Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Friday, November 6, 2015

Juana of Castile: Not Her Mother's Daughter

Juana of Castile, queen of Castile and Léon, queen of Aragon (born 6 November 1479)

The third child--and second daughter--of the Spanish monarchs Isabella of Castile and Léon and Ferdinand of Aragon, Juana was born in Toledo and received an education that reflected the best of Renaissance humanist training.

Having herself had relatively little opportunities for education, Isabella made sure that, as Giles Tremlett writes, "the education of [her] daughters was taken with an unusual and remarkable degree of seriousness." (The education of the Spanish princesses was undertaken by the remarkable scholar Beatriz Galindo, "la Latina.")

Juana of Castile,
about 1495-96,
the time of her marriage
Juana proved to be an adept scholar, a good student of Latin and contemporary languages, of classical authors as well as of Christian writers, of typically "female" accomplishments like needlework as well as of aristocratic pastimes like hunting, and of music. She was also taught law and trained carefully for her political duties, as a woman: marriage. 

In 1495, the Catholic monarchs signed a treaty with Henry VII of England and with the Holy Roman emperor Maximilian aimed at limiting the power of France.*

Thus, Juana of Castile was married to Philip of Austria, and Catalina of Aragon to Prince Arthur of England. Catalina was transformed into Catherine, and her life was to be spent in England where, after Arthur's death, she married his brother, becoming the first of King Henry VIII's six wives. 

Juana's reputation in history is as notorious as her name--she is Juana la Loca, or "Juana the Mad." As it is generally told, the narrative of Juana's life is fairly simple, a kind of fairytale turned horror story. Married to a handsome prince who is as unfaithful as he is charming, the beautiful princess is tormented by her uncontrollable jealousy. Inheriting a strain of madness from her maternal grandmother (Isabella of Portugal), she descends into madness herself. 

As this fairytale/horror story continues, when Isabella of Castile and Léon dies, Juana becomes queen regnant of Castile and Léon, but she is unable even to care for herself, much less for her country and her people. Her husband, then her father, and finally her son undertake to act for her as regents. The madwoman is locked away, kept company by her youngest daughter (Catherine of Spain) and visited faithfully by her oldest son. In her death, she triumphs--her sons become emperors and her daughters all become queens.  

Juana may well have been mad, or she may have become mad, but her story is at once more complicated and more tragic. Certain elements of her tragedy are clear. Her marriage to Philip of Austria, duke of Burgundy, Philip "the Handsome," was arranged in 1496, and she left Spain in August of that year. When she finally met the waiting Philip on 18 October, he was so struck by her beauty that he demanded they be married that very day so they could consummate their union without delay. The birth of their first child, Eleanor, in 1498 was followed quickly by the birth of Charles, a son and heir, born in the city of Ghent on 25 February 1500.

Despite the initial attraction between the two, their relationship deteriorated quickly. In some accounts, Philip is depicted as a kind of sexual psychopath, a ruthless sadist who "held Juana in a vicious cycle of affection, abuse, and intimidation from which she was constitutionally unable to escape," while Juana is portrayed as a woman so "madly in love" that "she allowed herself to be psychologically abused," unable to free herself from her husband's "domination and sexual magnetism." 

In other versions of their relationship, Juana is a beautiful but fragile hysteric: "a mercurial temperament subject to soaring changes of disposition, scaling the heights of joy one moment and groveling in a bottomless well of self-pity the next." Modern historians thus differ in their views, but their contradictory assessments of the couple are no more incompatible than the views of Philip and Juana's contemporaries.

Those who actually met the pair recorded equally inconsistent views: In 1499, for example, a Spanish priest observed that Juana was "so frightened that she could not hold up her head," while in 1500 the Spanish ambassador judged that "in a person so young I do not think one has seen such prudence."

After the deaths, in rapid succession, of Juana's elder siblings, Prince Juan of Castile in 1497 and Isabel in 1498, and of Juan's infant son, Prince Miguel, in 1500, the crowns of Castile and Aragon fell to Juana as her parents' heir. Isabella and Ferdinand summoned their daughter and her husband to Spain. 

