The Wrong Sex

Felipe Fernández-Armesto

  • Isabel the Queen: Life and Times by Peggy Liss
    Oxford, 398 pp, £19.95, January 1993, ISBN 0 19 507356 8

Spain has had two queens called Isabel who had, by repute, little in common apart from a tendency to run to fat. In the age of Squidgygate, Isabel II looks like the better source of biographer’s copy – a selfish and libidinous vixen. Isabella the Catholic, who is Peggy Liss’s subject, seems boring by comparison: an exemplary wife and mother, virginal before marriage and chaste within it, who inspired comparisons with St Helena and the Virgin Mary. Yet the two Isabels are probably more alike than has been supposed. Both had to fight for their thrones; both had to contend with better-qualified pretenders; both were the political rivals of their husbands; both were the skilful or lucky survivors of times of crisis; and Isabella the Catholic (to use the name by which she has traditionally been known to British readers), without quite equalling her nymphomaniac namesake, appears, to candid scrutiny, sexier than she has been depicted.

She is not, however, an easy subject. Trying to understand her relationship with her husband on the basis of official records, for instance, is like using Hello! as a source for the history of Charles and Diana. In the chronicles, in the superscriptions of royal documents and in almost all the portraits, Isabella and her husband appear as united equals. The iconography is strewn with knots and yokes, images of connubial bliss and perfect union. ‘Each to the other equal,’ sings the motto, ‘stand Isabel and Ferdinand.’ The sources conspire to frustrate historians who want to distinguish the royal pair from each other, in terms of power and policy.

The cosy image was a crack-covering contrivance, extemporised in the civil war of 1474-9 to mask real rivalry for power. ‘Where there is such conformity which, by God’s grace, exists between you and me,’ Isabella is said to have told Ferdinand, ‘there can be no conflict.’ He was a necessary adjunct to her ambitions: until her marriage in 1469, she had been losing support in the struggle for recognition of her claim to the Castilian succession. She needed her husband – or, at least, the image of her husband – by her side for three reasons; first, he was already a titular king (of Sicily); second, as heir in his own right to the crown of Aragon, he had prospects of patronage and access to military clout; thirdly, and above all, he was the right sex.

If one had to be a woman in the late Middle Ages, Spain was, relatively speaking, a good place to be one. In most of the peninsula, the laws of property favoured female administrators. Female regencies were a common feature of political life. Laws of inheritance were less equitable, however, and a female sovereign was an unpalatable prospect to many people who mattered. The precedents in Castile were discouraging and the popular literary models, until the troubadour revival of the 1470s, disgusting, Even noble ladies were brought down from their pedestals and treated on the same level as the courtesans and shepherdesses typical of late medieval pornography. When Isabella was born, the messenger who took the news to Segovia was tipped only a third as much as he would be when the birth of her younger brother was announced. Her credibility depended on Ferdinand and it is not surprising, therefore, that he appeared beside her wherever she was portrayed, and was mentioned in the same breath whenever she exercised political judgment.

Peggy Liss’s insistence on Isabella as ‘a remarkably happily married woman ... in love with her husband’ is convincing, but only because politicians often end up believing their own rhetoric. The Queen’s chaste image was another necessary piece of PR, propagated to counteract the smuttiness of courtly literature in decline. This does not mean it was untrue, but it doesn’t mean either that the campaign to have Isabella canonised rested on entirely secure foundations. The Queen was the object of flirtatious verses suggestive of an amorous courtly culture. She was as adept in the political uses of coquetterie as Elizabeth I of England. She owned mildly erotic books and her death chamber was hung with a tapestry of the Triumph of Eros as well as with one of the Miracle of the Mass. Much of her reputation for prudishness derived from her efforts to tidy up after her husband’s peccadilloes.

She was depicted as a femina fortis, embodying the strengths of a Judith or a Deborah along with the domestic attainments recommended by her late medieval copybooks about ‘Virtuous Women’. Liss argues persuasively that vengeance, consciously cultivated, was one of her most important weapons. In masques, she appeared armoured as Fortune; she was the epitome of the Amazon queen sought by Columbus.

