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Isabella the Catholic

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Isabella the Catholic

"Isabella I" redirects here. For other uses, see Isabella I (disambiguation).
For other people named Isabella of Castile, see Isabella of Castile (disambiguation).
Isabella I
Queen of Castile and León
Reign 11 December 1474 – 26 November 1504
Coronation 13 December 1474 (Segovia)
Predecessor Henry IV
Successor Joanna
Co-ruler Ferdinand V
Queen consort of Aragon, Majorca, Naples, and Valencia
Tenure 20 January 1479 – 26 November 1504
Spouse Ferdinand II, King of Aragon
Isabella, Queen of Portugal
John, Prince of Asturias
Joanna, Queen of Castile
Maria, Queen of Portugal
Catherine, Queen of England
House House of Trastámara
Father John II, King of Castile
Mother Isabella of Portugal
Born 22 April 1451
Madrigal de las Altas Torres, Spain
Died 26 November 1504(1504-11-26) (aged 53)
Medina del Campo, Spain
Burial Capilla Real, Granada, Spain
Religion Roman Catholic

Isabella I (Spanish: Isabel I, Old Spanish: Ysabel I; 22 April 1451 – 26 November 1504), also known as Isabella 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 political unification of Spain under their grandson, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. 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 unburdened the kingdom 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 for supporting and financing Christopher Columbus' 1492 voyage that led to the opening of the "New World". Isabella was granted the title Servant of God by the Catholic Church in 1974.

Life and reign

Early years

Isabella was born in Madrigal de las Altas Torres, Ávila, to John II of Castile and Isabella of Portugal on 22 April 1451.[1] At the time of her birth, her older half-brother Henry preceded her in the line of succession. Henry was 26 at that time and married but childless. Her younger brother Alfonso was born two years later on 17 November 1453 and displaced her in the line of succession.[2] When her father died in 1454, her half-brother ascended the throne as Henry IV. Isabella and Alfonso were left in Henry's care.[3] She, her mother and her brother Alfonso then moved to Arévalo.[4]

These were times of turmoil for Isabella. Living conditions in their castle in Arevalo were poor, and they 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.[3] Even though living conditions were lackluster, under the careful eye of her mother, Isabella was instructed in lessons of practical piety and in a deep reverence for religion.[4]

When the King's wife, Joan of Portugal, was about to give birth to their daughter Joanna, Isabella and Alfonso were summoned to court (Segovia) to come under the direct supervision of the King and to finish their education. Alfonso was placed in the care of a tutor while Isabella became part of the Queen's household.[5]

Some of Isabella's living conditions 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 this. Her half-brother was keeping her from the political turmoils going on in the kingdom, though Isabella had full knowledge of what was going on and of her role in the feuds.

The noblemen, anxious for power, confronted King Henry, demanding that his younger half brother Infante Alfonso be named his successor. They even went so far as to ask Alfonso to seize the throne. The nobles, now in control of Alfonso and claiming that he was the true heir, clashed with Henry's forces at the Second Battle of Olmedo in 1467. The battle was a draw. Henry agreed to recognise Alfonso as heir presumptive, provided that he would marry his daughter, Joanna.[6] Soon after he was named Prince of Asturias, Alfonso died in July 1468, 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.[7] She met with Henry and, at Toros de Guisando, they reached a compromise: the war would stop, Henry would name Isabella his heir-presumptive 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.[8] 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-presumptive.


At the age of six, Isabella made her debut in the matrimonial market with a betrothal to Ferdinand, son of John II of Navarre (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.[9] This arrangement, however, did not last long.

