Heaven Can Wait

Lookout,  April, 1992

       Topping everybody's required reading list for the hectic year ahead should be a book called 1492 and All That. The only problem is that it hasn't quite been written yet, but when Spain finally does get round to producing a double-barreled send-up of its appalling history and the equally appalling textbooks in which it has been perpetuated, it will doubtless have to start off something like this:

     "Queen Isabel married Fernando and got Columbus on his way sailing the ocean blue, and, after they chucked out the Jews, who were unpopular, and the Moors, who objected to being reconquered, they got the Spaniards who were left over to live together for awhile in the same country without killing each other; she was thus a good queen."

     And one feisty lady, to be sure. But a saint, now? Quite a few people in Spain  think she deserves nothing less than a halo to complement the crown that suited her so well during her lifetime. And quite a few others seem to feel that's maybe stretching matters a bit, or more than just a bit. The Pope, who knows a political hot potato when it lands in his cassock, is taking no chances.

     "Some of Isabel's deeds were contrary to the teachings of the Church, especially with regard to freedom of conscience." That was the cautious verdict of Msgr. Jean Marie Lustiger, the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris and trusted pontifical adviser. So after decades of work and the mustering of 27,000 pages of documentation, the Vatican's canonization committe decided last March to simply shelve the matter.

      Now the Church is at pains to emphasize that it doesn't churn out saints to order; it merely tries to recognize the "heroic virtues" that qualify them for a spot on the calendar. It has to be admitted that in the case of Isabel the Catholic Queen, the virtuous bit has been laid on a mite too thick both by her contemporaries as well as by posterity. 

      Still, can the laudatory overkill be any worse than the put-downs Spaniards have been getting from a legion of lick-spittle "intellectuals" who make a lucrative living flogging their opinions to the press barons of Madrid? Like this one from a trendy Catalan theologian writing in El País: "Everything about Isabel la Católica was negative," he grumbles. "She had no respect for the cultue and religious practices of the Indians. She set up the Inquisition. She persecuted Judaism, Islam, Protestantism and progressive Catholicism."  

      Very nasty of her indeed, especially as Protestantism wasn't even invented during her lifetime. And true, she couldn't have been all that keen on mass human sacrifice and other alternative religious practices of the Indians. Yet Isabel-bashing remains all the rage, partly as a spin-off from the loathing being lumped on her protegé, that nasty genocidal imperialist, Columbus .
       In Spain, moreover, some people who grew up under the Franco regime may recall  Isabel's  presence in the political icongraphy of the times in which  the founder of the Spanish state and pre-eminent symbol of national unity and squeaky-tight central government control was exulted.

      But let's pass on the posthumous company she never solicited and consider strictly what Isabel did or did not do. For one thing, she did not, repeat not, pawn her jewels to scrounge up venture capital for Columbus, though she may have threatened something of the sort by way of pressuring her husband to dig a bit deeper in his pockets. She did, however, raise money from the royal baubles when the Granada campaign was running low on funds. The business about her vowing never to change her shift until Granada was in Christian hands also turns out to be as unfounded as it is out of character. 

      If a witness for the prosecution is needed, we might call Carlos Benarroch, a 76-year-old resident of Barcelona, to the stand. Sr. Benarroch has three times served as head of the Council of Jewish Communities of Spain and isby far the most comprehensive in enumerating what he considers to be  instances of Isabel's unsaintly behavior, starting with the alleged usurpation of her crown. "This she did, possibly by poisoning her immediate family and certainly by shoving aside the rightful heir," he charges.

      Why is it that the most distinguished female rulers in European history tend to be the ones who were never supposed to have reigned in the first place? The infanta of Castile was very much minor royalty, never closer than third in line for the top spot nor destined to be more than bait in a dreary but diplomatically opportune marriage. 

    Her father the king had married twice, giving her one full and one half-brother. Unfortunately it was the latter who inherited, and he grew into a most unpleasant character known to his  history as Enrique IV and to his scornful subjects as Enrique the Impotent.  Enrique the Pervert would perhaps have been a tad more accurate, but what really had Castilians worried was the politically explosive break in the dynastic chain.

     As with Britain's roster of royal deviates,  Enrique was putty in the hands of one faction of nobles and anathema for the others. Still, after his first wife died, there was some lingering hope that he might yet deliver the goods. 

     When the new consort, Queen Juana of Portugal, finally did give birth after a six-year interval, there were only two drawbacks. First, that it was a daughter. Second, that it was said, rumored, broadcast, and all but proclaimed on high that paternal honors belonged to a nobleman named Don Beltrán de la Cueva who was carrying on fairly openly with the Queen. The daughter was thus known to all and sundry as "La Beltraneja" practically from the moment she was born.   

