Jean Plaidy

Castile for Isabella



The Alcazar was set high on a cliff from which could be seen the far-off peaks of the Guadarrama Sierras and the plain, watered by the Manzanares River. It was an impressive pile of stone which had grown up round what had once been a mighty fortress erected by the Moorish conquerors of Spain. Now it was one of the Palaces of the Kings of Castile.

At a window of this Palace, a four-year-old child stood looking towards the snow-topped peaks of the distant mountains, but the grandeur of the scenery was lost to her, for she was thinking of events inside the granite walls.

She was afraid, but this was not apparent. Her blue eyes were serene; although she was so young, she had already learned to hide her emotions, and fear above all must be kept hidden.

Something extraordinary was happening in the Palace, and it was something quite alarming. Isabella shivered.

There had been much coming and going in the royal apartments. She had seen the messengers hurrying through the patios, stopping to whisper with others in the great rooms and shake their heads as though they were prophesying dire disaster, or wearing that excited look which, she knew, meant that they were probably the bearers of bad news.

She dared not ask what was happening. Such a question might bring a reproof, which would be an affront to her dignity. She must constantly remember her dignity. Her mother had said so.

‘Always remember this,’ Queen Isabella had told her daughter more than once. ‘If your stepbrother Henry should die without heirs, your little brother Alfonso would be King of Castile; and if Alfonso should die without heirs, you, Isabella, would be Queen of Castile. The throne would be yours by right, and woe betide any who tried to take it from you.’ Little Isabella remembered how her mother clenched her fists and shook them, how her whole body shook, and how she herself wanted to cry out, ‘Please, Highness, do not speak of these things,’ and yet dared not. She was afraid of every subject which excited her mother, because there was something terrifying in her mother’s excitement. ‘Think of that, my child,’ she would proceed. ‘Indeed, you must never forget it. And when you are tempted to behave in any manner but the best, ask yourself: Is this worthy of one who could become Queen of Castile?’

Isabella always said on such occasions: ‘Yes, Highness, I will. I will.’ She would have promised anything to stop her mother shaking her fists, anything to drive the wild look out of her mother’s eyes.

And for this reason she always did remember, for when she was tempted to lose her temper, or even to express herself too freely, she would have a vision of her mother, veering towards one of those terrifying moods of hysteria, and that was all that was needed to restrain her.

Her thick chestnut hair was never allowed to be disordered; her blue eyes were always serene; and she was learning to walk as though there was already a crown on her head. The attendants in the royal nursery said: ‘The Infanta Isabella is a good child, but she would be more natural if she would learn to be a little human.’

Isabella could have explained, if it had not been beneath her dignity to do so: ‘It is not for me to learn to be human. I must learn to be a Queen, because that is what I may one day be.’

Now, much as she longed to know the reason for the tension in the Palace, this hurrying to and fro, these expectant looks on the faces of courtiers and messengers, she did not ask; she merely listened.

Listening was rewarding. She had not seen the end of her father’s friend, the great Alvaro de Luna, but she had heard that he had ridden through the streets, dressed as an ordinary criminal, and that people, who had once hated him so much that they had called for his death, had shed tears on seeing such a man brought low. She had heard how he had mounted the scaffold with a demeanour so calm and haughty that he might have been arriving at the Palace for an interview with Isabella’s father, the King of Castile. She knew that the executioner had thrust his knife into that proud throat and cut off the haughty head; she knew that de Luna’s body had been cut into pieces and set up for the people to shudder over, to remind themselves that this was the fate of one who, such a short time before, had been the King’s dearest friend.

All this one could learn by listening.

The servants said: ‘It was the Queen’s doing. The King... why, he would have taken de Luna back at the last moment. Yes... but he dared not offend the Queen.’

Then Isabella had known that she was not the only one who was afraid of her mother’s strange moods.

She loved her father. He was the kindest of men. He wanted her to learn her lessons so that she might, as he said, appreciate the only worthwhile things in life.

