A Celebration of Women Writers

"Life and Times of Isabella of Castile." by Miss Loraine Pearce Bucklin (1836-1917).
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 450-457.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 450] 



In the fifteenth century humanity emerged from the darkness of the middle ages and saw the commencement of modern times. It was one of those rare episodes in the history of the world in which all men seemed possessed with a thirst for new truths and for discovery in every realm of thought. It was the age of Columbus, of Sebastian Cabot, Vasco da Gama, and of the discovery of printing. A new life of intelligent thought, bold hopes and rash illusions penetrated all ranks, and in the next century the reformation of Luther preceded reform in state policy that found its perfect development many years later in a country that became the refuge of all opinions and all beliefs.

The first link in this complicated series of human events was the thought and energetic will of the Genoese navigator, Christopher Columbus; the second was forged by the delicate hand of a woman, who recognized and accepted the word of genius as prophetic truth.

It was Isabella of Castile who listened when all beside were deaf, who gave intelligent sympathy when all were cold or incredulous, and, aroused to generous enthusiasm when reminded of her empty treasury, cried: "For this enterprise I will pledge my jewels and my crown."

Isabella of Castile was born in the little city of Madrigal on the 27th of April, 1451. Her father was John II. of Castile, and her mother was his second wife, Isabella, a princess of Portugal. Her father died when she was scarcely four years old leaving his kingdom to his eldest son, Henry, the child of his first wife.

The widowed queen retired with her children, Isabella and the infant prince Alphonso, to the castle of Arevallo, near Segovia and devoted herself to their education. She had ample means, was a woman of sound mind and a pure heart, and she directed her daughter's life with rare judgment and ability.

In the solitude of the country the young girl led a serious but busy existence. She was taught all the learning and accomplishments possible to the age in which she lived.

Isabella showed in all she undertook the perseverance and the energy which afterward became her most marked characteristics

In the Castilian chronicles of the time her beauty is portrayed in glowing words. They praise her figure, straight as a palm; her complexion pale, but flushed by the slightest emotion like jasmine mingled with the wild rose; her eyes blue as sapphires; her hair a reddish chestnut and her serene expression typical of her pure and gentle spirit. [Page 451] 

In the years passed so peacefully by Isabella, Henry IV. had proved himself incapable of ruling the kingdom left him by his father. Dissolute, proud and frivolous, he found the cares of state so distasteful that he left them to unworthy favorites, who robbed the treasury and oppressed the people. The country was in a state bordering on ruin, public faith was a jest, the treasury bankrupt, private morals too loose and audacious to seek even the veil of hypocrisy. The troubles culminated in civil war, and Henry, despairing of being able to conquer his rebellious subjects, sought a compromise by proposing to marry his sister Isabella to the brother of the rebel leader. Isabella was sixteen years old at this time, and her horror of the thought of this marriage was so great as to almost deprive her of her reason. She fasted and prayed for twenty-four hours, beseeching God to spare her the disgrace by taking her life. Among her youthful companions at Arevallo was one named Beatrix de Bovadilla. Beatrix, to console Isabella, said: "God will never permit this to be, and I swear to you by all that is sacred before it happens I will myself plunge a poignard into his breast." Her courage and fidelity were not put to the test, for the sudden death of the bridegroom put an end to the king's plans for his sister's marriage.

One year after these events the archbishop of Toledo, as the representative of the dissatisfied subjects of Henry, offered Isabella the throne of Castile. He assured her that her strong and elevated character was so well known that her sex offered no objection, and that God Himself had destined her to save the honor of Castile. Isabella, with wonderful judgment for so young a woman, refused to accept the crown. She gave her reasons in the following words: "The work of rebellion is only to excite passions and sow discord, to light the blaze of civil war and to put all in danger; to prevent such evils is it not better to tolerate in the state some abuses of which the consequences are not so fatal? A fruit which ripens before its time can never last. Ambition to reign has no place in my heart, and I desire that the crown of Castile shall not be mine until death shall have ended the reign of my brother. Make the evils to cease which have for so long a time cursed Castile, and I shall look upon your submission as the most signal service you can give to me, and the best mark of your affection."

