Even though most of you fools out there probably know her only as the second half of the ubiquitous “Ferdinand and Isabella” thing that gets barfed out every year on Columbus Day or in the preface of some bullshit American history textbook, it’s important for you to all know that pretty much every single badass thing you know about Medieval Spain was brought to you courtesy of Queen Isabella of Castile – a woman who crushed faces, won wars, conquered her foes and purged heretics like a Warhammer 40K hero and still is somehow remembered as a sweet, innocent, kind-hearted little Catholic School princessa who liked ponies and was followed around by singing cartoon fairies or some shit.
But this wasn’t some meek little queen who followed her big strong man King Ferdinand around like a puppy dog and sat around tapping her fingers on the desk waiting for Columbus to come back and tell her something interesting about the New World – this was a hard-as-concrete warrior queen dominatrix of totalitarian destruction who seized her Kingdom by force of arms, ruled it as sole regent her entire life, forged alliances with powerful kingdoms across Europe, forged her national debt into a gold-plated treasure vault, destroyed violent criminals with an army of legalized Batman-style vigilantes, personally led armies into battle against the Moors, authorized the creation of the fucking Spanish Inquisition, financed the discovery of the New World, and ultimately unified a bunch of tiny little bullshit Spanish Kingdoms into a mighty planet-spanning 4X empire that held every civilization on earth in a vice grip between its iron-plated metaphorical cojones. So even though she’s a widly-non-PC ruler who is almost universally (and understandably) despised by the Muslims, Jews, Portuguese, and American Indians alike, it’s hard to argue with a resume like that.
When Isabella was born in 1451 Spain was basically just a bunch of crappy little El Cid-style kingdoms that spent most of their time fighting each other and the Muslims and honestly doing little else of any importance. Isabella’s dad was the boss of the Kingdom of Castile, one of the afore-mentioned kingdoms, and her mom was his second wife, who was like a Portuguese princess or something. When Izzy was still a baby her dad died and left the kingdom to her half-brother Henry, and Henry – who, I kid you not, is known to history as Henry the Impotent – immediately shipped Isabella and her mom off to the middle of ass-nowhere to rot because he didn’t like the idea of his dad getting re-married and now that he was king he could be as spoiled as he wanted about it.
Princess Isabella lived in relative poverty for a few years, and then Henry the Impotent relocated her back to the court and basically put her under house arrest in the royal palace. While she was there she spent her time reading everything she could get her hands on, observing court officials in action, and essentially learning everything she could about how to effectively run shit, doing this all while watching her idiot half-brother urinate away her father’s life savings while the kingdom went to hell around him.
Kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula.
Isabella was turn that little pink square into an ocean-spanning Empire.
Henry, who got his nickname by claiming that a witch’s curse made it impossible for him to get a boner (although in an awesome turn of events, the whole lifelong-flaccid thing may have actually been a rumor propagated by Isabella herself to discredit him), was such a dumbass that eventually the nobles of Castile convinced Isabella’s brother to rise up and overthrow him. Unfortunately those attempts failed when the guy caught Bubonic Plague and died of the Black Death, which kind of hurt his cause a little bit. The nobles went to Isabella and were like, “Uh, so you wanna get in on this or what?” but instead of fighting a losing war Isabella made peace with Henry. The main condition of the treaty was that Henry wasn’t allowed to arbitrarily marry her off to some bozo without her permission, even though this was a pretty common practice among princesses in the 15th century. Henry agreed, and then tried to go back on it almost immediately and marry her to some Austrian numbnuts. Isabella refused the proposal, snuck out of the royal palace, traveled alone to some river somewhere, and secretly married her second cousin Ferdinand, who was the Prince of the neighboring Kingdom of Aragon.
Henry the Impotent died in 1474, but instead of leaving the kingdom to Isabella as he had promised he left it to his sister Juana instead. So Isabella raised an army, joined it with Ferdinand, kicked the ever-loving shitballs out of her enemies, defeated the Portuguese (who intervened on Juana’s behalf), and then marched over a pile of corpses to take her rightful place on the throne of Castile. Despite what you may have been led to believe, Isabella never relinquished her hold on the throne – she and Ferdinand were each sole independent monarchs of their own separate Kingdoms, united by marriage for the common good. Aragon and Castile wouldn’t be formally unified into modern Spain until the reign of their grandson a couple decades later.
