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John S. C. Abbott

Marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella

(From 1468 a.d. to 1481 a.d. )

Demands for the Hand of Isabella.—Suit of Richard, Duke of Gloucester; of the Duke of Guienne.—Claims of Ferdinand.—Opposition of Henry IV. to Ferdinand.—Marriage with Ferdinand.—Rivalry of Joanna.—Conflict between Isabella and her Brother Henry.—Coronation of Isabella.—Civil War.—Ecclesiastical Soldiers.—Career of Alfonso.—Union of Castile and Aragon.

In ratification of the compromise which the nobles had extorted from the king, Henry met his sister at a place called "The Bulls of Giusanda," so designated from four bulls having been left there, sculptured in stone, in commemoration of a victory achieved upon the spot by Julius Caesar. Henry and Isabella approached the place, each accompanied by a splendid cortege. The king, who had no occasion to be dissatisfied with his sister, embraced her tenderly, and, with imposing ceremonies, pledged to her the transmission of the crown. Soon after the Cortes assembled at Ocana, and Isabella was announced to all the courts of Europe as the successor to the thrones of Castile and Leon.

The hand of Isabella was now in greater demand by the neighboring princes than ever before. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, renowned in the annals of crime, brother of Henry IV. of England, sought, it is said, the ambitious alliance, fortunately in vain. The Duke of Guienne also, brother of Louis XI. of France, and heir-presumptive to the French monarchy, was eager, by marriage with Isabella, to unite the crowns of Castile and Leon with that of France. But this alliance, for political considerations, was rejected.

Isabella was quite disposed to consult her own inclinations, and her own sagacious judgment, in the choice of a husband, and she turned her eyes to her kinsman, Ferdinand of Aragon. The union of these two contiguous realms would indeed constitute a magnificent kingdom, homogeneous in language, manners, and religion. Ferdinand was also young, very handsome, of noble bearing, and decidedly chivalric in character—just the man to win an aspiring maiden's love.

But nothing in this world ever roes smoothly. The most successful life is made up of but a series of stern conflicts. An influential portion of the nobles espoused the cause of the infant Joanna. They appealed to the Pope for aid, and in the night nailed up against the door of Isabella's palace a protest against her claims. At the same time another party appeared, demanding the hand of Isabella for Alfonso, the widowed King of Portugal. And it was proposed to secure the support of Henry for this alliance by marrying Joanna to the son and heir of the Portuguese monarch.

The King of Portugal was of course eager to annex Castile to his throne. He accordingly, encouraged by the nobles of Castile, dispatched a very imposing embassy, with the Archbishop of Lisbon at its head, to make another attempt to secure Isabella for his bride. But he was decidedly rejected. Henry, goaded by his partisans, was much annoyed, and threatened to imprison his unyielding sister in the royal fortress at Madrid. But the citizens at Ocana, where she then resided, rallied around her for her protection. The utmost enthusiasm was inspired in her behalf. Even the boys paraded the streets with banners emblazoned with the arms of Aragon, and singing songs contemptuously contrasting the old King of Portugal with the youth and chivalry of Ferdinand. The Archbishop of Toledo, who was almost the rival of the king in wealth and power, entered warmly into the interests of Isabella and Ferdinand. The king was a man naturally good-natured, and more interested in his own sensual enjoyments than any thing else. He would probably have left his sister to her inclinations, had he not been urged onward by the haughty Marquis of Villena, who had attained an entire ascendency over his weak mind.

With these two factions it now became a struggle for power. Ferdinand would lavish the regal gifts of office upon the bishop and his friends. The King of Portugal, on the contrary, would rally around his throne the marquis and his followers. As Henry had now violated unscrupulously the treaty of the Bulls of Giusando, Isabella considered herself released from its obligations, and immediately, without consulting her brother any farther, accepted the proffered hand of Ferdinand.

The marriage articles were signed on the 7th of January, 1469. Isabella was aided in these movements by the absence of her brother and the Marquis of Villena, they both having been called to the south to suppress an insurrection. She removed her residence from Ocana to Madrigal, where, aided by a mother's sympathy, she was more favorably situated for the conduct of her important negotiations. The Marquis of Villena, however, kept a constant spy upon her, and, alarmed by the progress she was making in her plans, ordered, with the concurrence of the king, a troop of horse under the Archbishop of Seville to proceed to Madrigal and arrest her.

Isabella, informed of her peril, succeeded in communicating with the Archbishop of Toledo, when he precipitately rallied a regiment of dragoons, and advanced to Madrigal with such speed as to anticipate the marquis. The placid yet determined maiden was borne off, in military triumph, to Valladolid, where her arrival was greeted with unbounded enthusiasm by the whole population. Ferdinand was then residing at Saragossa, in Aragon, about two hundred miles east of Valladolid.

