The Courtships of Queen Elizabeth: A History of the Various Negotiations for Her Marriage


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Dec 31, 1896
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The history of modern Europe takes its start from an event which must have appeared insignificant to a generation that had witnessed the violent end of the English dominion in France, had been dinned by the clash of the Wars of the Roses, and watched with breathless fear the savage hosts of Islam striking at the heart of Christendom over the still smoking ruins of the Byzantine Empire.

Late one night, in the beginning of October 1469, a cavalcade of men in the guise of traders halted beneath the walls of the ancient city of Burgo de Osma in Old Castile. They had travelled for many days by little-used paths through the mountains of Soria from the Aragonese frontier town of Tarrazona; and, impatient to gain the safe shelter of the fortress of Osma, they banged at the gates demanding admittance. The country was in anarchy. Leagues of churchmen and nobles warred against each other and preyed upon society at large. An impotent king, deposed with ignominy by one faction, had been as ignominiously set up again by another, and royal pretenders to the succession were the puppets of rival parties whose object was to monopolise for themselves all the fruits of royalty, whilst the monarch fed upon the husks. So when the new-comers called peremptorily for admittance within the gates of Osma, the guards upon the city walls, taking them for enemies or freebooters, greeted them with a shower of missiles from the catapults. One murderous stone whizzed within a few inches of the head of a tall, fair-haired lad of good mien and handsome visage, who, dressed as a servant, accompanied the cavalcade. If the projectile had effectively hit instead of missed the stripling, the whole history of the world from that hour to this would have been changed, for this youth was Prince Ferdinand, the heir of Aragon, who was being conveyed secretly by a faction of Castilian nobles to marry the Princess Isabel, who had been set forward as a pretender to her brother’s throne, to the exclusion of the King’s doubtful daughter, the hapless Beltraneja. A hurried cry of explanation went up from the travellers: a shouted password; the flashing of torches upon the walls, the joyful recognition of those within, and the gates swung open, the drawbridge dropped, and thenceforward Prince Ferdinand was safe, surrounded by the men-at-arms of Isabel’s faction. Within a week the eighteen-years-old bridegroom greeted his bride, and before the end of the month Ferdinand and Isabel were married at Valladolid.

To most observers it may have seemed a small thing that a petty prince in the extreme corner of Europe had married the girl pretender to the distracted and divided realm of Castile; but there was one cunning, wicked old man in Barcelona who was fully conscious of the importance of the match that he had planned; and he, John II. of Aragon, had found an apt pupil in his son Ferdinand, crafty beyond his years. To some extent Isabel must have seen it too, for she was already a dreamer of great dreams which she meant to come true, and the strength of Aragon behind her claim would insure her the sovereignty that was to be the first step in their realisation.

Thus wrote William Camden with reference to his projected life of Lord Burghley, which was never written; and the words may be applied not inappropriately to the present book and its writer. Some years ago I passed many laborious months in archives and libraries at home and abroad, searching and transcribing contemporary papers for what I hoped to make a complete history of the long reign of Philip IV., during which the final seal of decline was stamped indelibly upon the proud Spanish empire handed down by the great Charles V. to his descendants. I had dreamed of writing a book which should not only be a social review of the period signalised by the triumph of French over Spanish influence in the civilisation of Europe, but also a political history of the wane and final disappearance of the prodigious national imposture that had enabled Spain, aided by the rivalries between other nations, to dominate the world for a century by moral force unsupported by any proportionate material power.

The sources to be studied for such a history were enormous in bulk and widely scattered, and I worked very hard at my self-set task. But at length I, too, began to wax faint-hearted; not, indeed, because my "noble Lord had died"; for no individual lord, noble or ignoble, has ever done, or I suppose ever will do, anything for me or my books; but because I was told by those whose business it is to study his moods, that the only "noble Lord" to whom I look for patronage, namely the sympathetic public in England and the United States that buys and reads my books, had somewhat changed his tastes. He wanted to know and understand, I was told, more about the human beings who personified the events of history, than about the plans of the battles they fought. He wanted to draw aside the impersonal veil which historians had interposed between him and the men and women whose lives made up the world of long ago; to see the great ones in their habits as they lived, to witness their sports, to listen to their words, to read their private letters, and with these advantages to obtain the key to their hearts and to get behind their minds; and so to learn history through the human actors, rather than dimly divine the human actors by means of the events of their times. In fact, he cared no longer, I was told, for the stately three-decker histories which occupied half a lifetime to write, and are now for the most part relegated, in handsome leather bindings, to the least frequented shelves of dusty libraries.

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