I’m a huge fan of C.W. Gortner. His book on Juana of Castile, The Last Queen, was so fascinating and well-written and brought humanity to a historical figure that I, like most, only knew as “La Loca.” Imagine my excitement when I learned that his newest book would once again tackle the house of Trastamara in the form of Juana’s mother, Isabella of Castile.
I’ll admit that I delved into this book with a bit of foreboding. As a history student, I can’t help but associate Isabella of Castile’s reign with her more infamous decisions: the Inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Reyes Catholicos, etc. I also knew of Isabella’s other characteristics from various works of historical fiction: her ruthlessness when it came to defending her throne, the fact that she was out fighting battles more than she was with her children, the infidelities of her husband. Even though I knew all these things were coming, I was curious to see what the author’s research brought to bear on this story, and whether it would be at all apologetic.
The Queen’s Vow covers a broad expanse of Isabella’s life, from the loss of her father in childhood, to the years spent in fearful exile while her incompetent half brother ruled the country, to the bloody civil war that ended with her accession to the throne of Castile, to her marriage with Fernando of Aragon that finally united Spain, to the Reconquista. Throughout, we see how Isabella evolved from a pious young girl who had accepted her fate as a political pawn to the fierce monarch who put everything aside for the sake of Spain. Her adolescence is a particularly fraught period, as she was thrust into a debauched court and had to quickly learn how to handle the various factions that would see her succeed or fall, and the years where she and Fernando fought to solidify their hold on Spain were equally precarious. The final chapters wind down everything beautifully, so that you almost sigh with relief.
As with The Last Queen, Gortner does a masterful job of telling both the historical and human story of Isabella. I knew very little of the years preceding her reign, and it helped me understand why she fought so hard to maintain the crown once it was hers. It was fascinating to meet all the people who influenced her, from her mother, with her obsession with regaining the family glory, to her husband Fernando, who helped her shape foreign policy in more ways than one, to her confidante Beatriz, who taught her how to look at the world from a man’s perspective. And her childbearing years were very interesting: I had no idea she’d suffered bouts of infertility and miscarriages, and there were echoes of her daughter Catherine’s future plight of irregular periods and the inability to bear a healthy male heir, although Isabella did manage to give birth to a sickly son who lived to ascend to the throne for a short time.
The Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews is a moment that readers may have difficulty with. This Isabella struggles with the issue, while Fernando is more easily convinced by Torquemada and the other ecclesiastics and agitates for action. She tries to hold off and limits the Inquisition’s persecution to suspicious conversos, but outside forces are too strong and, after the completion of the Reconquista, she is more or less given an ultimatum. In the end, as with everything, Isabella decides that she must do what is good for Spain and that, in turn, she must save the country from heresy, even though she recognizes the Jews’ worth. In the afterword, Gortner explains that he undertook extensive research into Isabella’s personality and how she and other monarchs viewed the world at the time before he arrived at his interpretation of events. He emphasizes that he’s not attempting to apologize for her actions, but also points out that she was a fallible human being who believed Christianity was the only faith, and that she likely knew of the consequences of her decree. While I didn’t find this interpretation to be apologetic and thought Isabella’s motives for her decisions were abundantly clear, I did have a bit of a hard time reconciling this part of Isabella with the one I knew from my history lectures. It did not at all detract from my enjoyment of the book, rather it left me thinking long after I finally closed the cover.
This book lived up to every one of my expectations. A well-researched and transporting read.
I will leave you with an important note from the author, as delivered in the afterword:
Every year, thousands of Spanish greyhounds known as galgos are abandoned, maimed, or killed after a brief hunting season. Many dedicated rescue groups and individuals, both in Spain and abroad, are fighting to end the abuse of the galgo, one of Spain’s most enduring symbols of nobility. To learn more, please visit galgorescue.org and baasgalgo.org. Thank you for caring.
As the proud mom of a rescue dog, I could not agree more with this message.