27 March 2017

Herstory: Isabella of Castile - the queen at war

...For me, Isabella of Castile will always remain a cruel villain. She couched the quest for Spain’s trade domination across the Mediterranean Sea and control of the kingdom of Granada’s gold supply from Africa as a religious crusade. She ensured the aid of the Catholic Church for her dynastic aims and brought about the ruin of Moorish Granada; ultimately, the end of Muslim Spain.

Civil war among the Moors allowed Isabella to take advantage of an already worsening situation. Through guile and ruthless calculation, she exploited the divisions between the last Nasrid rulers Abu’l-Hasan Ali, his brother Muhammad al-Zaghal and their rival Muhammad, respectively a son and nephew to both men.

Within a few years of Muhammad’s departure from his homeland, she had violated each of the terms offered on behalf of his people in the Capitulations of 1491, specifically the stipulation allowing the Moors to “…live in their own religion,” and “…not permit that their mosques be taken from them….” She unleashed the Inquisition on conquered southern Spain and bore responsibility for thousands of fiery deaths among innocents of the Muslim, Jewish and even Christian faiths. - From the author's note of Sultana: The White Mountains.
Isabella's portrait - a picture taken while
visiting Segovia Castle
Historians have often portrayed the Catholic monarch Isabella, the queen at war as a shining example of female courage in the struggle between Moors and Christians from 1482 to 1492. The sight of her on the edge of a battlefield or at a lengthy siege could boost morale and lead to victory. Against all odds, including difficult terrain and a determined enemy who could strike hard and fast against the Spanish Christians before disappearing through the mountain passes, Isabella and her husband secured the official surrender of Moorish Spain on January 2, 1492.  

Isabella may have never anticipated a future as queen of Castile. In the line of succession, two elder brothers Enrique and Alfonso preceded her. She might not have imagined a union with Ferdinand of Aragon or how their marriage would lay the groundwork for a future Spanish dynasty. Like her ancestors, she could have idled and watched the Moors of southern Spain destroy each other in foolish civil war. Instead, she pursued a ten-year campaign against them and sought the hegemony of Spain under Christian rule.

The campaign against the Moors didn't begin at the direction of Isabella or her husband. For centuries beforehand, Isabella's ancestors had struggled against the kingdom of Granada, which encompassed most of modern-day Andalusia, in a series of intermittent border raids and sieges. When they were not fighting. the Castilian sovereigns accepted payments of tribute from the Moorish rulers, whom they considered their vassals. It's clear the Moors did not always accept this subordinate role because several Sultans refused to submit the gold coins. Last among them was Abu'l-Hasan Ali, known among the Spanish as Muley Hacén. 

His soldiers seized the city of Zahara in December 1481, provoking the response of Rodrigo Ponce de León, Marqués of Cádiz, who then attacked and claimed Alhama. Isabella and the Marqués did not always enjoy good relations; at the death of her elder brother Enrique, Rodrigo Ponce de León first supported the rival claim of the princess Juana, Enrique's daughter and Isabella's niece. The propaganda of Isabella's supporters made the supposed heir of Castile the illegitimate child of another man. Juana eventually resigned herself to a convent. Although Isabella and Ferdinand had not ordered the reprisal at Alhama, they planned to use it as a base for future conquests. Ferdinand came south to attack Loja, but the forces of Abu'l-Hasan Ali turned his quest into a resounding defeat. 

What happened to the momentum after the victory at Alhama? At Loja, Isabella's husband became aware of the difficulties their campaign would face in every Moorish territory. The cities of Andalusia were not only defended by stout walls and cannon, but the terrain itself made the movement of massive armies and siege weapons a struggle. Men and artillery required money the monarchs did not have. So, the king and queen sent a delegation to the Pope Sixtus IV seeking a papal bull. 

The words, "We have not been moved to this war by any desire to enlarge our realms...but our desire to serve God, and our zeal for His Holy Catholic faith, made us put all other interests aside...." had the intended effect and the Pope granted the bull. It turned centuries-long warfare between the kingdoms into a religious crusade. The indulgences the Church gave to those who fought against the Moors, including absolution for any violence committed, bolstered the numbers in the army and brought the funds the king and queen required. To secure future victories and avoid the embarrassment at Loja, they employed the services of Francisco Ramírez de Madrid, Master of Artillery.

Internal divisions within Granada also buoyed their efforts. Abu'l-Hasan Ali's eldest son Muhammad then claimed the throne in the summer of 1482, relegating his father to the area around Malaga, which was then the governorship of Muhammad Al-Zaghal, brother of Abu'l-Hasan Ali. During April 1483 in an attempt to raid the Castilian border, the new Sultan fell into the hands of Isabella and Ferdinand. They gave him an ultimatum; he would gain release if he fought against his father and turned his toddler son and younger brother over as hostages. In the interim, the Castilian forces kept up the attacks on Abu'l-Hasan Ali. They also built up the Castilian navy's presence in the Mediterranean Sea and interrupted the centuries-long supply of Muslim troops from Morocco in defense of Granada, as well as gold from the mines of Africa.

