Isabella of Castile - O. O. Howard

Conspiracies of Villena

"Then, where our quiet herds repose,

The roar of baleful battle rose,

And brethren of a common tongue

To mortal strife as tigers sprung,

And every gift on Freedom's shrine

Was man for beast, and blood for wine!"


15th century Spain
The Conspiracies of the Marquis Of Villena—Civil Strife (A.D. 1462)—The Crowning of Isabella's Brother Alfonso at Avila —The Battle of Olmedo—Death of Alfonso—A Union of King and Nobles Upon Isabella as Successor to the Crown of Castile—Projects of Isabella's Marriage —Her Cousin Ferdinand of Aragon Preferred.

Among King Henry's leaders, who were sometimes his favorites, sometimes adherents and sometimes opponents, were two distinguished noblemen, Juan Pacheco, Marquis of Villena, and Alfonso Carillo, Archbishop of Toledo. The first, strong and able, possessed all the talents of a courtier. The other, the primate of Spain, was a haughty man, expert in plans and remarkably tenacious of purpose. He appeared to have an abiding sense that naturally everything should bend before his imperious will. It would, humanly speaking, have been well for the weak Henry if he had no other favorites than these; but he lacked the power to so limit himself, and each newly trusted follower, whether banker or statesman, only served to strengthen the jealousy and hatred already existing. The result was that these noblemen secretly blew to a glow the fires of sedition which the suspicious birth of the Princess Juana had very soon kindled.

The nobles of the realm had, according to usage, sworn allegiance (A.D. 1462) to this young infanta; but, impelled by scandal and its enlargements, not very long afterward they assembled at Burgos, conferred together, and made formal declaration that, in swearing fealty, they had simply acted under compulsion. They then drew up a long list of alleged governmental grievances—not an unusual performance for politicians—and they demanded redress of the king; at the same time they asked, as a token or pledge of settlement, that the king's little brother, Alfonso, be given into their hands to be recognized and protected as the true successor to the throne of Castile. The king, who then hardly knew friend from foe, and was never in any juncture given to resolute action, weakly began a negotiation with the confederates, and before long consented to their preposterous demands. A few days were enough to make him see that now he had given away every shred of power, so in desperation he repented, and gathering some loyal men-at-arms, he endeavored to seize and imprison the rebellious plotters. The members of the conspiracy, having the boy Alfonso already in possession, brought its confederates together at Avila, a small walled town planted among the hills, about fifty miles north of Madrid. Near this city, strong by nature and made stronger by art, was held a singular ceremonial. Without the thick walls on a high throne, erected upon a scaffold, they set up an effigy of the king, which they covered with well-chosen royal insignia. After a time they stripped this royal image of its showy attire, going through their performances with every show of solemnity. At last, having thrown the effigy with all the articles of distinction into the dust and trampled upon them, they lifted young Alfonso to its place on the fanciful throne, and paid him the homage due to the king. In this remarkable way the boy-prince received his troublesome crown. The principal cities of the kingdom, Cordova, Seville, Toledo, Burgos, and others astonishingly ratified this deposition of Henry the sovereign and the succession of Alfonso. At first the people generally throughout his domain appeared to concur in these proceedings; but notwithstanding this parade, the king—or rather legitimate royalty—had everywhere some secret friends and some who were open and bold. Henry, spurred on by chagrin or a feeling akin to despair, made for once a strong effort to gather to himself adherents; and he soon had the satisfaction of seeing his court surrounded by a loyal host, sufficient to have crushed the conspiracy, had he without hesitation struck quick and heavy blows; but instead of following up his advantage by action, he began as usual to parley and negotiate, being led to it by the crafty counsel of the Marquis of Villena; so that shortly after this vigorous spasm he unwisely disbanded his troops. The promised peace did not result, for there were two kings reigning, or attempting to reign, in Castile, and there seemed to be no end to the imbroglio; but during the continuance of the strife a brilliant idea occurred to the conspirators, and the evolution of this idea put Isabella, at sixteen, into the fiery furnace of her first great tribulation. It was thought by these worthies that if the king could gain the support of the powerful house of Pacheco, the head and heart of the rebellion, the opposition would be placated, and the conspiracy necessarily fall to pieces. It was conceived that this most desirable object could be best effected by the marriage of the infanta, Isabella, the sister of the king, to Don Diego Giron, the brother of the Marquis of Villena and nephew of the great primate of Spain. Giron was a grand master of the Knights of Calatrava, a powerful man, an audacious rebel, and a profligate. He was notorious in that court of corrupt royalty for his licentiousness. Heretofore several marriages had been planned for Isabella by princes and diplomats, always with a view to accomplish some political end.

