Princess Isabella Elopes

Princess Isabella of Castile was sixteen years old in 1467. She was a bookish, mild-mannered girl, calm and thoughtful. She lost her composure, however, when her half-brother, King Henry IV of Castile, commanded her to marry a middle-aged baron called the Master of Calatrava.

King Henry was forty-two, but Princess Isabella did not feel much respect for her half-brother's wisdom. She refused to consent to marry the man he had chosen for her. Haughtily, she pointed out that the Master of Calatrava was a mere marquis, and therefore not good enough for a princess. She also said that the Master of Calatrava was an unattractive old lecher, who had once offended Princess Isabella's widowed mother, the dowager queen, by making lewd advances toward her.

King Henry told Isabella that she must marry regardless of her feelings. The Master of Calatrava was the leader of a powerful order of knights. He was eager to possess a princess; and, in exchange for Isabella's hand, he had promised to take King Henry's side in a civil war which was ravaging Castile.

The king informed Isabella that preparations for the wedding feast were already underway. The Master of Calatrava had already departed from his residence at Almagro, and was traveling to Madrid to claim his bride. Until the marriage was consummated, Princess Isabella would be closely guarded in the royal palace at Madrid.

When she realized that she was being held prisoner, the princess retreated to her apartment in the palace. There her teenaged lady-in-waiting, Beatriz de Bobadilla said: "Do not worry, my princess. God will not permit you to marry the Master of Calatrava, and neither will I!" Drawing a dagger from her bosom, Beatriz vowed to plunge it into the heart of the Master of Calatrava as soon as he appeared at the palace in Madrid.
Isabella fell to her knees and prayed for a full day and night, without pausing to eat or sleep. "God save me from this dishonorable marriage," she prayed. "Either kill me, or else kill my enemy before he can capture me."
A few days later, Isabella heard news that strengthened her belief in the power of prayer. The Master of Calatrava, while traveling toward Madrid, had fallen sick and died at a village inn.
The death of the Master of Calatrava was good news not only for Princess Isabella, but also for the rebels who were fighting to overthrow King Henry in the civil war.
The rebels claimed that King Henry was unworthy of his crown because he was homosexual, and because he tolerated Jews and Muslims. They also claimed that Henry was not the father of his queen's only child, the infant Princess Juana. The real father was rumored to be the king's favorite male companion.

Princess Isabella sympathized with the rebels because they were fighting under the banner of her thirteen-year-old brother, Prince Alfonso. When she heard that the rebels had captured the city of Segovia, she slipped out of King Henry's palace at Madrid and escaped to Segovia, where she joined her younger brother.
In the spring of 1468 the war between King Henry and the rebels intensified, and many regions of Castile were devastated. In his classic biography of Isabella, the historian William Prescott described the civil war as follows:
"Every city, nay, almost every family, became divided within itself. In Seville and Cordova, the inhabitants of one street carried on open war against those in another. The churches, which were fortified and occupied with bodies of armed men, were many of them sacked and burnt to the ground. The ancient family feuds, being revived, carried new division into the cities, whose streets literally ran with blood."
To stop the bloodshed, Isabella urged Prince Alfonso to negotiate a truce with King Henry. Alfonso, however, preferred to keep fighting. He loved riding into battle at the head of his troops, wearing a suit of chain mail.
In July of 1468, when Prince Alfonso was fourteen, he died of plague. His rebel followers approached Princess Isabella and offered to continue their fight in her name, carrying her banner. When they won the war, they would make her Queen of Castile, they said.

Isabella, who was now seventeen, replied that she would willingly lead the rebels into peace, but not into continued civil war. They could carry her banner only if they agreed to honor the truce which she intended to negotiate with King Henry.

Lacking any other unifying leader, the rebel nobles agreed to do whatever Isabella commanded. She immediately sent a message to King Henry, offering to stop the war if he would accept her as his heir.
King Henry accepted this offer. Disinheriting his only child, Princess Juana, he promised that Isabella would inherit the crown of Castile when he died.
Two months later, in September of 1468, Isabella and King Henry met for a peace ceremony. In a rural area they approached each other at the heads of their respective armies.
The peace ceremony began when King Henry embraced his sister and publicly announced that she was his rightful heir. He then promised that he would never again try to force her to marry against her will.
Princess Isabella promised to loyally serve King Henry as long as he lived, and to marry nobody without his permission.
The peace ceremony concluded with all attendant nobles kissing the hand of Princess Isabella, symbolizing their acceptance of her right to inherit the crown.
Relations between King Henry and Princess Isabella became strained about six months later when he began pressuring her to marry his ally, the King of Portugal. Isabella was more interested in Prince Ferdinand of Aragón, whose family was allied with Isabella's faction of Castilian nobles.

