A votive and memorial building
The monastery of San Juan de los Reyes was ordered to be built by the Catholic Monarchs in the city of Toledo, in an act of gratitude for the victory in the battle of Toro in 1476. The war for the succession to the throne was definitively settled in favour of Princess Isabella, sister of the late King Henry IV, who was already married to Ferdinand, against the supporters of Juana, the daughter of the king’s illegitimate marriage, his niece and goddaughter by baptism. Isabella defended her right to the throne to the end as a matter of legitimacy and convenience for Castile.
The chronicler of the Order, Fray Pedro Salazar, tells us a century later that the kings founded the temple “also because the Prince, whom they called Don Juan, was born”, and that the queen tried to build a collegiate church “for his burial”. From the decorative richness concentrated in the transept, we can deduce that this space was intended to receive the tombs of the monarchs, years before the conquest of Granada. Nevertheless, in her will, dictated decades later, the order to be buried in the church of San Francisco de la Alhambra in Granada, “the city that I love more than my life”, appears as words by the queen. Today, the remains of the Catholic Monarchs rest in the Royal Chapel of Granada, next to the cathedral where they were transferred by her grandson Charles V, together with those of her parents Joanna of Castile and Philip the Handsome.
Isabella, a Catholic queen
She and her husband were awarded the title of Catholic King and Queen by Pope Alexander VI due to their defence and fervour for the Catholic religion. Throughout her life, both politically and personally, the Queen demonstrated behaviour based on the Christian faith, seeking justice for her subjects “both small and great”; protecting the Indians of America “not allowing them to receive any injury to their persons or property”; and bravely facing the death of her only son Prince John, her beloved daughter Isabella -her first-born daughter- and her grandson Michael, heir to Castile, Aragon and Portugal. The defence of this same faith, a determining factor in the condition of her subjects, forced her to take the difficult decision to put an end to the permission of non-Christian subjects to reside in her kingdoms, as well as to correct deviations from this same faith, by means of the Tribunal of the Holy Office.
Elizabeth was a spiritual woman, united to Jesus Christ: “to whom I acknowledge that I owe all, for the many and innumerable spiritual and material benefits that I, his unworthy servant, have received”. In addition to her many alms, which has been subsequently known, she gave a different and very valuable tithe to God: her time, dedicating more than two hours daily to prayer.
The devotion of the Blessed Lord St. John
Saint John the Evangelist was the saint whom the Queen always had as a special advocate: “Because I have had and have a very singular devotion to the blessed Lord Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist and to the Order of the Observance of Saint Francis, I have decided to make and build a house and monastery in the very noble and very loyal city of Toledo”. I, the Queen.
In 1479, the monastery was given the name “St. John of Portalatyna”, a particular invocation of St. John the Evangelist who, according to legend, was martyred by Domitian order in a vat of boiling oil in front of the Latin Gate in Rome. The queen requested and obtained from the pope a special jubilee for the day of Saint John before Portam Latinam. It was later renamed Saint John’s Day. Eventually, as it was an enterprise promoted by the queen, it was renamed San Juan de la Reina. Finally, the monastery went down in history as San Juan de los Reyes.
A house for the Franciscans
The idea of the Collegiate Church must have been discarded due to the presence of the Cathedral in the city. Being very devoted to the Order of Saint Francis, they decided to donate the monastery to the observant Franciscan friars who had been in the convent of San Antonio de la Bastida for 57 years. When Cisneros arrived in 1486, some of the friars were already living there. Fifteen years later, they ordered the reform of the other Franciscan monastery in the city, of cloistered monks, or non-observant monks, and joined those of this monastery. Their old building under the Alcázar was given to Saint Beatriz de Silva for her newly founded order of the Conception or Conceptionists.