Spain owes its empire—which was actually rather brief and ineffectual as empires go—to the dynamic, Machiavellian duo, Ferdinand and Isabella. That’s not to say they were nice, at all. Or even sane. Like it or not though, what they achieved, through blood and iron, was the groundwork for a modern Spanish nation-state. Their children did not fare so well, however… Here’s an excerpt from The Last Crusaders by Barnaby Rogerson.
If Ferdinand and Isabella can be seen to have triumphed on every imaginable frontier in political life — conquering Granada, banishing Jews and Muslims from their land, annexing the Kingdom of Naples, pacifying Navarre, silencing all religious and political dissidence through the Inquisition and commissioning Columbus to discover America for them — there was yet a threshold where the gleaming canvas of perfection was turned to ruin, like the true face behind the mask in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Indeed Queen, towards the end of her life, began to believe that her family had been punished for her political crimes. Her daughter Isabella, after twenty years of negotiation, had been married to the crown prince of Portugal, Afonso, who promptly died in a hunting accident. Their second daughter, Juana, was betrothed to Philip the Handsome, the Hapsburg heir of Emperor Maximilian. Juana, who loved her husband, was driven insane by his fidelities and lack of reciprocal feeling. Ferdinand and Isabella’s son, Prince John, had been married to Emperor Maximilian’s daughter, Margaret, in a double-marriage pact. Their experience was to be the very opposite, for the young couple were so madly, so ardently in love, so delighted by the mutual freedom of their bodies, that they wore each other out. The court physicians grew alarmed at the amount of time the lovers spent in bed. By July the crown prince of Spain knew he was dying of love. His published will, providing a million maravedis to house poor orphans and half as much again to ransom prisoners, might indicate that he was too good for the world into which he was born…By tragic coincidence, John passed away the week that his widowed elder sister, Isabel, was married to the new King Manuel of Portugal, so that “the rejoicing of the wedding were exchanged with lamenting and mourning … within a single week.” Then, like some triple-twisted Gothick tale, Princess Isabel died giving birth to a male heir, the infant Miguel, who stood to inherit every throne within the Iberian Peninsula. When he died two years later he delivered the “third stab of pain to pierce the Queen’s heart.”
It goes on. It’s hard to believe this isn’t fiction. It turns out that Juana’s adulterous husband then died and she:
Like some dark heroine from a Gothic novel, she refused to be parted from his body and would night after night set forth on a torchlight procession to the crypt chapel, where she would command the coffin once again to be opened so that she could embrace her true love and assure herself that he had indeed departed from her.
Reading this makes the antics of the various travelers in Don Quixote more understandable—and indeed, less dramatic and over-the-top than it seems to modern eyes. It also makes Shakespeare seem less of a dramatist and more of a realist, since this behavior was pretty standard among royal families in Europe.