Isabella: The Warrior Queen

Isabella: The Warrior Queen

by Kirstin Downey


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An engrossing and revolutionary biography of Isabella of Castile, the controversial Queen of Spain who sponsored Christopher Columbus's journey to the New World, established the Spanish Inquisition, and became one of the most influential female rulers in history.

In 1474, when most women were almost powerless, twenty-three-year-old Isabella defied a hostile brother and a mercurial husband to seize control of Castile and León. Her subsequent feats were legendary. She ended a twenty-four-generation struggle between Muslims and Christians, forcing North African invaders back over the Mediterranean Sea. She laid the foundation for a unified Spain. She sponsored Columbus’s trip to the Indies and negotiated Spanish control over much of the New World. She also annihilated all who stood against her by establishing a bloody religious Inquisition that would darken Spain’s reputation for centuries.

Whether saintly or satanic, no female leader has done more to shape our modern world. Yet history has all but forgotten Isabella’s influence. Using new scholarship, Downey’s luminous biography tells the story of this brilliant, fervent, forgotten woman, the faith that propelled her through life, and the land of ancient conflicts and intrigue she brought under her command.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307742162
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/10/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 560
Sales rank: 221,492
Product dimensions: 7.90(w) x 5.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

KIRSTIN DOWNEY is the author of The Woman Behind the New Deal, which was a finalist for the 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She was one of the writers of the New York Times bestselling Report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, and was previously a staff writer at the Washington Post, where she shared in the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. She was a Neiman fellow at Harvard University in 2001. She is married to Neil Warner Averitt, and together they have five children.

Read an Excerpt


In a castle on a steep promontory overlooking the windswept plains of north-central Spain, a slender red-haired princess finalized the plans for a ceremony that was likely to throw her nation—already teetering toward anarchy—into full-fledged civil war.

Her name was Isabella, and she had just learned that her older brother, King Enrique—known as Enrique El Impotente, which symbolized his failings, both administrative and sexual—had died.

King Enrique’s lascivious young wife, who had occupied her time bestowing her favors on the other gentlemen of the court, had produced a child, but many people doubted that the king was actually the child’s father. Isabella had decided to end the controversy over the succession by having herself crowned queen instead. The twenty-three-year-old woman was essentially orchestrating a coup.

No woman had ruled the combined Kingdoms of Castile and León, the largest single realm on the Iberian peninsula, in more than two hun­dred years. In many European countries, it was illegal for a woman to rule alone. On the rare occasions when women reigned, it was usually as regent for a son who was too young to govern. Isabella had a husband, Ferdinand, who was heir to the neighboring Kingdom of Aragon, but he had been traveling when the news of Enrique’s death arrived, and she had decided to seize the initiative. She would take the crown for herself alone.
On that bitter-cold morning in December 1474, Isabella added the fin­ishing touches to an ensemble intentionally designed to impress onlookers with her splendor and regal grandeur. She donned an elegant gown encrusted with jewels; a dark red ruby glittered at her throat.

Observers already awed by the pageantry now gasped at an additional sight. On Isabella’s orders, a court official walked ahead of her horse, holding aloft an unsheathed sword, the naked blade pointing straight upward toward the zenith, in an ancient symbol of the right to enforce justice. It was a dramatic warning gesture, symbolizing Isabella’s intent to take power and to use it forcefully.

Acknowledging nothing out of the ordinary, Isabella took a seat on an improvised platform in the square. A silver crown was placed upon her head. As the crowd cheered, Isabella was proclaimed queen. Afterward she proceeded to Segovia’s cathedral. She prostrated herself in prayer before the altar, offering her thanks and imploring God to help her to rule wisely and well. She viewed the tasks ahead as titanic. She believed Christianity was in mortal danger.

The Ottoman Turks were aggressively on the march in eastern and southern Europe. The Muslims retained an entrenched foothold in the Andalusian kingdom of Granada, which Isabella and others feared would prove a beachhead into the rest of Spain. A succession of popes had pleaded in vain for a steely-eyed commander, a stalwart warrior, to step forward to counter the threat. Instead it was a young woman, the mother of a young daughter, who was taking up the banner.

The means she used were effective but brutal. For centuries to come, historians would debate the meaning of her life. Was she a saint? Or was she satanic?
As she stood in the sun in Segovia that winter afternoon, however, she showed no trace of fear or hesitation. Inspired by the example of Joan of Arc, who had died just two decades before Isabella was born and whose stories were much repeated during her childhood, Isabella simi­larly began to fashion herself as a religious icon. Inwardly infused with a sense of her own destiny, a faith that was “fervent, mystical and intense,” Isabella was confident to her core that God was on her side and that He intended her to rule. The questioning would only come much later.

