02 June 2014

HEA or Not: The Nation Builders, Fernando of Aragón and Isabel of Castile

By Lisa J. Yarde

Queen Isabel's portrait at Segovia's Alcazar
On October 18, 1469 at Valladolid in the northern Iberian Peninsula, a wedding occurred. By all accounts, the bride was a fair-faced beauty at almost nineteen with reddish-gold hair, who had earned the admiration of many for her appearance and religious piety. Most judged the groom, just under a year younger, as equally attractive, chivalrous, and intelligent. Bride and groom shared proud bloodlines dating from the 14th century Duke of Lancaster John of Gaunt, a younger brother of Edward, the Black Prince. Of all who might have thought the couple well-suited, the bride perhaps held the highest hopes for the union with her would-be husband. Suitors had come and gone from Portugal and France, most of them disagreeable in her view for their avarice and dubious intentions. Fernando, the son of John II of Aragón would inherit the second largest kingdom in the peninsula and already held Sicily in his own right. For Isabel, a princess of Castile who had emerged in recent years as the presumed heir to her brother Enrique IV, no one but Fernando would do as a choice for her husband.

Sounds like a fairytale match destined to end happily ever after, but pragmatism governed decisions in the marriage between Fernando of Aragón and Isabel of Castile. In the Pact of the Toros de Guisando negotiated a year before the union, Enrique IV withdrew his long-held declaration that his daughter the Infanta Juana (whom many believed to be the child of another man) would be Castile's heir. With his queen in disgrace, pregnant by another man, and his younger half-brother the Infante Alfonso dead of a sudden illness, Isabel emerged as the best candidate in the succession. The Pact required her marriage, but she rejected her brother's choice and selected Fernando. He traveled to Castile under escort while Isabel wrote her brother of her intent to marry, despite his personal opposition to the interference of Aragón in Castile's political future. Isabel and Fernando met at Valladolid. They had a prenuptial agreement requiring each to support the other in the defense of their individual realms, but the terms made it clear; Isabel expected to remain in control of Castile without her husband's meddling. A fake dispensation from the papal court alleviated claims that their blood ties should prevent the marriage, a situation Isabel abhorred and ensured she had rectified some years later by a real papal bull issued from Pope Sixtus IV.
Painting of Isabel's crowning

Since the union occurred without the approval of Enrique IV, he judged the terms of the Pact as voided and refused to uphold Isabel's rights to succession. Instability followed, which even the death of Enrique IV on December 11, 1474, did not resolve. When her brother's demise occurred, Isabella was in Segovia and rushed to claim the throne of Castile. Back in Aragón, Fernando heard the news and returned to assert his right as king; since he and his wife had independent interests, he might have held some concern over Isabel's failure to wait to claim her rights through her husband. The Portuguese monarch backed the claim of Isabel's niece Juana (who was also his niece through her mother), whom he married. Another five years would pass before Pope Sixtus IV annulled Juana's marriage to her maternal uncle and invalidated her claim to Castile.

Isabel and Fernando had five daughters and one son. During this time, she also endured her husband's adulterous behavior, the proof being children born in subsequent years after their wedding. Fernando named his illegitimate son an archbishop. Despite these affairs, the mutual interests of Isabel and Fernando prevailed. They established the Inquisition to root out so-called heretics, rid the country of its last Moorish rulers, and maintained a highly effective rule over their respective kingdoms. While their son died before his parents, their daughter Juana inherited the unified crowns of Castile and Aragón.            

Fernando and Isabel's relationship as dramatized in the Spanish TV series, Isabel

History of the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, volume 1, by William Hickling Prescott

Spain: the Root and the Flower by John A. Crow

A History of Medieval Spain by Joseph O'Callaghan

Spain's Centuries of Crisis: 1300-1474 by Teofilo F. Ruiz 

All images are mine, taken during visits to Spain.

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the Middle Ages in Europe. She is the author of two historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of one of the first countesses of Leicester and Surrey, Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers before the Battle of Hastings. Lisa has also written four novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana, Sultana’s Legacy, Sultana: Two Sisters, and Sultana: The Bride Price where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family. Her short story, The Legend Rises, which chronicles the Welsh princess Gwenllian of Gwynedd’s valiant fight against English invaders, is also available.