ON THE grassy plains outside the western Spanish city of Toro, a Castilian army of over five thousand heavy infantry and mounted lancers aligned themselves into battle formation to face an equally impressive Portuguese army. It was the late afternoon, March 1, 1476, and the light was fading and freezing rain soaked the field. Despite their weariness after a day of chasing their Portuguese foes through the steep mountain passes of the Sierra de la Culebra, the Castilian ranks felt this would be the final reckoning between the rival claimants to the Castilian throne, who had plunged the peninsula into war. Isabella and Ferdinand had been crowned king and queen only a year earlier; the Castilian forces were commanded by Ferdinand himself, alongside his battle-experienced nobles and his Aragonese half-brother. In the fading winter light they could make out the splendidly arrayed Afonso V, king of Portugal, the celebrated conqueror of the Moors in Morocco—as a result of which he had earned the title O Africano—and his son João, an athletic twenty-year-old surrounded by his force of armoured knights. João, heir to the Portuguese crown, perhaps stood to gain (or lose) most from the battle’s outcome: he had joined his father Afonso with an army of reinforcements from Portugal only weeks earlier.
Thousands of warhorses, covered in metal-plate armour and draped in splendidly embroidered blankets, stamped their nervous feet, their breath escaping in clouds. The knights who rode them tightened their armour, grabbed a final bite of food or drink of water, prayed for victory (or perhaps only for survival) and checked their weapons a final time. Many of these warriors had been engaged in a weary game of cat and mouse, chasing one another across the Castilian countryside for many months through the blasting heat of summer and the piercing cold of winter. They were now eager for a final confrontation. Castile’s political future hung in the balance, and there was no turning back. War drums pounded, the rhythmic sound growing louder. Finally Ferdinand gave the signal, blaring trumpets announced the Castilian advance and the knights charged, while the infantry ran across the plain screaming “St. James and St. Lazarus!” Gunners fired their primitive cannons, sending iron balls bouncing across the slippery grass. Great clouds of gunpowder smoke swirled in the mist while arquebusiers fired their crude, rifle-like weapons at their charging opponents. Archers tilted up their bows and loosed a deadly, dark stream of shafts into the sky.
The Portuguese counterattack targeted Ferdinand’s right wing, sending thousands of projectiles into the midst of the charging warriors. The force of the attack shattered shields, wounded knights and sent them bleeding and screeching into the mud. Castilian knights spurred their mounts and charged to the rescue of the bloody fragments of the right wing, using their lances to spear the advancing Portuguese as heavy warhorses slammed into the ranks of the infantry. Soon a chaotic melee surged back and forth across the plain, weapons raised high and slicing low, cleaving into exposed arms and necks and bashing off helmets and shields. Battle cries roared out “Afonso!” or “Ferdinand!” as masses of metal-clad men surged back and forth in the growing darkness. Ferdinand was heard to scream, “Charge forward, my Castilian knights! I am your king!” and they advanced with renewed vigour. After three hours of battle, hundreds of warriors had slipped or dived into the black waters of the Duero River and were swept away. Thousands more lay moaning and bleeding, many to their death, while dying horses screamed in agony and fear on the blood-slickened field. Thousands of hostages had been taken, and the remnant of an army had fled the field for the protection of a nearby fortress. The living scavenged the dead for “gold, silver, clothes and many other things.”
The battle, claimed as a victory by both sides, was pivotal in determining the Castilian succession—and a great many other things in the coming years.
THE EVENTS that culminated in the Battle of Toro had been set in motion years earlier, following agreements signed in 1468 by the two opposing factions. But once the immediate threat from his nobles had subsided, King Enrique began to have second thoughts about his decision to declare Isabella the heir to Castile instead of his own daughter, Juana.
Enrique’s original intention was to marry his half-sister off to a foreign prince who would whisk her away from Castile and pave the way for Juana to become his heir, and this re-emerged as his plan mere months after the 1468 agreements. Isabella’s marriage became the most pressing diplomatic issue in the realm. She still adamantly refused to entertain the possibility of marrying any of the unappealing suitors championed by Enrique: the aging Afonso V of Portugal; the sickly brother of the French king, the duke of Berry; or the violent duke of Gloucester, the future King Richard III of England. Despite Isabella’s explicit refusal, Enrique was still moving forward with his scheme to marry her to Afonso, going so far as to sign a secret betrothal agreement with the Portuguese king on April 30, 1469, which stipulated that the actual marriage take place in two months, when Afonso would arrive in Castile with his entourage. The details were intricate, providing for titles for both Afonso and Isabella, their official place of residence, the legal status of their children and other matters such as to whom those future children were to be married. It was not a haphazard or hastily arranged agreement, and it certainly would have changed history profoundly had it come to fruition. It would have strengthened ties between Castile and Portugal, rather than between Castile and Aragon, changing the story of history’s most famous voyage as well as its most important political and diplomatic agreement.
