Gateway to the Classics: Story of the Greatest Nations: Spain by Charles F. Horne
Story of the Greatest Nations: Spain by  Charles F. Horne

Ferdinand and Isabella


Death of Columbus.

The reign of Ferdinand and Isabella was made noteworthy by the three greatest events of Spanish history: first, the final conquest of the Moors, and the consequent expulsion of that able race from the Peninsula; second, the discovery of America, with its vast resulting increase of Spanish territory and wealth; third, the enforcement of the Inquisition and the establishment of a religious intolerance so severe as utterly to crush the intelligence of the people.

Personally, Isabella must have been among the noblest of women. She was deeply and thoughtfully religious. No faintest shade rests upon her moral character. She was shrewd and tactful, wise, far-sighted, and ready for all highest thoughts and enthusiasms. Perhaps she was a paragon of beauty as well; but one must not accept too blindly the profuse extravagance of adulation with which courtier chronicles portray the features of a young and powerful Queen.

In the very first act with which Isabella comes before our notice, she displayed both patriotism and wisdom. Being urged by the ablest and most honorable of the Castilians to head the rebellion against her feeble and wicked half-brother, Henry, she refused, and insisted that the factions should become reconciled. Her course endeared her to all parties except, indeed, the capricious King, who had no wish to see her more popular than himself.

Under Isabella's influence a peace was arranged by which Isabella was declared the heir to the feeble and fast aging King, with the right of selecting her own husband.


The wedding of Ferdinand and Isabella.

You may be sure that suitors without number hastened to compete for the hand of the charming heiress to so rich a kingdom. The brother of crafty old Louis XI. of France was a candidate, as was the Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV., the triumphant York King of England. The King of Portugal also came to woo, and managed to enlist the Spanish King so strongly in his favor, that Isabella found herself in much danger of being forced into the match. By this time, however, she had made her own choice of a partner, one far more suitable than either the treacherous English duke, the sickly French prince, or the widowed Portuguese King. Aragon had, as we have seen, grown to be a powerful state. Navarre had recently been added to the Aragonian dominion, and the kingdom—what with its navy and its Italian possessions—was almost, if not quite, the equal of its neighbor. The oldest son and heir of the kingdom of Aragon was Ferdinand, a youth of eighteen, who had naturally made his bid for Isabella among the rest. She caused inquiries to be made as to his character, and learned that he was handsome, manly, and clever. Just which of the three characteristics moved her most you must guess for yourself; she was only a year older than the young prince himself. At any rate, she sent Ferdinand word that if he wanted her he must come in haste and take her.

Indeed, it was high time. Her brother, King Henry, was party to a plot to carry her off secretly and marry her to whom he pleased. A few of her own partisans saved her by fleeing with her in hot haste to Valladolid before the conspirators arrived. Efforts were made to waylay Ferdinand upon the frontier, and he had to slip into the country in disguise and with insufficient money to pay his expenses. It was all very exciting and romantic, and Ferdinand won his way to his lady like a true knight-errant, and they were hastily married amid the shouting of the good people of Valladolid, for all the world loves lovers; and though this young pair had never before seen each other, still the efforts to keep them apart had doubtless made them lovers for all that.

King Henry did his best after that to deprive his sister of her inheritance; but he died only four years later (1474) of mingled age and depravity, and thus the young Queen and her husband succeeded to the throne of Castile and Leon.

The disappointed King of Portugal attempted to fight them for it; but Ferdinand, who had wisely kept in the background during his wife's coronation, now came vigorously forward and at the head of the Castilian forces defeated the Portuguese so completely that a peace was soon arranged, which included a promise of marriage between the Portuguese King's son and the baby girl just born to Isabella. Five years later Ferdinand's father died, and he became King of Aragon in his own right.

Thus at last all the little Christian kingdoms of the Spanish peninsula were, with the exception of Portugal, united under this youthful royal couple. And seldom have a pair seemed better mated, or king and queen proved abler. Each was wise, earnest, and energetic. We are told that Isabella was an inch taller as she was a year older than her husband; but Ferdinand was not the man to be overshadowed in any company; and though we cannot find for his cold nature the same admiration we give to her intense and holy spirit, yet it may well be that his strength and caution were just the qualities needed to give weight and success to her less calculated impulses. Indeed Isabella seldom came forward, leaving the task of government to her husband, except when her deeper enthusiasms were aroused.

It was she who insisted that in the name of Christianity the task dropped by her brother must be taken up and the Moorish kingdom of Granada subjugated at last.