‘Books are a man’s best friends, my child,’ he told her. ‘I have learned this too late. I wish I had learned it earlier. I think you are going to be a wise woman, daughter; therefore when I pass on this knowledge to you I know that you will remember it.’

Isabella, as was her custom, listened gravely. She wanted to please her father, because he seemed so weary. She felt that they shared a fear of which neither of them could ever speak.

Isabella would be good; she would do all that was expected of her, for fear of displeasing her mother. It seemed that her father, the King, would do the same; he would even send his dearest friend, de Luna, to the executioner’s knife because his wife demanded it.

Isabella often felt that if her mother had been always as calm and gentle as she could be sometimes, they could have been very happy. She loved her family dearly. It was so pleasant, she thought, to have a baby brother like Alfonso, who was surely the best-tempered baby in the world, and a grown-up brother like Henry – even though he was only a stepbrother – who was always so charming to his little stepsister.

They ought to have been happy, and could so easily have been, apart from the ever-present fear.

‘Isabella!’ It was her mother’s voice, a little harsh with that strident note which never failed to start the alarm signals within Isabella’s brain.

Isabella turned without haste. She saw that her governess and attendants were discreetly leaving. The Queen of Castile had intimated that she wished to be alone with her daughter.

Slowly, and with the utmost dignity that a child of four could possibly display, Isabella came to the Queen and sank to the floor in a graceful curtsy. Etiquette at Court was rigid, even within the family circle.

‘My dear daughter,’ murmured the Queen; and as Isabella rose she embraced her fervently. The child, crashed against the jewel-encrusted bodice, endured the discomfort, but she felt her fear increasing. This, she thought, is something really terrible.

The Queen at length released the little girl from that violent embrace and held her at arms’ length. She studied her intently, and tears welled into her eyes. Tears were alarming, almost as alarming as the fits of laughter.

‘So young,’ murmured the Queen, ‘my four-year-old Isabella, and Alfonso but an infant in the cradle.’

‘Highness, he is very intelligent. He must be the most intelligent baby in the whole of Castile.’

‘He’ll need to be. My poor... poor children! What will become of us? Henry will seek some way to be rid of us.’

Henry? wondered Isabella. Kind, jovial Henry, who always had sweetmeats to offer his little sister and would pick her up and give her a ride on his shoulder, telling her that she would be a pretty woman one day! Why should Henry want to be rid of them?

‘I am going to tell you something,’ said the Queen. ‘We will be ready... when the time comes. You must not be surprised if I tell you that we are to leave at once. It will be soon. It cannot be long delayed.’

Isabella waited, fearful of asking another of those questions which might win a rebuke. Experience told her that if she waited attentively she could often discover as much as, or even more than, if she asked questions.

‘We may leave at a moment’s notice... a moment’s notice!’ The Queen began to laugh, and the tears were still in her eyes. Isabella prayed silently to the saints that she would not laugh so much that she could not stop.

But no, this was not to be one of those terrifying scenes, for the Queen stopped laughing and put a finger to her lips. ‘Be prepared,’ she said. ‘We will outwit him.’ Then she put her face close to the little girl’s. ‘He’ll never get a child,’ she said. ‘Never... never!’ She was close to that terrifying laughter again. ‘It is the life he has led. That is his reward. And well he deserved it. Never mind, our turn will come. My Alfonso shall mount the throne of Castile... and if by some chance he should not reach manhood, there is always my Isabella. Is there not, eh? Is there not?’

‘Yes, Highness,’ murmured the little girl.

Her mother took the plump cheek between thumb and forefinger, and pinched it so hard that it was difficult to prevent the tears coming to those blue eyes. But the little girl knew it was intended as a gesture of affection.

‘Be ready,’ said the Queen.

‘Yes, Highness.’

‘Now I must be back with him. How can one know what plots are hatched when one’s back is turned, eh? How can one?’

‘How can one, Highness,’ repeated Isabella dutifully.

‘But you will be ready, my Isabella.’

‘Yes, Highness, I will be ready.’