Isabella and Fernando: Love and Politics
One of the most interesting parts of Isabella’s life is her marriage to Fernando of Aragón. Isabella chose her husband in an era when almost no princess enjoyed the privilege; a random search of royal women born within ten years of Isabella reveals that none chose their husband, including Isabella’s own daughters. Royal marriages were arranged for dynastic advantage; these were political alliances between countries. The personal preference of those involved was rarely, if ever, taken into account.
Which is why Isabella’s flouting of convention is so fascinating. It is tempting, and not entirely inaccurate, to see her choice as romantic; as circumstances would show, this was a love match. However, first and foremost in Isabella’s mind must have been the advantages Fernando presented, as opposed to other candidates being foisted on her, as well as her own personal circumstances.
Spain at the time was divided, with the kingdom of Castile and León, to which Isabella was heir, being the foremost power. An independent northern realm, smaller and more vulnerable, Aragón was also war-torn and impoverished. Like Isabella, no one thought Fernando was destined to rule; he, too, was born of a second marriage (and was second-cousin to Isabella) between his mother, a daughter of a noble Castilian clan, and his father the king of Aragón. It is rumored that Fernando’s mother plotted to advance her son by poisoning his elder half-brother, Aragón’s crown-prince. Nothing can be proved, but whatever the case, Fernando became heir and rose precipitously in importance. So precipitously, in fact, that Isabella’s half-brother Enrique, king of Castile, prohibited her from entering into alliance with him. Enrique’s fear was that marriage to Fernando would propel Isabella—who was already proving quite a handful— to such acclaim that she would be his, Enrique’s, undoing. To counter the threat, he was pushing to wed her to the widowed Portuguese king, which would have forced her to live across the border, in exile. To Isabella, of course, these were the very reasons why she must marry Fernando.
As we know, the marriage proved to be one of the most successful in history, though it was by no means perfect. What marriage is? Some modern historians have sought to portray Isabella and Fernando as partners of convenience, in which love was secondary to political interest. This may have been true at the start (though doubtful, given their natures); however, within weeks, their mutual love is evident in the extant words they’ve left from this troubled period of their lives, and, perhaps most compelling, in their stalwart defense of their marriage, even when under serious peril. Never were two people more committed to each other; indeed, in all their years together, come hell or high water, Isabella never wavered in her support of Fernando as her equal— even when he hardly deserved it.
We tend to want to pigeonhole Isabella in easy clichés, as we do every historical character; we forget that like all of us, she was a complex personality of her time. While a powerful monarch in her own right, who ruled when women rarely did, Isabella was also deeply conventional in her personal life. Despite having flouted tradition to marry Fernando, she believed in a sacred duty to husband and family. She is one of the few queens to personally raise her children, even bringing them with her on crusade. And though she championed women’s equality when it hardly existed as a concept, she was by no means a feminist. I believe it is important to remember this side of her and indeed to respect it, for in the end these are the very contradictions which make us human.
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