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Isabella: The Warrior Queen by Kirstin Downey

A couple of reviews ago, I mentioned that there was a book I was reading that was taking forever and a day to finish.  Well, this is that book.  I finally finished it, and even though it felt like it went on and on (and on), I'm glad I finished reading it.  I feel I really learned a lot.  And now this review may go on forever and a day because I have a lot to say.  I believe I first learned of this book when I read a review about it in Time magazine or Book Page or some place like that.  It's a fascinating and interesting read.

When I was a young girl I read a lot more non-fiction than I do now.  I read a lot of Greek mythology, fairy tales, and books about queens and royalty.  I remember there was book about Joan of Arc that I borrowed from my library (and which is still in the collection here!).  This fascination with royal history and the customs, traditions, and history that go along with it has carried over into my adulthood.  While I was reading this book about Isabella, the queen of Castile, I was thinking that while I was aware of Isabella (and her husband, Ferdinand), I don't think I really read much about the Spanish royalty.  I remember I read books about the queens of England mostly, but not so much about the royalty of other countries.  For most followers of royalty, it is probably common knowledge that Queen Victoria of Great Britain was called the grandmother of Europe's royalty because many of her children (and subsequently their descendants) married into royal houses all over Europe and as far afield as Russia.  This book about Isabella mentions that Isabella herself is also an ancestor of many of the European royal families as well and that was something that was new to me that stuck in my mind.

This is an in depth biographical analysis of Isabella, her life and times.  It begins with her uncertain and not very well documented childhood--she was not born to be queen after all.  She had an elder brother who would inherit the throne and his heirs were in turn expected to rule Spain.  As a result the details of her birth and her childhood are mostly lost to time and history.  However, as Isabella grew up, it became increasingly clear that her brother (and his heiress, whose paternity was called into question) was not fit to rule Spain.  In a time when women didn't really have much of a say in how their lives shook out--these decisions, especially ones regarding the marriages of royal daughters, were left up to the family patriarchs.  But the men in Isabella's family could not be trusted to handle this responsibility well, and so Isabella took matters into her own hands by secretly negotiating for herself a marriage (and political alliance) with Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the neighboring kingdom of Aragon.  The union would result in a unified Spain.  A few years after her marriage, Isabella essentially engineered a bloodless coup in the wake of her brother the king's death.  And she did so in such a way that cut out her husband, Ferdinand, completely from power in Castile.  By this point, Ferdinand had shown his true stripes: he was unfaithful, he was resentful, he lived apart from his wife for extended periods of time despite her pleas to come return to her, and he was a petty, short sighted sovereign, who was not at all interested in the governmental and ecclesiastical reforms that Isabella was determined to bring to bear.

As queen Isabella spent much of her reign at war--first with Portugal to secure her kingdom's shared borders with that country, then within her own kingdom to bring stability, security, safety, and justice to her own lands after decades of lawlessness, chaos and corruption, followed by war in the south to reclaim those Spanish lands from the Muslim Nasrid dynasty, and then after that abroad in Italy and elsewhere to halt the Ottoman empire's roll over Europe.  In addition to ruling her own kingdoms (Castile and Leon), she also led the joint kingdoms' (Castile and Aragon) international diplomacy by negotiating treaties, funding overseas exploration, and arranging marriages for her children.  She educated and trained herself to become a better ruler, versed in the Latin that was then the diplomatic language of the day.  And she advocated for the education of women by her actions and example--her daughters and her ladies-in-waiting and other women at court all received lessons along side Isabella--a precedent that soon spread throughout Europe's elite and ruling dynasties.  A highly prescient woman in treaty negotiations and familial fortunes and relations, Isabella saw the importance of exploring and colonizing the New World years before other sovereigns did.

For all her successes and favorable qualities, Isabella was also human, and she had her flaws.  In her religious zeal, she left a tragic, cruel, and heinous legacy in the form of the Spanish Inquisition, an institution established at her behest for the purposes of the salvation of souls, a duty she felt deeply.  It was a legacy that would have far reaching consequences for hundreds of years after Isabella's death.  By the same token her religious devotion also lead to her efforts to reform the Catholic Church, to root out its inherent corruption and nepotism, but in these efforts she was opposed by the pope himself with whom she soon began an open feud.

The book's chapters tend to focus on individual overarching themes of Isabella's life and reign.  For example, there are chapters detailing the decade long re-conquering of the last vestiges of Muslim Spain that she spearheaded, her financing of Christopher Columbus's voyage in 1492 and her negotiation of the marriages of her daughters.  The book's strength is when it hews closer to the life of its subject and her family than when it meanders off on a historical tangent such as the Muslim conquest of Spain and Europe.  This is when the text gets bogged down and when it feels as if the book goes on and on.  While this book does tend to drag on, I can't seem to recommend it enough--it's a contradiction, I know.  I suppose it's because I was really impressed with Isabella's character, her accomplishments, and her independence.  In comparison to many of her male counterparts in power at the time, well, the men all look egregiously entitled, petty, and incompetent--even her own husband.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Comments

conde levante said…
thanks. What I liked from this book was its contextualisation of Isabella in her world which allows us to understand her motives. I recently found out that her birthplace Madrigal de las altas Torres is closeby to the town of Coca, the birthplace of Theodosius the great, the last Roman emperor of a unified empire. Isabella would have known that I'm sure. The Renaissance was about the rebirth of Greece and Rome and Isabella was its political aspect

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