But Isabella had her own ideas. It was around this time that the first suggestion came from King Juan II of Aragon, offering his son Ferdinand as a possible suitor. As we have seen, after considering her options and hearing the secret reports of her spy, Friar Alfonso de Coca, Isabella set her mind on marrying Ferdinand, the attractive young heir to the throne of Aragon, and already the king of Sicily. Isabella reached her decision in private, without Enrique’s official consent and in violation of her promise to him that they would jointly consider her marriage prospects. Not only was Ferdinand handsome and Isabella’s own age—certainly significant concerns for a seventeen-year-old girl—but a match with him was surely the best way to secure her own rights to the throne of Castile, rather than allowing herself to be politically neutered in a foreign land, as Enrique wished. The obvious problem she and her advisers faced was that Enrique would never consent to the match. Far from nullifying her political potential, a match with Ferdinand would greatly enhance it, uniting the crowns of Castile and Aragon in an alliance that would surely be approved by the Cortes, the parliament of Castile, and cement Isabella’s position as heir to the throne, while providing a strong ally to help defend those rights. Enrique would be bound to his promise of making her his heir. It was a decision he had made out of political necessity and regretted now that relative peace had been secured.
While Enrique proceeded with his negotiations with Afonso, Isabella authorized the secret negotiations for her marriage to Ferdinand to continue, with haste, throughout 1468 and 1469. Riders galloped back and forth across the rugged terrain between the archbishop’s castle in Yepes and Zaragoza in Aragon, where Juan II and Ferdinand were busy fending off a French invasion from the north. Cryptic or coded missives, delivered at night, free from spying eyes, hashed out the terms of the marriage agreement between the young couple and the two nations. While others did the negotiating, Isabella lived at Enrique’s court surrounded by spies and hampered in her movements. She remained neutral to the advances made by the Portuguese diplomats, who were eager to persuade her towards an agreement with Afonso.
In defiance of their agreement the previous year, Enrique made sure that Isabella remained financially dependent upon him. He began placing obstacles in her path: promised revenues failed to be made available to Isabella, preventing her from establishing her own household or court, hiring servants or rewarding her supporters. Enrique was also worried about the negative public sentiment that would flow from Isabella’s marriage to Afonso. Many nobles realized that this marriage would not only be of little benefit to Isabella—in the words of one chronicler, Isabella would “become in the flower of youth the stepmother of stepchildren who were older than she”—but it would provide no benefit to Castile. There was also the concern that Afonso’s heir, João, might somehow lay claim to Isabella’s inheritance in Castile, “which would overpower the country’s honour and freedom.” If Isabella’s preferred marriage option was known, public sentiment would certainly favour Ferdinand and a diplomatic union with Aragon, a realm that shared Castile’s language and many of its customs.
MEANWHILE, IN the Aragonese town of Cervera, Ferdinand was preparing to sign what became known as the “Capitulations of Cervera.” After interminable months of negotiations, Ferdinand, running counter to both state traditions and the traditional supremacy of the male, signed a marriage document that waived many of the powers he normally would expect to command. The “capitulation” was a sort of prenuptial agreement wherein Ferdinand agreed to live in Castile, to appoint only Castilians to government positions, to obey the authority of Enrique and to adhere to Castilian rather than Aragonese laws and customs. Ferdinand was also to “wage war against the Moors who are the enemies of the Catholic faith as have other Catholic sovereigns in the past.” His bride Isabella, and by extension all of Castile, would definitely be first among equals—a hierarchy that reflected the relative power and population of the two kingdoms. Aragon was a smaller kingdom than Castile, and its treasury had been depleted by years of war with France. The document was signed in January 1469 in Aragon by Ferdinand and his father King Juan II, and was countersigned in early March by Isabella’s advisers (not by Isabella herself, as she had no legal standing in her own marriage negotiations).
Once the documents had been officially endorsed and copies claimed by both parties, the young couple only had to meet in person to complete the deal and consummate the marriage. Isabella had to escape Enrique’s court. In May 1469 Enrique was preparing to leave on a military expedition to Andalusia to quell an uprising and, perhaps unnerved by Isabella’s placid neutrality towards his proposed marriage options for her, extracted a promise from her not to make any marriage commitments while he was away. Isabella agreed, reasoning that her commitment to Ferdinand had already been made (albeit without Enrique’s knowledge), but that she would certainly refrain from entering into any new commitments. She did break one promise, however: she did not remain at court, but instead fled on horseback to the town of Madrigal at night, avoiding Enrique’s spies. Her pretence for flight was to visit her ailing mother and attend the one-year memorial rites of her brother Alfonso, at Ávila.
When Enrique’s spies informed him of Isabella’s flight, he issued a threat to the people of Madrigal, hinting at “harsh penalties” if they offered her any support in marrying Ferdinand. Furious, he then sent royal troops to fetch her, but Isabella had by now received a substantial portion of the dowry funds from Aragon and immediately used them to further her cause. She and her entourage moved about the countryside, nearly being entrapped by soldiers loyal to Enrique, until she arrived in Valladolid. Free from Enrique, generally supported by the people of the ancient city and secure with her newly acquired money, she relaxed a little. Far from being cowed, she dashed off a letter to Enrique chastising him for bullying her and reneging on his promises, and accusing him of “employing certain women as my attendants and servants . . . to oppress and endanger my freedom.” She also urged him to consider her marriage to Ferdinand in a positive light, stressing that “for the glory of his own crown and the health and well-being of his kingdoms that Your Highness would agree . . . that the above-mentioned reasons made it obvious and favourable that he consent to the marriage with the Prince of Aragon, King of Sicily.” Isabella mentioned that she and her advisers had consulted with most of the grandees and prelates of Castile, who “responded that marrying the king of Portugal in no manner redounded to the benefit of your kingdoms . . . but all praised and approved the marriage with the Prince of Aragon, King of Sicily.”