This advice was followed and in the terms made by the rebels with Henry, Isabella was recognized as the sole heir to the Castilian throne, but she could not marry without the consent of her brother.

Three suitors now appeared for her hand. The Duke of Gloucester, afterward Richard III. of England, the Duke of Guienne, brother of Louis IX. of France, and Ferdinand, Prince of Aragon and heir to its throne. A marriage with Ferdinand would best advance the political and national interests of Castile. It would unite the two kingdoms and make one nation of their peoples, who were of the same race, spoke the same language and had similar customs, religions and laws. United, their strength would equal that of any European power, while, separated, they must remain inferior. A favorable answer was sent to the Court of Aragon, and was received with joy by the king and the Prince Ferdinand.

In a letter remarkable for the sense it displayed Isabella asked the consent of her brother to her marriage with Ferdinand. Henry did not even answer the letter. Isabella asked the help of the bishop of Toledo, who had always been her friend and disliked the king. Protected by him she defied her brother and signed the articles of agreement for her marriage with Ferdinand on January 4, 1469. By this contract her rights to the crown of Castile were absolutely secured to her and Ferdinand promised to continue the war against the infidels. A few days before the wedding, which occurred on the 18th of October, Ferdinand went secretly to the palace to see Isabella. In this interview, which lasted two hours, the beauty and spirit of the Princess delighted Ferdinand, and Isabella admired equally well the manly bearing and affable manners of the Prince who, although but seventeen years old had already acquired a soldierly reputation.

Henry IV. died in December, 1474, and two days afterward Isabella proclaimed herself Queen of Castile. She was then in Segovia, and it was in the cathedral of that [Page 452]  city that she took the oath to serve her country faithfully and well. The first seven years of her reign were disturbed by a war in which she was made to defend her rights against the followers of Jane, the natural daughter of the Queen whose dissolute life had disgraced the Court of Henry IV. In these years of warfare, Isabella displayed the devotion to her country and to the duties of her position which was distinctive of her life. She was constantly in the saddle, devoted her nights to official business, risked her health, and, when her friends begged her not to expose herself to such dangers, answered their entreaties by saying: "It is not for me to calculate perils or fatigues in my own cause, or by unreasonable timidity to dishearten those who share these dangers and fatigues."

When the war was ended Isabella walked with naked feet through the streets of Tordesillas, to the church where she offered thanks for the victory and praises for the valor that had won it. In 1479 the death of Ferdinand's father united the crowns of Castile and Aragon and the escutcheon of Spain now carried the lions of Castile and the towers of Aragon on one shield. Ferdinand was occupied with the cares of his kingdom, for he ruled Aragon with undivided authority, as Isabella governed Castile, and to her alone were confided the reforms in government and the condition of her people. She found the royal authority overshadowed and weakened by the power of the clergy and the nobles.

The nobles lived in magnificence on their vast estates like petty sovereigns, and their privileges equaled their wealth. The people, instead of being subjects of the crown, had become vassals of their lords and were subject to his tyranny and caprice; and Isabella was convinced that force, united with stern and unyielding justice, could alone restore order and security, and to aid her in this task she employed the league known as the Santa Hermanadad. This brotherhood had been organized by the middle class in the larger cities of Castile for self-protection; but, accustomed to the authority of the feudal lord, they had often answered his call and had helped him in acts of rebellion against the crown. Isabella convened them at Madrigal and changed their office and their work. She gave them royal authority to preserve public order, and remained the central power which supported the association. In this way she taught the peasant and the citizen to take arms in the name of the queen instead of obeying the call of his feudal chief, convinced them at the same time that the noble was a subject like himself, and must be made to yield to royal authority. In a few years the Santa Hermanadad became a strong support to the throne, and cost the treasury nothing, being maintained by a tax levied in each district upon those who had property to protect. Isabella also restored estates to the crown, and annulled pensions that had been granted by her brother to his favorites, and immediately distributed one-half the sum thus obtained among the widows and orphans of those who had died in the war since her accession.

