The Reconquista – Spain’s ascendancy under Ferdinand and Isabella

Posted in America, Discoveries, Exploration, Historical articles, History, Religion, War on Monday, 12 December 2011

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This edited article about Spain originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 875 published on 21 October 1978.

Columbus before Ferdinand and Isabella, picture, image, illustration

Columbus presents his plans to Ferdinand and Isabella

Under the blazing sun, the Spanish cannon pounded the grim, grey walls of Granada. Within the citadel, the drawn faces of the Moorish defenders watched as the cannon balls tore great holes in their city walls. From the city, cannon answered cannon and there were many casualties among the files of Spanish troops.

The most modern methods of warfare were being employed at the siege of Granada, as well as some old and trusted means of destruction. Archers were employed on both sides and their shafts were often more accurate than the balls being fired from musket and cannon.

The siege was a long one. To the Spanish army, it seemed that it had been going on for an eternity. Today however, there was a new development. One wall had been successfully mined, and the pounding of the artillery was at last having the desired effect. The wall on which the bombardment was concentrated was collapsing, and great cracks had begun to appear. The Moors tried desperately to shore up the wall from the inside. Their efforts were in vain.

The wall collapsed, and a vast roar went up from the Spanish camp. Attackers surged through the gap and fought hand to hand with the defenders. In the cutting, slashing melee, men used the weapons they had used for centuries, forsaking guns. Great broadswords rose and fell, and scimitars and daggers cut and stabbed.

Within a short while, the last Moorish stronghold in Spain had fallen to the army of Ferdinand and Isabella, joint rulers of Castile and Aragon. The process of Reconquista had been completed – the Christian monarchs of Spain had reclaimed the whole of Spain from the Moors. It was to take a long time to unify Spain completely, but at least it had begun to exist as a nation-state, thanks to the efforts of Isabella and her husband, Ferdinand.

At the time of Isabella’s birth, Spain was divided. There were the two main Christian kingdoms of the north, Castile and Aragon, and the Moslem stronghold of Granada in the south.

Isabella was heir to the throne of Castile and from an early age was involved in the intrigue of the Court. As a child, she proved herself very astute in matters of Spanish politics, which were very complicated. When she was of age, Isabella was courted by candidates for marriage from four kingdoms, including France. Prudently, she chose Ferdinand of Aragon. In 1469, she married him and thereafter they ruled jointly.

Their marriage was a decisive factor in the unification of Spain, bringing together the two kingdoms of Aragon and Castile, but it was not welcomed universally. At the beginning of the reign, a civil war erupted which was to last for five years. Eventually, Isabella’s opponents were defeated and she was acknowledged queen of Castile.

The Papacy recognized Ferdinand and Isabella as a great force for Christianity and lauded their efforts to reclaim Spain from the Moslems. The Pope granted Isabella and her husband the title of the Catholic Kings. True to that name, they pursued the policy of Reconquista with the utmost vigour. Granada was not an easy target however. The attack was initiated in 1482 and proved to be a long, drawn-out campaign. Granada did not fall to the Christian forces until 1492.

In exactly the same year, Christopher Columbus discovered the New World on a voyage paid for by Isabella. This was the second great triumph of her reign. The discovery of the Italian adventurer led to a vast overseas empire being established by Spain in the New World. From this empire poured riches which were to make Spain, in the next century, the foremost European power.

The one aspect of Isabella’s reign which did her no credit was the establishment of the Inquisition, which was set up in Andalusia in 1478. At first it was the religious arm of the military campaign against the Moors, but later it was turned against all non-Catholic elements in Spain. All Moslems and Jews who refused conversion were forced to leave Spain. The inquisition became eventually a byword for bigotry and religious fanaticism.

Isabella was a very able administrator who took a vigorous interest in the Church and education. She studied intently and was patron to many Spanish and Flemish artists.

Isabella died in 1504. By that time, she had been instrumental in transforming Spain into a nation-state and launching it on its course as a world power.

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