When Alfonso V of Aragon died in 1458, all of his Spanish territories as well as 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 of Viana, John's elder son.[10] Charles was constantly at odds 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. 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 on charges of plotting against his father's life; Charles died in 1461.[11]

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.[12] Isabella, however, was wary of the marriage and refused to consent.[13]

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 Order of Calatrava and brother to the King’s favorite, Juan Pacheco.[12] In return, Don Pedro would pay into the impoverished royal treasury an enormous sum of money. Seeing no alternative, Henry agreed to the marriage. Isabella was aghast and prayed to God that the marriage would not come to pass. Her prayers were answered when Don Pedro suddenly fell ill and died while on his way to meet his fiancée.[12][14]

When Henry recognized Isabella as his heir-presumptive on the 19th of September in 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.[8] 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,[15] but this alliance was never seriously considered.[8] 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.[16] 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.[17] 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.[18]

On 18 October 1469, the formal betrothal took place.[19] 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 obtained.[20] 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.[19] 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.[21]

War with Portugal

Isabella’s reign got off to a rocky start. Because her brother had named Isabella as his successor, when she ascended to the throne in 1474, there were already several plots against her. Diego Pacheco, the Marquis of Villena, and his followers maintained that Joanna, daughter of Henry IV, was the rightful queen.[22] Shortly after the Marquis made his claim, a longtime supporter of Isabella, the Archbishop of Toledo left court to plot with his great-nephew the Marquis. The Archbishop and Marquis made plans to have the Infanta Joanna marry her uncle, King Alfonso V of Portugal and invade Castile to claim the throne for themselves.[23]

In May 1475, Alfonso and his army crossed into Spain and advanced to Plasencia. Here he married the young Joanna.[24] A long and bloody war for the Castilian succession then took place. The war went back and forth for almost a year until 1 March 1476 when the Battle of Toro took place, a battle in which both sides claimed victory[25][26] and celebrated[26][27] the victory: the troops of Afonso V were beaten[28][29] by the Castilian centre-left commanded by the Duke of Alba and Cardinal Mendoza while the forces led by Prince John of Portugal defeated[30][31][32][33] the Castilian right wing and remained in possession[34][35] of the battlefield.

But despite its uncertain[36][37] outcome, the Battle of Toro represented a great political victory[38][39][40][41] for the Catholic Monarchs, assuring them the throne since the supporters of Juana disbanded and the Portuguese army, without allies, left Castile. As summarized by the historian Justo L. González: "Both armies faced each other at the camps of Toro resulting in an indecisive battle. But while the Portuguese King reorganized his troops, Ferdinand sent news to all the cities of Castile and to several foreign kingdoms informing them about a huge victory where the Portuguese were crushed. Faced with these news, the party of “la Beltraneja" [Joanna] was dissolved and the Portuguese were forced to return to their kingdom."[42] With great political vision, Isabella took advantage of the moment and convoked courts at Madrigal-Segovia (April–October 1476)[43] where her daughter was sworn heiress of Castile's crown. That was equivalent to legitimizing Isabella’s own throne.

In August of the same year, Isabella proved her abilities as a powerful ruler on her own. A rebellion broke out in Segovia and Isabella rode out to suppress it, as her husband was off fighting at the time. Going against the advice of her male advisors, Isabella rode by herself into the city to negotiate with the rebels. She was successful and the rebellion was quickly brought to an end.[44] Two years later, Isabella further secured her place as ruler with the birth of her son John, Prince of Asturias, on 30 June 1478. To many, the presence of a male heir legitimized her place as ruler.

Meanwhile the Castilian and Portuguese fleets fought for hegemony in the Atlantic Ocean and for the wealth of Guinea (gold and slaves) where the decisive naval Battle of Guinea[45] was fought.

The war dragged on for another three years[47] and ended with a Castilian victory on land[48] and a Portuguese victory on the sea.[48] The four separate peace treaties signed at Alcáçovas (4 September 1479) reflected that result: Portugal gave up the throne of Castile in favour of Isabella in exchange for a very favorable share of the Atlantic territories disputed with Castile (they all went to Portugal with the exception of the Canary Islands:[49][50] Guinea with its mines of Gold, Cape Verde, Madeira, Azores and the right of conquest over the kingdom of Fez[51][52]) plus a big war compensation: 106.676 dobles of gold.[53] The Catholic Monarchs also had to accept that Joanna remain in Portugal instead of Spain[53] and to pardon all rebellious subjects who had supported Joanna and Alfonso.[54] And the Catholic monarchs – who had proclaimed themselves rulers of Portugal and donated lands to noblemen inside this country[55] – had to give up the Portuguese crown.

