In the last two years of her life, Queen Isabella focused her energies on the things that mattered the most to her: her religious faith, her children’s well-being, and the security of Spain.

The war with France was dragging on, year after weary year. It had been almost ten years since the French had begun their ill-fated assault on the Italian peninsula. Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba had left Spain to fight in Greece and Italy in 1499, and now, in 1503, he was engaged in the mop-up operations in Naples. He and his men fought ferociously and tirelessly in the service of the Spanish sovereigns, braving extremes of harsh weather, exhaustion, and even starvation. And the queen had been his most consistent supporter as the war wore on. She wrote to him in her own hand in May 1503, urging him to seek complete victory in Naples. “All the eyes of Christians and infidels are watching what you do,” she told him, imploring him to move forward quickly to accomplish as much as possible.1

But despite the queen’s loyalty to Gonzalo, a whispering campaign was under way against him in Spain, instigated and encouraged by Ferdinand, who criticized him from afar for perceived missteps or mistakes. Those who found fault with Gonzalo, talking about the cost of the campaign or its duration, found favor with the king. “There was much murmuring by all, the nobles and even the king himself saying that el Gran Capitán’s run of good fortune had run out,” writes the biographer Mary Purcell. “… Queen Isabella was the only one who took his part, saying that they should not judge him until they saw how the war went.”2

But Gonzalo’s bravery was acknowledged by all who witnessed him in battle. “The Spanish fought like devils,” wrote one French chronicler, “and the Great Captain ran up and down in the first line of the attack, calling his men-at-arms by their own names and giving them heart.”3 Then, in December 1503, he won the overwhelming victory against the French at Garignola, through a traditional surprise assault. He attacked the French army during wild, cold, and rainy winter weather, when they had left key defensive positions undermanned. The Spanish had built a concealed bridge that allowed their troops to suddenly spring up inside the French cantonments, and in so doing, they “completely destroyed the French army of Italy,” writes the military historian Charles Oman.4

The Spanish victory was absolute. “Of the French who were led to war,” Peter Martyr wrote, “few have escaped who did not perish by the sword or famine, ill health, of the people, scarcely anyone.”5 Back in Castile, Queen Isabella couldn’t help but preen with pride over what her longtime friend had managed to achieve. “I was certain he would succeed,” she told her courtiers. “What the Great Captain cannot accomplish no other man in our dominions can, and those who go about backbiting him are doing so out of sheer envy.”6

Then the Great Captain added insult to injury, from the French perspective, by behaving magnanimously in victory. He rounded up the remnants of the French troops, who had been abandoned in Italy by their leaders, and gave them free transportation back home. That was another bitter pill for the French king Louis XII, so he decided to seek revenge by claiming back Roussillon and Perpignan, the provinces that the French had been feuding over with Ferdinand and his father for five decades. King Ferdinand rushed north with troops to try to run them off. He had been left on the sidelines in Castile during the war over Naples, with the Great Captain getting all the glory, and this was his opportunity to shine.

Back in Castile, Queen Isabella went into action once more. She continued to do what she did best—mobilize troops for war. She had perfected the logistics of battle, gathering troops, supplies, armor, horses, carts, foodstuffs, and hospital equipment and preparing it for transport. She had in fact become what the Spanish historian Tarsicio de Azcona called “the consummate expert” of the quartermaster’s art.7

But Isabella was not happy about this military campaign, because she had become obsessed with the need to engage the Muslims, not fellow Christians. According to Peter Martyr:

This our Catholic Queen at no time ever seemed to have derived joy from successes of this sort, nay she clouded her brow whenever it was told that Christian blood had been spilled, wherever it happened. Whether this was with feigned countenance or from the breast let Him inquire who dwells in the hearts of men. She said with sighs she would rather that blood had been preserved against the enemies of our Law. But the King does not refrain from serene face, with open and placid brow he professes that enemies whoever they may be, ought to be shaken off as enemies.8

Whether Isabella was sincere or not, Peter Martyr could not be sure. For although he had lived within her court for more than fifteen years and spent much time with her, he still found it difficult to know what she really felt. She was amazingly well schooled at concealing her thoughts and emotions.

