By Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt, Professor and Chair, History Department, Cleveland State University
She was twenty-three years old when surprising news reached her in the city of Segovia in 1474. Her half-brother, Enrique IV, the King of Castile, had died. She was the lawful heir to his throne—the new sovereign ruler. She was also married. In 1469 she had wed the presumed successor to the kingdom of Aragon, Fernando. She was, however, alone in the city of Segovia when she received the news of Enrique’s death; Fernando was traveling in Aragon. In Castile Isabel faced a restless nobility and a competitor for the throne, Enrique’s daughter, Juana. Despite her legal rights to the realm (Castile had nothing like the Salic Law of France that excluded women from succession to the throne), she had to contend with a culture that viewed the political power of women warily or even with outright hostility. Many probably expected her to turn the reins of power over to her husband.
But she didn’t. Instead, recognizing the power of swift, decisive action, she quickly staged an acclamation ceremony and did not wait for him to arrive and participate. She dressed herself regally and processed through the streets of Segovia. According to at least two chroniclers, she had a member of the nobility walk ahead of her, carrying an unsheathed sword, long-identified as the symbol of justice. One of these chroniclers found this highly unusual, condemning her ostentatious presumption when such an action was more appropriately her husband’s prerogative. The other defended her, saying it was her right. Even if Fernando had been present, he argued, it was still appropriate that the sword accompany her, since she was sovereign ruler of Castile.
Her husband, Fernando, was less sanguine. Upon hearing the news of the ceremony and her use of the sword, he reportedly remarked to one his courtiers how strange it was for her to employ such a “manly attribute.” When the two were eventually reunited in Segovia, Fernando’s displeasure prompted a re-negotiation of their marriage contract. Curiously, despite the fact that his anger had been the catalyst, Isabel retained significant rights and privileges in the kingdom she had just inherited. The two would share some powers, but her precedence in Castile was clear.
In these battles for power, the reign of Isabel and Fernando reveals a curious mix of gender and politics that would continue to characterize their joint reign until her death in 1504.
I have lots of stories about the unusual political marriage of Isabel and Fernando—let me know in the comments if you’d like to hear more in future posts.