She had thus far resisted all efforts on the part of her brother and others, claiming with reason that the infantas of the kingdom could not be wedded without the formal consent of the nobles of the realm. Fortunately for Isabella this was the recognized fact, and the noblemen of Castile, Leon, and Aragon were sufficiently powerful to prevent even the king from consummating his selfish purpose. But the Alfonso movement had brought about an extraordinary juncture of events, and such a proposed settlement was too great a temptation for Henry to resist; so that this weak apology for a sovereign had the unspeakable meanness to enter into negotiations with the conspirators to sell his sister's hand. There was but one troublesome obstacle, the oath of celibacy which Giron, the grand master, in order to increase the sanctity of his office, had taken. After a brief time, however, through the solicitation of himself and his prominent allies, the obliging Roman Pontiff was induced to relieve him from his troublesome oath and obligation.

When Isabella heard of this iniquitous scheme, so near its consummation, and was told that in case of need compulsion would be employed, she was horrified! Here is the strange historic record: "That with this person so inferior to her in birth, and so unworthy of her from every point of view, she, Isabella, was now to be united. On receiving the intelligence she confined herself to her apartment, abstaining from all nourishment and sleep for a day and a night, and imploring Heaven in the most piteous manner to save her from this dishonor, by her own death or that of her enemy."

A lady friend of high rank, Beatriz de Bobadilla, who was with her in this sorrow, and greatly sympathized with her while trying to soothe her, at last cried out, "God will not permit it! Neither will I!" Whereupon, before the eyes of the distressed infanta, she drew forth a dagger from her dress, and solemnly vowed that she would plunge it into the heart of the Master of Calatrava as soon as he should appear. Don Pedro Giron, having at last received his much-coveted dispensation from the Pope, and having resigned his offices of rank in his order, made magnificent preparations for the grand wedding, to which the king had agreed and the nobles did not oppose, and which, as he would fain believe, was now sure to come to pass. He actually set out upon the journey from his residence to the city of Madrid. An escort of friends and men-at-arms, which would befit the bridegroom of a royal princess, attended him on the road. The very first evening after he left Almagro, at a little village called Villa-rubia he became deathly sick. Four days after this virulent attack, which was as sudden and as terrible as that of our Asiatic cholera, he perished; and it is said that he died cursing his fate, and bemoaning the thought that he could not have been spared just a few weeks longer, that he might have accomplished the fell designs of his wicked heart. As always in those unscrupulous times, there was a suspicion of poison; still the child Isabella, the beautiful bride of promise, was saved from this disaster without a shadow being cast upon her own fair fame.

But the deliverance from one great trial was no bar to others. That sudden cloud, which had hung darkly over Isabella, the Lord had dissolved; but those which hung over her afflicted country, from whose ominous and gloomy effects she could not escape, became heavier than ever. There was no hope left of terminating the conflicts otherwise than by arms. The troops of Henry, reluctantly appealed to by him, again being mobilized, met those of the young Alfonso, his brother, at Olmedo, on the very same field where before this time John II. of Castile, in his day, had seen his subjects arrayed against him. On this theatre of strife was seen that indomitable prelate, the Archbishop of Toledo, having a scarlet mantle with a white cross thrown over his armor, leading his battalions into the fray, and repeatedly reforming their broken lines. By his side rode young Alfonso, armed cap-a-pie, playing as best he could his little part in the bloody drama. King Henry believed himself beaten, and, like Frederick the Great in his first combat, fled from the scene; but his followers did not all so give up. The two sides fought on with extreme determination till darkness put an end to the fighting; then it proved but a drawn battle. On the morrow the clash of arms was not renewed; both armies, one under a child, the other under an imbecile, gave themselves up for a season to all the unholy delights of revelry and unbridled license. In vain for months did functionaries of the Church, shamed by these bloody and bootless exercises, try to intervene. The confederated rebels constantly averred that, if they liked, they would depose their king; that they had a right so to do, and, in fact, that their political affairs lay entirely outside of the jurisdiction of the Holy See! Think of this independence in the heart of Spain! It seemed as if the people of Castile were bent upon self-destruction, even upon annihilation. District fought against district; town against town; members of the same family met in a hundred provincial affrays; not a highway was safe, even in full daylight, and the struggle was pushed to the very gates of the cities.

The Holy Brotherhood, Santa Hermandad, then a militia police maintained by the cities of Castile for the purpose of defending themselves and their claims in such times as these, often, but in vain, tried to interfere. They were successful in some instances, but woefully resisted in others, and their failures made the darkness of the times still darker, and gave new opportunity and impulse to the savage elements; but some providence, soon or late, always puts an end to such social upheavals. In the midst of the Castilian chaos came an unexpected blow, which was felt to mark the end of at least one act of this wild scene.