It was now the great object of the king to prevent Ferdinand from entering Castile to marry Isabella. The King of Aragon was so sorely pressed by a war with some of his insurgent nobles, and his treasury was so exhausted that be could not afford his son an armed escort sufficient to secure his safety. Ferdinand adopted the resolution to go in disguise as a merchant, diverting the attention of Henry by making very ostentatious preparations to accompany a public embassy from the Court of Aragon to that of Castile.

The small party of half a dozen merchants started on their adventurous expedition, Ferdinand assuming the dress and position of a servant, grooming the mules and serving at the table. To avoid observation, they travelled mostly by night. With great vigilance, and amidst a thousand perils, they pressed on their way, greatly embarrassed by losing one night at an inn the purse which contained all their money. At length they were met by an escort sent by Isabella for their protection. On the 9th of October Ferdinand reached Buenas, in Leon, where a large party of Castilian nobles, the friends of Isabella, with their retainers, were assembled to welcome him. The young prince, surrounded by such defenders, was now safe.

Isabella, with her little court, was a few miles distant, at Valladolid. Communications immediately passed between them, and on the evening of the 15th of October, Ferdinand, accompanied but by four attendants, rode privately from Duenas to Valladolid, where he was received by the Archbishop of Toledo and conducted to the presence of Isabella. The young prince was exceedingly handsome, but eighteen years of age, tall, fair, and with an intellectual, expanded brow. He was well educated, temperate in all his habits, of courtly manners, and so devoted to useful activity that business seemed to be his pleasure. Isabella was nineteen years of age, a beautiful blonde, of queenly figure, exquisitely chiselled features, and with mild blue eyes. "She was," says a contemporary, "the handsomest lady whom I ever beheld, and the most gracious in her manners."

Isabella was a highly educated woman for that day, speaking the Castilian language with much grace and purity, and quite well versed in the current learning of those times. After a brief lover's interview of two hours, Ferdinand returned at midnight to Duenas. Preparations were immediately made for the marriage, and their nuptials were solemnized at the palace of one of the nobles in Valladolid, on the morning of the 19th of October, 1469.


Queen Isabella.

Ferdinand having left home in disguise, and having lost his slender purse by the way, had not a copper. Isabella also, a fugitive from her brother's court, was equally unprepared for the expenses of the wedding. They however, without difficulty, borrowed the sums which were necessary; and with splendor moderately conforming to their rank, in the presence of several of the highest of the nobility and about two thousand spectators, the life-long destinies of Ferdinand and Isabella were united. For a week Valladolid resounded with merry-making, and illuminations rendered the night as brilliant as the day. An embassy was sent to Henry IV., soliciting his approbation of the match and repeating their assurances of loyalty. The king received the embassage very coldly, and replied, "I must consult with my ministers."

The Marquis of Villena and his party were thoroughly enraged at this circumvention of their plans. In the royal council it was decided to cast aside Isabella, and place the unhappy Joanna upon the throne. To strengthen the claims of the child, then but nine years of age, her hand was offered to the Duke of Guienne, one of the rejected suitors of Isabella, and brother to the infamous, but powerful and sagacious Louis XI. of France. The gallantries of the queen had been so unblushing that Joanna was universally regarded as the child of sin and shame. To obviate the inconvenience resulting from this impression, the king and queen took a solemn oath in public that Joanna was their legitimate offspring. Having submitted to this humiliation, the nobles, who were partisans of the king, took the oath of allegiance to Joanna, and she was solemnly affianced to the Duke of Guienne.

This was a heavy blow to Isabella, for all the energies of the Court of Castile, together with the influence of the monarchy of France, were combined against her reign. Ferdinand and Isabella held their little court at Duenas in the most humble style, being, like many other less princely couples, exceedingly embarrassed by the emptiness of their purse. Still the Archbishop of Toledo, with his vast revenues and his exalted ecclesiastical rank, was a powerful friend. He was, however, haughty and domineering in the extreme, and so much disposed to use Ferdinand and Isabella as the tools for his own aggrandizement that, on one occasion, the young prince indignantly said to him, "I will never submit to be put into leading-strings, like so many of the sovereigns of Castile."

