Do you want a classic ur-example of “I’m a princess and people keep trying to marry me off to people I don’t want to marry?” Here you go.
Isabel: Jewel of Castilla, Spain, 1466, Carolyn Meyer, 2000.
This was a nice break, because I don’t usually like Carolyn Meyer’s books, but I did like this one. Also notable: reading this book at twelve or thirteen or whatever was the first time I realized that Isabel is the Spanish version of Elizabeth. Never tell me these books don’t teach us anything. I mean, besides teaching us about the lives of young royals, especially when they are particularly important ones like Isabella, the first queen regnant of Spain and key player in unifying Spain with her husband, Ferdinand.
Now, usually her name is rendered as Isabella, but Meyer here has opted for Isabel so I guess we’ll go with that for the duration. This is one of those books where the biggest problem is the attempt to skip through a large chunk of time in a relatively short book, which seems to be far more common in the Royal Diaries books, maybe in an effort to fast-forward through the boring parts. Which seems to me to be a bit of a failure, because I have always felt that the details about daily life and habits to be the most interesting parts of all of these books! Let’s face it: if you want to read a book about the youth of Elizabeth I or Isabella I or Anastasia or Victoria, you can find it, and it will give you far more detail than you ever cared to know about political intrigues and all that nonsense. But books like this, with details about how people lived their lives and what they did with their time and celebrated and mourned—even though they’re fictional, in a lot of ways it gives a more full and holistic portrayal of a life.
One of the things that’s handled particularly well here, which isn’t always in these books, is the foreshadowing about Isabel’s future, particularly when it comes to her interest in funding exploratory expeditions and the strain of alleged madness running through the Spanish royal family. Isabel’s image in history is almost always very closely connected with her piety, and while we can’t know for certain if it was sincere or a way to telegraph her morals to her subjects, it comes through pretty solidly here. Isabel’s confessor is Torquemada himself, who you may have noticed takes religion very seriously, and the premise is that he gives her a book to write down all her grievous sins. As you do with a teenage girl. Mostly she writes about how terrible she feels about all her sins—anger at her brother’s wife, Queen Juana, who ignores her little daughter Juana and makes the court into a place of vice; pride at feeling she is better than Juana and the little princess and worthy of more than marrying the King of Portugal, that kind of thing.
At this point Spain isn’t Spain—there’s a collection of kingdoms, and Isabel’s elder brother Enrique is the king of Castilla and Leon. He wants to marry Isabel off to the king of Portugal to cement their alliance, but Isabel says he’s too old and ugly and horrible, and puts it off as long as she possibly can. Instead she spends time with the only lady-in-waiting she likes, Catalina, and her friend Beatriz, and they try to come up with a plan to let her avoid it. At this time, rebel forces have declared Isabel’s younger brother Alfonso the rightful king, and she’s caught in the middle—mostly because Juana believes her daughter, the princess Juana, will be queen one day regardless of what anyone else thinks.
Isabel is confined to her castle at Segovia and not allowed to go anywhere, including to leave the castle grounds, so she worries incessantly while work begins on her wedding clothes. She thinks briefly she is saved when Enrique sends her a letter saying she won’t marry the king of Portugal, but instead Pedro Giron, a conniving and powerful courtier. This is worse, but the goal is to keep peace among all of the lords who won’t stop fighting—but when he’s on his way, Giron suddenly and inexplicably dies, just before Isabel’s fifteenth birthday. Convenient!
Life returns to semi-normal for Isabel, who reflects on issues like whether or not the conversos¸ or families descended from Jews forced to convert to Catholicism, are true Christians are not—including her lady Catalina; and whether she would ever be able to study astronomy and mathematics and the ways that seafarers learn to cross oceans. She looks after the little princess Juana, despite the gossip at court that she is not the daughter of Enrique but instead one of his favourite courtiers.
Isabel’s mother has been confined to the castle at Arevalo for several years due to “melancholy,” but also paranoia and delusions and occasionally totally forgetting who and where she was. Isabel tries to go and visit her, but Enrique cancels her plans more than once. So Isabel stops writing in her diary for ten months, and when she starts again it’s mostly about how she’s attempting to learn to draw and teach her servant Ana to play music. But then—the Archbishop’s soldiers rush the castle, and Isabel is allowed to return to Arevalo to greet her mother, who doesn’t recognize her. Juana and the princess flee to Madrid, and Isabel’s younger brother Alfonso is named the true king of Castilla, despite being only thirteen. He is wayyyyy into the pomp and circumstance of being king, and his own sister isn’t even allowed to hug him in greeting!
