On April 12, 1555, Joanna of Castile (1479-1555), the last surviving child of Catholic monarchs Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, died at the age of 75, well past the life expectancy of the time. She had been Queen of Castile for more than 50 years. However, over 45 of those years were spent in isolated imprisonment for her alleged mental insanity. Who was this hidden queen and what led to her demise? Casey Titus (following her article on Good Queen Anne here) explains.
Born in the city of Toledo, the capital of the Kingdom of Castile, on November 6, 1479 Joanna was the third child and second daughter of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon of the royal House of Trastamara. Her parents’ marriage, along with the conquest of Granada in 1492, united and formed Spain as we know it today. Joanna was described as physically beautiful with a fair complexion, blue eyes, and auburn hair, like that of her mother, Isabella, and sister, Catherine.
Joanna proved to be a clever and diligent student who received a substantial education for the time. Her academic education consisted of canon and civil law, genealogy and heraldry, grammar, history, languages, mathematics, philosophy, reading, spelling, and writing. In addition to French and Latin, Joanna excelled in the major Iberian Romance languages (Castilian, Catalan, and Galaico-Portuguese).
Despite Joanna reputedly being the brightest of Isabella and Ferdinand’s children, she was a sullen and bashful child whose aloofness was mistaken for royal dignity. Stories also circulate over Joanna’s religious skepticism which was interpreted as an early sign of her creeping insanity. Her parents were exceptionally renowned for their faith, completing the 1492 Reconquista that ordered the conversion or exile of their Muslim and Jewish subjects and establishing the Spanish Inquisition in 1478 to maintain Catholic orthodoxy. According to the letters of the gentleman of Ferdinand’s bedchamber, Joanna was subjected to a torture method called “La cuerda,” in which she was suspended from a rope with weights attached to her feet. Queen Isabella even declared during the Spanish Inquisition that she would rather have her country be depopulated than become rampant with heresy. Isabella ensured that any rumors of her daughter’s hostility to Catholicism would be silenced.
As powerful and formidable monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella would make certain all five of their surviving children would marry well and further Spanish interests. They planned marital alliances with other nations against France, the traditional rival of Aragon.
Juan, Prince of Asturias (1478 – 1497), their only son, would unite Spain by inheriting the crowns of both Aragon and Castile. All four daughters would become Queens with Joanna perhaps even becoming an Empress. The eldest daughter, Isabella, would marry the king of Portugal. Their third daughter, Maria, would marry the James IV of Scotland. Their youngest and possibly most well-known Catalina would marry Arthur, Prince of Wales, and son of King Henry VII of England. Juan would marry Margaret of Habsburg, daughter of the future Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I, and Joanna would marry Margaret’s brother and Maximilian’s heir, Philip, Duke of Burgundy. Burgundy, whose capital at Dijon possessed splendid wealth and luxury, during this time had territories consisting of territory in modern Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.
It would have been the perfect plan that would wield immense power and influence across Europe had it not been struck with disaster that sealed Joanna’s fate forever. In 1496 at the age of sixteen, Joanna was betrothed to Philip “The Handsome” of Austria and disembarked in August of that year with a fleet of approximately 22,000 people to the Low Countries. After one dangerous month at sea with three ships sunk, Joanna finally docked at her new home having suffered seasickness and a terrible cold. For various reasons, Philip did not meet his bride; his sister Margaret welcomed Joanna. However, when they finally met it was lust at first sight to the point that he insisted the Church give its blessing to the marriage immediately so it could be consummated that night. The cleric was hardly finished before the couple vanished to their bedroom. The next day a church wedding officially completed the union. It was a successful marriage with Joanna giving birth to six children between 1498 and 1507.
In October of 1497, Joanna’s only brother Juan died suddenly. His pregnant widow Margaret gave birth to a stillborn daughter two months later, shattering all hopes of the male Trastamara lineage being saved through Ferdinand and Isabella’s only son. His death was followed shortly by his sister - and next heiress to the Castilian throne - Isabella, after giving birth to a son in August 1498 who was named Miguel. Baby Miguel was now child heir to the thrones of Portugal, Castile, and Aragon. Miguel died on July 19, 1500, shortly before his second birthday. Had he lived he would have united the three crowns of the Iberian Peninsula. Joanna was now heir to her parents.
That same year Joanna gave birth to her second child and first son named after Charles the Bold, Philip’s maternal grandfather. With the death of Miguel, not only did Joanna and Philip become Isabella’s and Ferdinand’s heirs but meant that Charles would inherit the thrones of Castile, Aragon, and the duchy of Burgundy as well as the Habsburg realms in central Europe. The marital tactics of the Catholic monarchs backfired as it was never their intention that the Habsburgs should acquire Spain into their realm nor make their daughter the new heiress in which she would traditionally be a co-ruler.
