Queen Isabella of Spain is remembered as being a brilliant logistician, so good at strategizing and outfitting her troops for war that she often emerged victorious. She fought a great deal—her family for the right to rule, Portugal for land and eminence, Muslims to retake occupied territory. She was a strong patron of the arts, curious in intellectual debate, and an ardent Catholic, an unusual combination of traits in any century. Any reader who appreciates history will appreciate Downey’s effort to place Isabella and her contemporaries in the context of world history.
One thing Downey doesn't address is whether the example of Isabella's rule began the recognition of the need for separation of church and state in Western governments. The Catholic Church during Isabella's rule became increasingly corrupt and separated from its teachings, and orders from Isabella on the need to bring Jews and Muslims residing in Spain (conversos) into the Catholic fold became the notoriously punitive Inquisition. Isabella may have been a pious and reasonable leader, but her directives were lost in execution. Downey does share the origin stories of people or events we may have heard bits of in our lives but never knew where to find the references:
Monty Python: The Monty Python skit of the soldier who first loses a leg, then an arm, then another arm…you know it…was based on the struggles of Portuguese soldier, Duarte de Almeida, to keep the Portuguese flag flying in the Battle of Toro against Ferdinand and Isabella, who were thought to be illegally seizing the throne in Castile.
"It was difficult to recount later exactly what happened because the Portuguese and Castilian accounts differed...the Castilians seized the battle flag, the royal standard of Portugal, despite the valiant efforts of a Portuguese soldier, Duart de Almeida, to retain it. Almeida had been holding the flag aloft in his right arm, which was slashed from his body, and so he transferred the pendant to his other arm and kept fighting. Then his other arm was cut off, and he held the flag in his teeth until he finally succumbed to death."
Count Dracula: Mehmed the Conquerer was determined to expand the Ottoman Empire and conquered Constantinople in 1453. Mehmed renamed the city Istanbul and swore to take Rome within two years. He didn’t, but he managed to take Athens and Corinth and Serbia. In 1462, as Mehmed was attempting to subdue the geographical region of Romania, then called Wallachia, Mehmed came up against his father’s former hostage, Vlad, who had been beaten and abused in the Turkish court and then sent back to Wallachia to rule. “Vlad fought Mehmed ferociously, earning himself the name of Vlad the Impaler, the prototype for the character that came to be known as Count Dracula. He is estimated to have killed tens of thousands of people, partly in efforts to repel the Turks. He was finally assassinated.”
The game of chess: "Chess was enormously popular in Spain during Isabella’s rule…and soon after the battle [of Almeria during the Reconquest], the Queen became the single most powerful piece on the chessboard, able to move great distances in all directions, her mission is to protect and defend the key piece on the board, the King. Some versions of chess had had a Queen figure before Isabella’s birth, but it was at this time that the fame, originally invented in India, underwent a complete metamorphosis and the queen became a dominant figure. The changes in the game were chronicled in a popular book on the new rules of chess, published in Salamanca about 1496, written by Ramirez de Lucena. He described the game now as “queen’s chess,” and her new powers allowed her to “advance as far as she liked, as long as her path was clear.” Queen Isabella had memorialized herself as a powerful player in the game of war."
1492 was the year that Americans have enshrined as the year Columbus discovered North America. But in Spain, it is the year that Isabella and Ferdinand finally took back Granada, after the fighting of many years, from the Muslim Nasrid dynasty. “The victory over Granada won acclaim for Isabella and Ferdinand throughout Europe, because it was the first significant triumph against Islam in hundreds of years, and to many Europeans, it was partial payback for the loss of Constantinople.” Cristóbal Colón “was at Granada when the city finally fell to the Christians [to petition the Queen]...but court scholars once again rejected Columbus’s proposal as unsound.” Shortly after meeting with the Queen in Granada, however, the Queen sent a messenger after Columbus, reaching him about ten miles outside of Granada. The trip was approved. Three well-known mariners, the Pinzon brothers, agreed to sign on in leadership positions. Juan de la Costa brought his own ship, Santa Maria. They left August 3, 1492, and sighted land in the Caribbean on October 12, 1492.