    Does that mean Sr. Benarroch is right in maintaining that the rightful heir was displaced by a libel "invented by Isabel and her propagandists"? Not at all. For one thing, the story was making the rounds when Isabel was just 10 years old, and of no particular interest to anyone at all since her father had providentially managed to provide an alternate male heir.

     That was Isabel's younger brother, Alfonso, who died  suddenly of "fevers" when he was just 15 years old. There is a whole school of dedicated conspiracy theorists who insist that he was "more than likely poisoned" by his sister's henchmen, who later on did for Enrique as well. This is pernicious poppycock. Not even Isabel's most implacable enemies ever suggested such a thing.

      Up to the time tragedy shoved Isabel back into the dynastic limelight, aged 17, most of her life had been spent in the chilly town of Arévalo, north of Segovia, in a gloomy castle where Enrique kept her and her brother under a kind of unacknowledged house arrest along with their mother, who was gradually going mad all the while.

     Anecodotes are hard to come by, and it is not easy to get an idea of the woman she was and the queen she was to be by squinting at a handful of old portraits. Although true to specification, showing her as tallish, with fair skin and hair, penetrating blue eyes and a saggy underchin, they are really renderings of the qualities of piety and determination, rather than the likeness of a living person.

      It takes an effort to imagine Isabella Rosellini wearing  the crown of Castile, or Kathleen Turner or even Glenn Close, but rumor (as of this writing) has any two of the above three short-listed for the rival Columbus films due in 92. Thirty years ago, big-budget mogul Sam Bronston went all out trying to raise money  for an epic on Isabel of Spain, in which Columbus would have been the walk-on part. That film never got made, and we never got to see what an actress like Glenda Jackson might have done with the role.

     Like another royal mite a few centuries down the line, you can almost hear Isabel saying "I will be good." And in that particular time and place, that could only mean being a strict, 100% by-the-book Roman Catholic, thinking, living and carrying out the duties that correspond to one's station in life in strict accordance with the teachings of the Church.

     No one doubts she was brave.  There once was a minor but nasty uprising in Segovia. The Royal Guard had to hole up in that city's Alcázar along with the Queen's first-born, a daughter also named Isabel. She she galloped like mad from Tordesillas, and demanded icily that the gates of the city be opened to her.

     She rode right up to the edge of the moat and allowed the the dangeroulsy sullen mob close in before she let them have it. "Tell me, what is your grievance, my loyal vassals, for whatever your will is, so must also be mine." Taken aback, the ringleaders began stammering complaints, starting with a call for the destitution of the city's loyalist governor. 

     Before they could get in another word, she cut them short with "Then it shall be done, for your remedy will likewise be mine." A second later they were cheering her like mad. She understood how to play to the galley and she also knew the prerogatives of princes were not to be lightly yielded,  for as soon as the city was completely under control, she reinstated the governor as if nothing had happened.

      Unyielding and self-righteous, yes. Imperious and intolerant -- certainly. Tolerance was not then on anyone's list of virtues. But she was a stickler for justice as well as frugal and austere. Two things, they said, the Queen would never do was drink wine or break her word.  For British history buffs, it might be possible to get some insight into that now-extinct mindset from all that has been written about Isabel's daughter, the unfortunate Catherine of Aragón, and her grand-daughter, "Bloody" Mary Tudor.

     While the Renaissance was just starting to percolate through Europe and suggest less rigid moral frameworks for human behavior, that was hppening a long way from the chilly hinterland of Castile. Where it did make an impact, however, was in the adjacent kingdom of Aragón, which had extensive entanglements  with France and Italy. It certainly influenced Isabel's future husband, Fernando, and decisively shaped the consummate politician he eventually was to become.

     Talk about a marriage of opposites. She was the living essence of the moral absolutism of Middle Ages, putting matters of principle and religious rectitude ahead of all, including interests of state. But of course, to her way of seeing the world, there could be no contradiction possible. Then her husband, learned, canny, ambitious, and in essence a bit of a bastard. For Machiavelli, who marvelled at how he seemed to get his way through "cunning and good luck, rather than superior wisdom," Fernando of Aragón was the embodiment of the self-interested statesman, deft master of political one-upmanship and the protoype Renaissance prince. 

       The courtship of these two teenage second cousins makes for an interesting prologue to their 30-year reign, since it provoked the nobility of Castile, who by then had Enrique conniving to marry off Isabel to the elderly King of Portugal. Legend tells of Fernando slipping incognito across the border disguised as a servant, and Isabel vowing that if she was had to be married to anyone, it would be to this good-looking charmer two years her junior who made a most dashing figure when decked out in armor for the jousting tournaments he inevitably won.

      The open defiance of the pro-Portugal faction triggered a persistent but low intensity civil war in Castile, one that was only temporarily called off in 1468 when Enrique, then on a losing streak, finally proclaimed Isabel his succesor and expresly denied paternity of La Beltraneja. Isabel and Fernando were married a few months later, just as soon as the bridegroom could wrangle a loan from Jewish financiers to pay for the wedding.

