The Last Crusader
ISABEL OPENS HER EYES UPON A MUDDLED WORLD, AND MEETS A KING AND THE KING'S MASTER
ISABEL was born to the purple in no ordinary sense. She was more than the daughter of King Juan II of Castile and his second wife, Dona Isabel, of Portugal. Under the pink and white of her skin pulsed the blood of crusaders and conquerors, the blood of Alfred the Great, of William the Conqueror, of the iron Plantagenet Henry II and the fiery Eleanor of Aquitaine, of Edward I and Edward III of England, of Philip the Bold of France, of Alfonso the Wise of Castile. She was descended on both sides from Louis IX of France and his cousin Fernando III of Castile, both kings, both crusaders and both canonized saints. She derived Lancastrian blood through both parents from John of Gaunt, brother of the Black Prince. Yet her arrival in a chaotic world on the twenty-second of April, 1451, caused hardly a stir even in the little town of Madrigal. Her father, who was at Segovia, announced the event by proclamation: "I, the King. ..make known to you that by the grace of Our Lord this Thursday just past, the Queen, Dona Isabel, my dear and well-beloved wife, was delivered of a daughter; the which I tell you that you may give thanks to God." The infanta was baptized a few days later in the Church of Saint Nicholas, with no especial pomp or display. When the voices of her sponsors rumbled among the arches and arabesques of the old church, renouncing Satan and all his works on her behalf, there was no prophet on hand to cry out that one of the most remarkable women in all history had been born.
During the long and painful confinement of Isabel's mother, there were certain symptoms of poisoning which, although they yielded to antidotes, left her a victim of a chronic nervous depression. In an epoch when the illnesses of the great were often ascribed to the malice of their foes, it was inevitable that people should whisper the name of Don Alvaro de Luna, Constable of Castile and Grand Master of the Order of Santiago, especially as that gifted and charming gentleman had long been suspected of having murdered the King's first wife, Dona Maria of Aragon, and her sister, the Dowager Queen Leonor of Portugal.
Lean, dark and sinister, exquisite in silk and jewels, handsome even in his late middle age, this nephew of the anti-Pope Benedict had been absolute master, for a long generation, of King Juan and of all Castile. He looted the Crown to make himself fabulously rich, he corrupted the Church by naming unworthy friends for benefices, he alienated the nobles by his insolence and arrogance, he infuriated the populace by giving high offices and privileges to Jews and Moors, he sowed discord in Aragon, Navarre, France and Italy for his own ends, and he led a life so dissolute that many blamed him for all the moral decay that made the court notorious. It was in his time, said the chronicler Palencia, that Castile saw the beginning of certain infames tratos obscenos, "infamous obscene customs which have since increased so shamefully." Intimate friend as well as prime minister, he dominated the King completely. He told him what to wear, what to eat, and even when to enter the bedroom of Queen Maria. Various interpretations were attached to the royal complacency. Many suspected the Constable of sorcery. Some said that he was protecting the weak-willed King from his own immoderation; others questioned the legitimacy of Don Enrique, the heir to the throne. But the gossip troubled the King not at all, so long as he was spared the boredom of administration, and left free to indulge his passion for poetry and music, for with all his weaknesses he was a loyal patron of the fine arts.
When Queen Leonor was driven out of Portugal by her brother-in-law, the regent, Don Pedro, she visited her sister, the Queen of Castile; and De Luna, who was friendly to Don Pedro, resented her presence as a threat to his own supremacy. Queen Maria died, after an illness of only three days. There were strange spots on her body, says the chronicler, "like those caused by herbs." Her sister died of the same mysterious ailment. The enemies of Don Alvaro had their opinion.
The King, who was disappointed in his son Enrique, thought of marrying again. His choice fell upon Fredagonde, daughter of Charles VII of France. But Don Alvaro had other plans for him. He had already, in fact, arranged for his master's marriage to the young Princess Isabel, first cousin of King Alfonso V of Portugal and niece of the Regent Don Pedro. The Constable feared the effect of a French alliance on his own position. On the other hand, his friend Don Pedro would know how to influence his young and inexperienced niece in the right direction, and Don Alvaro flattered himself that she would become a pliant instrument in his hands for the domination of the King. Women had always found him irresistible.