Cristóbal Colón: Christopher Columbus was a dreamer with a streak of madness. He wrote in cipher, signed his name in and “indecipherable combination of letters and images.” He heard “voices in the air,” and spent many hours writing feverishly in the margins of books, developing his theories. “…although Columbus showed himself to be an excellent mariner, he was also exposed as a terrible administrator and a man of poor judgement…he faced an almost constant sequences of mutinies among his crew…Columbus’s ferocity in dealing with the Indians was a direct contradiction of his orders from Queen Isabella about how to interact with them…Columbus was viewed with a measure of contempt…Columbus had become very unpopular…at court, and it was getting more difficult for others to stand up for him…He compounded his own problems by denying what was patently obvious. He had promised the sovereigns that he would find a path to the Orient, He had stumbled on something large and important, but it was not the Indies.”
Syphilis Downey makes a case for the notion that Columbus’s returning ship brought the disease to Europe in 1493.
The Inquisition initially began as an attempt to ferret out insincere Christians, and to correct them. Those deemed unrepentant were burned at the stake, the traditional penalty for heresy. The thing was, Spain was filled with Muslims and Jews as a result of previous conquests. Many declared themselves to be Christians to get along, but retained their old customs and methods of worship. “The governing principle of an Inquisition is that failing to conform to religious and political norms is treason. In Isabella’s age, church and state were one—religious authority and secular power were intermingled….Historians once believed that immense numbers of people were burned at the stake, but more recent scholarship has cast doubt on those assertions…There is no questions that during Isabella’s reign, hundreds of people were put to the flame, probably at least 1,000…” Isabella chose a religious zealot, Cisneros, as archbishop of Toledo, the most important and powerful cleric in Spain. With this, she “put her kingdom on a less tolerant and more religious path,” leading to excesses in the Inquisition.
Cesare Borgia: Isabella was a devout Catholic and was pleased when Rodrigo Borgia ascended to the papacy in August 1492, the second time a Spaniard managed to do so. However, Borgia, who had taken the name of the Greek conquerer Alexander IV, proved himself a corrupt and promiscuous pontiff, fathering a vast number of “beautiful and intelligent” children whom he squired to important ranks in society. Cesare, “the cynical man whom Machiavelli called a political genius,” was one of these.
Bonfire of the Vanities took place in Florence, Italy during Lent in 1497 and 1498 when an Italian preacher, determined to rid the Catholic church of corruption, convinced crowds to burn objects that represented human vices and unnecessary luxury. “Items thrown into the bonfire included rich clothing, mirrors, playing cards, and paintings of books, some of which represented pornography but others of which were great works that represented the celebration of sensuality at the heart of the Italian Renaissance.”
Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 and returned to Portugal with Indian and Asian spices, just about the time Isabella’s daughter, Maria, married Manuel, King of Portugal. Queen Isabella was at the end of her reign, but now that her daughter was Queen of Portugal, “together they ruled over much of the world, and wealth poured into their countries.” Isabella had always been a patron of the arts, commissioning paintings to mark major victories or family events.
Catherine of Aragon was Isabella’s fourth daughter. She was wed to Britain’s Prince of Wales, Arthur, but it is uncertain whether or not the marriage was consummated before Arthur died of the plague in 1502. It was suggested that she marry Arthur’s brother Henry instead of returning to Spain, but in order to do so, Isabella needed a papal dispensation from the Pope she had begun to hate for his excesses, Pope Alexander IV (Rodrigo Borgia). King Ferdinand therefore drafted the request, and after two years the dispensation returned from Italy and was subsequently sent to England.
When Isabella died in 1504, “even her enemies in other countries recognized her [as] one of the wisest and most honourable persons in the world.” In the prosaic way we might recognize today, her son dumped her vast collection of jewels and worldly goods, selling them far below market value so that they were later resold piecemeal at far higher prices. Her priceless collection of paintings was salvaged in part by a daughter-in-law, Margaret, “who bought many of the paintings of Christ’s life,” which were kept as a set. “Today most of them remain in Madrid’s Royal Palace; the rest are part of the treasured collections of major art museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington.”
I am not a historian, but historically-minded readers will find her popular history filled with possibilities for further investigation. The back and forth nature of writing history is probably the best way to record all the events in a certain time period, but sometimes, with the detail, I didn't always get a clear view of chronology, or a snapshot of a moment in time. I read the paper copy and listened to the audio version published by Random House and narrated by Kimberly Farr. Both Downey and Farr did a herculean job.
You can buy this book here: Tweet