Friday, 20 February 2015


Really? Yes really. From the 1470s to the 1620s the history of the continent cannot be accurately told without prominent mention of twenty or more powerful and talented women. They governed states. They made policy. They determined issues of war and peace. They engaged in diplomacy. They set the tone of religious debate. They were cultural innovators whose salons were magnets for top Renaissance artists and scholars. Belligerent monarchs, scheming popes and ruthless generals may have dominated the stage in the drama of political affairs as described by generations of historians but any account which ascribes solely to men the emergence of 'Modern Europe' is a distortion of the historical record. Throughout this period there were many women who were not mere ciphers. Nor were they simply 'powers behind the throne'. Stick with me for this blog series and I'll introduce you to a catalogue of female movers and shakers of the Renaissance.

1. Isabella of Castile (1451-1504)

As every schoolboy knows (or used to know) Queen Isabella was the patron of Christopher Columbus who supported his New World exploration and, by so doing, laid the foundation of the Spanish colonial empire. But that was far in the distance in the 1460s, when the teenage Princess Isabella began to play a significant role in politics. She was the half-sister of Henry IV of Castile, known as 'Henry the Impotent'. During his reign (1454-1474) the power of the crown dwindled as noble factions shrugged off centralised control. Isabella was only of interest to the king as marriage fodder. He entered into various negotiations, hoping, by pledging her to another monarch, to gain support to help him with the internal problems of Castile. But the feisty Isabella declined the role of hapless dynastic pawn. She exploited the divisions among the nobility and gained her own group of powerful backers. She contracted a clandestine marriage with the man of her choice - her second cousin, Prince Ferdinand of Aragon (1469). Having no son to succeed him, Henry reluctantly nominated Isabella as his heir and, in 1474, she became queen of a divided kingdom. Some of her enemies made common cause with the King of Portugal and the two states were locked in a land and sea war which lasted four years. In matters military Isabella adopted a hands-on role. She discussed tactics with her generals and appeared personally in battle arenas. Though not personally leading her troops, she was close to them and took a particular interest in field hospitals and the care of the wounded.

The constitutional agreement between Ferdinand and Isabella was unique (even revolutionary) by the standards of the time. Each was sovereign in his/her own territory. This gave Isabella complete freedom in reforming the chaotic administration of Castile. She put an end to expensive sinecures and relied increasingly on a bureaucracy of lawyers and educated officials. Patiently but firmly she dragged the kingdom's finances back into the black. The creaking judicial system was modernised by an overhaul of the legal code.

Jointly Ferdinand and Isabella embarked on a holy crusade. Their aim was to make the land which would become Spain into a Catholic bastion which would expand western Christendom throughout the world. They completed the Reconquista, which drove Muslims and Jews out of Spain, except those who converted. They achieved and forcefully maintained political and religious unity, established royal control of the church courts and ensured a rigid enforcement of official doctrine through what became the Spanish Inquisition. Isabella's fiery religious zeal was the driving force behind this. Contemporary chronicles described her as 'following the path of harshness, rather than mercy'. Bringing other lands under the spiritual authority of the pope was the driving force behind the exploration and exploitation of the New World and the establishment of the most far reaching missionary movement in a thousand years. The wealth pouring in from newly-conquered lands funded this expansion.

Isabella was determined to pursue her political and religious ambitions throughout Europe by a system of alliances with other royal houses. Her only son died, childless, at the age of nineteen but she married her three daughters into the royal houses of Portugal, England and the Habsburg Empire. Her direct female descendants became queens and regents in England, France, the Empire, Denmark, Hungary and the Netherlands.

Isabella was a phenomenon as remarkable to contemporaries as to historians. She was a legend in her own lifetime; chroniclers praised her as an example of female conduct but also praised her 'manly' virtues - an indication that something new had arrived in Europe: the powerful woman.

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