Alfonso, Isabella's brother, died suddenly of the plague, which somehow had sprung from the miseries of the period. His death took place on July 5th, 1468, at a village near Avila, the very place where he had been crowned. Alfonso was too young when he fell into the hands of crafty diplomatists and schemers to understand their bent, or to assert himself against them; but all that is recorded of his personal acts and sayings goes to show that he was a prince of good parts and fair promise, and by no means an unworthy kinsman of his illustrious sister.

The death of Alfonso entirely disconcerted the plans of the confederacy that had encircled him. All eyes were now turned toward Isabella. While the civil strife was rife and approaching its crisis of open war, she had remained at her older brother's court; but when, after the battle of Olmedo, the troops of Alfonso occupied Segovia, she had fled to him, glad enough to leave the most dissolute court that Spain had ever seen. Upon the sad event of her brother's decease she retired for a time to a nunnery of Avila. Here the tireless Archbishop of Toledo came to interview her. She was now only seventeen and a woman, yet able men like this archbishop already recognized her strength of mind and purpose. They demanded her for their partisan leader. Then appeared for the first time, on a great occasion, evidence of that fearless wisdom which was always her distinctive characteristic. She replied to the archbishop, and through him to his coadjutors, that she would not lead a mere faction in a civil war. She said that enough Castilian blood had already been shed; that her brother Henry was the rightful king; and that she proposed to mediate between him and his subjects, and, if possible, to restore peace.

Astonished by so much good sense and firm determination in one so young, the leading barons or nobles with some reluctance, it is true, finally accepted her offer of mediation. To fix up a peace with Henry was at no time very difficult. It was always easy for him to make terms, and quite as easy to break them. This time the articles which were drawn up and agreed to were: First, a general amnesty; second, his queen to be sent back to Portugal; Isabella herself to be the Princess of Asturias, Asturias being then, in a political sense, the title of the heir-apparent, like the Wales of England to-day; next, a Cortes to be convened to reform abuses and confirm the title of the infanta. It was also stipulated that Isabella, the heir of Castile and Leon, should never be constrained to marry against her wishes; and yet that she should not marry without the consent of her brother. An interview took place between Isabella and Henry at Toros de Guisando in New Castile. The king embraced his generous sister with apparent affection; the nobles present, without delay, took an oath of allegiance to her, and kissed her hand. All these preliminaries were soon approved by the Cortes, which was assembled at Ocaiia.

Isabella, now the recognized heir of the crown, entered into a new period of her life, which was principally characterized by sundry wooings and matrimonial projects, involving, as in all royal families, most curious and often questionable combinations. One of the most distinguished of her subsequent suitors was the Duke of Guienne, the brother of the French king, Louis XI.; another was her young cousin, Ferdinand of Aragon. Matters had so arranged themselves, after much contention, that Ferdinand, like Isabella, was but one step from his father's throne of Aragon; so that it appeared at the very first glance that a remarkable political purpose could now be subserved, and, in fact, nothing could be more advantageous for the two neighboring kingdoms, comparatively insignificant in separation, than by this great matrimonial opportunity to coalesce.

Isabella's sound intelligence certainly comprehended this desirable object; but in Ferdinand's behalf her woman's heart doubtless made its pleadings stronger than reasons of State. Her cousin was young, vigorous, handsome, of prepossessing address, and she resolved to marry him and no other.

But there were other perilous interests awake, which were determined to assert themselves and force upon the successor to the throne of Castile another husband. It did not, for example, suit the astute Marquis of Villena that Aragon should rule in Castile. He therefore, in relentless opposition, concocted another of his wily schemes, and, as a matter of course, obtained the poor king's sanction. This scheme consisted in a marriage alliance between Isabella and the old King Alfonso of Portugal for one item, and a like covenant between Juana—"Beltraneja"—and that old king's son for another. This was not the first time that Alfonso had been offered to Isabella's acceptance. When a child of thirteen years she had refused him, declaring in the refusal, with a spirit becoming a superior woman as she did on other occasions, that the infantas of Spain could not be married without the consent of the Cortes. At this time again she refused. Villena and his king, greatly vexed at her obduracy, would soon enough have used violence, but the citizens of Ocana, where the princess now resided, would have made short work of any small force sent to seize her person, and the hostile spirits were not then prepared to despatch a large one for the coveted purpose. The whole nation, for some reason, had just then taken a passionate interest in her affairs. Grave Castile was as full of light songs as Paris has been in cheery days. The old Portuguese king, who had sent a high functionary, the Archbishop of Lisbon, to do the wooing for him, was ridiculed with all the humor that the nation could command; while the young Prince of Aragon was congratulated and praised as if he had been the idol of the whole people.

True, Isabella had bound herself by the treaty of Toros de Guisando not to marry without the consent of her brother; but at the same time he had taken the pledge not to compel her to any marriage union. This article of the treaty and others, with no apparent scruple, he had already broken. She naturally and very properly judged herself released from her own contingent obligation; and so she strongly resolved to accept and promote the suit of her cousin of Aragon.