Isabella of Castile - O. O. Howard

Early Life

"O Child! O new-born denizen

Of Life's great city! on thy head

The glory of the morn is shed,

Like a celestial benison!

Here at the portal thou dost stand,

And with thy little hand

Thou openest the mysterious gate

Into the future's undiscovered land.

By what astrology of fear or hope

Dare I to cast thy horoscope!"


Isabella of Castile


Isabella's Father—Mother—Family—Condition of Affairs in Castile at the Period of her Birth.

There appears to be a settled belief, quite general in its expression, that the character of a daughter derives from the father rather than from the mother. Fathers, surely, enjoy this conceit; but Isabella of Castile, whom the historians of Spain denominate Isabel la Catolica, affords a noble exception.

From infancy to age she followed few beaten paths, and indeed neither in natural traits nor in habits of action was she like the king, her father. John II. was, it is true, a prince of some intelligence and considerable culture, yet at all times he was infirm of purpose and weak as a ruler; so that, like all such men who come by inheritance to high place, he was uniformly ruled by men of stronger wills, and especially by ambitious favorites. The most prominent courtier among his ministers, who sought and obtained leadership in this king's domain, was Alvaro de Luna. He, in fact, exceeded all men of his class in essential gifts and accomplishments—gifts that would have befitted a crown, had a crown been his birthright.

At the time Isabella first saw the light the entire nobility of the kingdom was divided into two opposing camps, for and against this ruling spirit. The contention, at one time, was so sharp that it brought them to open battle. The crown prince took part in it, and fought on the side of "the rebels," as the opposers of the king were called. Alvaro, however, who was as full of expedients as a magician, was not at that time defeated. In fact, his opponents were never able soon enough to divine and meet his machinations. This man, in authority surpassing the modern prime-ministers of Germany and England, not being subjected to their legislative restrictions, obtained and kept for many years the mastery of Castile. Strange to say, in this reign of John II., foolishly bloody and contentious as it was, while inter arma  the Muses are usually silent, there was nevertheless much attention paid to cultivation of literature. It has, in this respect, been called the golden age for Castile. The names of Henry, Marquis of Villena, Inigo Lopez de Mendoza, Marquis of Santillana, and Juan de Mena frequently appear and have special prominence. They are writers honorably mentioned by the historians of the period. That was the time when a good taste and love for books appeared in Spain and were becoming more general—a time sad enough and terrible for humanity, yet not absolutely involved in gloom. The king himself was a poet, and, as far as such a character could be, a patron of poetic and literary aspirants. In literary achievements he could at least be rated above the "divine Augustus," whom the world knows to have had a similar ambition. Yet withal, the principal distinction of John II. of Castile was the reflex of his daughter Isabella's phenomenal successes and acknowledged virtues. She proved herself, as our studies reveal, a brave and able princess, who, with a heart intrinsically kind, was yet obliged to find her way politically through the troubled waters of intense aristocratic opposition and hierarchical interference. Her father died July 21st, 1454. In his last hours he did not have even the meagre consolation of self-approval. The historian says significantly: "Penetrated by remorse at the retrospect of his unprofitable life, and filled with melancholy presages of the future, the unhappy prince lamented on his death-bed to his faithful attendant, Cibdareal, that he had not been born the son of a mechanic instead of King of Castile."

These gloomy times became more so when Isabella's eldest brother, Henry IV., came to the throne. He was the son of John II. by the first wife, Maria of Aragon.

John's second queen, Isabella, from the royal family of Portugal, was the mother of Isabella and Alfonso. This Isabella, the subject of our sketch, was born April 22nd, 1451, in the little town of Madrigal. If it does not belie its name ("lightsome song"), this must have been a merry spot, yet the youth of her who was born there knew little of merriment. Madrigal was and to this day is a beautiful little city grouped around a small hill and situated in the midst of a fertile and rolling plain.

