HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Isabella of Castile: Europe’s First Great Queen’ by Giles Tremlett

In 1474, a twenty-three year old woman ascended the throne of Castile, the largest and strongest kingdom in Spain. Ahead of her lay the considerable challenge not only of being a young, female ruler in an overwhelmingly male-dominated world, but also of reforming a major European kingdom that was riddled with crime, corruption, and violent political factionism. Her marriage to Ferdinand of Aragon was crucial to her success, bringing together as it did two kingdoms, but it was a royal partnership in which Isabella more than held her own. Her pivotal reign was long and transformative, uniting Spain and laying the foundations not just of modern Spain, but of the one of the world’s greatest empires.
With authority and flair, acclaimed historian Giles Tremlett relates the story of this legendary, if controversial, first initiate in a small club of great European queens that includes Elizabeth I of England, Russia’s Catherine the Great, and Britain’s Queen Victoria.

cover and blurb via amazon

~~

I love Giles Tremlett’s work so I was greatly looking forward to this book. Isabella of Castile is 600 pages of history, kindly broken up into a timeline of an extraordinary life. Isabella is a well-known figure, and so there are persistent stereotypes of her character, ranging from a vicious religiously-driven invader, to courageous and fierce woman, to powerful and saintly queen.The kingdom of Castile had seen its fair share of powerful queens in its time, with varying results, so when Isabella stepped up to rule, not as a regent wife, but on her own, things were bound to get hectic and history, always written by men, has varied in its narrative.

The book opens with Isabella’s early life in the court of her much older half-brother, Enrique IV. Both Enrique and their father, Juan II, were not great rulers, so Castile was in chaos, and Enrique had ruled the same as his father – weak and easily influenced by others. So, when Enrique died, there was little in the way of support for Isabella, either from royalty, wealthy land-owning grandees or the church to support a female ruler. But Isabella was determined to rule, and rule on her own terms, becoming a fierce leader that would be remembered for all time.

Europe was ready to emerge from the middle ages. Plague was wiping out so many people, so many that the illness was contributing to the feudal system collapsing. Ottoman rulers were conquering and Castile was hoping for Christianity to be their great saviour in a difficult time. The land known as Spain today was filled with Christians, Muslims and Jews, and the notion of a stable mix was a pipe dream.

Even before Isabella was a queen, she was a princess with a plan. There are writings of romance between her and the princely heir of Aragon named Ferdinand, Spain’s other great Christian power. But Isabella married with a pragmatic approach, and relished in the display of her bloodstained bed sheets after the wedding. People hated Enrique and his new rules; Isabella was a traditionalist. While Isabella and Ferdinand were planning their alliance while producing heirs, another Spaniard named Rodrigo Borgia was trying to get onto the papal throne, an ally to Enrique. Spain’s kingdoms were in turmoil on levels often ignored in the story of Isabella’s life.

Isabella politely grieved her awful brother when Enrique died in 1474, and Isabella, in her magnificent walled city of Segovia, was officially made the queen in her own right. It was not long before Ferdinand became king in Aragon. Many thought Ferdinand could not rule his kingdom as well as his wife’s, and she was not capable of doing so alone. Only months after their crownings, war came to the southern areas, which Isabella was able to command on her own. Yet Isabella also found time to bear a son and heir to two kingdoms in 1478. Isabella and Ferdinand had much to control over an enormous area and were making their mark in doing so.

The book delves deep into the southern wars before Isabella and Ferdinand conquered Granada in 1492, exiling the Muslims from Al-Andaluz and creating (approximately) the Spain we know today. Then came the Spanish Inquisition to expel all the Jews, the Muslims who had been forced to convert, and Columbus’ missions to what was the Americas rather than Asia. Isabella gave birth to five children, and suffered the event of the death of her eldest son and heir, Juan, in 1497, meaning Juana (yes, the mad one) was the ruler of Castile, Aragon and Al-Andaluz, now all one nation. Juan’s pregnant wife miscarried the precious child which would have inherited. Isabella had seven children, but one was a stillborn son early on, and another loss of was a twin sister to another daughter who survived. Two of Isabella’s daughters, first Isabella then Maria, married the King of Portugal, and Catherine famously married Arthur Tudor as the century changed. Isabella died of illness in 1504, after enduring a number of years suffering from personal loss.

Isabella was a powerful ruler, understood the limitations of her gender (by their standards), had her name blackened by historians and Italian haters, and was pious yet vicious with her Inquisition. She raged when her husband strayed – frequently – and took no lovers of her own. Isabella’s story is all about power, and she was truly worthy of the opportunity to rule. Thank you to Tremlett for putting all of Isabella’s story together, not just the well-known parts. No part of any book written by this author will disappoint.

Advertisements

NOVEMBER SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Moor’s Last Stand’ by Elizabeth Drayson

The Moor’s Last Stand presents the poignant story of Boabdil, the last Muslim king of Granada. Betrayed by his family and undermined by faction and internal conflict, Boabdil was defeated in 1492 by the forces of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of the newly united kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. The Christian victory marked the completion of the long Christian reconquest of Spain and ended seven centuries in which Christians, Muslims and Jews had, for the most part, lived peacefually and profitably together. Five centuries after his death, Boabdil continues to be a potent symbol of resistance to the forces of western Christendom, and his image endures in contemporary culture.

