A Precarious King- Chapter One, Book One, Volume One: The Beginning
I am sharing with you the beginning of this book. I hope you find it entertaining and enlightening.
A Kingdom United
“Of all the lands that extend from the west to India, though art the fairest, oh sacred Hispania, ever fecund mother of princes and peoples, rightful queen of all of the provinces, from whom the west and east draw their light.”
Saint Isadore of Seville
De Laude Hispania
The History of the Goths
Early 7th Century
A Precarious King
“Your mother can’t see you now, Isabella. She has visitors … important ones …
unexpected ones,” her grandmother Isabel said firmly to her namesake, her blue-eyed, blonde haired granddaughter of three, as she gently led her away from the sitting room, down the stone hallway towards the entrance leading to the inner court-yard. Young Isabella had seen the entourage of about two dozen well-dressed men arrive as she watched, as she was wont to do, from the ramparts of the castle of Arevalo.
It was rare that the 27 year-old Dowager Queen Isabel received any visitors in this town of 3,000 residents, just 50 miles due north of the Cordillera Central, which bisects the Iberian Peninsula. With Salamanca to the west, Valladolid to the north and Madrid to the southeast, the vast forests surrounding the castle left Arevalo out of the mainstream of the turbulent politics of the time.
Her grand mother intended to distract Isabella by taking her out into the courtyard to stroll among the colorfully caparisoned horses, knowing that she loved meandering around the stables of these beasts, the pride of Andalusia. Leaving her with her companion of the same age, Beatriz de Bobadilla, Isabel hastened back into the castle to join her daughter.
Isabel de Barcelos had come to live with her daughter a year before her daughter’s husband, King Juan II of Castile, died of quaternary fever at the age of 49, the longest serving King of the Trastamara dynasty of Castile in five generations. Isabel de Barcelos was a formidable woman in her own right as a granddaughter of a King of Portugal and great-great granddaughter of King Edward III of England. Widowed herself for 12 years and aware of how melancholic her daughter was by nature, she instinctively knew that the young widow would need a strong hand to guide her and her two young children after King Juan’s death. Her daughter had been Juan’s second wife, always a vulnerable status. Her mother also anticipated that it was unlikely that their unexpected guest, the new King, Enrique IV, the only child of the first marriage of Juan, would be protective of his half sister, young Isabella, nor of his half-brother and potential rival for the crown of Castile, one year-old Alfonso.
Dowager Queen Isabel received her two guests in a modestly furnished sitting room, the afternoon light streaming indirectly on her where she sat. King Enrique and his confidant, Pedro Giron, Grand Master of the Order of Calatrava, entered with the insouciance of men who felt completely in control. Enrique tossed his riding gloves and hat onto a table, dropping his moderately corpulent self forcefully into a chair, while Giron strolled over to help himself to a cup on wine on a nearby table, the only attempt at hospitality offered.
“The Queen looks pale,” Enrique noted. “Are you well treated here?” His tone rose slightly, connoting feigned interest, as his eyes cast about the spare room, then settled his gaze on the black dress of the veiled young widow. Before she could answer, Isabel de Barcelos entered, stiffly lowered into a slight curtsey, hands clasped below her waist, then stood beside her silent daughter. Old crone, Enrique thought to himself.
“Your majesty, we have not seen you since our late King was buried at Miraflores. You have come to do us honor?” the proud mother asked, brushing off his query with her own sarcasm.
Enrique’s lips spread into a slight sneer as he looked over at Pedro Giron. “Ah, yes! In fact, I have. Is your camerero, Gonzalo Chacon, doing well by you? My father entrusted
him in his will to look after your affairs. Are the rents from Arevalo being collected to support your household here?” he asked, oh so solicitously.
Queen Isabel answered in a desultory fashion. “We live. Unlike the fashion that your father provided. He would not approve.” Her mother was delighted that Isabel could summon the nerve to verbally spit on her stepson, who had often chafed under his father’s rule.
“Perhaps. But he is gone now, eh, Giron,” the King replied looking over at his
Pedro Giron was a seasoned courtier, having been a page to Alvaro de Luna himself, one of the King Juan’s “special” boys. Giron had seen everything there was to see behind the façade of the late King’s court. The business of the Crown of Castile under Juan II and Enrique IV was, he knew, a matter of squeezing favors, however that needed to be done. He strove to please. And, their task today was a small step in their grand plan.