At Alcáçovas, Isabella and Ferdinand had conquered the throne but the Portuguese exclusive right of navigation and commerce in all the Atlantic ocean south of the Canary islands meant that Spain stayed practically out of the Atlantic and was deprived of the Gold of Guinea, which induced anger in Andalusia.[45] Spanish academic Antonio Rumeu de Armas stated that with the Peace treaty of Alcáçovas,1479, the Catholic Monarchs "... buy the peace at an excessively expensive price... [56] and historian Mª Monserrat Léon Guerrero added that they " find themselves forced to abandon their expansion by the Atlantic... "[57]

It would be Columbus who would free Castile from this difficult situation of blocked overseas expansion, because his New World discovery led to a new and much more balanced sharing of the Atlantic at Tordesilhas in 1494. The orders received by Columbus in his first voyage (1492) are elucidative: “...[the Catholic Monarchs] have always in mind that the limits signed in the “share” of Alcáçovas should not be overcome, and thus they insist with Columbus to sail along the parallel of Canary.”[57] Thus, when sponsoring the Columbian adventure to the West the Monarchs were trying the only remaining way of expansion. As it is known, they would be extremely successful on this issue. Isabella had proven herself to be a fighter and tough monarch from the start. Now that she had succeeded in securing her place on the Castilian throne, she could now begin to make the reforms that the kingdom desperately needed.


Regulation of crime

When Isabella came to the throne in 1474, Castile was in a state of despair thanks to her brother Henry’s reign. It was not unknown that Henry IV was a big spender and did little to enforce the laws of his kingdom. It was even said by one Castilian citizen of the time that murder, rape, and robbery happened without punishment.[58] Because of this, Isabella needed desperately to find a way to reform her kingdom. Due to the measures imposed, historians during her lifetime saw her to be more inclined to justice than to mercy, and indeed far more rigorous and unforgiving than her husband Ferdinand.[59]

La Santa Hermandad

Isabella’s first major reform came during the cortes of Madrigal in 1476 in the form of a police force, La Santa Hermandad (the Holy Brotherhood). While 1476 was not the first time that Castile had seen the Hermandad, it was however the first time that the police force was used by the crown.[60] During the late medieval period, the expression hermandad had been used to describe groups of men who came together of their own accord to regulate law and order by patrolling the roads and countryside and punishing malefactors.[61] These brotherhoods, however, had usually been suppressed by the monarch. Before 1476, the justice system in most parts of the country was effectively under the control of dissident members of the nobility rather than royal officials.[62] To fix this problem, during the Cortes of 1476, a general Hermandad was established for Castile, Leon, and Asturias. The police force was to be made up of locals who were to regulate the crime occurring in the kingdom. It was to be paid for by a tax of 1800 mavedus on every one hundred households.[63] In 1477, Isabella visited Extremadura and Andalusia to introduce this more efficient police force there as well.[64]

Other criminal reforms

Keeping with her reformation of the regulation of laws, in 1481 Isabella charged two officials with restoring peace in Galicia. This turbulent province had been the prey of tyrant nobles since the days of Isabella’s father, John II.[65] Robbers infested the highways and oppressed the smaller towns and villages. These officials set off with the Herculean task of restoring peace for the province. The officials were successful. They succeeded in driving over 1,500 robbers from Galicia.[66]


From the very beginning of her reign, Isabella fully grasped the importance of restoring the Crown's finances. The reign of Henry IV had left the kingdom of Castile in great debt. Upon examination, it was found that the chief cause of the nation’s poverty was the wholesale alienation of royal estates during Henry’s reign.[67] In order to make money, Henry had sold off royal estates at prices well below their value. The Cortes of Toledo of 1480 came to the conclusion that the only hope of lasting financial reform lay in a resumption of these alienated lands and rents. This decision was warmly approved by many leading nobles of the Court but Isabella was reluctant to take such large actions. It was decided that the Cardinal of Spain would hold an enquiry into the tenure of estates and rents acquired during Henry IV’s reign. Those that had not been granted as a reward for services were to be restored without compensation; while those that had been sold at a price far below their real value were to be brought back at the same sum. While many of the nobility were forced to pay large sums of money for their estates, the royal treasury became ever richer. Isabella’s one stipulation was that there would be no revocation of gifts made to churches, hospitals, or the poor.[68]