The nobles, who saw with dismay their powers and privileges gradually lessened, addressed a remonstrance and threatened to retire to their estates and rise in rebellion if these measures and the authority of the Hermanadad were not changed. They also demanded that they alone should be chosen as members of the privy council. Isabella answered their threats by saying, "You can do as you choose, but as long as God permits us to keep the rank to which He has called us we will never become a plaything in the hands of the nobility, who, when made powerful, seek to destroy the throne. We are accountable to God alone for the measures we take for the peace and happiness of our people." Surprised by her spirit and stern resolution, the nobles submitted.

The Marquis of Villena, one of the most powerful and defiant, when told reproachfully by a vassal that his father would never have yielded to a king of Castile, replied: "King Henry no longer reigns in Castile."

By convincing the Pope that it was imperative for the safety of her kingdom that she should appoint the bishops of the church in Spain, Isabella restored to the crown power over the church benefices. When a bishop died the Queen took care that his [Page 453]  chair should be filled by a priest who was obedient to lawful authority and devoted to his religious duties, with no ambition for worldly honors. She thus made it impossible for any dignitary of the church to threaten her, as the Bishop of Toledo did when angered, that "he would replace the distaff in the hands to which he had given the sceptre."

Isabella also reorganized the legal code of Spain. Among the best reforms she introduced were a change in the government of prisons, the right given to everyone to appeal for justice to the royal council, and the appointment of an officer called the advocate of the poor, who was paid from the public funds to plead the cause of those unable to pay for their own defense.

The Queen's interest in all intellectual pursuits was very great, and her plans for the education of the young nobles of her kingdom showed a spirit far in advance of her age. She asked Peter Martyr, a learned Italian, to open a school in Toledo for the young men of her court, and paid him from her private purse a liberal salary for his services. To make his lectures fashionable she sent her son to attend them, and in six months the success of the school was assured. Another Italian scholar, Marineo, was encouraged to give lectures on classical learning, and the Queen saw with pleasure crowds of students filling the halls where the professors spoke. She carefully watched the young girls of noble families who lived in the palace, and, with her own daughters, gave them equal advantages of education with the young men. Loyal to her own sex, she helped women to larger opportunity whenever she saw them possess ability and ambition. She chose for her own teacher in Latin a lady who was called from her attainments "La Latina," and through her influence two women were appointed to professorships in Spanish universities; one filled the chair of rhetoric at Alcala, and the other taught the Latin classics at Salamanca.

Isabella encouraged the art of printing in Spain, granting to a German printer who came to Castile to pursue his calling freedom from taxation, and gave him several orders for books for herself. She also allowed foreign books of every description to enter Spain free of duty. By her own example she made purity of manners and morality the rule of conduct in her court, and her conversation was generally on serious subjects. She had no local prejudices, and could adapt herself with ease to the customs and habits of the people in whose province she might be, for Spain, even in her reign, was more like a union of provinces than a nation.

The three great events of Isabella's reign were the establishment of the Inquisition in Spain, the conquest of Granada, and the protection of Christopher Columbus, which led to the discovery of America. The Inquisition had existed in Spain since the thirteenth century, but, with Ferdinand and Isabella's consent, its power was increased until it became a terrible agent in the hands of men whose avarice or fanaticism made them merciless.

It is only just to the religion which permitted the atrocities of the Inquisition, to recall the brighter pages of its history, illumined by the deeds of men devoted to their church and humanity. One of the noblest among them was Talavera, whose charity, when bishop of Granada, was so universal and benignant that the Moors called him the holy priest of the Christians and declared that a halo surrounded his head when he spoke to them of eternal and spiritual truths. With all his humility Talavera had a profound sense of the dignity of his office. Appointed confessor to the Queen, he heard her first confession seated; when reminded by her that it was customary for her confessor to kneel with her, he replied: "This is God's tribunal; I act as his minister, and it is right that I should remain seated while your majesty kneels before me." And we must add to Isabella's honor her reply: "This proves you to be the right confessor for me."

We must also recall Aimenes, the great cardinal, whose life of purity and charity gave him the name of Saint Augustine in devotion, a Saint Jerome in austerity and a Saint Ambrose in zeal and generosity. His great intellect made him supreme in council and in government, but he lived in his palace the simple, austere life of a monk, [Page 454]  and in the midst of power could find time and opportunity for acts of kindness to all who needed charity and help.

