Isabella of Castile - O. O. Howard

Accession to the Throne of Castile

"So when my mistress shall he seen

In sweetness of her looks and mind,

By virtue first, then choice, a queen,

Tell me, if she were not designed

The eclipse and glory of her kind?"


The Chagrin of Henry IV.—How Isabella Refused the Crown Tendered to Her by the Alfonso Confederates—Death of the Grand Master of Santiago (Villena)—Death of Henry IV., December 11, 1474—Isabella Succeeds to the Throne, Sharing the Honor with the Absent Ferdinand —The Inauguration Ceremonial, December 13, 1474—Ferdinand and His Party Want to Have the Proprietary Right and Power in Him—Isabella's Wise Words in Reply—The Alienation of the Archbishop of Toledo—His Jealousy Finally Became Treason—Old Alfonso and Juana—His Crossing the Border with 20,000 Men—The Betrothal at Plasencia—Their Announcement as King and Queen of Castile—Alfonso's Army Halts at Arevalo—What Isabella was Doing—Seeking Family Alliance with France—Helping Aragon—Moving Court to Medina Del Campo—Organizing a Kingdom—Cabrera's Reward—Exercising Justice—Mariana's Picture—Summary of Causes.

Henry IV was really ill, and now his failure to capture his princely sister and Ferdinand added chagrin to his ailment; but he seems not to have well understood her principles. Had he done so, he would have had little to fear from her. It will be remembered that, in the few past troublous years, at all times when the conspiracy against Henry was the nearest to success, Isabella refused to strive for the crown. She contented herself with the promises of the succession, which had been confirmed by the estates of the realm.

After the death of her brother Alfonso, when many prominent men were returning to their allegiance to the king, the conspirators in haste took Isabella from her mother's palace home in Arevalo, and conveyed her to Avila, their own famous headquarters. The Archbishop of Toledo believed that his arguments, carefully set before her, would convince her that the crown itself even then rightfully belonged to her. He undertook the task. He urged the corruptions of the royal household, the anarchy everywhere apparent, the changeable character and untruth appertaining to all the governing conclave, the illegitimate children and other sources of shameful scandals. He urged that Isabella's sanction and co-operation were all that the resisting nobles of Castile now required to complete their patriotic efforts.

"It is our only remedy," the archbishop said. "You have no right to shrink from peril and fatigue when the fatherland is in danger." Isabella's answer, considering her extreme youth, was remarkably wise. "Thank you," she replied, "for affection and service. Some day I may be able to reward you. Your intentions are good, but the death of my poor brother Alfonso has shown that God disapproves your methods. Whoever long for new things, political changes, bring in greater evils than they escape, such as factions, discord, war. Neither experience nor reason allows the existence over the same country of two kings. I do not like fruit prematurely gathered. I wish the king to live long, and that the royal dignity come to me late. Until he shall have disappeared from the sight of men I shall not think of taking the title of queen. Return to King Henry his kingdom, and bring peace to your country. It is the greatest favor you can do me, and will be the best proof of your affection."

But for the aberrations of a weak mind, clouded with suspicion, the poor king might have remained satisfied with such a clear-sighted, self-poised sister. She was the last person likely to plot against his failing life.

As Henry's illness continued with more or less severity, it is probable that his physicians advised him in the fall months, in order to secure a higher temperature, to move to Madrid. At any rate, he and his court went there, leaving Isabella in substantial possession of Segovia. One historian says: "There was much evil speaking at that time and much hatred prevailing. Processions, vows, public prayers, and supplications—all were tried to propitiate the Deity." As a consequence, hearing that he had rallied, it was thought for a time that the king's health had actually improved.

However, before many days had elapsed after the departure of Henry's court from Segovia, Isabella's stalwart enemy, Don Juan Pacheco, who, as Marquis of Villena and latterly as Grand Master of Santiago, with plenty of men and money always at his command, had caused her more trouble than any other nobleman, met his death from an acute and rapid disorder. It seemed to her and to her friends a providential deliverance. The shock of this death, altogether unexpected, must have greatly affected the already depressed and ailing king. He had lost his last dependence, a forgiven conspirator, it is true, but of late his strong adviser, his trusted friend. Henry himself, losing hope, very soon grew worse, and passed away from earth December 11th, 1474. Isabella allowed no delay. She was in Segovia, and there were in the city a goodly number of her adherents among the functionaries, civil, military, and ecclesiastical. She demanded speedy recognition, according to her right of succession—a right more than once formally admitted by Henry and not challenged by any testament left by him, and one confirmed, as we have seen, by act of the Cortes of Castile. December 13th, 1474, was a day to be long remembered in the history of Spain. The ceremony was not elaborate. The prominent men present in the city, official and unofficial, came early to the Alcazar. She mounted her palfrey, and with the usual number of bearers lifting a sort of canopy over her head and walking by her side, she led a select procession to the main plaza. There in the midst a suitable platform had been constructed, like those we often see erected in city parks on public memorial occasions.