Propaganda was a substitute for power in a period when obedience had to be wheedled rather than enforced. That Isabella’s reign generated so many chronicles, so many royal icons and so many circulars justifying royal policy is evidence of how difficult life was for the Queen. Even when her battle for the throne was won, opponents had to be bought off and supporters rewarded. Royal authority – such as it was – had to be reasserted after the usurpations and alienations of an unstable time.

Isabella and her husband issued copious commands. They even had them printed for wide circulation and dispatched with ceremony to remote officials who kissed them, placed them on their heads as a sign of submission and then ignored them as they pleased. As well as bombarding their realms with paper, the monarchs travelled in person, visiting regions that other kings had not been to for decades. They adopted policies of aggression and expansion partly to distract violent subjects who could not be disarmed. After all her efforts, however, Isabella seemed to have contained the habit of rebellion, not expunged it. At her death, restive nobles grabbed again at royal powers ‘like coals’ – as one of them remarked – ‘from a dying fire’.

Peggy Liss makes this strenuous reign seem too easily triumphant, but she gets us closer to her subject than any previous biographer has. Isabella shared the common aristocratic ethos of her time, the ‘code’ of chivalry; chivalric fiction shaped her images of the world, of herself and of her relationship with her husband. Ferdinand and Isabella were knight and lady and her devotion to St Michael was to the master of an order of ‘angelic chivalry’. The Granada War – which Liss insists was ‘the Queen’s war’ – was not so much a crusade as a knightly adventure, in which the warriors were inspired by fear of shame before their ladies. In this scheme of values, the ‘love which conquers’ was of a secular, even carnal sort. Yet the Queen’s ‘diverse founts of inspiration’ also included Christian homiletics, the puritanism of her confessors and Renaissance notions of fame. She lived in an atmosphere of prophecy and millenarianism. She was a warrior in a battle between good and evil in which Jews, Moors and heretics were on the opposing side.

Baulked, perhaps, by a character too good to be exciting, Isabella’s biographers have always tended to emphasise historical importance instead of human interest, concentrating on the narrative of a reign which saw the ‘foundation of Spain’s greatness’, the dynastic union of Aragon and Castile, the conquests of Naples and Granada, the discovery of America, the establishment of the Inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews. The moral ambiguity of some of these achievements has provided a secondary line of comment. Liss is a traditional biographer in this respect, practising some of the time-honoured evasions of narrative history and offering some nicely calculated moral judgments, poised between the values ‘of the period’ and current fashion. At the same time, she remains aloof from some of the more tediously familiar concerns. The basic problem of demarcation – who did what – between Ferdinand and Isabella is loftily treated and the hoary old question of how much the reign contributed to the formation of ‘Spain’ as a political term is happily ignored.

This ‘Life and Times’ has a certain old-world charm. The book is doggedly reliant on the chronicles. According to their taste, readers will either dismiss it as hopelessly old-fashioned, or hail it as a ray of sunlight in the new dawn of post-archival historiography. Chronicles tell us what the past looked like to those who experienced it, but their deficiencies are highly contagious: Peggy Liss handles them with care but her version of the royal ‘happy marriage’ still carries painful echoes of the Hello! school of history. Scorning the excesses of feminist scholarship, she is in danger of overlooking some of its insights: it is hard to appreciate Isabella’s achievement without acknowledging that she was literally, in the terms of her time, handicapped for the job.

Liss wrests so many shrewd insights from some of Isabella’s books that one wishes the material had been tackled comprehensively: the writings of Alvaro de Luna and Francesc Eiximenis, for instance, where Isabella found guidance on how to combine womanhood and kingship, could have been profitably explored. Similarly, the author is so good at reading the iconography of Isabella’s parents’ tomb that it seems a shame not to have her pictures, tapestries and architectural patronage illuminated in the same way. Liss does much to explain Isabella’s character and readers anxious for more close-ups and a more minute examination of the Queen’s immediate environment may resent the clutter of political narrative. Tarsicio de Azcona’s 1964 biography retains its place as a mine of factual information and source material. Liss does not take full advantage of the work that has been done on the reign in the meantime.