Another issue of money was the over production of coinage and the abundance of mints in the kingdom. During Henry’s reign the number of mints regularly producing money had increased from just five to one hundred and fifty.[67] Much of the coinage produced in these mints was nearly worthless. During the first year of her reign Isabella established a monopoly over the royal mints and fixed a legal standard to which the coinage must approximate. By shutting down many of the mints and taking royal control over the production of money, Isabella restored the confidence of the public in the crown’s ability to handle the kingdom’s finance.


It has been noted that both Isabella and Ferdinand established very few new governmental and administrative institutions in their respective kingdoms. Especially in Castile, the main achievement was to use more effectively the institutions that had existed during the reigns of John II and Henry IV.[69] Historically, the center of the Castilian government had been the royal household, together with its surrounding court. The household was traditionally divided into two overlapping bodies. The first body was made up of household officials, mainly people of the nobility, who carried out governmental and political functions for which they received special payment. The second body was made up of some 200 permanent servants or continos who performed a wide range of confidential functions on behalf of the rulers.[70] By the 1470s when Isabella began to take a firm grip on the royal administration, the senior offices of the royal household were simply honorary titles and held strictly by the nobility. The positions of a more secretarial nature were often held by senior churchmen. Substantial revenues were attached to such offices and were therefore enjoyed greatly, on an effectively hereditary basis, by the great Castilian houses of nobility. While the nobles held the titles, those individuals of lesser breeding did the real work.[71]

Traditionally, the main advisory body to the rulers of Castile was the Royal Council. The Council, under the monarch, had full power to resolve all legal and political disputes. The Council was responsible for supervising all senior administrative officials, such as the Crown representatives in all of the major towns. It was also the supreme judicial tribunal of the kingdom.[72] In 1480, during the Cortes of Toledo, Isabella made many reforms to the Royal Council. Previously there had been two distinct yet overlapping categories of royal councilor. One formed a group which possessed both judicial and administrative responsibilities. This portion consisted of some bishops, some nobles, and an increasingly important element of professional administrators with legal training known as letrados. The second category of traditional councilor had a less formal role. This role depended greatly on the individuals’ political influence and personal influence with the monarch. During Isabella’s reign, the role of this second category was completely eliminated.[73] As mentioned previously, Isabella had little care for personal bribes or favors. Because of this, this second type of councilor, usually of the nobility, was only allowed to attend the council of Castile as an observer.

Isabella began to rely more on the professional administrators than ever before. These men were mostly of the bourgeoisie or lesser nobility. The Council was also rearranged and it was officially settled that one bishop, three caballeros, and eight or nine lawyers would serve on the council at a time. While the nobles were no longer directly involved in the matters of state, they were welcome to attend the meetings. Isabella hoped by forcing the nobility to choose whether to participate or not would weed out those who were not dedicated to the state and its cause.[74]

Isabella also saw the need to provide a personal relationship between herself as the monarch and her subjects. Therefore, Isabella and Ferdinand set aside a time every Friday during which they themselves would sit and allow people to come to them with complaints. This was a new form of personal justice that Castile had not seen before. The Council of State was reformed and presided over by the King and Queen. This department of public affairs dealt mainly with foreign negotiations, hearing embassies, and transacting business with the Court of Rome. In addition to these departments, there was also a Supreme Court of the Santa Hermandad, a Council of Finance, and a Council for settling purely Aragonese matters.[75] Although Isabella made many reforms that seem to have made the Cortes stronger, in actuality the Cortes lost political power during the reigns of Isabella and Ferdinand. Isabella and her husband moved in the direction of a non-parliamentary government and the Cortes became an almost passive advisory body, giving automatic assent to legislation which had been drafted by the royal administration.[76]

