Spain: History for Young Readers - Frederick Ober

Ferdinand and Isabella

What had hitherto been the curse of Spain, its intestinal divisions, feuds, rival projects of petty kings, was soon to be removed by the, union of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of` Aragon, whose marriage took place October 19, 1469. Isabella was eighteen years of age, Ferdinand only seventeen; but their training. had been such that their intelligence and deportment were in advance of their years. They were cousins and lovers. Isabella was a blonde, with blue eyes and chestnut hair, a small but symmetrical figure, graceful and modest of carriage, intellectual, devout, charming, but not handsome. Ferdinand was tall and manly, a fine horseman, courteous, chivalrous, like his wife of the fair, Gothic type, eloquent of speech, with elegant bearing and polished manners.

These were the two who for thirty years were to reign together, who were to unite the dismembered fragments of war-harried Spain, who were to establish a throne that was to command the respect of all Europe, a kingdom whose influence was to extend around the world. And yet, if the historians are to be credited, they, were so poor at the time of their betrothal that they were compelled to borrow money for their wedding. Fortunately, their credit was good, for, despite their poverty, it was known to all that they had great expectations. But their enemies pressed them hard, and it was only by stealing off in disguise, with a few attendants merely as company, that Ferdinand was able to reach Valladolid, where Isabella was awaiting him, and claim his bride.

Five years later, in 1474, Isabella's brother Enrique (Henry IV), the last male of the house of Trastamare; passed away, and his sister succeeded to the throne of Castile, to which she was already entitled. In the ancient city of Segovia, with attendant pomp and ceremony, on the 13th of December, 1474, the heralds proclaimed her Queen of Castile. But her claim was disputed, and there ensued the "war of succession," only ended by the defeat of the Portuguese at the battle of Toro, after which peace was concluded, with France and Portugal, in 1479. That same year, by the death of his father, John II, Ferdinand succeeded to Aragon and its dependencies, and thus the twain found themselves virtual rulers of the best part of Spain.

With the exception of Navarre, which went to Eleanor, Ferdinand's half-sister, and of the kingdom of Granada, still held by the Moors, united Castile and Aragon may be said to have included all Spain, from the Atlantic east to the Mediterranean, and from the Pyrenees on the north to the Straits of Gibraltar on the south, though each kingdom was independent. By the exercise of consummate skill, patience, and persistence, both in the field of war and in diplomacy, the entire peninsula, with the exception of Portugal, eventually was welded into one kingdom, and the various armies that had so frequently clashed in conflict were placed under one supreme command. This was not accomplished until after many years, but almost from the first these two wise sovereigns bent all their energies to the consummation of their purpose: Isabella in the domestic administration, Ferdinand in war and diplomacy, which was to unite Spain and expel the hated infidel.

We will not now pause to inquire their motives, but note only the vastness of the undertaking. More than any other nation, perhaps, the Spanish were divided, one section speaking a French dialect, another the Basque; one province might be aristocratic, another monarchical, and yet another democratic, while every one had its own peculiar laws and rights, called "fueros."  To show the feeling of independence which pervaded Aragon, for instance, we may quote the ancient formula used in seating a king on the throne: "We, each of whom is as good as you, and who altogether are more powerful, make you our king as long as you shall keep our fueros;  otherwise not." These fueros  were charters of privileges, which had been granted by former kings, lords, or counts to the inhabitants of certain towns, particularly to those which were, or at one time had been, on the exposed frontiers, deserted by or recaptured from the Moors. The occasion had long since passed for the granting of these privileges, but the people still clung to them, jealously guarding against their infringement or revocation. In some provinces, as in the Basque region, the fueros  rendered the inhabitants almost immune from service to the king or queen, free from national taxes, not liable for soldiers to serve beyond their own frontiers, etc. The first of the fueros  was granted as early as 1020 and seems to have been that of Leon. Then there was the Cortes, or popular assemblage of representatives from all over the kingdom, the first of Castile, consisting of a deputy from each city, having met in 1169.

Again, there was the Church to reckon with, for it was now established on a sure foundation, and the primacy of Spain, with its archbishopric at Toledo, was considered second only to the papacy in its influence and revenues. As Isabella was devout by nature, and as Ferdinand was politic, they allied themselves with the Church from the first, and though themselves swayed by its servants, made it the means toward an ultimate end which was the consolidation of their empire and the subjugation of the people.

We have seen already that one of the forces in Spain ever acting against unite effort for the expulsion of the Moors was the independence of the nobility. Castile itself derived its name from the number of its castles, mainly belonging to independent nobles, rich and warlike, possessed of vast estates, not subject to taxation or imprisonment—in fact little kings, some of them at the outset almost as powerful as their sovereigns themselves. These were the ricos hombres, who held most of the lucrative offices; next to them ranked the hidalgos  and caballeros (Hijo de alga, son of somebody, and caballero, a horseman, knight, cavalier, nobleman), who comprised the floating population of warriors or free lances, ready for a fight at a moment's notice, and always spoiling for a tilt with the enemy.

