Isabel of Castile

(Isabel I of Spain, Isabel the Catholic)


The reign of Queen Isabella of Spain was one of the most significant periods of Spanish history. With her husband Ferdinand, Isabella united of the Kingdoms of Spain under a single crown, drove the last of the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula, and supported the voyages of Columbus. While Ferdinand was the military leader of the most important campaigns of this era, Isabella herself played a key role in virtually all of the major developments of Spain during this period and directed most domestic policy.

The reign Isabella was striking in many regards. The court of Castile, when she first came to it, was very corrupt and fractured. From the first, powerful nobles both inside and outside of Castile sought to drive her from the throne. The courage and nobility with which she bore herself throughout her reign gained her great esteem among large segments of the population and the Spanish army, which enabled her to succeed in difficult political positions. Besides fending off numerous outside enemies, such as the king of Portugal and the Moors of Granada, she defended herself against internal ones, and managed to increase the power of the Spanish crown relative to dozens of largely autonomous nobles. Above all, she was the rarest of creatures: an authentically Christian monarch. Her conduct at all times—even when she made choices which have been criticized by historians—was driven by genuine principle and sincere belief rather than opportunism.

When Isabella was only three, her half-brother Henry IV became king of Castile and she was exiled with her mother and brother. Ten years later a group of nobles, led by the Bishop of Toledo, tried to place her younger brother on the throne, but failed. When her brother was killed, they turned to her, but she refused to allow them to overthrow Henry IV in her name. In spite of the fact that he was a deeply corrupt character, Isabella at all times sought to avoid civil War. She was named as his successor and secretly married Ferdinand of Aragon at a young age, largely to avoid an unwanted marriage arranged by her brother.

In spite of much intrique and distrust, Isabella managed to avoid further conflict with her brother until she assumed the throne in 1474. At that point, war with the king of Portugal, who claimed the Castilian throne broke out, but Ferdinand led the Castilians to victory at the Battle of Toro. Once their throne was secure, the monarchs embarked on a difficult, ten-year crusade against the Moors of Granada, and in 1492 finally achieved victory. This increased Castilian territory directly, by taking control of the southern regions, but also did much to unify the fiesty and independent nobles under the Spanish Crown. The victory over the Moors was not only a military victory, but also a political one, since it established Spain as a unified country that was to be ruled under a single crown.

Besides laying the foundation for the Kingdom of Spain, Isabella is famous for her sponsorship of Columbus. She financed his voyage over the objections of many of her advisors and with only half-hearted support by Ferdinand. She remained true to Columbus in spite of his many enemies at court, and tried to protect his interests. Both Columbus and Isabella were authentic in their desire to "convert" the Indians and bring the best elements of Christianity to the new world, but their efforts were largely ignored and undermined. Isabella established a firm decree in 1503 demanding humane treatment of the natives, but it was not enforced after her death.

The greatest tragedies and disappointments of Isabella's reign were domestic in nature. Although she raised five children and carefully groomed them all to reign with virtue and prudence, many of her children pre-deceased her, including her son and her eldest daughters. Only her daughter Juana, who had married an intemperate and philandering prince was left to inherit the throne. Juana, however, was mentally unstable and under the influence of a corrupt husband, so Isabella's plans to found an upright dynasty were nearly ruined. She died in 1504 after a long illness.

Key events during the life of Isabella of Castile:

Birth of Isabella
Henry IV, older half-brother of Isabella becomes king of Castile.
Isabella and younger brother Alfonso are sent into exile.
Nobles rebel against Henry IV and attempt to place Alfonso on the throne.
Isabella is named as successor to her brother Henry IV.
Isabella secretly marries Ferdiand to avoid having an arranged marriage thrust upon her.
At the death of Henry IV, Isabella ascends to the throne of Castile.
At the Battle of Toro, Ferdinand puts down the King of Portugal's claim to crown of Castile.
Ferdinand succeeds to the throne of Aragon. Castile and Aragon are joined to become Spain.
Castilians take toe fort of Alhama from the Moors—commence the War of Granada.
Conquest of Granada is complete.
Isabella agrees to fund the venture of Columbus to sail west to Asia.
Explusion of the Jews and Muslims from Spanish territory.
War with France over territories in Italy begins.
Death of Don Juan, the crown prince, and Isabella's only son.
Death of Isabella's eldest daughter, and heir to the throne.
Isabella continues to support Columbus in spite of opposition and jealosies at court.
Isabella demands gentle treatment of the American Indians, but her commands are largely ignored.
Death of Isabella.

Book Links
Isabella of Castile  by  O. O. Howard

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Chivalry and Crime  in  The Romance of Spanish History  by  John S.C. Abbott
Marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella  in  The Romance of Spanish History  by  John S.C. Abbott
Domestic Sorrows  in  The Romance of Spanish History  by  John S.C. Abbott
The Death of Columbus  in  A Child's History of Spain  by  John Bonner
Men who Ask Questions  in  The Story of Liberty  by  Charles C. Coffin
Ferdinand and Isabella  in  Story of the Greatest Nations: Spain  by  Charles F. Horne
Moors Driven out of Spain—The Rise of Spain  in  The Story of Europe  by  Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall
Ferdinand and Isabella  in  Spain: A History for Young Readers  by  Frederick A. Ober

Image Links

Queen Isabella
 in The Romance of Spanish History

The coronation of Isabella
 in The Romance of Spanish History

Columbus before Ferdinand and Isabella
 in The Romance of Spanish History

The surrender of Granada
 in A Child's History of Spain

Death-bed of Queen Isabel
 in A Child's History of Spain

Columbus at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella
 in Famous Men of Modern Times

The reception of Columbus at Barcelona
 in Famous Men of Modern Times

Boabdil presenting the keys of Granada to Isabel and Ferdinand
 in Story of the Greatest Nations: Spain

The wedding of Ferdinand and Isabella
 in Story of the Greatest Nations: Spain

Columbus before Isabella
 in Story of the Greatest Nations: Spain

Isabella of Castile
 in Isabella of Castile

Isabella offering her Crown Jewels to Columbus
 in Isabella of Castile

Statue of Isabella in Cathedral at Malaga
 in Isabella of Castile

Reception of Columbus by Isabella at Burgos
 in Isabella of Castile

Tomb of Ferdinand and Isabella
 in Isabella of Castile

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella receiving Columbus
 in The Story of Columbus

Reception of Columbus by Ferdinand and Isabella
 in Historical Tales: Spanish

The parting of Columbus with Ferdinand and Isabella, 3rd August 1492
 in A Book of Discovery

Columbus at the Court of Spain.
 in European Hero Stories

Columbus at the Court of Spain.
 in Old World Hero Stories

Short Biography
Ferdinand of Aragon King of Aragon who ruled united Spain with Queen Isabel. Drove the Moors out of Granada.
Christopher Columbus Genoan sailor, sponsored by Isabela of Spain, who crossed the Atlantic Ocean and discovered the Americas.
Gonsalvo de Cordova Spanish general who fought in Granada and Italy; pioneered modern tactics of warfare.
Torquemada Dominican priest who was a confessor of Isabella I, and was influential in establishing the Spanish Inquisition.
Cardinal Ximenes Influential cardinal-minister at the court of Isabel and Ferdinand. Did much to reform both Church and government of Spain.