Isabella I (Spanish: Isabel I, Old Spanish: Ysabel I; Madrigal de las Altas Torres, 22 April 1451 – Medina del Campo, 26 November 1504), nicknamed the Catholic, was Queen of Castile and León (Crown of Castile). She and her husband, Ferdinand II of Aragon, brought stability to the kingdoms that became the basis for the unification of Spain. Later the two laid the foundations for the political unification of Spain under their grandson, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. After a struggle to claim her right to the throne, she reorganized the governmental system, brought the crime rate to the lowest it had been in years, and pulled the kingdom out of the enormous debt her brother had left behind. Her reforms and those she made with her husband had an influence that extended well beyond the borders of their united kingdoms. Isabella and Ferdinand are known for completing the Reconquista, ordering conversion or exile of their Muslim and Jewish subjects and financing Christopher Columbus' 1492 voyage that led to the opening of the "New World".
Isabella was born in Madrigal de las Altas Torres, Ávila to John II of Castile and Isabella of Portugal on 22 April 1451. She was the granddaughter of Henry III of Castile and Catherine of Lancaster. At the time of her birth, her older half brother Enrique (Henry) was in line for the throne before her. Enrique, referred to by the English version of his name, Henry, was 26 at that time and married, but he was childless. Her younger brother Alfonso was born two years later on 17 November 1453 and displaced her in the line of succession. When her father, John II of Castile, died in 1454, Henry became King Henry IV. Isabella and Alfonso were left in Henry's care. Her brother Alfonso, mother, and she then moved to Arévalo.
These were times of turmoil for Isabella. Isabella lived with her brother and her mother in a castle in poor conditions, where they also suffered from a shortage of money. Although her father arranged in his will for his children to be financially well taken care of, her half-brother Henry did not comply with their father's wishes, either from a desire to keep his half-siblings restricted or from ineptitude. Even though the living conditions were lackluster, under the careful eye of her mother, Isabella was instructed in lessons of practical piety and in the deep reverence for religion.
When King Henry's wife, Joan of Portugal, was about to give birth, Isabella and her brother were summoned to court (Segovia) and taken away from their mother to be under more control and direct supervision by the king and finish their educations. Alfonso was put under the care of a tutor while Isabella became part of the Queen's household.
Conditions of Isabella's life improved in Segovia. She always had food and clothing and lived in a castle that was adorned with gold and silver. Isabella's basic education consisted of reading, spelling, writing, grammar, mathematics, art, chess, dancing, embroidery, music, and religious instruction. She and her ladies-in-waiting entertained themselves with art, embroidery, and music. She lived a relaxed lifestyle, but she rarely left Segovia as Henry forbade her from doing so. Her brother was keeping her from the political turmoils going on in the kingdom, though Isabella had full knowledge of what was going on and her role in the feuds.
The noblemen who were anxious for power confronted the King, demanding that his younger half brother Infante Alfonso be named his successor. They even went as far as to ask Alfonso to seize the throne. The nobles, now in control of Alfonso and claiming him to be the true heir, clashed with Henry's forces at the Second Battle of Olmedo in 1467. The battle was a draw. Henry agreed to make Alfonso his heir, provided Alfonso would marry his daughter, Joanna. Soon after Alfonso was named Prince of Asturias, the title given to the heir of Castile and León, he died, likely of the plague. The nobles who had supported him suspected poisoning. As she had been named in her brother's will as his successor, the nobles asked Isabella to take his place as champion of the rebellion. However, support for the rebels had begun to wane, and Isabella preferred a negotiated settlement to continuing the war. She met with Henry and, at Toros de Guisando, they reached a compromise: the war would stop, Henry would name Isabella his heir instead of Joanna, and Isabella would not marry without Henry's consent but he would not be able to force her to marry against her will. Isabella's side came out with most of what they desired, though they did not go so far as to officially depose Henry: they were not powerful enough to do so, and Isabella did not want to jeopardize the principle of fair inherited succession, since it was upon this idea that she had based her argument for legitimacy as heir.
From an extremely early age, Isabella was forced into several betrothals by her brother Henry, all of which were beneficial to his political needs of the time. By the age of sixteen, Isabella made her debut in the matrimonial market with a betrothal to Ferdinand the son of John II of Aragon (whose family was a cadet branch of the House of Trastámara). At the time the two kings, Henry and John, were eager to show their mutual love and confidence and they believed that this double alliance would make their eternal friendship obvious to the world. This arrangement, however, did not last long.
When Alfonso V of Aragon died in 1458, all of his Spanish territories and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia were left to his brother John II. John now had a stronger position than ever before and no longer needed the security of Henry's friendship. Henry was now in need of a new alliance. He saw the chance for this much needed new friendship in Charles IV of Navarre (Carlos of Viana), another son of John II of Aragon. Charles was constantly in dispute with his father and because of this he secretly entered into an alliance with Henry IV of Castile. A major part of the alliance was that a marriage was to be arranged between Charles and Isabella. The fact that Isabella was only ten years old and Charles was nearly forty was never considered an issue. When John II learned of this arranged marriage he was outraged. Isabella had been destined for his favorite son, Ferdinand, and in his eyes this alliance was still valid. John II had his son Charles thrown in prison with charges of plotting against his father's life; Charles died in 1461.
In 1465 an attempt was made to marry Isabella to Alfonso V of Portugal, Henry's brother-in-law. Through the medium of the Queen and Count of Ledesma, a Portuguese alliance was made. Isabella, however, was wary of the marriage and refused to consent.
