Saturday, June 11, 2016

Book Review - "The Queen's Vow: A Novel of Isabella of Castile" by C. W. Gortner

This was an engrossing and educational read about the reign of Isabella I of Castile, a bodacious female monarch who made her indelible mark on Spanish history. The timeline of the story stretched from 1464 (when she was 13 and an infante, 2nd in line to the throne) to 1492 (when she reached her 41st year).

Her early life before her coronation in 1474 was mostly spent as a captive in the Palace of Segovia, entrusted to the care of her half-brother King Enrique VI, whose consort gave birth to an alleged bastard daughter Joanna. King Enrique seemed to vacillate between allowing and disallowing this daughter to have a claim to the throne. Meanwhile Isabella’s full brother Alfonso decided to fight for his own right by rising up in arms against the King, but was subsequently poisoned to death. During all this tumult, Isabella met the love of her life, Fernando II of Aragon, who sowed in her the idea of a unified Spain, bringing Castile and Aragon under their joint rule. After many twists and turns, the lovers were married, and Isabella was crowned Queen of Castile in 1474 upon the death of King Enrique. She was portrayed in those budding years as cool-headed, witty, patient and above all, devoted to a fault to her Catholic faith.

Almost immediately after their wedding, Isabella, together with her husband and co-ruler, plunged into years of wars against neighboring Portugal (because Joanna sought Portugal’s help in trying to reclaim the Castilian throne) and against the Muslim Moors in Andalucia (because the Catholic monarchs vowed on unifying Spain under one single faith). All these wars ended in victory for the Spanish monarchs. It should be noted that Andalucia had become a refuge for many Jewish conversos, or New Christians, who had been coerced to convert to Catholic faith.

In 1483, on the persistent urge of the Dominican friar Tomas de Torquemada, Isabella and Fernando decided to establish a State Council for Inquisition to enforce Catholic orthodoxy and to persecute those conversos who continued to practice Judaism covertly. In 1492, the Spanish monarchs issued the Alhambra Decree ordering the expulsion of all Jews who refused to convert to the Catholic faith.

Whether the true underlying reason for the Inquisition and Expulsion was for financial gains from confiscating Jewish assets and property, or for quelling rising social discord between Catholics and Jews, or for the sake of political expediency, it remained a debate for historians. But it was an undeniable fact that Isabella, for all her humane and rational disposition, did put her signatures on those draconian and dogmatic edicts (whether or not under her husband’s influence), which led to massive sufferings and decimation of lives. True, though, she was not the first European monarch or the last to pursue an anti-Jewish policy.

In 1492, Isabella also agreed to finance Cristobal Colon's (Christopher Columbus') groundbreaking voyage to the New World.

In the “Afterword”, the author made this remark:

Isabella defied categorization with her heroism and contradictions; awesome in her resolve to forge a united nation, she was often misguided in her devotion to her faith, which gave rise to that infamous system of persecution known as the Spanish Inquisition.

It’s interesting to note that in Castile, a princess was allowed to succeed as the reigning monarch, whereas in Aragon, the Salic law prevailed to prohibit all royal females from inheriting the throne.

Gortner exhibits his talent in story-telling as well as his keen sense for cultural details in this riveting biographical historical novel. I’m giving it 4 full stars.

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