In the old days when revolutions, led by ambitious noblemen, were as frequent as they now are in some Spanish-American republics, Madrigal, being far from the reinforcement of any neighboring garrison, was exposed to raids from every direction. Her people defensively built a high and strong wall in the form of a completed circle. It swept around and beyond all the buildings. Enough of this stone wall and the lofty towers which form part of it, and were perhaps two hundred yards apart, remain till to-day to give an unique character to the place. Still living here, Isabella was but three years and three months old at the time of her father's death.

The cause of her mother's retirement to that quiet spot is not fully known. It might have been compulsory. It probably was voluntary. At any rate, even if fortune compelled her to turn her back upon festivities of that court of Castile, nothing more fortunate could have come to her daughter of tender years. Here the child lived in a wholesome atmosphere. No flatterers surrounded her childhood, and no crafty courtiers were attracted to her comparative solitude. The future throne was not yet discovered by the swarm of aspiring princes. The prospect of her own elevation was not at this time sure enough to touch the vanity of a child. Her half-brother Henry was king, and likely to have offspring; but should he die childless, there was her own brother Alfonso to precede her. Her mother, while living at Madrigal, and later at Arevalo, to some degree maintained her royal rank. Those who came in and went out before her were obliged to show her reverence, but as yet courtiers had but small interests to cultivate, so that all the pomp and display, the frivolity and seductive etiquette which would always have been around Isabella had she been already the known heir to a crown, were quite unknown to her in her early youth. She was also spared the sight of the corruption of her brother's court. Her pleasures were simple, and never of a nature to vitiate or impede the normal development of her mind. Her mother had had her day.

She had felt all the sensations of royalty and power, but her exercise of them had been cut short. It is recorded against her that she, with the aid of certain of the nobility, had overthrown the great favorite, who had been the prime cause of her elevation, Alvaro de Luna; that little by little she had turned the king, her husband, against him, and at last, when, like Pilate of old, he sought to wash his hands of that constable's murder, she watchfully kept the king from countermanding his orders until the cruel execution had been effected. Prescott's remarks concerning this royal mother in connection with De Luna's death sustain this view. "Had it not been," he writes, "for the superior constancy or vindictive temper of the queen, he, the king, would probably have yielded to the impulses of returning affection."

In spite of all this, it is hard to believe that, at the time of and after Isabella's birth, her mother was a wicked woman. Whatever be our conclusions as to her temper and conduct at earlier periods of her life, we must remember that men and women change, especially so under the influence of religion, when the Holy Spirit acts upon the conscience and heart. The Jacob in his youth acting treacherously toward his brother and falsely to his father is not the Israel who prevailed with God at Bethel. Saul of Tarsus, witnessing the death scene of the noble Stephen and haling men and women to prison and martyrdom because they believed in Jesus, is not the same character as Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles. And, surely, this devoted mother, who with her little children went into retirement at Madrigal, and later at the quiet town of Arevalo, doubtless to get them away from the seductions and falseness of a corrupt court, thinking to bring them up under natural and holy influences, planning that they might be properly educated, grandly developed and established in character before meeting the trials of life that were sure to come—this mother is a far different woman from that young, gay spirit that befitted the court of Portugal, or that ambitious, selfish, if not vindictive wife at the court of the King of Castile. This mother, like so many others, at the very hour of the birth of the child, when she went down into the dark valley and shadow of death, must have looked up to Him who is the rescuer of the perishing and the comforter of the distressed. She then, or at some time near that period, gave her heart more fully to the Lord, so that she could, as she actually did, carefully instruct her children "in those lessons of practical piety and in the deep reverence for religion which distinguished Isabella's maturer years."

Certainly Isabella of Portugal, whatever led to the change, became a religious woman, and with the light she had, found for herself consolation and strength in pious exercises. Such women, when highly gifted, after checkered experiences in the world, and especially after the severe chastenings of adversity, are generally good teachers.