       The dynastic dispute flared up again, and Enrique --or rather the alliance of nobles, scheming prelates and the knights of Calatrava who were pulling the strings -- again tried to reinstate La Beltraneja, whom they were now trying to marry off to the Portuguese king. But by the time Enrique finally died in 1474, nobody was fighting terribly hard on behalf the princess who may or may not have been his daughter. Another two years of skirmishes saw Isabel secure on her throne but with her most difficult days still ahead of her.

       The reason was simply that her stepbrother and their father before him had left the kingdom in a huge mess. She immediately set about balancing the books, restoring law and order and cracking down hard on clans of grandees. "Although her word was law, she governed in such a manner that it might appear the joint action of both Fernando and herself," one chronicler noted.

      And governed extremely well, from all accounts. Crown  firmly on brow, embroidery hoop in her lap and surrounded by a an inner circle of shrewd prelates, she also created a civil service staffed strictly on the basis of personal merit and honesty. Nowadays, such a revolutionary undertaking by any Spanish leader would rate as a self-evident miracle and guarantee automatic elevation to the sainthood.  

       What sort of marriage did Isabel and Fernando have? As royal pairings go, one would have to rate it a fair success, backed up with more geniune affection and mutual respect than most. But the initial passion and long-term devotion were surely the contribution of Isabel, who was left to fret and forgive as Fernando fathered five illegtimate children in the course of his extra-matrimonial dalliances.

     Despite the melding of motifs on the royal coat of arms, their matrimony-based alliance did not  automatically bring about the unification of Spain. Officially, each was no more than the consort in the other's kingdom, but everyone knew that their heir would have unquestionable claim to the thrones of both Aragón and Castile. It therefore seems reasonable to suppose that unity was taken for granted by their subjects, as it certainly was abroad.  

       Partly as a result of their dual duties, both Isabel  and Fernando kept constantly on the move. Harried ambassadors grumbled it was hard to keep up with a queen who spent more time in the saddle than on the throne and who oversaw the affairs of her realm from a tent for long stretches at a time. For Fernando's other strong suit was aggresive military adventures at home and abroad. Curiously, the people who best served his designs, including the warrior prelate Cardinal Mendoza  and Gonzalo de Córdoba, were all Isabel's hand-picked people -- her special gift was for selecting subordinates and keeping them on their toes. Even the mighty Gonzalo was not exempt from her scathing reprimands. "Stop squandering all the honor you got through your victories by misgoverning now that you are in charge," she once had to scold him.

     When hostilities finally reopened with the Moorish kingdom of Granada, they were, of course, fueled by Isabel's dream of bringing the entire peninsula (but not necessarily, at that point, its inhabitants) into the fold of the Church. But the more pressing reasons, for Fernando, had to do with the border becoming dangerously unstable and a new ruler in Granada who had overplayed his hand.

      The decade that it took to bring the Moorish stronghold to its knees saw its share of brutal skirmishes and extended sieges, but there were also occasional flashes of deering-do on both sides to underscore that this was last major European campaign fought according to the rules and conventions of medieval chivalry, which the Moors were also very big on. It ended with just the right flourish. After gallantly refusing to accept the homage of the defeated Boabdil, Fernando straightaway handed over the keys of the conquered city to Isabel. She had been there with him at the front for months at a time.

      Looking on from the sidelines was a persistent, shabby Italian seaman, his six years of soft soap and determination now within a few months of payoff. It is clear Columbus was entirely Isabel's pet project. Fernando had his eyes on new Italian conquests and old scores to settle with France; subsequently, he became Columbus's nemesis. But the disgraced admiral never blamed Isabel for his run of misfortunes, and when she died, he entreated his son Diego to remember her in his prayers.

     Isabel's boosters argue that the conversion of an entire continent to Christianity gives ample grounds for their cause and meets the requirement that two miracles be confirmed for any would-be saint. "What could be more miraculous than bringing the Gospel to America, and all the saints that continent has given us since then?" argues Msgr. Luis Aponte, the Cardinal Archbishop of Puerto Rico.

     But Sr.Benarroch has a come-back. "If America became Christian, it wasn't because the Queen wanted it, but because the Pope insisted and made Columbus take along a priest on his second voyage over. On the first trip there was no priest, not even one to attend to the spiritual needs of his own sailors."    

     Another very opinionated and very Jewish scoffer, Simon Wiesenthal, has more cold water to throw on that argument, insisting that Colombus may have been looking for a safe haven for the Jews of Spain, himself maybe included, who just three months before he set sail had been booted out of their millenial homeland. The 83-year old veteran Nazi hunter alternatively maintains that Columbus reneged on his promise of rewarding the first man to spot land because the sailor who did so happened to be a Jew, as was about a third of the  crew. 

