Kristen Downey, Isabella: The Warrior Queen (Random House, 2014).
Below a letter I sent to the New York Times Book Review
Isabella, The Warrior Queen, by Kirstin Downey
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2014
Reviewed by Kathryn Harrison
New York Time Book Review, December 7, 2014
Whom do I blame, the reviewer or the author for such ignorance of Queen Isabella and her reign? If it’s Kathryn Harrison, then Kristin Downey should be outraged by your choice. Isabella hardly “accepted the hand” of Ferdinand of Aragon, she actively sought it in opposition to her half-brother, not brother, King Enrique. In 1474 Isabella did not assume the “Spanish throne,” but the throne of Castile. Ferdinand was not “conveniently away,” but attending the problems of Aragon, to which he was heir. Spain then was a geographic expression. The kingdoms of Castile and Aragon retained their separate governments and laws, and were brought together by Ferdinand and Isabella in personal union. In Castile by law she governed. It is hardly “unaccountable” that Ferdinand recognized that reality. How ridiculous to state that her husband’s “single heroic pursuit” was adultery, when he saved her crown at the Battle of Toro in 1476. Both Castile and Aragon had endured years of civil war and lawlessness, and in the restoration of order Isabella and Ferdinand worked in tandem. In the decade of war that ended with the conquest of Moorish Granada in 1492, Ferdinand led the troops while Isabella – noted in the review – found the means. While Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier (1528) used Isabella in his argument that women could prove outstanding rulers, Machiavelli regarded Ferdinand as the preeminent prince of his era.
And the “expulsion of the Ottoman Turks”? Is this the author or reviewer? The Ottoman Turks did not become a threat to Spain for another generation. After the surrender of Granada, the Moors of Granada were allowed by treaty to remain Muslims. Christian proselytizing provoked their rebellion. After its suppression, the Moors were given the choice of becoming Christian or being expelled. The Inquisition poses problems, but its mission was not to “eradicate” Moors and Jews, who were expelled from Spain by royal decree, but rather to look into backsliding by those Moors and Jews who converted to Christianity.
We’re only halfway through the review but it seems enough. For serious readers, stick with Peggy Liss, Isabel the Queen (2nd ed., 2004). If a more novelistic approach is desired, try Townsend Miller’s lively The Castles and the Crown (1963), based solidly on contemporary sources. Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition (1997), remains the most balanced account of that institution.
1310 Jones St Apt 401
San Francisco CA 94109
Professor of History emeritus, Santa Clara University; author of Philip II of Spain (1975), Commander of the Armada (1989), History of Spain (1999)
I have not read the book, but the advertising material and other things written about it certainly make it seem like an execrable example of what popular history can be at its worst. But I posted about it on the blog simply so we could all know of its existence.
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