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The History of Spain - Fernando and Isabel

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The shield of the History, Philosophy and Spirituality faculty of the h2g2 University. The History of Spain
First Inhabitants | The Roman Era | Visigoths | Moorish Conquest | Christian Reconquest | 1250 - 1450 | Fernando and Isabel
The Spanish Hapsburgs | The Spanish Civil War

The Capilla Real, Granada, where Fernando and Isabel are entombed.

For the most part, time rumbles on without much happening in the way of events that echo around the globe. The more remote in time and geography an event is, the less relevant and memorable it appears to us. The year 1066 will never be shaken from the consciousness of the English, or 1789 from the French, the glories of 1776 being forgotten by America, but 1945 is not likely to be forgotten by anyone.

1492 trumps them all.

A Chaotic Love

Fernando and Isabel didn't have the easiest of starts. They were born into separate dynasties of independent kingdoms in a divided peninsula. Marriages among the elite were generally devised to spread the power of a ruling family's influence, and the need to produce an heir usually outweighed any romantic notions.

The politics of the situation are rather complicated, but at the time of their meeting the Iberian peninsula was broadly divided into five kingdoms. Along the far west coast lay Portugal. A line running directly south from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean delineated the Kingdom of Aragon, with the smaller Kingdom of Navarra ruling the far northernmost part. In the south, the Moorish Kingdom of Granada held sway over a small section of the country south of the Sierra Nevada. The rest of the country, amounting to most of modern Spain, was ruled by Castile. A well-timed political marriage with Castile could turn pretenders into rulers.

The only downside as far as Castile was concerned was that a war of succession was looming between Enrique IV's half-sister, Isabel, and his daughter Juana. Juana was known as La Beltraneja, as she was reputed to be the illegitimate offspring of the queen and a courtier. It actually took the Treaty of Los Toros de Guisando to decide who would be Enrique's heir. Isabel would succeed him, as long as Enrique had a veto over her choice of husband.

Enrique had tried to marry his half-sister off on a number of occasions, and eventually the choice narrowed down to his two near neighbours - Prince Fernando of Aragon, or King Alfonso IV of Portugal. Isabel, rather unsurprisingly, chose the young and handsome Fernando over the Portuguese king, who was two decades older than her. Enrique, it turned out, preferred Alfonso.

In the initial stages of their courtship, there was little to suggest that the two young royals might eventually become Spain's most famous rulers. In fact, their union was so widely opposed that, on his way to meet her for the first time, Fernando dressed as a servant and waited on his courtiers whenever they stopped in towns and villages. The two were also first cousins, and needed special permission from the Pope in order to marry, a problem easily circumvented by a forgery put together by Fernando, his father and an archbishop. Despite this heavy opposition, the two teenage heirs were married on 19 October, 1469.

The couple's position deteriorated immediately. A seething King Enrique, who preferred joining with Portugal over Aragon, tore up the treaty and named Juana as his heir. When word reached the pope about the forged wedding document, they were excommunicated from the church as well.

In 1474, King Enrique died, and Parliament declared Isabel queen. The following year, the 13-year-old Juana married Alfonso - a marriage that was quickly annulled by the church, since he was her uncle - and the new couple laid claim to the Castilian throne. It cannot be truthfully said that the war ever raged, but the War of the Castilian Succession certainly dragged on for four years, with Castile taking on first Portugal, then France. Eventually it became clear that the war wasn't doing anyone much good, and in 1479 the women signed the Treaty of Alcáçovas. Castile and Portugal would never be united but when Fernando's father died (which happened the following year), Aragon and Castile were joined. It is often said that Portugal narrowly managed to keep her independence where Aragon narrowly lost hers.

The same treaty, incidentally, was the world's first colonial treaty, as it asserted Castile's rights to the Canary Islands and Portugal's to Madeira and the Azores.

Power and Inquisition

The little matter of the succession taken care of, Fernando and Isabel - to be remembered as Los Reyes Católicos, the Catholic Monarchs - began to shore up their power-base. Part of the instability of Iberian states lay in the way power was divided, and in Castile more than anywhere it was often unclear who was really in charge. The nobles controlled the army and parliament, while the clergy infiltrated everything. Priests often had their own private armies and had often-inappropriate privileges - for example, sons of supposedly-celibate priests could inherit their property. There was also a chaotic and often brutal approach to justice: gangs of crossbow-wielding vigilantes called the Hermandades roamed every town and village administering the law. The first of these was formed to protect pilgrims from robbers on the Camino de Santiago, but nearby towns frequently pooled their men and formed powerful leagues that often interfered in political matters. The new monarchs decided that was time they all started showing a little respect.

