isabel

I love history. Recently, I have been doing research for a novel set in the 1500’s. Since I want it to be as historically accurate, and the characters as close to their historical counterparts, as possible, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the monarchs and leaders of the period, from the infamous Pope Borgia to Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain.

The most non-history-buffs know about these figures is condensed down into a handful of specific events such as, “Isabella sponsored Columbus, who ‘discovered’ the New World.” That is true. What you might not know, however, is that Isabella was one of the most tactically intelligent figures in history, and responsible for making Spain the greatest and largest European empire of the period (late 1400s, early 1500s).

Isabella of Castile married Ferdinand of Aragon in secret, in anticipation of seizing the throne and uniting the two Spanish kingdoms into a single country. After her brother’s death, since his wife, the queen, was well known for infidelity, Isabella had her child declared illegitimate, legitimizing her own claim to power. A shrewd tactician, able to think far ahead, after Columbus returned from New World, she wrote the Pope for a dispensation allowing Spain to claim any and all newly discovered territories, which expanded Spain into a global empire.

Taking Joan of Arc as her inspiration and leading her army from horseback, Isabella conquered and reclaimed territories from the Moors that her brother lost during his reign in one region while Ferdinand did the same in another. She brokered alliances through the marriages of her children (choosing Portugal, Burgundy, and England over France).

margaret

In England was another formidable woman, Margaret Beaufort. England was embroiled in the War of the Roses between two powerful families (York and Lancaster). Her Lancastrian son Henry Tudor had a claim to the throne; Margaret chose her subsequent marriages to secure him military support. Like Isabella, she intended to seize power, and did—after King Edward’s death, Henry Tudor fought a bloody battle against Edward’s brother Richard III and defeated him. At his mother’s urging, Henry married Elizabeth of York, the former king’s daughter, thus ending the decades-long war and uniting the two families into a single line of succession.

Years later, while Henry worked to secure the future of England by forming a marital alliance with Spain between Isabella’s youngest daughter and the Prince of Wales, Margaret turned her focus to the expansion of English Universities. She paid for professorships and scholarships and founded several colleges (including St. John’s in Cambridge). Margaret seized the opportunities presented by the invention of the printing press and donated much of her personal library to be reprinted. She wrote and published theological texts and pamphlets. She paid pensions to poor women so they could afford to marry (thus supplying their dowry), paid fines to get common people out of prison, and provided for and housed up to a dozen bereft people in her house at any one time.

Isabella’s grandson Charles inherited the largest empire on earth (Spain, Germany, Italy, Burgundy, the Netherlands, and the New World). Margaret’s grandson Henry VIII was a great scholar, patron of the arts, and founder of universities, but better known for his six wives. The most memorable of them was Katharine of Aragon, (Isabella’s daughter) who proved as politically shrewd as Isabella. Little could Margaret or Isabella anticipate that after their deaths, their grandsons would be fierce rivals, taking opposing sides in a divorce/annulment proceedings against Katharine that changed the face of English history forever. ♥