1494: How a Family Feud in Medieval Spain Divided the World in Half

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9780312616120: 1494: How a Family Feud in Medieval Spain Divided the World in Half

"This is a starry love story, a tale of seething jealousies and subterfuge, a political imbroglio, and religious cruelties. It sounds like Shakespeare and it could have very well been the plot of one of his plays."
--Toronto Star

In 1494, award-winning author Stephen R. Bown tells the untold story of the explosive feud between monarchs, clergy, and explorers that split the globe between Spain and Portugal and made the world's oceans a battleground.
When Columbus triumphantly returned from America to Spain in 1493, his discoveries inflamed an already-smouldering conflict between Spain's renowned monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, and Portugal's João II. Which nation was to control the world's oceans? To quell the argument, Pope Alexander VI―the notorious Rodrigo Borgia―issued a proclamation laying the foundation for the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, an edict that created an imaginary line in the Atlantic Ocean dividing the entire known (and unknown) world between Spain and Portugal.
Just as the world's oceans were about to be opened by Columbus's epochal voyage, the treaty sought to limit the seas to these two favored Catholic nations. The edict was to have a profound influence on world history: it propelled Spain and Portugal to superpower status, steered many other European nations on a collision course, and became the central grievance in two centuries of international espionage, piracy, and warfare.
The treaty also began the fight for "the freedom of the seas"―the epic struggle to determine whether the world's oceans, and thus global commerce, would be controlled by the decree of an autocrat or be open to the ships of any nation―a distinctly modern notion, championed in the early seventeenth century by the Dutch legal theorist Hugo Grotius, whose arguments became the foundation of international law.
At the heart of one of the greatest international diplomatic and political agreements of the last five centuries were the strained relationships and passions of a handful of powerful individuals. They were linked by a shared history, mutual animosity, and personal obligations―quarrels, rivalries, and hatreds that dated back decades. Yet the struggle ultimately stemmed from a young woman's determination to defy tradition and the king, and to choose her own husband.

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About the Author:

STEPHEN R. BOWN has been writing about adventurers, travelers, and explorers for many years. He is the author of Madness, Betrayal and the Lash; Scurvy; A Most Damnable Invention; and Merchant Kings. He lives in the Canadian Rockies with his wife and two children.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1494
PART I Europe  
 