After the reforms of the Cortes of Toledo, the Queen ordered a noted jurist, Alfonso Diaz de Montalvo, to undertake the task of clearing away legal rubbish and compiling what remained into a comprehensive code. Within four years the work stood completed in eight bulky volumes and the Ordenanzas Reales took their place on legal bookshelves.[77]

Events of 1492


At the end of the Reconquista, only Granada was left for Isabel and Ferdinand to conquer. The Emirate of Granada had been held by the Muslim Nasrid emirate since the mid-thirteenth century.[78] Protected by natural barriers and fortified towns, it had withstood the long process of the reconquista. On 1 February 1482, the king and queen reached Medina del Campo and this is generally considered the beginning of the war for Granada. While Isabella's and Ferdinand's involvement in the war was apparent from the start, Granada's leadership was divided and never able to present united front.[79] However, it still took ten years to conquer Granada, culminating in 1492.

The Spanish monarchs recruited soldiers from many European countries and improved their artillery with the latest and best cannons.[80] Systematically, they proceeded to take the kingdom piece by piece. In 1485 they laid siege to Ronda, which surrendered after only a fortnight due to extensive bombardment.[81] The following year, Loja was taken, and again Muhammad XII was captured and released. One year later, with the fall of Málaga, the western part of the Muslim Nasrid kingdom had fallen into Spanish hands. The eastern province succumbed after the fall of Baza in 1489. The siege of Granada began in the spring of 1491 and at the end of the year, Muhammad XII surrendered. On 2 January 1492 Isabella and Ferdinand entered Granada to receive the keys of the city and the principal mosque was reconsecrated as a church.[82] The Treaty of Granada was signed later that year, and in it Ferdinand and Isabella gave their word to allow the Muslims and Jews of Granada to live in peace. An uprising by the Moors in 1500 caused the Catholic side to consider that the Moors had violated the Treaty: this gave them a justification for revoking its provisions. See Morisco Revolt.

During the war, Isabella noted the abilities and energy of Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba and made him one of the two commissioners for the negotiations. Under her patronage, De Córdoba went on to an extraordinary military career that revolutionized the organization and tactics of the emerging Spanish military, changing the nature of warfare and altering the European balance of power.

Columbus and Portuguese relations

Main article: Christopher Columbus

Just three months after entering Granada, Queen Isabella agreed to sponsor Christopher Columbus on an expedition to reach the Indies by sailing west (2000 miles, according to Columbus).[83] The crown agreed to pay a sum of money as a concession from monarch to subject.[84]

On 3 August 1492 his expedition departed and arrived in what is now known as Watling Island on 12 October. He named it San Salvador, after Jesus the Savior.[84] He returned the next year and presented his findings to the monarchs, bringing natives and gold under a hero's welcome. Although Columbus was sponsored by the Castilian queen, treasury accounts show no royal payments to him until 1493, after his first voyage was complete.[85] Spain entered a Golden Age of exploration and colonization, the period of the Spanish Empire. The Portuguese did not recognize that South America belonged to the Spanish because it was on Portugal's sphere of influence and the Portuguese King John II threatened to send an army to claim the land for the Portuguese. In 1494, by the Treaty of Tordesillas, Isabella and Ferdinand agreed to divide the Earth, outside of Europe, with king John II of Portugal.

Isabella was not favorable towards Columbus' enslavement of the American natives and attempted to enforce the recent policies of the Canaries upon the 'New World', stating that all peoples were under the subject of the Castilian Crown and couldn't be enslaved in most situations. The principles she established would have very little effect during her lifetime, however.[86]