In front of the platform she dismounted and passed up the steps to her designated place, amid the welcoming acclaim of the populace, guarded by a few intimates; and we may be sure that Beatriz Bobadilla was among them. Hither from the city came the leaders and men of mark to offer, separately, their pledge of fealty. It is said that each laid his hand upon a copy of the Gospel, as is still the practice in some judicial tribunals, when repeating the oath and promise of allegiance. After this simple ceremony the standards were raised and the colors unfurled to the breeze in the name of the beautiful queen, while the voice of the herald was heard, "Castile, Castile for Don Ferdinand and his consort, Dona Isabella, proprietary queen of these kingdoms!" All the people, an astonishingly large assembly, repeated substantially the herald's cry, "Castile, Castile for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella!" This public endorsement was followed by cheer upon cheer, an expression of the joyous enthusiasm of the multitude, and many, as far as waiting patience could endure, pressed up to kiss her extended hand. At last Isabella, after taking her oath of obligation, again mounted her horse, which was led by men of distinction. Now, decked in royal robes, and preceded by a cavalier with a drawn sabre, she was borne amid a happy throng to the cathedral, where followed the service of prayer and thanksgiving. Isabella, before the main altar, in a kneeling posture, gave thanks to God for His past favor and help, and besought Him for the wisdom adequate to meet the new and weighty obligations of the present and the future.

It was an elegant and unique performance, an inaugural act full of quiet dignity and sober earnestness, well garnished by the evident joy and brightening hope of a sanguine people. It was well for the harmony of the occasion that the successor of the old Villena, the young marquis, already a marplot, was not there; and even that the wary husband, Don Ferdinand himself, was away in his own acknowledged domain. But the ambitious and watchful Ferdinand did not long delay his coming. He had hardly reached Segovia when a disagreeable dispute sprang up between different leaders, which was of a piece with most of the controversies that had long prevailed in Spain. In fact, whenever a point of difference could be made between two or more prominent personages, it was diligently used to create bitterness and separations, and weaken an essential governmental control. Under the weakness of the head, unscrupulous leaders had multiplied, and they had divided with each other the government lands and taken the spoils of their rivals, amounting in a multitude of glaring cases to positive robberies. It was certainly irksome to Don Ferdinand not to be the sole master. To have in Isabella not simply a consort, but more than an equal, was far more than he had intended in assenting to the marriage contract. His party contended that he, being the male heir in the Trastamora family (the royal family of Castile), should reign in Castile as well as in Aragon. Isabella's party showed, as there was no Salic law in Castile, that a woman could reign there, and went on to demonstrate that Isabella was indeed the "queen proprietor" of the realm.

Isabella again was very clear-sighted, and displayed great moderation. The historian Mariana puts into the mouth of Isabella some wholesome sentiments, addressed to her husband. "The differences with regard to our rights," she said, "have amused me as well as you. What need to cavil concerning the respective rights of those who are attached to each other body, soul, and estate by hearts' love and the holy bonds of matrimony? Let other women (if they wish) have something separate from their husbands; to him to whom I have given my whole heart, shall I yet be chary of giving authority, riches, and sceptre? . . .

"Wherever I am queen, you will be king—i.e., govern everything without limit or exception. This is my determination, and shall he forever. We had to show our learned doctors that we had some respect for their law, dissimulating (it may be) for a time; but if lords and courtiers have founded ambitious hopes on this imbroglio, they will be disappointed. Not without your consent shall any one of them obtain anything, either honor, office, or government. Nevertheless, these little annoyances have had two advantages. The first is, the succession of our daughter has been assured; for if your right (according to the Salic law) had been recognized and enforced, she would have been excluded. The second is, there will be peace in Castile; for to have given the honors, the castles, the revenues, and the offices to strangers would have caused trouble and discontent; and you will never be tempted now to do this. If all this arrangement does not suit you, I belong to you, do with me and mine as you will. I have told you what I wish and how I am resolved to act." Here we behold the mingling of tact, reason, and affection, and these won the game. The soul of Ferdinand, though much stirred by partisan reasoning, was satisfied to trust such a sensible and affectionate wife.