Isabella and Ferdinand released the young Sultan in exchange for his son, whom they kept at their court until 1492. Then they began the campaign in earnest with the siege weapons the master of artillery had developed. Faced with merciless bombardment under heavy mortar and cannon, city after city fell into their hands. Ronda surrendered in 1485, as did Marbella. Then Malaga in 1487, Vera in 1488, Guadix, Almeria and Baza in 1489, and finally Granada in 1492. At almost every siege, which sometimes occurred during Isabella's numerous pregnancies, she joined her husband, even with their children as at Los Ojos de Huescar where an eight-month siege culminated in June 1491.

The Capitulations, Pradilla - from Wiki Commons
Despite the ravages of the campaign and the abandonment of the treaty terms between the Catholic monarchs and the last Muslim ruler of Spain, Isabella is largely responsible for the preservation of the fragile beauty of Muhammad’s Alhambra palace as we see it today. She lies buried at Granada, the city she claimed through determined efforts, accomplishing in ten years what none of her ancestors had done in centuries past.

--Images are mine or derived from Wiki Commons. Sources include:

Ferdinand and Isabella – Profiles in Power by John Edwards (Routledge – 2013), Granada 1492: The twilight of Moorish Spain by David Nicolle, illustrated by Angus McBride (Osprey Publishing -1998), Isabel the Queen: Life and Times by Peggy K. Liss (University of Pennsylvania Press – 2004) and The Military Orders and the War of Granada (1350-1492) by Enrique Rodríguez-Picavea, Mediterranean Studies, Vol. 19 (2010), pp. 14-42 http://www.jstor.org/stable/41167026 (published by Penn State University Press - 2010)

** An Excerpt from Sultana: The White Mountains**

Chapter 25

Sultana Moraima

Gharnatah, Al-Andalus or Granada, Andalusia
15 Ramadan 896 AH / Friday, July 22, AD 1491

“Welcome to Santa Fe.”

Moraima and Aisha whirled as the queen of Castilla-León entered the enormous tent from some adjoining quarter concealed behind a gap in the diamond-patterned fabric. She had not arrived alone, without protections. Plate armor contrasted with vibrant green silk, trimmed in black lace and shimmery pearls. So much fabric, for the sovereign had thickened since they last saw her at the bridge over the Guadalquivir River. The white material atop her head evoked the odd combination of a Moorish veil and a Jewish skullcap, except for two flaps draped on either side of her sallow, puffy cheeks.

The burly officer Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba followed his queen. The one who had aided Muhammad against his uncle and concealed his awareness of the Berber tongues. Moraima shuddered at the memory of his cruel touch. Muhammad should have known the truth. As his beloved, she could have exposed the Castillan.

His mistress strolled to the twin thrones at the opposite end of the tent and sat. Although other chairs lined the space, she offered no comfort. Córdoba joined her, hovering at her right. His palm rested atop the pommel of the sword girded at his stout waist. His black gaze, like the portent of a terrible storm, roved over Moraima and Aisha. Did he recall the threat once brandished against them? Would he kill them now if given another chance?

Aisha matched his fury. “This region is called Atqa! Still a part of the kingdom of Granada.”

Queen Isabella settled back against the plush cushion behind her. “I have claimed this territory for the kingdom of Castilla-León. You should be accustomed to the conquests of my husband by now, Sultana.”

“I'm aware of his actions, la reina. The enslavement of Moors. The brutal deaths of renegados who had embraced the true faith, burnt as apostates by your inquisitors. You Trastámaras have a long history of violence and theft. You’ve always murdered and stolen for your gains. Even for a crown.”

As the Christian monarch stiffened, Moraima cautioned her mother-in-law with a tug of her long sleeve. “Ummi, please! We didn’t come to argue but to recover my son. You promised me before we arrived. Ahmad must be the focus of our negotiations. If you love your grandson….”

“You do not have to ask. Forgive me, dear daughter.” Aisha leaned closer. “Ours is an ancient hatred. Nasrids have despised the Trastámaras and their descendants since their murder of the legitimate king of Castilla-León, Pedro, half-brother of the Conde de Trastámara, Enrique. My noble ancestor Muhammad al-Ghani bi-llah, may Allah sustain his memory, shared a strong bond with Pedro. Then the Conde Enrique killed his brother like a coward and ushered in a new dynasty bent upon our annihilation. This queen of war descends from such evil. But she forgets who we are. Nasrids. Our memories are long. Our vengeance is unyielding. Although more than a century has passed, we have never forgotten our allies. We also do not forgive enemies, theirs or ours.”

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 completed a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana, Sultana’s Legacy, Sultana: Two SistersSultana: The Bride Price, Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree, and Sultana: The White Mountains, 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.