Downey (The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR'S Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience, 2009) brings her journalistic expertise to this excellent chronicle of the end of the Middle Ages and that time period’s most significant female figures.
Isabella (1451-1504) was queen of Castile and Léon in her own right, a kingdom much larger than that of her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon. Even so, contemporaries and history have always given him preference of place. However, Isabella surely ranks as one of history’s greatest women. She insisted on marrying Ferdinand and no other, despite the opposition of her half brother. Upon his death, Isabella assumed the throne. Her reign was characterized by a series of wars, waged by her mostly unfaithful husband but organized and supplied by her. For the first few years, they fought incursions from Portugal, followed by three years of civil war and, finally, more than a decade fighting the Moors. The fall of Granada in 1492 and expulsion of the Moors was hailed by all, but it was a small benefit to offset the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks. Isabella demanded that the defeated Moors, as well as the Jewish population, convert or emigrate. At this point, she introduced the Spanish Inquisition, which was initially aimed at backsliding converted Jews but expanded to include Muslims. Widely known as Christopher Columbus’ sponsor, she kept him waiting years before finally agreeing to fund his trip. Her strict instructions were to convert the Indians to Catholicism in the kindest possible way. Her life was devoted to the church, and she felt Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia, with his many children and vast wealth, undermined it.
A strong, fascinating woman, Isabella helped to usher in the modern age, and this rich, clearly written biography is a worthy chronicle of her impressive yet controversial life.