chapter  1
The Catholic Monarchs 1469–1516
Pages 58

After centuries developing their individual character, the different realms of Spain began to come together as a stable political unit only towards the end of the fifteenth century. The most powerful of them was the crown of Castile, which had no lack of continuous internal problems. The accession of a child, Juan II, to its throne in 1406 began a period of instability that the great nobles exploited freely. When Henry IV succeeded his father Juan II as king in 1454, the nobles felt strong enough to dispute his power and the ensuing civil wars in Castile (1464-80) came to centre on the problem of the succession. A group of nobles led by Alfonso Carrillo, archbishop of Toledo, supported the rights of Henry’s half-sister Isabella, who was recognised by Henry in September 1468, apparently on condition that she marry the elderly king Alfonso V of Portugal. Other nobles, led notably by the powerful Mendoza family, supported Henry’s infant daughter Juana (b. 1463), known as La Beltraneja because it was rumoured (without any proof, as historians now agree) that her real sire was the king’s favourite Beltrán de la Cueva. In search of allies, Carrillo committed Isabella (in January 1469) to marry the son of King Juan II of Aragon, related by marriage to Isabella’s supporters the Enriquez family. The marriage was celebrated in secret on 18 and 19 October 1469 in Valladolid:

Isabella was eighteen, her husband Ferdinand, titular king of Sicily, a year younger. It did not seem an auspicious event. Ferdinand, caught up in civil wars in Aragon, had made his way overland to Valladolid in disguise and with only a tiny escort. The couple were cousins and it was necessary to receive a papal dispensation for them to marry. The pope had promised to grant it but dithered; his legate in Castile went ahead and issued the desired permission, which the pope subsequently validated. It was a delicate situation, for there was powerful opposition to the marriage. The king of France, Louis XI, had been hoping to secure Castile by a union between his brother and Isabella. When Henry IV heard of the event he disowned Isabella and in 1470 recognised Juana as his heir, but his death in 1474 eased the crisis. Isabella was crowned queen of Castile in Segovia on 13 December 1474, the first step in a long upward struggle for the throne. Alfonso of Portugal invaded Castile the following spring, promised to

marry Juana, and was recognised as lawful king by a section of the nobility. French troops invaded from the north. Anarchy returned to Castile. Cardinal Pedro González de Mendoza and other

great magnates had in 1473 moved to join Isabella, but in reaction Mendoza’s rival Carrillo turned against her, and the powerful marquis of Villena put his strength behind Juana. The resources and energy of Ferdinand proved to be of crucial importance. Over the next few years he helped to collect troops, make alliances and capture towns. Alfonso suffered a reverse at the battle of Toro in March 1476 (the church of San Juan de los Reyes in Toledo was erected in thanks for this victory) and Juana’s cause quickly crumbled: by the end of 1476 most nobles had submitted to Isabella. Meanwhile the crown of Aragon had troubles of its own. Faced by a revolt of the political authorities in Catalonia (1462-72) against his rule, Juan II of Aragon began to secure foreign support, most spectacularly through the 1469 marriage of Ferdinand but even more effectively through agreements with Naples and Burgundy (1471). At the end of a short siege, the king in October 1472 entered Barcelona. The crowns of Castile and Aragon were already related dynastically. When

the old Aragonese royal house died out in the early fifteenth century, an agreement known as the Compromise of Caspe (1412) placed Ferdinand of Antequera, from a junior branch of the Castilian ruling house of Trastámara, on the throne of Aragon. From this date both kingdoms were ruled by the same dynasty, and a common destiny did not seem impossible. The chronicler Bernáldez recalled that during the 1460s in Castile ‘the children took little flags, and riding on willow sticks would say, “Flag of Aragon, flag of Aragon!” And I too said it, many times.’ But aspirations to unity were tenuous, in view of the deep differences between the realms. In the wake of the capture of Zamora and Burgos, and the success against

