IN 1468, the seventeen-year-old Isabella’s marriage prospects were not good. The younger half-sister to Enrique, the reigning king of Castile, Isabella found the king’s first choice for her husband, the aging and grasping king of Portugal, Afonso V, to be unpleasant. Although a renowned warrior and crusader who a decade earlier had beaten back the Moors from Morocco, Afonso was now more than twice Isabella’s age and already had an adult son who would be his heir. He had grown plump and unappealing as well as politically impotent—a disadvantage for any children that might arise from the union. He was also related to Isabella, a reality not uncommon in dynastic marriages in Europe in the late Middle Ages, but nonetheless requiring a papal dispensation. The thought of this man as her lifelong bedmate and as the father of her children was enough to make Isabella weep.
But Isabella’s marriage was a matter of state interest; from Enrique’s point of view, romance or compatibility had little to do with it. Enrique was in favour of the match, and so was Afonso. In fact, the two men had been discussing the betrothal for a few years, and the proposal had been firmly yet diplomatically resisted by Isabella for just as long. At one point the stubborn princess had informed her half-brother that she “could not be disposed of in marriage without the consent of the nobles of the realm,” which was an accurate if audacious claim. Enrique knew that consent from his nobles would not be readily forthcoming in the current complicated political climate, particularly if Isabella chose to cause trouble. But the pressure from Portugal to meet the proposal, and his own need for Portuguese military support, was so great that Enrique eventually threatened Isabella with imprisonment in the Alcázar in Madrid if she refused to agree to the marriage.
A Portuguese courtier implied that Portuguese armies would march on Castile in retaliation if she persisted in her humiliating refusal. Isabella may have appeared passive—she was fond of reading and devoted to lengthy prayer sessions—but years of dangerous court intrigue had made her a master dissembler. Although her placid smile conveyed a disarming neutrality, she had her own plans and dreams, held close to her heart and shared only with her closest supporters and advisers. Those dreams did not correspond with the wishes of her king and many of the grandees of the realm. Known to history for having a strong and independent will throughout her life, Isabella made it abundantly clear in 1468 while still a teenager that she would not have the repulsive Portuguese monarch as her consort and spouse, regardless of the consequences. Her exasperating display of independence was threatening to derail plans that had been years in the making, and possibly to agitate the fragile peace between the two nations.
Enrique considered his options. He consulted with his advisers and explored other possibilities for Isabella’s marriage. His half-sister’s marriage had become a personal as well as political concern. Isabella’s claim to the Castilian throne, were Enrique to die suddenly, was now stronger even than the claim of his own six-year-old daughter, Juana. Named after her mother, the vivacious Juana of Portugal, his daughter coincidentally was the niece of the Portuguese King Afonso—Enrique’s wife, Juana of Portugal, was Afonso’s younger sister. But the younger Juana was widely suspected to have been sired by one of Enrique’s court favourites, the dashing Beltrán de la Cueva, and therefore illegitimate for purposes of political inheritance. In fact Enrique, at the strenuous urging of his nobles following several years of simmering civil war, had recently made a public proclamation that Juana was not his offspring. The unfortunate girl was nicknamed “La Beltraneja,” a name that stuck with her not only throughout her life but down through the centuries. It did not help his position that his queen had recently given birth to yet another child who could not possibly have been sired by Enrique because the royal couple had been living in different places. Despite the great efforts made to conceal the pregnancy with tight gowns, the impropriety had been discovered. It was now widely claimed in the Castilian court that the queen “has not used her person cleanly, as comports with her duty as servant to the king.”
The marriage was duly annulled by the papal legate, and the oaths of allegiance to Juana that Enrique had extracted from his nobles were likewise annulled. Owing to the child’s acknowledged illegitimacy, and lacking direct legitimate descendants, the thirty-eight-year-old Enrique, snidely known as “the Impotent,” had little choice but to name his half-sister, Isabella, as the princess of Asturias, next in line to succeed to the throne of Castile as the one true heir. But he had forced a concession from her: he would have the authority to choose her husband.
Isabella’s marriage could not be considered lightly, but Enrique’s motives were less than noble. He wished to give the appearance of selecting a suitable mate for her while neutralizing her political potential in Castile, and eventually to undermine her claim to his throne. Enrique briefly pursued several other marriage matches for Isabella, including to the duke of Gloucester, the future King Richard III, in distant and chilly England, and the French king Louis XI’s brother, the effete Charles, duke of Berry and Guienne. An alliance with France, sealed and secured with a marriage, might allow Castile and France to surround the smaller kingdom of Aragon and perhaps claim some outlying territories.
