Queen Isabella

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History Again.

Everybody thinks Queen Isabella was so great, financing Christopher Columbus' voyages and all. But there's a darker side to her story.

When Isabella came to power in 1479, the Spanish region was at war with itself, a bunch of tiny kingdoms jockeying for position. By the end of her reign, Spain was united and becoming a global power. But it wasn't all good.


Princess Isabella was the daughter of King John II of Castile, but she was a long way down on the royal ladder. For one thing, there was a little problem called the Sallic Law that prevented any woman from ascending the Castillian throne. But when her two brothers died off (one under suspicious circumstances) Isabella stepped up to the plate.

She'd already secretly merried Ferdinand of Aragon; their first task was to unite his Aragon and her Castile under their absolute rule. The queen kept the nobles firmly under her thumb and chose royal officials who were university-educated. A student and a great reader, Isabella created a government based on brains rather than birth.


With the domestric home front in hand, the royals looked south where Granada was still ruled by Islamic Moors. Under the banner of a Christian Crusade, the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella took Granada from the Moors in 1492. The country of Spain was united. Isabella was now free to make the shrewdest of all her decisions.

The wars had cost a fortune; the royal treasury was nearly broke -meanwhile neighbor Portugal was making heaps of money in the African gold trade. So Isabella decided to send Christopher Columbus on his westward search for a sea route to India and Asia.

It's a myth that Isabella hocked her jewels, but she did work hard to get Columbus off the ground -and into the ocean. Two of his ships were from Palos, a city that owed a debt to the crown. Isabella wound up as the wealthy queen of the New World; when Isabella wished Columbus Godspeed, she launched not only his voyage, but the expansion of the Spanish Empire.


Still, it wasn't always easy at the top. Isabella was the only woman ruler in a macho 15th century. Her enemies were quick to use her gender (don't forget that Sallic law) against her. So the savvy queen was careful about her image and always portrayed herself as a pious, subservient female. In 1496, a papal bull proclaimed Isabella "la Catolica" (The Catholic) in honor of her services to the church. Some historians think that Isabella was truly religious, but others feel that she projected the image because it made it tougher for her enemies to slander a saint. Either way, her mission was to make Spain a completely Catholic nation.


When Isabella came to power, the reign of Spain was the most diverse in Europe, home to three existing religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Isabella and Ferdinand knew it would be easier to unite and rule a country of one faith. So, seeking religious unity -and maybe some much-needed property and funds- the monarchs put Moors and Jews on notice.

In 1492, the same year that Granada fell and Columbus set sail, Isabella and Ferdinand commanded that all Jews who wouldn't convert to Christianity be expelled from Spain. Ten years later Moorish Muslims suffered the same fate as the crown confiscated the property of the fleeing Jews and Moors.

Those Jews and Muslims who did convert to Christianity, los conversos, weren't let off all that easy, either. Isabella also initiated the famous Spanish Inquisition to punish conversos who might still secretly practice their former religion. Trials were held and those who couldn't prove they were true Christians were sometimes tortured. "Proved" heretics not only lost their property, they could be executed in an auto de fe where they were burned at the stake. Even the pope, Sixtus IV, tried to stop the Inquisition, pegging it as a cruel scheme that "brought disgust" because it harmed the innocent and grabbed riches instead of saving souls -but Isabella ignored His Holiness.


By the end of her reign she'd managed to unite Spain and make it a global power. By the time her grandson Charles was born in 1500, he was heir to an empire that included Spain, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Sardinia, Sicily, Naples, South America, and the West Indies. She'd supported a Spanish golden age in painting, music, theater, and literature, and founded schools, collected works of art, and was a patron for artists and scholars.

But the Inquisition remains a huge splash of red ink across Isabella's balance sheet. After her death, the Inquisition spread across Spain and her colonies. It grew from investigating conversos to persecuting Protestants and finally anyone seen as an enemy to the church or crown. For all her smarts, Isabella made free thinking a crime, chilling the progress of science and enlightenment in Spain. And it didn't help matters when she expelled and killed so many of her most successful subjects. That loss was a big factor in the collapse of Spain's economy in the 16th century -bringing the country's Golden Age to a close.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History Again. The book is a compendium of entertaining information chock-full of facts on a plethora of history topics. Uncle John's first plunge into history was a smash hit - over half a million copies sold! And this sequel gives you more colorful characters, cultural milestones, historical hindsight, groundbreaking events, and scintillating sagas.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. Check out their website here: Bathroom Reader Institute

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Isabella's daughter, Joanna, didn't have a particularly happy life since her father, husband, and eventually her son used her horribly for their own ends. She's still known as Joanna the Mad.

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If done well, scapegoating and confiscation can supply a dictator with funds for an entire life (Isabella). If done wrong, the ruler will fail when the persecuted are gone (Pol Pot).

There are those of us who think of Spain's Golden Age as ending with Isabella, not starting with her.
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