While Ferdinand headed off to the battlefield in the north of Spain, and despite the problems with Juana, Isabella made sure the king had all the supplies and armaments he needed. Auxiliary troops, well equipped, were dispatched from all over the kingdom. She was kept constantly abreast of troop movements, with fast horses arriving several times each day with the latest news from the conflict zone. But she wasn’t enthusiastic about this new campaign. She feared that the French would foolishly attempt to storm the strong citadel of Salsas, which would expose them to mass slaughter. By this point, after thirty years in which Spain had fought war after war, the Spanish military had become such a well-oiled machine that Isabella could foresee another resounding defeat for the French.

In fact, as the troops advanced, Queen Isabella sent messengers to all the convents and monasteries of Segovia and ordered them to say prayers for the French soldiers. She led a day of prayer and fasting on the day they anticipated the battle would begin. She prayed for the safety of the French. The queen’s prayers were answered: the French decided to abandon their positions by night, when Ferdinand and his soldiers were sleeping. When they discovered the retreat was under way, Ferdinand gave chase, but the French had made a clean getaway. Isabella was relieved that very few Christian men had been killed. “Therefore the Most Highest heard the prayers of the Holy Queen and of the Religious and the [ladies of the court],” Peter Martyr wrote in November 1503. “He afforded a way to the French to turn their backs safe. Do you therefore give thanks to the Gods to whom you are thought dear for a victory obtained without much blood.”9

This outcome, however, did not give Ferdinand the glorious victory he had hoped to achieve, and his criticisms of Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba continued.

There was one other task, however, that Isabella had to pass to Ferdinand: obtaining the dispensation to permit Catherine to marry Henry. She could not ask the pope for the dispensation herself. She was by now openly feuding with him, sending him letters and personal messages, delivered by emissaries, that criticized his conduct and the way he was leading the church. She believed that the church’s failure to reform its ways was putting the institution at risk. Her concerns predated the start of the Protestant movement—Martin Luther was a nineteen-year-old college student in Erfurt, and the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic response to his criticism, was still forty years away.

Queen Isabella was aware of the scandal and criticism swirling around Pope Alexander VI in Italy. The Italian preacher Girolamo Savonarola, with his flashing eyes and hawklike profile, was delivering fiery sermons attacking corruption in the church and in public life. He warned against bad priests and monks, sodomy, pornography, gambling, prostitution, drunkenness, and lascivious dressing. He told the flock that God would bring a scourge upon the land for the sins of the people. At the end of 1492, he had had a vision in the night where he saw a hand in the sky wielding a sword, and he warned that God was angry and would take vengeance. This line of reasoning found receptive listeners in Europe at a time when the Ottoman Turks were so clearly in the ascendancy and vanquishing Christian armies left and right. “The sword of the Lord is coming, swiftly and speedily,” Savonarola told his followers. The brutal invasion by the French army in 1495 soon persuaded the crowds in Florence that he had foreseen the future.

His preaching about abuses in the church struck a chord with many people, including Isabella, who was trying to clean up corruption in the church in Spain. “His overriding aim was to reform and renew Catholic Christendom,” writes the Savonarola biographerDesmond Seward. Isabella was operating from the same impulse, although unwilling to challenge the church so openly.

As Savonarola gathered more followers, he started to unnerve Pope Alexander VI, who was a practitioner of many of the vices that Savonarola was decrying. The pope decided to try to neutralize Savonarola by offering to make him a cardinal, but the friar publicly rejected the offer as a temptation that would lead the bearer to forget the key tenets of Christ’s life.