Although Charles was only five years her senior and at that time the heir to the French throne, Isabella was not enamoured with him. No newcomer to intrigue, Isabella had sent her confidante, Friar Alfonso de Coca, to France to spy on him. The friar returned with a depressing report. The young French noble seemed prematurely aged. He was, according to de Coca, “made ugly by the extremely misshapen thin legs and watery eyes that were sometimes so bad as to be nearly blind, so that rather than weapons and a horse what he needed was a skilful guide.” Charles was certainly not the man to quicken Isabella’s heart.
But de Coca made another interesting discovery. He had also travelled to the neighbouring kingdom of Aragon to spy on one further marital option that had been secretly urged upon Isabella by her personal political adviser Alfonso Carillo de Acuña, the archbishop of Toledo: Ferdinand, the sixteen-year-old son and heir to King Juan II of Aragon. De Coca was pleased to inform Isabella that this young prince had “a gallant presence that could not be compared to the Duke [of Berry] . . . he has a singular grace that everyone who talks to him wants to serve him.” Young Ferdinand was also a skilled swordsman and field commander, talents that might prove valuable should Isabella defy Enrique and proceed with a betrothal. Muscular and athletic, Ferdinand was “a great rider of the bridle and the jennet, and a great lance thrower and other activities which he performed with great skill and a grace,” according to a later court historian. He also had “marvellously beautiful, large slightly slanted eyes, thin eyebrows, a sharp nose that fit the shape and size of his face.” His mouth was “often laughing” and his build “most appropriate to elegant suits and the finest clothes.” It was hardly surprising when Isabella pronounced to Carillo that “it must be he and no other.”
A match with Ferdinand of Aragon was sure to be opposed by Enrique and many of his loyal nobles, as it would strengthen rather than weaken Isabella’s claim to the Castilian throne. (Despite his public proclamation, Enrique still schemed to pass the throne to his daughter Juana.) Any children Isabella and Ferdinand might have would be joint heirs to the thrones of both Castile and Aragon, uniting most of the Iberian peninsula in one royal house and possibly overshadowing Portugal.
Isabella’s stubbornness was balanced by her sense of duty and piety, but geopolitics and the national interests of Castile—at least, Enrique’s idea of Castile’s interests—could only sway her so far. She urged her small cadre of supporters and advisers to begin secret marriage negotiations with Ferdinand. Given the possible domestic outcomes for the lonely teenage princess—her father was long dead, her mother descended into melancholy and madness and her younger brother recently poisoned to death—Isabella seems to have demonstrated remarkable courage in defying the king and choosing her mate, and therefore determining Castile’s future political alliances. Despite her feelings of guilt at betraying her half-brother’s trust—though she knew by now that he did not have her best interests at heart—she had to proceed quickly with her plan. Enrique, who was away from his court to suppress an uprising in Andalusia, would certainly marshal forces to prevent any union with Ferdinand and perhaps even imprison Isabella or quickly marry her off to either the duke of Berry or King Afonso. Enrique had not yet accepted as final her refusal to obey him.
While Isabella’s supporters—powerful aristocrats who were working to ensure her ultimate position as queen of Castile— proceeded with the touchy marriage negotiations with Ferdinand’s father, Juan VI, king of Aragon, Isabella waited in her castle in Valladolid. The negotiations proceeded slowly as each communication had to be carted in secret across the plains and mountains by riders on horses, a journey that could take a week between the two kingdoms. A diplomatic marriage at this high level, involving the possible heir to the Castilian throne and the heir to the Aragonese throne, involved a great deal of politics concerning the workings of the kingdoms under a joint monarchy and could not be hurried. The outcome of the secret marriage plans of the teenage Isabella would have an enormous impact on the future of the Iberian peninsula, possibly leading to a new dynasty or, less happily, to civil war.
Sometime during the secretive diplomatic exchange, Isabella’s conscience got the better of her and she dispatched a letter to Enrique in Andalusia. She told him of her marriage plans, attempting to soothe his injured pride and placate his anger at being defied in his kingly role. His dynastic machinations thwarted, Enrique’s response was swift and decisive: he dispatched a band of loyal troops north to arrest Isabella.
