Reading History: “The Queen’s Vow: A Novel of Isabella of Castile” (by C.W. Gortner)

In the annals of European history, there are few women who have had as great an influence on the course of history as Isabella of Castile. With her husband Ferdinand–called here Fernando–she was responsible for bringing to a successful conclusion the Reconquista, in which the Muslim rulers of Spain were pushed out. While she was certainly one of the more enlightened monarchs of her era, Isabella was also subject to bouts of religious-influenced intolerance.

C.W. Gortner manages to capture all of these contradictions in this spell-binding novel. The Queen’s Vow begins in Isabella’s youth, when she flees the court of her dead father to take up exile with her mother. Due to court politics, however, she soon finds herself swept up in the ambitions of others, and when at last her brother dies she ascends to the throne. After a marriage to Fernando, prince and later King of Aragon, the two of them push to finish the reconquest of Spain from the Moors. By the end, she is poised on the brink of sponsoring the voyages of the man who would go on to become known as Christopher Columbus.

Through trial and triumph, however, one thing remains steady in Isabella’s life: her belief in her own right to rule Castile. And there is plenty of trial in this novel. From the beginning, Isabella finds herself caught up in plots and schemes by those who don’t have her best interests at heart. All too often, these cause Isabella tremendous emotional distress. She has to watch her mother slide slowly into madness, and she also has to confront the reality that both of her brothers are fated to meet ends that are truly tragic.

Through it all, however, she still manages to keep a firm grasp of her vision as the one person who can bring peace to her fractured kingdom. And it is, indeed, fractured. Due to the ineffectual reigns of both her brother and her father, the nobles of Castile are more intent on enriching themselves and oppressing the peasants that work than their land than they are on how to make the kingdom function as a true polity. It is a testament to Isabella’s formidable skills as a queen that she manages to not only survive but positively thrive. Time and again, she does what no one expects and, slowly but surely, she builds up her power.

One of Gortner’s great skills as a historical novelist is his willingness to engage with the flaws of his main character. In this instance, this has to do with the speed with which she decides to abandon the Jews when it becomes politically necessary to do so. And, of course, it’s worth pointing out that she also gave permission for the Spanish Inquisition, one of the most ruthless and cruel religious experiments in the history of Christianity. Gortner doesn’t try to gloss over or explain away these parts of Isabella’s record. As he points out in his note following the text, Isabella was very much a person of her time, and that means that she was as prone to mistakes and acts of cruelty as anyone else. Of course, the fact that she is queen means that her actions have consequences far beyond her own life.

Gortner also captures the strong emotional bond that clearly existed between Fernando and Isabella. Given that this was the Renaissance, a period in which royal women and men married for reasons of political expedience rather than for love, the fact that these two people managed to find so much wedded happiness with one another is nothing short of miraculous. The parts of the novel that depict the passionate love between them are truly steamy, drawing you into the physical intimacy that they share with one another. (Though I have to say that the description of Fernando in this novel is somewhat at odds with most of the portraits of him that I’ve seen).

As he always does with historical novels, Gortner manages to richly and convincingly convey the world of 15th Century Spain. There are times when you could swear that you were actually there, witnessing the sheer breathtaking beauty of this country (having been there, I can attest to the truth of that description). At the same time, he doesn’t get so lost in the details that you find yourself getting bored. Instead, this is very much a novel that you can get lost in for hours.

While Isabella is of course the focal point of the novel, we also get a glimpse into the many other larger-than-life characters that inhabited this particular world. We see ruthless churchmen, caring ladies, zealous friars, and more. All of them attempt to pull Isabella–and through her Castile–in their preferred direction, but she is a woman very much of her own mind. And, of course, there are her children, all of whom are positioned to take up leading roles in the history of Europe. Her descendants, as it turns out, will go on to rule Europe and, in fact, the world.

There is no denying that Isabella lived at one of the most important points in the history of Europe. This was an era of tremendous religious unrest and Spain, with its unique history as a place where Jews, Muslims, and Christians were able to exist in at least a measure of peace and accord, was poised to undergo cataclysmic change. Even though the novel is told entirely from the perspective of Isabella, it nevertheless conveys a significant amount of sympathy for the men and women who are affected by the rising tide of Christian zealousness that is poised to sweep over the peninsula, destroying much in its path.

All told, I very much enjoyed The Queen’s Vow. It’s everything that I look for in a historical fiction, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Soon, I’ll be starting on Gortner’s novel about Isabella’s tragic daughter, the woman known to history as Juana the Mad. Stay tuned!

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