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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.