The pressure on Joanna was now multiplied as she was made heiress in 1502 and given the title of Princess of Asturias. That same year, Joanna suffered a mental breakdown and Philip would repeatedly desert her as punishment for heated arguments. After one explosive quarrel, Philip rode off to his homeland of Flanders. Joanna wanted desperately to accompany him but her mother forbade it and had her locked up in the Castle La Mota at Medina del Campo. She spent days wandering and babbling, refusing sleep or food. As a married woman of her era, she would be expected to put her husband’s interests and realm first before that of her parents, even as their heir. She was already having difficulties adjusting to the cultural environment of Burgundy and the Low Countries. The Burgundians resented the Spaniards and neglected Joanna to the best of their ability. Her husband was on friendly terms with the King of France and did not involve himself with the anti-French policies of his in-laws.
Perhaps the most severe and heartbreaking stress she suffered was her husband’s rampant infidelity. He indulged in feasting, drinking, and taking mistresses. In an era where women were expected to turn a blind eye to their husband’s philandering ways, Joanna instead flew into jealous rages, shocking both her husband and the court. Not being one for confrontation, Philip would punish his wife after quarrelling by avoiding her chambers for days. Joanna would then wander and sob the whole night, bumping against her bedroom walls. After discovering one of Philip’s mistresses who was “an exceedingly handsome noblewoman, with whom he was passionately in love…” Joanna confronted the woman and cut her hair short. Despite her attempts to win her husband back, which included changing her hair and clothing styles as well as utilizing love potions, their relationship grew destructive to the point where the impatient Philip ordered Joanna’s treasurer to keep a detailed diary of her actions. This was then sent to her parents which further humiliated Joanna and distressed her mother, Isabella.
However, Isabella severely disliked and distrusted Phillip and the influence he wielded over her vulnerable daughter, so she ensured that her will would allow Joanna to rule Castile with her husband, Ferdinand, as regent until her heir reached twenty years of age. Ferdinand refused to accept this, and when Isabella died in November 1504, a power struggle ensued between Philip and Ferdinand with Joanna as an in-between pawn. Both men minted coins in the name of themselves alongside Joanna as well as attempting to persuade the delicate twenty-five year old woman to hand the government to them. Her father even asked his officials to read to the Cortes notes of the Spanish treasurer in Flanders that put her instability on public display. After a brief visit to the English Court and Joanna’s sister, Catherine of Aragon, Philip and Ferdinand used a mediator to negotiate an arrangement for the government of Castile without consulting Joanna. After her furious reactions, the men schemed to have Joanna declared incompetent to rule, passing control to Philip.
In September 1506, Philip fell seriously ill. A pregnant Joanna hardly left her husband’s side. Within six days, Philip the Handsome died at the age of 28. Despite the unkind treatment he gave Joanna throughout their ten-year marriage, Joanna refused to depart from her husband’s corpse for a disturbingly long time. On the way to Granada where Philip was to be buried, Joanna was rumored to have opened her husband’s casket to kiss and embrace him. She insisted they travel at night so that women would not be tempted by him. During the day they would rest in monasteries, deliberately avoiding nunneries.
In January 1507, Joanna went into labor, refusing the help of midwives, and gave birth alone to a daughter, Catalina, the last remnant of her beloved Philip. With his rival for power now deceased, King Ferdinand II dismissed his daughter’s loyal supporters and ordered Joanna to be confined within the Royal Convent of Santa Clara in Tordesillas. After Ferdinand’s death, Joanna’s eldest son Charles became Charles V of Spain. After 11 years of imprisonment, with no knowledge of her father’s death or her son’s accession, Joanna was released briefly and visited by Charles after twenty years of separation. It is unknown what they discussed, but Charles refused to release her from her imprisonment and forbade her any visitors.
Joanna’s youngest child Catalina remained at Tordesillas with her mother for sixteen years. Sadly, in 1525, Catalina was stolen way in the night and married off to King Juan III of Portugal. Joanna sank further into despair over the loss of her last child. Joanna survived her husband by 49 years, dying on April 12th, 1555, Good Friday, at the age of 75. Joanna was laid to rest beside her husband and across from her parents in Granada’s La Capilla Real.
Was Joanna truly mad or a political pawn to the men in her family?
Joanna’s maternal grandmother, Isabella of Portugal, allegedly suffered from mental illness as well and was sent to a convent. Joanna’s grandson Carlos and great-granddaughter Maria of Austria, Duchess of Jülich-Cleves-Berg, also reportedly went mad. Historians have speculated that Joanna may have suffered from a wide range of mental illness, from depression to schizophrenia to even postpartum depression. However, her increasingly erratic behavior was reported following the deaths of her siblings, nephew, mother, and her husband. Both Philip the Handsome and Charles V had a lot to gain from Joanna being declared incompetent to rule.
Do you think Joanna of Castile was truly ‘mad’ - or was she a political pawn?
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Bos, Joan. “Biography of Juana the Mad of Castile (1479-1555).” Biography of Philip V of Spain (1683-1746), madmonarchs.guusbeltman.nl/madmonarchs/juana/juana_bio.htm.
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