Thursday, January 22, 2015

Review: Isabella, The Warrior Queen

Kirstin Downey

Isabella: The Warrior Queen

By Kirstin Downey
Nan A. Talese, October 2014

About the Book

Born at a time when Christianity was dying out and the Ottoman Empire was aggressively expanding, Isabella was inspired in her youth by tales of Joan of Arc, a devout young woman who unified her people and led them to victory against foreign invaders. In 1474, when most women were almost powerless, twenty-three-year-old Isabella defied a hostile brother and a mercurial husband to seize control of Castile and León. Her subsequent feats were legendary.

She ended a twenty-four-generation struggle between Muslims and Christians, forcing North African invaders back over the Mediterranean Sea. She laid the foundation for a unified Spain. She sponsored Columbus’s trip to the Indies and negotiated Spanish control over much of the New World with the help of Rodrigo Borgia, the infamous Pope Alexander VI. She also annihilated all who stood against her by establishing a bloody religious Inquisition that would darken Spain’s reputation for centuries.

Whether saintly or satanic, no female leader has done more to shape our modern world, in which millions of people in two hemispheres speak Spanish and practice Catholicism. Yet history has all but forgotten Isabella’s influence, due to hundreds of years of misreporting that often attributed her accomplishments to Ferdinand, the bold and philandering husband she adored. Using new scholarship, Downey’s luminous biography tells the story of this brilliant, fervent, forgotten woman, the faith that propelled her through life, and the land of ancient conflicts and intrigue she brought under her command.

My Review

Kirstin Downey’s biography illuminates this fascinating queen who is known through her various connections to other notable figures, but who rarely receives the spotlight herself. Champion of Granada, defender of the Catholic faith, patron of Christopher Columbus, mother of Catherine (first wife of Henry VIII), instigator of the Spanish Inquisition, Spanish queen, and a devoted wife and mother, Isabella the woman emerges from these pages.

Her childhood as a member of the second family of Juan, King of Castile, was difficult after her father died. Her half-brother Enrique took the throne, and Isabella, her mother, and her brother Alfonso were virtually exiled to Segovia, their inheritance cut off by the new king. When Alfonso rebelled against King Enrique but died of the plague before he was successful, Isabella, a skilled diplomat and tactician, was able to propose herself as Enrique’s successor. Once considered a bride for Edward IV of England or his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Isabella instead secretly married Ferdinand of Aragon against her half-brother’s wishes.

Now co-rulers of Castile and Aragon, Ferdinand and Isabella successfully fought the Portuguese and the Muslims to regain Spanish territory. Her lifelong crusade against the Ottoman Turks and their quest for European domination is compelling and eye opening. Their five children (1 son and 4 daughters) had an itinerant childhood, growing up in military camps and gaining a front-row look at their parents’ military exploits. Isabella’s deep faith as well as her devotion to education and the arts were passed on to each of her children, all of whom married into the royal houses of Europe.

More adventurous, determined, and forward-thinking than her husband, Isabella saw the value in the voyages of Christopher Columbus when Ferdinand did not. She placed her trust in him until he repeatedly ignored her orders and proved his lack of administrative skills. Isabella was also the key negotiator over a period of 20 years that eventually found her daughter Catherine united in marriage with Arthur, the Prince of Wales, eventually becoming Queen of England.

Reading this biography is like a puzzle piece that snaps into place. Isabella herself may be vague in the minds of many, not much more than a name linked to the achievements of others, but her legacy casts a long shadow that encompasses most of Europe during that time. Many may question her legacy, particularly Columbus’s treatment of the native populations and those mistreated by the Spanish Inquisition, but without her, world history simply would not have been the same and Christian Europe may have disappeared entirely.

Ms. Downey shies away from no “uncomfortable” subjects (the origins of syphilis, cannibalism, the enslaving of Christians by the Turks, the mistreatment of the natives by the Europeans), and her journalistic integrity provides a picture that feels thorough, balanced, and authentic. Simply amazing in its scope and insight, this peek into Isabella’s world is a must-read for any history buff.

Rebecca Henderson Palmer,

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