Portugal at Toro, Ferdinand and Isabella summoned a Cortes to meet at Madrigal in April 1476. This assembly of the clergy, nobles and municipal representatives of Castile was important not only for demonstrating that Isabella had the firm support of the political nation, but also for the fundamental administrative reforms it initiated. The civil wars however were not yet over, and the court – which had no fixed capital at this period – moved southward with the monarchs to continue the work of pacification. In this year Isabella sent a demand to the Muslim king of Granada for renewal of the customary tribute, and received the ominous reply that ‘we no longer mint gold, only steel’. The queen was informed in those weeks of other possible problems in the south. During her stay in Seville in 1477 she was impressed by the testimony of a friar, Alonso de Hojeda, about the presence of heresy in the region: a direct result was the establishment some time later of a new Inquisition. France made peace in October 1478, four months after the birth to Isabella of

an heir, Juan. The civil wars in Castile effectively came to an end when representatives of Castile and Portugal agreed to a peace treaty (Alcaçovas, September 1479) ending hostilities and renouncing all claims on each other. There was peace also in Aragon, where in January 1479 Juan II died and was succeeded by

Ferdinand as king. By the end of 1479, therefore, the title of Ferdinand and Isabella to the respective thrones of Aragon and Castile was secure. Juana ‘la Beltraneja’ retired into a convent in 1480 in Portugal, continuing in vain to proclaim her rights until her death in 1530. In 1480 the monarchs were in a position to make far-reaching decisions on

matters of state. A Cortes of Castile was summoned in January to Toledo, where alienated royal property was reclaimed for the crown and corregidores were instituted. In September, at Medina del Campo, Isabella issued the first commissions for the Inquisition to begin its work. Ferdinand at the end of the year summoned the Cortes of Aragon for 1481: he, Isabella and prince Juan spent from April to December 1481 visiting the Cortes and then the cities of Saragossa, Barcelona and Valencia in order to swear to the laws and obtain oaths of loyalty to the prince as heir to the realms. All this activity arose from Ferdinand’s scrupulous concern to ensure absolute legitimacy for his and Isabella’s rule: already in July 1476 he had sworn at Guernica to maintain the laws of the Basques. With the restoration of royal authority, the monarchs turned their attention

to the Muslim kingdom of Granada. In December 1481 Muslims had seized the frontier town of Zahara: this provided the excuse for a counter-attack, and in February 1482 Christian forces captured the town of Alhama. Hostilities developed into the ten-year war that ended with the fall of Granada. Ferdinand assumed active leadership of the campaign, though the slow war did not prevent lengthy absences from the front on business in the north. Early in 1486 the monarchs were first confronted by Christopher Columbus, anxious to explain his projects for exploration. After repeated refusals, Columbus was finally promised financial support from officials of the crown of Aragon (notably Luis de Santángel) and on 17 April 1492 received a commission from Ferdinand and Isabella. In the early months of 1492 – a year justly famous in Spain’s history – two

epoch-making events occurred. On 2 January the city of Granada capitulated to the Catholic Monarchs. Then on 30 March, in the same city, the monarchs signed a decree expelling the Jews from all Spain. They spent the latter part of this and most of the subsequent year in the crown of Aragon, principally in Barcelona, where early in December the king was victim of an assassination attempt. He was feverish for a fortnight and it cost him several weeks to recover from the stab wound, but with Isabella’s help he continued to manage affairs of state. In January 1493 he signed the treaty by which the king of France returned to Catalonia the frontier counties of Roussillon and Cerdagne. In March a letter from Columbus arrived, announcing that he had returned from his voyage; and in mid-April the navigator was received by the rulers in the city. In November the king and queen headed back to Castile. The death of Isabella at Medina del Campo on 26 November 1504 threatened

the association of the two crowns, since Ferdinand was obliged as a consequence to renounce his title of king of Castile. Isabella’s will specified as heir her eldest surviving child, Juana, at the time in the Netherlands with her husband the

