana and Castile were resigned. Juana, poor child, hitherto a mere puppet in the hands of ambitious tormentors, took the third offer, and retired to the convent of Santa Anna, at Coimbra, where she took the veil in the presence of Talavera, Queen Isabella's confessor, and another witness, Dr. Diaz, of Madrigal. The confessor's last words to the young novice, in view of all her history, must have appeared to her to bear a double significance. "No kinsman, no true friend, or faithful counsellor," he said, "would divert you from so holy a purpose." The chivalric, eccentric, romantic, impulsive King of Portugal, disappointed in his love and in all his worldly plans, for a while made preparations to give up his kingdom and to enthrone again his loyal son, Prince John, and to seek for himself some profound retirement under the patronage of a religious order. He was prevented, however, by his sudden death, August 28th, 1481, nearly a year and a half after that famous treaty which brought the much-needed rest to these two neighboring countries. At last peace had come to the two, distracted and impoverished beyond measure in the loss of life and treasure, thus to settle the vexed question as to which of the two women, Juana or Isabella, should be Queen of Castile and Leon. As soon as possible after the ratification of the grand treaty of Alcantara Queen Isabella removed her ubiquitous court to the city of Toledo. It was then, as now, a wonderful and beautiful city. To-day it numbers nearly 25,000 population, and is over 2000 years old. It is set upon a hill. ..The surrounding country, though rolling like an American prairie, stretches out to the view from Toledo's high places like a vast fertile plain, clotted with hamlets and villages. From the railway across this plain, the first glimpse of Toledo, standing high upon an immense rock, r000 feet in elevation, presents the appearance of a strong, well defended citadel adorned with a variety of peculiar and picturesque structures. The swift river, not yet free from its mountain impulse, rolls and tumbles around the entire city. There is but one road of approach, which crosses a bridge, and ascends with the steepest practicable slope, and winds into the suburbs, where it becomes a street, and goes straight on to the main plaza. In Toledo we yet find the Roman circus, the Moorish towers and walls, the ancient synagogue, the convents, the cathedral, the palace, the Alcazar, the bishop's palace, and the world famous sword manufactory. Even the crooked, narrow, badly paved streets have historic meaning in them—they were arranged for defensive battle. The houses themselves, solid and massive, are interior forts. A modern writer says: "The Toledans, like their houses, are solid, trustworthy old Castilians." These are especially proud of their unique language, the Castilian Spanish.

To many races of men, Roman, Hebrew, Moorish, Goth, and Christian of every lineage, has this extensive fortress, perched up there high in the air, been successively a veritable city of refuge. In one of the churches, San Juan de los Reyes, is a fine alto-rilievo  figure of Isabel-Catolica—a figure and profile answering well to the descriptions of Isabella in her youth. There is probably no other place in Castile, except, perhaps, in Valladolid, where a livelier remembrance of the energetic and fearless queen is to be found. Some of the motives which impelled the queen to reside some months at Toledo appear in her history. Her guardian friend and helper, Alfonso de Carillo, the archbishop, whom we have seen severely punished and crippled in his revenues, was not there; he had passed on to his favorite resort, Alcala de Henares, where he gave himself to pursuits not warlike or governmental. But Toledo the city and Toledo the dependent country had the revenues that Isabella needed. She now convoked what was sometimes called the "Third House" of the Cortez, consisting of the representatives of the property and business of the cities. They acted as she wished. They conditioned city contributions upon royal grants of special privileges. Her exchequer was very low when she came to Toledo. Soon afterward it was fairly supplied. In one way her favorite confessor, Talavera, helped the replenishment. He examined the old grants of her brother Henry. Those which he reported as improper or "excessive" were diminished or countermanded, according to that good father's estimates and recommendations. Again the same policy of justice was needed here, and Toledo was then a good centre to work from. Isabella appears to have uniformly adhered to her plans originally taken at Seville—viz., to move her court from point to point, to bring system and order to each province, from the south to the north of her domain, and into every department of her administration as then recognized in the courts, in the cities, in the Cortez, and in her own royal council. And, therefore, if we except the measures concerning the Jews, which indeed as yet were only in embryo, her success in the line of justice and order had been continuous and remarkable. The wonder to most of us is how she could carry all these public and engrossing responsibilities, and at the same time give much attention to her own immediate household.

It is with this feeling, while thinking of her little children, and of the systematic care always given by her to their nurture and home training, that we read another brief historic announcement—to wit, "At Toledo, November 6th, 1479, Isabella of Castile gave birth to her third child, the Princess Juana."

Much of Castile after the war with Portugal was like a desert. Many cities were yet garrisoned by enemies, but the sunshine of peace had at last begun to appear. Now Aragon, with its outlying dukedoms, was added to the domain of the young sovereigns. Their hearts swelled with emotions such as few of earth's dignitaries have experienced—joy, ambition, and a sense of great responsibility. Here was the beginning of a great empire, and one to be freighted with long-continued power, blending good and evil to men—a power which has lasted till this very year of grace, 1893.