The woman who sent Columbus to “find Ray Charles”

Books about history—either fictional or non-fictional—seem to appear frequently on this blog. Two previous reviews were about women who ruled in a man’s world (see my reviews of Cleopatra – A Life and Catherine the Great – Portrait of a Woman). Such characters appeal to me because I find hilarious the attitude of some who scoff at the idea of a woman president (Pat Buchanan comes to mind) when, in fact, women like Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II of England, Catherine I of Russia, Cleopatra and Margaret Thatcher could deal with the best of men, and best the best of them at their own game while not sacrificing an ounce of their essential femininity.

So, when I discovered The Queen’s Vow – A Novel of Isabella of Castile, by C. W. Gortner, I snapped it up. I was not disappointed.

Every school kid knows—or used to at any rate (Columbus somehow went from discoverer of America to pillager of America since I got out of grade school)—that Christopher Columbus appealed to the King and Queen of Spain and Portugal to help fund his trip across the ocean to find great riches (not, as Flip Wilson suggested, to “find Ray Charles”). But that’s all most of us ever learned about them.

Who were these two rulers of a place we know very little about? Why were they important? What, besides their entrepreneurial assistance to a Genoese navigator, was their legacy?

The novel takes us from Isabella’s birth to the voyage of Columbus, and focuses on the struggle to unite warring factions and to bring peace between Portugal and Castile—something that the marriage of Fernando and Isabella would eventually do, but not for many years. Much of the story deals with the war of succession in Castile, fought by supporters of Isabella’s niece, Juana, before and after the death of Isabella’s half-brother Enrique.

When we meet the adolescent Isabella, who has been living in penury with her mother—having been put “aside” by her older half-brother Enrique who ruled Castile since her father’s death—she is mounting and learning to ride and control a powerful steed. This girl, who overcomes her fear of the animal and soon gallops away in clear control, gives us a glimpse at the woman she will become. A woman who will be called by her friends and detractors alike as a “mujer varonil,” or a “manly woman.” The description suited her, not because of her looks (she was, by all accounts, an attractive woman), but because of her determination. A determination that would make it possible for her to bring a country under control and deal harshly with those who sought to disrupt the peace of her kingdom.

The novel is well researched and covers not only the ten-year war of succession, but the rejuvenated “Reconquista”, the struggle to reclaim the south of Spain from the Moors.

Isabella’s husband, Fernando, was a man she loved, and who loved her in return. This is the idea we get from history, and this comes across clearly in Gortner’s telling. It is a charming love story that begins when eleven-year old Fernando dances with the thirteen-year old princess in a courtyard (this is fabricated—in fact the two met only days before they wed). From that moment, she knew whom she would marry. Of course, she had to battle her brother who sought to marry her off to the aging Alfonso, king of Portugal, in order to solidify an alliance. But fight him off she did, and finally married Fernando. Her defiant act would cause a break with her half-brother that would lead to serious consequences. But Isabella was not about to be brokered off to a man she did not love for political gain.

Gortner’s narrator is Isabella herself. It takes skill for a man to write from the point of view of a woman, but Gortner has the requisite skill. There comes a time when Fernando confesses an infidelity to Isabella, and having her relate her anger and grief presents a truly heart-rending scene.

One thing that made the book a bit troubling at times was its length. It was almost too short. That’s a strange criticism, perhaps, but Gortner covers many historical incidents in a mere 360 or so pages. This sometimes creates the impression that Isabella was indecisive or weak when history declares that she was anything but.

This shortcoming is evident with Gortner’s treatment of the official policy that Ferdinand and Isabella adopted toward the Jews. Isabella was a compassionate woman who suffered no ill treatment of her subjects, be they Jew or Christian. When some Christians in Segovia are found guilty of stealing livestock and raping the daughter of a Jew, she orders the summary execution of the perpetrators and has their intestines draped on the city gates (Isabella was known to do stuff like that!).

If she had a weakness it was her strict adherence to Catholicism as the one true religion and her self-imposed obligation to rule accordingly. When the Dominican Tomas Torquemada—a monk who would eventually go down in history as the Grand Inquisitor—convinces Fernando that the king and queen need to deal with heresy in their kingdom, Isabella suffers a crisis of conscience.

The “heresy” in question stems from the behavior of “conversos,” Jews who converted to Catholicism but continued to practice their Jewish faith behind closed doors. Torquemada appeals to Fernando’s need for cash—the treasury was all but empty—by saying that conversos found guilty would have their property revert to the treasury. This “side benefit” was no doubt tempting, as it would be during the Third Reich for Hitler and Germany.

At first, Isabella is opposed, but in short shrift (at least in the novel) she becomes convinced of the importance of having a kingdom united in the true faith and gives her consent for the establishment of the Inquisition in Spain. She later is seen to regret the decision, but I think this runs counter to the woman’s nature. If history is any judge, Isabella didn’t do anything without considering the consequences. Her struggle was undoubtedly more drawn out and complex than it seems in Gortner’s telling. His story relates a truth, but a truncated one.

Gortner also passes lightly over Isabella’s reactivation of the Santa Herminadad (Holy Brotherhood), a state-sanctioned vigilante committee that scoured the countryside catching highwayman and other bandits, tying them to poles, and using them for archery practice. It gets a mention. That’s all. Yet, it was one of Isabella’s most effective crime-fighting efforts.

But, there are so many issues and so few pages.

This is a powerful story that carries the reader through the life of a young woman caught up in factionalism, continual conspiracies, and threats to her life and to the kingdom that she and her husband would eventually rule jointly. The love that they felt—his infidelities notwithstanding—is conveyed together with the respect that they felt for one another. She was not just a queen consort. She was a co-ruler. She may, in fact, have been the stronger and more powerful of the two.

Rating 3/5

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

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