Expulsion of the Jews

With the institution of the Roman Catholic Inquisition in Spain, and with the Dominican friar Tomás de Torquemada as the first Inquisitor General, the Catholic Monarchs pursued a policy of religious and national unity. Though Isabella opposed taking harsh measures against Jews on economic grounds, Torquemada was able to convince Ferdinand. On 31 March 1492, the Alhambra Decree for the expulsion of the Jews was issued (See main article on Inquisition).[87] The Jews had until the end of July, three months, to leave the country and they were not to take with them gold, silver, money, arms, or horses.[87] Traditionally, it had been claimed that as many as 200,000 Jews left Spain, but recent historians have shown that such figures are exaggerated: Henry Kamen has shown that out of a total population of 80,000 Jews, a maximum of 40,000 left and the rest converted.[88] Hundreds of those that remained came under the Inquisition's investigations into relapsed conversos (Marranos) and the Judaizers who had been abetting them.[89]

Later years

Crown of Castile
Royal dynasties
House of Trastámara

Henry II
Children include
   John I
   Eleanor, Queen of Navarre
John I
Children include
   Henry III
   Ferdinand I of Aragon
Henry III
Children include
   John II
   Maria, Queen of Aragon
John II
Children include
   Henry IV
   Isabella I
   Alfonso, Prince of Asturias
Henry IV
   Joanna, Queen of Portugal
Isabella I with Ferdinand V
   Isabella, Queen of Portugal
   John, Prince of Asturias
   Joanna I, Queen of Castile
   Maria, Queen of Portugal
   Catherine, Queen of England
Joanna I
Children include
   Charles I
   Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor

Isabella received the title of Catholic Monarch by Pope Alexander VI, a pope of whose behavior and involvement in matters Isabel did not approve. Along with the physical unification of Spain, Isabella and Ferdinand embarked on a process of spiritual unification, trying to bring the country under one faith (Roman Catholicism). As part of this process, the Inquisition became institutionalized. After a Muslim uprising in 1499, and further troubles thereafter, the Treaty of Granada was broken in 1502, and Muslims were ordered to either become Christians or to leave. Isabella's confessor, Cisneros, was named Archbishop of Toledo.[90] He was instrumental in a program of rehabilitation of the religious institutions of Spain, laying the groundwork for the later Counter-Reformation. As Chancellor, he exerted more and more power.

Isabella and her husband had created an empire and in later years were consumed with administration and politics; they were concerned with the succession and worked to link the Spanish crown to the other rulers in Europe. By early 1497 all the pieces seemed to be in place: John, Prince of Asturias, married Archduchess Margaret of Austria, establishing the connection to the Habsburgs. The eldest daughter, Isabella, married Manuel I of Portugal, and Joanna was married to another Habsburg prince, Philip of Burgundy.

However, Isabella's plans for her two eldest children did not work out. John died shortly after his marriage. Isabella, Princess of Asturias, died in childbirth and her son Miguel died at the age of two. Queen Isabella I's crowns passed to her daughter, Joanna of Castile, and her son-in-law, Philip of Habsburg.[91]

Isabella did, however, make successful dynastic matches for her three youngest daughters. The death of Isabella, Princess of Asturias, created a necessity for Manuel I of Portugal to remarry and Isabella's third child, Maria, became his next bride. Isabella's youngest daughter, Catherine, married England's Arthur, Prince of Wales, but his early death resulted in her being married to his younger brother, Henry VIII of England.

Isabella officially withdrew from governmental affairs on 14 September 1504 and she died that same year on 26 November in Medina del Campo, but it is said that she had truly been in decline since the death of her son Prince John in 1497.[92] She is entombed in Granada in the Capilla Real, which was built by her grandson, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (Carlos I of Spain), alongside her husband Ferdinand, her daughter Joanna and Joanna's husband Philip; and Isabella's 2-year old grandson, Miguel (the son of Isabella's daughter, also named Isabella, and King Manuel I of Portugal). The museum next to the Capilla Real holds her crown and scepter.

Appearance and personality

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. 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: "She was very inclined to justice, so much so that she was reputed to follow more the path of rigor than that of mercy, and did so to remedy the great corruption of crimes that she found in the kingdom when she succeeded to the throne."[93]
  • Lucio Marineo Sículo: "[The royal knight Alvaro Yáñez de Lugo] was condemned to be beheaded, although he offered forty thousand ducados for the war against the Moors to the court so that these monies spare his life. This matter was discussed with the queen, and there were some who told her to pardon him, since these funds for the war were better than the death of that man, and her highness should take them. But the queen, preferring justice to cash, very prudently refused them; and although she could have confiscated all his goods, which were many, she did not take any of them to avoid any note of greed, or that it be thought that she had not wished to pardon him in order to have his goods; instead, she gave them all to the children of the aforesaid knight."[94]
  • 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 seven children. Five survived infancy and lived to adulthood:

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 madness of her daughter Joanna 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.”


