Starz is making a Catherine of Aragon series!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It is based off of Philippa Gregory’s The Constant Princess which I looooooooved. I purchased it not realizing it was historical fiction, and what a pleasant surprise that was. I loved what Starz did with The White Queen (didn’t totally love The White Princess, but I will still take it). Catherine of Aragon went through SOME REAL SHIT in her life and did so with dignity, so there is plenty of drama to be had. In honor of this exciting announcement, let’s explore Catherine of Aragon, or, as history remembers her, the first wife of Henry VIII. Update: This got to be super super long because I realized how much you need to know about her mother to understand Catherine, so today is going to start with Isabella and next week will be Catherine. This is still way too long despite missing a ton of details.
Catherine of Aragon was born in 1485 to Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. They were THE Ferdinand and Isabella whose marriage ultimately lead to a united Spain under their grandson, Charles I.
Isabella retained her queendom and reigned independently as Queen of Castile while Ferdinand reigned as King of Aragon. Most people only know Isabella as part of the famous duo who funded Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the Americas, but she was a badass in her own right. Like many queens throughout history, Isabella was never supposed to be on the throne.
Isabella was born in 1451 as the first child of King John II of Castile and his second wife, Isabella of Portugal (this story is rich in Isabellas). John II had four children with his first wife, but three did not survive past their toddler years. (Side note: I cannot even imagine how people dealt with the loss of multiple children which was so tragically common for that time. It is so awful to think about.) Isabella’s birth made her the second living child of the King and second in line for the throne behind her elder brother who was 26 and married at the time of her arrival. The birth of a baby brother (Alfonso) pushed Isabella into third place. No disgrace!
John II, her father and the King, died in 1454, and her elder half brother ascended the throne as Henry IV of Castile. In case you’re like “WTF is Castile?” – here is a map of the Crown’s territory over time in the Iberian Peninsula:
Isabella, her younger brother Alfonso, and her mother were now in Henry’s care, and they moved to Arévalo where they were poor and suffered because he sucked. This will be something that Catherine also experiences in her life. TAKE NOTE. John II had arranged for his children and wife to be financially cared for, but Henry did not give a rat’s ass and left them destitute. Isabella’s mother continued to teach her children piety and a deep reverence for Catholicism. This is a also a major theme throughout Catherine’s life and informs many of her later life choices. They were SUPER SUPER mega Catholic. These folks were chock full of piety and prayers. Here is Isabella either being pious or checking for lumps. Hard to say.
While awaiting the birth of his first child, Princess Joanna, in 1462, King Henry brought Isabella and her brother to court in Segovia so that he could directly “supervise” them (spy on them). Isabella became part of the Queen’s household which gave her access to food, clothing, and education. She was not allowed to leave as the country was undergoing political turmoil regarding the succession (people were not a fan of Henry).
The nobles soon had control over Isabella’s younger brother Alfonso, and they demanded that he be named as heir (instead of Henry’s daughter, Joanna). They asked Alfonso to seize the throne, and the nobles eventually clashed with Henry’s army in the Second Battle of Olmedo in 1467. There was no victor, but a concession was made that Alfonso would be named heir if he agreed to marry Henry’s daughter, Princess Joanna. In case you aren’t sure, Alfonso is her half uncle. She is definitely pointing the finger of incest at her dad. Ew.
Unfortunately, Alfonso died of the plague (OR DID HE?) shortly after he was named as heir but before he could marry his half niece (#blessed). Isabella was named in Alfonso’s will as his successor, and the nobles asked her to take his place as the champion of their rebellion. Isabella recognized the dwindling support for their cause, and chose to negotiate peace with her brother instead of continuing to wage war. She would not support overthrowing King Henry as it went against her belief in a fairly inherited throne – especially since her own succession rights depended upon that same principle. She was a logical lady.
Isabella’s marriage prospects were a MESS. I am so thankful to be a woman today in American who is in an economic position where a bad husband is at least my own choice to make. At age six, Isabella was betrothed to Ferdinand who was the youngest son of John II of Navarre. John II and Isabella’s father (also, John II, but of Castile) were anxious to make an alliance that would demonstrate their friendship to the world (Navarre was Castile’s neighbor). Two Johns for the price of one!