The events that made Savonarola famous, the Bonfire of the Vanities, occurred during Lent in 1497 and 1498. A vacuum of civic leadership had followed the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the merchant banker and de facto ruler of the city. Florence had been hard hit by drought and starvation in 1496 and 1497. Children were found dead of hunger in the streets; people were trampled to death in a rush to get free grain offered as charity. Savonarola convinced the crowds that their sybaritic ways had brought on God’s wrath, and he called on them to erect a wooden platform and there to burn objects that represented human vices and unnecessary luxuries. Items thrown into the bonfire included rich clothing, mirrors, playing cards, and paintings and books, some of which werepornography but others of which were great works that represented the celebration of sensuality at the heart of the Italian Renaissance.

Soon Savonarola began to openly denounce the pope, something Alexander VI at first tried to ignore. The Florentine friar grew increasingly strident as his phalanx of supporters grew. He compared Alexander to Pharaoh, who enslaved the Israelites, and likened himself to Moses trying to free his people. At last the pope had had enough and decided to get rid of Savonarola permanently: he excommunicated him. But Savonarola retorted that the pope’s action was invalid. Soon Alexander concluded that this bothersome priest, whom he called in a letter “this little worm,” had to be put to death.10

Savonarola realized his days were numbered. He stopped preaching and decided to reach out to the crowned heads of Europe for help. He asked the Holy Roman Emperor, and the rulers of France, Spain, England, and Hungary, to convene a council to overthrow the pope:

The moment of vengeance has come and the Lord commands me to reveal new secrets, making clear to the world the danger that threatens the Barque of Peter because of your neglect. The Church is full of abominations, from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet, yet not only do you fail to apply any sort of cure but you even pay homage to the source of the evils that pollute her. In consequence, the Lord is deeply angered and for a long time has left the Church without a shepherd.

He went on to specifically attack the pope, referring to Alexander’s “all too obvious vices—I declare that he is not a Christian and does not believe in the existence of God.”11

In the letter to Isabella and Ferdinand, he added some particularly pointed and bruising lines: “What good can come of your victories over the infidels? You have raised a building that is hollow, for inside the foundations of the Church are collapsing and the whole edifice is falling into ruin.”12

Allies of Savonarola hand-delivered the letters to the various rulers, including the Spanish sovereigns. A copy of the letter, however, fell into the hands of the pope, for whom this was the last straw. Soon inquisitors were challenging Savonarola’s orthodoxy, seeking to demonstrate that he was a treasonous heretic. He was tortured and confessed at last that his sermons had been acts of “pride” and “for the sake of personal glory.”13 He signed a confession, and having given the church what it needed, he was hanged and his body was burned. He had by this point fallen from popular favor. Florentines in the crowd threw gunpowder into the fire to make the blaze hotter.

Savonarola’s actions nonetheless proved inspirational to Martin Luther, who admired his words and his courage in defying the power of the papacy. In 1524 Luther published a book of Savonarola’s meditations, which he praised.

Martin Luther wasn’t Savonarola’s only fan. In faraway Castile, Queen Isabella kept among her possessions a commentary by Savonarola, and a handwritten manuscript that was a book of spiritual meditations, translated into Spanish, called Sobre el Salmo Miserere mei.14

Isabella privately pressed the pope through her ambassadors for some of the same kinds of changes that Savonarola had advocated publicly. She supported the creation of a council that would study the Roman Catholic Church and make needed reforms. This was something Pope Alexander VI opposed. He had climbed to the pinnacle of clerical power under the existing system, and a reform council could threaten everything he had accomplished for himself and for his family.

Isabella and the pope, consequently, had a series of clashes. She sometimes found herself opposing the clerics of Spain, who did not favor the church reforms she was making, and the Vatican, which also complained she was being too hard. Her appointment of Cisneros as archbishop of Toledo was symbolic of the difference between the kind of church apparatus she was molding in Spain and what was customary in Rome.

