The Case for Isabel’s Canonisation

Many people hope the Servant of God Queen Isabel (1451-1504) will be canonised, believing her life is a litany of outstanding virtue and service to God bearing good fruits; and furthermore because intercessory prayers to Isabel have been answered with miracles and favours which indicate Isabel is in heaven.

a) Life of Virtue and Service to God

“Not even the most rigorous investigation would reveal one single act of her life, whether public or private, that was not inspired by piety and virtue…” – Don Modesto Lafuente, Historian (19th century).

An exhaustive historical investigation into the life of Queen Isabel, conducted by a series of specialists, culminated in an Historical Commission appointed by the Vatican. The examination involved over 100,000 archive documents and 150 qualified witnesses [see appendix A]. The points presented below are based on archive evidence and first-hand contemporary accounts.

In an era when it was usual for good Christians to attend Mass only a few times each year and confession annually, Isabel attended Mass every day. This had been her habit since her childhood with her mother. Isabel’s education was entrusted to Rodrigo Sanchez de Arevalo, who became bishop of Plasencia. She frequently visited the Franciscan Monastery of the Trinitarians where Our Lady of Sorrows was venerated and to whom Isabel professed great devotion and later named patron saint of Granada.

The Queen prayed the Divine Office. Her Italian chaplain Lucio Marineo Siculo said she prayed the canonical hours as if she were a nun despite the many governmental matters she was obliged to attend to day and night. Isabel often recalled the saying of her time: those monarchs who do not fear God must fear their subjects.

Isabel’s devotion to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament led her to write to the bishops, admonishing them with respect to the care they should be giving to this devotion:

“In many of the local churches of our diocese the Blessed Sacrament is not treated with the proper solemnity and reverence, nor is it kept in a silver container or replaced at the appropriate times. I wanted to write to you about this—she says to the bishops—asking you then to make a visit to these churches and give orders so that all the above-mentioned may be provided and done as it should be in the service of God our Lord.”

The queen‘s devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary was fervent. She co-founded the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception with her dear friend St. Beatriz of Silva in 1489, an order still thriving today. This was 365 years before the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was declared. Isabel wrote to Pope Alexander VI saying:

“I entreat your Holiness to see that no one, whatever law or government he may live under, should dare to contradict the teaching about the Immaculate Conception, since from it so much good comes for the service of the Lord.”

Queen Isabel was exceedingly generous to the Church with endowments, and giving ornaments and sacred vessels to enhance the liturgy as well as commissioning music and canticles for the same. She donated the tabernacle and altar-piece used for perpetual adoration in St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. After receiving two monks from the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, she sent them the enormous sum of 1,000 ducats annually to be used in Jerusalem for “those things necessary to Divine worship and for the upkeep of the Holy Sepulchre itself”.

Aged 15, Isabel was threatened with marriage to Pedro Girón, 43, a godless, animalistic man. Her response was three days of prayer in chapel, with tears, fasting and pleas that God might spare her, asking, “Dear God, compassionate Saviour, do not let me be given to this man! Either let him die, or let me die!”. Girón set out on his journey toward Isabel but fell ill and on the third day after his departure, in Villanueva de los Ojos in the province of Ciudad Real, he died blaspheming. To whatever one attributes this, Isabel forever felt her gratitude to God.

Also at this time, when Isabel was put in charge of her own household, she wrote the Pope obtaining permission for a portable altar at which to hear daily Mass and a permanent chaplain.

Aged 17, Isabel was urged by powerful nobles to seize the throne. Everything was in place, she had sweeping support, the throne was hers at a nod. Yet she desisted, refusing the crown offered to her by Archbishop Carrillo. Like David with King Saul, she refused to raise her hand ‘against the Lord’s anointed’, regardless of the weakness of the king.[i] She would take the throne only by rightful succession as from Divine appointment. It came when she was 23.

When Spain was invaded by Portugal in 1474, Queen Isabel had no army to defend her country. But she rode from town to town and prayed in public for her country’s needs; the people were so touched, so inspired by her sincerity and goodness that again and again they rallied to her and the resulting army was decisively successful in its defence of the realm.

Pope Alexander VI gave her the title Isabel the Catholic for her service to the Church. She and her husband Ferdinand became known as ‘The Catholic Kings’. Queen Isabel’s Last Will and Codicil shows her faith endured to the end, ordering a total of 40,000 Masses requested be said for the repose of her soul and for those who had died in her service.

