History has been written by men about men for centuries. So for writers of women’s history, one has to take the written record with a grain of salt, wonder if there are hidden agendas. This is especially true when it comes to the life of Juana of Castile. While most people are familiar with the story of her sister Catherine of Aragon and her marriage to Henry VIII, not many are familiar with the story of her older sister Juana. If she is known at all it is as Juana la Loca, Joanna the Mad, a woman who lost her mind after the death of her husband, the object of her obsessive love, prone to jealous rages who kept her husband’s moldy decrepit coffin nearby so that she could spent her nights talking to him. But is this true, or was Juana a political pawn, torn between her loyalty to her husband and her loyalty to Spain and her parents. Or does the truth lie somewhere in between?
Juana was the third child and second daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. While the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella helped to rid Spain finally of the Moors, Ferdinand was only the King Consort in Castile while King in his own right in Aragon. Castile was the richer, larger kingdom, and Ferdinand during his marriage to Isabella was treated like a foreign interloper by the grandees of the Cortes in Castile. From childhood each of the daughters of Ferdinand and Isabella were groomed from an early age to marry and expand their parents’ influence. Born on November 6 1479, (making her a Scorpio which explains alot!) Juana was betrothed as a baby to Philip of Flanders, the Duke of Burgundy and son of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian. His sister Margaret had also been betrothed to Juana’s brother Juan. Juana was taught French, needlework and dancing, everything to make her a pleasing consort.
Married by proxy, Juana was sent to Flanders in 1496 to finally meet her groom and to marry for real. From the one moment the two set eyes on each other, it was lust at first sight. Philip lived up to his nickname ‘Philip the Handsome.’ He insisted that the two get married that night so that they could consummate the marriage immediately. While the sex was great, Philip was not too happy by his wife’s divided loyalties. Juana wasn’t too happy that her husband was only to happy to share his favors amongst the women of the court. It didn’t help that she was kept busy giving birth to six babies in nine years; healthy and happy babies who lived in an age when the infant mortality rate was extremely high. This was when the first rumors that Juana was a little bit crazy began.
Apparently she took exception to one of her husband’s many mistresses and attacked her, cutting off her hair. While most women probably wouldn’t find that behavior insane, it was definitely not the behavior of a royal princess. No doubt some of it could be contributed to post-partum depression, a condition that wasn’t diagnosed until the 20th century. While Philip was good-looking and great in the sack, he was also proud, vain, and insecure. His mother had died when Philip was young, and his father had withdrawn and left his children to be raised by governesses with very little interaction with their father. Juana’s relationship with Philip took a turn for the worse when Juana’s brother Juan died, and then her sister Maria who had married the King of Portugal and had a son Miguel who also died. This left Juana the heiress to Castile definitely. Aragon on the other hand, followed Salic law which meant that only a male could inherit the throne. It was hoped that Ferdinand could change the mind of the Cortes. In 1502, Juana was recognized as heiress to the throne of Castile and given the title Princess of Asturias, the title traditionally given to the heir to Castile (Felipe, the son of King Juan Carlos II of Spain, the current King of Spain, is titled the Prince of Asturias).
Philip however was not on board for being King Consort. He wanted to rule Spain as King. Juana was torn between her parents and her husband. Juana and Philip traveled to Spain where Juana gave birth to her son Fernando. One night Juana ran out of the castle and refused to come back inside for thirty-six hours despite the fact that it was freezing cold outside. Isabella died in 1504, leaving Juana Queen of Castile but the grandees were slow to crown her Queen. They had clearly heard the rumors that Juana was a little off her rocker, which Juana thought Philip and his advisors were spreading. Her mother's will allowed for Juana's father Ferdinand to rule if Juana was unwilling or in her absence, although he was no longer King of Castile.
Ferdinand was not a happy camper at the news. In fact he had coins struck that said Ferdinand and Juana, King and Queen of Castile. Philip, on the other hand, had coins minted with his name and Joanna's. Meanwhile behind her back, Ferdinand and Philip signed a treaty, agreeing that Juana was too mentally unstable to rule, and promising to exclude her from the government. The estrangement between Juana and her husband was unresolved because Philip died at the age of twenty-eight in 1506 of typhus, leaving her pregnant with her sixth child, a daughter that she named after her sister Catalina.
