Gateway to the Classics: A Child's History of Spain by John Bonner
A Child's History of Spain by  John Bonner

The End of Ferdinand and Isabella

A.D. 1475-1516

In order to give you a connected account of the conquest of Granada and of the discoveries of Columbus, I have passed over events in the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella of which it is necessary that you should know something, and have made little or no mention of some persons of whose lives you would like to hear.

One of these was Cardinal Mendoza, Archbishop of Toledo, and prime-minister of Spain for twenty years. He was a friend of Columbus when the great sailor sorely needed a friend. He was a man of lofty mind, a lover of learning, and a thorough gentleman of the world, adored by ladies as he was respected by men. His income was the largest in Spain, and he spent it royally, keeping an army of his own, and a palace full of young pages belonging to the first families, whom he took care to educate. The people loved him; as he paced the streets on his snow-white mule, whose hide could scarcely be seen for caparisons of cloth of gold and velvet, they fell on their knees and besought his blessing, begging to be allowed to touch his foot or his stirrup with their lips. He was a faithful and loyal servant to Queen Isabella; she rarely acted without consulting him. When he was on his death-bed she asked whom she would recommend as his successor. He designated a friar named Ximenes, and the queen appointed him accordingly.

He was a very different person from Mendoza. He was wise, politic, and vigorous; but also a bigot, a religious enthusiast, an ascetic, and a fanatic. As a young man he was always mortifying his flesh. He wore a shirt of coarse hair next his skin, and scourged himself at regular intervals. He lived in a log cabin he had built with his own hands in a chestnut wood, ate herbs, and drank from a stream. A person who led such a life as this in our day would simply be regarded as a crank, and his neighbors would watch him lest he went mad. But four hundred years ago in Spain these oddities were regarded as proofs of sanctity, and Ximenes was looked upon as a very superior order of saint indeed. People from far and wide went to his hut to confess their sins to so holy a priest. His reputation rose so high that in the very year when Granada fell and Columbus discovered the West Indies he was appointed confessor to the queen.

He was a lean, pale monk, who looked as if he had been starved—as indeed he probably had been—but he feared nobody, and was determined to do his duty as the understood it. When he was directed to inspect the various monasteries of his order, he travelled on foot and begged his food by the way-side, which caused much laughter among the gorgeous priests who lived like princes in their lordly palaces. I do not see myself that anything is gained for the cause of true religion by an affectation of poverty, nor do I understand why a priest who had plenty of money should have needed to beg his bread. But I observe that by so doing Ximenes made himself much thought of among the ignorant, and I suspect that was his object.

When he was appointed Archbishop of Toledo he was very much surprised, and said: "There is some mistake; the appointment is not for me." He said he wanted to live and die a simple priest in his cloister. But I do not observe that after he was well settled in his office he was squeamish in exercising his powers, though he allowed it to be understood that he still ate only the plainest food and wore a hair shirt under his silken robe.

After the fall of Granada he took the Moors in hand. Many of these, as you remember, became baptized to avoid trouble; others remained faithful to their old creed. One of the latter, named Negri, was seized by the archbishop, and given in charge of a special officer who was bidden to "clear the film from his eyes." The officer soon reported that a few days of jail and fetters and fasting had cleared his prisoner's eyesight, and, sure enough, Negri made no further objection to baptism. The darkness of the dungeon, observed the archdeacon, shrewdly, poured light on the soul of the infidel.

It was Ximenes who burned the Arabic Library at Granada, and it was his persecution of the Moors which led to the revolt which nearly wrested the city out of Christian hands. He never rested till for a time he drove both Moslems and Jews out of Spain.

But he was something more than a fanatic. He was capable of planning a policy for a nation, or a campaign for an army. In concert with the great soldier Gonsalvo de Cordova, of whom I shall presently tell you, he planned the campaigns in Italy where the Spanish troops won such renown. And having made up his mind to capture the city of Oran, in Africa, which was a great Moorish place of trade, and finding King Ferdinand cold on the subject because of the expense, he agreed to defray the whole cost of the expedition, and to pay the wages of the garrison out of his own income. Ferdinand was always ready to undertake any enterprise which other people were to pay for. He gave his consent to Ximenes's plan.

An army was landed in Africa, and marched against Oran. Ximenes mounted his white mule, and rode along the ranks in his cardinal's robes with a sword by his side. A friar carried a silver cross before him, and monks folČlowed him all in their priestly gowns, and armed with cimeters. He preached a stirring sermon to the troops, and offered to lead the assault; but that was not necessary. The Spaniards were roused by the stories of the booty which was to be found in Oran; they rushed into the place pell-mell, and put the people to the sword. The cardinal returned to his home at Alcala, followed by a train of camels laden with gold and silver plate.

After this he became more powerful than ever, and when King Ferdinand died he was recognized as regent of Spain, in the absence of King Charles, the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella, and the heir to the throne. But the regency did not last long. Ferdinand died in January, 1516; in September Charles left Flanders and landed in Spain. The cardinal was ill abed, and did not go to meet him. Some weeks after the landing of Charles, Ximenes received a letter from the king stating that his services would be no longer required. It killed the old man.

He gave his last days to religion—he was eighty-one years old—and groaning aloud, "In thee, O Lord, have I trusted," he expired. His corpse was dressed in his priestly robes, and set erect in a chair of state, where thousands came to kiss the dead hands and feet. While he lived he had many enemies; after his death his memory was revered as that of a saint.