In the year 1447, consequently, there came to Burgos a slender princess from the west, whose face was rather melancholy in repose, though it became singularly beautiful, like the glass of some Gothic window, when the light of any emotion shone through it. She was the daughter of the Infante Don Juan, a younger son of Juan the Great of Portugal; her grandmother was Philippa, one of the daughters of John of Gaunt. Her welcoming was magnificent even for a country with a weakness for royal brides. There were dances, banquets, speeches, bull-fights, tourneys, glittering processions. Don Alvaro had arranged everything.
But Isabel had grown up in the court of a strong monarch, and had very definite notions of what a King should be. Her husband the slave of a haughty subject? Intolerable! That any one should attempt to regulate her domestic routine was not even to be thought of. And when Don Alvaro bowed over her hand with his most disarming smile, she read his heart; and, feeling that this man with the soft voice and the touch that made one think of a dark snake, would destroy her, body and soul, unless she destroyed him, she decided without hesitation that he must be destroyed.
To the further annoyance of the Constable, King Juan fell in love with his young wife. Assured by a fortune teller that he would live to be ninety, and finding himself still handsome and charming in his forties, he gave himself up to love and to gluttony, without consulting Don Alvaro as to his comings and goings. The Queen began to feel for him the affection that weak and likable men often inspire in strong-minded women. Pious, energetic, and incapable of compromise where any principle was involved, she threw her influence on the side of the nobles who were constantly plotting for the downfall of the favorite even after he crushed them at the first battle of Olmedo. The suspicion that de Luna had attempted to poison her at the time of the Infanta Isabel's birth urged her on to hasten his fall. Three years after the birth of the Princess Isabel, she brought forth her son, Alfonso; and while he was still in the womb, she accomplished her desire.
The murder of Don Alfonso Perez de Vivero gave her the opportunity she sought. He was the King's messenger, but Don Alvaro, angered because he had forsaken his party for the Queen's, had him thrown out of a window on Good Friday afternoon, in 1453. This conduct agreed so well with the popular impression that the Constable was a Catholic in name only, and a dabbler in black magic, that the indignation against him was extreme. The Queen made use of it to complete her ascendancy over the King. She induced him to have Don Alvaro seized and taken to Valladolid, where a council of his enemies was waiting to pass judgment upon him. At the crucial moment, some of the Conversos whom he had raised to power joined the party of the Queen. Their ingratitude was decisive.
De Luna was as unruffled and confident in misfortune as he had been in power. He knew that, if he could talk with the King for five minutes, his personal charm would gain a pardon. It had on other occasions. N o one knew better than he how difficult it was for Don Juan to punish anyone ; in fact, de Luna had once advised him never to speak with any man whom he had condemned. The Queen reminded her husband of that excellent counsel when he thought of receiving the Constable in audience. Seconded by those who feared the vengeance of Don Alvaro if he returned to power, she adjured him, in the name of Castile, of their love, of their children, of the God so long defied by de Luna, to prove himself a true King by administering strict justice. Twice during the trial, Juan is said to have signed an order for the release of his friend, and to have been shamed out of sending it by the Queen, who remained at his side night and day. When he ratified the sentence of the Court, his tears fell upon the paper.
Meanwhile in Valladolid, that drab city, preparations for the execution had been completed with almost indecent haste, and at 8 o'clock on the morning of June 2, a crowd was gathering in the Plaza Major before a huge scaffold covered with black velvet, surmounted by a crucifix and a block. Against this sable background, thumbing the edge of the great sword of the Kings of Castile, stood the tall figure of an executioner, masked, silent, wrapped in robes of scarlet. The Plaza was almost filled with peasants, cattle herders, gayly dressed hidalgos who had ridden from far places to see their master's undoing. A trumpet sounded, and down the principal street came a little procession to the sound of muffled kettle-drums: first, a parti-colored herald with gaudy cap and tabard, proclaiming in a loud voice the high crimes of Don Alvaro de Luna; next, two ranks of men-at-arms in leather jerkins and cuirasses, and finally, mounted on a mule, the imperturbable Grand Master, wearing high-heeled shoes with diamond buckles, and muffled to the chin in a long Castilian cloak, while his confessor rode beside him.