In the midst of these intrigues Ferdinand received intelligence that his father, with a small force in Perpignan, was sorely pressed by the armies of the King of France. He immediately, with the cordial approval of his heroic wife, placed himself at the head of a body of Castilian horse furnished by the Archbishop of Toledo, and, hastening to Aragon, raised an army of thirteen hundred cavalry and seven thousand infantry, with which he crossed the Pyrenees in a pelting storm, and fell, like the sweep of the avalanche, upon the rear of the foe. The attack was so impetuous and so unexpected that the French, setting fire to their tents, retreated in the utmost consternation, leaving their military stores, their sick, and their wounded, to be consumed by the flames.

The father, with tears of gratitude and pride, embraced his heroic son, who had rescued him from destruction, and the two united armies fraternized in rapturous triumph within the walls of Perpignan. In the mean time the prospects of Isabella began to brighten. The Duke of Guienne, deeming Joanna's chance of obtaining the crown of Castile rather doubtful, sought the hand of the daughter of Charles, the Duke of Burgundy, in reckless contempt of his engagement with the Princess of Castile. Soon after this he was taken sick and died, under circumstances which left the impression that he was poisoned by his brother, Louis XI., a monarch who was capable of committing any crime, apparently, without a pang.

Efforts were immediately made to negotiate a marriage for Joanna with some other prince who could support her claims with military power. These efforts were, however, unavailing, for the doubts which hung over the birth of the young princess operated with melancholy force against her. Isabella, on the other hand, by the quiet energy of her character, and the wisdom of all her movements, was continually gaining friends from the most illustrious of the nobles.

The Archbishop of Seville espoused her cause. Andrew of Cabrera was governor of the impregnable citadel of Segovia, where the royal treasure was deposited. He had married the spirited Beatrice of Bobadilla, that heroic woman who had threatened to poniard the debauched old master of Calatrava, should he dare to demand the hand of Isabella against her will. Beatrice influenced him to lend his support to the cause of her former mistress. It was necessary to move with much circumspection, for Henry IV. not unfrequently resided at Segovia, and Isabella would have much occasion to fear that any advances from that quarter were indicative of treachery. Isabella was at this time at Aranda, about fifty miles north from Segovia. Beatrice dressed herself in the clothes of a peasant, and leaving the walls of the city by night, with her staff in her hand, through many romantic adventures reached the saloon of her astonished mistress, and gave her an invitation to go to Segovia, with full assurance of protection. Isabella did not hesitate to comply, and, accompanied by the Bishop of Toledo, she soon entered the iron portals of that battlemented castle, where even her royal brother would find it difficult to make a forcible entrance.

Here she, after a short time, had an interview with Henry. He, a careless, good-natured man, devoted to sensual pleasures, was but a pliant tool in the hands of others. Circumstances were now such that he easily became reconciled to his sister, manifesting his reconciliation by appearing with her in public, walking by her side, and holding the bridle of her horse as she rode through the streets of the city. Ferdinand, upon his return to Castile, was received by the monarch in Segovia with the utmost cordiality. Several days were devoted to gorgeous festivity, in testimonial of the heartiness of the reconciliation.

Not many weeks elapsed ere the other party got Henry IV. again into their power, and persuaded him to make an effort to seize the person of Isabella. In this attempt, however, he was foiled. Four years of such intrigues passed away, during most of which time Castile was engaged in petty warfare against the Moors, and Aragon was embroiled in incessant conflicts against the perfidious King of France. Henry IV. was now far advanced in years, and, after a lingering and painful sickness, died, on the 11th of December, 1474. After a brief season of hesitancy, the Castilian Cortes recognized Isabella as the successor to the crown.

Isabella was at that time in Segovia, where she was immediately proclaimed queen with the usual solemnities. On the morning of the 13th of December she was conveyed, accompanied by a very splendid escort, under a canopy of rich brocade, to one of the public squares of the city, where a platform had been reared, with gorgeous adornings, for the ceremony of coronation. Isabella rode upon a beautiful steed, whose bridle was held by two of the high officers of the crown. As she took her seat upon the elevated throne, with the eyes of a countless multitude fixed upon her, a herald cried out, with a loud voice,

"Castile, Castile for the king, Don Ferdinand, and his consort, Dona Isabella, queen proprietor of these kingdoms."

This announcement was followed by the waving of banners, the ringing of bells, the explosion of artillery, and the enthusiastic shouts of the people. The queen took the oath of office, and then repaired to the cathedral, where, after the chanting of the Te Deum, she prostrated herself before the altar and implored divine aid.

Ferdinand was at this time in Aragon, and there was earnest discussion among the dignitaries of Castile respecting the share he might be permitted to take in the administration of affairs. At length a document was very carefully prepared, declaring that Isabella alone was heir to the throne of Castile, but associating Ferdinand with her in the performance of many of the acts of royalty. Ferdinand was so much displeased with this arrangement that Isabella had no little difficulty in dissuading him from abandoning Castile and returning to his native Aragon.


