When authors choose their subjects for the biographies they plan to write, I wonder how many of them ask themselves the simple question: How much did this individual accomplish in his/her lifetime? Few individuals, I would suggest, can compare with the array of items on the “To Do List” of Queen Isabella of Castile (1451—1504). In this sense, author Kirstin Downey chose her subject wisely.
Isabella had little down-time in her eventful life yet things started off rather quietly for her. Isabella, a girl (obviously), 2nd child of King John II of Castile and Isabella of Portugal was not expected to rule and her birth was not celebrated or even widely known in her homeland of Castile y Leon. Yet by the whims and quirks of historical circumstances, and with no small measure of guile, planning, courage and luck, Isabella ascended to the throne. Actually, amidst the succession mayhem that ensued upon the death of King Enrique, she essentially crowned herself. You would have to dust off some very old history books in search of a precedent for a female as sole ruler of a kingdom in Iberia, or any place in all of Europe for that matter. Names such as Urraca and Queen Berenguela are Iberian figures from the deep middle ages, figures obscured by time. Isabella was acutely aware of the rarity of what she was trying to accomplish; she wanted to be THE queen with ultimate say regarding the affairs of Castile (her husband Ferdinand had ultimate say in Aragon, it was how they worked out their particular marital arrangement). Queens did rule in Europe but only at the pleasure of their husbands, the Kings, who ensured the populace bent their collective knees when the female royal so ordered.
Life as queen of a troubled kingdom was not easy. A war with Portugal, not to mention appeasing many disgruntled Spanish Grandees, was her introduction to high-stakes politics in the Renaissance age. But she handled matters effectively. Isabella had grit and determination in abundance. Besides overseeing a war abroad against the king of Portugal over her succession and dealing with the bitter rivalries of nobles and courtiers at home, what else occupied the time of the Queen of Castile? To begin, she initiated and completed the conquering of Granada (the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian peninsula), she sponsored the voyages of a wannabe explorer named Christopher Columbus with his tantalizing plan to sail to India by crossing the Atlantic Ocean, she brought considerable pressure to bear on Papal elections (the notorious Pope Alexander VI, patriarch of the influential Spanish Borgia family, was a sometimes friend-sometimes enemy of Isabella), she helped keep the powerful French armies out of Aragon, she was instrumental in organizing a pan-Christian-European response to the very aggressive Ottoman Empire. If this seems like a lot for a person to handle in one lifetime, you would be absolutely correct. Yet Isabella had more on her plate. Columbus, as we know, didn’t land in India he landed on the as-yet unknown (to Europeans) continents of the Americans. Isabella alone among European monarchs was first to realize the magnitude of the discovery and its future possibilities. Now she added to her already busy schedule the colonization of the “new world.” Isabella was also principally responsible for bringing the cultural spirit of the Renaissance to the Iberian Peninsula. She had a deep appreciation for the value of art and education and felt keenly her own lack of education; her parents didn’t think educating her beyond the intricacies of needlepoint was worthwhile. Isabella insisted that all of her children (girls included) receive the best education Spanish gold could buy. She accomplished more, too much for me to list for you here. You’ll have to read the book if your curious.
Downey’s book does a very good job bringing Isabella to life. The author pays particular attention to the challenges Isabella faced as a woman in a man’s world. This aspect of Isabella’s life story does not define her, but it was a major theme throughout her life. Isabella: The Warrior Queen is a rags to riches tale featuring a very gutsy, likable heroine and is recommended for fans of royal biographies and Spanish history buffs.