“Your Majesty, it is your destiny to secure what your father failed to do … to drive the infidel from our lands, back across the Straits, and to reclaim Jerusalem. I think your father would be delighted to see that your largesse is conserved for this holy cause, even if his Queen must live simply.” Giron pandered, playing his part.
Enrique turned to Isabel de Barcelos. “I must speak to my stepmother in private. Why not go see to young Alfonso and his sister while I consult with your daughter.”
“There is nothing that the Queen needs to hear that I can not hear,” Isabel said evenly while her eyes narrow with indignant anger, hands still clenched tightly at her waist.
“Giron,” was all he said as the Master of Calatrava strode over and escorted the testy woman out of the room and closed the door behind her, then walked back to where an uneasy Queen Isabel sat. He pulled a chair over near to her, sat down. She looked warily over at Enrique as he brushed one hand through his thick red hair and began.
“You are a young woman with two young children to look after. The incomes from these lands around Arevalo are probably not enough to afford you both protection and comfort. When I asked my uncle, Archbishop Carrillo, to request you to send Alfonso and Isabella to live with my court, you refused. I have extended my hand of assistance, and protection, yet, you decline, even as you live so sparingly here …,” casting his hands around the room, implying “Who would choose to live in this farm town?”
Enrique slowly paced to and fro in front of the increasingly agitated widow as he continued.
“You know I have a new wife. She, like your mother, is Portuguese … Juana … 15 years old … a lovely young creature. She would be a good woman to help raise your children,” he opined.
Depressed though she was and distant from the day-to-day activities of her children, Isabel was alarmed by any notion that her little boy, still nursing, and her girl would live in the licentious court of Enrique and Queen Juana. Her mother was tuned in to the affairs of the court. Both women knew full well that Queen Juana and her ladies-in-waiting were scandalizing the noble families with their dress and sexual dalliances at Court, even though Juana may be royal-born as the sister of King Alfonso of Portugal.
Abruptly pushing out of her chair, Isabel swept over to the open window, her back to her inquisitors. “That will not be. No. Never!” She was visibly trembling.
Giron now rose, and moved over near to her. “Well, then, you wish to live here …. going to bed every night alone? You are unprotected. You could use someone to be with you … a new husband … who could pleasure you, no? Like Juan did,” he whispered in her ear.
Isabel shrieked loudly, turned and ran to the door, flinging it open with a crash that reverberated throughout the castle. She ran down the corridor to the stairs leading to the third floor, yelling, “You are disgusting!!! Never!!” she cried.
Hearing the commotion, her mother dashed in from the courtyard, followed by two male servants, who were quickly surrounded by Enrique’s entourage. Isabel de Barcelos shot a furious look at Enrique and Giron. “You must leave. Now!” she said with such seething, quiet authority that the two men stormed by into the courtyard. Infanta Isabella, standing by a column in the yard with a servant, watched wide-eyed as the group gruffly mounted their horses and cantered out, Enrique and Giron laughing as they chatted.
“It was worth a try,” Enrique said.
There was more than casual sex in their proposal. King Juan’s will had stipulated that custody of the Infante and Infanta would remain with the Queen “as long as she remained chaste”. Her lordship over Arevalo and nearby Madrigal, Infanta Isabel’s birthplace, was also contingent on the same terms. A tryst with Giron would eviscerate the widow’s rights, especially over her two, rival children.
King Enrique’s crude grasp to strip resources from the Dowager Queen was logical. His power was anything but secure or supreme. Isabella’s and Enrique’s father, King Juan II, had been, for most of his reign, held in disrepute. To many of his nobles, who had their own formidable power bases of lands and agricultural commerce, King Juan was a pawn, dominated for over 30 years by Alvaro de la Luna, Constable of Castile and Master of the Order of Santiago. Indeed, King Juan, who most contemporaries believed had a very “personal” relationship with Luna, had, just over a year before he died, been forced by incensed nobles to execute Luna in the square of Valladolid in a public humiliation for him.