The coronation of Isabella.

Though the great body of the Castilian nobles rallied around Isabella, still there were a few who adhered to the fortunes of Joanna. Some of these were lords, of immense resources, who could bring into the field large armies of retainers. Exasperated by the frustration of their plans, they applied to Alfonso V. of Portugal, urging him to marry his niece Joanna, and in her name to claim the crown, assuring him of their most cordial support. Alfonso, who had so signalized himself in the conflict with the Barbary Moors as to obtain the surname of the African, was so dazzled by the brilliant proposal as to be quite blind to the difficulties of the enterprise.

With an army of six hundred horse and fourteen thousand foot the chivalric King of Portugal invaded Castile, having sent before him a summons demanding the crown in favor of Joanna. The disaffected nobles, with their retainers in strong military array, met him at Placentia, taking with them Joanna, a child then but thirteen years of age. Here, on the 12th of May, 1475, the King of Portugal was solemnly affianced to the hapless maiden, and immediately the royal pair were proclaimed sovereigns of Castile.

Isabella, with energy and heroism rarely surpassed, prepared to meet this storm. She often spent the whole night dictating dispatches. She performed long and fatiguing journeys on horseback to visit garrison towns and confirm the allegiance of the wavering, and this when in so delicate a state of health that she came very near paying her life as the forfeit. Ferdinand lent his zealous co-operation, and early in July they were at the head of what they deemed a sufficient force to offer battle to the foe.

The two armies met at Toro, on the banks of the Douro, but about forty miles from the Portuguese frontier. On the morning of the 19th of July Ferdinand drew up his army, about forty-two thousand strong, before the walls of this renowned city of Leon, which Alfonso had captured. Ferdinand dispatched a herald to the camp of his foe, challenging him to a fair fight with his whole army, or, if he preferred, to single combat. There was a brief space of diplomacy and manoeuvring, when Ferdinand found it necessary to retreat with the utmost precipitation. At the same time the haughty Bishop of Toledo, who had been exasperated by some want of pliancy on the part of Ferdinand and Isabella to his wishes, joined Alfonso, at the head of five hundred horsemen, uttering at the same time the insulting threat,

"I have raised Isabella from the distaff, and I will soon send her back to it again."

During the whole summer the war was prosecuted with vigor, and with the usual alternations of success. Winter came, and still the hardy battalions kept the field. Early in March the two armies again met, for a decisive battle, on a plain between Toro and Zamara. There were, however, such had been the waste and dispersion of war, but about ten thousand men on either side. The two monarchs in person led their several hosts, and inspired them with the most enthusiastic bravery. Man grappled his brother-man in a hand-to-hand fight along the whole line. It is said, in attestation of the fierceness of the struggle, that the royal banner of Portugal was torn to shreds, as the combatants contested for it like famished wolves over a bone. The standard-bearer, Edward of Almeyda, having lost first his right arm and then his left, grasped the silken folds with his teeth, and held them with a gripe which death alone relaxed. The armor of this knight was preserved for ages in the Church of Toledo, in memorial of this act of heroism.

The Archbishop of Toledo on the one side, and the Cardinal of Mendoza on the other, exchanging sacerdotal robes for steel corslet, struck as sturdy blows as any belted knight upon the plain. Every sinew being strained to its utmost capacity, the strife was too desperate to last long. A storm rose; night blackened the sky; a deluge of rain fell, and a gale swept the field, strewed with the dead, and flooded with mingled water and blood. The Portuguese now were utterly routed, and escaped total destruction only by taking refuge in the darkness and the tempest.

The morning exhibited a dreadful spectacle. Multitudes of the fugitives were drowned in the swollen torrent of the Toro. The peasants had stripped the ghastly bodies of the slain, and smote down mercilessly all the Portuguese soldiers who could be found in their dispersion. Ferdinand displayed humanity quite unusual in those days, in his endeavors to arrest these horrors. He treated all his prisoners magnanimously, providing them with food and clothing, and securing their safe return to their own country.

Isabella was at Tordisillas, on the river, about twenty miles above Toro, anxiously awaiting the result of the battle. Upon receiving tidings of the decisive victory, in expression of gratitude to Heaven she ordered a procession to the Church of St. Paul, in which she walked barefooted, and in the garb of a penitent.

All the wavering now flocked to the banners of Isabella. Many of the insurgent nobles implored pardon, and were forgiven. The Bishop of Toledo and the Marquis of Villena had sinned too deeply to be thus easily pardoned. Their castles were battered down, their most important towns captured, their revenues sequestrated, their vassals taken from them, and then, thus despoiled and humiliated, their pride was still more abased by an act of forgiveness. But a few months passed ere the whole kingdom of Castile acknowledged the supremacy of Ferdinand and Isabella.

