I'm thrilled to have Chris Gortner here today, acclaimed author of four historical novels, the most recent being THE QUEEN'S VOW. Chris writes about interesting and powerful women from history, and I was quite intrigued by his latest book about Queen Isabella of Spain, as I was writing a chapter for my last book set during the height of the Spanish Inquisition under her reign. As Chris points out below, it was a time of incredible political turmoil for Spain. The pressures Spain faced regarding ethnic and religious diversity were not unlike what Europe has undergone recently with its largest immigration influxes and upsurge in its Muslim population. If you're a fan of historical fiction and you haven't checked out his work yet, you're in for a treat.
You are well known as a novelist who specializes in portraying controversial women in history. Why did you choose Isabella of Castile for your new novel?
I first became entranced by Isabella while writing my first novel, The Last Queen, about her daughter, Juana. In that book, Isabella is the triumphant, middle-aged queen of legend, who has set the stage for Spain’s emergence as a modern Renaissance state. To depict her accurately, I researched her with a focus on the woman she became after she won the crusade against the Moors. For THE QUEEN’S VOW I decided to explore how Isabella became queen. She had a rather ignominious beginning as the ignored daughter of an exiled royal widow; no one expected her to rule. Her love affair with Fernando of Aragón is a rarity in history, as well; she chose her husband in an era when princesses rarely did and defied everyone to marry him, sparking a civil war. As with most legends, there’s more to Isabella than we think and her dramatic early years are not well known outside of academic circles. She was, in essence, a perfect choice for me.
How long did it take you to write, and what special research was involved?
It took about two years to write THE QUEEN’S VOW. As with all my books, the research itself began several years before that; for the novel itself, I took several trips to Spain, including one in which I followed in Isabella’s footsteps from Seville to Granada and coveted palace of the Alhambra, site of perhaps her most famous triumph. The alcazar of Segovia, though much transformed over the years, also carries a strong echo of Isabella’s early trials; as does the walled city of Avila and several other sites in Castile. I also read her extant correspondence and that of her contemporaries, as well as ambassadorial accounts of her court. Isabella has left relatively little in her own hand that reveals her inner thoughts— she wasn’t given to displays of her feelings—but careful examination of what does exist, together with the documentation and her actions during her lifetime, offer a framework from which to build the flesh-and-blood woman she may have been and the challenges she faced.
What is one of the greatest misconceptions about Isabella of Castile?
Without doubt, the accusation she was a fanatic who relished burning heretics. Isabella was deeply Catholic, as were most of her fellow European sovereigns. She may have been more devout in practice but it’s important to understand that persecution existed throughout Europe long before she arrived. The Jews, for example, had been expelled centuries before from England and France, and were barely tolerated in other countries. The suffering imposed on them and other non-Christians is a calamity, but not unique to Isabella or Spain. What is unique is Isabella’s revival of the dormant Inquisition to resolve issues of non-conformity to Catholic doctrine among Spain’s vibrant and plentiful converso population (Jews who’d converted to Christianity over generations, often as a result of past persecution). However, it’s less well known that Isabella resisted this action at first; her alleged fanaticism was in truth a sincere but misguided attempt to impose religious unity and thus safeguard her realm from heresy. To Christians of Isabella’s world, heresy was real; they believed it threatened the very salvation of their souls. Isabella certainly believed this and consequently she made a grave error in judgment, though she wouldn’t have seen it that way. She was motivated by her divinely appointed duty as queen to impose the only faith she deemed valid, rather than a heartless desire to terrorize her people.
Tell us about a discovery you made that most surprised you about Isabella?
I had no idea she was so forward-thinking in terms of women’s education. Isabella came to power in a Spain fragmented by years of ineffectual monarchs and the country itself was divided. Once heralded for its erudition and advanced learning, by the time Isabella was born, Spaniards were barely literate, and women scarcely at all. She herself had no formal education, save for rudimentary basics. She lamented all her life her lack of education; in her early 30s, she dedicated herself to mastering Latin, and championed a decree that facilitated women’s entry into universities. She was the first queen in Europe to mandate that women could earn degrees and become professors; she also imported and made available the first printing presses in Spain. Isabella was so intent on promoting women’s intellectual equality that she insisted her own four daughters be educated in the new Renaissance style; the Spanish princesses were considered the best-educated in Europe.
How do you strike a balance between depicting the reality of the times with modern day sensibilities? Do you think issues Isabella faced in her era still resonate today?
It’s always challenging to depict the past in a way we can both understand and sympathize with. Issues of religion, race, sexuality, gender, animal cruelty, etc. are fraught with controversy when filtered through the prism of the past, because people then barely recognized these as issues at all, much less debated them. Many of the freedoms we take for granted were unknown to people of the 15th and 16th centuries; but many of the problems we still face were. We carry the past with us, and leaders throughout the world continue to grapple with some of the same issues Isabella did, in terms of providing safety for their citizens, mitigating violence, assisting the sick, the hungry, the impoverished, and those whose lives have been torn apart by war and suffering.
Nevertheless, while historical accuracy remains an obligation, I do sanitize certain aspects of the reality of life in the 15th century. I strive for authenticity and avoid a tendency to convert a brutal, quixotic era into “costume drama” but in the end, I write fiction. My principal function is to entertain.
What do you hope readers take away from your work?
I seek to reveal secret histories, and in some small way restore humanity to people whose legends have overshadowed them. I also hope readers will come away from reading my books with the experience that they’ve been on a journey. I want them to feel the way these people lived, their hardships and joys, and differences and similarities with us. Though a Renaissance queen dealt with issues we don’t, love, hatred, power, intolerance, passion, and the quest for personal liberty remain universal themes.
CW Gortner is the author of several historical novels, including The Last Queen, The Tudor Secret and The Confessions of Catherine de Medici. You can find out more about him and his novels here. Also check out his very popular blog for historical fiction, Historical Boys.