The mighty city of Granada was then the most populous in Spain. It had been founded by the Moors in the eighth century, and for a time remained subject to the caliphs of Cordova. It was made capital of the province of Granada in 1235, and rapidly acquired distinction for its trade and wealth, and as the seat of arts and architecture. By the end of the fifteenth century its population was nearly half a million, and the city was enclosed by a wall with more than a million towers. One of the most famous structures of the world is the Alhambra, which was begun in 1248 and completed just a hundred years later. The fortress which bore that name formed a part of the citadel of Granada, which contained the palace of the ancient Moorish kings. The Spaniards call the remains of the palace the Casa Real. They are ranged around two oblong courts, the Court of the Fish Pond and the Court of the Lions. Nothing can surpass the richness of the ornamentation and the elegance of the columns and arches. Yet the Moors themselves began to be sunk in sensual sloth. Boabdil, at this time their King's son, was educated rather as a girl than a boy in oriental languor and idleness.


The education of Boabdil, the last king of Granada.

No time could have been more favorable for the grand campaign of Ferdinand and Isabella, for not only was the whole Spanish people fired by one resolve, but there was bickering and wrangling among the different factions in Granada, though they were so defiant and self-confident that they anticipated the sovereigns by striking the first blow and captured the notable stronghold of Zahara. This last exploit of the Moors in Spain has such historical value that we quote the account of our own brilliant Washington Irving:

"In the year of our Lord, one thousand four hundred and eighty one, and but a night or two after the festival of the most blessed Nativity, the inhabitants of Zahara were sunk in profound sleep; the very sentinel had deserted his post, and sought shelter from a tempest which had raged without for three nights in succession; for it appeared but little probable that an enemy would be abroad during such an uproar of the elements. But evil spirits work best during a storm. In the midst of the night an uproar rose within the walls of Zahara, more awful than the raging of the storm. A fearful alarm-cry, 'The Moor! The Moor!' resounded through the streets, mingled with the clash of arms, the shriek of anguish, and the shout of victory. Muley Abu1-Hasan, at the head of a powerful force, had hurried from Granada, and passed unobserved through the mountains in the obscurity of the tempest. While the storm pelted the sentinel from his post and howled around tower and battlement, the Moors had planted their scaling ladders and mounted securely into both town and castle. The garrison was unsuspicious of danger until battle and massacre burst forth within its very walls. It seemed to the affrighted inhabitants as if the fiends of the air had come upon the wings of the wind, and possessed themselves of tower and turret. The war-cry resounded on every side shout answering shout in the streets of the town ; the foe was in all parts, wrapped in obscurity," but acting in concert by the aid of preconcerted signals: Starting from sleep, the soldiers were intercepted and cut down as they rushed from their quarters ; or, if they escaped, they knew not where to assemble, or where to strike. Whenever lights appeared, the flashing cimeter was at its deadly work, and all who attempted resistance fell beneath its edge. In a little while the struggle was at an end. Those who were not slain took refuge in the secret places of their houses, or gave themselves up as captives. The clash of arms ceased, and the storm continued its howling, mingled with the occasional shout of the Moorish soldiery roaming in search of plunder. While the inhabitants were trembling for their fate, a trumpet resounded through the streets, summoning them all to assemble, unarmed, in the public square. Here they were surrounded by soldiery, and strictly guarded until daybreak. When the day dawned, it was piteous to behold this once prosperous community, which had lain down to rest in peaceful security, now crowded together without distinction of age, or rank, or sex, and almost without raiment, during the severity of a winter storm. The fierce Muley Abul-Hasan turned a deaf ear to all remonstrances, and ordered them to be conducted captives to Granada. Leaving a strong garrison in both town and castle, with orders to put them in a complete state of defence, he returned flushed with victory to his capital, entering it at the head of the troops, laden with spoil, and bearing in triumph the banners and pennons taken at Zahara. While preparations were making for jousts and other festivities in honor of this victory over the Christians, the captives of Zahara arrived—a wretched train of men, women, and children, worn out with fatigue and haggard with despair and driven like cattle into the city gates by a detachment of Moorish soldiery."


Columbus ridiculed at Salamanca.

This disaster roused the Spaniards to fury. Henceforward the war was, pressed with unrelenting vigor. Hardly had Muley Abul-Hasan reached Granada when he found that the Christians had seized one of the bulwarks of his capital. There was still discord among the defenders, and, at last, in 1491,. the Spanish army settled itself before the capital for the final siege. To encourage the soldiers, Isabella herself came and resided in the camp, and she had it built into a regular city, the city of Santa Fe (holy faith), as a warning to the Moors that she meant to dwell there permanently until they surrendered. There were gallant deeds of valor on both sides; but the persistency of Isabella and the civil strife among the Moors left but one ending possible.

None saw this more clearly than the Arab leaders, who opened negotiations for surrender. Boabdil, who had forcibly wrenched the Moorish crown from Abul-Hasan, his father, accepted the inevitable and made his preparations for the surrender of the city, which took place on the 2nd of January, 1492. Accompanied by. two score cavaliers, he rode out to the plain where Ferdinand and Isabella, surrounded by their gorgeous court, awaited him. Had not the Christian King prevented, Boabdil would have dismounted and knelt in token of his homage. Ferdinand spoke soothing words and showed the fallen sovereign all courtesy and honor. He made his submission and abdication also to Isabella, and then, accompanied by his mother, rode away. At some distance on a rocky elevation, Boabdil paused and looked back at the citadel and fortress of Alhambra and, while the tears filled his eyes, mournfully contemplated the kingdom he had lost. The spot is still pointed out, and bears the name of "El ultimo suspiro del moro" (the last sigh of the Moor).