Alfonso, taking Joanna, his "virgin bride," with him, repaired to the Court of Louis XI. of France, to seek his aid in a renewal of the strife. With a small but brilliant retinue of two hundred knights, he galloped over the hills of France to the court of the French king. For a year he exhausted all the arts of diplomacy in the attempt to secure the alliance of the crafty and treacherous monarch, when, to his utter dismay, he found that Louis XI., while deluding him with the most shameless guile, had at the same time been entering into a confederacy with his mortal foes, Ferdinand and Isabella.

Alfonso was so chagrined that he had been thus duped, and was so annoyed at the thought of the ridicule he would be sure to encounter on his return to Portugal, that, with a few attendants, he secretly withdrew to a castle in Normandy, surrendering the crown to his son John. In renunciation of the throne, he wrote as follows to his son:

"As all earthly vanities are now dead in my bosom, I am resolved to lay up an imperishable crown by performing a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I shall then devote myself to the service of God in some retired monastery. I beg you, my son, to assume the sovereignty at once in the same manner as if you had heard of your father's death."

John not unwillingly assumed the crown. In five days after his coronation, to his surprise, and probably not a little to his annoyance, a fleet of French ships put in at Lisbon, and Alfonso, with his attendants, was politely sent ashore. Louis XI., the most executive of monarchs, with all the courtesy consistent with the necessary violence, had sent the Portuguese sovereign back to his dominions.

It is said that John was walking with some of his nobles upon the banks of the Tagus, when he received the unwelcome tidings of his father's return. He seemed struck with dismay, and, after a moment's reflection, turned to the Archbishop of Lisbon and said,

"How ought I to receive him?"

"How," the archbishop replied, "but as your king and father?"

John knit his brows, and, nervously picking up a stone, skimmed it over the water. The archbishop whispered to the Duke of Braganza,

"I shall take good care that that stone does not rebound upon me."

John, upon further reflection, peaceably resigned the sceptre to his father, and in chagrin abandoned Portugal and took up his residence in Rome. Alfonso, with renewed desperation, commenced warfare against Castile, hoping, by the performance of feats hitherto unparalleled in chivalry, to repair the reputation he had lost Sallying from his castles with steel-clad knights, he ravaged the western frontiers of Castile, burning mansions, robbing granaries, driving off cattle, trampling down harvests, and performing all other similar chivalric deeds, until a large portion of the province of Estremadura presented a smouldering expanse of desolation.

Ferdinand had been summoned from Castile to meet his father, the King of Aragon, upon business of momentous importance at Biscay. Isabella hastened to the seat of war, and established her head-quarters at Truxillo, where she could most easily direct operations, though the position exposed her to much personal peril. To the remonstrances of her friends she replied,

"It is not for me to calculate perils or fatigues in my own cause. I will not by unseasonable timidity, dishearten my friends. I am resolved to remain with them until the war is brought to a conclusion."

At length a reconciliation was effected between Alfonso and Isabella through the mediation of the sister-in-law of the Portuguese king, who was the maternal aunt of Isabella. By this treaty Alfonso renounced his claim to the crown of Castile and to the hand of Joanna. Ferdinand and Isabella had at this time a daughter, and also a on who was an infant. Poor Joanna was required to make her election, either to engage to marry this infant John so soon as he should be of a marriageable age, or to go into exile, or to retire to a convent and take the veil. Alonzo, one of the sons of the King of Portugal, was also affianced to Isabella, the daughter of the Castilian sovereigns.

Thus terminated the war of the succession in the signal triumph of Isabella. Joanna, youthful as she was, had become utterly weary of the world, and she decided to seek escape from all further storms by burying herself in the seclusion of the cloister. Taking upon herself the irrevocable vows, the unhappy princess descended into those tombs of an ever-living death. Alfonso himself, bitterly disappointed in his ambitious plans, soon after imitated the example of Joanna, and, renouncing the joyless sceptre, entered the bleak monastery of Varatojo. He was suddenly seized by illness, and expired on the 28th of August, 1481.

A few months before this event, on the 20th of January, 1479, the King of Aragon died, in the eighty-third year of his age; and all the extensive dependencies of Aragon, including Navarre, which the grasping old king had annexed to his domains without the shadow of justice, passed into the hands of Ferdinand. Aragon and Castile were thus united, and the foundations were laid of that great Spanish monarchy which ere long became the leading power in Europe.