Sensing disaster, Enrique quickly finished his business in the south and rushed north to Valladolid with his army. Isabella’s adviser, Carillo, dispatched messengers to Aragon with urgent pleas for Ferdinand to meet his new wife before Enrique could intervene. Although the prince was undoubtedly preoccupied leading an army in the war with France, the courier informed Ferdinand that if he wanted Isabella for his wife he had better be quick, as Enrique was marching with his army to capture her. Wasting no time, Ferdinand set in motion a scheme to deceive the spies he was certain Enrique employed. With great publicity, he set out from Zaragoza not to the west, towards Castile, but to the east and then secretly doubled back and headed across the windswept hills into Castile. He knew Enrique would have spies and patrols scouring the borderlands, but gambled that Enrique would never expect the prince of Aragon and king of Sicily to travel without a royal entourage. He planned to sneak across the border, in a very un-kingly fashion, and dignity be damned. Ferdinand knew that his one chance to wed the heir to the throne of Castile lay in avoiding capture, or indeed in avoiding assassination by Enrique’s agents. Travelling with a small band of retainers and bodyguards disguised as wandering merchants, he himself acted the part of a ragged-clothed mule driver, running errands for his “masters” and grooming the party’s mules and horses in the evening. An observant onlooker might have noticed that the lowly mule driver had his food specially prepared and tasted, in case of poisoning, before he ate. After this homely band crossed into eastern Castile, they were met by two hundred or so armed and armoured knights loyal to Carillo, who vigilantly escorted the party by night across the plains to the town of Duenas, near Valladolid.
On the night of October 12 or 14, 1469, Carillo the matchmaker conducted the seventeen-year-old Ferdinand to a first meeting with his eighteen-year-old fiancée. The teenagers were momentarily stunned into silence as they beheld one another approvingly. One chronicler insisted that they fell passionately in love at first sight—and why not? In an age when royal marriages were consummated for political expediency rather than compatibility or passion, to be ushered into the presence of one’s betrothed for the first time, knowing that he met all the prosaic qualifications for marriage, and discovering not an aging windbag or a frivolous individual but an attractive partner of the same age, with intelligence, charm and good sense, would seem a blessing. Chronicler Alfonso de Palencia wrote, “In that meeting, the presence of the Archbishop restrained the amorous impulses of the lovers, whose strong hearts filled with the joy and delight of matrimony.” That night they were formally betrothed and enthusiastically set the wedding for the near future.
On October 18 Ferdinand, with an honour guard of thirty, entered Valladolid to great fanfare. He rode through streets crowded with onlookers to the palace of a local grandee, where the civil ceremonies were carried out with great solemnity in front of two thousand onlookers. Many who were neutral or even hostile to the marriage came merely to witness the ceremony, including the presentation of the papal bull authorizing the marriage and the official pronouncement of the capitulations, which had been signed nearly a year earlier. The religious ceremonies took place the next day, and while some were antagonistic and displayed “sadness and anger,” most enjoyed the celebration. Then came dancing, feasting and the customary jousting competitions before Isabella and Ferdinand retreated to the bedchamber. But not to the privacy they undoubtedly longed for: the consummation of a royal marriage in medieval Spain was of public as well as personal interest. Crowded outside their door were a great many witnesses awaiting proof that the marriage was now consummated and that Isabella had indeed been a virgin. After some time, Ferdinand opened the door and displayed a bloodstained sheet as evidence. The excited courtiers then “commanded that trumpets and drums and other instruments be played as they showed it to all of those who were waiting.” The celebrations lasted a week.
“Less romantically,” John Edwards writes in The Spain of the Catholic Monarchs, “it has to be borne in mind that the couple had not seen each other before, and were to be married against the will of the king of Castile, without a proper canonical dispensation, and at very short notice. In these circumstances, it is unlikely that the people of Valladolid could have mounted any great demonstration of public joy.” Many Castilian towns, according to the court historians, followed in celebration, with people singing “Flores deAragon dentro en Castilla son” (Flowers of Aragon are in Castile), while other towns and cities remained neutral and a small number hosted protests. Certainly the news was not enthusiastically received everywhere, perhaps driven by fear of a new civil war. King Afonso V of Portugal, then preparing for his own trip to Castile to marry Isabella, was shocked and humiliated. According to John Edwards, “The failure of his attempts was to give the Portuguese king a reason for personal rancour towards Queen Isabella, long before her disputed accession to the Castilian throne.”
To smooth the waters, Isabella dutifully wrote to Enrique, informing him of her marriage and stroking his ego: “Very high and very distinguished Prince King my Lord,” she began. The new bride referred to herself and her new husband as “truthful younger siblings and obedient children” who were working to further the “harmony and peace” of Castile. Isabella admitted that she “should have waited until seeing your Highness’s consent and the vows and counsels of all the prelates and great men of all these kingdoms,” but, she pleaded, “were it necessary to wait for everyone’s agreement and consent this would be very difficult to obtain, or else so much time would have passed that in these realms great danger would arise because of the absence of children to continue the succession.”
