The days are gone when Spain was num-bered among the greatest countries of the world, but the memory of her greatness remains, and with it the memory of Queen Isabella of Castile - one of the most wonderful women the world has known.
She was born at Madriga, in 1451, the daughter of John II. of Castile and Isabella of Portugal. Before she was four years old her father died, leaving her to the care of her half-brother, Henry, who became king of Castile. But Henry was a man of no strength of mind or uprightness of character. And before long his impotent rule resulted in civil war.
Henry had no son, and the heir-presumptive was his half-brother Alphonso. The little prince died, however, at the age of fifteen, and the confederates immediately offered the crown to Isabella, imploring her to become ruler over Castile instead of Henry. Isabella refused, but consented to the concluding of an agreement acknowledging herself his heiress.
England and France immediately proffered a member of their Royal house as a husband for Isabella, but the man she chose was Prince Ferdinand of Aragon. It was a wise match, politically. United, Castile and Aragon might rise to the first rank; separately, they could never attain to any very great prominence.
On October 18, 1469, the wedding took place in the princess's residence, the Palace Bivero, now the Chancery of Valladolid. They were a handsome couple. Isabella was a tall, beautiful girl of eighteen, with a fair, delicate, and transparent skin, and eyes of soft blue, their expression combining in a delightful way intelligence with gentleness and sympathy, while her features indicated the serenity of her disposition. Her hair was a sunny chestnut brown in colour. Ferdinand was not so tall as she, and his light complexion had been tanned, but he was a strong, healthy man, and a soldier.
In 1474 Henry died, and his kingdom passed to Isabella. It was in a shocking condition. The power of the nobles was great, and in their quarrels among themselves houses were burned, and fields devas-tated. Famine, robbery, murder, and oppression reigned supreme.
But all this was changed when Isabella's capable hands took the helm. The Royal authority was re-established, the power of the nobles and the ambition of the clergy restrained, law and order restored. A blot upon her reign is the rise of the Inquisition, and its persecution of Jews and Moors, but it must be remembered that it was with reluctance that Isabella consented to its introduction into Castile.
Several great wars agitated Spain during the reign of Isabella and her husband. The greatest, perhaps, was that which finally subdued the Moors. Its conduct was by no means left to Ferdinand. The Queen proved herself the life and soul of the army, organising the different corps, dictating dispatches, arranging campaigns, inspecting troops, and rousing the men to enthusiasm by her words. She took the invalid and wounded under her especial care, founding the Queen's Hospitals - large tents carried in the rear of the army, provided with medicines and chaplains.
Though naturally unostentatious, the Queen knew when to parade the magnificence of Castile before her enemies. On one occasion she arrived at the camp with her ladies, all on horseback, with waving banners and blaring trumpets. The Moors watched in amazement from their ramparts. Next day she passed her army in review, mounted on a spirited horse, arousing great enthusiasm among the troops. The result was that the Moors capitulated without striking a blow.
The Queen did not take part in the Italian wars which occurred towards the close of her reign. She felt they were Aragon's wars, not Castile's, and during her husband's absence devoted herself to providing for the welfare of her subjects and the prosperity of the country generally. Art and science, agriculture, trade and commerce, flourished, and the manufacturing of silk and velvet, gold and silver plate, enamels and porcelain was brought to a high standard of perfection. Population and revenues increased, and it was found possible to give large sums to Columbus for his first three expeditions to the New World, until his harsh treatment of the newly-found peoples had to be checked.
The later years of Isabella's life were sad ones. They saw the death of her much-beloved mother, her only son - aged but twenty - and her eldest daughter; another daughter, Jane, fell a prey to insanity, and Isabella's own health began to fail rapidly. Yet to the last she retained her clearness of head and her sympathy of heart. When she knew she was dying, she urged the revision of certain laws affecting the revenues of the Crown, which she feared were burdening the people.
On November 26, 1504, she died, at the age of fifty-three, and her body was conveyed to Granada. The journey lasted twenty-one days, through wet and stormy weather, a huge body of knights, clergy, citizens and soldiers forming the procession. Country people flocked from far and near, all along the route, to do homage to the "Good Queen," as they called her - the great queen who, to quote Lord Bacon, "in all her revelations of queen or woman was an honour to her sex and a cornerstone of the greatness of Spain."