Navarre John’s older brother died in 1458. He was King of Aragon and ruled several other Spanish territories, Sicily, and Sardinia which he left to Aragon (formerly Navarre) John. With his new lands and titles, Aragon John no longer needed Castile John’s friendship and power. Isabella’s brother, King Henry (Castile John’s son), looked to Aragon John’s elder son (and Ferdinand’s older brother), Charles, for a new alliance because he was shady. When Aragon John found out that his son had betrayed him, he had him thrown in prison where he died in 1461. Aragon John believed that the betrothal between Ferdinand and Isabella was still valid, and he pushed for the marriage to his favorite son. Being petty, Castile Henry tried to marry Isabella off to his brother-in-law, Alfonso V of Portugal, to seal a Portuguese alliance, but Isabella refused to consent. This paragraph is confusing and I’m sorry. Basically, Isabella’s brother tried to marry her off to two different guys, but it didn’t work.
Civil war broke out due to Henry’s crappy leadership, and in an attempt to appease the rebels, he arranged a marriage between Isabella and Pedro Girón Acuña Pacheco. Pedro was to pay the royal treasury a ton of money in order to pull King Henry out of debt. Isabella was outraged and prayed fervently that the marriage would not happen. God gave her the thumbs up, and Pedro fell ill and died suddenly while on his way to meet Isabella.
Henry promised Isabella that he would not force her to marry when he formally recognized her as heir-presumptive in 1468. Henry went back on his promise several times (ugh, men) and kept trying to marry her off, but Isabella remained committed to marrying Ferdinand (who was her second cousin just FYI). Aragon John (Ferdinand’s pop) and Isabella negotiated the wedding, and in October 1469 a formal betrothal finally took place. Because they were closely-related cousins they had to get special permission from the Pope (THIS IS A RED FLAG) due to the laws of consanguinity. Isabella was so worried that the marriage would be stopped that she pretended to make a visit to her brother’s tomb in order to elope with Ferdinand who was disguised as a servant. They were officially wed on October 19, 1469. Look at those happy cousins!
Isabella was crowned Queen of Castile and León when her brother Henry FINALLY died in 1474. God really delivers for this gal.
She’s not here to make friends.
As she took power, there were already several plots in motion to put Henry’s daughter Joanna on the throne as rightful queen. There were plans to marry Joanna to her uncle King Alfonso V of Portugal (he really gets passed around) so that they could take the throne by invading Castile. In May 1475, Alfonso married Joanna and started what would become a bloody war for the Castilian throne. In the end, the Castilians won the Battle of Toro by spreading the news of a victory far and wide despite there being no clear victor. The news of the loss caused Joanna’s supporters to abandon her, and the Portuguese left Castile. Oh, the power of fake news is scary.
Isabella convened the courts at Madrigal-Segovia and named her eldest daughter Isabella as her heir, thereby formally establishing her own right to the throne. While Ferdinand was off fighting, Isabella rode out BY HERSELF to negotiate with rebels during a Segovian rebellion. The rebellion was quickly ended due to her efforts. In 1478, she gave birth to a son, John, Prince of Asturias, which further legitimized her rule.
Isabella survived a three year war over wealth in the Atlantic with the Portuguese which resulted in four peace treaties. For Portugal’s agreement to give up their claim to the throne of Castile to Isabella, Castile forfeited rights to all of the Atlantic territories except the Canary Islands and a large sum of gold. Isabella and Ferdinand also had to give up their claim as the rulers of Portugal. Basically, everyone had to stop pretending to be ruler of each other’s kingdoms. The agreement essentially pushed Castile out of access to southern Atlantic commerce routes and deprived them of the gold in Guinea. People were pissed.
Luckily for Isabella, good ol’ colonizer Chris Columbus showed up on her doorstep needing a handout. Being the smart and forward thinking woman that she was, she gave a big HELL YES to his idea. His expedition west was essentially their only remaining path of expansion and wealth.
Columbus returned with ships containing wealth and enslaved native people from the Americas. Isabella and Ferdinand issued a royal order that the natives be released and demanded that the native people of the Americas be treated with the “utmost kindness and respect.” Naturally, this was ignored because UGH MEN. Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World balanced the sharing of the Atlantic. Spain entered their golden age of exploration which marked the start of the end of times for the ingenious people of the Americas.
The year 1492 also saw the end of the Reconquista, the 780 year period of conflict between Christians and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula. In short, 1492 was the end of the efforts of several Christian Iberian kingdoms to reconquer Muslim territory that they believed had been wrongfully taken from native Iberian Christians by Muslim conquerors. Basically, same ol’ same ol’ in the Christian/Muslim relationship.
In the final years of Reconquista, Granada was the only remaining land left to be conquered. Over a ten year period, Ferdinand and Isabella took the kingdom piece by piece using artillery and soldiers from other European countries. Isabella personally accepted the surrender of the Emir of Granada after a long and brutal war. When Ferdinand and Isabella finally took the kingdom, they agreed to a treaty that Muslims and Jews could continue to live in peace in Granada…
At least until a Muslim rebellion in 1500 was declared a violation of the treaty, and Castile used it as justification for revoking their agreements and demanding that all of those inconvenient Muslims convert or leave. Before that eviction notice, there was also a mass effort to run the Jewish folks out of town. While Isabella was not cool with it, Ferdinand was convinced to expel Jews from Castile in pursuit of the endlessly popular religious and national unity effort. Over 500 years later, and humans have not changed. An estimated 40,000 converted to Catholicism and a maximum of 40,000 left. Ugh, Ferdinand.
Despite the ongoing conflict in her country, Isabella never ceased her efforts to reform the kingdom. She instituted crime regulations after the lax enforcement during the reign of her brother, and established formal police forces. The aftermath of her spendthrift brother’s tenure left the Crown’s finances in disarray because Henry had sold royal estates and lands at exceptionally low prices. Isabella decreed that the nobles who had purchased the royal lands could maintain ownership by paying the crown the real value of the property. The large sums paid to maintain ownership of the royal lands filled the treasury. I call this painting “Here is what you owe me, bitch.”
She established a monopoly over the mint and fixed a legal standard of coin. By shutting down the overproduction of coinage, she gained the trust of the public in the ability of the monarchs to manage finances. Isabella and Ferdinand overhauled the government and forced nobles to take an active role as a way to weed out those who were not dedicated to the cause.
As part of their efforts to create a Spain unified under a single faith, they institutionalized the Spanish Inquisition which is a whole other bucket of YIKES. Isabella wasn’t just some nice Renaissance queen who loved music and learning. She authorized the brutal torture of her own subjects. It’s not admirable in any way, but she was extra persistent in making her dreams a reality.
In the later years of their reign, Isabella and Ferdinand turned their focus to the stability of their crown and succession plans. They worked to strengthen their kingdom by linking it to the royal houses of Europe through the marriages of their children. Unfortunately, that didn’t really work out for them. Their eldest son and heir, John, was to marry a Hapsburg princess, but died shortly after the marriage leaving no heirs.
The eldest daughter, Isabella, was married to Prince Afonso who was heir to the crown of Portugal. They fell deeply in love, but Afonso died in a riding accident shortly after their marriage. Isabella was then married to Afonso’s uncle, King Manuel I of Portugal. She died giving birth to her only son who didn’t live to see the age of three. Manual then married Isabella’s little sister, Maria, who birthed a son who grew up to be King John III of Portugal. Maria and Manual also had a daughter, Isabella (wife of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V), who was mother to Philip II of Spain. Philip united Portugal and Spain from 1580 to 1640 based on his claim to the throne as the son of Isabella of Portugal. Phillip II was married to Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and CATHERINE OF ARAGON.
Of incest. Their third daughter, Joanna, was an extra sad story due to the fact that it was alleged that she suffered from untreated mental illness and is known historically as “Joanna the Mad.” After the death of her brother, nephew, and elder sister, Joanna became the heir presumptive to the crowns of Castile, León, and Aragon. Numerous historians now contest that she was not “mad,” and believe it was a mass effort to discredit her claim to the throne and pass the crown to her son. She spent decades imprisoned by her father and son who ruled in her absence. Declaring a woman “crazy” is such a historically successful practice for men.
We will explore the marriage and fate of her fourth daughter, Catherine, next week!
Isabella died in 1504 at the age of 53. It was said that she never recovered from the loss of her beloved son, John. She was known as a “Warrior Queen” and spent her life fighting to keep her crown and her country together. Her actions changed the course of history in numerous ways, and her legacy carried by her daughter would influence life in England for generations. She was not one to shy away from a challenge or crisis, and had no trouble going against her advisers to ride into dangerous situations. Agree or disagree with her politics, she got shit done.
Weird fact: She was the first woman to ever be on a a U.S. Postage stamp. The stamps were created to commemorate the Columbian Exposition world’s fair held in Chicago in 1893. File that away and win trivia with it one day. You’re welcome!
Sources and further reading:
Isabella: The Warrior Queen is a fantastic book
“Kirstin Downey’s ‘Isabella: The Warrior Queen.’”
“Death of Isabella I of Castile.”
“Isabella of Castile: A Role Model for Tudor Queens.”