You will perhaps compare him with another great priest, Richelieu, who, a hundred years later, ruled France as Ximenes had ruled Spain. In some points they were alike. But in Richelieu the statesman rose above the churchman, while Ximenes never forgot that he was a priest. If Ximenes was a hypocrite in early life, he was rigidly honest towards the close. He believed that he was doing that which was agreeable in the eyes of God when, during his term of power, he burned alive twenty-five hundred people on the ground of their religion. He would have died rather than take the side of the Protestants against the Catholics as Richelieu did. He built up no family as Richelieu did; his vast wealth he spent in his lifetime on Spain and on the poor, and, at his death, he left it to a college he had founded. If he had only lived in an age of toleration, he would have been a man whose public life, after he became all-powerful, you could altogether admire.

During a great portion of the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, Spain carried on war against France in Italy. Neither France nor Spain had any business in Italy. But—as you will learn when you read the Child's History of Italy—that country was plunged into the greatest disorder through the quarrels of the small powers which had divided it between them. France went to Italy in the hope of conquering territory. Spain followed to prevent France from doing anything of the kind. The war, which was long, bloody, and cruel, is not worth describing to you; but it brought to public notice a hero whose career was famous and glorious.

This was Gonsalvo de Cordova, whose family name was Aguilar. He first won fame at the siege of Granada, and he became the fast friend of the queen, when he waded waist-deep in the water, all equipped as be was in brocade and crimson velvet, to carry her ashore from a boat. Soon afterwards, a Spanish army having been ordered to Italy, Gonsalvo de Cordova was appointed to command it, and proved himself so skilful a soldier that he got the name of the Great Captain, by which he was more generally known than by his own proper name.

The Italian war proved a source of misery to the poor people of Italy, who were harried by the troops first on one side, then on the other. But among the officers of the armies the campaigns afforded rare opportunities for displays of knightly chivalry. An encounter between the Chevalier Bayard—of whom you read in the Child's History of France—and a Spanish nobleman named Alonzo de Sotomayer, will give von some idea of these exhibitions of soldierly high-breeding.

Sotomayer had been the prisoner of Bayard, and said that while he was in that condition the Frenchman had not treated hint with the courtesy which knightly usage required.

Bayard answered that the Spaniard lied in his throat, and offered to make good his words by single combat, on foot or on horseback.

Sotomayer declared that he would fight on foot.

Both knights wore complete suits of armor, with their visors up; each carried sword and dagger. On reaching the field, where the two armies formed a ring around the fighters, each knelt down and offered a prayer to his favorite saint.. When they rose from their knees they flew at each other. Bayard moved as lightly as if he had been leading a fair lady down to dance, though the had only just risen from a fever. The Spaniard, who was tall and stout, tried to break the Frenchman down by heavy blows; but a dexterous sword-thrust of Bayard's went through the neck-piece of the Spaniard's armor. Maddened by the pain, Sotomayer seized the Frenchman in his arms, threw him, and rolled on top of him. It looked then as though the brave Frenchman had fought his last fight, for the Spaniard was a man of prodigious strength; but Bayard, expecting a wrestle of this kind, had kept his poniard in his left hand. He now drove it with all his might into the Spaniard's eye, and thence into his brain.

Instantly the music began to sound, and the minstrels to chant praises to the conqueror, who was held in as high esteem by the Spaniards as by the French.

Ferdinand had a mean mind, and Gonsalvo's victories made him jealous. The king had tried his own hand at fighting in Italy, and had been glad when the Great Captain rescued him from a trap into which he had fallen. Thus, on a small pretext, a new army which was raised to invade Italy was taken from Gonsalvo. The troops were so angry that they would gladly have risen in revolt had the Great Captain given the word; but he bade them obey without murmur, and retired in silence to his castle. There he spent his last days in farming, and died peacefully at the age of sixty-two.

You will not find many characters in Spanish history as faultless as Gonsalvo. In a cruel age, he was never cruel to a foe; in a greedy age, he never soiled his hands with plunder; in a loose age, he was a true and faithful husband to his wife, Maria. He was loyal to his king when he must have despised him. He was a skilful general, a valiant soldier, and a wise ruler of the Italian states he conquered. When he died all Spain went into mourning, and he was buried with much pomp at Granada.

Ferdinand soon followed him. His wife Isabella, who had been his good genius through life, died in 1504, broken-hearted at the sad fate of her daughter, who went mad. A year and a half after her death, Ferdinand married a beautiful young woman of eighteen, Germaine de Foix, he being fifty-four at the time. They were not happy together. She was gay, volatile, fond of amusement; he was morose, and in bad health. She gave birth to a child which only lived a few hours; after that a coolness rose between her and her husband.

In the winter of 1515 his heart began to trouble him, and his breathing became so difficult that he could not live in cities, but spent his time hunting in the woods. On one of these hunts he was taken ill, and was carried into a villager's house. The courtiers had been expecting something of the kind, and an envoy from his grandson and heir hastened to call.

"He has come to see me die," said Ferdinand; "throw him out!"

It mattered little; Ferdinand's hour had come. The envoy wrote to Charles that he was King of Spain.

So Spain lost a monarch under whom it had become the greatest power in Europe. Not through any merit on his part, for Ferdinand was rather a dull man, tricky, perfidious, and narrow; but mainly because of the great men who appeared in Spain under his reign, and of the genius and uprightness of his wife, Isabella the Catholic.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The Death of Columbus  |  Next: Charles the First
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.