In the conquest of Granada Isabella finished a work begun by her ancestors. From the foot of the mountains that separate it from Castile, the valleys and plains of Granada extended to the Mediterranean. It bristled with fortresses, some built to guard the frontiers, on mountain peaks far above the flight of birds or drift of clouds; others near the cities, to protect the homes and industries of the citizens. The Moors, loving Granada with patriotic passion, believed that the paradise of Mahomet was placed in the heavens that overhung it. The delicious climate, the beautiful scenery, the limpid rivers and the fields that, flooded with almost constant sunshine, bloomed with flowers or bore golden harvests, made it worthy of their love and pride. The splendor of an oriental civilization was developed in Granada by the Moors. The wealth they gained in commerce they spent in lavish profusion on palace and garden, city and suburb. The suburbs of Baza were under such perfect cultivation that they were called "the garden." Here, surrounded by trees, were the homes of rich merchants. During the war of the conquest of Granada each house became a fortress, every thicket was an ambush, every arbor hid a Moorish knight, defending his home with desperate valor. It took seven weeks and the labor of four thousand prisoners to clear this tract of four miles of its trees and mansions and convert it into a desert that offered no obstable in the path of the victorious Spaniard. The province of Granada and its capital city bore the same name.

Built on the slopes of two hills whose summits were crowned with the fortresses Albaycin and Alhambra, divided by the rivers Genil and Darro, the city of Granada enclosed within its walls a population of two hundred thousand souls. This did not include those who dwelt in the fortresses, at least forty thousand more of soldiers and members of the sultan's royal household. Granada stood first among the principal Moorish cities for her wealth and the learning, industry and bravery of her citizens. Seventy public libraries affirmed their intelligence, and the palace of the Alhambra, even in decay, still proves their taste in architecture and suggests the luxury of their lives. The Moors sought to reproduce in their palaces the delights of the Mohammedan paradise.

In spite of their voluptuous lives, they were brave in war, skilled in manufactures and accomplished in science and literature. The reigning sultan in 1478 was Muley Abdul Hassan, the eldest son of Ismail, who, by a treaty made with Isabella's brother, Henry IV., had agreed to pay tribute to the king of Castile. When a child, he had seen this tax paid to the Spanish ambassador sent to receive it and had resented with a boy's impotent rage the scoffs and taunts of the guards who escorted the embassy. When he came to the throne he received the officers sent by Ferdinand and Isabella to demand the tribute with marked courtesy and splendid gifts, but returned the following haughty answer to the sovereigns: "Tell your masters that those who paid tribute are dead, and Granada has only for the Christian iron for spears and steel for swords." From that moment Isabella decided to drive the Moor from Spain. She spent three years in preparation, for she fully realized the magnitude of the task she had undertaken. She reorganized her army, sent for skillful armores from France and Italy to build cannon, imported gunpowder from Sicily and Portugal, and heard in the first battles of this long war the artillery mingle with the cries of knightly conflict.

Isabella gave especial attention to measures for the care of the sick and wounded of her army. Large movable tents supplied with every comfort for the injured were made for transportation in the rear of the troops and were named the "queen's hospital." They contained everything that could relieve suffering, and each tent had its number of surgeons to dress the wounds, and priests to soothe the last moments of those who were beyond mortal help. This was the first recorded attempt of the organization of camp hospitals. Ten years of incessant fighting were ended at last by the fall of the city of Granada and the close of over seven hundred years of [Page 455]  Moorish domain in Spain. Throughout the long contest Isabella conducted the campaign with unceasing energy. She re-made roads, bridged rivers, cut passes through mountain defiles, raised money in every way: begged of the Pope because it was a religious war, begged from her nobles, appealing to their patriotism, and proved her own sincerity by selling some of the royal domains and pledging some of the crown jewels to the merchants of Barcelona. Ferdinand fought by her side, and won his right to command by his wisdom in council and his reckless daring in battle.