And a legacy unforeseen, Queen Isabel commissioned to be built the Church of St Peter on the Golden Hill near the Spanish embassy in Rome. The Tempietto of the church includes a small dome. This was the model Michelangelo used for Christendom’s most recognized landmark, the dome of St Peter’s Basilica. Indeed the magnificent monstrance-altar piece used to this day in St Peter’s for Eucharistic adoration was also donated by Queen Isabel.

Queen Isabel, with great prudence, justice and fortitude, unified 27 separate kingdoms into one strong nation, Spain, leading her people from a state of extreme prostration to become a world power. She was famous for her impartiality, making the weight of the law felt by all without distinction, and if necessary she herself faced those who at first refused to comply.

In one famous case Queen Isabel sent judges to investigate the disappearance of a man, following petitions from his poor wife. The judges discovered that Alvar Yañez had had a nobleman murdered then made over all the property of the victim to himself. Yañez then killed the notary who had verified the documentation. It was this notary’s wife who had petitioned Queen Isabel. Yañez was condemned to death, but to spare his life he offered a bribe of 40,000 doblas in gold, which was an incredible amount of money – more than the Crown’s annual rents. Some of Isabel’s advisors suggested she commute his sentence and take the money (needed for the war in Granada). Isabel refused, saying that justice had to be the same for all: the powerful and the weak, the rich and the poor, the high and the low. Isabel ordered that Yañez’s ill-gotten gains be used for the support of the children of the murdered man. Isabel could not be bought.

When Queen Isabel acceded to the throne in 1474 her country was in disorder and the royal court one of the more corrupt in Europe. Everywhere was dangerous: the countryside and the cities groaned with victims of violent crime and under corruption of the civil powers. But by her implacable campaign for justice the kingdoms were brought to order and peace with astonishing rapidity.

Anti-slavery and Human Rights Legislation
The Catholic Kings opposed slavery. After the Canary Islands had been discovered Isabel and Ferdinand gave orders that the Guanches, the inhabitants, should be treated like subjects of Castile. This was the practice the Queen would apply, by means of her Will and Codicil, to the many millions of Indians of Spanish America.

Queen Isabel, with vision and sacrifice, sponsored the discovery of the Americas, perhaps the single most significant historical event of the second millennium. Royal decrees from 1493 show her priority was evangelisation. When Isabel learnt that Indians were appearing on Spanish markets as slaves, she was indignant, admonishing Columbus, “Who gave you the authority to make slaves of my subjects?” She had the Indians freed immediately and on 29th July 1496 became Godmother to the first who were baptised.

In 1501, Queen Isabel instructed Nicholas de Ovando, Governor of Hispaniola:

“We desire that the Indians should be converted to our Catholic faith and their souls saved, since this is the greatest good one can wish for, so for this reason the Indians should be informed of everything about our Faith.”

Isabel was adamant that no-one be coerced in matters of religion. Rather she exhorted missionaries and evangelists:

“Do not force anyone to become a Christian, but instruct them well in the Catholic Faith, for it is so beautiful, they will readily embrace it."

Queen Isabel sent further orders to Governor Ovando saying:

“because we have been informed that some Christians of the islands, especially those of Hispaniola, have taken Indians’ women, daughters and things against their will, as soon as you arrive, you will give the order to return all that was unjustly taken, and you will enforce this on the pain of strict punishment, so that in the future, no one will dare to do such a thing.”

The first stone building the Spaniards constructed in the Americas was not a fortress, a church or a residence but a hospital which on the instructions of Queen Isabel of 29th March 1503 was to be:

“where the poor will be received and cured, Christians as well as Indians.” She decreed that “each town should be obliged to have a church, chaplain and hospital: the children should be educated in Christian faith: together with the church a house should be built to where the children can go twice a day, and where the chaplain not only teaches them to read and write, but also to make the sign of the cross and learn the Our Father, Hail Mary, the Creed and the Salve.”

On her deathbed Isabel’s dictated her Last Will and Codicil, saying:

“no consent nor place is given for the mistreatment of the Indian natives and inhabitants of said Indies and Mainland, already gotten and still to gain, to their persons or their possessions, but it is so ordered that they be well and justly treated and if they receive any grievance that it be remedied, and that it be provided for”

Following this last will, in which she commanded, asked and implored pity for her new subjects, Isabel’s successors created the ‘Leyes de Indias’ (Laws of the Indies) an admirable corpus of legislation comprising some 6,000 laws which strongly underlined the dignity, rights and defence of American Indians.