THE IBERIAN peninsula is a patchwork of diverse geographical features that contributed to an equally diverse quilt of political divisions in the fifteenth century. The land includes steep mountain ranges, high and windy plains, thick forests, fertile farmlands along the rivers and rocky coasts along the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean and Cantabrian Seas. The central kingdom of Castile, which over the years had incorporated, by warfare and royal marriage, many smaller kingdoms, was the largest and most populous of the five quarrelling realms of the peninsula. It had a population of between four and six million, concentrated in the fertile Castilian plateau, a wind-swept high plain of harsh winters and heavy rains, but hot and dry in the summer. Most of the kingdom’s millions of sheep were raised on the plateau as well. The economy was primarily agrarian, aided by a handful of bustling trading ports along the east coast, as well as fishermen, sailors and explorers on the Atlantic coast.
Life was slow and primarily rural. Only a few ill-maintained roads crossed the peninsula, and there were large swaths of sparsely populated hinterland between the cities and towns situated on the major rivers. The rugged landscape was dotted with hilltop forts and defensive towers; the towns were all walled and defended, attesting to the centuries of conflict and quarrelling that had dominated the region’s history, conflict that had erupted into particular vigour in the mid-fifteenth century. The land was worked by peasant farmers whose main crops included barley, oats, olives and wheat, with oranges, figs, grapes and rice grown in the south of Castile (Andalusia) and the Moorish kingdom of Granada. Large herds of sheep patrolled the open expanse of the Castilian plain, while peddlers slowly and erratically criss-crossed the land, plodding along dusty roads, their mules laden with exotic imported spices, cloth and medicines. One contemporary traveller commented, “One can walk for days on end without meeting a single inhabitant.”
Although Castile had the potential to prosper, the internecine quarrels of its noble families through much of the fifteenth century had created political instability that stunted trade, plagued the ill-kept highways with brigands and hobbled the central power and taxation ability of the kings. Madrid at the time was a minor town; though it was frequented by the royal court, primarily for its central location, monarchs and their entourages preferred Segovia, Valladolid and Toledo, which had the largest castles and largest populations. In the late fifteenth century the walled town of Seville, along the mighty Guadalquivir River, was Castile’s most important city, with an urban population of perhaps 40,000 people and a hinterland of approximately 130,000.
Surrounding the kingdom of Castile were four other kingdoms that shared the Iberian peninsula, including tiny but fertile Navarre, in the north, and lively and prosperous Aragon, in the northeast, with its thriving sea ports at Valencia and Barcelona. Aragon shared with Castile a language and similar culture and branches of the same dynastic line. Castile’s nemesis, Portugal, lay to the west. Once part of the Castilian crown, Portugal had wrested its independence in 1095 and proceeded to push its own reconquest, recapturing Lisbon from the Moors in 1147 and later that century the Algarve, in the south. Although Castile and Portugal had a similar culture, language and dynastic lineage, they frequently struggled with each other for pre-eminence in the peninsula. The remaining independent Iberian kingdom was the fabled Granada, set apart from the other four kingdoms by not sharing the Christian religion with them. Granada was a Moorish or Muslim kingdom, the sole remaining vestige of the civilization that for centuries had dominated most of the peninsula.
Islamic invaders had first launched across the Strait of Gibraltar in the early eighth century. In quick order their disciplined and inspired warriors, led by Tariq the One-Eyed, defeated the armies deployed against them. They eventually overran much of the Visigothic empire on the Iberian peninsula, then surged north across the Pyrenees and into France. After a string of victories and advances, they were stopped by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732. In Iberia the Moors consolidated their new empire, but within a few years of the initial assault the Visigoth warlord Pelayo reconquered the small kingdom of Asturias, bordering the Cantabrian Sea, and began the centuries-long Reconquista by predominantly Christian Spain against the Muslim invaders. By the fifteenth century, after centuries of war, only one small Moorish kingdom remained in Spain: Granada, separated and defended from the other four Iberian kingdoms by the highest mountain range in the peninsula, the Sierra Nevada.
At this time just over half of the peninsula’s people were Christian, while the remainder were Muslim or Jewish. Despite the more-or-less ongoing warfare, followers of the three main religious faiths eked out an uneasy coexistence. Nancy Rubin, in Isabella ofCastile: The First Renaissance Queen, notes that “there were dark-skinned Christians, light-haired Moors, hybrids of every shape and complexion in Castile.” A mid-fifteenth-century traveller wrote in astonishment that one aristocrat, the count of Haro, employed in his household “Christians, Moors and Jews, and he lets them all live in peace in their faith.” In smaller towns in rural areas, members of the three faiths frequently lived in separate but nearby communities, united in commerce.
