Cover image for Isabella : the warrior queen
Isabella : the warrior queen
Downey, Kirstin.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, [2014]
Physical Description:
x, 520 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color), maps ; 25 cm
Drawing on new scholarship, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Woman Behind the New Deal presents a biography of Isabella of Castile, the controversial Queen of Spain who sponsored Christopher Columbus' journey to the New World, established the Spanish Inquisition and became one of the most influential female rulers in history.
A birth without fanfare -- A childhood in the shadows -- Frightening years -- Isabella faces the future alone -- Marriage -- Ferdinand and his family -- The newlyweds -- The Borgia connection -- Preparing to rule -- Isabella takes the throne -- The tribe of Isabel -- The whole world trembled -- The queen's war -- Architects of the Inquisition -- Landing in paradise -- Borgia gives her the world -- Lands of vanity and illusion -- Faith and family -- Turks at the door -- Israel in exile -- Three daughters -- A church without a shepherd -- The death of Queen Isabella -- The world after Isabella.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
DP163 .D69 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Biography
DP163 .D69 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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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

Born at a time when Christianity was dying out and the Ottoman Empire was aggressively expanding, Isabella was inspired in her youth by tales of Joan of Arc, a devout young woman who unified her people and led them to victory against foreign invaders. 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 Le#65533;n. 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 with the help of Rodrigo Borgia, the infamous Pope Alexander VI. 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, in which millions of people in two hemispheres speak Spanish and practice Catholicism. Yet history has all but forgotten Isabella's influence, due to hundreds of years of misreporting that often attributed her accomplishments to Ferdinand, the bold and philandering husband she adored. 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.

Author Notes

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.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Forget the power behind the throne that sobriquet would never satisfy a woman as strong-willed and intelligent as Isabella I. According to biographer Downey, Isabella was definitely the ultimate power broker in the dynamic duo commonly referred to as Ferdinand and Isabella. Artfully navigating, outwitting, and outmaneuvering the men in her life, including her brother and her husband, Isabella managed to put her own unique stamp on the emerging modern world with a series of governmental and religious reforms, international explorations think Columbus and financial strategies that put a soon-to-be-unified Spain on the map. Infused with a religious fervor fueled by her admiration for Joan of Arc, she ardently believed in her God-given right to rule with an often iron fist. As one of the most influential political players of the transitional era bridging the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Isabella has earned her place in the spotlight.--Flanagan, Margaret Copyright 2014 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

The reserved, devoutly Catholic Isabella seized the Castilian throne in 1474, when she was just 23 years old. Having relegated her unwise husband Ferdinand to consort status, Isabella enjoyed major military successes, popularity with both her advisors and her subjects, and significant territorial acquisitions in the New World. Downey (The Woman Behind the New Deal) argues that Isabella served as a true paragon of Machiavelli's good prince; from her demonstrations of political and battlefield strength in quelling the Ottoman Empire's efforts at expansion to negotiating treaties and her offspring's politically fraught marriage contracts. Downey shows how Isabella's reign prepared Renaissance Spain's rise to superpower status by consolidating multiple, often ineffectually led, kingdoms into one, all the while patronizing exploration and art. Perfect for both historical novices and experts in European history, this solidly-researched, engaging description of Isabella's achievements also humanizes her through discussion of her intricate relationships with combative family members and allows readers to see Isabella's fingerprints on Renaissance culture and religion. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Review

Queen Isabella I of Castile (1401-1504), according to Dorney (The Woman Behind the New Deal), was one of the most competent rulers of the male-dominated Middle Ages. Her authority in the affairs of her realm is buried in the formula "Ferdinand and Isabella," which she wholeheartedly endorsed. Yet Isabella established her dominance at the beginning of her reign, informing her husband Ferdinand II of Aragon of her accession only after she had been publicly acclaimed. Downey (ID?)argues that many of Isabella's actions weren't always sound; her persecution of Jews and Moors tarnished her reputation, as did Spain's treatment of New World natives. Here readers see Isabella's actions from the viewpoint of her age. The author is, at times, too trusting of the testimony of the various partisan chroniclers of Isabella's reign, but she presents a well-written, balanced study. Excursuses lay out the back history and explain the period culture and mind-set. VERDICT This engaging biography will appeal to casual readers of history but will not offer new information to scholars. [See Prepub Alert, 6/2/14.]-David Keymer, Modesto, CA (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Accomplished journalist Downey's biography of Isabella, queen of Castile (1474-1504), makes accessible to a wide audience a careful, nuanced account of a highly successful monarch whose accomplishments scholars have often mistakenly attributed to her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon. Downey argues convincingly that Isabella overcame a difficult youth to become a dominant monarch who provided vision, persistence, and high moral standards that set her apart from Ferdinand, Pope Alexander VI, and numerous other rulers of the time. As "the warrior queen," she successfully protected Castile's western flank from Portugal, restored order to her realm, engineered the reconquest of the Kingdom of Granada from Muslim rule, and worked for years to protect Europe from the Ottoman Turks. Devoted to Christianity, the well-being of her five children, and Spain's security, she saw the world in black-and-white terms, a perspective that contributed to the creation and harshness of the Inquisition and associated religious intolerance. Based on a thorough review of secondary literature and marked by reliance on printed primary sources, Downey's thoughtful, gracefully written biography will change many readers' minds about the queen's importance. Summing Up: Essential. All public and academic libraries should purchase this book. --Mark A. Burkholder, University of Missouri--St. Louis



Prologue 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. Excerpted from Isabella: The Warrior Queen by Kirstin Downey All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.