Promoter of Women and of Women’s Education
Isabel promoted women’s education. She studied assiduously for her own education and ensured a good education was available to her daughters and to other women in Spain and the Americas. She appointed women as professors in universities. Beatrice Galindo (b.1475) studied Latin classics in Salamanca. Isabel named her Professor of Latin for the Royal Court.

Isabel was certain of a woman’s capability and right to rule. Before her death she gave firm instructions that if she should die before her husband, her daughter:

“the Princess has to come to take possession and governance of these kingdoms as proprietary señora, that they then will be hers, and that without her the Prince has no part, nor will he be received in any manner.”[ii]

Loyalty and love as a wife and mother
Isabel was a devoted wife to her husband Ferdinand from their wedding in 1469 through to her death in 1504. Ferdinand himself had a fierce temper was not always faithful. Isabel carried the hurt and forgave him. Before her death Isabel ordered her body be buried in the Alhambra in Granada, but also ordered that if her husband the King were to choose a different church or monastery within Spain for his own burial place, then she wanted her body to be moved next to his. Her loyalty came long before much of the Church’s teaching on marriage was codified.

Isabel was also a devoted mother to their five children, taking great care that the children received a strong education.[iii] Queen Isabel’s maternal love was demonstrated dramatically in August 1476 when her five-year-old daughter fell into danger, being imprisoned by rebels in the Alcázar in Segovia. Queen Isabel rode with only three companions right into and through the hostile and threatening mob outside to secure the safety of her child. Her courage placated the mob and her openness to their grievances won them over completely.

Even those who do not accept Isabel’s sanctity acknowledge her greatness as an historical figure. Peggy Liss writes that Isabel “has left an indelible imprint – on Spain, on Europe, on America, on the world.”[iv] Notable here is Queen Isabel’s sponsorship of the exploration of the Atlantic by Christopher Columbus, thus bringing about the discovery of the New World. Every monarch of the age had countless petitions coming to them. Columbus had been spurned elsewhere. But Isabel listened. Despite opposition from her own court she sponsored his voyage and when the discovery of the Americas was reported she immediately saw the potential for evangelisation of souls. On being informed it was too expensive to keep sending missions to the ‘Indies’ (for there was little return in gold or jewels in Isabel’s lifetime) the Queen responded that even if there were just rocks she would still send missionaries while there were souls to save. Isabel was adamant that no one should ever attempt to force conversions, but just explain the Faith as it is so beautiful the Indians would embrace it willingly.

And so it is that today more than half the world’s Catholics live in countries evangelised from Spain, the greatest evangelisation in Church history since the apostles.[v] And the two hemispheres of the globe were united for the first time in international exchange of ideas and goods.

In December 1481 Muslim leader Muley Abou’l Hassan re-ignited war in Spain by attacking the town Zahara. The Christian citizens were slaughtered or enslaved. It took Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand three years to rescue Zahara, and a further seven years to liberate all of Spain from the 780-year grip of the invaders. The war frequently involved personal danger for Isabel and a great number of tragedies and defeats. Yet the Queen persevered, rallied her people, and fought an honourable fight, showing exceptional steadfastness and fortitude.

On 7th December 1493 an assassination attempt was made on Queen Isabel’s beloved husband, King Ferdinand. For days he lay close to death. Physicians thought his wounds were mortal. Isabel felt a fear and pain she had never known before. The assassin was a maniac. Everyone seemed to think he should be condemned “body and soul together”. But Queen Isabel forgave from the heart. This does not mean she neglected justice; her counsellors warned that to let the man go free would encourage further attempts. So the assassin was executed. But Isabel, thinking of the salvation of his soul, insisted against protests that a priest be sent to him so he could make a confession.

The King recovered. What incredible fibre can account for Isabel’s spirit of forgiveness in this hour? Given the entire tapestry of this great Queen’s life, there is no simpler, no more rational explanation for her behaviour in this incident than she is following the Gospel teaching of Jesus: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” – Matt 5:44

Isabel was not given to being scandalised. While Cardinal Mendoza, though a priest, had had children, Isabel was loving toward them, referring to them affectionately as ‘the beautiful sins of my Cardinal’.

