The history books have cast Katherine of Aragon, the first queen of King Henry VIII of England, as the ultimate symbol of the Betrayed Woman, cruelly tossed aside in favor of her husband’s seductive mistress, Anne Boleyn. Katherine’s sister, Juana of Castile, wife of Philip of Burgundy and mother of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, is portrayed as “Juana the Mad,” whose erratic behavior included keeping her beloved late husband’s coffin beside her for years. But historian Julia Fox, whose previous work painted an unprecedented portrait of Jane Boleyn, Anne’s sister, offers deeper insight in this first dual biography of Katherine and Juana, the daughters of Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella, whose family ties remained strong despite their separation. Looking through the lens of their Spanish origins, Fox reveals these queens as flesh-and-blood women—equipped with character, intelligence, and conviction—who are worthy historical figures in their own right.
When they were young, Juana’s and Katherine’s futures appeared promising. They had secured politically advantageous marriages, but their dreams of love and power quickly dissolved, and the unions for which they’d spent their whole lives preparing were fraught with duplicity and betrayal. Juana, the elder sister, unexpectedly became Spain’s sovereign, but her authority was continually usurped, first by her husband and later by her son. Katherine, a young widow after the death of Prince Arthur of Wales, soon remarried his doting brother Henry and later became a key figure in a drama that altered England’s religious landscape.
Ousted from the positions of power and influence they had been groomed for and separated from their children, Katherine and Juana each turned to their rich and abiding faith and deep personal belief in their family’s dynastic legacy to cope with their enduring hardships. Sister Queens is a gripping tale of love, duty, and sacrifice—a remarkable reflection on the conflict between ambition and loyalty during an age when the greatest sin, it seems, was to have been born a woman.
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A Triumph of Faith
The snow-covered mountains of the Sierra Nevada were clearly visible from the high, castellated red walls of the citadel as the slight figure of Boabdil, the last king of Granada, slipped out of its gates for the final time. Mounted on his mule and accompanied by fifty of his most trusted soldiers, he slowly made his way down the steep, icy paths formally to surrender the keys of the city. Its conquerors, Ferdinand, King of Aragon, and his wife Isabella, Queen of Castile, were waiting with their children by the banks of the Genil River in the fertile valley below. The date was January 2, 1492. To Boabdil, the day marked the loss of a kingdom and the beginnings of humiliation and exile. To Ferdinand and Isabella, on the other hand, it marked a triumph of faith; faith in the destiny of their country, in their dynasty and, above all, faith in the Holy Catholic Church and the God who was the core of their existence.
For Boabdil was a Moor. The Moors were Muslims who had first invaded the Spanish peninsula from North Africa back in the eighth century and who had quickly dominated much of it. Christian Spanish kings had fought against them over the centuries, gradually winning city after city and mile after mile of hotly disputed territory. The Moors had slowly been pushed back so that by the time of Isabella’s birth in 1451 they were concentrated only in the south of Spain. But they had never been completely defeated until that cold January day when Boabdil was forced to give up their last stronghold: the city of Granada itself.
The formalities of surrender had been agreed in advance. Resolutely refusing to face further humiliation despite his defeat, Boabdil had already declared that he would not kneel to the victorious monarchs. Isabella was equally determined that he should show due respect to herself and her husband, for this was the day of which she had dreamed since her wars against the Moors had begun ten years earlier. Too much Christian blood had been spilled, and she was very conscious of the malnourished and overworked Christian prisoners languishing in chains in the circular well-like subterranean dungeons of the Alcazaba, the main fortress contained within the walls of the Alhambra, Boabdil’s palace and administrative complex. The captives would soon be freed, but their plight, and the sacrifices of the Christian armies, could not go unrecognized; Boabdil would be treated fairly, but he could not expect to get away scot-free. Nor would he.
