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Oliver Otis Howard

Marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand

"Friends were assembled together; the Elder and Magistrate also

Graced the scene with their presence, and stood like the Law and the Gospel,

One with the sanction of earth and one with the blessing of Heaven.,

Onward the bridal procession now moved to their new habitation,

Happy husband and wife, and friends conversing together."


Journey to Duenos—Valladolid—Isabella's Court—Ferdinand's Arrival at the Palace—Description of the Two—The Interview (October 15, 1469)—The Marriage (October 19, 1469)—The Consanguinity Law—How Obviated—Isabella's Chagrin at the Deceit Practised Upon Her—The Remedy.

The small town of Burgo detained the young prince only long enough for refreshment. Before dawn the next day after his arrival he was again on his way. The friendly commander of the Burgo garrison gave him a strong escorting cavalcade, so that he, like any resolute and hopeful young man, pushed his journey without a halt to Duenos, a small city in Leon. Here no accident or ill-will attended his approach. By the people and nearly the entire nobility of the region he was welcomed with joyous demonstrations.

The larger city of Valladolid is not far from Duenos. At this writing (1893) Valladolid is among the foremost of the cities of Spain. Its art school, its university, its medical college, its collections of sculpture and painting, its superb buildings, its men of culture, its board of trade, its modern social life, enjoying the facilities and advantages of the more northern cities of Europe, place its people on the advance line of that intelligence which never ceases to struggle against bigotry and superstition. Still the old city has a strong hold upon the past. The Plaza Mayor far antedates the time of Isabella, and is clouded by the cruel histories of executions and by the bull-fights peculiar to Spain. The structure named Ochavo is where the ill-starred Alvaro de Luna was beheaded June 2nd, 1452, when Isabella of Castile was but one year old. The historic palace, so often occupied by the shifting court of Isabella's father, John II., by Isabella herself, and her successors, still holds its place, as fresh-looking on the exterior as it was four hundred years ago.

At the period of which we write—the fall of 1469—Isabella's little court, as we have seen, came here, and remained looking anxiously and hopefully for messages from Aragon. The news of Ferdinand's triumphant entry into the small neighboring city travelled faster than he, and it is not difficult to imagine how the blood came and went in Isabella's cheeks in her relief and joy as she glanced at the first dispatch from Duenos: "He is safe, and here!" Ferdinand's escape from perils and safe approach were to this young princess more than any earthly estates or possessions. Isabella at once wrote to her brother, for she always did promptly just what was discreetly becoming. She informed him of the presence of Ferdinand, and of her intention to marry him. Yet at the same time she endeavored to demonstrate that the wretched secrecy or concealment from him, her brother, of all that had been done was none of her procuring or her fault; and then she promised in her own name and that of her future spouse perfect respect and allegiance to him, her king and brother.

On October 15th, 1469, Ferdinand left Duenos and rode to Valladolid, and here he first met the Archbishop of Toledo, whom it is pleasant to see in a different role  from that which he had played at Olmedo. It was the stately pontiff who led the young prince to his charming mistress. At this time Ferdinand was only eighteen, of fine build and handsome figure, with a cheerful face, a pleasant voice, and condescending, gracious manners. Isabella was about a year his senior. Her type was a rare one. Among those dark-haired, olive-complexioned Spanish ladies, as if Nature herself had put upon her a stamp of peculiar excellence, she appeared a blonde, with large gray eyes and hair in which chestnut and auburn hues were intermingled; and she had the usual accompaniment of such hair—a clear, light complexion. Kindness and intelligence, thoughtful sympathy and quiet resolution were the natural expression of those exceptional eyes. Withal she was above the medium height, and had a commanding presence. The historians of her country describe her very much as in later times people have described Mary Queen of Scots. But what a difference between the busy, intelligent, fruitful, and unblemished personal life of the one, and the light, sensuous, tempest-tossed, misfortuneful existence of the other! But we must not anticipate. Isabella in many things was already fairly educated; in essentials, thoroughly. She spoke the Castilian language—which has always been the best Spanish of the peninsula—with peculiar correctness and grace, and even expressed herself easily in the Latin tongue. On approach there was noticeable in her demeanor a modest dignity which announced her a true woman and at the same time a veritable queen.