In the larger cities, however, political and cultural developments in the mid-fifteenth century were eroding the uneasy truce that had prevailed for generations. Iberia’s religions coexisted as a cauldron of suppressed animosities and incompatibilities that had existed for centuries. Jews often bore the brunt of the hostility, alternately from the Islamic states and the Christian ones. Occasionally these hatreds would flare up and then settle down into calm acceptance producing periods of peaceful exchange and cultural blending. Much of Europe’s literature, science, agricultural techniques, ideas and practices in medicine, engineering and philosophy made its way into Europe from the sophisticated Islamic culture in Iberia.
But by the fifteenth century the period of peace was ending. In 1453 Constantinople fell to the invading armies of Mehmet the Conqueror using giant siege cannons (ironically, crafted by dissatisfied European church-bell makers), essentially ending the Christian Byzantine Empire and shutting off the spice trade to Europe. Soon popes and senior church officers were attempting to raise interest throughout Europe in another crusade in retaliation. Mehmet’s invasion escalated the simmering quarrel between Islam and Christianity, and as before Spain’s Jews suffered from both directions. During the time of the Black Death in the fourteenth century, Jews were massacred by Christian mobs in Toledo, Seville, Valencia and Barcelona. To avoid this fate, many converted to Christianity.
These conversos retained their wealth and social status and frequently occupied influential roles as moneylenders and translators. These They were also valued by the kings and lords as tax assessors and collectors. Many of them spoke Arabic and had ties with Muslim communities and traders in Granada—skills and connections that served well in times of peace, yet exposed them to further hatred and contempt during periods of unrest. During Isabella’s life, both Jews and conversos were forbidden to own land or hold public office and were compelled to wear special yellow badges. Also during this time, the Catholic Church established the Inquisition to stem the development of wayward thought and purify the faith. This institution would be refined and amplified to horrifying effect in the later fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Politically, fifteenth-century Castile was ruled by weak kings and the hereditary lords asserted significant authority. Because of the weak central power, mild lawlessness reigned as local lords enforced laws as they pleased, leading to endless quarrelling and even civil war. The Reconquista and its more-or-less six centuries of military conflict had fostered a large class of warrior-knights, battle trained and formidable, whose militias, although theoretically under the authority of the crown, operated semi-independently. Because these militias were so numerous and formidable, the crown was never fully capable of imposing its authority throughout the realm. By the fifteenth century this noble class was so powerful that Isabella’s father, King Juan II of Castile, who had a long and undistinguished reign from 1406 to 1454, was compelled to keep the peace by continuously granting titles and land to the growing cadre of powerful, semi-independent potentates whose support he needed in order to govern. These aristocrats soon owned and controlled nearly as much land as the crown, and many were richer than the king.
As royal revenues plunged during his reign, Juan II raised taxes on commoners, fostering a deep resentment towards the monarchy that was amplified by the years of political instability. Warring nobles marched their soldiers against each other in petty territorial disputes, plundering farms and villages, destroying local commerce and severely hobbling the national economy, which resulted in fewer taxes being collected by the central government. When his nobles challenged him and threatened civil war, demanding more royal concessions and payoffs, Juan backed down and met their demands for land and titles, which in turn emboldened them and increased their demands. By the 1470s, Castile had become a battleground of warring factions. Both its towns and its countryside were plundered and fearful.
Not only was Juan II an unpopular king to the common citizens of Castile, but he was held in contempt by his nobles for his weakness in lavishing rewards on them whenever they threatened to cause trouble. In particular, he earned disrespect for his weak-willed submission to the suggestions of his court favourite Alvaro de Luna, the illegitimate son of a royal Aragonese family who was suspected of being the king’s lover. Certainly de Luna was a master manipulator who had exercised his power over the king since Juan assumed the throne at the impressionable age of fourteen. Unfortunately, Juan was so enthralled by de Luna that he allowed the older man even to control his sex life. According to one of the court chroniclers, “The greatest marvel had been that even in the natural acts Juan followed the orders of the Constable [de Luna], and though young and of good constitution, and having a young and beautiful queen, if the Constable said not to, he would not go to her room, nor dally with other women, although naturally enough inclined to them.” Juan had produced an heir in 1425 with his first wife, Maria of Aragon—a boy, named Enrique. Twenty-six years later, with his second wife, the brooding Isabel of Portugal, he fathered two more children: Isabella in 1451, and a second son, Alfonso, in 1453.