Table of Contents


One | A Birth Without Fanfare
Two | A Childhood in the Shadows
Three | Frightening Years
Four | Isabella Faces the Future Alone
Five | Marriage
Six | Ferdinand and His Family
Seven | The Newlyweds
Eight | The Borgia Connection
Nine | Preparing to Rule
Ten | Isabella Takes the Throne
Eleven | The Tribe of Isabel  
Twelve | The Whole World Trembled
Thirteen | The Queen’s War
Fourteen | Architects of the Inquisition
Fifteen | Landing in Paradise
Sixteen | Borgia Gives Her the World
Seventeen | Lands of Vanity and Illusion
Eighteen | Faith and Family  
Nineteen | Turks at the Door
Twenty | Israel in Exile
Twenty-one | Three Daughters
Twenty-two | A Church Without a Shepherd
Twenty-three | The Death of Queen Isabella
Twenty-four | The World After Isabella


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Isabella: The Warrior Queen 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I liked the book so much that it won the struggle for what to do during my spare time during the holidays.   I'm glad I bought the book.  It is an easy read full of interesting facts.  l plan to visit Spain next year.  Before I travel to a country that I have never traveled before, I like to read about its history, read novels from its authors, learn about its artist, and read novels with settings in the country that I plan to visit.   All  those things make the travel experience more rewarding;and all are enjoyable, except for the history reading that can be boring at times.  This is not the case with this book.  It is a great book to get started on the history of Spain.  I like how it covers so much about Spain and its role in the word at the time; including facts of what was going on in Rome, in Naples, Portugal, and the Ottoman Empire.  I attended Catholic School;we covered more Spanish history that many schools in the US, yet after reading this book I realized how little I knew of Isabella and Ferdinand ;and their role in the  Inquisition and the expansion of Catholicism in the world.  I liked how it covered the good and the bad; in twelve years of Catholic education (granted it was years and years ago)  it seems like the books at that time were heavy on the embellishment of the good things and mentioned little facts about the Inquisition and the intolerance of the times. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Isabella was a quintessentially powerful woman, ruling at the beginning of a century in which powerful women practically sprang from the earth. Like most important historical subjects, however, she is little known or thought of outside of narrow academic circles. If history is the collective memory of the human race, then Isabella's chapter is certainly one that needs to be remembered in understanding the context in which we have our existence. The author writes well, and does a creditable job of telling us what we need to know about Isabella and her world without getting too far into the weeds of late 15th and early 16th century politics. That she can write a readable narrative without straying into current academic political correctness helps as well. The book is especially good at putting Isabella into her context, whether the self-absorbed lassitude of various northern European rulers, or the politico-religious intensity of Spain and other Mediterranean lands that were facing the shatteringly real threat of Muslim Turkish aggression. The seismic upheaval of the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the conquest and rape of the Balkans, incursions into Hungary and southern Italy and the threats to Sicily and Spain itself were a powerful element in shaping the life and times of this momentously important queen. The down side? This is a LONG book, coming in a little under 700 pages. Still, worth the read.
DagnyTaggart2U More than 1 year ago
Wow! What an interesting book that altered my perception of history. I kept wondering why I hadn't known some key points referenced in this book before now, so it definitely filled in some gaps I didn't know I had. I think most have knowledge of Christopher Columbus, King Ferdinand the Inquisition, but come to think of it, not so much about Queen Isabella,at least outside those three topics, who I thought, like most queens in history, had influence surely, but Isabella had much more impact in history (and was much more interesting) than I had imagined. Initially, the book isn't exclusively about Isabella, but of people, events, politics, and world views at the time. Isabella was just an insignificant girl and not important enough to have much recorded history. Because of this, the book was a tad slow at first, but I appreciated the background much later because it gave a foundation for the rest of the book. Delving further into the book, the author continues this practice, including bits about art and architecture which I thoroughly appreciated. In essence, this book was a bit like a missing puzzle piece I had in my head regarding the Renaissance period. So the book isn't entirely JUST about Isabella, but also the world she lives in. I suppose some may dislike this trait, but for me, it was a better fit because I could tie it in better with what I do know about the Renaissance, and I think it adds context to Isabella's actions.  There are some tense subjects that I thought the author handled very well. Hints of sexual abuse, domestic abuse, slavery, sexually transmitted diseases, religious differences and such the author to great pains to address with taste, without moral judgement and I think, fairly. I expected the book to cover the aspect of Christianity in that time, especially in regards to the Pope(s), but loved that the Jewish population had a voice and she covered a chunk of the Muslim/Ottoman Empire influence. As far as historical biographies go, this one is one of the most comprehensive I have read. If one is seeking an enjoyable read about how Spain, during Isabella's reign, fits into the Renaissance, this is it. In reality, I would rate this book 4.5 stars. I thought the book ran a light hand over Isabella's role regarding the Inquisition. Isabella here, seemed rather detached from it all, as it was something that spiraled out of her control. With as strong a ruler this book portrays her to be, and from what I have previously read, it seems a bit off. My perception anyway. Full color pictures however, are an additional bonus and a nice touch which saved me from taking time out to 'google' images for reference.  It took me a while to complete this book. It was one of those that I made special effort to set aside quiet time (not reading while I was doing something else) so I could pay particular attention and soak up what this book had to offer, which was substantial and decidedly enjoyable.  Disclosure: I read a free copy of the book in return for my candid review. Be assured, my opinion is honest, and I do not owe or know the author/publisher.
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