Isabel of Portugal (1428-1496) introduced madness into the Spanish royal family. Among her immediate descendants were Juana the Mad (1479-1555) and Don Carlos (1545-1568). As a young girl, Isabel was married to a husband twice her age. She fought with his favourite for his affections, but she couldn't enjoy her victory for long..

Isabel of Portugal was a cousin of King Afonso V of Portugal. Her father was Prince Joao of Portugal (1400-1442), Duke of Beja, who had married Isabel of Braganza, a daughter of his illegitimate half-brother. In 1447 Isabel of Portugal appeared on the stage of history, when King Juan II of Castile (1405-1454) was looking for a bride. Juan II was not a typical medieval warrior King; he was more interested in literature and had surrounded himself with the best writers and poets of the time. In 1445 his first wife, Mary of Aragon, had died. Juan had an adult son Henry (1425-1474), who was married to Blanca of Navarra (1420-1464). For seven years their marriage had remained unconsummated and Henry was generally known as "El Impotente". Therefore, Juan II contemplated a second marriage. His constable and childhood friend, Alvaro de Luna, proposed Isabel. The Pope gave a dispensation of consanguinity and Juan II and his court went down to Madrigal de las Altas Torres to meet Isabel. The wedding took place on July 22.

Fourty-two-year-old Juan II was bewitched by his young bride, several years younger than his own son. Isabel, however, was less happy. She was a beautiful young girl with dark eyes. Like many other Portuguese Princesses, she was inclined to melancholia. She was also headstrong, jealous, ambitious and possessive. It was bad enough for her to have Alvaro de Luna constantly around, but it was really insufferable that his dictates extended into the bedroom. On the pretext of the King's health, De Luna even tried to set the hours and limits of their couplings! But Isabel did not want to share her husband, let alone the throne. Soon a struggle for power developed between Juan's wife and his favourite. De Luna had been faced with powerful enemies before, but this one was different; a lovely Queen, all smiles, using caresses and whispered pleas in bed. The timid King, torn between old friendship and new passion, was slowly yielding to Isabel's amorous persuations.

Juan II of Castile On April 22, 1451, after a hard confinement, Isabel gave birth to a daughter, named Isabel after her mother. Afterwards Queen Isabel fell ill and plunged into "profunda tristeza". She shut herself up, sat motionless and staring. During her depressions she refused to speak to anyone but the King. The strain of childbirth had left her a nervous invalid. Tiring her husband with her hysterical tantrums, she finally managed to convince him to get rid of De Luna and they involved Alonso Pérez de Vivero in the plot. When De Luna found out, he murdered Pérez in a fit of frenzy. Isabel could now easily persuade Juan (to the right) to order De Luna's arrest for murder. He was executed.
On November 15, 1453 Isabel gave birth to another heir, Alfonso. Around that time Juan's health declined rapidly. He could often be found weeping, some say for the death of his loyal friend De Luna. In July 1454 he took to his bed for the last time and Henry the Impotent was hastily summoned.

Henry the Impotent Henry (to the right) was a youth with protuberant eyes and a wide flat nose. He had divorced his wife in 1453 on the grounds that their marriage had never been consummated. He claimed he had never achieved "córpula carnal" with the Princess and that he was not similarly incapacitated with other women. It was assumed to be the result of a supernatural spell, a medieval concept for a psychological block. Blanca added that she had never offered the slightest hindrance to the marital act. She was subjected to a humiliating investigation by a pair of married matrons of high standing and conscience, who concluded that she was still a virgin. In addition, a priest was sent to the brothels of Segovia to investigate the sexual habits of the Crown Prince. What the girls there told him, left no doubt of Henry's sexual prowess. It is possible that Henry felt more at ease with women of the streets than with his aristocratic wife. On the other hand, prostitutes who sell their body could easily have been bribed to give a false testimony. A German physician, Hieronymus Münzer, who examined Henry,  later wrote: "His penis was thin and weak at the base, but huge at the head, with the result that he could not have an erection." Impotent or not, Henry had not given up hope for an heir and in 1455 he married Isabel's cousin, the gay and coquettish Juana of Portugal (1439-1475), a sister of King Alfonso V. With her Henry continued his desperate efforts. The couple even tried some form of artificial insemination. However, his second wife remained intact too.

Arévalo Castle After his accession to the throne, Henry sent his young stepmother Isabel and her two little children to the austere and gloomy castle of Arévalo (to the right). Isabel, who was used to living in luxurious palaces, was now forced to a frugal life due to her parsimonious stepson. Although still in her 20s, Isabel was so virtuous a widow that she never allowed herself to be left alone with a man. Thus, she lived in a state of great seclusion and depression all the time and over the years her mental abilities gradually deteriorated. Around 1452 her daughter Isabel was taken from her care and sent to a convent in Avila to continue her education there.

At court the dashing Beltrán de la Cueva had become the favourite of both the King and Queen. Then, in 1461, the unbelievable happened: Queen Juana was pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter called Juana after her mother. She is better known as "La Beltraneja", because many believed that Don Beltrán was her real father. After the birth Don Beltrán received the title of Count of Ledesma. Despite the rumours, King Henry IV tried to keep up the appearance of a proud father. The crude attempts at artificial insemination could have resulted in a pregnancy, but Henry too, must at least have had doubts about that. Around that time Young Isabel and Alfonso, who had kept their unhinged mother company for years, were invited at court. Left behind in Areválo, Isabel of Portugal withdrew still further into the shadows of melancholia, until her mind gave way completely. She recognised no one and in the end she didn't know who she was. Often she was fleeing up and down the dark stairs of the castle tower pursued by ghostly voices calling De Luna's name.

Henry's former favourite, Juan Pacheco, Marquis of Villana, became increasingly jealous of the favours bestowed on Don Beltrán. In 1465 he and other disgruntled Grandees started a civil war, declaring Isabel's eleven-year-old son Alfonso King. On the pretext that Alfonso went to visit his mother, they seized the castle of Arévalo and garrisoned it with their own men. In August 1567 a great battle was fought near Olmedo. Henry was nowhere to be found, while his wife had fled with La Beltraneja to Segovia. In July 1468 fourteen-year-old Alfonso was suddenly taken ill. He died after a few days. In September Henry and young Isabel met for a reconciliation. Henry received homage from the nobles and young Isabel was recognised as the heir to the throne, thereby disinheriting La Beltraneja. Queen Juana angrily left her husband, took a lover and gave birth to two additional children.

Isabel I of Castile In 1469, when young Isabel (to the right) was threatened with confinement by her half-brother Henry IV, she pretended to go and visit her mother in Areválo, but instead travelled to Valladolid, where she secretly married Crown Prince Ferdinand of Aragon. When Henry died in 1474, Young Isabel was crowned as Queen Isabel I and in the following civil war she and Ferdinand defeated La Beltraneja and her suitor, Afonso V of Portugal. As Queen, Isabel I continued to supervise her mother's care. In 1496 tidings reached her that her mother was dying. A last time she returned to Arévalo. It had been years since the poor, deranged woman had recognised her daughter. This time Isabel of Portugal had covered her face, so that no one could look at her. She was buried at the Monastery of Miraflores, near Burgos, where her husband, Juan II, and her son, Alfonso, were entombed, too.

Copyright © 2001, 2008 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.

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