Philip ignored their urgent request and put off the journey at first, preferring to send a representative to Spain to act on his behalf, but Juana refused to sign the document appointing Philip's choice of an ambassador. By 1501 Juana was pregnant for a third time, delaying the trip still longer. The archduchess gave birth to another daughter in July, naming the baby Isabel after her Castilian grandmother. 

When Juana was finally able to travel, she and Philip began their trip to Spain, not by ship, as Ferdinand and Isabella planned, but through France, as Philip preferred. In France, Philip swore fealty as Louis XII's "good neighbor, humble servant, and obedient vassal," but Juana was determined to assert herself as the Infanta of Castile rather than as Philip's archduchess and a vassal of France. 

She refused to kneel to the French king, but she was maneuvered onto her knees forcibly in a gesture of submission by two formidable women: as Juana approached Anne of Brittany, queen of France, she was either shoved or tripped by Anne of France

Later, when she found herself in yet another "compromising position," Juana responded proudly by refusing to accept an offering of gold coins from the French queen. Her refusal earned the hostility of Anne of Brittany and the anger of her husband.

Juana of Castile in 1500,
portrait by Juan de Flandres
By the end of January 1502, Juana and Philip arrived in Castile. On 22 May the couple were formally designated Isabella's heirs in Castile, and in September they traveled to Aragon to be recognized as Ferdinand's.

The Aragonese Cortes recognized Juana as primogenita succesora, heir presumptive to the crown, declaring her the "true and lawful heir to the crown, to whom, in default of male heirs, the usage and law of the land require the oath of allegiance." 

Philip was recognized only as her king-consort. But, if Isabella were to predecease Ferdinand, the Aragonese parliament declared that any male child Ferdinand might have in a subsequent marriage would take precedence over Juana. On 27 October Juana became the first woman to whom the Aragonese Cortes swore an oath of fealty.

By 19 December Philip was gone, leaving Juana--pregnant again--behind with her parents. His departure was followed almost immediately by his betrayal of Juana and los Reyes Catolicos. On 5 April 1503 Philip concluded the treaty of Lyon with France; it provided for the marriage of his son and heir to Louis' daughter and agreed to Ferdinand's renunciation of the kingdom of Naples, which he had just conquered. In 1504 Philip joined his father Maximilian and the French king in yet another treaty against Aragonese interests.

Before Juana rejoined her husband, she gave birth to her fourth child, another son, named Ferdinand after her father, on 10 March 1503. When she finally left Spain in May of 1504, she left this child behind, to be raised by his grandparents. In the meantime, Juana's increasingly erratic behavior, Philip's perfidy, and Queen Isabella's failing health led to a reeevaluation of the Castilian succession. 

When she drew her will in October, Isabella named Juana as her successor: the crown of Castile would be inherited by her "dearly beloved daughter" as "universal heiress of all . . . said kingdoms and lands and lordships . . . , proprietress . . . conformable with what I owe and am obliged by law." Juana and Philip--"as her husband"--were to receive "obedience from her subjects." 

But to exclude Philip from power, Isabella stipulated that Juana appoint no foreigners to office and that she consult the Cortes on all decisions. She further ordered, in the event that Juana as queen "does not desire or is not able to engage in government," the regency of Castile fall not to Philip but to Ferdinand. If Juana were incapacitated by absence or illness, her father was to function as her regent until Juana's son and heir, Charles, "shall be at least twenty."

Isabella died on 26 November 1504, and Juana was immediately proclaimed her successor: "Castile, Castile for our sovereign lady, Queen Juana." But in Brussels, Philip had himself proclaimed "King of Castile, Léon, Granada, archduke of Austria, prince of Aragon and Sicily, duke of Burgundy, [and] count of Flanders." 

What followed was not a smooth succession but a succession crisis. In the new queen's absence, Ferdinand assumed the role of regent of Castile, but his position was vigorously opposed by Juana's husband. Ferdinand convened the Cortes in January 1505, and Juana was recognized as "legitimate and proprietary ruler" of Castile and Philip as her husband and consort. But Ferdinand claimed that, by the terms of Isabella's will, Juana had to return to Castile and prove herself capable of rule. 