Isabella's catholic zeal, which gave her the cognomen Catolica, is attributed to the lessons of her mother. A careful study of that mother's life and character leads one to ascribe other traits to the same source, such as her practical wisdom, her uniform common sense, and, moreover, that valiant constancy which was so often imputed to her in her career.

While the child Isabella was thus being reared far from the tumult of the kingdom, that tumult, ever manifest to honest Castilians, was becoming uncontrollable. Her brother Henry, after repudiating his first wife, Blanche of Aragon, married, in 1455, Juana, the sister of King Alfonso of Portugal. This princess did not meet the approval of Castilians. Juana was young, handsome, full of gayety and the love of pleasure. It was not long before her frivolity took a more dubious turn. There were rumors and suspicions of a score of intrigues. Soon there was one nobleman, whom she was seen in the court society to prefer to all others who were paying her attention. It was Beltram de Cueva. Therefore when, in 1462, her first child was born—to wit, the so-called Infanta of Castile—the cloud which had enveloped the good name of the mother also darkened that of the daughter. She was christened Juana, after her mother, but from the first she was called by the people, near and far, "Beltraneja." The suspicions and allegations of her illegitimacy followed this unfortunate young princess through life. They seemed like an avenging fury. Alas! a fury avenging upon her the parent's wrong-doing till the doors of the monastery of Santa Clara at Coimbra finally closed behind her, where, whatever she might have suffered, she was ever after dead to the world. But had it been otherwise, fancy the alternative! Would this princess, the natural successor of Henry, her father, have been high-minded and far-seeing—in brief, a woman to have pledged her aid to a Columbus? Or would she not, like her father and mother, have been incapable of grand thoughts and noble decisions? The answer to the charge, that great good in this royal house grew out of evil ways, is simply this: Our Heavenly Father, by turning and checking the purposes of scheming souls, often brings finally the silver and gold, purified, from the fires which He allows to be kindled; and His time to work out justice is not the short period of a human life: it is eternity.

If the queen-mother Juana fell into meshes of sin, her husband could not justly reproach her conduct. His wicked example was followed by the courtiers and dependents, and soon from a royal house the seeds of immorality were sown broadcast, and the fruit appeared far and near among the people. Never had the kingdom in its government been in a more deplorable condition. All sorts of arbitrary acts were constantly committed or attempted by the crown and its attaches. It was entirely forgotten that ordinary people had any rights to be respected. The laws were everywhere broken, and with impunity. This period of Castile resembled a darker one of the Middle Ages, and its ill-doings could hardly be surpassed in the previous history of the Teuton hordes. Every castle seemed to have become a shelter for brigands, and many nobles by birth were no better than footpads lurking behind hedges; and, as we might suppose, money, the currency of the country, was tampered with and greatly debased. It is hard even now, under the bright sunlight of modern civilization, to keep to the inflexible standard, so that we do not wonder at the extensive weakness and ever-growing distrusts that four hundred years ago followed a failing currency.

It was at this epoch, when the country was almost in a state of dissolution, that Isabella for the first time appeared at the court of Castile. Her brother, the king, not very long after the birth of Juana, wished, in order to prevent intrigues against his throne, to have Isabella and her younger brother, Alfonso, under his own eye.

Here and there he had discovered combinations against him and against the succession of Juana, so that no one could predict what his quasi-enemies might effect should they be able to seize or hold under durance either Alfonso or Isabella. The latter could not at that time have been more than twelve or thirteen years of age. As southern women come to maturity early, and as her growth in mind and heart was favored, as we have seen, by constant intimacy with her able and experienced mother, she must have been already a woman. There is recorded a bold but pleasing legend that, when for the first time this remarkable infanta showed her little face at the court of Castile, some old hidalgo of good heart, for there were such, full of pity for his perishing country, had gazed upon her with a prophet's hope, and murmured into his heard, "Now, Lord, let Thy servant depart in peace, for my country's deliverance is at hand."