When Juan II died in 1454, he was succeeded to the Castilian throne by his first-born son, Enrique. Enrique was handsome, creative and athletic; yet he was also feckless and periodically lazy and disinclined to take responsibility for the kingdom and its sometimes unpleasant affairs. He dispensed with many formalities, including the ceremonies of allegiance, and appointed to influential positions a disparate collection of uncourtly hangers-on— peasants, musicians, labourers, entertainers—who showed little respect for the monarchy. A chronicler noted that Enrique was “eternally enamoured of peace” and continued his father’s policy of appeasing nobles in order to purchase political stability. In response to the frequent warnings and admonishments from his advisers and the evident displeasure of a large cadre of his court over his lavish distribution of gifts and titles—actions that were slowly bankrupting the crown—Enrique retorted, “Kings, instead of hoarding treasure like private persons, are bound to dispense it for the happiness of their subjects. We must give to our enemies to make them friends, and to our friends to keep them so.”
Enrique’s actions, continuing the weak-willed policies of his father, led to civil war when his younger half-sister, Isabella, was approaching adolescence in the 1460s. Some chroniclers claim that Enrique was sexually abused when he was a youth by de Luna, the same man who had manipulated his father, to make him compliant and easier to control. According to Alfonso de Palencia, official chronicler of the Castilian court, de Luna tainted Enrique with “the vice of the vicious.” Whether this was true or not, Enrique, like his father, was a weak and erratic king who presided over a kingdom fraught with ever-increasing political chaos, a fragmentation of centralized power and disrespect of the king by the nobles of the realm.
Contributing to the dynastic instability was Enrique’s alleged impotence. Although he had been married to Blanca of Navarre since he was fifteen, their marriage had produced no children after nearly thirteen years. Wearied by the continuous speculation over his sexual prowess, Enrique decided to seek a papal annulment of the marriage a year before he ascended to the throne in 1454. The Spanish prelates who presented the case to the pope countered the prevalent rumours that Blanca would leave the marriage as she had entered it—that is to say, as a virgin. To prove that the fault of the barren marriage lay with Blanca, the two priests interviewed prostitutes in Segovia who duly pronounced that they had had intercourse with the king and that he was indeed El Potente. The official reason given for the annulment of Enrique and Blanca’s marriage was witchcraft, or black magic (maleficio), on the part of Blanca, this black magic having temporarily rendered Enrique unable to father an heir. Why she would want to do this to her own husband and suffer the inexorable and entirely predictable consequences for this act against the state was not discussed. In 1453 the papal annulment was confirmed, and Blanca was duly banished. By this time Enrique had already approached the king of Portugal, Afonso V, and negotiated for the hand of the king’s younger sister Juana, a feisty and beautiful brunette who arrived in Castile with an entourage of gaily caparisoned attendants and a merry and flirtatious disposition. The young princess was fond of pageantry and ceremony—and, unfortunately, was prone to indiscretion in affairs of the heart.
Juana was only sixteen years old and thus barely half Enrique’s age, and the king was nervous. His nerves may have been heightened by the impending wedding night festivities. His past failure in this regard did not augur well for the success of his continued reign or for Castile’s political stability. Predictably, Enrique failed to produce a bloodstained bedsheet to his court officials, who, in accordance with medieval Castilian custom, hovered about the royal bedroom door awaiting proof that the marriage had been consummated. This turn of events, when the accepted “proof” was not forthcoming, “pleased nobody.” For the first six years of their marriage Enrique and Juana of Portugal produced no children, and the rumours of the king’s impotence and sexual leanings once again became a common topic throughout the realm. “The impotence of the king to procreate was notorious,” commented one chronicler, while another scribe wrote that “the king is so effeminate that he even goes in the middle of the night to the house of his new favourite, in order to entertain him when he is ill, by singing . . .” Fernando de Pulgar, another court chronicler, later wrote that after marrying Juana of Portugal, Enrique’s “impotence was made manifest. Because although he was married to her for fifteen years, and had communication with other women, he never succeeded in any manly function.” Other accounts from the time refer to the shrivelled size of Enrique’s organ and the watery and weak condition of his semen, as inspected and reported on by a team of celebrated physicians.
In 1462, Juana finally became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, also named Juana. The child, as we have seen, was believed to have been fathered not by the king but by one of his courtiers, the charismatic Beltrán de la Cueva. Later, in a vain effort to make the girl resemble the king, members of Enrique’s inner circle broke Juana’s nose to make her look more like Enrique, who had a prominent broken nose. But none of the accounts of Enrique’s “manly functions” is entirely free from suspicion. It is not possible to authoritatively determine either Enrique’s virility or the paternity of the daughter that his wife would bear. But the biological truth hardly matters: at the time, Enrique was widely suspected of being impotent and his daughter was widely suspected of being the genetic offspring of another man, and therefore not in line to the succession to the Castilian throne.