It is important to note that Isabella's reputation for sanctity derives in large measure from an image carefully shaped and disseminated by the queen herself.[95] In 1958, the Catholic canonical process of the Cause of Canonization of Isabella was started by Most Rev. Jose Garcia Goldaraz, the Bishop of Valladolid, where she died in 1504. 17 experts were appointed to investigate more than 100,000 documents in the archives of Spain and the Vatican and the merits of opening a canonical process of canonization. 3,500 of these were chosen to be included in 27 volumes.

In 1970, the Commission determined that "A Canonical process for the canonization of Isabella the Catholic could be undertaken with a sense of security since there was not found one single act, public or private, of Queen Isabella that was not inspired by Christian and evangelical criteria; moreover there was a 'reputation of sanctity' uninterrupted for five centuries and as the investigation was progressing, it was more accentuated."

In 1972, the Process of Valladolid was officially submitted to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in the Vatican. This process was approved and Isabel was given the title "Servant of God" in March 1974.[96]


As Princess of Asturias, Isabella bore the undifferenced royal arms of the Crown of Castile and added the Saint John the Evangelist's eagle, an eagle displayed as single supporter.[97][98] As queen, she quartered the Royal Arms of the Crown of Castile with the Royal Arms of the Crown of Aragon, she and Ferdinand II of Aragon adopted a yoke and a bundle of arrows as heraldic badges. As co-monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand used the motto "Tanto Monta" ("They amount to the same", or "Equal opposites in balance"), it refers their prenuptial agreement. The conquest of Granada in 1492 was symbolized by the addition enté en point of a quarter with a pomegranate for Granada (in Spanish Granada means pomegranate).[99] There was an uncommon variant with the Saint John the Evangelist's eagle and two lions adopted as Castilian royal suppoters by John II, Isabella's father.[100]

Isabella commemorated

Isabella was the first woman to be featured on U.S. postage stamps,[101] namely on three stamps of the Columbian Issue, also in celebration of Columbus. She appears in the 'Columbus soliciting aid of Isabella', 5-cent issue, and on the Spanish court scene replicated on the 15-cent Columbian, and on the $4 issue, in full portrait, side by side with Columbus.

The $4 stamp is the only stamp of that denomination ever issued and one which collectors prize not only for its rarity (only 30,000 were printed) but its beauty, an exquisite carmine with some copies having a crimson hue. Mint specimens of this commemorative have been sold for more than $20,000.[102] Isabella was also the first named woman to appear on a United States coin, an 1893 commemorative quarter, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus's first voyage.

Depiction in film and books


Year Film Director Actress
1949 Christopher Colombus David MacDonald Florence Eldridge
1951 Hare We Go Robert McKimson Unknown
1976 La espada negra Francisco Rovira Beleta Maribel Martín
1985 Christopher Columbus Alberto Lattuada Faye Dunaway
1992 1492: Conquest of Paradise Ridley Scott Sigourney Weaver
2001 Juana la Loca Vicente Aranda Susi Sánchez
2006 The Fountain Darren Aronofsky Rachel Weisz

TV series

year Series Actress Channel
1991 Réquiem por Granada Marita Marschall TVE
2004 Memoria de España TVE
2012 Isabel Michelle Jenner TVE


