Book Review: “Isabella of Castile: Europe’s First Great Queen” by Giles Tremlett

The Freelance History Writer has previously reviewed two other biographies of Isabella of Castile:  Here and Here.

I’ve had this volume on my shelf for some time and having recently decided to do some research on Isabella, finally read it. Tremlett’s opening page has two quotes about this formidable queen. ‘No woman in history has exceeded her achievement’ from Hugh Thomas, “Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire” and ‘Probably the most important person in our history’ from Manuel Fernández Á lvarez, “Isabel la Católica”.

From the first page of this book, I was hooked. Tremlett gives us a well-organized and well-thought-out, chronological, presentation of Isabella’s life, from the reign of her father to her death. Isabella’s gutsy seizure of the throne after the death of her half-brother King Enrique IV had me on the edge of my seat. She quickly neutralized Enrique’s daughter Juana la Beltraneja to take power. It’s impossible to know if Juana was illegitimate or Enrique’s actual daughter but Tremlett makes a convincing case that she was legitimate.

Isabella’s first great political move was to marry Ferdinand of Aragon and unite their two kingdoms, even though they were ruled separately. The politics of the unification of Spain are complicated but Tremlett explains it well, telling us the good, the bad and the ugly about the rule of these two monarchs who formed an exceedingly effective partnership. He explains how Isabella ruled in a manner where she was loved and feared all at once, and does this without any judgements. There’s good information on her upbringing, her struggle to come to power, her ability to reclaim the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors and her treatment of the Muslims and Jews, as well as the decision by both Ferdinand and Isabella to begin the Spanish Inquisition.

The author has a good section regarding the voyages of Christopher Columbus and other explorers promoted and sponsored by the Queen. He gives us the lives of the children of Ferdinand and Isabella. We can really get a glimpse of what her personality was really like and the dynamic of the entire family. Reading about her death and her spiritual and mental struggles is very touching. She died knowing the reign of her daughter Juana would not be successful. Tremlett manages to humanize Isabella.

While I can highly recommend all three of these biographies, Tremlett’s volume is not quite as academic in tone as Peggy Liss’ book and is somewhat more detailed than Downey’s. All three will give the reader a well-rounded view of Isabella of Castile, Europe’s first great Queen. I’m looking forward to reading Tremlett’s book about Isabella’s daughter, Catherine of Aragon.

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