The faintly amusing preoccupation with a man’s ability to procreate, and the determination of the exact ancestry of his alleged offspring, may now be difficult to appreciate. In medieval Spain, however, and indeed throughout Europe and in many other regions of the world, the stability of the state and the legitimacy of a monarch’s progeny were closely intertwined. In societies with primitive political structures, government succession was limited to the legitimate offspring of the currently reigning monarchs. An elaborate set of rules often governed the exact line of succession, determining who would inherit the responsibilities and the perquisites of government. These rules had to be followed to gain legitimacy and acceptance. Thus Enrique’s supposed failure to produce an heir was a grave problem. The possibility of foisting an illegitimate child on the nation challenged the rules governing the orderly transfer of power. Once the authority of tradition was broken, the gates were opened to further challenges to governmental authority, questions regarding the legitimacy of the new monarch and perhaps the legitimacy of the monarchy itself. Whether or not the rumours were true, Enrique was unlucky enough to fall afoul of the rigid code of succession then in force in Iberia.
Soon there was grumbling among some factions of the nobility that Enrique was unfit to be king. There were doubts over the legitimacy of La Beltraneja; overall dissatisfaction with the competence of the king to govern, favouritism, his promotion of friends and his lavish distribution of money and land and titles; and questions about the further adulterous behaviour of the queen, who became pregnant by yet another of Enrique’s courtiers. Taken together, these issues formed the kernels of rebellion among the dissatisfied members of the Castilian nobility. By the summer of 1464, civil war had begun. Small armies trailed each other about the countryside, trying to secure important towns for their cause.
Enrique knew that his thirteen-year-old half-sister, Isabella, and her brother Alfonso, aged ten, would or could become pawns in his quarrel with many powerful nobles. In February 1465, he took them from where they lived—with their mother, near Madrid—ostensibly to “have them educated properly,” but really to monitor their loyalty and prevent others from using them to mount a challenge to his kingship. Enrique slyly disenfranchised the two siblings by removing their inheritance rights and the hereditary titles willed to them by their father. Isabella was held at Enrique’s court in Segovia, where her freedom was restricted and her letters to anyone outside the royal household were secretly read. One chronicler, reflecting the feelings of the land, observed that “instead of pursuing a war against the Moors, [Enrique] wars on his own vassals, on good manners, and on ancient laws.”
One of the leaders of the rebellious nobles was Alfonso Carillo de Acuña, the courtier who had been awarded an archbishopric for his valiant support of the previous monarch, Enrique’s father. Now the archbishop of Toledo, the tall soldier-priest intended to use Alfonso, Isabella’s brother, as the symbolic leader in his rebellion against Enrique. Alfonso was taken under the tutelage of the rebels for education and safekeeping. Priests and knights, the grandees of the realm, chose their sides in the impending conflict: one to keep Enrique enthroned, the other to raise Alfonso, then only ten years old. According to the traditional rules of succession, preferring the male of the line, Alfonso was next in line to the throne if Enrique had no legally recognized heir of his own. Thus Alfonso would vault over his older sister, Isabella; only if there was no male heir would a woman be considered.
To firm up public support for the rebellion and for young Alfonso as king, the archbishop of Toledo and his co-conspirators engaged in a public campaign discrediting the legitimacy of La Beltraneja and proclaiming their grievances against Enrique. Their representatives spoke at town squares and posted the assertions that La Beltraneja was not the legitimate heir to the throne. Enrique raised taxes without consultation, went the script; he squandered Castile’s wealth, he employed Jews and Muslims and he “corrupted the air and destroyed human nature” at his court. The conspirators painted a picture of a distant and incompetent king who did not have the best interests of the people at heart, and who might even stoop to killing the infantes to remove any obstacle to his plans for the succession.
The rebels demanded that Enrique proclaim Alfonso as his heir, which he at first agreed to do. He reversed his decision a few months later, and on June 5, 1465, in front of the cathedral outside the city gates of Ávila, a delegation of the rebel leaders, including Carillo de Acuña, enacted a symbolic dethronement of Enrique before the citizens of Ávila. Perched high on a platform was a stuffed likeness of King Enrique, with his crown, throne, sword (a symbol of the defence of the realm) and sceptre (the symbol of royal justice). A herald read aloud the many complaints against Enrique, and the archbishop reached his arm over and flicked the crown from the mannequin’s head. Other nobles removed the sword, sceptre and all other royal insignia, until the mannequin was bare. Carillo de Acuña, dazzling in his ceremonial finery, loudly intoned that Enrique was unfit to govern. He then knocked the dummy to the dirt. The blond, pious Alfonso was solemnly raised to the vacant throne and proclaimed the new king of Castile, Alfonso XII. The assembled dignitaries knelt before him and kissed his hand, publicly swearing their fealty to the new king.
