Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Catherine of Spain: Daughter, Mother, Queen, Regent

Catherine of Spain, queen of Portugal (born 14 January 1507)

It would be hard to imagine a more inauspicious beginning--Catherine of Spain was the posthumous child of Philip of Burgundy and Juana of Castile. Although Juana had become queen regnant after the death of her mother, Isabella of Castile, in 1504, she was never able to exercise sovereignty--Juana the queen became Juana la loca, and she spent the last five decades of her life imprisoned in the convent of Tordesillas, near the city of Valladolid.

Catherine of Spain, queen of Portugal, in 1552
Born in Torquemada after her father's death in September 1506, Catherine would spend her early years confined in Tordesillas with her mother while Philip and Juana's other children were in the care of Philip's sister, a woman whom we have already met, Margaret of Austria.

Little is known about Catherine's life during this early period, though there is a record from 1514 indicating payment to a tutor, a Franciscan brother.

In 1516, after the death of Juana's father, Ferdinand of Aragon, the "queen's" eldest son, the Habsburg monarch Charles, dismissed Catherine's governess, replacing her with an appointment of his own; in 1517, when Charles paid a visit to his mother at Tordesillas, Catherine's presence is noted.

In 1518 and 1519, plague struck in Tordesillas, and Charles made plans to evacuate his mother and his sister if conditions required; in 1519 there is a record of a doctor attending to a minor illness Catherine experienced.

In 1520, resistance to Habsburg influence in Spain--and to Charles--resulted in a revolt, the Comuneros attempting to bolster their defiance by freeing Juana. For her part, Catherine expressed her resentment of household members Charles had installed to attend her and her mother, regarding them as spies and protesting their harsh treatment. One of Charles's correspondents, warning him of danger, claimed that Catherine was going to be driven to become a nun "or commit some other desperate act." These are the scant details of Catherine of Spain's early life.

In January 1525, the young princess, who had thus far spent her entire life confined with her mother, found herself on her way to Portugal, where she was to become the wife of King John III. It's hard to imagine that transition, but whatever the emotional or psychological difficulties may have been, Catherine performed her role as queen consort dutifully.

Married in February 1525, she gave birth to a son and heir a year later, in February 1526. Although this boy, Afonso, lived only a few short weeks, Catherine gave birth to eight more children in rapid succession. And despite the fact that only two would live to adulthood, the requisite son and heir, John Manuel, lived long enough to produce a son of his own, Sebastian, born in 1554. (Interestingly, like Catherine herself, Sebastian was a posthumous child, born two weeks after the death of his father.)

As queen consort, Catherine did more than produce a string of potential heirs, however; she played a significant role in Portugal and its government. Indeed, just before her son's soon-to-be bride arrived in Portugal for her marriage in 1553, the young woman received this assessment of the possibilities for a royal woman in the Iberian kingdom: "Although for kings I believe there are better realms than Portugal . . . I believe that for queens it is the best of all, because nowhere else do they enjoy so much authority in government or are so respected and obeyed." 

Catherine must also have found this to be the case. In her role as queen, she displayed intelligence, energy, and attention to detail. Ambassadors noted in their diplomatic reports that she was respected and well-informed about all matters. Indeed, the privy council met in her apartments and, as one observer noted, "nothing was done without her highness." 

When her husband, King John III of Portugal, died in 1557, Catherine of Spain became regent of Portugal for her grandson. During that period, she carried on as she had during her time as queen consort. After five and a half years, in December 1562, she announced her decision to retire. Although she continued to act as a guardian for her grandson, she seems to have been aggravated at the discontent and factions at court, threatening to return to Spain. She also dedicated her time and energy to the construction of a tomb for her husband. 

Whatever Catherine's experiences in the first eighteen years of her life--and whatever incapacities her mother may have suffered--Catherine of Spain emerged as a woman who could exert power and control when she was given the opportunity.

By the way, her daughter-in-law Joanna of Castile--the one who received that assessment of the role of queens in Portugal--was her brother Charles's daughter (and thus Catherine's niece). After the death of Prince John Manuel, Joanna left her son, Sebastian, and returned to Madrid. In Spain, she acted as regent for her brother, King Philip II of Spain. Although she wrote to her son and received portraits of him, she never saw him again.

A few details of Catherine of Spain's early life are scattered in Bethany Aram's Juana the Mad: Sovereignty & Dynasty in Renaissance Europe. The best, though still limited, account of her role as queen and regent is in William Monter's The Rise of Female Kings in Europe, 1300-1500.