1494: How a Family Feud in Medieval Spain Divided the World in Half

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Just as the world's oceans were about to be opened by Columbus's epochal voyage, the treaty sought to limit the seas to these two favored Catholic nations. The edict was to have a profound influence on world history: it propelled Spain and Portugal to superpower status, steered many other European nations on a collision course, and became the central grievance in two centuries of international espionage, piracy, and warfare.

At the heart of one of the greatest international diplomatic and political agreements of the last five centuries were the strained relationships and passions of a handful of powerful individuals. Yet the struggle ultimately stemmed from a young woman's determination to defy tradition and the king, and to choose her own husband.

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BOWN has been writing about adventurers, travelers, and explorers for many years. He lives in the Canadian Rockies with his wife and two children. The younger half-sister to Enrique, the reigning king of Castile, Isabella found the king's first choice for her husband, the aging and grasping king of Portugal, Afonso V, to be unpleasant. Although a renowned warrior and crusader who a decade earlier had beaten back the Moors from Morocco, Afonso was now more than twice Isabella's age and already had an adult son who would be his heir.

He had grown plump and unappealing as well as politically impotent--a disadvantage for any children that might arise from the union. He was also related to Isabella, a reality not uncommon in dynastic marriages in Europe in the late Middle Ages, but nonetheless requiring a papal dispensation. The thought of this man as her lifelong bedmate and as the father of her children was enough to make Isabella weep.


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But Isabella's marriage was a matter of state interest; from Enrique's point of view, romance or compatibility had little to dowith it. Enrique was in favour of the match, and so was Afonso. In fact, the two men had been discussing the betrothal for a few years, and the proposal had been firmly yet diplomatically resisted by Isabella for just as long.

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At one point the stubborn princess had informed her half-brother that she "could not be disposed of in marriage without the consent of the nobles of the realm," which was an accurate if audacious claim. Enrique knew that consent from his nobles would not be readily forthcoming in the current complicated political climate, particularly if Isabella chose to cause trouble.

A Portuguese courtier implied that Portuguese armies would march on Castile in retaliation if she persisted in her humiliating refusal. Isabella may have appeared passive--she was fond of reading and devoted to lengthy prayer sessions--but years of dangerous court intrigue had made her a master dissembler. Although her placid smile conveyed a disarming neutrality, she had her own plans and dreams, held close to her heart and shared only with her closest supporters and advisers.

Those dreams did not correspond with the wishes of her king and many of the grandees of the realm. Known to history for having a strong and independent will throughout her life, Isabella made it abundantly clear in while still a teenager that she would not have the repulsive Portuguese monarch as her consort and spouse, regardless of the consequences. Her exasperating display of independence was threatening to derail plans that had been years in the making, and possibly to agitate the fragile peace between the two nations. Enrique considered his options.

He consulted with his advisers and explored other possibilities for Isabella's marriage. His half-sister's marriage had become a personal as well as political concern. Isabella's claim to the Castilian throne, were Enrique todie suddenly, was now stronger even than the claim of his own six-year-old daughter, Juana. Named after her mother, the vivacious Juana of Portugal, his daughter coincidentally was the niece of the Portuguese King Afonso-Enrique's wife, Juana of Portugal, was Afonso's younger sister. In fact Enrique, at the strenuous urging of his nobles following several years of simmering civil war, had recently made a public proclamation that Juana was not his offspring.

The unfortunate girl was nicknamed "La Beltraneja," a name that stuck with her not only throughout her life but down through the centuries. It did not help his position that his queen had recently given birth to yet another child who could not possibly have been sired by Enrique because the royal couple had been living in different places.

Despite the great efforts made to conceal the pregnancy with tight gowns, the impropriety had been discovered. It was now widely claimed in the Castilian court that the queen "has not used her person cleanly, as comports with her duty as servant to the king. Owing to the child's acknowledged illegitimacy, and lacking direct legitimate descendants, the thirty-eight-year-old Enrique, snidely known as "the Impotent," had little choice but to name his half-sister, Isabella, as the princess of Asturias, next in line to succeed to the throne of Castile as the one true heir.

But he had forced a concession from her: he would have the authority to choose her husband.


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  • Isabella's marriage could not be considered lightly, but Enrique's motives were less than noble. He wished to give the appearance of selecting a suitable mate for her while neutralizing her political potential in Castile, and eventually to undermine herclaim to his throne. An alliance with France, sealed and secured with a marriage, might allow Castile and France to surround the smaller kingdom of Aragon and perhaps claim some outlying territories.

    Although Charles was only five years her senior and at that time the heir to the French throne, Isabella was not enamoured with him. No newcomer to intrigue, Isabella had sent her confidante, Friar Alfonso de Coca, to France to spy on him. The friar returned with a depressing report. The young French noble seemed prematurely aged. He was, according to de Coca, "made ugly by the extremely misshapen thin legs and watery eyes that were sometimes so bad as to be nearly blind, so that rather than weapons and a horse what he needed was a skilful guide.

    But de Coca made another interesting discovery.

    1494 : How a Family Feud in Medieval Spain Divided the World in Half

    De Coca was pleased to inform Isabella that this young prince had "a gallant presence that could not be compared to the Duke [of Berry] Muscular and athletic, Ferdinand was "a great rider of the bridle and the jennet, and a great lance thrower and other activities which he performed with great skill and a grace," according to a later court historian. Ayana Mathis. Gone Girl. Gillian Flynn. The Silver Star. Jeannette Walls. The Widow. Fiona Barton. The Virgin Cure. Ami McKay.

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