The city of Granada was surrendered to Isabella on the second of January, 1492. For ten years the Moor had fought for his country with matchless heroism. Boabdil, the reigning Sultan then of Granada, gave the keys of the city to Ferdinand with the words, "I firmly believe you will use your victory with justice and moderation." In his address to the Moorish chiefs he said, "Courage has never been wanting among the faithful; it has been the strength of their defense. Fatality has paralyzed our arms; men escaped from terrible peril fear new dangers when there is no hope for better fortune. What resource; the tempest has destroyed all!" The gate by which the royal household left Granada was walled up by the Sultan's request, and the peak of Talmud, where he saw for the last time his beloved city, has since borne the name of "The Last Sigh of the Moor." As the Moorish Sultan went on his way to exile he shed bitter tears of grief.

In Rome the success of this Spanish crusade against the infidel in Spain was celebrated by solemn religious services and public festivals. Isabella and Ferdinand received from the Pope the title of "Catholic kings" and ever afterward Isabella signed all official papers as "Isabella the Catholic." In London the final news of the victory at Granada was read to the citizens in Saint Paul's cathedral by command of Henry VII. who went with his court to hear the recital and afterward attended the service of praise held in commemoration of the event.

After eighteen years of sovereignty Isabella saw for the first time her kingdom united and at peace. While she awaited the fall of Granada in Santa Fé, Christopher presented to her a memorial he had written to explain his theories in regard to a new world yet to be discovered and which he believed himself divinely commissioned to find. With all the resources of her treasury taxed to the utmost to sustain the war against the Moor, Isabella could not do anything but receive the Genoese sailor with sympathy and give him hope of future aid. She recognized his intellect, his ardent temperament and his piety, and was fascinated by the hope of spreading the Christian faith and planting the cross in new worlds.

Ferdinand, who was less enthusiastic and more cynical than his wife, called Columbus an Italian adventurer with impossible plans, and opposed any idea of aiding him.

Isabella met his objections by saying that Castile would be able when at peace to furnish the means for the expedition without any help from Aragon, and she gave Columbus her protection and a sufficient income for his support until the state of her kingdom should justify her in more active measures in his behalf. After once plighting her faith to Columbus, Isabella was his firm friend and gave him her most generous confidence. His commission signed by Ferdinand and Isabella on the 17th of April, 1492, named him admiral of the little fleet which accompanied him on the first expedition, and gave him ample resources for his voyage. Isabella's faith in him was rewarded. When he returned from his first expedition she saw those who derided his plans as impossible, the idle dreams of a visionary, hail him as a god, crowding the streets of every city he visited to do him honor, ringing the bells and singing hymns as if a great conqueror had returned.

Isabella proved herself as energetic in the work of increasing the temporal power of her kingdom as she had been in driving her enemies from its soil. After a few years of tranquillity, Spain stood among the first nations of Europe in commercial importance and wealth.

The mercantile navy of Spain numbered more than a thousand ships; they carried her work to all the ports of the world and returned laden with gold, to still further [Page 456]  enrich her. Loyalty, piety and love of adventure were the most striking traits of Spanish character.

After the fall of Granada, until her death, Isabella's life as a Queen was brilliant with success; the glory and prosperity of Spain satisfied her patriotism and her ambition, but she carried hidden from the world a burden of domestic grief and anxiety, that clouded the splendor of her royalty and at last caused her health, always good until now, to fail. Her mother, the loved companion of her life, became insane a few years before her death, in 1496. Isabella's sorrow was intensified by the fear of the inheritance that might fall on her children, a fear so sadly realized in the fate of her daughter Jane.