Having two kings in the same kingdom was, not surprisingly, no great boon to the people of Castile. Royal law disintegrated, bandits roamed the increasingly decrepit roads, commerce slowed to a trickle as crime escalated, citizens feared to travel and remained locked up behind the walls of their towns. Private armies scoured the land, hunting for their enemies, capturing and forcing unfortunate peasants into their ranks. The coinage became debased as royal authority waned: new mints opened for business, stamping the heads of competing monarchs onto poor-quality metal. Roving bands of mercenaries stole from both farms and wealthy homes, denuding whole regions of food crops and slaughtering farm animals. Famine became common, and private homes and farms were abandoned as the people fled.
In the spring of 1466, the two royal factions even entertained the possibility of dividing the country into two portions: an independent rebel kingdom and a royalist kingdom. Enrique, who still held Isabella a virtual captive in Segovia, was trying to seal her marriage with Afonso V of Portugal. The match between his half-sister and his brother-in-law was even more important to Enrique, as Afonso promised to send him knights and soldiers to aid in his interminable struggle with his rebel aristocracy and the young King Alfonso, their puppet figurehead. The rebel leaders feared that Enrique would use Isabella to secure foreign military aid that would be turned against them, and within their ranks some secretly approached Enrique with their own marriage deal for the fifteen-year-old princess. Pedro Girón, the master of Calatrava, offered Enrique a compromise in exchange for quitting the rebellion himself and persuading others to lay down their arms: he would take Isabella as his wife (along with a fine dowry, naturally) and thereby eliminate her potential political value.
Girón also promised gold and soldiers to Enrique’s cause, thus betraying Alfonso the boy king, to whom he had recently sworn allegiance. Enrique reluctantly agreed to this marriage for Isabella. Even the rebel faction agreed, because it would permanently eliminate any possibility of her being used as a marriage pawn and a pretext for foreign military intervention. The young princess quailed—the forty-three-year-old Girón, in addition to being two and a half decades her senior, was unkempt, a drinker, foulmouthed and notoriously lecherous. But as Enrique’s prisoner, Isabella had only two remaining options: Girón or King Afonso V of Portugal. Enrique ordered her north to Madrid under guard. She was trapped between two exceedingly unpleasant futures.
Nancy Rubin notes, in Isabella of Castile: The First Renaissance Queen, that “now there was nothing to do but sob, pray, and fast in her room at the Madrid alcazar for a day and a night, prostrating herself and begging God to let her die before the wedding.” Before Girón could arrive to claim his bride, however, he died horribly from a throat infection, spewing “blasphemous words” on his deathbed and “cursing God for the cruelty of not allowing him to live forty more days to enjoy this last display of power [bedding Isabella].” Isabella must have imagined that she had been delivered from the horrible embrace of Girón by the intervention of God. Freed from one despised suitor, she was determined not to be entrapped by another, even as Enrique ordered her back to Segovia.
A few months later, on August 20, 1467, the warring factions clashed in a battle on the plains adjacent the town of Olmedo. The battle was inconclusive but underscored how much politics had degenerated in Castile. Not even the diplomatic intervention of the pope and the threat of possible excommunication of the rebel leaders produced a reconciliation. In a surprise betrayal, however, the guardians of the city of Segovia, Enrique’s de facto capital, centre of the royal treasury and the place where he had Isabella secured, opened the city gates to a rebel army. Isabella was freed. Reeling from this sudden reversal, Enrique reluctantly agreed to a compromise, beginning with a six-month truce. He was persuaded to issue a guarantee of Isabella’s freedom, in which he referred to her as his “dear and much loved sister.” Isabella, unmoved but now free, rushed to her younger brother, Alfonso’s, side at Arévalo and embraced his cause.
Enrique was in a difficult position. In order to regain the royal treasury, he acceded to the demands that his queen Juana should become a virtual hostage, albeit held in luxury, in the castle held by one of the rebel nobles. Relations between the king and queen had been on the decline for years. It was observed that they no longer made any pretence of sleeping together; that in fact Enrique urged her to take lovers and “will have nothing to do with her.” When she found herself effectively offered as a pawn for the royal treasury, Juana, betrayed and humiliated, abandoned any pretence of fidelity towards Enrique. She took several nobles as lovers and gave birth to two sons in the subsequent years—children that no one ever suggested should be in line to the throne of Castile, yet which bolstered the claims that her first child, Juana, was also not the king’s daughter.