Other Accomplishments
Queen Isabel ordered and supplied decisive and timely defence for the Holy Father and the Papal States from powerful aggressors. She established field hospitals for those injured in battle; she vigorously encouraged and sponsored use of the printing press (the first book printed in Spain was a collection of songs to the Blessed Mother); Isabel was the first sovereign to make widespread use of paper money; and she re-instituted the Santa Hermandad, a police force recruited and deployed locally. She established a public defender to help the poor in legal disputes. All these innovations have endured with lasting benefits and been imitated elsewhere. Isabel’s legacy was a Golden Age for Spain: in the arts came Velasquez (painter), El Escorial (architecture), Cervantes (novelist); in law came the Leyes de Indias; and from discovery was born the first truly global empire, one which lasted over 300 years without needing great numbers of soldiers to enforce loyalty to the crown. And possibly the greatest of her accomplishments was Church reform.

Church Reform
Possibly Isabel’s greatest legacy, which surely helped save millions of souls, was her initiation and support for reform of the Church. This encompassed both ecclesial reforms and reforms of religious orders. Although Isabel had sharp disagreements with successive popes, these disagreements were never on matters of dogma. Not once did she challenge papal infallibility. Isabel’s response to corruption was never disloyalty to the Church but to practice and call for closer loyalty to Jesus Christ.

The ecclesial reforms Isabel successfully pursued anticipated the Council of Trent by 80 years. She insisted that bishops live in their diocese (rather than staying in Rome as many bishops from across Europe did) and that priests say Mass at least four times per year.[vi] And the subsequent record attests that at Trent itself the Spanish bishops, by the grace of the Holy Spirit ‘rescued’ the Catholic Church.

The religious reforms Isabel instigated weeded out the lax and corrupt so that the contemplative orders could thrive, bearing fruit for which the world can still be grateful today. Those who benefited from Isabel’s reforms include St John of the Cross; St Theresa of Avila and Discalced Carmelites; St Ignatius of Loyola and the Society of Jesus; and from the evangelisation of the Americas, St. Rose of Lima, St. Peter Claver and St. Martin of Porres and countless others.

Despite very longstanding, widespread and mendacious propaganda to the contrary, Isabel’s establishment of the Spanish Inquisition saved countless lives and suffering [see appendix B]. While other European countries fell to religious civil-war in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Spain was spared thanks to the defence against heresy made by the Inquisition. This defence cost lives, but widely accepted research shows that cost over the Spanish Inquisition’s 350-year existence to be about 4,000 lives. This is far less than the scores of thousands who died in other European countries due to religious conflict.

During the same 350-year period the rest of Europe burnt 150,000 witches alone for heresy. The Spanish Inquisition saved women from being burnt as witches, dismissing the accusations in case after case as absurd. The Inquisition valued life far more than other contemporary tribunals. Records show cases of criminals imprisoned by the state deliberately blaspheming so they might be transferred to the jurisdiction of the Inquisition where prison conditions were much more humane.

We cannot say that if Isabel had not lived then the Church would have fallen to ruin; instead we say that God would have chosen another instrument to fulfil His Mighty works. But the fact that Isabel was chosen as His instrument, and that she acceded to His will so fully – as shown by the good fruit for the Holy Catholic Church – adds to her reputation for sanctity.

Carrying the Cross
Isabel was given some of the hardest crosses for a woman to carry; yet she embraced them. When familial crisis came to Isabel her indestructible faith grew yet deeper. In November 1495 Queen Isabel’s mother, Isabel of Portugal, died; two years later death took her only son, Juan, aged 18, recently married, heir to the throne; two months after that Juan’s wife miscarried. Isabel’s eldest daughter, whose first husband had died a few years earlier, married Alfonso of Portugal; eight months later he died; then she, Isabel’s eldest daughter, died in August 1498, aged 28, one hour after having given birth. The infant, Queen Isabel’s grandson Miguel, clung to life for less than two years before he, too, died. With this last it might have seemed as if death had come to Queen Isabel herself. She was wounded so deeply something went out of her. But nevertheless she showed by her prayer she trusts God absolutely. She loves Him, and she is willing to carry the cross she is given. Isabel continued to meet all her queenly and personal duties. When Isabel’s third child, Juana, was losing her mind, the queen cared for Juana through her sickness, and was reviled by her in return. These tragedies did not crush Isabel but increased her love for Our Lord.

Isabel had a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and her Immaculate Conception. And Isabel became increasingly aware of the sacrifice of Mary. Isabel knew what it was to have her children die: Mary’s only child ‘died’ and her child was God. Isabel knew how much she loved her own little ones, how joyous they made her: and Jesus was yet more precious to Mary. How could Isabel have endured this and even grown in faith to the end, save that she received true comfort from the Blessed Mother?