Elizabeth Drayson presents a vivid account of Boabdil’s life and times and considers the impact of his defeat then and now.

cover and blurb via amazon

~~

The Moor’s Last Stand focuses on Boadbil, who suffered the great loss of the Alhambra and city of Granada to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. While the year is most known for that idiot Columbus stumbling off to find Asia and instead becoming a toxic force in the Americas, what happened to Spain itself is a great tale all on its own.

Much is made of Spain before the period of Ferdinand and Isabella’s ethnic cleansing. It is so often said the Muslims, Jews and Christians were living together in mostly harmony. In Boabdil’s Granada, Christians were slaves, or people tolerated by the free population. People were ‘protected’ by their monarchs, as Isabella believed, and so sought to ‘free her people’, which included Jews, who were owned by her – as she thought, anyway.

Moors (or Saracens as they called themselves) were about 30% of Aragon population, where Ferdinand reigned, used for labour, a commodity to be owned and keep the Christians rich. They ‘converted’ after the expulsion of Boabdil from Spain, and while this conversion was claimed as voluntary, we all know it was not. Christian scholars around Europe considered Spain to be filled with faithless Jews and baptised Moors (their words, not mine), which started the exclusion of the Jews, 300,000 people booted from their homes, many killed over the course of the Spanish Inquisition. While the Inquisition is used mostly in jokes these days, what went on in Spain through forced conversions, the hunting of Muslims and the expulsion of Jews is a subject usually only measured through the success of the Christian successors.

The story of Boabdil is a beautiful book indeed. The Nasrid dynasty is fleshed out by the author. The story tells of Boabdil’s father who took a Christian slave girl as a wife, destroying Boabdil’s mother, and the sons turned from their father, the family all forced to take sides. Boadbil ruled the Muslim south from the Alhambra, and while he was not great in war (captured twice), he did delight on declaring war on his own relatives. This infighting was just a greater force as the Christian ‘conquest’ of Granada in 1492. The moment where Boabdil stopped at the now-named Slope of Tears, the famous words from his mother were uttered – “You do well, my son, to cry like a woman for what you couldn’t defend like a man.” But Boabdil surrendered his city under the terms that Moors would not have to become Christians, and was given the Alpujarra mountains outside Granada, though he was later forced to leave Spain for Africa from the same spot his ancestors came to Spain 700 years earlier.

Naturally, all terms of surrender were broken and the Moors were forced to convert, or were killed or chased away. But, much to Ferdinand and Isabella’s disgust no doubt, the hidden spots of the Islamic rule in Spain still exist today. Spain could have been a powerhouse throughout Europe had the Moors not been turned out. Land would not have been abandoned and barren, art and medicine would not have been forced back in time, the Muslims and Jews not slaughtered and crushed, their cultures and ideas not blacklisted. Thank you to the author for approaching the fight of 1492 from an angle that is easy to read and yet fully explains the other side of the Ferdinand and Isabella conquest.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Game of Queens’ by Sarah Gristwood

Sixteenth-century Europe saw an explosion of female rule. From Isabella of Castile, and her granddaughter Mary Tudor, to Catherine de Medici, Anne Boleyn, and Elizabeth Tudor, these women wielded enormous power over their territories, shaping the course of European history for over a century. Across boundaries and generations, these royal women were mothers and daughters, mentors and protégées, allies and enemies. For the first time, Europe saw a sisterhood of queens who would not be equaled until modern times.

A fascinating group biography and a thrilling political epic, Game of Queens explores the lives of some of the most beloved (and reviled) queens in history.

cover and blurb via amazon

~~

Sarah Gristwood has written a superb book detailing the lives of incredible queens from England, Spain. France, The Netherlands and Hungary, starting with Isabella of Spain through to Elizabeth I. Without sounding like I am hero-worshipping, this biography is perfection.

Isabella of Spain was unlike any queen before her. She had inherited Castile in her own right, married the king of Aragon and became the warrior leader needed to invade southern Spain and conquer it for the Christians. The example as a female leader set a standard for her daughters, including Katherine, who would go on to be queen of England.

The beauty continues as the book does not solely tell the tales of English queens (though Queen Katherine crushing of the Scots is brilliant, as is Margret Tudor on the Scots side with all her turmoil), other countries and their female leaders are given much page-time. Marguerite of Navarre is detailed, describing the intriguing relationship with her brother Francis I and her own mother, Louise of Savoy. Her diplomatic skills are recognised, along with her role in the Protestant Reformation. Marguerite also tutored Anne Boleyn, noting how Anne’s birth was her downfall, as she knew when to push forward but not when to hold back, not born into a royal role.

Mary of Hungary is a great addition to the book. With her strong noble family, she was a queen in Hungary as well as governor of the Netherlands in her own right. Mary of Guise is displayed as astute in Scotland, and Catherine de Medici’s long life ruling over France is beautifully written. A bastard daughter risen to be a wife of a second son instead became the French queen and was able to steer own family in ruling the nation.

Queenship is regularly overshadowed by kingly pursuits, when history can lavish us with wise, educated women. Religion plays out over every tale, where it could help steer these queens, guide or justify their behaviour and aid them in keeping their kingdoms alive. While the fate of women was always in the hands of male family members, these women took the hand they were dealt and ruled, an example to everyone.

Gristwood’s book is flawless and I would recommend it to absolutely everyone.