The lords are switching sides every other day, but Isabel is pleased just to be able to be with her mother and leave the castle whenever she wants. IT’s during this summer that Isabel learns that the king of Aragon wants her to marry his son, Fernando, and has asked Enrique to consent in order to keep the French away. Isabel frets and frets but hears nothing from Enrique for weeks until she writes “I have decided not to bother our Gracious God or any his Blessed Saints any further on the subject of the Prince of Aragon.” This is probably the only laugh-out-loud portion at what’s a fairly somber book, but I did laugh.
In the early winter they hear that there’s another plot on the go, where the king of Aragon may be consenting to marry his son to the daughter of Pacheco, one of the powerful courtiers under Enrique, but they hear nothing more of that before Christmas. Instead, there is growing unrest towards the Jewish population and conversos, but Isabel in her castle is unable to anything besides wait and see what Enrique will decide for her future.
Isabel is seventeen by now, and Enrique has been offered several potential suitors for her—including the younger brother of the King of England, which would have been an interesting twist in history. The plague pops up again, and Alfonso continues to lose support among the lords, and Isabel opts to throw in her lot fully with Alfonso instead of just waffling in between. She goes with him to Avila, but en route Alfonso falls very ill and dies very suddenly before he’s even fifteen.
This makes Isabel the next in line for the throne, and very much in danger from Enrique’s supporters. She writes to the lords who supported Alfonso, telling them that they ought to support her instead, but otherwise keeps cloistered in the convent she’s been secured in for protection. The archbishop visits to ask if she’ll accept the rebel’s wish to put her on the throne, but Isabel says she will only be his heir—not his rival. But the archbishop tells her that if she consents to marry Fernando, then Juan of Aragon will support her rebel cause—and Isabel still says no, saying she promised she would not oppose Enrique. Later that week Enrique offers to name Isabel as his heir instead of Juana, and arrangements are made for a peace treaty.
In the treaty, he promises that Isabel will be his heir, and he will not force her to marry against his will as long as she agrees to not marry without his approval. Oh dear. While technically this should take care of things, it doesn’t stop the undercurrents of unrest from the lords and Juana the queen. Enrique doesn’t end up giving Isabel any of the money he promised her, and intends to force her to marry the king of Portugal anyway, and suddenly Isabel feels like an idiot for believing everything he said. But at the same time, the ambassador from Aragon comes to formally ask her to marry Fernando—and Isabel is caught in the middle while the archbishop tries to sort things out without causing a war.
Isabel agrees to a secret betrothal to Fernando—without, I might add, ever having met him—all the while pretending like she is considering a marriage to the king of Portugal. She tries to avoid Enrique, who has discovered the plot, while the ambassadors and archbishop draw up the marriage contract. Enrique leaves to go to a rebellion in the south and makes Isabel promise she will make no plans, which she promises—although technically she’s already made the plans, so it’s not technically a lie. This is like when kids promise they won’t eat any cookies, but say nothing about gorging on candy.
Isabel manages to get out of Ocana using the pretext that she will be going to the burial of Alfonso on the occasion of the first anniversary of his death, in Avila. Fully aware she’s committing treason, Isabel prepares to go in hiding, and makes her way to Madrigal. Enrique learns of this, saying only that she can go “for now,” but does nothing. The archbishop arrives in the nick of time to escort her to Valladolid, where she will be safe, and they begin to prepare for the wedding, but the border between Aragon and Castilla is in the hands of Enrique’s supporters.
Fernando arrives, having traveled in hiding, and Isabel finally meets him—and is very impressed. The final preparations are made for the wedding just in time, and Isabel writes rather than the end—“the beginning.”
Rating: B. As a kid (or for a kid), quite frankly, this book is boring. There’s a lot of Catholicism and a lot of political intrigue and a lot of nothing happening for a very long time. I think some of Meyer’s books tends to be a bit better for younger readers, as she’s not exactly a master of subtlety, but this one is probably a bit more interesting for someone slightly older. More than that, you don’t get a great sense of who Isabella is, which is unfortunately common in diary-style books that lean more towards “first-person recounting of events” and less “reflection and introspection on daily life.” This is definitely more of the former. It’s not bad! It’s well-written, and Spanish royal history is certainly very fascinating, but it doesn’t have the immediate grasp that a lot of other Royal Diaries books do. Worth a read, but I’m not sure it would make the “must own” threshold rather than the “take it out of the library” mark.