It all started with her

A small controversy has arisen following a report on TVE about the series «Isabel» in which it was stated that the Catholic queen carried out an “ethnic cleansing’’. Well, it’s not true. Isabella of Castile who, like all the rulers in the world have been, has her lights and shadows, did nothing similar to an “ethnic cleansing”. At least in the contemporary sense of the term.

What she and her husband, King Ferdinand of Aragon, actually did was a religious homogenization, something very common in medieval and modern Europe. The kingdoms of Spain were, in fact, the last to undertake it. In Europe, before the Lutheran Reformation, two religious confessions coexisted: the Catholic Christian and Judaism, which practiced a minority portion of the population.

For many reasons, including those of a political nature, this minority was always the object of misgivings, if not outright persecution. From England the Jews were expelled in 1290, from Hungary, from the German principalities in 1348, from France between 1321 and 1394, from Austria in 1421, from Provence in 1430 and from the Duchy of Milan in 1490.

This ignorance of the history of the Jews in Europe may be responsible for historical lies commonly believed as those that fall like slabs on the Catholic Monarchs. But they themselves and their reign, in spite of the infinite studies that both have brought up, are also covered by a legendary cloak of common places, fallacies and inaccuracies.

The fact is that Isabel and Fernando continue to stir up interest, and as proof, there we have the success of the television series «Isabel», a large production of TVE in three seasons that combined acceptance from the critics with high ratings. It is not a surprise. The figure of “Isabel de Castilla” is a great attraction to build good film scripts. She is the quintessential queen of Spain, the national heroine and a cardinal character in the history of the world.

Queen by accident

But, nevertheless, Isabella of Trastámara, daughter of Juan II of Castile and his second wife Isabella of Portugal, was not called to reign. She had a stepbrother, Enrique, 26 years older than her, the fruit of her father’s first marriage to María of Aragón. It would be Enrique who inherited the crown. But the throne of Castile was for centuries the closest thing to a rack of torture. The kingdom, located in the center of Christian Spain and the most powerful of them all, was a nest of palace intrigues and was always involved in disputes with neighbors, especially with Portugal and Aragon.

They married Enrique, whom the town thought impotent, with a Portuguese princess who would give him a daughter: Juana. The throne would belong to her, but a good part of the Castilian nobility distrusted her and, above all, her Portuguese protectors. They labeled it «La Beltraneja», assuring that, in reality, Juana was not the king’s daughter, but the Duke of Albuquerque’s, Beltrán de la Cueva, one of Enrique IV’s favorite courtiers.

The candidate of the Castilian nobles was not Isabel, it was her younger brother Alfonso. Then there was a carom of fate. Alfonso died in Ávila unexpectedly (they say he was poisoned) at only 14 years old. That put Isabel on the sign, but she didn’t want to betray her half-brother.
Knowing that, in one way or another, «the beltranejos» would play the Portuguese card, first, she got Enrique to name her princess of Asturias (and therefore legitimate heiress), and then she would sought for the right husband. They tried to marry her to Juan, son of Alfonso V of Portugal, but he refused. Later with the Duke of Guyenne, brother of Louis XI of France, but the prince died of tuberculosis before the wedding. Something similar happened to another of his suitors, Pedro Girón, master of the Order of Calatrava, Lord of Ureña and powerful aristocrat who died on his way to meet his fiancée.

There was one candidate left: Fernando of Aragón, a prince the same age she was, who would allow her to overcome and face the Portuguese attack in favor of her niece. Isabel and Fernando were secretly married in Valladolid in 1469. They had to ask for a dispensation from the Pope because they were second cousins, something quite common in European royalty until not so long ago.

Five years later Enrique IV died in the Alcázar of Madrid after an exhausting day of hunting. The crown settled on Isabella’s temples, but it didn’t do it so softly. The king of Portugal challenged the succession and declared war on her. After four years of civil conflict between Isabel supporters and those from her niece Juana, Portugal agreed to negotiate a peace agreement, the Alcaçovas one, on which the Spanish-Lusitanian fraternity would be sustained for a century, until in 1580 both crowns would be merged. To celebrate, the queen ordered the building of the superb Toledan monastery of San Juan de los Reyes.

Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes in Toledo, founded by King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile to commemorate both the birth of their son, Prince John, and their victory at the Battle of Toro (1476) over the army of Afonso V of Portugal.

Tanto Monta, Monta Tanto

Kings who were kings more than ever. The same year of the signing of Alcaçovas, Juan II de Aragón died in Barcelona. His son Fernando, king consorte of Castile, would become titular king of Aragon. This was the beginning of the reign of the Catholic Monarchs. But there was still some time and many merits for them to be known as such. That of «Catholics» is not a popular denomination, but a title granted by Pope Alexander VI through a papal bull.

But let’s not advance events. Before that they had to embark on two large companies that, in the final analysis, would be the ones that would lead them directly to immortality: the war in Granada and the voyage of discovery that took the Castilians by the hand of Columbus to the other side of the Atlantic.

The last of the Muslim emirates of the peninsula survived since the thirteenth century thanks to the good diplomatic skills of their emirs and the internal problems of Castile. It was a prosperous and refined kingdom, open to African commerce and paying tribute punctually to the Castilian monarchs. For Isabel, however, the survival of this vestige of Al Andalus was something unfit for the new kingdom she was about to build.