Isabella was the mother of four children, one son and three daughters. The eldest daughter, Isabella, married the King of Portugal. In this marriage the Spanish sovereigns hoped to see Spain and Portugal united under one government. This hope was never realized, the young Queen dying in 1498, leaving an infant son who survived his mother only one year. The second daughter, Katherine, married an English prince, the son of Henry VII.; he lived only a few months after the wedding, and the King to keep her rich dowery in England married the young widow to his second son afterward Henry VIII. of England. She is known in history as Katherine of Aragon, the mother of the English Queen who by her severity gained the name of Bloody Mary. The only son of Ferdinand and Isabella, Prince John, was a boy of great promise. His education had been carefully directed to develop his naturally brilliant mind in the qualities most to be desired in the heir to a glorious kingdom like Spain. He fulfilled the brightest hopes of his parents by an early manhood, graced by every accomplishment, and dignified by a trained intellect and serious mind. He was married, when he was twenty years old, to Margaret daughter of the Emperor of Germany. The marriage was celebrated in October, 1497, with splendor befitting the rank and expectations of the young couple, but the bridegroom took cold at one of the fêtes and died after a few days of terrible suffering. He met death with serene courage, and prayed in his last moments that his parents might feel his own sincere resignation to the Divine will. His death was a great misfortune for Spain, and the whole nation mourned with the bereaved parents. When Isabella was told that her son was dead, she bowed in submission saying, "The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away: blessed be the name of the Lord;" but her life from this time dwelt in the shadow of this great affliction.

The death of Prince John made Jane, the youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, heiress to the throne of Spain. She was married to Philippe le Bel of Austria, and lived at Brussels, but payed a visit to her parents, with her husband, after the death of her brother, in obedience to their wish that the future King and Queen of Spain should become acquainted with the country and its people. Philippe had such remarkable personal beauty, that the Spaniards declared on seeing him "that Spain had been ruled by men, but now it was to be ruled by an angel."

Jane was the least attractive of Isabella's children. She was plain in person, and her moody and irritable disposition indicated the insanity that afterward developed itself and gave her the name of Jane the Foolish, by which she is known in history. The only child of Philippe and Jane the Foolish was born at Alcala in 1503, and afterward ruled Spain as Charles V. The deepest natures have the greatest capacity for suffering, and the agony caused by repeated bereavements seriously affected Isabella's health. In the autumn of 1504 she was attacked by a fever. Enfeebled by years of grief and anxiety Isabella sank rapidly under it and died on the twenty-sixth of November. Death had no terrors for her; after a life so full of action and responsibility the thought of rest must have been sweet. During her illness she was serene and cheerful, and said to those who wept beside her bed a few hours before her death, "Do not weep for me; pray for the safety of my soul."

Escorted by a guard of honor Isabella's body was carried from Medina del Campo to Granada. The peasants thronged the roads to see the royal procession, and sank [Page 457]  on their knees as it passed, praying for the soul of the good queen. At night, when the escort rested with their sacred charge, in the fields or in some village church, the bier was watched by the villagers who, in devout attitudes, listened to masses for the dead.

Ximenes, when told of her death, said: "Spain has lost a queen she can not sufficiently mourn. We have known the superiority of her intellect, the goodness of her heart, the purity of her conscience, the sincerity of her piety, her justice toward all the world, her desire to give abundance and tranquillity to her people." This estimate of her character can be accepted as just. Her errors were those of her education and her century; her virtues were those of a great queen and a great woman. She taught her nobles that they were born to serve not to oppress, and recalled to mind the old law of Castile, "that a cavalier of noble blood should treat his vassals with love and gentleness." She taught the world that obedience to law is as necessary for the moral sphere as for the physical, and that liberty is the fruit of a wise government. In her administration she foreshadowed the modern tendency to seek redress for wrong by legal means, and order by perfect social institutions, and by this course she gave an unexpected movement to the march of civilization.

She sleeps beside her husband in a magnificent chapel in the center of Granada. Every year on the anniversary of her burial the bells of twenty-eight churches, which she built in that city on the ruins of Moorish mosques, toll in her memory and recall the work in which she most gloried–the planting of the cross over the crescent of the infidel.

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Miss Loraine Pearce Bucklin is a native of Rhode Island, U.S.A. She was born October, 1836. Her parents were James C. Bucklin, architect of many public buildings in Providence, notably of the Arcade, a unique building, and Lucy Daily Bucklin, prominent in patriotic and charitable work in her state. She was educated in the private and public schools of Providence, R.I. Miss Bucklin's literary works are articles for magazines and newspapers and lectures on art and history. In religious faith she is a Unitarian. Her postoffice address is Providence, R.I.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom