In this expert from one of the several projects I am currently working on, Isabel reflects on the arrival of Leonor of Austria into Portugal and her early marriage to Isabel’s father, King Manuel I of Portugal. Isabel and Leonor have struck up a friendship, possessing an almost sister-like bond, as they discuss family and the past, and how that translates into now.
Leonor de Austria arrived from her land onto ours in July, and married Papa within two weeks. As a child, I recall Mamae describing the physicality of Queen Juana–Leonor fits the bill. She posses a fragile, slim figure, and her auburn hair contrasts perfectly against her pale skin. She also possess the brown eyes of Fernando de Aragon, but her smile is that of her father, Felipe el Hermoso. A handsome man and a beautiful woman created a gorgeous first child–I wonder if Carlos posses beauty, also.
This new stepmother is old enough to be my sister, and she serves as the elder sister I never had. Leonor is warm, welcoming, and kind, which is rather ironic, giving that she is the one who was plucked from her lands and given away as a bride to a strange kingdom. She always includes myself and the older children with her household and advising Papa on matters of state affairs. Happily, the younger ones who spent the least time with Mamae now have Leonor to look up to. She loves the children as if they were her own.
As for her and Papa, I know not whether or not they have consummated their marriage. I can see that my stepmother loves him, but is not in love with him. There were rumors that she loved another, and that was the true reason why Carlos sent her here. This unrequited love proved as a bonding point with my father, who, as much as he hides his grief, continues to mourn Mamae each and every day. In the end, Papa embraces Leonor with a warm affection, but it is not the same love he shared with my mother.
When we are alone, Leonor and I speak of many things– our grandparents, our aunt, Queen Catherine, and our own parents, more specifically, our mothers. She asks me about mine, and I of hers. She smiles and holds back tears as I recount the days of my parents’ happy union, and how she oversaw my and my siblings’ upbringings. Leonor becomes especially emotional when I disclose the smallest of details, like how Mamae would tuck us in and kiss us on the cheeks every night.
“Los amo a todos,” she’d tell us in her native Spanish–I love you all.
“How beautiful,” Leonor responds, while putting her handkerchief slightly towards her eyes. “She had so much love and grace within her. I would’ve loved to have met her.”
“And she would have been delighted to have greeted you,” I exclaim, taking hold of her hand. “You look so much like yours, from what Mamae would tell us of her.”
A nervous look glanced forth from Leonor’s face. She looked as though she was about to pull back, but she grasped my hands firmer. It was as if she were afraid.
“You don’t think I look like her, do you?” she asks in fear.
“From what I have heard, yes,” I respond. “But you are so beautiful, Leonor, you have nothing to fret over.”
“Isabel, I have everything to fret over,” she responds, pulling back. “My parents were physically attractive people, but inwardly repulsive. We speak not of the damage they have done, especially towards our grandparents’ kingdoms.”
We both wisely at this point chose to remain silent. As soon as Juan’s widow, Margaret, gave birth to stillborn heir, Juana and Felipe sent word from Flanders immediately declaring themselves Prince and Princess of the Asturias. All the European monarchs-especially my grandparents–were both horrified and disgusted. Not only had they had no respect for their brother and niece or nephew’s soul, but they also completely disregarded the fact that they were not the true heirs–it was their sister, Isabel, mother of my late half-brother, Miguel de Paz, and my father who were the newest heirs to Castile. Only Isabel and Miguel’s deaths would solidify their claim–and that they did, nearly three years later. Things would only grow worse from there.
“But you are not inwardly corrupt,” I interject, seizing the opportunity to ease this newly formed tension. “The kindness that you have shown upon myself and my siblings since your arrival cannot be matched.”
“When I heard that I was to marry into your family, first to your brother, and then your father, I knew I was walking into a newly motherless clan,” she explains. “Some of the fondest memories of my childhood involve my great-grandmother, the Duchess of Burgundy. She was poised, elegant, and charming, a force to be reckoned with. But behind closed doors, she and my aunt, our aunt, Margaret, were the only mothers Carlos, Isabella, and I came to have. Yet, according to blood, the duchess was really our great-grandmother–she was our step-great-grandmother. She would’ve murdered the man who’d remind her of that.”
“I have heard stories about her a lot,” I say. “Your grandmother, Mary of Burgundy, she–”
“She was more her daughter then her stepdaughter,” Leonor beckons with a smile. “And the love she felt was so deep that a part of her died when my grandmother did. She refused to let my grandmother, the Emperor, raised my father and our aunt. She reared their upbringing herself. She loved them so much that she refused to die until my father came back from Castile, the one thing he actually did right.”
“You want to be like her, don’t you?” I ask.
“Oh yes,” she responds, taking hold of my hand again. “And I am grateful to assume the position she held in my family’s life for that of yours.”
We hold each other in a warm embrace, and I thank God for having sent this kind, loving angel to our kingdom. If only he would do the same for me with hers.
- Julia St. Clair© 2017
*Image is of Marina Salas as Leonor de Austria in TVE’s Carols, Rey Emperador