archduke Philip of Austria. The will also stated that in Juana’s absence, or if she proved ‘unwilling or unable to govern’, Ferdinand could act as regent until Juana’s elder son Charles came of age. Both parents may already have been aware of signs of mental instability in their daughter; they were also reluctant to let control of Castile pass into foreign hands. Ferdinand had Philip and Juana proclaimed as rulers of Castile, and confirmed it in the Cortes at Toro in January 1505; but he also made the Cortes confirm his own regency. Aware of his weakening hold over a realm where many nobles resented the interference of ‘the old Catalan’, he strengthened his hand elsewhere by marrying in March 1506 the king of France’s niece, Germaine de Foix. The marriage brought him French support and the prospect of a male heir whom he might conceivably also try to set on the throne of Castile. Six weeks later Philip and Juana returned from abroad to Castile. Ferdinand met them in June at the village of Villafáfila, north of Zamora. In two hostile interviews, Ferdinand conceded the government to Philip and agreed to withdraw to Aragon. Both men also agreed to exclude Juana because of ‘her infirmities and sufferings, which for the sake of her honour are not specified’. Only hours later, Ferdinand protested against the agreement as being injurious to his daughter’s rights; he returned to Barcelona and set sail in September for Naples. Within the month he received news of the sudden death (25 September) at

Burgos of Philip, who was only twenty-eight years old. He did not, however, return to the peninsula until the summer of 1507. By then Juana’s mind had snapped under the strain of Philip’s death: she refused to be parted from his coffin, and in February 1509 retreated with it over the wind-swept countryside to the isolated fortress of Tordesillas. Cardinal Cisneros, regent from 1506 to 1507, acted in the name of the nobles and invited Ferdinand back to resume the duties laid down by Isabella’s will in the event of Juana’s incapacity. In October 1510 the king took the oath as governor of Castile in the Cortes at Madrid. The partnership of Castile and Aragon was now assured; but only by accident.

Germaine de Foix’s son, born in 1509, survived only a few hours; had he lived, he would have become king of an independent Aragon and the partnership would have evaporated, perhaps for ever, an eventuality that Ferdinand must have foreseen. Perhaps to compensate for the fact that both Castile and Aragon would pass to Juana’s elder son Charles, Ferdinand lavished attention on Charles’s younger brother Ferdinand, who unlike Charles was born (in 1502) in Spain and brought up as a Spaniard. In the nine years during which Ferdinand was sole ruler of Spain, the realms

developed successfully but separately. Aragonese who hoped to see more of their king were bitterly disappointed, for Ferdinand spent virtually all his time in Castile, particularly in Valladolid, now the administrative centre of the realm. It was a logical decision, since Castile was supplying the men and money for important conquests in Navarre and North Africa, and was the main backer of expeditions to America. Ferdinand took a close interest in the New World and supported the issue in 1512 of the Laws of Burgos, which regulated the

exploitation of native labour there. Aragon was by no means neglected: Cortes of the realms were held there in 1510, 1512 and 1515. Ferdinand never entirely recovered from an illness of early 1512. Journeying

southwards in Castile at the end of 1515 he was overtaken by a further illness and died in the Extremaduran town of Madrigalejo (23 January 1516). Cisneros assumed the regency again, on behalf of Charles of Ghent. It was an extremely unstable situation. Nobles who had been kept in order by Ferdinand took up their arms, but the cardinal proved an able governor. In 1516 he sent troops into Navarre to quell a rebellion and demolish several castles; crushed a plot led by the Mendoza duke of Infantado and other great lords; and in 1517 began the recruitment of a permanent militia of some 30,000 men to act as the core of a royal army. When the hostile nobles demanded on what authority he acted so harshly, he pointed to his militia and cannon: ‘these’, he said, ‘are my authority’. Many Spaniards would have preferred prince Ferdinand as their next ruler rather than the unknown Charles. Uncertainty was heightened by the drift to Charles’s court at Brussels of place-seekers, among them many corrupt advisers of the late king against whom Cisneros warned Charles. The relatively peaceful transition to a new dynasty would have been unlikely without the cardinal’s firm hand.