The condemned dismounted, gazed serenely about at the brilliant assembly of his foes and the idly curious, smiled as if to say that one could expect no more from human nature, and with a firm step went up to meet the man in scarlet. Never had he looked more noble and gracious than when he raised his fine head and gazed thoughtfully out of his dark eyes over the heads of the people. A murmur of admiration and pity rippled through the crowd; whereat Don Alvaro placed his hand over his heart and bowed to them with grave gallantry. After another word with his confessor, he loosened the tasseled cord at his neck and handed his cloak to his page Morales, revealing on his breast the sword and cockleshell of Santiago, emblems of the great Crusade that he had sacrificed to avarice and ambition. He handed the page his hat; a ring, as a keep-sake. If he glanced down the narrow street to see whether the King's messenger was coming, if he began to doubt the promises of his astrologers, he betrayed no uneasiness when he turned again to the spectators and in a resonant voice wished happiness and prosperity to the King and people of Castile. The sunlight sparkled on his coal black hair, on the jewels at his feet and his waist, on the newly ground steel of the sword of justice. Don Alvaro casually examined the block and the sword, took from his bosom a black ribbon, handed it to the executioner for the binding of his hands. This done, he knelt before the crucifix and prayed with fervor. A silence like the dying of the wind in a field of wheat fell over the murmuring crowd. The Grand Master was placing his head on the block. The man in red made a pantherlike movement. There was a flash of steel. Cries and shrieks burst from the Plaza. The head rolled in the dust. Castile! Castile for the King Don Juan and his wife Lady Isabel!
It was the young Queen's hour of victory, but the chalice of her triumph was bitter. For the King suffered the remorse of the imaginative, and all the rest of his miserable days passed in self-reproaches for the doom of his friend. Even the birth of his son Alfonso, November 15, 1454, left him unconsoled. He died the following July, after a reign of forty-eight indolent years, moaning, "Would to God I had been born the son of a mechanic instead of the son of a King!" He had encouraged art and literature, he had given power and privileges to the Jews, he was father to a princess in whom his intellect and her mother's will compounded to form greatness. History has remembered little more of him. His magnificent tomb is in the Cartuja de Miraflores, two miles from Burgos.
After his funeral and the coronation of the new King Enrique IV, the Queen withdrew from the court with her two children, and made her residence in the small castle of Arevalo, in Old Castile. Alfonso was an infant in the cradle. The Infanta Isabel was a self-possessed little blonde girl of three years, with wide shoulders and sturdy legs, who regarded the world frankly and analytically through large blue eyes in which there were tiny streaks and specks of gold and green.
The melancholy that had fallen upon the Queen when Isabel was born became habitual. After the King's death she was seldom free from illness, never from anxiety. Her allowance from her stepson Enrique, who had never liked her much, came so irregularly that the little family was sometimes reduced to the bare necessities, almost to actual want. But as all other resources failed her, the pious Queen turned more than ever to the solace of religion, and spent what remained of her superb will in the service of her children. Isabel remembered her lying in bed, ill; in white mourning garments, weeping for the King; in the chapel, kneeling in reverence before the uplifted Host. The child remembered something vague but terrifying about the execution of Alvaro de Luna, for it was much talked about, and sung about in popular ballads. She recalled being told at the age of six that King Enrique was arranging for her marriage to Prince Fernando, the five year old second son of the King of Aragon. Fernando! The name was like a ball chiming in a far country of romance. It was odd to be the betrothed of a Prince that one had never seen.