During the truce Isabella travelled from town to town with her brother Alfonso and his small court while he continued in his role as king to a substantial portion of the Castilian countryside. But less than a year after Isabella gained her freedom, in July 1468, Alfonso fell ill after dining on his favourite dish, trout. The next morning the young “king” lay in a death-like coma and could not be roused. A physician who tried to bleed him found “there was no blood that flowed” and described his tongue as being swollen and black. At first it was thought to be the plague, but Alfonso’s symptoms did not correspond to the known symptoms of the horrifying disease that was then ravaging the Castilian countryside. Alfonso never regained consciousness and died a few days later, either of the plague or by poisoning. It was a very convenient development for Enrique. The rebels suddenly lost their puppet figurehead, and enthusiasm for the rebellion slowly ebbed.
By this time Isabella had grown into a quiet and contemplative young woman “well formed in her person and the proportion of her limbs . . . very fair and blond: her eyes between green and blue, her look gracious and honest . . . her well-shaped face beautiful and happy.” Self-interested flattery of a queen aside, many accounts dwell on her lively face, gracious manners and charisma, and observe that she was not deceptive or misleading, sly or scheming. Scheming she might not have been, but intelligent she was. When propositioned by her advisers to continue the struggle against her half-brother Enrique by taking up the mantle of monarch so recently shed by her brother Alfonso, she reputedly took a walk in the nearby forested park before announcing her decision. She would not subject the land to further warfare and chaos. Instead, she would accept Enrique’s offer to become his heir, to “bring to an end the hardships of war between Enrique and me . . . thus I am content with the title of princess.” Distressed by the war and chaos that had swept the land, she even felt that Alfonso’s death might have been divine retribution for unlawfully seizing the crown.
Isabella’s decision was not the rash and headstrong act of a frivolous youngster, but a thoroughly well-thought-out response to the situation, statesmanlike and calculated. But in seeking to reconcile the warring factions, Isabella had her own longer-term ambition: to gain the throne through natural inheritance as Enrique’s heir, according to the wishes of their deceased father and the ancient laws of Castile. She sent messengers to Enrique with overtures of peace, and in a few months the terms of the reconciliation were agreed upon.
Too powerful to be defeated and dethroned, Enrique nevertheless realized that he was not powerful enough to secure the succession of Juana la Beltraneja, and he agreed to Isabella’s proposed compromise. Delegations from Castile’s rival factions met in September 1468, near the city of Ávila, on the windswept plains of Toros de Guisando. There, in the shadow of the four mysterious carved stone bulls, where once ancient rites had been practised and where a Roman scribe had carved notice of Caesar’s victories, the leaders of the two factions met in the centre of the field. Isabella, in the role of princess and heir, rode to the meeting on a white mule, as tradition dictated, with the reins held by the archbishop of Toledo. The rebel leaders accepted the authority of the king and pledged their fealty to Enrique as “their king and natural lord,” and Isabella was declared the princess of Asturias and rightful heir to Castile.
The legal rights of La Beltraneja were temporarily quashed; her mother, Juana the queen, then pregnant from her lover, refused to meet Enrique, but her amorous dalliances were now widely acknowledged. Nancy Rubin succinctly observes that the “widespread realization that Queen Juana was an adulteress had appreciably weakened Enrique’s bargaining position.” The papal legate solemnly declared that the king was no longer married to her, on the feeble pretext that he had not secured the official papal bull of dispensation for consanguinity for the marriage many years ago. Therefore, the girl Juana was not legally Enrique’s daughter and could never inherit the throne.
Enrique’s one major concession from Isabella was that he would have a voice in choosing her husband, that in fact she would not marry without his consent—a promise that she knew she would not keep if it went against her wishes, aware as she was of Enrique’s motives to eliminate her as a political threat by marrying her off to whomever he felt would remove her from the country and from the line of succession to the throne. Despite Enrique’s official proclamations to honour his commitment to Isabella as the official heir to Castile, many remained suspicious: he had vacillated on many important decisions in the past, even over the very issue of his successor. It was widely believed that he did not have Isabella’s best interests at heart, and many believed that he did not have the best interests of Castile at heart either.
The struggle to determine Isabella’s marriage partner was a major stumbling block for Castilian peace, but Isabella hoped that it could be resolved by restoring good relations with her brother. It was an issue that would soon again plunge the realm into civil war.