Marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Ferdinand and Isabella’s marriage combined the power and prestige of Aragon and Castile, the two largest kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula, and defined the future Spanish nation.

Summary of Event

When Ferdinand, crown prince of Aragon, married his cousin, Isabella, disputed heiress of Castile, on October 19, 1469, they seemed pawns of their elders, notably his father. John II had made Ferdinand king of Sicily to strengthen his position in marriage negotiations. Castile dominated the Iberian Peninsula with about half of its land and three-fifths of its population. Internal rebellion under weak Henry IV of Castile had brought intervention by rulers of Iberia’s other kingdoms (Aragon, Portugal, Granada, and Navarre). Henry IV preferred that his sister, Isabella, marry a Castilian lord to strengthen his own position or a foreign ally to secure the succession rights of his own daughter, Princess Juana. Also opposed to this marriage, but ready to play a double game, was Juan Pacheco, master of the military Order of Santiago and Henry IV’s favorite. Most nobles adopted a wait-and-see attitude. Ferdinand V Isabella I Carrillo, Alfonso González de Mendoza, Pedro Henry IV of Castile John II (1397-1479) Ferdinand II (king of Spain) Isabella I (queen of Spain) John II (king of Aragon) Henry IV (king of Castile) Carrillo, Alfonso Alexander VI González de Mendoza, Pedro Joan (daughter of Henry IV) Cueva, Beltrán de la Jiménez de Cisneros, Francisco Joan the Mad Charles I (king of Spain) Ferdinand II (king of Spain) Isabella I (queen of Spain)

The marriage of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Supporting Isabella’s marriage to Aragon’s heir were the Enríquez family (Ferdinand’s maternal kinspeople) and Alfonso Carrillo, archbishop of Toledo, who became Isabella’s chief protector. Their marriage required considerable derring-do by the principals (who had never seen each other). Ferdinand traveled from Aragon disguised, with a few retainers. Isabella defied her brother and fled to Carrillo’s protection. In their haste to present Henry IV with a fait accompli, they married without requisite papal dispensation, which was needed because of their close kinship.

During the first years of their marriage, the young couple asserted their independence against their elders and built their own power base, including an uneasy reconciliation with Henry IV and an alliance with the Mendoza family. In 1472, support came from papal legate Rodrigo Borgia (later Pope Alexander VI), facilitated by Pedro González de Mendoza, who thereby gained a cardinal’s hat. A vassal of John II, Borgia provided the needed dispensation in part because of a barrage of slander against Princess Juana. Queen Juana, wife of Henry IV, had recently borne an illegitimate son, and rumors circulated that her (older) daughter was also illegitimate. Beltrán de la Cueva,, the supposed father of Princess Juana (Juana la Beltraneja), was another royal favorite and a Mendoza in-law. Despite such rumors, many modern historians accept Juana’s legitimacy.





The death of Henry IV, about the same time as those of Juan Pacheco and Queen Juana, brought civil war to the peninsula. Aragon backed Isabella; King Afonso V of Portugal, affianced to his niece, Princess Juana, invaded Castile in her interest. Surviving members of the Pacheco family also supported Juana, as did Carrillo, who was upset over the independence of Ferdinand and Isabella and blamed them for his failure to secure a cardinalate. After the couple’s five years of marriage, Castilians identified Ferdinand with his wife’s cause more than with Aragon; Portugal’s king seemed a foreign invader. Isabella played an active political role, whereas the juvenile Juana could not.

Thus, Ferdinand and Isabella gained adherence from most of Castile’s nobles and cities. John II supported them unconditionally, although he was harassed by Louis XI of France, who pursued his own interests in Navarre and Aragon, promising much and delivering nothing to Afonso V. Historians usually consider the 1476 Battle of Toro Toro, Battle of (1476) to have been decisive. Nevertheless, Ferdinand and Isabella did not control Castile until 1479, with the signing of the Treaty of Alcáçovas Alcáçovas, Treaty of (1479) ; by then, John II had died, and the couple also ruled Aragon.

In building control during the civil war, Ferdinand and Isabella shaped the Spanish nation. The Holy Brotherhood Holy Brotherhood , a league of municipalities, had provided mutual assistance and protection to members. In 1476, the monarchs took control and used Brotherhood armies against Juana’s supporters. In the period from 1488 to 1495, Ferdinand tried to develop a brotherhood in Aragon. Isabella forced her husband’s election as master of the military orders of Santiago in 1477, Calatrave in 1487, and Alcantará in 1494, all of which provided sources of money and military power.

Between 1476 and 1480, the monarchs enacted major reforms through the cortes (parliament). Afterward, having received its mandate, Ferdinand and Isabella used the cortes infrequently and governed through the bureaucratic royal council, the Brotherhood (for military expenses), and special agents, such as corregidores, to handle local problems. The Council of Aragon, established in 1494 and composed of Aragonese personnel, was quite separate, but, meeting in Castile, it demonstrated an osmotic process of national unification. On the other hand, having established royal authority, the monarchs allowed great nobles considerable local autonomy. Similarly, fiscal dependence on the wool trade encouraged Ferdinand and Isabella to allow its guild, the Mesta, great independence. In 1498, no longer needing the Brotherhood, the monarchs allowed it to revert to local control.