In a letter he declared Juana had shown "illness and emotional upheaval" and "disorder" during her previous trip to Castile and that, out of "prudence" and because of "great sorrow," Isabella "did not wish to declare what the impediment was." "Because of the gravity of the situation," he wrote, "it is better that you comprehend the reasons that moved the queen, her mother, to word her will as she did." 

Since the matter "touches the royal person of Queen Juana, you must all swear a solemn oath to keep this matter secret." The Cortes ultimately decided to acknowledge Ferdinand as regent "owing to the incapacity" of Juana. A letter announcing the decision was sent to Philip in Flanders.

In pursuit of his wife's interests, Philip insisted that Juana was capable of ruling and that, as her husband, he had the right to the regency. He was supported by a significant number of the Castilian grandees, who were suspicious of the Aragonese king. 

For his part, Ferdinand solicited a letter from Juana approving of her father's assumption of the regency. But Juana was betrayed by one of her Castilian servants, who turned the document over to Philip. The new Castilian "queen" was forced to substitute a letter in support of Philip. Ferdinand received the letter, along with reports that indicated Juana's signature on it was either forged or coerced.

It may well be that, at this point, Ferdinand decided on another tack to maintain power in Castile; some reports indicate that he sent an emissary to Portugal to negotiate a marriage with his wife Isabella's old rival, Juana la Beltraneja. Through her he could oppose Philip and Juana and claim the crown of Castile for himself. If he did make such an overture, nothing came of it. 

He did, however, sign a treaty with France; instead of a marriage with Isabella's niece and rival for the throne of Castile, he married the French king's niece, Germaine of Foix. In response, Philip attempted to force Juana to sign a denunciation of her father, but once again she refused. Ferdinand's ambassadors at Philip's court objected to the conditions under which Juana was forced to live; they were finally allowed to see her but not to speak with her.

After Juana gave birth on 13 September 1505 to another daughter, named Mary, Philip decided to travel to Castile to claim the throne. Ferdinand, meanwhile, declared that Juana was sane but a prisoner, publishing a proposal to rescue her. He also prepared for a compromise with Philip that would exclude Juana but benefit both of them. 

Philip and Juana arrived in Castile on 26 April 1506; as they traveled toward a meeting with Ferdinand, Philip kept his wife in the background, Philip presenting himself as the king and Juana merely as his consort. Juana resented her husband's efforts, however, and refused to sign documents that Philip prepared for her. The Castilian grandees who supported Philip against Ferdinand were increasingly unhappy with Juana's husband and her position as well, noting her isolation and his disregard for their interests.

Philip and Ferdinand finally met in June. Philip was deeply suspicious of his wife and of his father-in-law; he refused to allow Ferdinand to meet with, or even to see, Juana. But on 27 June the two men finally agreed to a treaty of peace, a "hellish compact" that "sealed the fate" of Juana. The agreement stated that the queen "on no account wishes to have anything to do with any affair of government or other things." 

After this categorical statement, it continued: "and, even if she did wish it, it would cause the total loss and destruction of these realms, having regard to her infirmities and passions which are not described here for decency's sake." Juana, therefore, was excluded from governing, and if she should "of her own accord or at the instance of others . . . attempt to interfere in the government or disturbed the arrangement made between the two kings, they will join forces to prevent it." Ferdinand was willing to declare Juana's unfitness, even though it had been over two years since he had seen her. 

After signing the document, Ferdinand turned around immediately and denounced it, swearing that he had been coerced and that Juana was, after all, quite fit to rule. He swore to "liberate" Juana from her imprisonment and to return to her the government of Castile. Juana managed to assert herself again in July, when she and Philip were in Valladolid. She refused to enter the city following two banners, insisting that she alone was queen and that one of the banners should be removed. 

The Admiral of Castile finally forced Philip to grant him an interview with Juana, and after a two-day meeting with her he reported that "she never gave a random answer." He saw no sign of the insanity that both her father and her husband had, at various times, asserted. On 11 July, under the influence of the Admiral of Castile, the Cortes swore allegiance to her as queen of Castile and to Philip only as her consort. Juana appeared in person on 12 July to receive their oath of allegiance.

