By Kirstin Downey
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 520 pp. $35
Few Washingtonians may have noticed, but likenesses of Queen Isabella I of Castile, the most dynamic and arguably most controversial female ruler of late medieval Europe, are scattered throughout the District. The oldest, designed in 1857 and installed in its present location in 1961, appears on the bronze doors at the east entrance to the Capitol, where the enthroned queen converses with Columbus. Another image, located on the Columbus fountain fronting Union Station, depicts Isabella in bas-relief profile together with her husband, Ferdinand, King of Aragon.
Then there is the free-standing statue of Isabella that graces the entrance of the Pan American Union Building, headquarters of the Organization of American States. Here the queen wears the crown of Castile and Leon, the kingdom she struggled to secure after the death in 1474 of her half-brother, Henry IV, and which she ruled, with Ferdinand as consort, until her death in 1504. She also holds a dove (a reference to the Holy Spirit) and a pomegranate (a symbol of the resurrection of Christ), both alluding to her role, as champion of Columbus, in helping Christianity spread from the Old World to the New.
Sculpted in gray granite and ramrod straight, this Isabella epitomizes the queen who emerges in Kirstin Downey’s expansive new biography. Well-known for her previous work on women and the New Deal, Downey tells us that her interest in Isabella began during a chance visit to the queen’s birthplace, Madrigal de las Altas Torres, now a small, almost forgotten village about 90 miles northwest of Madrid. Her realization that Isabella’s “meteoric rise to power” occurred at a moment in history when women seldom wielded monarchical authority provided an additional inspiration for this work, whereas her apparent admiration for the queen’s equestrian skills and reported presence on various battlefields seemingly contributed to Downey’s decision to label Isabella a “warrior queen,” Spain’s equivalent of France’s legendary Joan of Arc.
Otherwise, Downey’s Isabella is pious, a loyal and forgiving wife, and a devoted and loving mother. But the author takes issue — and this is the central theme of the book — with the tendency of historians, “blinded by their own sexisim,” to portray Isabella merely as Ferdinand’s sidekick. Instead Downey represents Ferdinand as a corrupt, feckless ruler more interested in attending to his libido than to the business of state, and Isabella as the living embodiment of the medieval tradition of the “ideal prince.”
It follows that she credits Isabella for having masterminded the monarchy’s triumphs, among them the conquest of Muslim Granada in January 1492, while blaming Ferdinand for the more unsavory aspects of their joint reign, such as the creation of an Inquisition expressly designed to eradicate heresy among the kingdom’s large population of Jewish converts to Christianity. Downey underscores Isabella’s reluctance to sign on to this measure, although she rightly indicates that the queen’s last will and testament expressly instructed her heirs to fully support the Inquisition. Downey also maintains that Ferdinand played the role of the heavy in the joint monarchical decree of March 31, 1492, which ordered Spain’s remaining Jews either to covert to Christianity or exit the kingdom within four months.
To her credit, Downey does far more in this biography than focus on Isabella. She also uses her subject to provide a broad, albeit none too original and often inelegant, survey of the complex religious and political challenges with which Isabella, together with other European monarchs of her era, had to contend. While her account moves geographically from Spain to England and Italy, and farther afield to the Caribbean and Constantinople, Downey rarely loses sight of Isabella, using a wide range of contemporary sources to recount the triumphs and the setbacks of the queen’s personal and political life.
Downey’s reliance on these sources is her Achilles’ heel. Isabella was a master of political theater, surrounding herself with chroniclers and other officials who approximated the spin doctors on Fox News and MSNBC and who were paid to write histories expressly intended to enhance the queen’s image. Scholars have long questioned the veracity of these 15th-century accounts, but Downey’s uncritical acceptance of these authors leads her to exaggerate both the ills of the monarchy at the time of Isabella’s succession and the magnitude of her accomplishments as queen. Then, too, Downey’s failure to acknowledge the details of the power-sharing arrangement between Ferdinand and Isabella, hammered out at the time of their marriage, distorts the extent to which Isabella ruled independently of her husband. In Castile the couple ruled jointly, and whenever they were apart, Ferdinand was invested with full royal powers. By contrast, Isabella was denied these privileges in Ferdinand’s Aragon, his personal domain.
Readers should also be aware that the book is riddled with factual errors. These include Downey’s suggestion that King Ferdinand took little interest in the Indies after Isabella’s death, a claim that ignores the large expedition he authorized in 1514 to establish the first permanent Spanish settlement on the American mainland in what is now Panama. Downey also labels Isabella’s ancestry as “blue-blooded,” even though the upstart Trastamara dynasty to which she belonged came to power via a regicide less than a century before the queen’s birth. In addition, Downey’s treatment of both Islam and Ottoman Turkey ranges from the distorted to the naive, with a tautological reference to the “Muslim mosque” at Córdoba and her questionable reliance on a report prepared during the 1930s under the auspices of Turkey’s reformist ruler, Ataturk, to document the progressive deterioration of the status of women under Ottoman rule.
Isabella’s importance as a historical figure has never been in doubt. Her hardline religious policies remain a source of contention, but her achievements were many, and from the queen’s perspective these included strengthening the monarchy and providing the kingdoms of both Castile and Leon and Aragon with an heir. Other writers, including Peggy Liss, author of “Isabel the Queen,” have offered what I consider a balanced, objective account of Isabella, a quality that Downey’s book lacks. By comparison, this new study fails to do justice to a monarch whose support of Columbus explains why her portraits adorn the district that bears the great mariner’s name.
Richard L. Kagan is the academy professor of history at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book, with Abby Dyer, is “Inquisitorial Inquiries: Brief Lives of Secret Jews and Other Heretics.”