Spain, so long distracted and torn by civil war, was consolidated into one compact, powerful empire, extending from the Pyrenees to the Strait of Gibraltar, and at the same time she acquired an immense domain in the New World.

The story of America's discovery needs no repetition. Let us, however, stop to recall King Ferdinand's treatment of Columbus. His plans were referred to a court of judges, mostly churchmen at Salamanca, and these laughed at him as a madman. He was turning from Spain in despair, after seven years of wasted entreaty, when another churchman brought his project to the notice of Isabella. "After Granada is conquered, I will listen to him," said the single-minded Queen.


Columbus before Isabella.

So Columbus went to her camp city of Santa Fe, and we can imagine him wielding an enthusiast's sword against the heathen Moors. Then, when Granada fell, he had a personal audience with the sovereigns, and when Ferdinand turned away from him as a madman, Isabella, stirred by the dream of converting an entire world to Christianity, spoke her famous decision: "I will undertake the enterprise for mine own crown of Castile, and am ready to pawn my crown jewels for the expense."

So, you see, Aragon, if we may still discriminate between the united Spanish kingdoms, had no part in the momentous expedition. Isabella's crown jewels were not pawned, though her offer of them was no idle speech, so low had the royal treasury sunk in the long struggle with Granada. A year later Columbus returned in triumph, and at once hundreds of Spanish cavaliers, having lost the excitement of war at home, sought adventure in the newly discovered world. Columbus became only one of a thousand sailors to those distant climes, and wealth hitherto undreamed of poured into Spain.

Even before Isabella's death, in 1504, the condition of the land had changed marvellously. What with the sudden influx of wealth, the union of the little kingdoms, and the ability of her sovereigns, Spain stepped at one stride into the foremost place among European countries. Yet even in this, the moment of Spain's triumph, were sown the seeds which have led to her decay.

The causes which joined to weaken Spain irreparably were the drain made by the flocking to the New World of thousands who supposed that gold was as plentiful there as the stones in the streets at home; the establishment of the Inquisition; and the driving out of the remaining Moors and Jews, who vainly hoped that the terms of the surrender of Granada would be kept. Ferdinand and Isabella were fanatical in their religious faith, and could not rest until it was firmly established throughout the kingdom. Those of the Moors, or Moriscos, as they came to be called, who would abjure their religion and accept the new one were allowed to stay, otherwise they were exiled, and were not permitted to carry their accumulated wealth away with them. Some of the Moriscos accepted outwardly the new religion, but they hated their oppressors with an inextinguishable hatred. They were ordered to throw aside their picturesque costume and wear that of the Christians; they were forbidden to bathe, and must remain as unclean as their conquerors; they were prohibited from using their accustomed ceremonies, were commanded to speak only the Spanish language, and even to change their names to conform with the detested tongue. In short, they were to become Spaniards in the fullest sense.

In 1526 Charles V. confirmed this cruel decree, and, though he was prudent enough not to enforce it rigidly, it served to wring torturing bribes from the sufferers.


Expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

The Inquisition had had a nominal existence for a long time in Spain and Portugal but it was first rigidly enforced under Ferdinand and Isabella, the pretext being the discovery of certain sinister plots among the Jews. The application, in 1478, to Pope Sixtus IV. for the reorganization of the Inquisition was followed by the action of the crown in appointing the inquisitors and taking sole charge of the whole horrible business. The Pope protested, but the Spanish crown maintained its assumption; and, in 1483, the Inquisition opened its appalling work under Thomas de Torquemada. In 1492 just after the surrender of Granada its cruelty expelled the Jews from Spain in a body, torturing all who remained and refused Christianity. Then the Pope tried to lessen the rigors of the tribunal, but little or no attention was paid to his protests. The historian Llorente asserts that during the sixteen years that Torquemada held office, 9,000 people were condemned to the flames, and that his successor in eight years put 1,600 to a similar death. Other historians declare the statements of Llorente grossly exaggerated, but, making all possible deductions from his figures, the work of the Inquisition in the New as well as the Old World was frightful beyond description.

Let us sum up briefly the subsequent history of this terrible engine. Its severity was abated in Spain in the latter part of the seventeenth century, and under Joseph Bonaparte it was repressed, in 1808, until the Restoration; suppressed again on the establishment of the new constitution in 1820; partially revived five years later, and finally abolished in 1835.

The persecution and deportation of the Moriscos continued until 1610, when the last half million were driven out after the previous exiles. With their destruction vanished the culture, refinement, the arts and sciences that had made southern Spain a beacon light among the nations of the world.


Henry of Castile defied by the friends of Isabella.

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