Wednesday 29 November 2017

Mary and the influence of Isabella of Castle by Melita Thomas

Photo by AW Images

Our November guest is Melita Thomas

Melita Thomas is the co-founder and editor of Tudor Times, a repository of information about Tudors and Stewarts in the period 1485-1625.

Melita has loved history since being mesmerised by the BBC productions of ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ and ‘Elizabeth R’, when she was a little girl. After that, she read everything she could get her hands on about this most fascinating of dynasties. Captivated by the story of the Lady Mary galloping to Framlingham to set up her standard and fight for her rights, Melita began her first book about the queen when she was 9. The manuscript is probably still in the attic!

Whilst still pursuing a career in business, Melita took a course on writing biography, which led her and her business partner, Deborah Roil, to the idea for Tudor Times, and gave her the inspiration to begin writing about Mary again. The King’s Pearl: Henry VIII and his daughter Mary is her first book.

In her spare time, Melita enjoys long distance walking. She is attempting to walk around the whole coast of Britain, and you can follow her progress here.

Welcome Melita! Your book is a great read.

Mary and the influence of Isabella of Castile.

It is a truism that women could not (or should not) rule in Europe during the middle-ages and Renaissance period, but the theory and the lived reality were two very different things. The second half of the fifteenth century, and the sixteenth century was an age of female rulers.

Generally, female rule was not absolute – they were regents, governors, dowagers and queens-mother, whose effective dominance was hidden behind the cloak of acting on behalf of fathers, brothers or under-age sons – but one woman, Isabella, sovereign Queen of Castile, probably wielded more power and influence across Europe than any woman until the empresses of the eighteenth century.

As a young woman of seventeen, Isabella was willing to wage war against her half-brother to have her claim to succeed him recognised, and on his death, when she was twenty-three, she raised troops and led an armed force to seize the throne, not waiting for her husband to take the initiative on her behalf. Isabella’s driving personality, and the mutually beneficial partnership that she and her husband, Ferdinand, King of Aragon, established, led to the emergence of Spain as one of the great powers of Europe, and the dominant force in the European colonisation of the New World. Isabella’s vision of herself was as a Crusader. Whilst crusading in the Holy Land was something that most European rulers talked about, but failed to do, Ferdinand and Isabella saw themselves on the front line – their duty was to reclaim Christian Spain from the remaining Moorish kingdoms, and to ensure purity of religion at home by rooting out heresy, and Judaism.

Isabella had four daughters, two became queens-consort of Portugal, one succeeded her (much less successfully) as Queen of Castile, and the youngest, Katharine, became queen-consort of England. Katharine left her homeland at the age of fifteen, but records of her childhood, and her surviving correspondence, suggest that she was emotionally close to her mother. Isabella, in an early example of a woman holding down a high-powered and demanding job, whilst maintaining her maternal role, took her children with her everywhere, even close to the front-line of battle, and was closely concerned in their education. It is no stretch of imagination to suppose that her youngest daughter imbibed from her mother the knowledge that a woman could be a powerful and effective monarch, even if she were married, and that her supreme duty was to God.

This belief in a woman’s duty to be a crusader, to protect her faith, and to fight for her rights were amply illustrated by Katharine’s refusal to accept her husband, Henry VIII’s plan to set her aside, because they had only one daughter, and no male heir. That Katharine was seen as a fearsome opponent is illustrated by Henry’s concern that Katharine would raise an army against him and ‘wage war as fiercely as ever her mother had done’, and by her nephew, the Emperor Charles V, telling the English ambassador, only partly in jest, that his sole fear was that ‘(Katharine) would ally with French and defeat him’.

This was the heritage of Katharine’s daughter, Mary. It was not the custom in the sixteenth century for royal children to live with their parents full time – Isabella had been exceptional in that regard - so Mary was housed separately, but she visited her parents for weeks and even months at a time and all the available evidence indicates that both of Mary’s parents were devoted to her. Naturally, of course, she would have been included in the daily activities of her mother, rather than her father and, whilst there is no evidence about what Katharine told Mary about her grandmother, it is not unreasonable to believe Mary heard the story of Isabella’s victories and the final surrender of the Kingdom of Granada to her, an event Katharine herself had witnessed in 1492.

In 1525, Henry, despairing of a male heir, began to consider the possibility that Mary might succeed him. He sent her to the Marches of Wales to preside over the Council. Although not formally created Princess of Wales, she was called by the title, and very quickly accustomed herself to being treated as such, with the implication that the position held of being the king’s heir.

The single extant letter from Katharine to Mary dating from this period, refers only to their mutual health, and the queen’s hopes that Mary will improve her Latin, and occasionally send copies of her Latin exercises for the queen to see. It says nothing about Mary’s role, or what the future might hold for her, but surely Katharine had told her about Isabella’s success, not just on the battle-field, but also in reinforcing crown authority, increasing trade and improving access to justice - thus creating a role-model for Mary.

Eight years later, in 1533, Mary was informed that she was no longer to be termed Princess of Wales, nor to consider herself Henry’s heir. She was seventeen, the very age at which Isabella had insisted on her right to the Castilian throne, in preference to her half-brother’s daughter, whom most people thought was not his own child. The similarity of cases – the ‘true-born’ heir as Mary saw herself, versus the illegitimate (again in Mary’s view) Elizabeth, corresponds with that of Isabella and her supposed niece, Juana ‘La Beltraneja’, and it is impossible that Mary was unaware of the parallel.

Isabella was not physically within the control of her half-brother, enabling her to take up arms to drive out La Beltraneja on her half-brother’s death, whilst Mary was isolated and powerless, stripped of even her household servants, but she continued to vehemently defend her position. Like Isabella, Mary had many supporters, and had Henry died without a legitimate son, Mary would undoubtedly have fought for the throne against any attempt to proclaim Elizabeth. As it was, Henry lived until 1547, and was succeeded by Mary’s half-brother. But on his death, in 1553, when an attempt was made to ignore her claim to the throne, Mary showed herself the true descendant of a warrior queen.

Without hesitation, she called on her supporters and raised an army, preparing to fight to for her rights and her religion – just as Isabella had done. Late in her own reign, when there was war with France, Mary even talked of taking the field herself - surely, her courage, determination and martial spirit must have owed something to the example of Isabella.


Susan Abernethy said...

Do you mean Isabella of Castile?

Susan Abernethy said...

Castile is spelled incorrectly in the title of this article.