About this time there happened something which cannot fail to produce in us a feeling of regret. The Archbishop of Toledo, the hero who fought under the scarlet mantle with a white cross at Olmedo, the one who even forged a bull for Isabella's marriage, the man who had undertaken herculean labors and endured countless worries for his future queen—he, with his large possessions and great influence, Arnold-like was meditating the desertion of her cause. How a dissatisfied, jealous heart broods over the bad side of his fancies! True, Ferdinand and his partisans, seeking absolute control of Castile, had been baffled under his advice; yet Isabella, in spite of her deference of manner, began to appear to him as a firm and sagacious woman, and leaning on her husband more and more, was not looking much to him for advice, certainly not in common matters; and he plainly saw that she would never in her life submit to authoritative control.

This royal pair, who were so anxiously looking after and adjusting their respective rights and so nicely defining their powers, were, he felt, not likely to leave much planning to any third party. Surely he was eliminated, or fast losing the hope of his ambitious heart! And was there not at hand a more tangible grievance? The cardinal, Mendoza, a sanguine and plausible genius, had come to court, and was as well received as himself; and it is probable that Ferdinand much preferred Mendoza to himself; so that, on the whole, the latter was supplanting the jealous archbishop in the counsels of the sovereigns. The dissatisfied prelate, at any rate, like the great Achilles in his wrath, retired to his own pavilion. In vain did John of Aragon plead with him to return; in vain did Isabella employ her best weapons—to wit, shrewd messages and most deferential epistles. His face was set; he went away, and he looked not back. Soon the mystery of his, late conduct was explained, for the proofs were brought to Isabella that her old and trusted friend was already in treasonable correspondence with a foreign enemy of the State. The mischief to these young rulers that had been during their own little controversy everywhere brewing was very great. In no case, however, would it have been possible to step at once from such anarchical warring conditions of affairs as Henry IV. had left in Castile to an orderly and peaceful kingdom.

Some of the Castilian nobles, taking advantage of the divisions and turbulence, at first stood aloof from the new regime, and later, being determined to make all the confusion they could, had preceded the archbishop in their works of opposition and rebellion. The young Marquis of Villena, for example, following the leading of his shrewd and scheming father, recently deceased, bore a conspicuous part. His mind and talents ran to war-like measures. His marquisate that he could control, whether the sovereigns of Castile assented or not, afforded him both means and men. His domain was contiguous to that of Toledo. The Duke of Arevalo, whose influence was great in all Estremadura, unaccountably withheld his allegiance from Isabella. The Grand Master of Calatrava, the chief of that large disciplined military order, which made of its head almost a king, with a large following and abundant revenues, was ready for the field against the new queen. The hostile spirits embraced also in their growing numbers the Marquis of Cadiz, probably just then because some other leader with whom he had a deadly feud had favored Isabella's cause. Thus high and overflowing did party spirit run in those bloody days. The pretext for formulating opposition was the cause of the infanta, Juana Beltraneja.

"Juana, the daughter of Henry IV.," the malcontents soon openly declared, "is the proper heir to the throne." The unhappy war which resulted from this declaration is denominated the war with Portugal, or the war of the succession.

The old Alfonso, called the African, on account of his early successes beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, was still reigning in Portugal. During his whole life he was reputed a chivalric man, full of generous impulses, active even in age, being of an unusually sanguine temperament. Don Juan, his son, had, like his father, a decided thirst for enterprise. To this royal house of Portugal the malcontents of Castile resorted. Juana was, as we know, the aged Alfonso's niece. It was agreed that he should protect and marry this child, though she was at the time only thirteen years of age; but as another dispensation from the Pope was required on account of consanguinity, it was necessary for the present to delay the marriage; but the evident emergency caused them after betrothal to claim at once the sovereignty of Castile. There was much misgiving in Portugal over this agreement; but the uncontrollable desire of Alfonso to succor this unfortunate young princess and make her his bride, and the fiery zeal of his son, Don Juan, well supported by the young nobles around him, carried everything before them, so that the offensive and defensive alliance, between the friends of Juana and the Portuguese, was speedily and strongly consummated. In consequence, by May, 1475, we find the chivalrous old king leading out an army of nearly 20,000 men, in truth of rather hasty levies, yet the best troops his States could furnish, so as to cross the borders of his kingdom.