Many Spanish clerics had grown accustomed to lives of easy prosperity in church-owned properties purchased and supported by God-fearing parishioners who sought to ensure their own salvation through generous bequests of goods and property. But Cisneros, archbishop of Toledo and top cleric in Castile, modeled his behavior on that of Christ and eschewed accoutrements of affluence. He traveled from monastery to monastery, wearing coarse robes, walking barefoot, and begging for his food. This was one of the early points of contention between the Catholic Church in Rome and in Spain. The pope protested Cisneros’s failure to maintain ecclesiastical dignity, and he was ordered to dress more regally.

But Cisneros’s moral rigidity was undiminished and enjoyed Isabella’s full support. At each religious house he visited, he would inspect the account books looking for signs of luxurious living. He ordered the monasteries to cut out all extravagances, serve only simple and inexpensive food, and give away costly garments. Concubines were forced from the premises. A new emphasis was placed on serving the needs of the flock. Priests who protested found themselves locked out of the monasteries where they lived. Some staged a demonstration, parading about in Toledo carrying crosses aloft and chanting “In exitu Israel,” or “Israel in exile,” to underscore their sense of displacement.15

When the pope sent the Portuguese cardinal Jorge da Costa to investigate, the prelate agreed with the Castilian priests that Cisneros’s austerity measures were excessive. Da Costa asked for a meeting with the queen and told her that he thought Cisneros’s reforms were damaging the monasteries, and that his sanctimoniousness was a pretext to advance his own ambitions. He insisted that Isabella force Cisneros to resign.16

The queen listened impassively. When he was finished, she responded, “Are you in your senses? Do you know whom you are addressing?”

Cardinal da Costa coolly responded that Isabella was, like him, little more than a “handful of dust.” In other words, he told her, she was as vainglorious in her sanctity as was Cisneros.17

But Isabella was adamant in support of Cisneros and his reform program, which she believed the church needed. Pope Alexander VI eventually deferred to Isabella on this issue and gave Cisneros permission to proceed.

The pope, however, won in a confrontation over another zealous prelate, the infamous Tomás de Torquemada, Ferdinand’s former confessor who had become the chief inquisitor of Castile and Aragon. In response to concerns that Torquemada had become a dangerous fanatic, the pope decided to quietly depose him in 1494, saying it was out of concern for the prelate’s health, noting that he was suffering from gout.18

But a few years later Isabella and Ferdinand underscored their gratitude for Torquemada and his work with the Inquisition. When their son Prince Juan died in 1497, his body was placed in Torquemada’s religious home, the Royal Monastery of Santo Tomás inÁvila, with a special request that money be set aside for thousands of masses to be said there for the repose of Juan’s soul. Burying Juan there made the church a popular pilgrimage site and added to its renown among the faithful, turning it into a memorial to Torquemada and his tactics.

Queen Isabella’s differences with the pope led to several fiery confrontations in Rome between Alexander VI and the queen’s closest associates. The first caught the pope by surprise.

After the first French invasion of Italy in 1494, the queen had sent Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba to defend the pope, and he had succeeded in taking back the port city of Ostia for the papacy. In 1497 the pope invited the Great Captain to Rome so he could honor him, expecting the pious Castilian soldier to be giddy with the thrill of it all; but instead Gonzalo took the opportunity to raise his serious concerns about the immorality at the Vatican and the poor example the pope was setting for Christians. According to the Aragonese chronicler Zurita, Gonzalo told the pope that he was creating “scandal and danger” for the church. He asked him to reform his practices and said it was necessary that he do so. The pope was astounded at Gonzalo’s eloquence and found himself at a loss for words, “sheepish and ashamed” by the commander’s direct talk.19

