Book Review: Isabel La Católica, Queen of Castile.

“In truth, Aeneas was not so merciful as Virgil paints him, nor Ulysses so prudent as Homer describes him” —Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quijote de la Mancha (Boruchoff (ED) 2003, p. 224).

Isabel la Católica, Queen of Castile: critical essays” provides an extremely satisfying collection of thought provoking essays, with many of them successfully achieving one of the book’s goals to examine “Isabel’s will, inspiration and agency in refashioning the political, social, cultural and institutional landscape of her nation, with herself positioned as an icon” (p. 13) Including thorough notes and translating many of the essays from the original Spanish, this small volume (just over 300 pages) allows the English reader access to “findings available only in scattered and hard to locate venues” (p. 13).

My main disappointment with this work stems from its limited scope in allowing us to see the human face of Isabel. Whilst providing tantalizing glimpses of Isabel’s domestic life, the curtain tends to comes down before we are given a chance to form a firm picture of Isabel’s roles as mother and wife. One of the essays also claims the future Richard III put forward as a candidate for Isabel’s husband (p. 49). I had never come across this before, and thought it strange when Richard was an untried seventeen-years-old when Isabel’s marriage to her cousin Ferdinand took place and ranked youngest of the York brothers. I believe the writer may have confused Richard with his older brother Edward. Before Isabel became Queen, marriage to Edward IV was thought a possibility, before it was discovered he had already burnt his bridges by a secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville.

It is said the Spanish Ambassador told Richard III, during his reign, that “Isabel’s heart had been turned against England because Edward IV had refused the offer of her hand to marry Elizabeth Woodville” (Kendall 1955, p. 304). If this is correct, putting aside the famous Castilian pride, does this indicate a very human trait in the nineteen-years-old woman who also believed God meant her to be the redeemer and Queen of Castile? Golden-haired, well over six feet tall, blue-eyed Edward IV was something of medieval pin-up King. Isabel went on to marry her cousin Ferdinand – also a man not lacking in physical charms. I believe we see here the very human face of Isabel. Not only does this moment in history suggest Isabel possessed a typical womanly trait of a preference for an attractive man, but also reinforces something stressed in “Isabel la Católica, Queen of Castile”; Isabel was determined to marry the “prince” of her choice, rather than be forced into just a political match.

As made clear in this volume, Isabel the Catholic, like Elizabeth the First, was a remarkable and super-capable woman. But did Elizabeth the First really used Isabel the Catholic as a role model for her time as Queen? Whilst it was very interesting to read of this belief from the early years of colonial America, I really think that unlikely. More to the point, Elizabeth, like Isabel, understood how to politically shape herself to suit her time and place, probably resulting from a close study of what constituted less successful political careers prior to their own more successful ones.

It is more possible Isabel’s granddaughter, “Bloody Mary,” may have desired to model her Queenship on her grandmother’s grand example, but ruled only to fail. Her stubborn crusade to return England to Rome just was no longer a crusade England wished to take. Also, was Bloody Mary’s rule the reason Isabel became Isabella for so many? Brought up interestingly in one of the essays, Isabella may have resulted from the English desire to ‘put-down’ the grandmother of their unpopular Queen and the great-grandmother of her husband Philip II, who threatened England with his Armada in 1588 (Boruchoff (ED) 2003, p. 224).

Particularly powerful in this work were the essays discussing how historical personages politically spin around the core of their own being the onion skin of myth and legend, making it hard even in their own times to really see the true essence of their humanity. In Isabel’s case, the power of her myth and legend was such it spun a cocoon from which emerged a nation’s vision of itself to last for centuries. As pointed out in this volume, only recent times swept away this vision, replacing it with a more balanced analysis of Isabel’s Spain.
Even so, Isabel’s place in history is deserving of admiration, respect and study – served aptly by the publication of these essays.
Cited works:

Boruchoff , D. (Ed) A. 2003, Queen of Castile: critical essays, Palgrave / St. Martin’s Press, New York

Kendall, P. M. 1955, RICHARD THE THIRD, W.W. Norton & Company, New York.