{ 1 } THE PRINCESS and the PRINCE IN 1468, the seventeen-year-old Isabella's marriage prospects were not good. The younger half-sister to Enrique, the reigning king of Castile, Isabella found the king's first choice for her husband, the aging and grasping king of Portugal, Afonso V, to be unpleasant. Although a renowned warrior and crusader who a decade earlier had beaten back the Moors from Morocco, Afonso was now more than twice Isabella's age and already had an adult son who would be his heir. He had grown plump and unappealing as well as politically impotent--a disadvantage for any children that might arise from the union. He was also related to Isabella, a reality not uncommon in dynastic marriages in Europe in the late Middle Ages, but nonetheless requiring a papal dispensation. The thought of this man as her lifelong bedmate and as the father of her children was enough to make Isabella weep. But Isabella's marriage was a matter of state interest; from Enrique's point of view, romance or compatibility had little to dowith it. Enrique was in favour of the match, and so was Afonso. In fact, the two men had been discussing the betrothal for a few years, and the proposal had been firmly yet diplomatically resisted by Isabella for just as long. At one point the stubborn princess had informed her half-brother that she "could not be disposed of in marriage without the consent of the nobles of the realm," which was an accurate if audacious claim. Enrique knew that consent from his nobles would not be readily forthcoming in the current complicated political climate, particularly if Isabella chose to cause trouble. But the pressure from Portugal to meet the proposal, and his own need for Portuguese military support, was so great that Enrique eventually threatened Isabella with imprisonment in the Alcázar in Madrid if she refused to agree to the marriage. A Portuguese courtier implied that Portuguese armies would march on Castile in retaliation if she persisted in her humiliating refusal. Isabella may have appeared passive--she was fond of reading and devoted to lengthy prayer sessions--but years of dangerous court intrigue had made her a master dissembler. Although her placid smile conveyed a disarming neutrality, she had her own plans and dreams, held close to her heart and shared only with her closest supporters and advisers. Those dreams did not correspond with the wishes of her king and many of the grandees of the realm. Known to history for having a strong and independent will throughout her life, Isabella made it abundantly clear in 1468 while still a teenager that she would not have the repulsive Portuguese monarch as her consort and spouse, regardless of the consequences. Her exasperating display of independence was threatening to derail plans that had been years in the making, and possibly to agitate the fragile peace between the two nations. Enrique considered his options. He consulted with his advisers and explored other possibilities for Isabella's marriage. His half-sister's marriage had become a personal as well as political concern. Isabella's claim to the Castilian throne, were Enrique todie suddenly, was now stronger even than the claim of his own six-year-old daughter, Juana. Named after her mother, the vivacious Juana of Portugal, his daughter coincidentally was the niece of the Portuguese King Afonso-Enrique's wife, Juana of Portugal, was Afonso's younger sister. But the younger Juana was widely suspected to have been sired by one of Enrique's court favourites, the dashing Beltrán de la Cueva, and therefore illegitimate for purposes of political inheritance. In fact Enrique, at the strenuous urging of his nobles following several years of simmering civil war, had recently made a public proclamation that Juana was not his offspring. The unfortunate girl was nicknamed "La Beltraneja," a name that stuck with her not only throughout her life but down through the centuries. It did not help his position that his queen had recently given birth to yet another child who could not possibly have been sired by Enrique because the royal couple had been living in different places. Despite the great efforts made to conceal the pregnancy with tight gowns, the impropriety had been discovered. It was now widely claimed in the Castilian court that the queen "has not used her person cleanly, as comports with her duty as servant to the king." The marriage was duly annulled by the papal legate, and the oaths of allegiance to Juana that Enrique had extracted from his nobles were likewise annulled. Owing to the child's acknowledged illegitimacy, and lacking direct legitimate descendants, the thirty-eight-year-old Enrique, snidely known as "the Impotent," had little choice but to name his half-sister, Isabella, as the princess of Asturias, next in line to succeed to the throne of Castile as the one true heir. But he had forced a concession from her: he would have the authority to choose her husband. Isabella's marriage could not be considered lightly, but Enrique's motives were less than noble. He wished to give the appearance of selecting a suitable mate for her while neutralizing her political potential in Castile, and eventually to undermine herclaim to his throne. Enrique briefly pursued several other marriage matches for Isabella, including to the duke of Gloucester, the future King Richard III, in distant and chilly England, and the French king Louis XI'S brother, the effete Charles, duke of Berry and Guienne. An alliance with France, sealed and secured with a marriage, might allow Castile and France to surround the smaller kingdom of Aragon and perhaps claim some outlying territories. Although Charles was only five years her senior and at that time the heir to the French throne, Isabella was not enamoured with him. No newcomer to intrigue, Isabella had sent her confidante, Friar Alfonso de Coca, to France to spy on him. The friar returned with a depressing report. The young French noble seemed prematurely aged. He was, according to de Coca, "made ugly by the extremely misshapen thin legs and watery eyes that were sometimes so bad as to be nearly blind, so that rather than weapons and a horse what he needed was a skilful guide." Charles was certainly not the man to quicken Isabella's heart. But de Coca made another interesting discovery. He had also travelled to the neighbouring kingdom of Aragon to spy on one further marital option that had been secretly urged upon Isabella by her personal political adviser Alfonso Carillo de Acuña, the archbishop of Toledo: Ferdinand, the sixteen-year-old son and heir to King Juan II of Aragon. De Coca was pleased to inform Isabella that this young prince had "a gallant presence that could not be compared to the Duke [of Berry] ... he has a singular grace that everyone who talks to him wants to serve him." Young Ferdinand was also a skilled swordsman and field commander, talents that might prove valuable should Isabella defy Enrique and proceed with a betrothal. Muscular and athletic, Ferdinand was "a great rider of the bridle and the jennet, and a great lance thrower and other activities which he performed with great skill and a grace," according to a later court historian. He also had "marvellously beautiful, large slightly slanted eyes, thin eyebrows, a sharpnose that fit the shape and size of his face." His mouth was "often laughing" and his build "most appropriate to elegant suits and the finest clothes." It was hardly surprising when Isabella pronounced to Carillo that "it must be he and no other." A match with Ferdinand of Aragon was sure to be opposed by Enrique and many of his loyal nobles, as it would strengthen rather than weaken Isabella's claim to the Castilian throne. (Despite his public proclamation, Enrique still schemed to pass the throne to his daughter Juana.) Any children Isabella and Ferdinand might