At Arevalo Isabel formed her first friendship, one that lasted until the day of her death. Beatriz de Bobadilla was a child of her own age, daughter of the governor of the castle. Beatriz was dark and emotional, while Isabel was fair, reserved and strangely mature. They became inseparable. They played games together in the inclosed garden of the Alcazar, they learned to read by the bedside of the Queen, they approached the altar in the chapel together to receive their first Holy Communion. Sometimes they rode with the governor and his troops through the little walled town into the flat checkered country, where fields of wheat and saffron extended one after another as far as one could seethe wheat almost the color of Isabel's hair, and the saffron very fragrant on the wind. Cows and horses grazed in the pastures along the meandering Araja. Beyond the green places lay a flat desert, stark and treeless and full of unknown things to be feared. The lights and shadows alternated on this level plateau in broad undulating bars, like the waves of a great dark sea.
Sometimes they rode as far as Medina del Campo, where the greatest fair in Spain was held three times a year, and merchants came from all over southern Europe to buy choice Castilian wools and grains, and blooded steers and horses and mules from Andalusia. There were cavaliers from Aragon, sailors from Catalonia on the east coast, mountaineers from Guipuzcoa on the north, turbaned Moors from Granada in the south, blue-eyed Castilian farmers, bearded Jews in gaberdines, peasants from Provence and Languedoc, sometimes even an Englishman or a German. The people interested her, but not so much as the horses. Before Isabel was ten she scorned the mule that etiquette ordained for women and children, and kept her seat on a spirited horse. Days in the saddle made her hard, straight, resourceful, fearless, indifferent to fatigue, contemptuous of pain; a vigorous girl with delicate pink complexion, a firm prudent mouth, a lower jaw a trifle heavy, indicating unusual energy and will. She became a skilled huntress, commencing with hares and deer, but later following the black wild boar, and on one occasion slaying a good-sized bear with her javelin. Her brother, Alfonso learned also to handle a sword and to tilt with lances.
Isabel grew up without a knowledge of Latin, but her education in other respects was sound and well balanced. She learned to speak Castilian musically and with elegance, and to write it with a touch of distinction. She studied grammar and rhetoric, painting, poetry, history and philosophy. She embroidered intricate Moorish designs on velour and cloth of gold, and illuminated prayers in Gothic characters on leaves of parchment. A missal that she painted, and some banners and ornaments for the altar in her chapel, are in the Cathedral at Granada. She had inherited a love for music and poetry. She read her father's favorite poet, Juan de Mena, and probably a Spanish translation of Dante. Her tutors, having studied at Salamanca University, must have given her at second hand the philosophy of Aristotle on which Saint Thomas Aquinas had built the great synthesis that was the foundation of medieval teaching.
Some notion of how science was taught at the period may be had from a philosophical and allegorical novel called the Vision deleytable, written by the Bachelor de la Torre about 1461 for the instruction of Prince Charles of Viana, Isabel's second fiance. "I perceive that motion is the cause of peat," says the young hero; and goes on to discuss why there are perpendicular lines on the sun, what makes the wind blow, why climates differ, why materials are different, what causes the sensations of smell, taste, hearing, why some plants are large and others small, the properties of medicinesand all this sugar-coated in the form of a novel! The tragedies of Seneca were known in Spain. One of the first books published after the introduction of printing in Isabel's reign was a translation of Plutarch's Lives by Alonso de Palencia; another by the same author was Josephus's History. Spanish versions of the Odyssey and the Aeneid were popular in the court of Isabel's brother. Books of medicine and surgery and anatomical charts were fairly common in a country where the Jews had long excelled in the healing art. From singing the Cancioneros that had been so dear to her father, Isabel evoked from the past the heroic story of her crusading ancestors; and from the chronicles of her own time, there unrolled before her keen intelligence and strong imagination a picture of the fascinating and terrifying world into which she had been born.
She was a King's daughter and the half-sister of a King, and there were certain inevitable questions that she must have asked her mother. What manner of man was Don Enrique IV, and what was he doing to bring back the glories of Saint Fernando and Alfonso the Wise, and heal the scars that the gemmed boots of Don Alvaro had left upon the face of a Castile weary of wars and feuds ?