Prince Ferdinand was only seventeen, but he already had won a reputation for gallantry in love and war. He was said to be responsible for several military victories, many broken hearts, and at least two illegitimate children. Isabella had never seen Ferdinand, but her chaplain assured her that the young prince was "handsome in face, body, and person." Ferdinand's most striking quality was said to be his air of calm self-confidence, which he maintained even in the most desperate battlefield situations.

Isabella was staying at Ocaña when she heard rumors that her brother, King Henry, was plotting to have her kidnapped and carried off to his stronghold at Madrid, where he would force her to marry the King of Portugal. She decided that this alleged plot justified her in breaking her promise not to marry without Henry's permission.
Isabella sent word to the King of Aragón that she was ready to marry his son, Prince Ferdinand, as soon as she received a dowry of forty-thousand florins and a Papal dispensation to marry. The Pope's permission was needed because Isabella and Ferdinand were second cousins, and their wedding would otherwise violate church laws against incest.
When the King of Aragón got Isabella's message, he regarded it as a golden opportunity to improve his family's fortune. Castile was bigger than Aragón, and a marriage between his house and Isabella's was easily worth forty thousand florins. Unfortunately for the King of Aragón, his treasury had been exhausted by a recent war with France. He did not have a single florin, nor could he obtain a Papal dispensation on short notice.
Gathering together his crown jewels, the King of Aragón sent them to Isabella as a partial payment of her dowry, promising to send the rest later. Instead of a real Papal dispensation to marry, the King of Aragón sent Isabella a forgery.

On receipt of the jewels and the forgery, Princess Isabella pronounced herself satisfied. She promised to marry Prince Ferdinand at a secret rendezvous in the Castilian city of Valladolid.
King Henry heard of Isabella's wedding plans and took measures to foil them. A group of Henry's nobles tried to prevent Isabella from traveling to Valladolid, but they backed down when the Archbishop of Toledo rode to Isabella's rescue with six hundred knights.

Escorted by her knights, Isabella reached Valladolid in the summer of 1469, and settled down there to await the arrival of Prince Ferdinand.
King Henry then issued a decree banning Prince Ferdinand from setting foot in the Kingdom of Castile. Henry ordered his followers to be on the lookout for Ferdinand, and he offered a reward for the capture of the foreign prince.
Isabella waited in Valladolid to see how Prince Ferdinand would respond to this challenging situation. For the prince to reach Valladolid from his own country of Aragón, he would have to cross a region of Castile controlled by nobles loyal to King Henry. Would Ferdinand risk invading Castile at the head of an army, or would he decide that Isabella was not worth such an enormous risk?
For several tense weeks Isabella heard no news at all. Then, in October of 1469, she learned that Prince Ferdinand had stealthily entered Castile by disguising himself as a shabby servant-boy. With a small band of companions disguised as mule-drivers, Ferdinand had penetrated the bandit-infested wilderness of Castile's eastern frontier. The only opposition he met came from a nervous sentinel on the battlements above the gate of a walled town, who mistook the prince for a bandit and threw down a large stone which missed Ferdinand's head by inches.

On October 14, with only three retainers, Ferdinand secretly entered the town of Valladolid in the middle of the night. He crept through the dark streets to Isabella's mansion and entered by the back gate. Inside he found Isabella waiting to greet him, chaperoned by the Archbishop of Toledo.

Although their engagement had been arranged for political reasons, Ferdinand and Isabella were immediately attracted to one another. One of Isabella's courtiers wrote, "The presence of the Archbishop of Toledo repressed the amorous impulses of the lovers, but they quickly arranged to enjoy the legal pleasures of matrimony."
A few days after their first meeting, Ferdinand and Isabella were married on October 19, 1469. Their stealthy elopement, which united the two kingdoms of Aragón and Castile, created the new nation of Spain.
After the death of King Henry in 1474, Ferdinand and Isabella ruled their joint kingdom as equal partners. Their marriage proved to be a happy one, despite the fact that Ferdinand indulged in a few love affairs.
Some major events of the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella included their defeat of a Portuguese invasion force, their conquest of Granada, their expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain, their establishment of the Spanish Inquisition, and their commissioning of a voyage of discovery by Christopher Columbus.

Isabella the Queen. by Peggy Liss. Oxford University Press. 1992.
History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic. by William H. Prescott. 1904. Reprinted by AMS, New York, 1968.

by Richard Sheppard