As was often the case in these late medieval times in Europe, the atmosphere in Castile was politically charged with Byzantine alliances among the powerful that shifted as individuals saw new opportunities for themselves. Since the rebellion of the city of Toledo in 1449, a rebellion against both King Juan and the perceived power of conversos, political, religious and social fissures had left festering divisions: Old Catholics against conversos (Jewish coverts to Catholicism), common people against the nobles, clergy against the nobles, the Crown and their agents – many of whom were conversos – against the demands of all. “Power” rested not so much with the King but with those who successfully manipulated the fears and ambitions of each of these disparate groups.
His son, King Enrique, understood that he did not ascend to the throne exalted nor was his crown a shining beacon of chivalric honor. If he were to survive as King, Enrique would have to dance with the powerful barons of Castile, as his father did, playing off or buying off the various power factions. The new King had even schemed for his own advantage during the recent Toledo rebellion against his father, a pattern that he, in turn, would grapple with later with his closest “allies”. In fact, he had come to trust almost no one, a miserable state for any man, let alone one whose personal view of royal authority was one of divine, absolute power.
The political landscape he confronted was complicated on many levels. Due to their distinguished histories, a few Castilian families stood above all in the noble class. The Enriquez and the Mendozas, traditionally the Constables and Admirals of Castile and members of the Royal Council, could marshal resources from their land rich bases more easily than the Crown! Also, both families, along with the Manriques, owned tens of thousands of sheep that allowed them to virtually monopolize the wool trades, centered in Medina del Compo, which were the primary, lucrative export of the region to England and Flanders.
Pedro Gonzalez de Mendoza, the founding father of the family, had died in the historic battle against Portugal at Aljubarota in the course of personally saving the life of Juan I in 1385. His son, Diego, was granted the imposing Castillo de Monganares, fifty miles northwest of Madrid by a grateful Juan II. The Mendozas distinguished themselves again in the person of the next generation, Inigo Lopez de Mendoza, in the pivotal battle of Olmedo, when Juan II crushed a rebellion, earning Mendoza the hereditary title Marquis of Santilla. The Marquis’ brother, Pedro Gonzales de Mendoza, was installed as Bishop of Calahorra in 1452 by King Juan, confirming an exalted position of influence for the family. Pedro was one of the few who could be counted on to take up arms for a King of Castile, given his family’s generations of fealty to the Crown.
To further challenge King Enrique, the protégés of the dead Luna, possibly fair- weather friends to the new King, had amassed their power bases from the bounteous gifts dispensed by the late King Juan on Luna’s bidding. Among these protégés were Juan Pacheco, Marquis of Villena, and his brother, Pedro Giron, Grand Master of Calatrava. They detested the King’s new favored courtier, Don Beltran, thus creating a simmering internal tension within the inner circle of the King. The scheming was so convoluted that the King knew that Giron, Admiral Enriquez and the Archbishop of Toledo, were all on the payroll of King Juan II of Aragon and Navarre. Yet, the two brothers were appointed by Enrique to the Royal Council and held high posts in his Court, a place where it was foolhardy to take what anyone said at face value.
Yet another independent power base was the Catholic Church. The bishops of the dioceses of Castile and Leon, including Alfonso Carrillo, Archbishop of the rich diocese of Toledo and Primate of Castile, wielded the traditional grassroots power of Rome and the sitting Pontifex Maximus, to whom all kings were spiritually and sometimes financially beholden. All of these power bases fiercely coveted their rights and privileges, while still pledging liege-lord oaths to their King. Collectively, this highly disparate collection of men could neutralize or even topple a king. “Oaths” did not mean much in Enrique’s time.
History had erected a further check on any Castilian monarch. The king had to nurture or manipulate a frequently tense relationship with the Castilian Cortes, the assembly of the three estates of nobles, church and influential merchants from the 17 principal cities, who could grant funding for the initiatives of the Crown, or, withhold it, which they often did. Though the King, in theory, might have absolute, divinely granted power, the Cortes had the right to petition the King when the laws of the land, prescribed by the Faith or by agreements with the Cortes, were violated.