His Majesty occasionally rode to Arevalo to visit his relatives. Isabel remembered his coming there one day with two cavaliers, the Marques of Villena and his brother Don Pedro Giron. These gentlemen, she learned afterwards from her mother, were the King's closest companions, his criados, who advised him in everything and who therefore were the two most powerful persons in the realm. Perhaps that was why they cut a more magnificent figure than King Enrique himself. They wore fine silks, bordered with cloth of gold, large and brilliant jewels, heavy gold chains cunningly wrought by smiths in Cordoba. The King looked shabby beside them. Loose-jointed, tall and awkward, he wore his long woolen cloak in a slovenly way, and instead of .the boots that Castilian cavaliers wore, had his small delicate feet shod in buskins, like those of the Moors, with mud on them, so that they looked all the more peculiar on the ends of his long legs. But his face puzzled the little princess even more than his queer clothes and his familiar way of speaking to the servants. His skin was very white and rather puffy. His eyes were blue, somewhat too large! and" somehow different from the eyes of other people. His nose was wide, flat and decidedly crooked, the result, it was said, of a fall he had as a boy. At the top of that prominent organ were two vertical furrows into which the bushy royal eyebrows curled up in a most peculiar manner. His beard was shaggy , with auburn streaks in it, and stuck out so oddly and abruptly that it made his face in profile look concave. But it was the eyes that one kept looking at and wondering about. There was a strange look of grievance and bewilderment in them, an inquietude that vaguely disturbed one. What did they remind her of? His chaplain, who wrote a eulogy of him after his death, recorded that Enrique's "aspect was fierce, like that of a lion that by its very look strikes terror to all beholders." But it did not remind the chronicler Palencia of a lion at all. It reminded him of one of those monkeys that Isabel had seen in a wooden cage at the fair at Medina del Campo. His eyes glittered and roved about and looked ashamed, just like a monkey's.
His Majesty talked of one thing and another, sometimes turning for confirmation of what he said to the Marques of Villena, who nodded or put in a suave word in his slow drawl. This gentleman, had he had the good or evil fortune to be born later, would have been called a self-made man; for in the time of King Juan he was one Juan Pacheco, a page introduced at court by Don Alvaro de Luna. Though a professing christian, he was one of many with Jewish blood in their veins who owed their prosperity to the great Constable; on both sides he was descended from the Jew Ruy Capon. But, with other Conversos of the court, he had requited his benefactor by helping to overthrow him. Prince Enrique, whose elevation was thus hastened, rewarded Pacheco by making him Marques of Villena and his intimate companion and adviser .
Of the three men, the Marques was the most likable, because there was a twinkle in his shrewd eyes, and his beard and mustache were positively fascinating, so ingeniously had they been curled. Besides, he smelled delightfully of ambergris. He had a long aquiline nose, quite hooked in the middle and pointed at the tip; and somewhat too near the base of it, a narrow mouth with full lips, giving a curiously cherubic expression to the whole face. On either side of the mouth a carefully waxed and twisted mustache drooped somewhat dejectedly for a short distance, and then of a sudden turned out and up into two jaunty and devil-may-care points. The Marques could be charming when he wanted to be, and on this particular occasion he made himself most agreeable.
His brother, Don Pedro Giron, was also of that numerous class of Castilians known as Conversos, or New Christians. He must have made at least some pretence of being a Catholic, else he could hardly have attained to the Grand Mastership of the illustrious military Order of Calatrava, founded by two Cistercian monks and consecrated to the rule of St. Benedict. He was a sleek, well-fed man, probably a sensual and passionate man. He hardly glanced at the Queen, but his eyes returned from time to time to gloat upon the fresh blonde beauty of the young princess, and his look was one of those under which a woman has almost the sensation of being forcibly disrobed.
After the King and the two cavaliers had gone, Isabel found her mother weeping in her apartment. She may have divined that the royal visit in some way concerned her, but she was too young to be told of the indecent proposal that Don Pedro had made on another occasion to the Queen, and at the instigationso he saidof King Enrique himself.
Taken from Isabella of Spain: The Last Crusader by TAN Books & Publishers, Inc.
Other pages discussing Catholic
doctrine and history:
Return to Catholic Doctrine Homepage