Kirstin Downey’s ‘Isabella: The Warrior Queen’

HARRISON-master495-v2While Ferdinand of Aragon has always gotten first billing, Isabella of Castile was the driving force of 15th-century Spanish — and therefore European — politics. “Isabella: The Warrior Queen” follows Kirstin Downey’s 2009 “The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins — Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the Minimum Wage,” and if so immensely provocative a figure as Isabella seems an unlikely successor to Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of labor, who quietly worked out of the public eye, the two women successfully maneuvered in an almost exclusively male world of politics. In fact, Downey credits Isabella with instituting a “shift from medieval to modern management principles.”

After a series of botched betrothals, Isabella, 18, accepted the hand of Ferdinand of Aragon, 17. But when Ferdinand’s adolescent lust soon gave way to what Isabella would discover was her young husband’s single heroic pursuit — adultery — she wasted no time brooding. Instead, she used his weakness to her advantage, furthering her own career by handling whatever crises developed during his absences.

Her infamous, subzero sang-froid inspired her assumption of the Spanish throne in one of the smoothest, swiftest coups in European history. With Ferdinand conveniently preoccupied elsewhere, in 1474, immediately upon the death of her brother, King Enrique, the 23-year-old Isabella rebounded from grief with astonishing alacrity. The funeral Mass of a ruler, who had oddly — a little too oddly — named no successor, was barely over before Isabella had replaced her mourning dress with a resplendent gown and jewels. Mounted on a white horse, she returned to the church she had just left and had herself crowned before a glittering entourage.

Ferdinand, who unaccountably signed a prenup limiting his power to that of prince consort, may have provided the nominal face of Spain’s monarchy, but it was Isabella who was ravenous for power. By the end of her life, in 1504 — she was 53 — she could admit that she had “caused great calamities and depopulated towns, provinces and kingdoms” — but not with regret. Ever “more rigid and less tolerant” in her fanatical Catholicism, she unleashed the Inquisition as what Downey calls “a useful mechanism for rooting out all kinds of dissent.”

As Isabella knew, there was but one way to power, and that was the expulsion of the Ottoman Turks, the “most powerful land force in Europe” whose “military operations were at the core of its existence.” Some would judge Isabella’s core little different. She handled the logistics of warfare, endangering her family by taking them along on military campaigns, even going into labor while closeted with advisers in her war room.

Moorish unrest, Inquisition, Reconquista, colonial expansion: That so many critical forces were in play during the reign of Isabella of Castile presents an organizational challenge to a biographer — the literary equivalent of spinning plates on sticks. Downey unpacks every aspect separately and thoroughly, a valid approach when each carries a significant burden of detail, but one that necessarily disrupts the chronology of the life that unfolds among those tensions, the story of Isabella herself requiring jumps back and forth in time and inspiring redundancies when details arise in different contexts.

Rather than re-examining the almost too familiar cruelties of the Inquisition, Downey focuses on Isabella’s use of it to reunite Spain’s kingdom by underscoring the urgency of eradicating Moors and Jews. If the Spanish didn’t join forces, they would lose the homeland forever, and Isabella knew that unification was the necessary springboard for her monomaniacal quest to convert every single person in her expanding empire to Christianity, a platform for a figure of such sparkling, oddball charisma that his adventures make for the most lively account in the biography, stealing a good deal of Isabella’s show: In Christopher Columbus the queen found a mariner sufficiently brilliant and mad to set forth across the ocean for the Indies at a time when sailors avoided losing sight of land. And she found a messianic vision that dovetailed with her own, a vainglory that matched hers in undertaking so preposterous a risk as sailing out in three small, ill-provisioned ships — the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa María.

The quest took longer than anticipated, wrecked one ship, and consequently abandoned 39 men, none of whom survived their native hosts. Columbus’s tendency to embroider the truth showcased the other, friendly natives and the ground beneath their bare feet, sown with gold. Unsurprisingly, aristocrats competed for a spot on what became a “semiregular shuttle service of ships” that resulted in more, and more honest, accounts of paradise.

The natives who weren’t friendly turned out to be cannibals; syphilis traveled east as smallpox sailed west; dishonorable conquistadors ran off on freelance treasure hunts; and those who could afford travel to the New World lost their enthusiasm for what Columbus never admitted was not in fact China or India, grass huts and cannibals notwithstanding.

But it was New Spain, and within 20 years of its Warrior Queen’s death, her homeland had become “the world’s first truly global superpower,” its most influential and indelible export the church to which she was so fanatically devoted. Dead or alive, she got her way: Christianity proved a currency more enduring than gold.

The Warrior Queen
By Kirstin Downey
Illustrated. 520 pp. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. $35.

Kathryn Harrison’s “Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured” has just been published.

Botón volver arriba