Isabel of Spain, The Catholic Queen
Warren H. Carroll, Ph.D.

Why has this queen, out of the many hundreds who have reigned during the long course of Christian history, always been called in her homeland "the Catholic Queen" - as though there were no others? Because Queen Isabel was a Catholic first, a Catholic above all, a Catholic who served God as few others have ever served Him, a Catholic whose service and rule her land and her age needed as our own land and our own age need her prayers in Heaven. It was in Isabel's name, under Isabel's banners, by Isabel's authority that the Catholic faith was brought to America by Christopher Columbus, the man she chose, and his companions. Today, as a result, a larger percentage of the people of the Americas are Catholic than on any other continent, even Europe itself.

The land of Castile, in Spain, into which Isabel was born in the year 1451, was sickened by long misrule, distracted by bitter passions, and ravaged by the uncontrolled greed of the nobility, where bishops regularly went to war, and the Church seemed helpless. Castile had been in this sad condition for a century and more. Isabel's royal father died when she was three years old; her mother became insane. Her brother was younger than she. Growing up as a princess alone and unprotected, fair game for ambitious plotters, she put all her trust in God. She attended Mass every day, illuminating her own missal; she prayed the entire Divine Office daily, and spent hours at her devotions.

Despite the hostility of her half-brother King Henry IV, when only seventeen years of age she refused the advice of all her counsellors by rejecting all thought of lending her name to a revolt against him, after her young brother had died. She married Prince Ferdinand of Aragon - who is known, with her and largely because of her, as the Catholic King. As rulers they were equals. As Ferdinand's wife , Isabel was always submissive to her husband, whom she loved devotedly and unceasingly. She knitted his shirts herself. A chronicler of her time says: "Even if necessity parted them, love held their wills in unison...Many persons tried to divide them, but they were resolved not to disagree."

Devoted to Establishing Peace

Almost as soon as Isabel was crowned Queen, Castile was attacked. Archbishop Carrillo of Toledo, primate of Spain and once Isabel's friend, joined her foes. Coming from an interview in which he coldly and contemptuously rejected her, Isabel said only: "My Lord Jesus Christ, in your hands I place all my affairs, and I implore your protection and aid."

Going among her people to seek their support in this crisis, she would end each appeal with this prayer: "Lord, in whose hands lies the sway of kingdoms, I humbly beseech Thee to hear the prayer of thy servant, and show forth the truth, and manifest Thy will with Thy marvellous works: so that if my cause is not just, I may not be allowed to sin through ignorance, and if its just, Thou give me wisdom and courage to sustain it with the aid of Thine arm, that through Thy grace we may have peace in these kingdoms."

Her people rallied to Isabel, so that her cause prevailed. She gave thanks to God in a barefoot procession across the harsh cobblestones of Tordesillas.

Isabel brought justice to Castile, which had hardly known it in the lifetime of any man then living. She was incorruptible, so devoted to establishing peace and respect for law that evildoers fled from a city when it was heard that she was coming there to hold court, knowing they could never bend her to their will. But Isabel always remained humble before God. When she found a priest, Hernando de Talavera, who for the first time in her experience required that even she as Queen kneel before him in confession, she at once selected him for her personal confessor.

Isabel led her army to the liberation of Granada, the last part of Spain still held by the alien Moorish conquerors. Her effect on her soldiers was like that of Saint Joan of Arc. Their customary profane swearing ceased; they knelt in the field for Mass, and received spiritual counsel from the friars. Isabel visited the sick and wounded, sometimes dressing their wounds with her own hands. When the tents of the great Spanish camp before Granada caught fire and were almost burned, Isabel rebuilt the camp in stone, and named it Holy Faith (Santa Fe).

The Greatest Voyage in History

With the splendid victory of Granada won, Isabel was ready to send Columbus on the greatest voyage in history, the voyage that opened up a New World which had never before known Christ, with millions of souls to save. Before leaving Spain, Columbus and his men confessed their sins, attended Mass, received Holy Communion, invoked the Most Holy Trinity, and sang the "Salve Regina" - as Queen Isabel herself would have done, if she had been there with them. Her spiritual example and leadership were making their mark.

She applied her example and leadership more directly on one occasion in a convent of lax nuns, by taking her spinning wheel to the convent and working at it all day to remind them of the humble diligence to which they were called, and which the Queen did not disdain. When the primate of Spain, Cardinal Mendoza, died, Isabel urged the Pope to confirm as his successor a holy, ascetic Franciscan monk, Jimene de Cisneros, who had fled all worldly and church honors. Cisneros, accepting the appointment only under obedience with the greatest reluctance, who always wore a hair shirt under his archbishop's robes, reformed the Church in Spain so thoroughly that the widespread abuses of the time which afflicted the Church elsewhere were almost completely rooted out.

When an assassin nearly killed Ferdinand, Isabel wrote to her former confessor, Talavera, humbly grateful to God for sparing her husband's life, but bewailing her own sins: "I don't know how we shall thank God for so great a grace - many virtues would not suffice to do it. And what shall I do, who have none? Please god, henceforth I shall serve Him as I ought. Your prayers and your counsels will aid me in this, as they have always helped me."

After Columbus had returned from his first voyage with the glorious news of the greatest discovery of all time, and Spain began opening up America, Isabel was confronted with the question of what to do about the natives of the New World. When the first shiploads of Indians arrived in Spain in 1495, Isabel at once ordered that the "sale of slaves must be absolutely suspended." She strictly forbade enslavement of the Indians. When Columbus, after his third voyage, nevertheless gave each of his men an Indian as a personal servant, Isabel's response was: "Who authorized my admiral to dispose of my subjects in this manner?" - and she sent them all back home to America.

Her Last Years

In her last years Isabel had heavy crosses to bear. Her only son, Crown Prince John, died tragically on his honeymoon. Her oldest daughter died in childbirth, and her baby son then born, died just two years later. Isabel's second daughter lost her mind. Her youngest daughter, Catherine, married Crown Prince Arthur of England, who also died a few months after their marriage, leaving Catherine later to marry his brother, Henry VIII - who, long afterward, was to break from the Catholic Church in order to put her away. Isabel bore everything in union with the suffering Christ. During her last illness she begged for her sorrowing people not to pray for a restoration of health to her body, but for the salvation of her soul. She asked to be buried beside her husband when he died, so "that the union we have enjoyed in this world, and through the mercy of God may hope again for our souls in heaven, may be represented by our bodies in the earth."

In a reign of thirty years Isabel had lifted her people from the mire to the stars. She had made Spain the leading nation of the world - not just in wealth and power, but above all in justice, good government, a vibrant faith, and a strong and healthy Church. From Isabel's Spain went forth not only conquistadors, but missionaries and saints, crossing mighty oceans, into many lands never before known to Christians, converting millions who have remained Catholic ever since. She bore the enormous responsibilities of supreme public authority and her many heavy personal crosses without discouragement or complaint, above all without any change in her faith, her morality, or her charity - except to strengthen them all. For all her victories she gave God the glory, claiming only her sins - of which she remained ever conscious - as her own. Yet no scandal ever stained her person. Well might Washington Irving call her "one of the purest and most beautiful characters in the pages of history."

Is it not fitting that her Church at last extend the highest honor - that of being raised to the altars she loved - to one who honored the Church so greatly and constantly all during her life? Is it not time that we showed Isabel that her fellow Catholics - especially in America - love her as she loved her people, Spanish and American alike, for and in the glory of God?

Isabel, the Catholic, pray for us.

close window