Isabella is the subject of "The Queen's Vow" by C.W. Gortner, published in 2012






  • Beretta, Antonio Ballesteros (1941) , in Ejército revue, Ministerio del Ejercito, Madrid, nr 16, p. 54–66, May, 1941.
  • Casas, Rafael Dominguez (1990) – in Boletín del Seminário de Estúdios de Arte y Arqueologia, number 56, p. 364–383, University of Valladolid.
  • Duro, Cesáreo Fernández (1901) , Madrid: Boletín de la Real Academia de la Historia, tomo 38.
  • Palenzuela,Vicente Ángel Alvarez (2006) , Universidad de Alicante, Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes.
  • Quesada, Miguel-Ángel Ladero (2000) , Revista En la España medieval, Universidad Complutense, nr. 23, pages 67–100.
  • Serrano, António Macia- 0210-6310


  • Armas, Antonio Rumeu (1992) El tratado de Tordesillas. Madrid: Colecciones MAPFRE 1492, book description.
  • Boruchoff, David A. Isabel la Católica, Queen of Castile: Critical Essays. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
  • Carroll, Warren H. Isabel of Spain: the Catholic Queen. Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press
  • Desormeaux, Joseph-Louis Ripault (1758) , Duchesne, Paris, 3rd Tome.
  • Diffie, Bailey W. and Winius, George D. (1977) , Volume 1, University of Minnesota Press.
  • Dumont, Jean (1993) (The “imcomparable” Isabella, the Catholic), Madrid: Encuentro Editiones, printed by Rogar-Fuenlabrada (Spanish edition).
  • Gerli, Edmondo Michael (1992) , Taylor & Francis.
  • González, Justo L. (1994) 1560634766
  • Guerrero, Mª Monserrat León (2002) 8468812080
  • Liss, Peggy K. (1992) Isabel the Queen. New York: Oxford University Press; p. 165
  • Lunenfeld, Marvin (1970) 978-0870241437.
  • Manchado, Ana Isabel Carrasco (2006) , Madrid: Sílex ediciones.
  • Mendonça, Manuela (2007) O Sonho da União Ibérica – guerra Luso-Castelhana 1475/1479, Lisboa: Quidnovi, 978-9728998882
  • Meyer, Carolyn (2000) "Isabel: Jewel of Castilla, Spain, 1466", in: Carolyn Meyer The Royal Diaries
  • Miller, Townsend Miller (1963) The Castles and the Crown: Spain 1451–1555. New York: Coward-McCann
  • Newitt, Malyn (2005) , New York: Routledge.
  • Pereira, Isabel Violante (2001) De Mendo da Guarda a D. Manuel I. Lisboa: Livros Horizonte
  • Reston, James (2005) Dogs of God. New York: Doubleday; p. 18
  • Roth, Norman (1995) Conversos, Inquisition, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Madison, WI, The University of Wisconsin Press; p. 150
  • Stuart, Nancy Rubin (1991) Isabella of Castile: the First Renaissance Queen. New York: St. Martin's Press
  • Hunt, Joceyln (2001) Spain, 1474-1598. Routledge, 1st Ed.


  • , edited by Lisboa occidental at the officina da Música, Lisboa (Biblioteca Nacional Digital).
  • , tome V Barcelona: printing press of D. Francisco Oliva.
  • (the three first Décadas were edited as Cronica del rey Enrique IV by Antonio Paz y Meliá in 1904 and the fourth as Cuarta Década by José Lopes de Toro in 1970).
  • , Project Gutenberg Ebook, Biblioteca de Clássicos Portugueses, 3rd book, Lisboa.
  • , (Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes), Valencia: edited by Benito Monfort.
  • electronic version, .

External links

  • Isabella I in the Catholic Encyclopedia
  • Medieval Sourcebook: Columbus' letter to King and Queen of Spain, 1494
  • Music at Isabella's court
  • University of Hull: Genealogy information on Isabella I
Isabella I of Castile
Born: 22 April 1451 Died: 26 November 1504
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Henry IV
Queen regnant of Castile and Leon
with Ferdinand V (1475–1504)
Succeeded by
Spanish royalty
Title last held by
Juana Enríquez
Queen consort of Sicily
Title next held by
Germaine of Foix
Queen consort of Aragon,
Majorca and Valencia;
Countess consort of Barcelona

Preceded by
Anne of Brittany
Queen consort of Naples
Spanish nobility
Preceded by
Princess of Asturias
Succeeded by

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