The letter, with its bland meandering around the important issues, is less a heartfelt outpouring of contrition than a pretend apology for pretend reasons. Isabella never received a reply from Enrique. During the following months, neither Isabella nor Ferdinand was called to Enrique’s court; they endured only stony silence. During this time, the king overtly manoeuvred once again to disinherit her. Less than a year after their marriage and one month after the birth of Isabella and Ferdinand’s daughter, Enrique surprised no one by staging a formal ceremony in which he officially declared the marriage to be invalid according to papal law. Therefore, he claimed, he had no choice but to disinherit Isabella from the succession, nullifying the agreement reached at Toros de Guisando. Enrique produced in his favour a new papal bull denouncing the previous one as a forgery (as indeed it was a forgery, produced hastily by Carillo and King Juan of Aragon because the formal request for a dispensation had been refused, and they knew the devout Isabella would never marry without one). Enrique also claimed that Isabella’s marriage was void because she had married without his consent, violating the terms of the Toros de Guisando agreement. He produced a papal dispensation from Pope Paul II releasing him from all the promises he had made to Isabella arising from the agreement. Enrique then had all his supporters swear oaths of allegiance to Juana la Beltraneja.
Once again, the nine-year-old La Beltraneja would be the heir of Castile, according to Enrique. The statement was heartily endorsed by her uncle, Enrique’s brother-in-law, King Afonso of Portugal. Enrique then negotiated, by mid-October 1470, a marriage contract for Juana with the duke of Berry, the French king’s sickly brother, whom Isabella had earlier refused. In return, the French king promised military aid to Enrique to defend the terms; it was assumed by all that Enrique’s reneging on the terms agreed upon at Toros de Guisando would reignite the Castilian civil war. Indeed, soon after Enrique’s proclamation, rebellions erupted in some regions and cities, as did numerous claims to neutrality, which resulted in the disruption of trade and a decrease in the much-needed tax revenues that kept the Castilian government afloat and its economy functioning.
Even some of Enrique’s own trusted advisers seemed disinclined to follow the flighty fancy of the king’s whims as Castile descended into further chaos. Miguel Lucas de Iranzo, the constable of Castile and one of Enrique’s childhood friends, was so disgusted with the king’s vacillating over the succession that he sent a letter to the duke of Berry advising the French noble against the marriage with La Beltraneja: “Princess Juana was the daughter of the adulterous Queen Doña Juana,” he claimed, because of “the impotence of King Don Enrique and the wickedness that the Queen committed at her husband’s command.” Lucas de Iranzo concluded his advice to the duke of Berry by claiming that “the true successor to the kingdom” was Isabella. In the dying months of 1470, Isabella herself fought back against Enrique with the predictable claims about the paternity of his daughter. She also argued that the pope had no right to interfere with the oaths nobles had made the previous year at Toros de Guisando. It all seemed like a reprisal of arguments that had been bandied about the realm for years. Political factions once again began to draw their lines, and the war-weary nobles of Castile braced themselves for another round of infighting, war and civil chaos.
Enrique’s power to impose his will upon Castile was hampered by a lack of military support, especially when the promised troops from France never arrived. The duke of Berry backed out of the marriage to Juana once the political implications became clear to him, and by the fall of 1471, Enrique heard that the duke of Berry had been betrothed to the daughter of the duke of Burgundy instead. Enrique’s ally in the Vatican, Pope Paul II, had died in the summer of 1471, as well, and the new pope, Sixtus IV, did not share the previous pontiff’s support for Enrique in Castile. In fact, Sixtus’s overall interest in Castilian affairs was quite limited. Nancy Rubin notes in Isabella of Castile that “instead of viewing the young couple as obstacles to Castilian peace, Sixtus IV regarded them as a solution to the chaos that would engulf Castile after Enrique’s death.” Under the tutelage of his adviser on Castilian affairs, Cardinal and Vice-Chancellor Rodrigo Borgia, Sixtus quickly issued the long-delayed bull that officially sanctioned Isabella and Ferdinand’s marriage in the eyes of the church—an act that greatly strengthened their moral position against Enrique in Castile and angered King Afonso V in Portugal.
Rodrigo Borgia soon departed Rome and arrived in the port of Valencia, Aragon, in June 1472 bearing important documents and announcements. Handsome, urbane and charismatic, the cardinal was descended from the local nobility of Aragon. Having been delegated papal responsibility for Spanish affairs, he was returning to his homeland after many years in Rome. Over the next year he toured Castile and Aragon making grand displays of wealth, throwing lavish banquets and orchestrating grand processions through towns while handing out appointments to his relatives and supporters. He worked towards peace in the Iberian peninsula and urged support for a new crusade to oust the Ottoman Turks from Europe. This, he hoped, would also rejuvenate Castilian interest, flagging under Enrique’s rule, in carrying out an assault on the last remaining Iberian Moorish kingdom, Granada.
After meeting Ferdinand in Valencia, Borgia was impressed with the young man’s abilities and deportment, as he was likewise impressed with Isabella when he met her later that year. His main mission, however, was to secure peace in Aragon and Castile and to dampen Portuguese interest in the Castilian throne. Only with peace could these nations devote their attention to defeating the infidels. Borgia secretly vowed to gain the throne of Castile for the young Ferdinand and Isabella and worked to strengthen alliances in their favour, accepting in return various Aragonese properties for his support. The suave cardinal even graciously agreed to become godfather to Isabella’s and Ferdinand’s one-year-old daughter, also named Isabella. During his travels he pointedly refused to meet with Enrique’s wife, Queen Juana, or her daughter Juana la Beltraneja, and declined to support another of Enrique’s interminable marriage schemes for the young girl.
King Juan II of Aragon, Ferdinand’s aging father, had also just arranged a marriage between an illegitimate but powerful son to the daughter of one of Enrique’s influential supporters, who then switched his allegiance. Around the same time, Ferdinand led a force of 7,000 Aragonese infantry and 1,300 cavalry against an invading French force in a “wondrous triumph” that ended French military pressure on Aragon and transformed Ferdinand into a national hero. After the surrender, his father publicly embraced the young warrior and pronounced: “Lucky me, who can call myself the father of my liberty and the liberator of my country.” Seeing his enemies gaining strength and his own support waning, Enrique realized that he had no hope of pushing Isabella and Ferdinand out of Castilian politics. He called Isabella to Segovia for a reconciliation in December 1473.
The contrast between the two half-siblings was stark. Now forty-nine, the king was noted for his sickly pallor, while Isabella was twenty-two and in the bloom of youth. They attended public feasts and celebrations together and, on one famously recorded day, they went together through streets dusted in new snow, Isabella mounted on a white horse and Enrique walking beside it, holding the reins. On New Year’s Day Isabella called for Ferdinand to join them; he had been waiting nearby in case of treachery against his wife. But the three now became friends, enjoying “fellowship and harmony” as they toured nearby towns together, made outings in the countryside and dined together nightly. The court chroniclers gushed: “The Prince danced in the King’s presence, and it would take too long to tell how much the latter rejoiced in this. The King could not have been more satisfied with the Prince.” But the three rulers never came to any formal agreement on the succession.
After one festive midday meal, with Enrique at the head of the table and with Isabella and Ferdinand on each side of him, the king cried in pain. He clutched at his side and collapsed to the ground. The music stopped immediately, and the revellers rose uncertainly from their seats. In the shocked silence, Enrique’s attendants rushed him to his royal bedchamber. Physicians were called in while Ferdinand and Isabella publicly prayed for his recovery. But they could not escape the rumour of poisoning that spread from the palace. Did they not have an interest in seeing Enrique dead, and were they not well placed to remove this one final impediment to their crowning? For months, Enrique remained too weak and bedbound to take up any responsibilities; indeed, he never regained any of his natural strength. His once-robust frame began to waste away as he vomited his food and drink, while his urine was tainted with blood.
While the king endured what historians believe was the final stages of bowel disease, several failed attempts were made to reconcile him with Isabella. He grew weaker, becoming ever more isolated from his family, until he perished in bloody agony on December 12, 1474, without officially naming an heir. A loyal courier immediately saddled a horse and rode all night to reach Segovia, where Isabella ran a small court, to inform the princess that her half-brother had died. Isabella moved quickly. After rushing to Madrid to participate in the funeral service, which was conducted “without the pomp usually accorded to great princes,” she changed clothes and appeared in front of the Church of San Miguel on a broad platform bedecked in jewels and gold raiment. As she stood splendidly and regally displayed before the gathered throng in the main plaza, trumpets blared, drums thundered and heralds declared her the new queen of Castile, and Ferdinand, who was in Aragon at the time, as her “legitimate husband.” Mounting a giant horse draped in fine coloured fabrics and embroidered ornamentation, Isabella proceeded through the streets of Segovia. Chronicler Alfonso de Palencia noted that her procession was led by a knight holding aloft a sword of state “so that it could be seen by everyone, even the most distant, and so that they should know that she who had the power to punish the guilty with royal authority was approaching.”
Isabella was now queen and Ferdinand was king, in an audacious move sure to infuriate many. It was a move that was necessary, she and her advisers believed, to claim the throne before La Beltraneja and her supporters did. Nevertheless, there would be no peace for the aspiring royal couple.
IN 1474, while the coronation of the beautiful new queen of Castile was being greeted with enthusiasm by most and with guarded support or neutrality by others, a small group of nobles and their cities and fortresses stood to lose greatly if her claim superseded that of Juana la Beltraneja. AfonsoV of Portugal was the most perturbed, for it placed him in a dilemma of desire and obligation. At once he was charged with protecting and defending the rights of both his younger sister, Enrique’s widowed wife, and his niece La Beltraneja to preserve his family’s honour.
Afonso was still fuming over his humiliation by Isabella and her upstart husband Ferdinand. At the same time, making the insulting and infuriating grandees of Castile knuckle under his authority was a temptation he found hard to ignore. Seizing the throne of Castile, ostensibly for the benefit and rightful claim of his niece, but in reality more for himself and as a prestigious and valuable inheritance to pass on to his son and heir, Prince João, would also make Afonso the founder of a mighty dynasty: he, and then João, would be monarchs of the greatest kingdom in Christendom. Afonso was growing rich from recent state-sponsored voyages south along the Gold Coast of Africa, past Sierra Leone, where a trade in gold and slaves had been developed; and added political prestige would nicely complement this new wealth. Seduced by the siren call of power and prestige, the forty-six-year-old Afonso decided to dispense with the flimsy pretence of defending family honour and to consolidate his claim to the throne by marrying the thirteen-year-old La Beltraneja himself.
John Edwards writes in The Spain of the Catholic Monarchs that “the ensuing conflict, which was to occupy much of the first five years of Ferdinand and Isabella’s joint reign in Castile, partook both of the peculiar venom and of the potential for sudden reconciliation which are characteristic of family quarrels.” With a marriage to La Beltraneja and a subsequent conquest of Castile, Afonso could all at once erase the stain on his family honour, gain power and wealth for himself and João, lay the foundation for an expanding empire and punish his enemies. He began secret negotiations with the king of France, Louis XI, to coordinate his invasion of Castile with a French invasion from the north. And he sent a final letter to Isabella and Ferdinand stating, “It is well known that my niece is the daughter of the King Enrique and as legitimate heir she has the right to the title of Queen of Castile.” The royal couple’s joint response was that the Castilian supporters of Afonso’s cause included many of the same individuals who had previously sworn that La Beltraneja was illegitimate, owing to Enrique’s “proven impotency,” and that they “would like to know how it is that they found this lady not to be the rightful heir then . . . and how they find her now to be.” Afonso V did not really expect a capitulation.
Isabella and Ferdinand were shocked by the speed of Afonso’s invasion. They had barely begun the tricky task of uniting the kingdom, alternately punishing and placating disobedient nobles and imposing royal justice after the stormy years leading up to Enrique’s death. By the spring of 1475, Afonso and João had mustered a mighty Portuguese army consisting of about 14,000 infantry and 5,500 cavalry, supported by Lombardian siege engineers. Afonso also issued coins with the image of his head and the title “King of Castile” stamped on them, and began a publicity campaign that included generous gift giving, while his agents sought to persuade disaffected or disloyal Castilian knights to defend La Beltraneja’s claim to the crown. His scribes produced copies of a document, carried into Castile and publicly distributed in western towns and cities, that boldly claimed that Isabella and Ferdinand had poisoned Enrique and illegally seized the throne. On May 12, after his army crossed over from Portugal into Castile, several cities controlled by nobles sympathetic to the Portuguese cause opened their gates to the invaders. One of them was the town of Plasencia, where Afonso met his niece La Beltraneja and her Castilian handlers, and where the two were betrothed in the ancient cathedral in the town square. The actual marriage and the consummation were delayed, pending the arrival of the requisite papal dispensation for the marriage. Nevertheless, La Beltraneja was declared queen of Castile. Now there were two queens.
As the Portuguese army marched deeper into Castile, occupying several fortresses and towns, Ferdinand and Isabella rode from town to town, frantically mustering their own army and raising funds for the defence of the realm. They made speeches to bolster morale and held tournaments to enlist fighters. While Isabella was travelling to Ávila, the strain of the conflict and her uncertainty and worry for her husband finally caught up with her. She could scarcely conceal her anger and resentment at Afonso’s invasion; she had been waiting “with an angry heart, gritting my teeth and clenching my fists,” and she miscarried a male fetus, a potential heir to the throne. The chronicler Alfonso de Palencia recorded that the distraught queen suffered “great emotion” at the loss of the son she and Ferdinand had so wished for, a son that would have brought greater political support for their reign. They blamed this terrible loss on Afonso and his ambitious son João, and by July had succeeded in raising a formidable army of nearly 42,000, including 8,000 cavalry and 4,000 armoured knights.
In many ways, their army was an undisciplined rabble, consisting of local nobles jealous of their priority, disorganized and poorly provisioned, with large numbers of peasant foot soldiers who were untrained and in some cases unarmed. So quickly was it raised that the army lacked internal cohesion, and its leaders quarrelled and refused to submit to order. Ferdinand also, critically, lacked any siege machinery. As the mighty but fragile host made its way up the Duero River to meet the Portuguese forces, Ferdinand must have sensed the possible outcome. He made his first will, claiming that should he die, his burial space should be the same as Isabella’s, “as we were together by marriage and singular love in life,” he claimed, “that we not be separated by death.”
The rabble arrayed itself before the fortress of Toro on July 19, exhausted and “covered in dust.” Afonso V was content to let them stew below his battlements in the blistering sun, refusing to leave his perch, knowing that Ferdinand lacked siege machinery and therefore could not breach the walls of the fortress. Ferdinand demanded a personal duel from Afonso but was met with non-committal delays. Meanwhile his food and water supplies dwindled, and “seeing there was no way for them to break into the fortress” Ferdinand reluctantly ordered a retreat. Morale was low owing to the oppressive heat, internal quarrels and the apparent hopelessness of the situation. Many soldiers wreaked destruction on their own countryside as they retreated from Toro.
Isabella, now a keenly intelligent and religiously devout woman of twenty-four who had given birth to two healthy children and one dead, believed that this retreat from the invading Portuguese was a humiliation she could barely shoulder. When Ferdinand returned, she chastened him for his defeat, and they quarrelled. “With such, good knights, such horse and gear and such infantry, what fight would be dangerous enough to rob the army of the daring and action that normally grows in many hearts? If you had forced the forts open, and I don’t doubt that you would if you had my will, Portugal and its sovereignty would have been lost in memory.” According to the chronicler Julio Puyol, Ferdinand replied hotly that “I thought that coming back defeated I would find words of consolation and encouragement from your mouth, but you complain because we have returned whole and with no glory lost. Well, we will certainly have a heavy task to satisfy you from here on!”
Changing tactics, Ferdinand ordered his cavalry into Portugal to destroy crops in retaliation for the humiliation at Toro. The war escalated as Ferdinand’s father sent Aragonese troops to attack the eastern Castilian lands of some of the nobles who had defected to Portugal, while the fleets of both nations sallied forth to plunder each other’s shipping. Isabella licensed privateers to venture south into the Atlantic to attack Portuguese ships sailing from Africa in an attempt to disrupt the gold and slave trade that was making Portugal wealthy. Afonso settled into his fortress at Toro and sent thousands of his own troops home to help defend the border region. The remainder of his invasion force was now spread thin, occupying numerous towns and fortresses in western Castile.
Frightened by the reports of the escalating hostilities and disheartened by the less-than-enthusiastic support he was receiving from the Castilian nobility, Afonso proposed a peace settlement in which he would renounce his claim to the Castilian throne in exchange for sovereignty over certain regions of western Castile that bordered his realm. Isabella, furious, denounced the offer, claiming that “not one tower” of the Castilian realm would she cede to the treacherous Afonso or João. In order to continue the war, she borrowed a fortune in “gold and silver plate,” the property of the church, with the promise to repay the loan in three years. With the new funds, she and Ferdinand launched a new campaign of hiring, training and equipping soldiers and creating a more professional army. Ferdinand’s father also sent to them one of his most trusted strategists and generals, Ferdinand’s half-brother Alonso de Aragon, “a master of the arts of war.” By November, Alonso was helping to design and construct siege machinery to break Afonso V’s fortifications at Toro.
The tide turned, and by January 1476 Ferdinand’s forces recaptured two strategic fortresses: Burgos and Zamora. Seeing his route of retreat from Castile being snapped shut, Afonso sent word to João to rush to his aid with another Portuguese army. The imminent arrival of this new Portuguese force, led by João, set in motion events that led inexorably to the Battle of Toro, the final reckoning between the two factions grappling for the Castilian throne. During the three-hour battle, over 1,200 Portuguese soldiers were slain, many washed screaming downstream in the torrent of the Duero River after being pushed from the field and over the bank by Ferdinand’s lancers. In the darkness of midnight, Ferdinand still strode about the detritus of the battlefield talking to his soldiers and surveying the outcome with pleasure, grateful that on “that night Our Lord had given him all of Castile.”
The next day there were celebrations in nearby towns in honour of the Castilian victory. Despite the winter weather, Isabella strode barefoot at the head of a religious procession that wound its way through the city and into the cathedral in Tordesillas. The chronicler Alfonso de Palencia recorded that “to describe Isabella’s joy when she heard about the victory at Toro would be impossible.” Her husband was unhurt and the hated Afonso V was beaten; Ferdinand had “destroyed the said enemy and his people”—certainly an exaggeration, but only a little: the Portuguese invasion had ended. Never had Isabella’s position seemed so secure. Although both sides claimed the battle as a victory, within weeks after the Battle of Toro, Afonso and João, along with the remnants of the Portuguese army, retreated west across the border, taking Afonso’s erstwhile bride and niece La Beltraneja with them for safekeeping. Father and son “were received with great sadness and many tears by their people.” Most of the pro-Portuguese dissidents in Castile quickly made peace with the young monarchs and effectively ended Afonso and João’s gambit to claim the Castilian throne. Even Pope Sixtus IV retracted his previous dispensation for Afonso to marry his niece, “because of all the evils and wars” the document had caused. The humiliating defeat was a blow from which Afonso V never fully recovered.
Now Isabella and Ferdinand began the slow and difficult task of repairing the terrible damage to the Castilian countryside and the economy caused by years of civil war. They disarmed robbers and restored peace, security and justice to the realm. It was at this time, 1476, that a twenty-five-year-old Genoese mariner named Christopher Columbus washed ashore in Portugal after a battle with a Castilian ship. It was an auspicious time to arrive in Iberia, for João was soon to become the new king. He had ambitions for Portuguese expansion into Africa and hoped to continue the exploration and exploitation of the African coast and the Atlantic islands under his jurisdiction.
After the Battle of Toro and the subsequent retreat of all Portuguese militia from Castile, King Afonso and Prince João saw their dreams of an Iberian empire fade, usurped—unjustly, they believed—by the treachery and ambition of Isabella and her Aragonese husband, Ferdinand. In their minds, Isabella and her consort had illegally stolen the throne from Afonso’s niece and João’s cousin, taking it illegally out of their family. They believed that Isabella and Ferdinand were not the legitimate rulers of Castile, and they never forgot this. Indeed, one of Afonso’s first actions after the defeat was to make a state trip north to France hoping that a personal meeting with the king of France would secure that unreliable ally for yet another assault on Castile. However, Louis XI was already in negotiations to recognize Isabella and Ferdinand as the rulers of Castile.
Broken in spirit, Afonso announced he was giving up “all earthly vanities” and instructed his son to assume the throne. He returned from France in the fall of 1477 to briefly reclaim the throne and organized one final foray into Castile in early 1478, but he quarrelled with João. The half-hearted invasion was quickly repulsed by Ferdinand’s army. Since the Battle of Toro, Ferdinand and Isabella had done a remarkable job of uniting the factions of the shattered realm, and within months Afonso was in full retreat, never to return.
In June of that year Isabella gave birth to a male child, Juan, the sole surviving male descendent of King Juan II, Isabella’s father. Juan’s birth forever nullified any claims to the throne that could be put forward by La Beltraneja and united the royal houses of Castile and Aragon as heirs to twin crowns.
João saw his father Afonso broken by the struggle over La Beltraneja’s claim to the Castilian throne. After 1478 Afonso was “never again merry, and always went withdrawn, musing and pensive, like a man that abhorred the things of the world rather than a king who prized them.” Humbled and shamed, as part of the peace terms in the Treaty of Alcáçovas Afonso V even agreed to place La Beltraneja in a convent for life, to remove her as a potential figurehead for political dissent as a pretext for invasion. Before entering the convent, La Beltraneja was given the choice to wait fourteen years and see if the infant Prince Juan, son of Isabella and Ferdinand, might marry her (by then she would be thirty-two years old), but she declined. She took her vows and entered the convent on November 15, 1480.
To the end of her days in 1530, Juana refused to accept that she was not the legitimate heir to the throne of Castile or to renounce her claim to that throne. Occasionally when she ventured from the convent and took up a public role in the Portuguese court, Isabella and Ferdinand pressured her to return by calling in the authority of high church officials. Afonso V, once the proud and bold warrior who had nearly succeeded in creating an Iberian empire, entered the Franciscan monastery of Varatogo on the rugged Atlantic coast. He became a monk, and he died there at the age of fifty-two on August 26, 1481.
Prince João, who officially succeeded his father in 1481 at the age of twenty-one, had already assumed most of the reins in Portugal before the war with Castile had even ended. He already showed a tendency not to be influenced by the powerful nobles of the realm, and there were many who worried about what his reign would entail. As King João II, he was quick to take action when his father died. Some of his first acts were to break the excessive power of certain nobles and consolidate that power in the crown—that is, himself. While he was claimed to be, according to a court chronicler of the time, “a good Catholic, anxious for the propagation of the faith, and a man of an inquiring spirit, desirous of investigating the secrets of nature,” he was also a ruthless schemer. One contemporary portrait of him from near the end of his reign depicts the vanity of a powerful monarch: draped in a fine fur robe, adorned with a broad necklace of gold and jewels, from which dangled an ornate centre-stone set in heavy gold filigree, and with a finer, more intricate band clasped tightly around his neck. His hands are darkly gloved, and his head is adorned with a gem-encrusted crown having multiple wrought-gold points, a crown that must have provided some strain to the neck and shoulders of even a muscular man. João the king realized that the appearance of power was as important as power itself; that in his world the two were one and the same. His lightly bearded face is strong and masculine, the eyes clear and direct, the mouth straight and neutral, giving an overall impression of weary skepticism. He was a dangerous man to cross.
After his coronation João II reputedly claimed to his nobles that “I’m the lord of lords, not the server of servants.” They should have taken it as a warning. He demanded a new oath of loyalty from them; one that recognized their subordination and his supremacy, and, according to Malyn Newitt in A History of Portuguese Overseas Expansion, he “set in motion a process of verifying titles and privileges,” acts that were sure to enrage and challenge the powerful nobles who under his father’s rudderless reign had grown used to acting independently. Like a spider at the centre of its web, João II appeared to do nothing to overtly challenge their power, but meanwhile employed a network of royal spies to observe their actions. One family in particular, the Braganzas, wielded power nearly as great as that of the crown. The king gathered evidence, such as secret communications between the duke of Braganza and Isabella of Castile, wherein the duke urged Isabella to intervene in Portuguese affairs and challenge João II’s autocratic authority.
Once João II had proof of treason, he struck hard and fast. Royal armies marched on the Braganza lands, defeated the ducal forces and captured fortresses and towns. The duke, Fernando, was captured and publicly executed, and the Braganza lands were confiscated while the remaining prominent family members were exiled to Castile. The following year the same fate awaited several other Portuguese noble families. João II was not above acting personally; suspicious of another alleged act of treason, he invited his brother-in-law, the duke of Viseu, to court. He then confronted the unfortunate duke with his alleged disloyalty and stabbed him, watching him bleed to death on the flagstones where he had crumpled. João II had no intention of being a weak king like his father—humiliated by Castile in war and in marriage, and humiliated in Portugal by his own bullying nobles. Several decades later, he was one of the rulers that Niccolò Machiavelli gave the dubious honorific “the perfect prince.”
After consolidating his power, João II revived Portugal’s expansionist dream by increasing state-sponsored voyages of discovery. João was keenly interested in events outside of Iberia, even outside of Europe, particularly to the south, along the west coast of Africa, where mariners under his father’s and grandfather’s reigns had begun to turn a profit. He devoted himself to planning and organizing his expansionist ventures with vigour and vision. In order to build loyalty among his nobles João offered many members of the lesser nobility patronage appointments and land grants. However, as Malyn Newitt observes in his History of Portuguese Overseas Expansion, “as it has been estimated that some 2,000 vassals were maintained in this way, the king was faced with a massive financial burden as well as an ever-growing demand for offices, commands and military employment. Expansion overseas therefore both provided the king with a major source of income and enabled him to dispense the patronage which his patrimonial absolutism required.” One of João’s first acts was to fortify the Portuguese outpost at São Jorge da Mina, near a gold mine on the West African coast. There, he began trading and shipping not only gold, but also slaves, in ever-greater numbers, in exchange for linen, cotton and brass ornaments.
João II, the Lord of Lords, had an even grander ambition than to quietly profit from trading in gold and human misery. The young king was the heir to a Portuguese maritime heritage dating back decades, to the time of his grandfather. Thus he was well placed during the 1480s to set Portugal’s mariners and cartographers to achieve his bold and visionary scheme.