For the next 35 years, Queen Isabella of Castile got shit done. Decked out in pimpin’ expensive dresses and jewels, Isabella crushed the power of the nobles and began a new era where the Queen was the sole autocratic power in the land. She fixed the national debt by ending corruption and wasteful spending among the aristocracy. She clamped down on crime by giving official government funding to groups of pissed-off vigilantes who had been fighting to rid the land of bandits, turning them into the first national police force Spain had ever seen. When she wasn’t kicking in the doors of corrupt politicians or having violent criminals publicly beheaded in the streets, Isabella was also a devoted patron of the arts, education, and learning – especially for women. She brought in a couple guys from Germany with a newfangled machine known as the Printing Press, gave them a tax-free place where they could crank out books, and then set up libraries and schools where anyone could go read them.
But don’t go thinking that just because she liked books and stuff this chick was by any means not insanely tough as fucking nails, or that she wasn’t a tyrannical dictator who crushed any potential enemies with an iron-plated chainmail fist. In 1478, Isabella was so hardcore that she authorized the beginning of the motherfucking Spanish Inquisition – the first state-sponsored administration in Europe devoted to torturing the piss out of heretics until they either confessed or died in excruciating pain or preferably did both at the same time and then had their corpses eaten by stray dogs in the street. Using a vast array of scary nightmare-inducing medieval devices, Isabella’s dark agents scoured the land for anyone who didn’t think Catholicism was awesome, and then either forced them to convert, kicked them out of Spain, and/or tortured them within an inch of their lives. And while having goons beat the shit out of your own subjects just because they don’t have the same religious beliefs as you isn’t something I would call badass or admirable or awesome, it’s still worth mentioning because holy shit.
Speaking of a bloodthirsty zeal for Catholicism, it was also kind of pissing Isabella off that all these Moors were hanging around in southern Spain not being Catholic, so she and Ferdinand ordered the Reconquista in 1482. Declaring war on the Emirate of Granada and sending a now-unified army of hardcore Spanish knights marching into the fortified mountains of al-Andalus, Isabella’s heavy cavalry, pikemen, and musketeer regiments brutally fought to re-take the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslim warriors who had overrun it nearly 700 years earlier. The Muslims fought heroically for every inch of their homeland, but the ferocious Isabella spared no expense in her war. She brought in top-of-the-line matchlock rifles, cannons, and hardcore mercenary soldiers from across Europe, commanding the utmost loyalty from her troops by sparing no expense to ensure that her wounded vets received some of the best medical care in Europe as they recovered from their injuries.
The war was long and brutal, but in January of 1492 the Queen personally received the unconditional surrender of the Emir of Granada. Spain was united under a Catholic monarch. There would never again be a Moorish Emir on the peninsula.
With the Kingdoms of Spain united, the Muslims headed back across the Strait of Gibraltar, and the Catholic Church rocking out with iron maidens, Isabella turned her attention to further securing her position as a key player in European politics. First she and Ferdinand married their son off to an Austrian princess (their grandson would become the Holy Roman Emperor). She also married her daughter Catherine of Aragon off to the English King Henry VIII, but that worked out slightly less well. Meanwhile Ferdinand was out drinking beers with the Pope, becoming buddies with Cesare Borgia’s dad and forming a powerful alliance with several powerful Italian states.
It was around this time that a Genoese dude name Chris Columbus came rolling into town promising to discover an ocean route to India and bring back riches from Far East. Isabella, an intelligent, well-read, forward-thinking woman, was like, yeah dude, let’s FUCKING DO THIS and gave Columbus a shitload of money to sail around the world into uncharted territory. She hooked him up with cash for the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, told him to get the fuck out and discover something, and then totally wasn’t fazed when he did it.
Columbus returned a year later with a shipload of gold, treasure, and American Indian slaves, but in an out-of-character display of not wanting to exterminate non-Catholics Isabella immediately ordered him to release the natives treat the indigenous peoples of the Americas with the utmost kindness and respect. Columbus and the other Conquistadors of course completely ignored this, but that was her rule nonetheless.
Columbus: Hey I brought you some Indians and shit.
Isabella: Yeah, I don’t these these dudes are from India.
Columbus: Yeah they totally are.
Isabella: Ok well take them back home because WTF
Realizing what her explorer had accomplished, Isabella financed twelve more expeditions to the New World between 1500 and 1502, three of which were headed up by Columbus and one of which included Juan Ponce de Leon. In doing so, she laid the foundation for a Spanish Empire that would bring countless thousands of tons of gold across the Atlantic and turn Spain into the single most powerful and richest civilization on earth for the next hundred years or so.
Say what you want about the ethics involved with any of this shit. One thing is for certain – Queen Isabella of Castile had a plan, she got shit done, and she ultimately changed the course of human history of several significant and long-lasting ways.
She’s also the first woman to ever appear on a U.S. Postage stamp. Isn’t that weird?