These young people of high birth and so well matched had now a most important interview. Whom they took into their secret council history does not say. The preliminaries to Ferdinand's bright hopes and Isabella's womanly plans were agreed upon. After a little more than two hours spent together they separated, and he went back to Duenos; but Ferdinand soon returned to Valladolid, and all that the preliminary ceremonials demanded having been completed, the marriage itself took place October 19th, 1469, at the temporary residence of Isabella in the palace of Juan de Vinero. No less than two thousand persons were at hand and in attendance upon the ceremony. The first witnesses were the warlike Archbishop of Toledo and the good Admiral of Castile, Ferdinand's grandfather. Here let us note a curious circumstance, which more than many others may show the difference between those times and our own. In order that the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella might be recognized by the Church, "a dispensation" was necessary, for they were within the prohibited range of consanguinity. Isabella was too well known and appreciated by this time by those around her, for them for one moment to think that she would ever marry, under any circumstances, against the canons of the universal Church. Of course that idea never entered anybody's head. It seemed as though the ship must founder just in sight of the harbor. Amid anxious consultations and letters interchanged during the few weeks preceding the marriage by Ferdinand and the wily father and others concerning this anxious and most perplexing matter, they resorted at last to the always-and-in-everything reliable Archbishop of Toledo.

Why had they not asked the venerable Pope himself for a bull? First, these young people had to make haste, and the Pope was far off in Rome. Secondly, his sovereign will was on the side of Isabella's brother, King Henry. Better not ask him, thought the archbishop, whom no difficulty, whether of a martial, material, or spiritual nature could daunt, but simply forge the necessary bull. Ferdinand readily assented. His conscience seldom troubled him. But confidants asked, What would happen when Isabella at last should learn that she had been deceived and actually married in contravention of the canons of the Church? The archbishop did not deign a reply. He had too many present cares to trouble himself concerning future problems; sufficient for the day were the evils thereof. He boldly produced the essential document, whose validity nobody at the time had the ill grace to question. When Isabella afterward knew of these edifying proceedings she was much displeased, and very sore at heart over the subject, even after a genuine bull from a succeeding and friendly pontiff had come to put all things to rights.

The marriage having been consummated, the wedded pair proceeded at once jointly to inform King Henry by messengers of all that had taken place; and they accompanied the startling announcement with the same protestations and promises which Isabella had already made. They also entreated his approbation. The king, chilled by his defeat, answered coolly and dryly that he would advise with his ministers. It was a characteristic answer from Henry. He had advised with his ministers under other circumstances, when it was more to the purpose to act promptly; but in this case little harm could come to the bride and groom through such advisers, for it was indeed too late for even the ingenious schemes of a Villena to operate. The marriage, so plainly auspicious for the future glory of the two kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, was already an accomplished fact. The young people, while they were happy together and felt comparative safety from open and secret enemies, surrounded as they were by powerful friends, had by no means cleared the whole way to a political success. While the changeable Henry was consulting his ministers, and some of them with extraordinarily active brains were contriving new snares for Isabella's feet, she and her consort moved from Valladolid to Duenos. Without doubt there were two good reasons. Henry's court passed often from Segovia to Medina del Campo, where John II., his father, had built the great castle "De la Mota," whose ruins to-day indicate the palatial grandeur of the structure and the prison-like strength of its walls. Valladolid could not be defended against a sudden attack like Duenos, and was only seventeen miles from this formidable keep. Duenos, with a wholesome garrison loyal to Isabella, was some eight leagues farther north, above Valladolid. The first reason of the discreet Isabella for the removal is plain: "It is a safer place for us just now." The second was that Ferdinand was not quite as submissive to their protector, the Archbishop of Toledo, as that prelate desired; and soon even the gentle Isabella chafed under his arrogance and self-seeking. On one occasion Ferdinand, before he had learned the art of a far-seeing prudence, said to the archbishop: "I am not to be put in leading-strings, like so many of the sovereigns of Castile." A temporary separation from him seemed wise. Still in her poverty of resources she depended almost altogether upon this archbishop, who, in his vexation or meditated resentful discipline, had so cut down their essential supplies that for a time they were in distress for the ordinary means of living.

As the difficulties of the situation multiplied, filling the hearts of these inexperienced young people with ever-increasing anxieties and fears of a catastrophe, they were busy enough in their correspondence. When the old King John of Aragon, Ferdinand's father, heard through their communications of the strained relations between his son and the Archbishop of Toledo, he wrote Ferdinand plainly that he had made a mistake, and begged him to hasten and rectify it by yielding promptly and graciously to the wishes of this powerful churchman; for indeed it was a very inopportune time for friends to divide, almost in the presence of shrewd and unrelenting foes. Ferdinand must have done something in the way of his wise father's counsel, for it was not long before the great archbishop, seeming for the time to forego all resentment, put the prince at the head of a fine body of Castilian horsemen.

But Isabella's dependence upon favorite friends was very soon relieved; for from reasons that will appear, resulting from the action of Henry and his advisers, whole provinces in the north and in the south came loyally and strongly to the support of her cause, so that the little court at Duenos, so clouded in the outset, before a year had expired began to give promise of a more glorious future.