The future Queen Isabella I of Castile had made a daring choice by marrying the future King Ferdinand II of Aragon against the wishes of her half-brother King Henry IV of Castile and even proudly displayed the bloodstained sheets to the waiting officials after the wedding night. Isabella and her half-brother had a volatile relationship – with her taking the place as heiress presumptive over that over his daughter Joanna, who was believed to have been fathered by another man. Henry tried to marry her off several times, but in the end, Isabella made her own choice – and Henry was not amused.
Within months, Isabella was pregnant with her first child, and the opposing sides waited impatiently. A chronicler wrote, “It was awaited with extraordinary impatience… as importance was attached to the birth of a male child.”1 On 2 October 1470, the wait came to an end when Isabella gave birth to a daughter – also named Isabella. It had been a long and difficult labour, and Isabella had asked for a silk veil to be placed over her face to that the witnesses could not see her pain.2
A chronicler wrote, “I have been informed by the ladies who serve her in her chamber that, neither when in pain through illness nor during the pains of childbirth… did they ever see her complain, and that, rather, she suffered them with marvellous fortitude.”3 The birth of a girl was politically disappointing. Still, there is no evidence that Isabella was personally disappointed by the birth of a daughter.
As her mother fought for her throne, little Isabella was in the care of a governess and a wetnurse. She would remain in the nursery alone for quite some time. Her mother lost a baby in 1475, and it wasn’t until 1478 that her brother John was born. Her mother had succeeded as Queen of Castile on 11 December 1474, though the struggle with Joanna would continue for several more years. Young Isabella spent much of her childhood on campaign as the struggle continued. At the age of seven, she had once been left behind for her safety, only for the citizens of the town to rise up, leaving her trapped in a tower for several days until her mother came to her rescue. The following year, she was traded as a hostage to the Portuguese to ensure her parents would abide by the terms of the Treaty of Alcáçovas. She was sent to Portugal, and it was intended that she would marry King Afonso V’s grandson, also named Afonso, who was five years younger than her. She remained in Portugal for three years before returning home.
Between her mother’s accession and the birth of her brother, young Isabella was heir to the throne and she was presented as such to the waiting crowds the day after Henry’s death. It is unclear why her mother appeared to have had trouble conceiving, but she had consulted physicians, prayed at sanctuaries, starved herself and engaged in self-mortification.
On 30 June 1478, John was born to great rejoicing – it was widely interpreted as a sign from God of his approval. For young Isabella, it meant that she was being displaced in the line of succession. Four more daughters followed: Joanna in 1479, Maria (and her stillborn twin) in 1482 and lastly Catherine in 1485. As Isabella and her siblings grew up, their mother monitored their education and began training them to rule. Her mother was known to have been an affectionate but stern mother, and she was devoutly religious. She expected nothing less from her offspring. Her mother was quite politically savvy, and public image was quite important. The splendour of the family’s clothing was soon the talk of Europe with young Isabella appearing at an event in cloth of gold with a train of green velvet and a cap of “a net in gold and black, garnished with pearls and precious stones.”4
Despite having returned from Portugal, her marriage to Afonso remained on the cards and several other marriages were also in the works. John and Joanna would marry siblings Margaret and Philip, the children of Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor and the late Mary, Duchess of Burgundy in her own right. Catherine was betrothed to Arthur, Prince of Wales while Queen Isabella was eyeing the future King James IV of Scotland for Maria.
At the age of 20, Isabella’s marriage to the 15-year-old Afonso finally took place. The two had gotten to know each other well in the three years that Isabella had spent in Portugal. Isabella was accompanied to Portugal by her Portuguese cousin Manuel, who would also play an important part in her life, though she did not know it yet. Isabella was enthusiastically received by the Portuguese people, and it “truly seemed the earth trembled.”5 The wedding took place on 25 November 1490 in Évora with many celebrations planned for the following weeks. It appeared that both parties were happy to be married.