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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Isabella of Castile and Her Myth

Note: This is a revised version of an essay published during my blog tour for THE QUEEN'S VOW.

Isabella of Castile is one of those historical characters who generate strong reactions. When I told my friends that I was writing about her, I heard everything from, “Oh, are you sure you want to tackle her?” to “Didn’t she burn everyone?” to flat-out: “I'd never read a book about her. She was a monster.”

Now, it may seem odd but those reactions excited me. I’ve always been fascinated by famous women with controversial reputations, as evidenced by my previous novels about Catherine de Medici and Juana la Loca, who is Isabella’s daughter. But I must admit that while growing up in Spain all I heard about Isabella (in Spain, she’s properly known as Isabel) was that she was this near-saintly queen who united Arag√≥n and Castile through her marriage to King Ferdinand, conquered Granada, sent Columbus to find the New World, and . . . Well, that was about it. I’d also visited her tomb in Granada as a child, but I was more taken by the lurid fate of her willful daughter, Juana, the queen who went mad out of love— an interest that eventually resulted in my first novel, The Last Queen.

It was while writing my first book that I began my research into Isabella’s life. I focused mainly on her later years and found myself affected by her struggles, even as I deplored her religiously motivated actions. She outlived two of her beloved children only to die at the age of fifty-three, leaving behind a bereaved nation and uncertain future. No one could argue she was both stoic and indefatigable in her commitment to her country. But, I found myself asking, who was she before she became queen? How did this young and inexperienced princess sent to live far from court become the first female ruler of a united Spain? How did her experiences in her youth define and shape her later years? These questions obsessed me, and so I came to realize I had to write more about Isabella.

Nevertheless, when my editor accepted my proposal, I understood that I’d set myself a formidable task. For though Isabella has all the hallmarks of a formidable heroine, she's also shrouded by dark condemnation, often seen as a narrow-minded fanatic who gave rise to the Inquisition and callously evicted the Moors and Jews from Spain. Infamy clings to her name; as history has been revised by more enlightened times, she’s borne the brunt of it. I’d confronted historical calumny before with my characters, however, and my task as a writer is never to judge what happened but rather to try and reveal why. I also try my utmost to not view the past through the prism of the present. The world which Isabella of Castile knew was vastly different from our own, and its contradictions must have shaped her in unexpected ways.

First and foremost, no one can argue that Isabella was exceptional for her era. She's also, like so many of us, a bundle of contradictions.  Publicly and privately, she fought the dictates of society and its prohibitive limitations on women, intent on forging her own path. Nevertheless, she was rather traditional in her outlook on her duty as a wife, yet paradoxically she was a mother who insisted on raising her own children in a time when queens rarely did. She also faced a unique set of circumstances as a ruler that had proven the bane of her predecessors—a fractured kingdom weakened by centuries of strife, overlaid by an uneasy religious amalgam that made Spain both tolerant, and conversely, rife with divisiveness. Isabella inherited a land that was crumbling and in desperate need of unity if it was to survive the hostile encroachments of neighboring powers. Destined to become Spain’s architect, who would guide her new-born country into the Renaissance age, she achieved the impossible. Yet, like many rulers before and after her, she also made tragic mistakes - and those mistakes blackened her reputation irreparably.

The Queen’s Vow portrays the complex, fallible woman behind Isabella’s legend. From her forgotten youth when no one believed she was destined for greatness, to her plunge into the cesspool of her half-brother’s court and the unexpected loss that propelled her into a dramatic fight for her throne, as well as her passion for a prince she was forbidden to wed and courage as a neophyte ruler, which molded her into the queen who changed the world, her story is one of grandeur and passion, triumph, tragedy and sacrifice. It is a story of a princess who defied the odds, of a devoted wife and mother who endured heartbreaking betrayal, and of a devout woman torn between duty to her subjects, her faith and her country. It is a story that I believe the majority of us have never heard.

Was Isabella of Castile everything that has been said about her? Or, has history only given us part of the truth?  I leave you to find out. I sincerely hope you enjoy The Queen’s Vow.

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