When Isabella of Castile married her cousin, Fernando of Aragón in Valladolid in 1469 they were just 18 and 19 years old respectively. Until Isabela’s death in 1504, though, they were destined to become Spain’s ‘Reyes Católicos’ – the Catholic Monarchs – who took enormous steps in both unifying Spain and setting in motion many of the developments that were to make it into a powerful country.
To summarise the elements of their reign we can begin with the taking of Granada in January, 1492 and the completion of the Christian Reconquest. In October of the same year, Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) discovered America, having been granted funds for the voyage by the monarchs. The infamous Spanish Inquisition was re-established in order to promote religious and cultural uniformity – the Jews and Muslims were expelled – but was also instrumental in reinforcing the authority of the monarchs and the state in the country.
The annexation of Navarra in 1512 brought all of modern Spain under the rule of one person for the first time since early Visigothic times. By pacifying the various kingdoms, many of whom had been in dispute for centuries, they helped Spain to become one of the first modern states of Renaissance Europe. Finally, by adopting an international policy of ‘marriage alliances’, which saw their children marry into the royal families of Portugal, Burgundy, England and the Hapsburgs, they increased the Spanish influence throughout Europe.
As a consequence of Isabella’s famous piety and Fernando’s almost Machiavellian strategies, when their grandson, Carlos I of Spain, took the throne he was able to become Holy Roman Emperor, overseeing the largest European empire since Roman times, which he was able to defend using the wealth accumulated from the vast American colonies previously accumulated.
Isabella became Queen of Castile in 1474; Fernando ascended to the Aragón throne five years after; both claimed their inheritances as a result of civil wars. Having suffered a succession of ineffectual rulers for a century each, Castile and Aragón responded to the firm, charismatic control and the establishment of royal authority, exemplified by the formation of the Royal Council, to replace the courts. The urge for unity, which led to 10 years of battles to re-capture Granada, was not simply based on territory, however. Between 1480 and 1492, hundreds of converses, those Jews or Muslims that had converted to Christianity, were arrested, imprisoned, interrogated and burned in Castile and Aragón. The Spanish Inquisition, originally started in the 13th century to root out heretics in France, but now under the leadership of the infamous Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada, oversaw the expulsion of all Jews who refused to be baptised as Christians. Around 200,000 mostly middle class Jews left – mainly for Portugal, North Africa, Italy and the Ottoman Empire – which was doubly ironic in that they had financed much of the reconquest of Granada and, in addition, Fernando himself had some Jewish heritage.
After the Jews had been dealt with, Isabela herself, through the form of her personal confessor, Cardinal Cisneros, tried to oversee the eradication all traces of Muslim culture. Books were burnt, Arabic banned, lands seized and given to the Monarchs’ supporters and there were forced ‘mass baptisms’. After an attempted revolt in Andalucía in 1500, those Muslims who would not convert to Christianity were expelled completely. It is estimated that about 300,000 took the opportunity to remain, mainly in Andalucía.
The year 1492 was truly a remarkable year for the Monarchs. In April of that year, after the glory of Granada was re-established and the Mezquita converted into a Catholic church, the rulers gave sufficient funds to Colón for him to undertake his long dreamed of voyage west, searching for a new trade route to the Orient. Fernando was motivated by the need to replenish the funds that had been exhausted by the long drawn-out conflict with Granada; Isabella by the possibility of being able to bring more people to Catholicism. This journey, with subsequent ones in 1493, 1498 and 1502, led to Colón being named as Admiral of the Ocean Sea by the monarchs and the establishment of the American colonies that would lead to such an influx of wealth to Spain for the next two centuries. Sadly for Colón, he did not prove quite as adept at managing his own finances, and died penniless in Valladolid in 1506. There is a fascinating, and ongoing, debate about where Colón’s body is now – there is an impressively elaborate tomb in Seville cathedral but Santo Domingo, in the Caribbean, still claims the bones remain there.
Realising just how vital long-term political stability was to ensure Spain’s continuing development, the Monarchs cleverly arranged marriages for each of their five children. Isabella, the first born, married Afonso of Portugal, thus ensuring peaceful associations between the two countries. The second daughter, Juana – unfortunately known as Juana La Loca (Joanna the Mad)- married Felipe El Hermoso (Philip the Handsome), the son of the Holy Roman Emperor. The Monarchs’ only son, Juan, married into the Hapsburg dynasty to Margaret of Austria. Maria, the fourth child, married Manuel I of Portugal and finally, Catherine, the youngest, married Henry VIII of England and is remembered as Catherine of Aragón, mother of Queen Mary I, and a key figure in English history.
It was the son of Juana and Felipe who was destined, in 1517, to become Carlos I and rule not only Spain but, as Holy Roman Emperor, also to be in control of Austria, the Low Countries, large parts of France and Germany and many of the states of Italy – as well as the colonies in the Americas.
Isabella and Fernando, from two regions in the north of Spain, had managed to generate a legacy for Carlos that controlled more of Europe than anyone had been able to do since the 9th century.