Confident from the hope of large accessions from the Castilian lords coming from different directions as he advanced, he left his capital and moved slowly enough in a northeasterly direction through what is now the district of Caceres, without any considerable halt till he reached Plasencia. Though this western part of Spain is fertile and formerly, when under the Moors, was well populated and extensively used for the raising of grain, yet the "Spanish pacification," so called, and continuous border troubles between the petty sovereigns from both sides, had rendered much of the province of Estremadura almost a desert. The question of supplies then doubtless affected the marches and in a measure controlled all Alfonso's military operations. At Plasencia the young Marquis of Villena was on hand with the Infanta Juana. Here, commencing May 12th, five months after the crowning of Isabella at Segovia, was a new inaugural ceremony. The public betrothal was first had; then followed all the formal proceedings of assuming the crown of Castile and announcing the claim of the new sovereigns, Alfonso V. and Juana, to the world. The prospects from that mountain town were then so very bright, that days were spent in joyous feasting, while swift messengers were carrying the tidings from province to province, and calling all "true-hearted Castilians to the legitimate standard." The Duke of Arevalo in person then guided the army over the dividing ridge into his own beautiful land, and on as far as his own city, Arevalo. So much success without a blow of opposition! Twenty thousand men, even if one third were horsemen, looked small in that large country. Everything was too quiet to last. Ferdinand, with his father behind him, was not to be despised, and Isabella had as yet the majority of churchmen and nobles with her, for certainly by many good people she was much beloved. The Portuguese king, thinking of these things, became wise and wary, though, we surmise, for war purposes at the wrong time and place. But this is where Divine providence ever seems to come into men's affairs. The old king took counsel, and decided to wait awhile for his allies to increase his forces.

While the Portuguese army is here at Arevalo, comfortably waiting, let us see the other side of the picture. Just what Isabella and Ferdinand were doing from December, 1474, till May, 1475, is not, at this date, easy to ascertain. They do not, even in June, appear to have realized that the jealous and dissatisfied old Archbishop of Toledo, with his estates and his followers, would actually go over to the enemy. Certainly they were occupied very much with the troubles that their father, King John of Aragon, kept bringing to their attention. They had sought through this provident father a royal alliance with France, by negotiating for the marriage of their little daughter, hardly three years of age, to the Dauphin. Their ambassadors were long detained in France, as if they had been spies; while in Aragon new and terrible conflicts arose which taxed all the energies and resources of the King of Aragon, and caused him to call loudly for the help and co-operation of his son. As we have seen, the difficulties arising in the distribution of the powers of the government between the two young sovereigns had also absorbed much time and thought. Next came the change in location of the whole Castilian court, already much enlarged and carefully organized, to Medina del Campo. It habitually cost kings and queens of that day large sums of money to keep up the proper dress and dignity pertaining to their high functions. Before the assessment and collection of taxes could be perfected money must be hired; and "Medina del Campo," an old writer says, was "then a much-frequented market town, a centre for commerce and public fairs, a rich place—a good city for borrowing money." The Duke of Alva, having speedily decided for Isabella, gave the Castle of Mota, near the suburbs of Medina del Campo, into her hands. Then furthermore, after the moving, there was all the process of organizing a kingdom—that is, putting proper men, as far as good sense with but little experience would justify, into the right places. Doubtful people must be displaced and loyal friends be hastened into position. Cabrera, for example, who had done so much for Isabella as princess to secure her inheritance, was rewarded by being made Marquis of Moya, a city near the boundary of the province of Valencia, which city for some reason he strongly desired to possess. Again, we cannot overlook the gigantic operation which Isabella at once entered upon of repressing disorder and bringing at least a semblance of justice to the populace. Mariana pictures it thus: "The queen, laying aside all jealousy, authorized Ferdinand to appoint to military offices; and dividing with him every case, she often spent the night in dictating to her secretaries. . . . She tried to enforce the law. Many highway robbers and other gross criminals were seized, convicted, and executed, giving hope and satisfaction to the honest folk."

Behind all this (which we succinctly recount) the worries over false friends who deserted, vanishing as they did almost from the home circle; the distractions from projects of foreign alliances, from the trying border disasters of Aragon; the difficult adjustments of the sovereignty; the moving the court from Segovia to the Castle of Mota; the raising of essential revenues; the filling of the offices, civil and military—i.e., the putting out and the putting in of people with discriminating rewards; behind all such absorbing work of administration for the new ruler, were most engrossing family burdens and cares, which surely are enough of themselves for any ordinary young woman to bear. It was amid this turmoil and absorption in which both were engaged that the old King of Portugal stole a march upon the young king and queen, and almost before they caught rumors of his invasion or comprehended his purpose, he was near the very citadel of their State, and apparently prepared to strike the last fatal blow.