If there's one thing a noble can't resist, it's the offer of more land. The monarchs issued a series of decrees which took military and political power back from the nobles, in exchange for a promise of frontier lands in Andalucía. The nobles even agreed to tear down any castles that were not considered essential to the defense of Castile. The clergy were reformed under the steely gaze of Isabel's confessor, Hernando Talavera, and a new police force, Santa Hermandad, the Holy Brotherhood, was formed to replace the old local Hermandades. Within a few years, the monarchs had more than mere symbolic power. Dissent within both Castile and Aragon was subdued, and Spain was becoming more than just a geographical expression.

The most infamous aspect of the royal power-grab was the Inquisition. For centuries, Moor, Christian and Jew had lived side-by-side in Iberia with few problems, but the new nation was more than a little paranoid regarding potentially destabilising influences. Since the Jews were widely suspected of assisting with the Moorish invasion of 711 - a long time ago, certainly, but fundamentalism often has a long memory - they were the least trusted of all.

It is a common misconception that the Inquisition was an anti-Semitic institution, an idea perhaps stemming from later events. Under papal law, it was only allowed to target baptised Christians. The true targets of the Inquisition were 'false' Christians - Jews and Muslims who claimed to have converted to Christianity but continued to worship their own religions in secret. These conversos1 were not trusted by the monarchy at all. It is somewhat ironic that both Talavera and Tomás de Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor himself, were converted Jews.

The Inquisition was nothing if not brutal and unjust. Perhaps the most infamous case was of Benito García, a converso pilgrim who was returning from Santiago de Compostela. In Astorga, during an evening drinking with some locals, he was caught with a consecrated wafer in his knapsack. After six days of torture, he confessed to murdering a Christian boy with the intention of using his heart and the wafer in a diabolical ritual. García and seven co-conspirators, named under confession, were burned at the stake for the 'crime'.

A couple of interesting footnotes; the wafer found in the knapsack became a holy relic for a few decades afterward, and was even supposed to have kept the plague away from Avila in the following century. And, even though no body was ever found, a church was built to Christopher, 'The Sainted Innocent', on the spot in La Guardia where the plot was supposedly hatched.

Anyone arrested was held in solitary confinement for months on end and, if the charges were disputed, torture was used to extract confessions. Once the 'trial' had been concluded, the Inquisitors would decide on punishment. Sometimes this mean a suspended sentence or minor acts of penance, and sometimes it meant 'relaxation to the secular arm' (burning at the stake) for unrepentant or relapsing heretics. The property of anyone sentenced to death or 'reconciled2' (the next most severe punishment) would be handed over to the crown - a useful bonus for empire-building rulers.

There would then be an auto de fe (act of faith) in which all those who had been found guilty would be paraded around, hear a sermon and confess their guilt. These could go on for several hours. Afterwards, the punishments would be meted out, and those who had been punished with 'relaxation' would be burned. Anyone who had confessed at the auto de fe would be garroted first3; those who did not would be burned alive.

Estimates of deaths during the Inquisition vary widely. Hernando del Pulgar, a contemporary historian, wrote that 2,000 had been burned at the stake and 15,000 'reconciled' between 1481 and 1490. Modern studies of the records of the Acts of Faith estimate that 12,000 were condemned to death over the 300-year history of the Inquisition. Juan Antonio Llorente, the General Secretary of the Inquisition in the late 18th Century, put the figure at just over 31,000 deaths over the life of the Inquisition out of 341,000 'processed', a figure that is now considered to be too high. We will never arrive at an exact figure, but most modern scholars agree that 12,000 is a reasonable estimate, with half those deaths in the first 35 years.

1492 And All That

1492 was the most significant year in Spain's history. It was the year where a new world opened up and an old one disappeared for good. It was the most tumultuous year in a tumultuous era.

The Moors

First of all, the last Moorish kingdom of Granada fell. The writing had been on the wall since 1476, when Sultan Mulay Hassan refused to pay Granada's annual tribute to Castile, saying 'the mints of Granada no longer coin gold, but steel'. The civil war in Castile kept the Christians busy for a while, but in 1482 they took up the final crusade against the Moors. With impeccable timing, a typical Moorish family feud erupted in Granada, causing a civil war between supporters of Mulay's wife Aixa and her son Boabdil on one side and supporters of Mulay and his mistress, a concubine called Soraya, on the other. As the kingdom tore itself apart, Fernando declared 'I intend to pick this pomegranate4 seed by seed'. At first, the Castilian army struggled financially. On one occasion, Fernando was forced to cut up silver chalices used at mass to pay his men, and Isabel pawned the crown jewels and took out loans from two Jewish financiers to pay for it. The conquest of Málaga in 1487 proved crucial, however; Granada was now cut off from the sea and any hope of reinforcements. It was only a matter of time.

The huge walls of Granada meant that the Christians were unwilling to attack, and set themselves for a long siege. In November 1491, surrender terms were agreed between Boabdil and Fernando, and the Christian army entered the city on 2 January, 1492. The last Moorish kingdom had fallen.