Two years later, another critique from Isabella and her allies arrived. In late 1499 the Spanish sovereigns ordered their ambassador, Garcilasso de la Vega, to read aloud to the pope a reprimand they had written to him about his immorality, his schemes to advance his children, and the scandalous behavior of his son Cesare. The pope flew into a rage and attempted to seize the letter and tear it apart, shouting insults about Isabella and Ferdinand. De la Vega told Isabella about it in a letter and said that the pope’s “hypocrisies” were too great to be suffered.20

During another, similar confrontation in 1498, Pope Alexander VI threatened to order that Garcilasso de la Vega be thrown to his death in the Tiber River—a strange comment for a man whose son’s dead body had been fished out of that same river.21Ambassadors who heard this exchange said that the Spaniards had told the pope that his son’s death was a punishment for the pope’s sins; the pope retorted that the deaths of Prince Juan of Castile and Princess Isabel were caused by Isabella’s sin in taking the throne unjustly from King Enrique’s daughter, shouting that Isabella and Ferdinand were “intruders and usurpers.”22

The pope was also miffed because he thought Isabella should have given his family some land in Granada after the Reconquest. He had told his son Juan, Duke of Gandía, who had moved to Spain, to pursue such a gift, which he assumed would be easily granted. But when Juan was stabbed to death and thrown into the Tiber, Juan’s widow, who was Ferdinand’s cousin, persisted in making a fuss about it and began insisting that she believed that Juan had been killed by his brother, Cesare. She wanted Cesare tried for murder. Instead of making a generous land grant, Ferdinand’s family was looking for a prosecution.

The possible motive for that murder was murky. Some believed that Cesare had resented being forced to join the priesthood and envied his brother’s pleasure-filled secular life. There was also the possibility of a messy love triangle, as both Cesare and Juan were romantically involved with Sancha of Aragon, who was married to their younger brother, Jofre. Sancha, moreover, was also Ferdinand’s cousin. It was an untidy tangle.

Cesare was also widely suspected of having ordered the murder of another of Ferdinand’s relatives, Alfonso of Bisceglie, the illegitimate son of the king of Naples. The unfortunate Alfonso had been married to Cesare’s sister, the beautiful Lucrezia. To complicate matters further, the murdered young man was the brother of Cesare’s mistress Sancha. Another untidy tangle.

Queen Isabella also strongly disapproved of Cesare’s motives and methods in stepping down from the cardinalship. Cesare had never wanted to be a priest. Now that his older brother was out of the way, he wanted to leave the church and marry a princess so he could become a prince. He had cast his eye on Carlota, the daughter of the Neapolitan king Fadrique. Carlota did not want to marry Cesare, who was widely known to be infected with syphilis, and her father had not attempted to force her to do so. Neither didFerdinand and Isabella. By this time, they were all starting to see family ties to Cesare as life-threatening.

So instead, Cesare and his father the pope struck up an alliance with the French. This was a sudden and incongruous turn of events, given that only two years earlier Alexander VI had called on the rulers of Europe to join him in an alliance against the French when they invaded Italy, took control of papal lands, and seized Naples. But the pope had now apparently decided to turn the other cheek, helped along by a generous offer from the French king Louis XII. In exchange for the pope giving Louis XII an annulment of his marriage to homely and devout Joan of Valois so he could marry the wealthy widow Anne of Brittany, Louis gave Cesare his pick of French heiresses to marry. He selected Charlotte of Albret, a French aristocrat who was part of the ruling family in the Kingdom of Navarre. On the day Cesare stepped down from the cardinalship, Louis named him Duke of Valentinois, an interesting play on words given that Cesare’s former employment had been as archbishop of Valencia. This gave Cesare the new nickname “Valentino.”

Eager to establish a family military dynasty to expand the territories under their control, Pope Alexander VI made Cesare commander of the papal army, and Cesare set off on a rampage through Italy, seizing control of the cities of Imola and Forlì. Cesare went on to command French troops in the sieges of Naples and Capua, which were defended by the Italian condottiere Prospero Colonna. He thereby ended up participating in the destruction of the Aragonese ruling family of Naples once and for all. It was at this point that Ferdinand and Isabella, seeing that their cousins’ reign was effectively at an end, threw in with the French and partitioned Naples between them.

