Isabella – Kirstin Downey

Isabella: The Warrior Queen – by Kirstin Downey
Date read: 8/17/19. Recommendation: 8/10.

A portrait of Isabella of Castile (1451-1504), Queen of Spain, whose unlikely rise to the throne helped establish her as one of the most powerful, poised female leaders in history. Isabella was a complex figure with a complicated legacy to match. She financed Christopher Columbus’s journey to the New World and was one of the first to grasp its significance. She led the reconquest of Granada–the crown jewel of Muslim forces in southern Spain–through ten grueling years. And she unified a war-torn country, riddled with crime and political conflict, but in doing so established the Spanish Inquisition. Downey sheds a human light on Isabella, despite her polarizing reputation. If nothing else, the way Isabella navigated a minefield of powerful men proves deeply inspiring.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.

My Notes:

Isabella’s childhood:
Spain was a kingdom splintered by political conflict, countryside was riddled with crime, rulers were distracted by constant civil wars. 

In 1453, Constantinople fell to Muslim Turks. Set tone for constant fear and turmoil between Muslim and Christian worlds. Viewed as an omen of bad things to potentially come. Isabella was born into a world where the Ottomans posed a universal military threat and were attempting to make their bid as the world’s super power. 

Isabella turned to the Catholic Church which gave her life some sense of stability amidst the chaos. Feared the unknown in the spiritual realm, made her susceptible to the influence of church officials. 

Grew up third in line for throne, considered valuable mainly for her potential as a pawn in a political marriage when the moment called for it. 

Humble beginnings led to an unlikely rise to power in a time when women weren’t likely to wield power. 

Characteristics: devout, articulate, pointed, idealistic, tough, disciplined, farsighted.

Multilingual (French, Italian, Castilian Spanish, Portuguese), musically gifted (played several instruments and sang), magnificent dancer. 

"She was not a woman to suffer a slight lightly or forgive easily. In addition to Isabella’s good qualities, a certain hardness of character was developing in her. It made her able to survive the difficulties of her childhood and adolescence, but it also made her rigid and unforgiving.” KD

Rise to the throne:
In 1468, Isabella’s brother, Alfonso, died (either by poisoning or the plague) while in conflict with their older half brother, Enrique (King Henry IV). Isabella had taken Alfonso’s side, but after his death, she was next in line for the throne and in serious danger (people close to the throne had a habit of dropping dead in those days). From here she had to tread lightly.

A note on poison: poison was so popular in those days that there were schools of poison operating in Venice and Rome. A new word was coined – Italianated – which referred to murder by poison. Borgias also moved from Valencia to Rome and became experts in the field. 

Discipline: Isabella was proclaimed Queen of Seville in Alfonso’s place. Nobles urged her to take the throne. She could have clung to her first taste of real power. As Downey notes, throughout history those who have tasted power have been extremely reluctant to surrender it. Instead she weighed her options, considered the terrain, weighed her loyalty to Enrique against her own ambitions. Decided to favor patience over boldness, understanding Enrique’s claim to the throne was stronger. Asked to restore peace and the kingdom to Enrique. But she negotiated key terms: she was to be named the successor, would never have to marry against her will.

The reality of a female ruler in this era:
Men were shocked - it was viewed as a theoretical possibility, but not one to take seriously. Flew in the face of tradition. When Ferdinand learned she assumed the throne, he went into a state of rage. Saw himself as the legitimate ruler. Instead of backing down, Isabella held her ground. She softened his resistance by creating a power-sharing agreement that gave Ferdinand little real power and instead much of the symbolic importance (his name would come first on documents, proclamations, coins). Allowed him to claim credit for much of Isabella’s action over the course of their lives. But Isabella was the one leading the way. Prime example, Ferdinand wasn’t proficient in Latin, the official language of many heads of state, Isabella was. She controlled most communication. 

“Isabella’s role in Castile as reigning queen was so rare in world history that observers and commentators seemed unable to comprehend that a woman could be sovereign, and they persisted in identifying Ferdinand as the ruler regardless of the facts.” KD

After Isabella’s death, Ferdinand’s inability to rule became glaringly obvious. Contributed nothing significant of his own and entered Spain in pointless spats. 

Fear of Ottoman attacks on Iberian peninsula, led Isabella to rally troops under Christian banner to protect the kingdom. 

Granada was the heart of Muslim forces in southern Spain. A hilltop, almost impenetrable, fortress. Reconquest would last ten years, with terrible casualties and violence on both sides. 

Granadans were undone, despite early victories, by infighting at home. 

Ability to bend people to her will: The main turn of events took place at the battle of Lucena. The Prince of Granada, Boabdil, was captured when his exhausted horse fell into a river and he surrendered. Ferdidand and Isabella knew there were problems between Boabdil and his father, the Sultan, Abu al-Hasan. Instead of treating him like a prisoner or ordering him executed, they treated him with great respect and politeness. His mother, Fatima, sent a fortune to secure his release. Boabdil also pledged himself to Isabella and Ferdinand and agreed to make large tribute payments each year. 

Abu al-Hasan soon fell ill and left Boabdil in a direct competition with his uncle, El Zagal, in a direct competition for the throne. Boabdil was captured once again at the battle of Loja. Isabella and Ferdinand promised to support him in a coup against his uncle before he was released. Boabdil captured Granada when his uncle left to defend another front, permanently dividing the troops on two fronts. Ultimately, this secret understanding led to the surrender of Granada. First significant triumph against Islam in hundreds of years.

Christopher Columbus:
Similarities to Isabella, “both possessed a messianic sense of destiny, intermingled with intense religiosity.”

Excellent mariner, but terrible administrator and judgment. 

In many ways, Columbus is the exact opposite of Ernest Shackleton. Favored his ego over the crew’s morale. First sailor to spot land on the voyage west was to receive a silk jacket and a reward of 10,000 maravedis from the queen. Columbus stole credit from a man named Rodrigo de Triana, and claimed the credit for himself. Eventually, men refused to follow his orders and he faced constant mutinies. 

On his return journey, instead of sailing directly for Spain, first stopped in Portugal, calcimining he had been blown by a powerful storm to the port of Lisbon. Columbus had private conversation with King João, gloating, after Portugal had previously rejected financial support for the expedition. 

On his third journey to the New World, found Santo Domingo in a state of chaos. Most people he left there were dead, the others were ill with syphilis. Instead of fixing the problem, he abandoned those people in search for new lands. Crews rebelled against him. Eventually he was sent home in chains. 

Isabella’s legacy:
Helped shift the government to be more professional – away from noble birth and more towards an educated elite chosen by merit. 

Sought to eliminate corruption in the church and apply new scrutiny. 

Emphasis on girls’ education, set new standard for women across Europe. 

Spanish Inquisition: showcased a failure to consider second and third-order consequences. Used to unify the kingdom during brutal wartime. But survived for three-hundred years after Isabella, creating an easy way to suppress and punish minorities. Haunted Spain for generations. 

Short-sighted, shallow thinking: “Isabella had succeeded in making Spain almost monolithically Catholic, but she had lost the industry and artistry of the Jews and Muslims who had lived there for hundreds, even thousands, of years. She made many enemies for the kingdom in doing so.” 

But far-sighted and recognized the world might be a bigger place than many believed at the time of her birth. Her eagerness to explore led to discovery of New World (or at least the recognition of its true value). New World was key to Spain’s prosperity (they extracted, $1.5 billion in gold and silver over the next 120 years). 

Ruling families of Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Monaco, all share a common ancestry from Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand.