The century between the death of Henry of Trastamara (1379) and the accession of Ferdinand to the throne of Aragon was a fallow time for Spain. A series of weak rulers allowed the nobles to disorder the land with their strife; government was negligent and corrupt; private vengeance was uncurbed; civil war was so frequent that the roads were unsafe for commerce, and the fields were so often despoiled by armies that the peasants left them untilled. The long reign of John II (1406–54) of Castile, who loved music and poetry too much to care for the chores of state, was followed by the disastrous tenure of Henry IV, who by his administrative incompetence, his demoralization of the currency, and his squandering of revenue on favored parasites, earned the title of Enrique el Impotente. He willed his throne to Juana, whom he called his daughter; the scornful nobles denied his parentage and potency, and forced him to name his sister Isabella as his successor. But at his death (1474) he reaffirmed Juana’s legitimacy and her right to rule. It was out of this paralyzing confusion that Ferdinand and Isabella forged the order and government that made Spain for a century the strongest state in Europe.
The diplomats prepared the achievement by persuading Isabella, eighteen, to marry her cousin Ferdinand, seventeen (1469). Bride and bridegroom were both descended from Henry of Trastamara. Ferdinand was already King of Sicily; on the death of his father he would be also King of Aragon; the marriage, therefore, wed three states into a powerful kingdom. Paul II withheld the papal bull needed to legalize the marriage of cousins; the requisite document was forged by Ferdinand, his father, and the archbishop of Barcelona;20 after the fait had been accompli a genuine bull was obtained from Pope Sixtus IV. A more substantial difficulty lay in the poverty of the bride, whose brother refused to recognize the marriage, and of the bridegroom, whose father, immersed in war, could not afford a royal ceremony. A Jewish lawyer smoothed the course of true politics with a loan of 20,000 sueldos, which Isabella repaid when she became Queen of Castile (1474).*
Fig. 25—HANS HOLBEIN THE YOUNGER: Edward VI, aged six. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Fig. 26—HANS HOLBEIN THE YOUNGER: Family of the Artist. Museum, Basel
Fig. 27—LUCAS CRANACH: Self-Portrait. Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Fig. 28—TITIAN: Paul III and His Nepbews. National Museum, Naples
Fig. 29—Cathedral (main chapel), Seville
Fig. 30—Cathedral, Seville
Fig. 31—HANS HOLBEIN THE YOUNGER: Henry VIII. Corsini Gallery, Rome
Fig. 32—AFTER HOLBEIN: Thomas More and His Family. National Portrait Gallery, London
Fig. 33—PIETER BRUEGHEL THE ELDER: Hunters in the Snow. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Fig. 34—HANS HOLBEIN THE YOUNGER: Portrait of Bonifacius Amerbach. Museum, Basel
Fig. 35—ANONYMOUS PAINTER OF THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY: Rabelais. Bibliothèque Publique et Universitaire, Geneva
Fig. 36—TITLE PAGE OF VESALIUS’ De humani corporis fabrica
Her right to the throne was challenged by Affonso V of Portugal, who had married Juana. War decided the issue at Toro, where Ferdinand led the Castilians to victory (1476). Three years later he inherited Aragon; all Spain except Granada and Navarre was now under one government. Isabella remained only Queen of Castile; Ferdinand ruled Aragon, Sardinia, and Sicily, and shared in ruling Castile. The internal administration of Castile was reserved to Isabella, but royal charters and decrees had to be signed by both sovereigns, and the new coinage bore both the regal heads. Their complementary qualities made Ferdinand and Isabella the most effective royal couple in history.
Isabella was incomparably beautiful, said her courtiers—that is, moderately fair; of medium stature, blue eyes, hair of chestnut brown verging on red. She had more schooling than Ferdinand, with a less acute and less merciless intelligence. She could patronize poets and converse with cautious philosophers, but she preferred the company of priests. She chose the sternest moralists for her confessors and guides. Wedded to an unfaithful husband, she seems to have sustained full marital fidelity to the end; living in an age as morally fluid as our own, she was a model of sexual modesty. Amid corrupt officials and devious diplomats, she herself remained frank, direct, and incorruptible. Her mother had reared her in strict orthodoxy and piety; Isabella developed this to the edge of asceticism, and was as harsh and cruel in suppressing heresy as she was kind and gracious in everything else. She was the soul of tenderness to her children, and a pillar of loyalty to her friends. She gave abundantly to churches, monasteries, and hospitals. Her orthodoxy did not deter her from condemning the immorality of some Renaissance popes.22 She excelled in both physical and moral bravery; she withstood, subdued, and disciplined powerful nobles, bore quietly the most desolating bereavements, and faced with contagious courage the hardships and dangers of war. She thought it wise to maintain a queenly dignity in public, and pushed royal display to costly extravagance in robes and gems; in private she dressed simply, ate frugally, and amused her leisure by making delicate embroideries for the churches she loved. She labored conscientiously in the tasks of government, took the initiative in wholesome reforms, administered justice with perhaps undue severity; but she was resolved to raise her realm from lawless disorder to a law-abiding peace. Foreign contemporaries like Paolo Giovio, Guicciardini, and the Chevalier Bayard ranked her among the ablest sovereigns of the age, and likened her to the stately heroines of antiquity. Her subjects worshiped her, while they bore impatiently with the King.
The Castilians could not forgive Ferdinand for being a foreigner—i.e., an Aragonese; and they found many faults in him even while they gloried in his successes as statesman, diplomat, and warrior. They contrasted his cold and reserved temperament with the warm kindliness of the Queen, his calculated indirectness with her straightforward candor, his parsimony with her generosity, his illiberal treatment of his aides with her openhanded rewards for services, his extramarital gallantries with her quiet continence. Probably they did not resent his establishment of the Inquisition, nor his use of their religious feelings as a weapon of war; they applauded the campaign against heresy, the conquest of Granada, the expulsion of unconverted Jews and Moors; they loved most in him what posterity would least admire. We hear of no protest against the severity of his laws—cutting out the tongue for blasphemy, burning alive for sodomy.23 They noted that he could be just, even lenient, when it did not hinder personal advantage or national policy; that he could lead his army dauntlessly and cleverly, though he preferred to match minds in negotiation rather than men in battle; and that his parsimony financed not personal luxuries but expensive undertakings for the aggrandizement of Spain. They must have approved of his abstemious habits, his constancy in adversity, his moderation in prosperity, his discerning choice of aides, his tireless devotion to government, his pursuit of farseen ends with flexible tenacity and cautious means. They forgave his duplicity as a diplomat, his frequent faithlessness to his word; were not all other rulers trying by like methods to cozen him and swindle Spain? “The King of France,” he said grimly, “complains that I have twice deceived him. He lies, the fool; I have deceived him ten times, and more.” 24 Machiavelli carefully studied Ferdinand’s career, relished his cunning, praised “his deeds... all great and some extraordinary,” and called him “the foremost king in Christendom.” 25 And Guicciardini wrote: “What a wide difference there was between the sayings and doings of this prince, and how deeply and secretly he laid his measures!”26 Some accounted Ferdinand lucky, but in truth his good fortune lay in careful preparation for events and prompt seizure of opportunities. When the balance was struck between his virtues and his crimes, it appeared that by fair means and foul he had raised Spain from a motley of impotent fragments to a unity and power that in the next generation made her the dictator of Europe.
He co-operated with Isabella in restoring security of life and property in Castile; in reviving the Santa Hermandad, or Holy Brotherhood, as a local militia to maintain order; in ending robbery on the highways and sexual intrigues at the court; in reorganizing the judiciary and codifying the laws; in reclaiming state lands recklessly ceded to favorites by previous kings; and in exacting from the nobles full obedience to the crown; here too, as in France and England, feudal freedom and chaos had to give way to the centralized order of absolute monarchy. The municipal communes likewise surrendered their privileges; the provincial cortes rarely met, and then chiefly to vote funds to the government; a weak-rooted democracy languished and died under an adamantine king. Even the Spanish Church, so precious to los reyes católicosy,* was shorn of some of its wealth and all of its civil jurisdiction; the morals of the clergy were rigorously reformed by Isabella; Pope Sixtus IV was compelled to yield to the government the right to appoint the higher dignitaries of the Church in Spain; and able ecclesiastics like Pedro Gonzáles de Mendoza and Ximenes de Cisneros were promoted to be at once archbishops of Toledo and prime ministers of the state.
Cardinal Ximenes was as positive and powerful a character as the King. Born of a family noble but poor, he was dedicated in childhood to the Church. At the University of Salamanca he earned by the age of twenty the doctoral degrees in both civil and canon law. For some years he served as vicar and administrator for Mendoza in the diocese of Sigüenza. Successful but unhappy, caring little for honors or possessions, he entered the strictest monastic order in Spain—the Observantine Franciscans. Only asceticism delighted him: he slept on the ground or a hard floor, fasted frequently, flogged himself, and wore a hair shirt next to his skin. In 1492 the pious Isabella chose this emaciated cenobite as her chaplain and confessor. He accepted on condition that he might continue to live in his monastery and conform to the rigid Franciscan rule. The order made him its provincial head, and at his bidding submitted to arduous reforms. When Isabella nominated him archbishop of Toledo (1495) he refused to accept, but after six months of resistance he yielded to a papal bull commanding him to serve. He was now nearly sixty, and seems to have sincerely wished to live as a monk. As primate of Spain and chief of the royal council he continued his austerities; under the splendid robes required by his office he wore the coarse Franciscan gown, and under this the hair shirt as before.27 Against the opposition of high ecclesiastics, but supported by the Queen, he applied to all monastic orders the reforms that he had exacted from his own. It was as if St. Francis, shorn of his humility, had suddenly been endowed with the powers and capacities of Bernard and Dominic.
It could not have pleased this somber saint to find two unconverted Jews high in favor at the court. One of Isabella’s most trusted counselors was Abraham Senior; he and Isaac Abrabanel collected the revenue for Ferdinand, and organized the financing of the Granada war. The King and Queen were at this time especially concerned about the Conversos. They had hoped that time would make these converts sincere Christians; Isabella had had a catechism specially prepared for their instruction; yet many of them secretly maintained their ancient faith, and transmitted it to their children. Catholic dislike of the unbaptized Jews subsided for a time, while resentment against the “New Christians” rose. Riots against them broke out in Toledo (1467), Valladolid (1470), Cordova (1472), and Segovia (1474). The religious problem had become also racial; and the young King and Queen pondered means of reducing the disorderly medley and conflict of peoples, languages, and creeds to homogeneous unity and social peace. They thought that no better means were available for these ends than to restore the Inquisition in Spain.