A final check on King Enrique, lacking a standing army, was the three holy Orders of Castile. The Order of Calatrava, founded in 1157, controlled 64 towns, numerous forts and upwards of 50,000 ducats of annual revenue. Dating from 1214, the Order of Alcantara, had a Cistercian origin. Its knights, easily distinguished by their white flowing robes, emblazoned with a red cross, held sway over slightly more lands and income. Finally, the mythic Order of Santiago, formed in the 12th century for the protection of pilgrims on their journey to the shrine of St. James the Apostle, patron saint of Castile, wielded power from Compostela in Galicia. Its Grand Master could field 400 hidalgos and loyal knights, plus up to 5,000 armed footmen, on short notice. This cult of chivalry began after a legendary apparition of St James, charging forward on a white horse, inspired an outrageously outnumbered army from Asturias to halt the Moors’ march north at Clavijo, nestled at the base of the Pyrenees in 844 A.D. More so than even the nobles, these Orders were states within the “state” of Castile and Leon.
As the months passed by, the Infanta Isabella and her grandmother watched Queen Isabel sink further into her withdrawal from reality after this sordid encounter. The daughter could not know why; her grandmother would never forget, a secret to be told to Isabella years later.
Seven more years slipped by in pastoral Arevalo. Alfonso and Isabella would take leisurely rides on their mules along the banks of the shallow Rio Adaja and Rio Arevallo, which bracketed Arevalo, meandering through the thick forests, wheat fields and vineyards. Townsmen and farmers would delight when the royal pair stopped to chat. Alfonso’s amusement from watching the pig herds grouse about the forest floor, gorging on the ubiquitous acorns, was palpable. Both children took in the modest life styles of the people, who scrupulously observed matins, noon prayers and vespers, all timed by the peel of the local church bells. The rhythms of the day and of the harvests blessed them with a sense of security.
There was quite a stir in the castle when, in the summer of 1458, Pope Calixtus III died in the August heat and unhealthy vapors of Rome. Grandmother Isabel told the children the Pope’s death was a blow to their sometime rival, the kingdom of neighboring Aragon, for the Pontiff was a native of Catalonia, its richest province nestled on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
“ His death,” she lectured, “was God’s vengeance. This Pope, Alonso de Borgia, named three nephews Cardinals only to enrich his family. One, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, has mistresses, has children … he does not live in Christ!” she huffed.
The two children would spend many hours with Isabel de Barcelos, Gonzolo Chacon and Fray Rodrigo Sanchez de Arevelo in study and conversation. The history of Hispania, as the Romans called the Peninsula, and the seven centuries of struggle to expel the Berbers and Moors from the Iberian Peninsula, and indeed from the Holy Land, would be a central theme of their reading and tutoring. They would dutifully try to absorb the seemingly endless series of battles, truces, deals, shifting alliances and slaughters by both their countrymen and the Muslims. Both children learned from the shrewd tutoring of Chacon that Muslim defeats or retreats often were inspired by the civil wars between the rival Moors and Berbers themselves. However, both would be mesmerized by the tales of chivalry, honor and bravery in the epic book, Amadis of Gaul, and similar tomes that graced the libraries of the nobility.
Infanta Isabella repeatedly asked her attendants and grandmother to read the Poem of El Cid, for Rodrigio Diaz de Vivar not only fired her imagination by driving the infidels from Valencia, but also was the personification of what a good husband, father, knight and noble subject should be in her mind. When playing games with her younger brother, she would impishly call him “O Compeador, he who was born in a happy hour,” borrowing the oft repeated allocution for El Cid. Alfonso beamed every time, spinning his own dreams of a future as a princely knight.
“You will be like El Cid, Alfonso, driving the Moors from the lands of Granada, and on, to Jerusalem!” she would cry out. Chacon, watching his young charges grow, could feel deep satisfaction with these early foundations of character.
When the trade fairs were held in Medina del Compo, about 45 miles to the northwest, both children would plead with their grandmother to allow them to watch the jousting tournaments from the lists. Occasionally, a knight would approach the list where Isabel and Alfonso watched, tipping his lance down to Isabella, presenting his colors to her in dedication to the Infanta for his upcoming charge. A warm smile would always blossom on this otherwise serious girl.