In 1478, the pope authorized establishment of Spain’s Inquisition Inquisition;Spain , and, from 1483, the same inquisitor general served in both Aragon and Castile. In 1486, the pope granted Ferdinand and Isabella control of church appointments and finances in the Canary Islands and territory conquered from the Muslim kingdom of Granada. This royal patronage extended to the Americas in 1501-1508 and eventually pertained to all of Spain. The Synod of Seville Seville, Synod of (1478) in 1478 witnessed genuine royal concern for church reform. In 1495, Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, an ascetic Franciscan friar, succeeded Pedro González de Mendoza as archbishop of Toledo. Royal piety and political acumen combined in rallying Spaniards in the crusade that conquered Granada Granada, fall of (1492) for Castile (1481-1492). Pope Alexander VI recognized this triumph with the title Catholic Monarchs, also held by subsequent Spanish kings. Edicts in 1492 and 1502 obliged Jews Jews;expulsion from Spain and Muslims Islam;expulsion of Muslims from Spain to convert to Christianity or leave Spain. Thus, the nation became Europe’s most formidable Catholic power. Catholicism;Inquisition

Control within Spain made possible ambitious projects abroad. After Christopher Columbus returned from the Americas, Castile became a world power; with American treasure, Spain dominated Europe. From 1495, Ferdinand pursued Aragon’s rivalry against France in Italian wars in which Castilian Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba emerged as Europe’s greatest commander. Archbishop Jiménez led an army into North Africa serving Aragonese interests. Capping his career, Ferdinand annexed Navarre to Castile in 1512. Ferdinand and Isabella carefully educated their children and made strategic marriages for them with two aims: union with Portugal and encirclement of France. Princess Isabella and (after her death in childbirth) her sister Maria were married to Manuel I of Portugal. Their siblings Juan and Joan married Habsburgs of Germany and the Netherlands, and Princess Catherine married King Henry VIII of England. Thus, despite the stipulations in the marriage treaty of Ferdinand and Isabella that Aragon and Castile must remain separate kingdoms, the two kingdoms functioned together in their common interest in foreign and domestic affairs.

Circumstances, however, determined the separation of the two kingdoms. When Queen Isabella died in 1504, the throne of Castile passed to Joan (later known as Juana la Loca, or the mad) and her husband, Philip I, ending the Trastámara Dynasty there. Aragon was ruled separately under Ferdinand. The death of Philip I in 1506 and the mental instability of Joan enabled a restoration of unity under Ferdinand’s regency. By then, Ferdinand had married his great-great niece, Germaine de Foix to strengthen his position in that kingdom. Germaine’s baby, who might have continued Aragonese separation, died.


Ferdinand and Isabella’s marriage led to nothing less than the unification of Aragon and Castile, which formed the nation known today as Spain. After Ferdinand’s death in 1516, Archbishop Jiménez served as regent for Charles I (later Holy Roman Emperor Charles V), son of Philip I and Joan, who ruled a united Spain. As the heir of Charles and his wife, Isabella of Portugal, Philip II conquered Portugal in 1580. The political union of Spain and Portugal continued until it was dissolved in a war for Portuguese independence (1640-1685).

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boruchoff, David A., ed. Isabel la Católica, Queen of Castile: Critical Essays. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Analyzes the carefully crafted public image of Isabella to gain insight into Isabella’s life beyond that image.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elliott, John H. Imperial Spain, 1469-1716. Reprint. New York: Penguin Books, 1990. The classic account of Spain’s rise and fall as an imperial power. Emphasizes the barren and humble nature of its beginnings in contrast to the height of its power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. Ferdinand and Isabella. New York: Taplinger, 1975. Reliable and filled with humanizing details, this book provides an admirably balanced portrait, giving proper recognition to both husband and wife.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hillgarth, J. N. The Spanish Kingdoms, 1250-1516. Vol. 2. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1978. More detailed than the work of Kamen, this book surpasses earlier standard works on the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kamen, Henry. Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Surveys the roles played by Ferdinand and Isabella in the fashioning of Spain’s global empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kamen, Henry. Spain, 1469-1714: A Society of Conflict. 2d ed. Reprint. New York: Longman, 1996. A revisionist study that parallels coverage of the period provided by Elliott, who tends more to facts and figures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Liss, Peggy K. Isabel the Queen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Notable for its superior scholarship, Liss’s biography provides an in-depth study of Isabella and the full range of her accomplishments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rubin, Nancy. Isabella of Castile: The First Renaissance Queen. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Issued the same year as the work of Liss, Rubin’s biography takes a more popular approach that renders it more accessible for general readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, Hugh. Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003. A decidedly conservative and Eurocentric history of Spanish colonialism during Ferdinand and Isabella’s rule.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodward, Geoffrey. Spain in the Reigns of Isabella and Ferdinand, 1474-1516. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1997. Comprehensive analysis of the social, political, religious, and economic aspects of Ferdinand and Isabella’s reign, as well as their foreign policies and relations.

1474-1479: Castilian War of Succession

Aug. 17, 1477: Foundation of the Habsburg Dynasty

Nov. 1, 1478: Establishment of the Spanish Inquisition

1492: Fall of Granada

1492: Jews Are Expelled from Spain

Beginning c. 1495: Reform of the Spanish Church

Nov. 26, 1504: Joan the Mad Becomes Queen of Castile

Jan. 23, 1516: Charles I Ascends the Throne of Spain

June 28, 1519: Charles V Is Elected Holy Roman Emperor

1520-1522: Comunero Revolt

1555-1556: Charles V Abdicates

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