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Useful Notes / The Catholic Monarchs

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"The Catholic Monarchs" refer to King Ferdinand II of Aragon (1452-1516) and Queen Isabella I of Castile (1451-1504) — or, if you're Spanish, Los Reyes Católicos, Fernando and Isabel — who co-ruled over a unified Spain in the late 15th century and very early 16th century, at the crossroads between The Late Middle Ages and The Renaissance.

In the centuries preceding their rule, a number of Christian kingdoms had emerged around the Iberian peninsula and participated in the Spanish Reconquista, including Aragon (where Ferdinand was from) and Castile (where Isabella was from). These kingdoms had had their individual shares of succession crises and civil wars.

Ferdinand and Isabella were second cousins, both members of the House of Trastámara. He was the son of John II of Aragon (whose own father had gained the Aragonese crown after one such succession crisis) and was named King of Sicily in 1464. She was the daughter of John II of Castile and his second wife, making her the younger half-sister to the eventual king, Henry IV of Castile. After a series of failed political matches, Henry eventually agreed to allow her to plot her own marriage, a card she used to take the throne when the complicated matter of Henry IV's succession arose. Ferdinand and Isabella eloped in 1469, a union that Henry IV disapproved of. Though they were close in age and got on quite well by most accounts, it was not a Marry for Love situation as much as it was a very politically strategic union — the marriage gave them the path to control what would eventually become Spain.

After Henry IV's death in 1474, Isabella promptly declared herself Queen of Castile and León and disinherited her niece Joanna, who was wed to Alfonso V, King of Portugal. Cue the War of the Castilian Succession, during which Ferdinand and Isabella were vested as equal rulers. The war against Portugal ended in 1479 with Alfonso renouncing his claim to the Castilian throne. Isabella set about unloading Castile of the significant debts Henry IV had accrued through institutional reform, during which she and Ferdinand developed a reputation for overall good management of their shared throne. To show the extent of their influence, the always hard-to-please Niccolò Machiavelli would consider Ferdinand an absolutely ideal king, while our modern chess piece of the queen gained her current abilities around this time in honor to Isabella's power.

Castile and Aragon remained separated kingdoms,note  with Ferdinand and Isabella's crown moving often in order to maintain unity, but they styled themselves as the kings of Spain. This often came to the chagrin of the kings of Portugal, who felt that only after unifying the whole Iberian Peninsula one could call himself that. The Catholic Monarchs and King Alfonso's grandson Manuel eventually attempted to merge their lines of succession, hopefully fulfilling the old medieval dream of unifying the whole of Hispania as in the times of The Roman Empire, but the death of the Castilian-Aragonese-Portuguese heir, as told below, destroyed it.

The Catholic Monarchs are famous for ending the Spanish Reconquista by conquering Granada, which eventually fell in 1492. The Spanish Inquisition, founded by Isabella to stamp out heresy, played a big part in this. In fact, their moniker of "The Catholic Monarchs" was given to them by Pope Alexander VI due to their efforts to make Roman Catholicism the sole religion in the nation for their shared vision of a unified Spain. Though the treaty signed in the aftermath of the fall of Granada promised religious freedom for Jews and Muslims remaining in Spain, the Monarchs were dissuaded by Tomás de Torquemada and carried out the Alhambra decree in 1492, after which practising Jews in Spain were forced to either convert or go, and Muslims were also subject to forced conversions in the succeeding years. Most Jews and Muslims chose conversion rather than being evicted, even if it was often only in name, but it was still considered a success.note  The mass conversions didn't sit well in Europe, where expulsions of Jews had been the norm, and originated a certain foreign belief that Spanish Christians were less than ideally pure of blood, but most rulers still praised the Monarchs for acting against these inconvenient religious minorities.

Three months after the fall of Granada, which had greatly cost the crown, the Catholic Monarchs sponsored Christopher Columbus's voyage to the Americas, intending to find a shortcut to the rich Indies only to find a whole new continent. They were then present for the establishment and management of the territories in the Caribbean, which brought the nascent Spanish empire great wealth. Isabella dedicated herself to manage both their old and new lands, decreeing laws to integrate the American natives as free Spanish vassals (which not everybody in the Indies heeded yet) and actively promote intermarrying or mestizaje between natives and Spaniards (which they were doing even before she ordered it, probably because being the nexus between Europe and Africa gives Iberians a certain familiarity with darker skins). For his part, Ferdinand concerned himself with the European theater, where he skillfully drew alliances with multiple countries in order to counter the might of France, the biggest rival around, whose demographic potential was bigger than that of Spain and had conflicting interests.

The Monarchs then became involved with the Italian Wars, specifically over succession in the Kingdom of Naples, which was claimed by Ferdinand by blood reasons but threatened by France. Through the work of Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, a Castilian general nicknamed "The Great Captain", the French were kicked out of Italy, and the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily were inherited by Ferdinand, adding to their quickly growing empire. In the process, the Great Captain reformed the Castilian and Aragonese armies into a force to be reckoned with on the European battlefield, which other countries would not catch up with until almost two centuries later. At this point, with their armies having trounced their most dangerous enemies both within and abroad, the Catholic Monarchs were at the peak of their international prestige, and not few considered them the new head of the Christian world.

