Renaissance and Reformation Isabel I, Queen of Castile
by
Cristina Guardiola-Griffiths
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0395

Introduction

Isabel I of Castile, also known as Isabel the Catholic (Spanish: Isabel la Católica) was born 22 April 1451 and died 26 November 1504. Isabel I was born in Madrigal de las Altas Torres to John II of Castile and his second wife, Isabel of Portugal. Isabel’s introduction to court life and politics began at age ten when she and her younger brother, Alfonso, joined her half-brother, Henry IV, at court. Records suggest that the children were pawns in the plots and palace intrigue surrounding Henry and Castilian nobility. The latter would openly rebel against Henry and place Alfonso on the throne. His early death in 1468 left Isabel and her niece, Juana la Beltraneja, as the only heirs to the throne. The War of Castilian Succession (1475–1479) was fought to determine the ruler of Castile. Isabel married Fernando V of Aragon in October 1469. The terms of her sovereignty were agreed upon with the Concordia de Segovia (January 1475). Weighing heavily on these terms was the Catholic Monarchs’ sole female heir, Isabel. The queen later bore three more daughters, Juana, Maria, and Catalina. The birth of their son, Juan, in 1478 temporarily calmed the insecurities brought about by female sovereignty. Isabel and Fernando are credited with consolidating monarchic power through the development of a standing militia (the Santa Hermandad), a reorganization of the royal council (Consejo Real), and financial and spiritual reform. The year 1492 has become intrinsically associated with their rule. During that year, the monarchs conquered the Muslim kingdom of Granada (2 January), a major step toward their goal of religious homogeneity in their kingdoms. Generous terms of the treaty marking the end of this war were followed quickly by abuses and forced conversions. Tensions between Christians and Jews since the late 14th century culminated in an edict promulgating their expulsion (31 March). The first Castilian grammar (18 August) was published the same year as Columbus’s first journey across the Atlantic (12 October), presciently acknowledging how the growth of an empire is enabled through language. The latter years of Isabel’s reign are marked by personal loss. The death of her only son in 1497 was the first of many deaths that would again call into question the future of the Castilian throne.

Contemporary Biographies

Given the import of Columbus’s voyages to America, much has been written about Isabel I of Castile. Isabel’s youth is carefully detailed in Val Valdivieso 1974. The definitive edition of her life and reign is still Azcona 1993, although a more modern edition is available under a slightly different title. The extent to which the Catholic Monarchs have been treated collectively rather than as individual sovereigns limited the scope of their individual biographies until the quincentenary anniversary of Isabel’s death in 2004. Most of the modern biographies not only describe the events that mark the queen’s reign, but also attempt to underscore her character. In this manner, they provide a more complete picture of the life and times of the Catholic Monarch. See especially Fernández Álvarez 2003, Pérez 2004, Pérez-Samper 2004, Ruiz-Domènec 2004, and Suárez 2004. One of the earliest modern biographies is Prescott 1893. English scholars of Isabel should rely on Liss 2004. For the most recent biographies of both monarchs, see Edwards 2005 and Suárez 2004.

  • Azcona, Tarsicio de. Isabel la Católica: Estudio crítico de su vida y su reinado. Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1993.

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    This third edition expands significantly upon the 1964 first edition. It is still the go-to biography for Isabelline scholars. A more accessible version of this biography has been published in multiple editions by La Esfera de los Libros under the title, Isabel la Católica: Vida y reinado.

  • Edwards, John. Ferdinand and Isabella. New York: Pearson, 2005.

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    Edwards’s book focuses on the couple rather than the individual. As such, it discusses the dynamics and practice of a shared sovereignty.

  • Fernández Álvarez, Manuel. Isabel la Católica. Madrid: Espasa Forum, 2003.

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    Engaging and readable biography of the Catholic monarch that touches upon all the important times of Isabel’s reign.

  • Liss, Peggy K. Isabel the Queen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

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    Excellent biography, in English, for serious scholars. Revised from the 1992 Oxford University Press edition.

  • Pérez, Joseph. Isabelle la Catholique: Un modèle de chrétienté? Paris: Payot, 2004.

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    A concise biography of the Catholic monarch that treats the questions of Isabel’s saintliness, given the revived attempts to beatify the queen in 2004. The author discusses the controversial events of her life and reign, and refers to less well-known events (such as Fernando considering marrying Juana la Beltraneja after Isabel’s death), in an attempt to balance the recognition of the queen’s political achievements with her famed piety.

  • Pérez-Samper, María Ángeles. Isabel la Católica. Barcelona: Plaza & Janés, 2004.

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    Biography about the queen written for the five-hundredth-year anniversary of her death. Pérez-Samper’s work delves into the well-known moments of her life and discusses their transformational effects.

  • Prescott, William H. History of the Reign of Fernando and Isabella, the Catholic. 3 vols. Philadelphia: David Kay, 1893.

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    One of the earliest comprehensive, modern biographies of the Catholic Monarchs.

  • Ruiz-Domènec, José Enrique. Isabel la Católica o el yugo del poder. Barcelona: Ediciones Península, 2004.

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    The work claims not to be a biography, but rather a psychological portrait of Isabel I of Castile.

  • Suárez, Luis. Los reyes católicos. Barcelona: Ariel, 2004.

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    Biography of the reign of Ferdinand and Isabel in which the events of their reign are analyzed according to the rule and role of each monarch.

  • Val Valdivieso, María Isabel del. Isabel la Católica, princesa (1468–1474). Valladolid, Spain: Instituto “Isabel la Católica” de Historia Eclesiástica, 1974.

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    Exhaustive study of Isabel’s youth through her proclamation as sovereign queen of Castile. This author makes accessible more than fifty documents from various Spanish libraries and archives, and with them reassesses Isabel’s claims to the Castilian throne.

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