Cesare’s successes were made possible because of his father’s role as pope but were also the result of the son’s real genius at duplicity and deceit, combined with flashes of personal charm that disarmed the people who stood in his path and allowed him to gain popular support in unexpected places. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, he won the admiration of his contemporary Machiavelli, who became obsessed with him. But his victories never led to lasting institutions, and all he left behind was a trail of death and destruction.

For all those reasons, Queen Isabella was not very sad when she was informed of Pope Alexander VI’s death in August 1503. She showed little overt reaction at the time. But she fervently rejoiced when she learned of his replacement, a pious man who in fact took the name Pius III.

Isabella did not appear to receive the news of Rodrigo Borgia’s passing “grievously,” Martyr wrote cautiously. “But when [she heard] that Cardinal of Sienna, the nephew of Pius II who wishes himself to be called Pius III, was put in his place, she gave proofs of joy.” She ordered special prayers to be given by the priests of the city, and called residents to the churches to pray for the new pope’s health and good leadership of the church. “Then she caused thanks to be given to the Omnipotent with hymns and canticles and psalmody, the Te Deum Laudamus, because he had afforded such a pastor to the Church, for the queen always thought highly of the man.”23 Pope Pius, however, died soon afterward and was replaced by Pope Julius II. It was Julius who issued the needed dispensation for Catherine’s marriage, cautiously noting that the previous marriage to Arthur had “perhaps” been consummated.24

Like so many other aspects of the lives of the Borgias, the facts of Alexander VI’s death were shadowy, contradictory, and complicated. The pope was said to have been dining with Cesare when both became violently ill. Peter Martyr, who had a wide network of correspondents in Italy and within the Vatican, was convinced that the pope and his son had poisoned themselves by accidently consuming a toxic wine mixture they had prepared for a guest. The pope was seventy years old, and after he died, his body quickly began decomposing and became swollen and malodorous. Cesare was only twenty-seven and survived, thanks to being wrapped in a warm muleskin that helped him maintain his body temperature while he fought for his life.

When Cesare recovered, he sought safety among family friends from Spain, who were plentiful in Naples and included, he thought, the master of Naples, Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba. But when Cesare got to Naples, Gonzalo, under orders from Isabella and Ferdinand, took Cesare prisoner and sent him off to a prison in Spain.

Isabella wanted Cesare Borgia tried for murder. Ultimately, therefore, Cesare Borgia, the cynical man whom Machiavelli called a political genius, was undone by the hyper-righteous Isabella, who had decided it was time to take him out of action once and for all. He was bundled off to the fortress of Chinchilla, in Valencia, but after he attempted to strangle the prison warden and throw him off the ramparts, he was moved to the well-guarded fortress of La Mota in Medina del Campo, under Isabella’s watchful eye, with strict limitations on his movements. His hunting falcons became his only companions.

Quietly, and attracting little attention to herself, Isabella had become Cesare’s “most relentless enemy,”25 invisible to everyone, including the astute political observer Machiavelli, who never noticed that his hero’s most effective enemy was someone he had not even bothered to mention in his book The Prince. Unbeknown to Machiavelli, who missed it entirely, Europe’s most strategic and most effective prince of that generation was in fact a princess, for it was Queen Isabella who possessed many of the qualities that Machiavelli most lauded.

Cesare Borgia was delivered into Isabella’s custody at the fortress of La Mota by Prospero Colonna, who had become a key ally of Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba in Naples. When he arrived in Medina del Campo, Colonna asked to see the queen, who was by now virtually housebound in her private apartments in the palace on the edge of the town’s central square.

“I want to see the woman who governs the world from her bed,” Colonna told Ferdinand.26 And so he was ushered in to make her acquaintance.

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