The conquest of the last Muslim state in European soil had been a great propaganda boost against the menace of the ever-expanding Muslim Ottoman Empire. Castile and Aragon supported the Conquest of Portuguese India from Muslim hands and started building their own plazas fuertes, strategic positions in the coasts of Northern Africa, with the future aspiration of slowly but safely reaching Holy Land some day. When the Great Captain liberated some islands in southern Greece, many voices outright claimed the Catholic Monarchs were predestined to defeat the Ottomans, and in his spare time from clashing against France (whose monarchs also wanted that honor), Ferdinand did some actual moves in this direction, like buying a claim to the Byzantine Empire from Andreas Palaiologos, discussing a crusade with Pope Julius II, and entertaining a raid on Constantinople. Nothing was done about it at the end, especially given that future kings of Spain would focus on the European wars of religion rather than Africa and the Mediterranean, although three of the plazasnote  and the Byzantine titlenote  still belong to current Spain.

Ferdinand and Isabella had several daughters, whom as said above, they married off with strategic alliances in mind to isolate France. Isabella of Aragon wed King Manuel II of Portugal, giving birth to a heir, Miguel, who might have become heir to all of the Iberian Peninsula had not died as a toddler (Manuel then wed the younger sister, Maria, after Isabella II's death, but it was not the same). Joanna of Castile wed Philip "The Handsome" of the House of Habsburg, rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, while Catherine of Aragon is most famous for being Henry VIII's first wife. However, Ferdinand and Isabella's son and heir, John, Prince of Asturias, died before either of them at the age of nineteen in 1497 without issue. At that point, succession rights passed to Joanna, which seemed to prefigure her and Philip the Handsome as the next royal couple of Castile and Aragon.

Things complicated in 1504 when Philip made a friendly turn towards King Louis XII of France,note  making Isabella and Ferdinand panic at the perspective of a traitor inheriting their kingdoms. To top it off, Isabella died the same year, causing immense angst. Joanna finally inherited the crown of Castile, but due to her supposed insanity (which earned her the nickname of "Joanna the Mad"), Ferdinand remained in Castile as king consort, even although this position remained precarious due to the rival presence of Philip, who had the Castilian nobility in his favor. Therefore, believing Castile to be imminently lost and hoping to at least keep Aragon in a position of power, Ferdinand set sails to the wind and stole Philip's alliance with France by marrying Louis' niece Germana of Foix in 1506,note  which would counter the new threat of the Habsburgs and hopefully produce a new heir to Aragon.

Although the marriage was deftly played, making Aragon bounce back after losing much of which Isabella and Ferdinand had built, the whole thing only offended further the Castilian nobility, who saw it as an insult to Isabella's memory and a too hasty measure to save his own power (not to mention they weren't amused by Aragon escaping their control). In turn, the events turned the Catholic Monarch paranoid and petty. His relationship with the Great Captain, who was Castilian yet also governed Naples for him, was ruined — Gonzalo argued their new alliance with France would turn many Italian allies against them, while Ferdinand now saw traitors everywhere and became obsessed with the possibility of Gonzalo revolting against him. This almost became a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, as the mistreated Great Captain eventually planned doing exactly that, although the changing political tides prevented it. Ferdinand's big trouble with Castile, however, solved by itself, as Philip died suddenly.note 

Ferdinand passed the rest of his reign entangled in a new, more chaotic war in Italy, with his friendship with France now turned hazy enough that the Catholic Monarch maneuvered into a treaty with Henry VIII against France instead. The Great Captain, whom he had kept away from the wars, died without giving trouble, but Ferdinand himself followed a year later. In his deathbed, and having produced no heirs with Germana,note  Ferdinand begrudgingly appointed Joanna's son Charles as heir of everything, as there was nobody else to inherit it now and there was always the hope of him not being as much as a scoundrel as his father. After the last Catholic Monarch's death, the united Spanish crown and its territories passed to the aforementioned, Charles V, who also rose later to Holy Roman Emperor. Charles' own son Philip II would later also inherit the crowns of both Spain and Portugal, although the kingdoms were not unified, and Portugal eventually broke off from the dynasty in 1640.

Portrayals of their marriage and reign in media:


  • The Adventures of Christopher Columbus: Ferdinand is more prone to believe in the film's villain's Flat World theory and doesn't want to support Columbus' expedition project initially, while Isabella supports Columbus throughout and funds the expedition.


Live-Action Films

Live-Action TV

Video Games

  • Age of Empires III: Isabella represents Spain as its AI personality if the player plays against it.
  • Civilization: Isabella leads Spain in several installments.

Western Animation

  • Isabella is the antagonist of the What If…? (2021) episode "What If...Kahhori Reshaped The World?", where she tries to enslave the focus population of indigenous Americans before being soundly beaten by Kahhorinote .

Alternative Title(s): Ferdinand II Of Aragon, Isabella I Of Castile