Isabel died in 1504 so she did not witness the cruel, faithless rejection of her fifth child, Catherine of Aragón, by the English King Henry VIII. But from the age of 11 to 14 Catherine – Catalina – had been at Isabel’s side almost constantly during those awful years of loss and there Catalina had learnt how to carry the cross. So it was that Catherine of Aragón was to respond to Henry’s cruelty with such faith, fidelity, and virtue that she has given light and life to Catholics in England ever since.

Before Queen Isabel died however, she did have the company for two years of her grandson Charles. He was to become the Holy Roman Emperor, father of Phillip II of Spain, who between them continued her great work of defence and zealous propagation of the Catholic Faith, without which Europe may have been stripped of her greatest treasure, and America might hardly have known it.

To have any one or two of the above virtues or accomplishments shows a rare person. To have three or four makes a towering historical figure. But to have them all is inexplicable except as an instrument of the Divine. Isabel opened herself completely to God and His glory shone forth.

b) Intercessory Prayers

Many miracles and favours have been granted in response to intercessory prayers to Isabel. Two well-documented cases are outlined below.[vii]

Priest Cured of Lethal Cerebral Haemorrhage, 1994
A priest with a great devotion to the Servant of God suffered a massive stroke which could not be operated and which left him in a deep coma without hope of recovery, according to doctors’ statements. After three days in a coma, a Mass was requested and offered over the tomb of Isabel the Catholic by the canons at the Royal Chapel in Granada for his recovery. While this Mass was being celebrated, the priest began coming out of the coma, then recovered rapidly and progressively even until today overcoming impediments from the stroke.

Saved from a Dangerous Birth, 1994
A mother whose first child was delivered by Caesarean section was warned that her second child’s delivery would be a ‘dangerous Caesarean’. The family prayed to Queen Isabel and her son was born without any difficulty whatsoever.

Hundreds of other miracles and favours have been reported. Confidence in this – the efficacy of the Communion of Saints – is open to anyone who will pray. We recommend it. In fact we ask favours be reported.

Summary on Sanctity
Considering Queen Isabel’s faith, virtue and legacy, many Catholics are perplexed that she has not yet been canonised. She won the highest praise from contemporaries at all social levels (many believed she was a saint) and her fame of sanctity continues through the ages as superlatively as ever.

If heaven is rejoicing over Isabel, then for the good of souls and for the glory of God we on earth should rejoice over her too. Our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “Where God’s will is done, there is heaven, there earth becomes heaven.”[viii]

The renewal of Christendom will follow from a renewed devotion to Our Lady. Queen Isabel’s devotion to Mary, the Mother of God, bore untold fruit. We believe that to praise God for the sanctity of Queen Isabel is in innumerable ways to point toward the Blessed Mother through whom Christ comes to all. Did Isabel unite, protect and care for her people? Much more so does Mary. Did Isabel defeat enemies of the Church? Mary defeats more ferocious enemies with her ceaseless intercession. Did Isabel bear the heart-breaking loss of her children with faith? Here her virtue points to Mary’s perfection, and on Calvary Mary’s creaturely perfection points to the infinite love of God the Father, also the sacrifice of God the Son and the joy of the Holy Spirit. Isabel’s legacy covers half the world; Mary’s the whole of it. Thus God gives us ways to approach Him.

[i] See 1 Samuel 24 for David’s powerful example.

[ii] Peggy K. Liss, Isabel the Queen: Life and Times, Revised Edition (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) p.403 quoting Fuensalida.

[iii] For example Isabel’s daughter Catalina was “proficient on clavichord and harp; moreover, she was learned in philosophy, literature, and religion, and had Latin, Castilian, French, English, and German. During her years as England’s queen, between 1509 and 1527, Catherine of Aragón attracted to court the learned and the wise, among them Luis Vives and Erasmus, scholars who praised her piety and erudition.” Liss, p.286

[iv] Liss, p. 410

[v] The Spanish evangelisation reached almost all of South America, Central America, Mexico, the Southwest USA and later the Philippines. Religious orders born from Isabel’s reforms included the Jesuits, who reached, notably, China, India, Japan, Canada and more.

[vi] Following discussions with Queen Isabel, Archbishop Carrillo issued an edict that priests “must say Mass at least four times per year, and bishops at least three.” William Thomas Walsh, reprinted , Isabella of Spain, (Tan, 1930, reprinted Rockford 1987) p.88

[vii] These three accounts are abridged as full details cannot be released publicly until the canonisation process is complete.

[viii] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, (Ignatius, 2000) p.176

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