History from around the globe is replete with the actions of male monarchs. What is less known and thereby perhaps more fascinating are the lives of the female rulers. In her book, Isabella: The Warrior Queen, Kirsten Downey explores the life of one such woman. While most of us know Isabella for her role in financing Christopher Columbus’ journey to the New World, that detail alone is an incomplete picture of who she is and how she came to power. This book seeks to give a full account of her life but often reads more like an adventure novel than a biography. The characters of history are colorfully described complete with flaws and foibles common among mankind.
In the last century, women’s rights have advanced significantly in many parts of the world. But in Isabella’s time, women, especially those with royal blood, functioned primarily as pawns, useful for forming political alliances. While no one assumed Isabella would be a likely heir to the throne, many of the people in her life groomed her to be a strong leader, to take initiative and to think strategically. Interestingly, all this preparation for an arranged political marriage also prepared her to confidently assume the throne when her older half brother died and left the country destabilized. Much of this book recounts her personal struggles, religious conflicts between Muslims and Christians and her violent religious aggressive actions. Whether one views her impact on history as positive or negative, there is no doubt that her influence left a permanent mark on the Western world.
In reading historical accounts, I always find it helpful when the author discloses how they went about collecting their information on which to base their book. Kirstin Downey includes a chapter describing her own personal biases in data collection, the high value she places on primary sources and her extensive travels to research the life of Isabella. Additionally, I found it enlightening that many of Isabella’s accomplishments have historically been attributed to her husband Ferdinand. But by her exceptional research, Ms. Downey uncovers many unknown details about Isabella and her remarkable life. Anyone who enjoys studying history or simply enjoys great writing will find this amazing story highly educational.
Sarah McCubbin is a homeschooling and foster mom in NE Ohio where she resides with her husband and 7 children. In addition to reading great books, she enjoys gardening, traveling and blogging at Living Unboxed.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Nan A. Talese. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.