A man’s world in the 15th and 16th centuries? – that would be to ignore two very remarkable women from that era!
Queen Isabella of Castile and Aragon (1451 – 1504) – featured in 1492 and all that!
In 1474 the rather weak king of Castile, Henry IV, died and this led to the ‘War of the Castilian Succession’. Isabella his half-sister prevailed because she commanded the support of the powerful Castilian nobles and had pre-arranged for the support of the kingdom of Aragón. Isabella had married King Ferdinand II of Aragón back in 1469.
In January 1474 she and Ferdinand signed an agreement where they would jointly rule their two kingdoms. But Castile was considered the senior partner and so Isabella was afforded the greater authority; otherwise they would share the role as monarch in a thrust towards unifying Spain. Pope Alexander VI dubbed them the ‘Catholic Monarchs’.
Isabella then wove a web of strategic European relationships by marrying off their children. Perhaps most importantly her second daughter Joanna (Juana) married Philip the Handsome, son of the King of Bohemia. Philip was a Habsburg, their son Charles (grandson to Ferdinand and Isabella) would inherit a substantive realm.
As Charles I of Spain he was the first to rule a unified Spanish kingdom and its growing American and Asian territories. But as heir to the Habsburg and Burgundian thrones he later became Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and Archduke of Austria from 1519.
The monarchs presided over the end phases of the Reconquista eventually taking the Moors’ final stronghold of Granada in 1492, a key moment in the reunification of Spain.
Isabella ruled strongly. Back in 1477/8 Tomás de Torquemada, a Dominican friar, became the personal confessor and advisor to Isabella. Torquemada would gain her approval to create the Spanish Inquisition to safeguard their Catholic faith. Initially this was established to tackle their ‘Jewish problem’ but later this included the Moors and others.
Isabella also funded Christopher Columbus as he developed his plans for a western passage to the Orient. The monarchs issued a royal letter that required any Spanish city or town to give Columbus free lodging and food. She was reluctant to fund his expedition but was eventually convinced by Ferdinand to do so.
Columbus and her other explorers discovered new lands for Isabella to rule, these territories were soon harnessed by her battle-hardened subjects, the conquistadors, who carved out and defended an Empire for her.
Isabella created the environment not just for the reunification of Spain, but she ushered in its Golden Age.
Queen Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603)
A generation later, Elizabeth did not have quite as smooth an accession to her throne.
The second daughter of Henry VIII, her mother was his second wife Anne Boleyn. Anne was executed when Elizabeth was just 32 months old. His third wife died shortly after delivering his first son, Edward, who became the recognised heir.
He succeeded his father at the age of nine as Edward VI, but was dead at fifteen. But not before he had arranged that Mary and Elizabeth’s succession rights were negated in favour of Lady Jane Grey, the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister.
But the two sisters soon dealt with this within nine days and Mary was crowned as Queen. Mary a devout Catholic set about persecuting the Protestants; Elizabeth had been raised as one but had to be seen to conform. When Mary announced she was to marry Prince Phillip of Spain (son of Charles V and later to become Philip II) the country was in turmoil.
In 1554 in the aftermath of the Wyatt rebellion Elizabeth was implicated and imprisoned in the Tower of London, but she was accepted back into the Court the following year. Her reconciliation was perhaps as much about Philip finding her more potentially malleable than Mary Queen of Scots, betrothed to the Dauphin of France.
So it was somewhat against the odds when Elizabeth at twenty-five years of age did succeed her half-sister. Her accession was welcomed by the populace as she re-espoused Protestantism, but this led to fears that the Catholic French and Spanish would wish to react against England.
She never married though had entertained some suitors through her life and had a coterie of favourites; she explained she was married to her country. As a result she was the last Tudor. She was keen to be close to her subjects, making more than a score of ‘progresses’ to the regions. She often rode a horse on these rather than being concealed in a carriage.
She had to defend her throne against constant French and Scottish intrigue. It did not help when Pope Pius V excommunicated her as a heretic in 1570. The Irish were another constant thorn in her side.
Her foreign policy was based on overseas trade and the defence of her realm though Francis Drake kept pushing the fabric with his attacks on the Spanish in the Caribbean, a raid on Cadiz… But he became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe and later proved significant in his harrying of the ill-fated Spanish Armada. The latter inspired Elizabeth’s speech at Tilbury, ‘‘I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king – and of a King of England too.’
The Elizabethan era was culturally significant with Shakespeare, Marlowe and Spenser creating drama and poetry that has cwertainly stood the test of time.
Pressure was released when Henry IV of France was crowned in 1589, for he was a Protestant. Although several military expeditions she sent to assist him proved unsuccessful, not to say shambolic. Her latter years were less successful as her government became fractious and taxes became oppressive to fund her constant defence against Spain and Ireland.
Many consider her 45-year reign as a golden era in English history.