Juana of Castile: Mad for Love or Political Pawn?

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.


Heather Carroll said…
I'm so glad you wrote about Joanna! I was exposed to her story in Waldherr's Dommed Queens, so I'm glad that you expanded on her tale.
Lauren said…
I am very curious to know more about her upbringing. And I will also have to check out Mad Love!
One of my favourite NYC based bands is called Mad Juana. :)
Heather, I first learned about Juana when I watched Mad Love, and then read about her in Doomed Queens. I find her story even more fascinating in a way then her sister Catherine of Aragon. Someone should write a dual biography about the two of them along with Isabella.
Heather Carroll said…
You're absolutely right. The women on that line of the family tree all have amazing stories to tell!
Lizzie said…
I completely agree, and The last Queen was such a good book. Defiantly a top favorite!
I have yet to read The Last Queen, but I have been thinking on buying it for a while now. I do believe that Juana could have ruled her country well.
Midori said…
another book you guys should check out is "The Scroll of Seduction", by Gioconda Belli.

I watched "Mad Love" and found the movie to be rife with historical errors, in addition to pushing the idiotic "Juana was mad" theory.

Her father, husband AND son were all despicable in their treatment of her, and they all got their just deserts.
Anonymous said…
I think had Juana not been so attached to her husband, and had she stayed in spain until her mothers death, she could've became queen without her husband, and kept him far from power.
Carolyn Cash said…
There is a book called Sister Queens which focuses on Juana's and Catherine's lives. It was written by Julia Fox. Check this out http://scandalouswoman.blogspot.com.au/2009/06/juana-of-castile-mad-for-love-or.html
Unknown said…
I've read a lot about Juana the mad, but i never noticed the fact, that she should have been suffering from postpartum depression. Did she suffer from it "from the beginning" after giving birth to her first child or would it have happened after Philips death while giving birth to her last child.
I know it is an old article by now, but unfortunately I haven't read it until now.
Unknown said…
I totally agree, I was thinking about the same thing
Dave J said…
I just watched "Mad Love" and was intrigued to find out more about Juana - so I am here! My comment is that Juana and Philippe were 17 year olds for gawds sake! Of course they enjoyed each other's bodies! I remember when I was first married - or at least first having sex with my new innocent girlfriend - that she believed "it" could go on forever like this - "this" being uninhibited sexual desire and pleasure. Let's face it, Philippe may actually have been a great lover who knew how (had been trained??) to satisfy a woman/girl. So Juana was simply a young girl in love with love and, I think as the movie portrays, insanely jealous to be losing her lover to others. Normal stuff. Normal to be jealous. Normal for a young virile and desirable young man to want some on the side particularly when you consider that his young wife was pregnant for half of their short marriage! I think the movie was right on in showing Juana's obsession with her sexual need and "love" for her husband. Unfortunately for Juana she did not seem to realize (or may not have had the social/cultural freedom) that there were lots of other males in the vicinity who may have been able to satisfy her visceral needs. Philippe didn't have a problem solving his sexual needs. And I think any normal person like Juana would have gone mad being locked up for 47 years!

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