have would be joint heirs to the thrones of both Castile and Aragon, uniting most of the Iberian peninsula in one royal house and possibly overshadowing Portugal. Isabella's stubbornness was balanced by her sense of duty and piety, but geopolitics and the national interests of Castile--at least, Enrique's idea of Castile's interests--could only sway her so far. She urged her small cadre of supporters and advisers to begin secret marriage negotiations with Ferdinand. Given the possible domestic outcomes for the lonely teenage princess--her father was long dead, her mother descended into melancholy and madness and her younger brother recently poisoned to death--Isabella seems to have demonstrated remarkable courage in defying the king and choosing her mate, and therefore determining Castile's future political alliances. Despite her feelings of guilt at betraying her half-brother's trust--though she knew by now that he did not have her best interests at heart--she had to proceed quickly with her plan. Enrique, who was away from his court to suppress an uprising in Andalusia, would certainly marshal forces to prevent any union with Ferdinand and perhaps even imprison Isabella or quickly marry her off to either the duke of Berry or King Afonso. Enrique had not yet accepted as final her refusal to obey him. While Isabella's supporters--powerful aristocrats who were working to ensure her ultimate position as queen of Castile--proceeded with the touchy marriage negotiations with Ferdinand'sfather, Juan vi, king of Aragon, Isabella waited in her castle in Valladolid. The negotiations proceeded slowly as each communication had to be carted in secret across the plains and mountains by riders on horses, a journey that could take a week between the two kingdoms. A diplomatic marriage at this high level, involving the possible heir to the Castilian throne and the heir to the Aragonese throne, involved a great deal of politics concerning the workings of the kingdoms under a joint monarchy and could not be hurried. The outcome of the secret marriage plans of the teenage Isabella would have an enormous impact on the future of the Iberian peninsula, possibly leading to a new dynasty or, less happily, to civil war. Sometime during the secretive diplomatic exchange, Isabella's conscience got the better of her and she dispatched a letter to Enrique in Andalusia. She told him of her marriage plans, attempting to soothe his injured pride and placate his anger at being defied in his kingly role. His dynastic machinations thwarted, Enrique's response was swift and decisive: he dispatched a band of loyal troops north to arrest Isabella.  
THE IBERIAN peninsula is a patchwork of diverse geographical features that contributed to an equally diverse quilt of political divisions in the fifteenth century. The land includes steep mountain ranges, high and windy plains, thick forests, fertile farmlands along the rivers and rocky coasts along the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean and Cantabrian Seas. The central kingdom of Castile, which over the years had incorporated, by warfare and royal marriage, many smaller kingdoms, was the largest and most populous of the five quarrelling realms of the peninsula. It had a population of between four and six million, concentrated in the fertile Castilian plateau, a wind-swept high plain of harsh winters and heavy rains, but hot and dry in the summer. Most of the kingdom's millions of sheep were raised on the plateau as well. The economy was primarily agrarian, aided by a handful of bustling trading ports along theeast coast, as well as fishermen, sailors and explorers on the Atlantic coast. Life was slow and primarily rural. Only a few ill-maintained roads crossed the peninsula, and there were large swaths of sparsely populated hinterland between the cities and towns situated on the major rivers. The rugged landscape was dotted with hilltop forts and defensive towers; the towns were all walled and defended, attesting to the centuries of conflict and quarrelling that had dominated the region's history, conflict that had erupted into particular vigour in the mid-fifteenth century. The land was worked by peasant farmers whose main crops included barley, oats, olives and wheat, with oranges, figs, grapes and rice grown in the south of Castile (Andalusia) and the Moorish kingdom of Granada. Large herds of sheep patrolled the open expanse of the Castilian plain, while peddlers slowly and erratically criss-crossed the land, plodding along dusty roads, their mules laden with exotic imported spices, cloth and medicines. One contemporary traveller commented, "One can walk for days on end without meeting a single inhabitant." Although Castile had the potential to prosper, the internecine quarrels of its noble families through much of the fifteenth century had created political instability that stunted trade, plagued the ill-kept highways with brigands and hobbled the central power and taxation ability of the kings. Madrid at the time was a minor town; though it was frequented by the royal court, primarily for its central location, monarchs and their entourages preferred Segovia, Valladolid and Toledo, which had the largest castles and largest populations. In the late fifteenth century the walled town of Seville, along the mighty Guadalquivir River, was Castile's most important city, with an urban population of perhaps 40,000 people and a hinterland of approximately 130,000. Surrounding the kingdom of Castile were four other kingdoms that shared the Iberian peninsula, including tiny but fertile Navarre, in the north, and lively and prosperous Aragon, in the northeast,with its thriving sea ports at Valencia and Barcelona. Aragon shared with Castile a language and similar culture and branches of the same dynastic line. Castile's nemesis, Portugal, lay to the west. Once part of the Castilian crown, Portugal had wrested its independence in 1095 and proceeded to push its own reconquest, recapturing Lisbon from the Moors in 1147 and later that century the Algarve, in the south. Although Castile and Portugal had a similar culture, language and dynastic lineage, they frequently struggled with each other for pre-eminence in the peninsula. The remaining independent Iberian kingdom was the fabled Granada, set apart from the other four kingdoms by not sharing the Christian religion with them. Granada was a Moorish or Muslim kingdom, the sole remaining vestige of the civilization that for centuries had dominated most of the peninsula. Islamic invaders had first launched across the Strait of Gibraltar in the early eighth century. In quick order their disciplined and inspired warriors, led by Tariq the One-Eyed, defeated the armies deployed against them. They eventually overran much of the Visigothic empire on the Iberian peninsula, then surged north across the Pyrenees and into France. After a string of victories and advances, they were stopped by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732. In Iberia the Moors consolidated their new empire, but within a few years of the initial assault the Visigoth warlord Pelayo reconquered the small kingdom of Asturias, bordering the Cantabrian Sea, and began the centuries-long Reconquista by predominantly Christian Spain against the Muslim invaders. By the fifteenth century, after centuries of war, only one small Moorish kingdom remained in Spain: Granada, separated and defended from the other four Iberian kingdoms by the highest mountain range in the peninsula, the Sierra Nevada. At this time just over half of the peninsula's people were Christian, while the remainder were Muslim or Jewish. Despite the more-or-less ongoing warfare, followers of the three main religiousfaiths eked out an uneasy coexistence. Nancy Rubin, in Isabella of Castile: T...

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