In the meantime Ferdinand was forced to withdraw from the struggle with Philip. Facing increased opposition in Castile and having his own interests in Naples to pursue, he retreated to Aragon. But Philip's ascendancy in Castile did not last long. By September he was dead. Although Juana declined any role in the government after her husband's death, Ferdinand, on his way to Naples, would not have her declared incompetent, instead issuing orders that she was to be recognized as obeyed as queen regnant.

Juana refused to assume her role as queen, indicating that her father should act in her stead. In this situation, reports about her mental state vary. According to Ferdinand's secretary, "there is no one, big or little, who any longer denies that she is out of her mind, except Juan Lopez, who says that she is as sane as her mother was."

Another account attributes her withdrawal from the world not as madness but as an almost stoic resignation; she is "a woman to suffer and behold all the things of this world . . . without change of heart or courage." Sane or insane, competent or incompetent, she was watched carefully by her father's supporters; Ferdinand was now as interested in having her confined as Philip had been.

On 17 January 1507, Queen Juana gave birth to her last child, another daughter, who was named Catalina. When Ferdinand finally arrived in Castile at the end of the year, he assumed the regency for Juana. Her father continued as regent of Castile until his death in 1516. He was followed as regent by Juana's son Charles.

It is impossible now to determine with certainty whether Juana was, indeed, mad, but there is no question that she was la Loca. Most scholars assume without question her incapacity and the necessity of husband, father, and son to rule Castile in her stead. 

But not all scholars assume Juana la Loca's madness. The historian S. B. Chrimes, for example, has considered the claims of Juana's discreditors carefully. He notes that in 1507, Henry VII, the widowed king of England, had entered into serious negotiations with Ferdinand for a marriage with Juana. A treaty for the match was signed in 1508, though the marriage never took place.

About the failure of the alliance, Chrimes writes, "the project faded away, not surprisingly because in fact [Juana] was being kept in close confinement, first by Ferdinand and then by [her son Charles], in harsh and sometimes brutal conditions." He continues, "the story of her 'madness' was never, until perhaps towards the end of her long life, more than very successful propaganda put out by her ruthless and unscrupulous father and son."

The royal convent of Santa Clara in Tordesillas

Chrimes indicates that Henry VII, who had met Juana as recently as 1506, "knew or suspected the truth, which oddly enough appears largely to have evaded the serious consideration of modern historians." That Juana was not mad, Chrimes notes, is clear from the "overwhelming weight" of contemporary evidence, which "compels such conclusions."

I will add that the fortress of Tordesillas, with its "royal convent," had been used before to imprison "inconvenient" queens, including Maria of Portugal, queen of Castile; Leonor Teles, queen of Portugal; and Blanche of Bourbon, queen of Castile.

Whether she was mad or not, Juana remained la Loca. For nearly fifty years, from 1507 until her death in 1555, Queen Juana of Castile was confined--as prisoner, as recluse, or as madwoman--in the fortress of Tordesillas.

On a happier note, Juana's daughters (unlike her son, they did not imprison her) included Eleanor of Austria, married first to King Manuel of Portugal and then, as part of the "Ladies' Peace," to the French king, Francis I; Isabel of Austria, queen and regent of Denmark; Mary of Austria, queen of Hungary and regent of the Netherlands; and Catherine of Spain, queen and regent of Portugal. 

If you are interested in reading a careful and thoughtful biography, I recommend Bethany Aram's Juana the Mad: Sovereignty & Dynasty in Renaissance Europe. You may also like a dual biography by Julia Fox, Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile.

On the education of the Spanish princesses, I have quoted from Giles Tremlett's Catherine of Aragon: The Spanish Queen of Henry VIII.

The British Library owns a beautiful Book of Hours created for and owned by Juana of Castile--you can view the entire manuscript, which has been digitized, by clicking here.

There are quite a few historical novels about Juana--please skip them.

*Portions of this post have been adapted from The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan).

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