A civil war broke out in Castile over King Henry's inability to act as sovereign. Henry now needed a quick way to please the rebels of the kingdom. As part of an agreement to restore peace, Isabella was to be betrothed to Pedro Giron, Maestre de Calatrava and brother to the King’s favorite Don Juan Pacheco. In return the Master would pay into the impoverished royal treasury an enormous sum of money. Seeing little other choice to find the peace he desperately needed, Henry agreed to the marriage. Isabella was aghast and prayed to God for the marriage to never come to pass. Her prayers were answered when Don Pedro suddenly fell ill and died while on his way to meet his fiancée.
When Henry recognized Isabella as his heir on 19 September 1468, he also promised that his sister should not be compelled to marry against her will, while she in return agreed to obtain his consent. It seemed that finally the years of failed attempts at political marriages were over. There was talk of a marriage to Edward IV of England or to one of his brothers, probably Richard, Duke of Gloucester, but this alliance was never seriously considered. Once again in 1468, a marriage proposal arrived from Alfonso V of Portugal. Going against his promises made in September, Henry tried to make the marriage a reality. If Isabella married Alfonso, Henry's daughter Joanna would marry Alfonso's son John II and thus, after the death of the old king, John and Joanna could inherit Portugal and Castile. Isabella refused and made a secret promise to marry her cousin and very first betrothed, Ferdinand of Aragon.
After this failed attempt Henry once again went against his promises and tried to marry Isabella to Louis XI’s brother Charles, Duke of Berry. In Henry's eyes this alliance would cement the friendship of Castile and France as well as remove Isabella from Castilian affairs. Isabella once again refused the proposal. Meanwhile John II of Aragon negotiated in secret with Isabella a wedding to his son Ferdinand.
On 18 October 1469, the formal betrothal took place. Because Isabella and Ferdinand were second cousins they stood within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity and the marriage would not be legal unless a dispensation from the Pope was granted. With the help of the Valencian cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (later Alexander VI) Isabella and Ferdinand were presented with a supposed Papal Bull by Pius II authorizing Ferdinand to marry within the third degree of consanguinity, making their marriage legal. Isabella escaped the court of Henry with the excuse of visiting her brother Alfonso's tomb in Ávila. Ferdinand, on the other hand, crossed Castile in secret disguised as a servant. Finally, on 19 October 1469 they married in the Palacio de los Vivero in the city of Valladolid.
Isabella was short but of strong stocky build, of a very fair complexion, and had blue eyes, and had a hair color that was between reddish-blonde and auburn; these were typical in members of the Trastámara family who were descendants of Peter I of Castile. Her daughters, Joanna and Catherine, were thought to resemble her the most. Isabella maintained an austere, temperate lifestyle, and her religious spirit influenced her the most in life. In spite of her hostility towards the Muslims in Andalusia which now is Spain and Portugal, Isabella developed a taste for Moorish decor and style. Of her, contemporaries said:
Fernández de Oviedo: "To see her speak was divine."
Andrés Bernáldez: "She was an endeavored woman, very powerful, very prudent, wise, very honest, chaste, devout, discreet, truthful, clear, without deceit. Who could count the excellences of this very Catholic and happy Queen, always very worthy of praises."
Hernando del Pulgar: "A very good woman; exemplary, of good and commendable customs... nothing incomplete was ever seen in her personality... her works were never badly done, her words were never poor ones" ; "She had great moderation in her movements and in the expression of her emotions... her self-control extended to dissemble the pain of labor, to not say nor show the grief that in that hour women feel and show" ; "Very chaste, full of honesty, never demonstrating dishonesty."
Ferdinand, in his testament, declared that "she was exemplary in all acts of virtue and of fear of God."
Fray Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, her confessor, praised "her purity of heart, her big heart and the grandness of her soul
Isabella and Ferdinand had five surviving children, four daughters and one son. They also suffered a miscarried son and a stillborn daughter:
Isabella (1470–1498) married firstly to Alfonso, Prince of Portugal, no issue. Married secondly to Manuel I of Portugal, had issue.
Miscarried son. Miscarried on 31 May 1475 in Cebreros
John (1478–1497), Prince of Asturias. Married Archduchess Margaret of Austria, no surviving issue.
Joanna (1479–1555), Queen of Castile. Married Philip the Handsome, had issue.
Maria (1482–1517), married Manuel I of Portugal, her sister's widower, had issue.
Stillborn daughter (1482), twin of Maria. Born 1 July 1482 at dawn.
Catherine (1485–1536), married firstly to Arthur, Prince of Wales, no issue. Married his younger brother, Henry VIII of England and was mother of Mary I of England.
Towards the end of her life family tragedies overwhelmed her, although she met these reverses with grace and fortitude. The death of her beloved son and heir and the miscarriage of his wife, the death of her daughter Isabella and Isabella's son Miguel (who could have united the kingdoms of the Catholic Monarchs with that of Portugal), the supposed madness of her daughter Joanna (that defied her in public in Medina del Campo) and the indifference of Philip the Handsome, and the uncertainty Catherine was in after the death of her husband submerged her in profound sadness that made her dress in black for the rest of her lifetime. Her strong spirituality is well understood from the words she said after hearing of her son’s death: “The Lord gave him to me, the Lord hath taken him from me, glory be His holy name.”