Saturday, 1 June 2019

Warrior Queen

Now, there is another title to get the teenage pulses racing and memories of top-heavy chainmail bikini-clad ladies with big swords doing battle with assorted monsters on 1970’s fantasy books and role-playing games. Aim, shall we say, at a certain demographic, I suspect that many who brought and read the books or played the games were somewhat disappointed by the lack of female interest in them (either the readers, players, books or games), but I do not doubt that similar, if not more explicit marketing techniques are still used.

Be that as it may, I really do want to write about a ‘warrior queen’ this week, in this case, the female half of the well-known Renaissance double act Ferdinand ‘n’ Isabella, that is Isabella, Queen of Castile. This is largely for two reasons. Firstly, I have just finished rebasing my Italian Wars collection of figures; secondly, I have just finished reading this:

Downey, K., Isabella: The Warrior Queen (New York: Nan A Talese / Doubleday, 2014).

Now, the fact is that while Castile and its associated territories were quite happy with the idea of a female monarch, Aragon and its territories were not. Isabella was, therefore, Queen of Castile and Queen Consort of Aragon, and Ferdinand was Prince Consort of Castile and King of Aragon. Are you with me so far?

Isabella was not really expected to come to the throne and had to stage a sort of coup in Castile to remove her half-brother’s probably illegitimate, probably non-daughter from the succession. She did this without hubby to oversee the process and was Queen of Castile in her own right. Downey argues that Isabella sent out letters in both names, often with Ferdinand first, to avoid frightening the patriarchal horses. However, she also argues that in most cases it was Isabella who was at the helm.

As wargamers, of course, we know two, possibly three things about this famous double act. Firstly, there was the Conquest of Granada. This was a major undertaking and a major success for Christendom, coming a relatively short time after the siege of Constantinople and the aggressive expansion of the Ottoman state. It was, in truth, a nasty war of raids and sieges, and has not captured the wargame imagination as much as you might expect. Nevertheless, strategically, it was probably a necessary war, as it removed a Muslim state, which could have been used by North African and Ottoman generals as a bridgehead to invade (or, depending on your view of history, re-invade) Spain and the rest of Europe.

That said, the Spanish struggled to start off with and were very much helped by Grenadine divisions. Isabella did not don chainmail (or even plate, which was in vogue at the time) and wave a sword, but she did sort out the logistics for supporting the Christian armies and exerted a moderating influence over terms of surrender for the strongholds. This was so much the case that, apparently, when she arrived at a besieged town the occupants surrendered, reckoning that the Queen would ensure that better terms were offered and that they would be adhered to. Downey notes that this seems to have been when the queen in chess became the most powerful piece on the board, as well.

Anyway, the second thing most wargamers know about Ferdinand ‘n’ Isabella is the outbreak of the Italian Wars. Ferdinand was King of Sicily and his cousins reigned in Naples and were very unpopular. The French also had a claim to Naples and invaded in support of that claim in 1494, bringing siege artillery which Italian fortifications could not stand against.  After a fair bit of dithering (which seems to have been fairly typical of Ferdinand) the Spanish dispatched a force of mainly Castilian troops under Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba, known to history as the ‘Great
Captain’. I suspect that the activities of the general in Italy are well known to most wargamers, especially those who have read Oman so I will not say much here, except to note two things I didn’t know about him. Firstly, that in a brief campaign against the Ottomans he seized Cephalonia, which was the first (re-) capture of Ottoman territory ever. The island was held by the Christians and became the base for operations for the battle of Lepanto. The second thing to note is that Ferdinand was insanely jealous of his reputation as a general (Ferdinand’s was rather patchy) and ordered him back to Spain and, so far as possible, ignored him, after Isabella’s death.

The third thing which many people should know but possibly do not is that Isabella was the sponsor of Columbus’ voyages of exploration, albeit after some humming and haring. She also seems to have realised the potential of the discoveries before more or less everyone else, including Columbus himself. Her interest was more along the lines of evangelism rather than most people’s get rich quick schemes, but she was by no means averse to getting the money in as well. However, it is to be noted that the lot of the Native Americans became much worse after she died as Ferdinand was much more interested in the money than the propagation of the faith or the well-being of uncounted numbers of new subjects.

There are, of course, a few blots on the copy-book. Isabella did start the Spanish Inquisition, although she did her best to stop it from turning into the extortion racket it later became. Again, this development seems to have gathered pace under Ferdinand. The policy towards Jews and Moors left after the surrender of Granada did change from toleration to persecution, exclusion, forcible conversion and exile. Isabella, for all her relative sensitivity for human life, did not take kindly to heresy which at the time defined both Judaism and Islam.

So, overall, very interesting, and I have a few ideas for some more campaigns. I also have realised that apart from Oman I do not have much about the said Italian Wars, so that is something to look at. Finally, of course, Isabella’s grandson was Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Spain and ruler of the Low Countries. That seems to me to count as a dynastic win, anyway.

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