The Tudor Society

Isabella of Castile – new book!

I've just received an email from Giles Tremlett about his latest book Isabella of Castile: Europe's First Great Queen, which I know many of you will be interested in. His book on Catherine of Aragon was excellent.

Here's what Giles says about his book:

"This week my latest book, a 625-page biography of Isabella of Castile, is published by Bloomsbury in the United Kingdom. It will be out in the United States on March 7 and will be available in Spanish and Chinese before year's end. Early reviews from the US specialist book trade magazines are promising: "Magisterial... sublime presentation of facts and interpretation," (Booklist); "highly readable, engrossing biography" (Library Journal) etc... Reviews will begin to appear in major UK papers next week.

Isabella was, in terms of global impact, the first of Europe's great queens regnant. In my view she was almost certainly the greatest, with Russia's Catherine the Great as the only worthy rival. Victoria, Elizabeth I and Maria Theresa of Austria are, I'm afraid, mere runners up (and I'm quite happy to have that argument with anyone who wants it). Apologies, my Swedish friends, Queen Christina is fascinating, but not that way.Here is a short list of events directly attributable to Isabella. Some are fabulous, others are horrific, but all are momentous. Together, they are:

  1. Usurps the crown of Castile aged 23, defeats her enemies in battle and tames the Grandees to install a strong monarch for the first time in a century.
  2. "Unites" Spain (or, rather, starts the process), by rebelliously choosing Ferdinand of Aragon for her husband.
  3. Creates the current boundaries of Spain (minus Navarre and tiny bits of North Africa) by conquering the Moslem kingdom of Granada and the Canary Islands.
  4. Reverses net Moslem territorial gains in Europe for first time in decades, with the traumatic loss of Constantinople, Greece and the Balkans still fresh in anxious, fearful Christian minds.
  5. Founds the infamous "Spanish Inquisition" - with waterboarding and burning at the stake - as a royal-led project.
  6. Sends Columbus off, allowing embattled Christendom to straddle the Ocean and ensuring the future dominance of the Atlantic seaboard nations and western "civilization".
  7. Also begins the extraordinary "Columbine exchange" of plants, animals and diseases between continents while also starting the eradication, by disease and hunger, of most of the Caribbean islands' population. Permits African slaves to replace them, starting centuries of trans-Atlantic slave trading.
  8. Begins the creation of the first global empire on which the sun never sets, which will soon make Spain Europe's dominant power.
  9. Expels the world's largest community of Jews.
  10. Forcibly converts Spain's Moslems, ending centuries of religious coexistence.
  11. Makes Spain and its empire a bulwark against the future protestant reformation.
  12. Answers to no man, except Ferdinand (in a genuine, remarkable partnership of equals) and the Pope (but not always, especially when he is a Borgia).

None of these things are minor. Nothing similar can be attributed to a European queen regnant before that, and probably not afterwards either.

Was Isabella "nice"? Not by our standards. Yet nor were Henry VIII, Napoleon or Attila the Hun, all of whom we somehow admire - so there is no reason to expect or demand that strong women in history be kind, meek or full of tender, loving joy. Isabella loved her children, was passionately jealous about her husband (whose sex life was beyond her control) and fearful of God, but she felt little empathy for others. She wanted her subjects to love her, but found fear a more useful tool. She did nothing to change the status of women. She was bold, clever, determined, single-minded, ruthless and immensely powerful. And she was a woman. That made her even more exceptional. It is impossible to understand contemporary Spain without her.

Isabella was also, via Henry VIII's wife Catherine of Aragon, grandmother to England's first proper queen regnant, "Bloody" Mary I - whose religious outlook owed much to her grandmother."

Isabella of Castile is available from Amazon UK, and your usual bookstore. I'm definitely getting it!

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