These were all dealt with in due course, in one manner or another, until all were more or less firmly attached to the crown and pledged to its support. The manner in which the sovereigns attached to their service the three great military orders of Calatrava, Santiago, and Alcantara well illustrates the subtlety of Isabella and the craft of Ferdinand. These orders were founded after the models of the Hospitalers and the Templars during the Crusades; but while originally intended for warfare against the Moors, they had become possessed of vast wealth and influence during the three hundred years of their existence. They were, in fact, through their strength, their capacity to send thousands of armed cavaliers into the field, and their absolute independence, a possible menace to the crown; so, when it happened that a vacancy occurred in the grand mastership of Santiago, in 1476, the queen by intrigue secured it for Ferdinand. Eleven years later he secured that of Calatrava, and in 1494, the last of all, the grand mastership of Alcantara. Thus were the most powerful of the independent military organizations secured and held in fealty to the crown. Though it required eighteen years to accomplish this, yet eventually it was brought about—an exhibition of persistence and craft which throws a flood of light upon the doings and aims of these astute rulers over regenerated Spain.

The unarmed and undisciplined masses were of little account, in the scheme of reconquest planned by Ferdinand and Isabella. But the upper classes, with their immense wealth and privileges, with their castles, princely domains, and armed retainers—these were the first objects aimed at by the sovereigns, when they were forging the weapons and welding the nation together, preliminary to their onslaught upon the Moors. Isabella, as early as 1476, revived the association of common people which had once risen against the nobles, two hundred years before, called. the Hermandad, or Brotherhood, composed mainly of people of the middle class, who acted as police and detectors of crime, and in the end became powerful enough to prove an effectual check upon the arrogance of the feudal lords. When, however, the sovereigns found themselves possessed of a strong standing army, with servile soldiers to do their bidding, the Hermandad  was disbanded; having served as a means to an end, it passed away.

It was during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, and early in their reign, that another factor tending to the consolidation of their power was availed of, in the establishment of the "Holy Office" of the Inquisition. That terrible tribunal, with its spies working in secret, its judges shielded from public view, its proceedings veiled in secrecy, was revived in Spain and presided over, by the infamous Tomas de Torquemada, as inquisitor general, who was prior of a Dominican monastery at Segovia. Yielding to his pleadings, Isabella consented to apply to the Pope for permission to use the institution as a means of weeding out heresy from among the Jews and Moors in her dominions. In an evil day for Spain, and to the discredit of the humanity of those days, this queen—who has received the praise of generations for her eminent wisdom, modesty, generosity, maternal tenderness, discretion, moderation—not only gave her consent, but did all in her power, to bring to the flames thousands of her subjects, whose only offence was that they differed from her on points of religious belief!

During the remaining years of Torquemada's life, or from 1483 to 1498, it is estimated that eight or nine thousand "heretics" were burned to death at the stake. And he was but one, the first, of a line of Spanish "inquisitors," who inflicted upon others of his race, made in God's image, entitled to compassion, the most fiendish tortures it was possible for man to conceive. We can not forget nor ignore the terrible truth that it was by the express sanction of Isabella, as well as through her connivance, that this monstrosity reared its hideous head in her kingdom, and devoured her loyal subjects. In her day was inaugurated that barbarous "solemnity" called the "auto da fé,"  edict of the Inquisition, when the heretics ferreted out by the familiars of the Holy Office were marched through the principal streets of her capital, clad in robes covered with hellish emblems, flames and devils, and followed by processions of priests and monks to the great square, where they were burned at the stake; consumed by flames which even royalty considered it an honour to light and a pleasure to gaze upon!

Ferdinand, of course, was an accessory; he even forced the Inquisition upon the Aragonese, who rebelled against it; but to him have never been imputed the high and honourable qualities ascribed to the "gentle" Isabella. This, the darkest, foulest blot upon her escutcheon—which neither the plea of the exigencies of the time, nor that equally puerile argument that she lived when ideas of morality and human brotherhood were crude, will avail to remove—will stand against her forever, an ineffaceable witness to the innate cruelty and bigotry of this descendant of Pedro the Cruel and Henry of Trastamare, fratricides both, and one a regicide!

But the country prospered awhile—that is, the kingdom gained in material wealth—chiefly, however, from the confiscated properties of the expelled heretics. During the thirty year between the accession of Isabella and her death—1494 to 1504—the royal revenues increased more than thirtyfold. After the discoveries in America the sovereigns were compelled to establish five great councils to manage affairs, the most important of which was the Council of the Indies, with its headquarters at Seville; but, notwithstanding, all power was more and more centralized, until after the death of Ferdinand and the accession of Charles I.