      "Spain will celebrate in a big way but the discovery brought extermination that is still going on in the rain forests of Brazil," glowers Wiesenthal. "The only difference is that Hitler had the technology to carry out his dream of mass genocide."

         But the record makes it clear that in March, 1493, when Columbus returned from his first voyage, his patroness was extremely annoyed when he tried to make her a present of a couple of Indians he abducted casually along the way. "What right does the Admiral have to dispose of my vassals according to his will?" Isabel said, and made the Indians her royal pages, the same honor that was bestowed on Columbus's two sons.

      The explorer was given written notice "to abstain from all manner of harassment and to treat (the New World natives) well and lovingly, speak frankly and familiarly with them and render them all the kind services in his power, distribute such presents as their Royal Highnesses have caused to be embarked on the fleet for that purpose, and to punish in the most exemplary manner all those who should offer them the least molestation". The same instructions went into her deathbed-dictated testament. 

     If, indeed, Isabel the Queen was touchingly concerned for the welfare of her newest vassals, the same can hardly be said for the way she treated her some of her oldest, the half-million Spanish Jews, who on March 31, 1492 were summarily told to convert or start packing. The Inquisition, which the Catholic monarchs had been instrumental in reviving a dozen years earlier, had already moved into high gear under the infamous Torquemada. 

     And this is where we must listen carefully to Sr. Benarroch and his many partisans. "Any desire to include this queen in the list of saints shows a lack of respect for her victims and a lamentable absence of sensitvity to the feelings of the modern Jewish community in Spain," he says, and it is not easy to refute him on that. 

     The onus of the expulsion falls exclusively on Isabel, and it is clear that Fernando, whose maternal grandmother was born Jewish, and who moreover thought the whole idea was just plain bad policy, as indeed it turned out to be, was badgered into compliance. The Inquisition, however, was a different matter. He made sure that confiscated properties from convicted apostates ended up in the royal treasury. Indifferent to its excesses, he got to control the doings of the Holy Office in his home territory of Aragón, and turned a nice profit on the suffering it inflicted.

     But what compelled Isabel to do it? What would now be called plain bigotry seems not to have been at issue. She had valued the Jews she placed in the top echelons of government, including her finance ministers, Abraham Seneor and Isaac Abravanel, and rewarded converts who stood loyally by her, including Andrés Cabrera, the governor-general of Segovia, who had married her childhood confidante, Beatriz de Bobadilla.

       There is no easy explanation for her decision. To say that both the expulsion and the Inquisition came about because she wanted to "purify" her realm lis probably as close to the truth as we can get. Five centuries ago, purifying a realm would not have been a big deal  Even then, however, some of the queen's most trusted counselors were dead against the whole idea,  including her confessor, Hernando de Talavera, who branded the expulsion "a sin and an act of infamy".

       To argue, as some have done, that she was simply doing what her subjects demanded of her is likewise ingenuous, though the rising tide of anti-Semitism that began sweeping over Spain a century before was getting out of hand and doubtless would have led to new pogroms and civil disorders. But the line taken by Fr. Anastasio Gutiérrez, the official postulant of her sainthood campaign, that Isabel "only wanted to help the Jews flee from Spain when the people would have readily exterminated them all" is unconvincing to say the least.

     They are on somewhat firmer ground who say that in ordering the Jews never to set foot in her realm under penalty of death, she simply was doing what any other sovereign of the age had a perfect right to do and often enough did, such as England's own Edward I in 1290.

     A recent biographer, Fernando Vizcaino Casas, had a point worth making when he observed  that "You can't go around taking moral measurements of what was going on in 1492 with the yardsticks of 1992." Others have drawn parallels with the demands of modern Israeli extremists for the mass expulsion of  Palestinians from their historical homeland.

     In the event, the dozen years of future that remained to Isabel were in the personal sphere bleak enough to suggest some measure of divine retribution at work. The much-beloved son and heir, Prince Juan, took after his father and died young. Of their four daughters, one died in childbirth, another became the queen of Portugal, while poor Catharine of Aragón was swallowed up whole by English history.

     That left  poor Juana who as a young girl had shown all the symptoms of a textbook-case manic depressive like her grandmother. By the time she was married off to that spoiled brat of an Austrian princeling, Felipe el Hermoso (Phillip the Fair)  Juana was well on her way to becoming a full-fledged schizophrenic, even without the promptings of her uncaring and unfaithful husband whose death sent her completley round the bend.

     Whatever second thoughts she may have had, whatever deep heartsickness she must have felt, Isabel the Catholic Queen was not one to let on. Let us concede that her good intentions outweighed even her acccomplishments, and those were numerous enough. A balance-sheet that any politician could be proud of. But perhaps it's best to hang on to that halo, because it was never the road to heaven that was supposed to be paved with good intentions.