The surrender was not unconditional. The Treaty of Granada contained 67 articles, which guaranteed the rights of Moors to be treated the same as other Spanish subjects. The treaty was rather generous, in fact, and even contained a clause offering Moors transport back to Africa courtesy of the king - and transport back again if they were not happy there within three years. Even the pope had to agree to its conditions, effectively ending the crusade.

The leniency would not last, though. A decade later, Spanish Muslims were given a choice - convert to Christianity or leave. Almost 300,000 converted, saying that 'Spain is worth a Mass', and in Muslim strongholds like Granada mass conversions took place, with holy water being sprayed over the crowds.

The Jews

Three months later, it was the turn of the Jews. The Alhambra Decree accused them of trying to subvert the 'Holy Catholic faith' and of trying to persuade conversos to abandon their new beliefs. They were given until the end of July 1492 to leave.

Expulsions of Jews were not unknown in Europe; England had done the same in 1290, and France in 1306. The aspect that makes the expulsion in Spain odd is that, uniquely in Europe, there were no previous social or economic barriers to Jews. (The expulsion of English Jews two centuries earlier, by contrast, was preceded by mass executions, seizures of property and laws prohibiting them from inheriting property or lending money.) Jews held high economic and social positions in Spain, and even the king himself was part-Jewish. It was a sudden and rather odd decision to make. Ripping out most of a country's urban middle class is rarely a clever thing to do.

There was suspicion of the Jews going back to the Visigoths and St Isidore, and cases like that of Benito García only added to the air of mistrust. These were times of real religious fervour. It may be more relevant to note, however, that the Crown was bankrupt, and that the seizure of Jewish goods provided a timely boost to the treasury. The two Jewish financiers who had bankrolled the war against the Moors, Seaneor and Abravanel5, stepped in at the last minute and offered the monarchs 600,000 reales to change their minds. According to legend, Torquemada threw down a cross before the royal couple and asked the monarchs if they'd betray their Lord for money.

Many Jews refused to leave; 60,000 converted to Christianity and risked the worst methods of the Inquisition. Another 200,000 Jews left Spain forever, scattering around the Mediterranean and becoming what are now known as 'Sephardic Jews'. Many still speak a variant of the medieval Castillian language, Ladino. Many still have the keys to their old homes in Castile, handed down from generation to generation. The few thousand that refused to do either were killed.

On 30 June, 1982, a law was passed in Spain inviting the exiles of almost 500 years to finally return home.

The New World

Though it many not have been Christopher Columbus in 1492 who discovered America, his first voyage, which landed somewhere in the Bahamas on 12 October 1492, certainly changed the world. After early explorations it became clear that it was not the East which had been found, but a whole new continent, and Spain would lay claim to most of it. Suddenly, fame and fortune were not only the birthright of the wealthy. Anyone with a spirit of enterprise and adventure could lay claim to part of the New World. The colonial era had begun.

Uniting Spain

For all the power the monarchs had gained, Castile and Aragon were still only united by their marriage. The royal motto was 'Tanto monta, monta tanto, Isabel como Fernando' - 'she counts as much as he does, she counts as much as he does' - but neither would have power over the other's kingdom on their death. When that happened, the union would crumble. They also needed to try to outflank their regional rival, France and, like most rulers of parts of Iberia, dreamed of uniting the whole peninsula under one flag.

Although it was said by none other than his royal secretary that Fernando was 'given to taking advice, especially that of the queen', he proved a wily power-broker. He married off all his children to forge alliances with other European powers and, since four of their five children went on to become queens, it seems he was successful.

The one who didn't was their only son, Juan, who married Margaret, princess of the Hapsburgs. According to legend, the two were incredibly passionate lovers, and royal doctors even suggested that the two should sleep apart. Isabel refused this advice, saying 'I cannot separate those who God has joined' - and, six months later, Juan was dead6. His wife was pregnant at the time, but the child was stillborn. And there, seemingly, lay the end of an heir to both Castile and Aragon.

Their eldest daughter, Isabel, had a rather short and tragic life which reads like a badly-written soap opera. In 1490, at the age of 20, she married Afonso, the Crown Prince of Portugal. Their marriage was brief; Afonso died in a horse-riding accident the following year, and a heartbroken Isabel returned to Spain, determined to join a convent. In 1497, against her wishes, she was sent back to marry Afonso's uncle, Manuel I, King of Portugal. A year later, she died in childbirth. Her child, Miguel da Paz, was heir to both Portugal and Spain, and the countries would have been united had he not died at the age of two. Manuel found happiness in 1501 with Isabel's sister, Maria, who did rather better. She gave birth to ten children, eight of whom survived to adulthood.