The war broke out in 1481 and, after a decade of campaigns, culminated in 1492 with the entrance of the kings in Granada. The city’s overtaking was celebrated throughout Europe. The Pope presided over a procession with the members of the College of Cardinals and had all the bells of the Eternal City rung. Something similar happened in other European courts such as Paris or London. The one of Granada was in some ways the last of the medieval crusades and, in others, the first of the modern wars. It marked, in addition, a point of inflection and sweetened the Christian frustration for the loss of Constantinople at the hands of the Turks half a century earlier.

Isabel, the queen by accident, already played in the premier league of European monarchies. But her project of transformation and modernization of the kingdom went much further. In order that her successors did not go through the troubles that she had suffered, she sought to reinforce the crown’s power. This would end once and for all with the chronic Castilian instability, caused by a rebellious nobility, friend of “banderías” and from putting the hand in politics.

Reforms, conquests and marriages

Something so ambitious implied a reform of the institutions and the creation of new ones that would secure the power of the monarchy, while allowing it to gather the financial resources that their ancestors always lacked. The plans of the kings were not exactly cheap. The new Castile and the new Aragon, that is to say, the new kingdom of Spain, needed a foreign policy according to the political desires of its monarchs.

Under the reign of Isabel the conquest of the Canary Islands was completed, the American coasts were reached in an extraordinary journey that would change the world and war campaigns were launched in Italy and North Africa. The Spain of Isabel and Fernando was hungry and in a hurry to satisfy it.

Landing of Columbus by John Vanderlyn | Architect of the Capitol

The crown was also reinforced with dynastic marriages. Of the five children they had, two were married with Portuguese infants, two others with Habsburg princes and one with the heir of the English crown. This active matrimonial policy would mark the destiny of the Trastámara dynasty and of Spain itself. And again, chance was once more a key factor.

The one call to inherit was Prince John, who was married to Archduchess Margaret of Austria with a view to strengthening the ties with the Holy Empire, but not to integrate into it. But the prince died in Salamanca of a fever at 19 years. The princely dignity would pass to his sister Isabel, whom they married first with Alfonso of Portugal and then with Manuel, cousin of her first husband. But Isabel would die during puerperium in the Archbishop’s Palace of Zaragoza.

The boy, Miguel, natural heir of Castile, Aragon and Portugal, would survive his mother, but not for long. At two years of age he died in Granada. How different the history of Spain would have been if this child had not died. Thus fell the crown in Juana, better known as «the crazy one», in his husband Philip of Habsburg «the beautiful», and the son of both: Carlos I of Spain and V of Germany.

The Spanish exception

Two of the reforms that once enjoyed great popularity but that later have been the most controversial had a religious component. Fifteenth-century Spain was a religious exception. The kings of Castile and Aragon were the only ones of Western Christianity who had subjects of three different confessions: the Catholic, the Jewish and the Mohammedan. Religion at that time did not belong to the private sphere as it is today, it was a matter of State and it would remain so until the 19th century. There we have as a sample the century and a half of wars of religion that blew Europe after the Lutheran reform.

The Spanish exception was justified in the long process that the Reconquista would suppose. No kingdom on the continent had faced anything like it. As a consequence, it was understandable that there were minorities that did not agree with the king’s religion. But in 1492 the Reconquista concluded. The Muslims of the kingdom of Granada were given the choice between converting to Christianity and moving to Africa.

With the Jews matters were trickier. On the one hand they had lived with Christians and Muslims for a millennium. On the other the “aljamas” (synagogues) depended directly on the crown. The Jews were the king’s. So much and in such a way he protected them that in Europe it was said that Elizabeth was «protector of Jews and even the daughter of a Jewess». The Hebrew community had deep roots in Spain but, like in the rest of Europe, it used to be the object of the anger of many Christians.

Girona’s Jewish quarter. It’s also known as “El Call”, which comes from the Latin “Callis” or “streets”. Is one of the best preserved Jewish quarters in the world.

Since the great pogroms of the XIV the Christians tried to convert the Jews by means of preaching, but without too much success. It was, in short, a problematic issue that was screaming for a solution.

The first measure taken by the Catholic Monarchs was segregation and their imprisonment in Jewish quarters. It was useless. Problems persisted, so that, shortly after the end of the Grenada war, they decreed their expulsion. They could avoid it if they converted to Christianity. Many did so by becoming part of what was known as new Christians, others took the path of exile.

To ensure that none of the converts practiced Judaism in secret, that is, to prevent them from Judaizing, an old Catholic institution was recovered: the Inquisition, created in the 12th century in France to combat the Cathar heresy. The Inquisition also provided exceptional political returns. It was the only institution common to all the kingdoms and, depending directly on the crown and not on the Pope, it enabled the kings to intervene in a multitude of matters without external interference.

When the queen died at the end of 1504 the convulsive Castile that she inherited from her brother Enrique had undergone a profound transformation. The legacy of the queen would be felt for centuries and even reaches the present moment. Isabella the Catholic, perhaps the most important monarch in the history of Spain, continues to arouse the interest of crowds and is the subject of debates and controversies. It could not be less. It all started with her.


  1. En general, es verdad y bueno. Por toda la storia sobre los Reyes Catolicos y los judios,
    vease mi libro (que es posible leer en Espana) Conversos, Inquisition and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

  2. En el capítulo ‘Reina por Accidente’, haces, Fernado referencia a » Beltrán de la Cueva, Duke of Albuquerque», así deletreado como lo conocen en New Mexico, US, no Alburquerque que es como le correspondería. ¿Es ese el caso?

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