After dinner one winter evening, Chacon and Isabel de Barcelos were sipping a glass of mellow Jerez sherry near the fireplace off the great hall of the castle. As they often did, they would consult on their recent adventures with the children. That previous fall, they had taken Isabella, then nine, and Alfonso on a rare trip. Segovia, Avila and Toledo were the destinations. For the children, it was their first excursion out of the meseta (plateau, tableland) crossing over the Sierra Gredos Mountains for the first time. The mission ostensibly was educational and religious, since Toledo was the seat of the Church in Castile. Predictably, the children were awestruck by the pristine white beauty of the interior of the cathedral of Toledo. Isabella took careful note of the magnificent burial chapel of Alvaro de la Luna, located not far from the royal choir enclosure. She was genuinely puzzled how his man, executed on her father’s orders, had been so glorified in a place of honor by her father. No one told her that the funds for the kingly sepulcher had come from Luna’s family, enriched as they had been by her father’s largesse for over three decades.
Alfonso was curious why there were half a dozen flat, red circular hats hanging from the ceiling. Their host, Archbishop Carrillo, explained that they once belonged to some of his predecessors.
“Infante, if the Pope is pleased, and the King supports, this holy diocese usually is led by a Cardinal, a Prince of Holy Mother Church, my son. They receive those hats from the Pope himself sitting on the throne of St Peter in Rome. When the Cardinal dies, they hang the hat from the ceiling over his grave in the floor, my son,” he explained with a plaintiff tone.
“Are you a Prince of the Church?” Alfonso asked. Chacon was embarrassed, but the Archbishop simply shook his head and said, “Not yet, my son”. Carillo craved the red hat of cardinal, and the chance to elect a future pontiff … or to be elected one. But, the new Pope, Pius II, owed his election as Pope in large part to Rodrigo Borgia. The wily Vice Chancellor to the new Pope, as well as the late Pope, his uncle, was not about to shower honors on Carrillo, Primate or not. Not coming from wealth, Carrillo did not have the liquidity required to “earn” Cardinal Borgia’s nor Pope Pius’ grace.
Chacon sipped the sherry, savoring the warm glow imparted by this liquid jewel of Castile. Settled back in his chair, he looked at his partner in mentoring.
“That encounter with the Archbishop and Alfonso about receiving a red hat was quite insightful. He harbors higher ambitions in the Church. I had several talks with him while we were in Toledo. He dwells on the future of our charges, concerned for their safety. Enrique has supposedly spawned an heir. Don Fradriquez Enriquez and many others doubt that ‘El Impotante’ had anything to do with the impending birth. More likely it is that Don Beltran de la Cueva has mounted that whore Juana more than once to produce this ‘heir’. She carries on openly with Don Beltran while our King dawdles with false Crusades in Granada. Our friend Pedro Gonzalez de Mendoza (Bishop of Calaharra) continues to condemn that joke of a Crusade. Five years! Not one siege! Not one real battle! Yet, Enrique pockets the Cruzada revenues granted by those fools, Calixtus and Pius II, to prop himself up, Mendoza says. The King makes jokes about the honor of the knights who enlisted to fight in the three seasons the Crusade marched out to Granada. He would rather pocket the truce monies sent from the infidel than fight Carrillo believes.”
Of course, Chacon also knew that if there were no battles, there could be no victory booty for these knights who were bearing their own expenses on these expeditions. The Crusaders relied on booty seized in victory or pillage to recover their costs. Isabel had heard these criticisms before. Many, Isabel included, felt disgraced by the failed Crusade launched in 1455.
“My dear Gonzalo”, Isabel softly addressed him. “We can not ignore much longer the King’s summons to have Alfonso and Isabella come to live at court. Isabella especially. Enrique has already offered her betrothal to Fernando of Aragon. While King Juan of Aragon is undoubtedly looking for a more bounteous hand than one who is about to be third-in-line for the crown of Castile, we both know that she will be a chess piece soon for Enrique’s dynastic aims. So, let us suppose Juana has a son. Let us suppose he survives a few years or more. Would Alfonso and Isabella be safer here in our remote home of Arevalo or would their presence with the court be a daily reminder to our Lord Bishop Mendoza and our friend, the Primate, that there are better alternatives to a child who may be a bastard?” Isabel was treading familiar ground. The 1st Duke of Braganza, her father, was himself an illicit son of King Joa I of Portugal.