To English readers, the most famous of the royal children was Catherine7 of Aragon, who married Henry VIII. They were married for 24 years before Henry had the marriage annulled on the basis that she had failed to produce a male heir; ironically, their daughter, Mary, took the English throne in 1553.

And that leaves Juana. Juana married Hapsburg Archduke Philip on the same day her brother married his sister in 1497 and, within 11 years, had given birth to four queens and two emperors. Philip was a notorious playboy, and Juana was driven to despair by his constant womanising. She became known as La Loca - Juana the Mad - but ruled Castile for over half a century.

Queen Isabel died in 1504 and, with no joint heir to the Castilian and Aragonese thrones, the union was dissolved. Although Isabel's last testament allowed Fernando to rule as regent in the event that Juana was incapable of ruling, she was also quite clear that Castile would remain in the hands of her heirs, not his8. In fact, since Juana was living in Burgundy with her husband, Fernando did briefly become regent until Philip threatened war. Fernando backed down, and instead sought to produce an heir to the Aragonese throne with his new wife, the teenaged Germaine de Foix of France. It looked as though the union was over.

There was to be one final dynastic twist. Philip died suddenly of typhoid fever in 1506, leaving his six-year-old son Charles of Ghent heir to Castile's throne. Juana was mortified and suffered a total mental collapse. She toured the country with Philip's decomposing body in a hearse for several months after being told by a monk that he would revive, occasionally opening the coffin to check if the corpse had revived. Even so, she was still queen. In 1509 she went into seclusion near Tordesillas, near Valladolid, and agreed to allow Fernando to rule in her stead.

Fernando's final years were characterised by wily diplomacy, skilfully playing one foe off against another for his own gain. When told that the French king had complained that Fernando had lied to him twice, he replied 'I lied to him not twice, but ten times'. But he could not produce an heir for Aragon.

On Fernando's death in 1516, in fact, Aragon and Castile were reunited. Juana the Mad had, in all this dynastic jiggery-pokery, ended up as the heir to both thrones and, as she was interned indefinitely with madness, her son Charles became Carlos I of Spain. Since Fernando had completed the conquest of what is now modern Spain in 1512 by annexing Navarra, his kingdom was a large one. At a stroke, Spain was united, and not only that, but its ruler also controlled great swathes of Europe - from the Netherlands to Italy. Spain had finally arrived, and not just as a European power, but as a world power.


It is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on Fernando and Isabel's influence, not just on Spain, but on the wider world. They turned a land of in-fighting city states into one of the most powerful nations in Europe. Castile's armies, reformed by Fernando and led by the legendary Gonzalo Fernandez de Córdoba, would not lose a battle for over 100 years. Their explorers would soon control most of the Americas. they finally got rid of the Moors and even invaded Africa, establishing colonies at Melilla and Ceuta that survive to this day. They revolutionised the political system and reformed the clergy. In fact, they not only caught up with the progress made by their European rivals, but arguably surpassed their achievements.

Isabel has been put on the road to canonisation by the Catholic Church; a move which seems, at best, a little insensitive given the monarchs' treatment of Jews. However, there can be little argument with the description of Fernando, written by Nicolo Machiavelli in The Prince, explaining why Fernando is his model prince:

Nothing makes a prince so much esteemed as great enterprises and setting a fine example. We have in our time Fernando of Aragon, the present King of Spain. He can almost be called a new prince, because he has risen, by fame and glory, from being an insignificant king to be the foremost king in Christendom; and if you will consider his deeds you will find them all great and some of them extraordinary. In the beginning of his reign he attacked Granada, and this enterprise was the foundation of his dominions. He did this quietly at first and without any fear of hindrance, for he held the minds of the barons of Castile occupied in thinking of the war and not anticipating any innovations; thus they did not perceive that by these means he was acquiring power and authority over them. He was able with the money of the Church and of the people to sustain his armies, and by that long war to lay the foundation for the military skill which has since distinguished him. Further, always using religion as a plea, so as to undertake greater schemes, he devoted himself with a pious cruelty to driving out and clearing his kingdom of the Moors; nor could there be a more admirable example, nor one more rare. Under this same cloak he assailed Africa, he came down on Italy, he has finally attacked France; and thus his achievements and designs have always been great, and have kept the minds of his people in suspense and admiration and occupied with the issue of them. And his actions have arisen in such a way, one out of the other, that men have never been given time to work steadily against him.
1Jewish conversos were known as marranos, or 'swine', and the Muslims moriscos (Moor-like').2Flogging, life imprisonment, enslavement... a hefty penance in return for forgiveness.3Strangled with an iron collar.4Granada means 'pomegranate' in Castilian.5Also spelled Abarbanel and Abrabanel.6It is also possible that he died of tuberculosis, but that isn't as good a story.7Or, more correctly perhaps, 'Katherine'.8Fernando had at least six illegitimate children.

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