As arranged, Boabdil turned his mule toward Ferdinand and ostentatiously pretended to dismount and remove his hat. Ferdinand, equally ostentatiously, courteously indicated that he should remain in the saddle. Before handing over the keys of the city to Ferdinand, Boabdil rode toward Isabella, who, glitteringly dressed and sitting upon a great white horse, also received him graciously. Knowing his wife as he did, Ferdinand immediately passed the keys on to her. Iñigo López de Mendoza, Count of Tendilla, the new governor of the city, and Hernando de Talavera, the gentle, ascetic cleric who had served as the queen’s confessor and whom she had appointed its archbishop, then rode up the hill and away from the rejoicing crowds toward the Alhambra itself. The city, complete with its citadel, was now part of Spain. Moorish control was over, and Ferdinand and Isabella’s crusade against the Moors concluded, if only for the moment.
Leaving behind his lands and his palaces, Boabdil settled on the estates allowed him by Ferdinand and Isabella in the Alpujerras, an area lying to the south of Granada. He would stay there for only one year. In 1493, he sailed to Africa, much to Isabella’s delight. He died shortly afterward. Ironically, his half-brothers and his mother, sensibly bowing to reality, were baptized, the young men marrying Castilian noblewomen and settling comfortably into Christian society.
Four days after Boabdil handed them the keys to Granada, Ferdinand and Isabella entered the city for the first time to make their way up the path so recently trodden by Boabdil and then into the amazing world that was the Alhambra. Their royal standards, together with that of St. James of Compostella, the patron saint of their wars against the Moors, flew proudly from the battlements of the Alcazaba, and the huge silver cross, which had been in the vanguard of the armies since the wars had started, shone out from the Tower of the Winds. The banners would be lovingly preserved and can still be seen today, a little faded but otherwise intact, in the museum of the Royal Chapel of Granada’s cathedral, just a stone’s throw away from where Ferdinand and his queen now lie.
Those watching the royal cavalcade snake through the narrow streets filled with tiny houses on January 6, 1492, said that the couple appeared “more than mortal, and as if sent by Heaven for the salvation of Spain.” It was a momentous day, a never-to-be forgotten day. For the defeated Moors, peering through their latticed windows as their new masters rode by, it was terrifying; the monarchs had promised to allow them to continue their traditional way of life and to practice their religion, but the brutal treatment Ferdinand and Isabella had meted out to the citizens of the Moorish port of Malaga, where most had been enslaved, hardly encouraged confidence in the future. In contrast, Isabella and her husband were ecstatic. Even before Granada’s capitulation, Ferdinand had been quick to trumpet his exploits against the Moors. Having captured an outlying town, he wrote to Elizabeth of York, Henry VII of England’s wife, to let her know because, as he said, his “victory must interest all the Christian world” so it was only his “duty to inform” her. With the fall of Granada itself, letters almost flew around European courts announcing it. On receipt of his, Henry VII ordered a special Te Deum to be sung in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Another of Ferdinand’s letters reached Pope Innocent VIII proclaiming the city “won to the glory of God, the exaltation of the Holy catholic Faith, and the honour of the Apostolic See.” Innocent died a few months later, but his successor, Alexander VI, gave the title los Reyes Católicos—the Catholic Monarchs—to Ferdinand and his wife.
When they entered Boabdil’s palace of the Alhambra, the royal couple were accompanied by their five children: Isabella, Juana, Maria, Katherine, and Juan, their only son, who, although not yet fourteen, had been knighted by his father before the walls of the city. Theirs had been an itinerant life: during the conflict’s many campaigns, the queen had kept her offspring at her side whenever possible so that she could supervise their education and upbringing.
This had not been entirely without risk. One night, as the Christian armies slept peacefully in their camp near to the besieged city of Granada, the queen’s tent had suddenly caught fire. Perhaps a candle or lamp had been left too close to the hangings, but whatever the cause, the flames swiftly took hold and spread with alarming speed. Juana, who had been sleeping soundly with her mother, found herself roughly woken up and dragged though the dense, choking smoke to safety. The noise, the shouts, and the thick smoke roused the entire camp. Soon soldiers were running everywhere to check if they were under attack, for the besieged defenders had a nasty habit of riding out in sorties to take the offensive. The fire was eventually extinguished, although not before it had caused massive damage and left Juana with an exciting, if frightening, memory. Ferdinand, who had rushed to don armor and join his soldiers to defend the camp, was so alarmed that he ordered the swift building of what went on to become the town of Santa Fe so that his family could rest within firm walls rather than diaphanous pavilions.