“I have thoughts along similar lines, as does Carrillo. I would go with them, of course, to minister their household,” Chacon offered. “It is possible that Enrique will overplay his already weak hand. And, as his Queen shows no hints of restraining access to her bed, Enrique’s hold may weaken, heir or not,” sipping another cup of sherry, he mused out loud.
“What if Enrique was gone? Alfonso is now almost nine. Isabella is ten. Soon, they will be of age, God willing that the plague or accident does not take them.” Isabel crossed herself, eyes closed in a silent prayer.
“We should be at court to guide the discussions on a husband for her. Indeed, we must gently prepare her that the choice of a husband will not be her own. Actually, Enrique may for once be correct that young Fernando of Aragon could be a fine match. They are both descended from our founder, Juan I of Castile. That would be a fine chess “knight” to a bastard “Prince” I would think. A Queen of Aragon title for Isabella would tie her into a rich world. After all, Fernando is also an heir to the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, my dear Isabel.”
“But, let us not forget the opportunities to link back to the children’s mother. Portugal has developed rich trade routes to Africa. Isabel’s uncle, Prince Henry, has excelled in pressing out my homeland’s reach through his southern explorations. His last letter to me seemed quite optimistic that their caravels can someday reach the Orient by going south below Tangier.” Chacon murmured a positive response, though his practical nature chaffed at the dreams of Henry, called “the navigator” by some.
At length, Chacon offered his view. “We should devote the central focus on Alfonso. He would be the only male heir to Castile if Enrique dies without a son from Juana. Why wouldn’t our noble friends, especially the Enriques and the Mendozas, if confronted with a possibly bastard child of the King as heir, look to Alfonso?”
The devoted grandmother let that notion play out in her mind before responding.
“Yes. Indeed. Our charges are beyond reproach if most believe any child the Queen has, male or female, is Beltran’s child. And let us give special care to keep close to our friend, the Archbishop of Toledo, Pacheco’s uncle or not. Church militant is closer to his heart and soul than church penitent. Enrique has been taunting him with practical jokes and useless missions against the Moors. He is an angry bull these days. Our Archbishop could rally the common people from the pulpit.”
Chacon brooded for a while on that scenario. “Carillo is indeed more the knight in armor than he is a man of the cloth. Pride consumes piety in him. Too decisive sometimes. But, he is indispensable, especially to balance our position with the Pope, old Aeneas Cardinal Piccolomini of Sienna. He is under Borgia’s thumb I believe. If Alfonso is ever to receive the Papal Bull of recognition, Borgia will have to be dealt with … perhaps a bishop’s see in Castile for his son, Cesare?” He paused. “We have no reason to believe, as yet, that Bishop Mendoza and his brothers are ready to abandon their support for Enrique, but I do believe the Bishop of Callahorra would not be comfortable with a woman as the proprietary Queen. We must not let Carrillo antagonize Mendoza, whose ties to Rome are deep.”
Isabel was dismissive. “Anything we need from Rome can be bought. You must have heard the stories about the last conclave that elevated Piccolomini to the triple tiara.”
Chacon perked up. “What do you know?” He loved the inside stories of Papal intrigue.
“I heard it from my friends in Lisbon. Borgia and Colonna were determined to block the French candidate, Cardinal d’Estouteville, who, as Dean of the College, was calling out the vote count for the second scrutiny (vote). When he called out eight votes for our dear Piccolomini, the good Cardinal from Sienna shouted out, ‘Look more carefully!’
Mortified, the Dean counted again. There were nine votes for our new Pope Pius II in the chalice, and d’Estouteville lost his chance for the throne of St. Peter on the next scrutiny. Dear Pius knew the count before it was called out!” she said with a girlish squeal of glee.
Smiling broadly, Chacon closed their late-night musings. “I wish the succession here was
just a matter of gold changing hands in the cells of a conclave.”
They bade each other a good night, committed allies in their mission to advance and protect Alfonso and Isabella.