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Queen Isabella I of Spain

Co-Ruler of Castile and Aragon with Her Husband Ferdinand

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Queen Isabella - 1469

Detail from an image of the royal monarchs of Spain Ferdinand and Isabella in 1469, the year of their marriage

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Queen Isabella the Catholic

Queen Isabella of Spain - called Isabella the Catholic

(c) 2001 ClipArt.com, used by permission
Queen Isabella I and Columbus

Columbus describes his plans to Isabella and Ferdinand

(c) 2001 ClipArt.com, used by permission

Known for: She was queen of Castile and León in her own right. She married Ferdinand II of Aragon, bringing the kingdoms together in what became Spain under the rule of her grandson, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.  She is known for sponsoring Columbus' voyage to the Americas, and for her role in "purifying" the Roman Catholic faith through expelling Jews and defeating the Moors.

Dates: April 22, 1451 - November 26, 1504
Occupation: Queen of Castile and Aragon, Queen of Spain.
Known as: Queen Isabella, Isabella I of Spain, Isabella of Castile and Aragon, Isabella the Catholic, Isabel la Catolica
Mother: Isabella of Portugal (1428 - 1496)
Father: John (Juan) of Castile (1405 - 1454) 

Queen Isabella Biography

Isabella was born in 1451. Her mother was Isabella of Portugal, whose father was a son of John I of Portugal and whose mother was a granddaughter of that same king.  Isabella's half-brother, Henry IV, became king of Castile when their father, John II, died in 1454. Isabella was only three years old, and her younger brother Alfonso was the next in line to the Castilian throne after Henry. Isabella was raised by her mother, Isabella of Portugal, until 1457, when the two children were brought to court by Henry IV to keep them from being used by opposition nobles.

Henry's first marriage ended without children and in a divorce. When his second wife, Joan of Portugal, bore a daughter, Juana, in 1462, the opposition nobles soon claimed that Juana was actually the daughter of Beltran de la Cueva, duke of Albuquerque. Thus, she's known in history as Juana la Beltraneja.

The opposition's attempt to replace Henry with Alfonso met with defeat, the final defeat coming in July, 1468 when Alfonso died of suspected poisoning, though historians consider it more likely he died of the plague. He had named Isabella his successor. Isabella was offered the crown by the nobles, but she refused, probably because she did not believe that she could maintain that claim in opposition to Henry.  Henry was willing to compromise with the nobles and accept Isabella as his heiress in September.

Marriage to Ferdinand

Isabella married Ferdinand of Aragon (a second cousin) in October 1469 without Henry's approval, The cardinal of Valentia, Rodrigo Borgia (later Pope Alexander VI), helped Isabel and Ferdinand obtain the necessary papal dispensation, but the couple still had to resort to pretenses and disguise to carry out the ceremony in Valladolid.  Henry withdrew his recognition and again named Juana as his heir. At Henry's death in 1474, a war of succession ensued, with Alfonso V of Portugal, prospective husband of Isabella's rival Juana, supporting Juana's claims. The war was settled in 1479, with Isabella recognized as Queen of Castile. Juana retired to a convent rather than marry the son of Ferdinand and Isabella, Juan. Juana died in 1530.

Ferdinand had by this time become King of Aragon, and the two ruled with equal authority in both realms, thus unifying Spain. Among their first acts were various reforms to reduce the power of the nobility and increase the power of the crown.

The Catholic Monarchs

In 1480, Isabella and Ferdinand instituted the Inquisition in Spain, one of many changes to the role of the church instituted by the monarchs. The Inquisition was aimed mostly at Jews and Muslims who had overtly converted to Christianity but were thought to be practicing their faiths secretly -- known respectively as morranos and moriscos -- as well as at heretics who rejected Roman Catholic orthodoxy, including alumbras who practiced a kind of mysticism or spiritualism.

Ferdinand and Isabella were given the title "the Catholic monarchs" (los Reyes Católicos) by the Pope, in recognition of their role in "purifying" the faith. Among Isabella's other religious interests, she also took a special interest in the order of nuns, the Poor Clares.

Isabella and Ferdinand proceeded with their plans to unify all of Spain by continuing a long-standing but stalled effort to expel the Moors (Muslims) who held parts of Spain. In 1492, the Muslim Kingdom of Granada fell to Isabella and Ferdinand, thus completing the Reconquista. That same year, all Jews in Spain who refused to convert to Christianity were expelled by royal edict.

Christopher Columbus and the New World

Also in 1492, Isabella was convinced by Christopher Columbus to sponsor his voyage of discovery. The lasting effects of this were many: by the traditions of the time, when Columbus discovered lands in the New World, they were given to Castile. Isabella took a special interest in the Native Americans of the new lands; when some were brought back to Spain as slaves she insisted they be returned and freed, and her will expressed her wish that the "Indians" be treated with justice and fairness.

Art and Education

Isabella was also a patron of scholars and artists, establishing educational institutions and building a large collection of art works. She learned Latin as an adult, was widely read, and educated not only her sons but her daughters. One of these daughters, Catherine of Aragon, is known in history as the first wife of Henry VIII of England and mother of Mary I of England.

Legacy

At her death, she left as her only heir "Mad Joan," Juana, her sons and grandson and her daughter, Isabella, queen of Portugal, predeceasing her. Her will, the only writing which she left, is a fascinating document, summarizing what she thought were her reign's achievements as well as wishes for the future.

Children of Isabella and Ferdinand

  1. Isabella (1470 - 1498), married first Alfonso, a Portuguese prince, then Manuel I of Portugal
  2. stillborn son (1475)
  3. John (Juan) (1478 - 1497), Prince of Asturias, married Margaret of Austria
  4. her heir, Juana (Joan or Joanna), known as "The Mad" or "La Loca" (1479 - 1555), married Philip I, bringing Spain into the Habsburg sphere
  5. Maria (1482 - 1517), married Manuel I of Portugal after the death of his first wife, Maria's older sister Isabella
  6. Maria's twin, stillborn (1482)
  7. Catherine of Aragon (1485 - 1536), first wife of Henry VIII of England

The descendants of Isabella's daughters, Juana, Catherine and Maria, often intermarried.

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Text copyright © 1999-2013 Jone Johnson Lewis.

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