Isabella, scorning danger, had shrugged it off and carried on with her usual activities. A small matter of a fire was not going to stop her. Although never taking part in the fighting, she had frequently ridden with her armies, organizing supplies, arranging for medical aid for the wounded, and exhorting her troops to deeds of courage and valor for the sake of their God. A retinue of priests accompanied her wherever she went and would join her in praying for victory. Indeed, when the shining silver cross was raised high on the battlements of the Alcazaba, the Spanish armies sank to their knees for a Te Deum; Ferdinand and Isabella’s monumental undertaking appeared to have come to a magnificent finale. As they explored their new palace, taking in the vibrantly painted and tiled rooms, the intricately carved ceilings, the gently playing fountains of the Court of Myrtles and the Court of Lions, the royal children had every reason to feel proud of their parents. And yet it could all have been so different.
When Isabella had been born deep within Castile at Madrigal de las Altas Torres (Madrigal of the High Towers) in 1451, no one had seriously thought that she would become a reigning queen in her own right, nor that she would be the instrument through which the disparate regions of Spain would become consolidated. For Spain was not then a united country: the Moors dominated the south; Castile, Isabella’s homeland, was the largest province, consisting of Castile itself, León, Toledo, Galicia, Murcia, Jaén, Cordoba, and Seville and controlling about two-thirds of the lands we now think of as modern Spain, including most of the central, northern, and western parts of the country. The kingdom of Aragon, which also comprised Valencia, Mallorca, and the principality of Catalonia, controlled the rest.
Isabella, the only daughter of King Juan II of Castile and his second wife, Isabella of Portugal, was third in line to the throne. With two males heirs ahead of her—her half-brother, Henry (Juan’s son by his first wife, Maria of Aragon), and her full brother, Prince Alfonso—the young Isabella was to be groomed for marriage, not ruling.
Death changed all that. When she was three, her father died and her half-brother, Henry, took over the throne. Although married, King Henry IV sired no children; amid rumors of his impotency, hopes that Alfonso would succeed him seemed well founded. Or they did until, to the incredulity of the entire court, after seven years of marriage, King Henry’s queen gave birth to a daughter. Although no one dared say so officially just yet, courtiers gossiped that the little girl was not Henry’s at all but was the result of an affair between the queen and a dashingly handsome courtier, Beltrán de la Cueva. The child was even spoken of by the scandal-mongers as “La Beltraneja” after her supposed father. To this day, we cannot be sure whether she really was Henry’s child or Beltrán’s, but the murkiness was a gift to Isabella’s brother Alfonso and later to Isabella herself. Neither was prepared to give way to a child they deemed, very conveniently, a bastard.
It was during Henry’s reign that Isabella had revealed her remarkable courage and a gritty determination to go to any lengths to achieve her goal, characteristics that were later to be particularly apparent in her daughters Katherine and Juana. Henry, having managed to alienate several key nobles and powerful church figures, found himself facing demands to recognize Alfonso’s claim to the throne and disinherit the little daughter he always claimed was his own. Realizing the strength of the opposition, Henry did as requested but, a vacillator to his fingertips, later changed his mind. The result was civil war. And then, in 1468, probably of plague but suddenly enough to give rise to talk of poison, Alfonso died.
Isabella’s position had been radically transformed. She saw herself as heir apparent. And this was when she played a master stroke: she married. Rather than let Henry neutralize her by arranging her marriage himself, she took matters into her own hands and became the wife of Ferdinand of Aragon, King of Sicily, the son and heir of King Juan II of Aragon. Just as one day they would negotiate the weddings of their children with clinical practicality, so Isabella and Ferdinand negotiated their own. Undoubtedly a dynastic match, it brought the advantage of mutual support to both participants. In a male-oriented world, Isabella would have a husband who could lead her armies and give her children; Ferdinand, whose family in Aragon were also facing civil war, would have the backing of Castile in any future conflict. And while their marriage treaty did not formally join their lands into one country, mutual cooperation between Castile and Aragon could only strengthen both.