Here’s where the story gets strange. Juana, heavily pregnant, grief-stricken, became a little bit unhinged. While accompanying his body to Granada for burial, she demanded that the coffin be opened, greet his remains. She insisted that they travel at night so that women would not be tempted by him. Still, Juana was determined to rule Castile as her mother had before her. It was her birthright and Juana wanted to honor her mother and hold the kingdom until either her son Charles or her son Fernando was old enough to rule after her. Juana refused to surrender her rights as Queen of Castile.
However, the greatest betrayal was still to come, her father Ferdinand used her behavior to grab Castile from her, which he ruled until his death in 1516. He imprisoned Juana in a room in the castle at Tordesillas in 1509 where she spent the rest of her life. It appears that years of resentment of having to play second fiddle to his wife had finally spilled over. But it wasn’t just Ferdinand; many of the Castilian grandees had also resented having a woman rule Castile, and were prepared to make sure it would never happen again.
If Juana hadn’t actually been mad before, being locked up in a castle sent her round the bend. Manic-depression or bi-polar disorder as it is now called seems to have run in the Trastamara blood. Juana’s grandmother had also been considered insane and locked up for years. Karma is a bitch though. Ferdinand spent the rest of his life plagued by paranoia. He remarried to Germaine de Foix, niece of the King Louis XII of France, Spain’s traditional enemy. Germaine was also Ferdinand's great niece (ick!). Despite taking the 16th century version of Viagra, he never sired the son that he wanted.
After his death, Juana’s son Charles became Charles V of Spain. Juana was briefly released after 11 years in prison, but she had no idea what was going on, that her father had died or that her son was now king. Charles finally went to visit his mother after a twenty year absence but no one knows what the two of them talked about. According to Castilian law, Charles would not fully be recognized as King until Juana’s death, and he refused to release her from her imprisonment. He finally abdicated in 1555, retiring to a monastery, dying three years later. His son became Philip II of Spain, husband of Mary Tudor, who ushered in Spain’s Golden Age. Juana’s other son, Fernando, inherited the Holy Roman Emperor.
Juana’s youngest daughter Catalina remained at Tordesillas with her mother for sixteen. However in 1625, Catalina was stolen away in the night and married off to King Juan III of Portugal. Juana was plunged into deep despair at losing her last child. After forty-six years of captivity, Juana of Castile died at the age of seventy-six. She was buried beside her husband Philip in the cathedral in Granada, across from the tombs of her parents Ferdinand and Isabella.
In recent years, a film called Mad Love, has been released, and a new novel about Juana, called The Last Queen, by C.W. Gortner. Mad Love depicts the passionate sexual relationship between Juana and Philip and her jealousy over his attentions to other women. Although it does delve into the political context, it's a small portion of the film. The performances are stellar and it is worth viewing. Pilar López de Ayala in the title role won a Goya for her role; the film was nominated for a total of 12 Goyas. The film was directed by Vicente Aranda.It received 3 Goya awards, in the categories of Best Actress, Best Wardrobe, and Best Makeup and Hair.
While Mad Love clearly falls into the ‘Juana was one crazy bitch,’ camp, The Last Queen has to be one of the best historical fiction novels I have read in recent years. Gortner tells Juana’s story in the first person, with compassion, emphasizing her passion and her courage. The Last Queen turns Juana into a three dimensional human being. Gortner puts Juana squarely in the historical and political context of the times. Her story is both personal and political. The novel deals with the realities of royal marriages, that they were more based more on shifting alliances than compatibility. It was very interesting to see, if however briefly, what it was like for Catherine of Aragon in the years after her marriage to Prince Arthur and before her marriage to Henry VIII, and how difficult her situation must have been, being in limbo.
Was Juana sane? Mental illness seemed to run in the Trastamara/Hapsburg dynasty(along with an unfortunate tendency towards incest), Juana's own maternal grandmother was mentally ill. It's been speculated that Juana was either schizophrenic or bi-polar. It should also be noted that 'insanity' was an all purpose diagnosis used to control women who were considered out of hand, too intelligent, or dangerous. Could she have ruled her country? Historians have been debating this question for centuries. Since she never got the chance, the world will never know what Juana might have been capable of but it seems clear given how her sister Catherine fought against Henry VIII’s attempts to divorce her that the women of Castile were fighters.