Sometimes, something or someone catches my attention and I would want to know more, much more. Don’t ask me why this particular lady caught my attention, but she did. She wasn’t English, although she visited England once. She was the third child and second daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, the Catholic Monarchs of Spain and the sister of Catherine of Aragon. She died in 1555 in a windowless room in the castle of Tordesillas. Her name was Juana.
Google Juana and you will find that she is known as Juana la Loca, the insane queen of Castile. I would refute that, and assert that she was the victim of powerful and ambitious men: her husband, Philip the Handsome, her father Ferdinand, and her son, Charles V Holy Roman Emperor.
Juana was born in 1479 in Toledo. Little is known of Juana’s childhood, she was too far removed from the throne to be given much importance. One chronicler said she was the only one of the family who lacked physical charm, whilst another said that she was the beauty of the family. They all noted her precocity and were unanimous in their praise of her intelligence. She outshone her siblings being especially gifted in languages and music. Isabella and Ferdinand delighted to show her talents to visitors, but it was obvious that she did not like such attention. She was, it is claimed, aloof, subject to moods, melancholia and drawn to solitude. Unlike the rest of her family who were prolific writers, none of Juana’s letters, if she wrote any, have survived. However, most of her recorded comments show a sharp-wit tinged with scepticism and an independence of mind.
Juana was sixteen when she married Philip, known as the Handsome. He was the son of Maximilian Hapsburg the Holy Roman Emperor and was, by the time he married, the titular head of the Netherlands.
Romance, or more probably, lust took over for a brief period. At their first meeting the couple, unwilling to wait for the formal wedding the following day, summoned a chaplain to marry them immediately. Juana never lost her passion for Philip, but unfortunately for her he had had many mistresses before his marriage and saw no reason to change his ways.
The ruling council of Flanders had been alarmed at the prospect of a Spanish-Hapsburg alliance. As a small buffer state on the borders of France they had no wish to be forced into a political alliance with France’s greatest enemy, Spain. Unable to thwart the match, they determined to minimise its impact. To that end they were aided by Philip, whose greatest fault seems to have been laziness. He was not interested in ruling, being content to let the council rule in his name.
Juana, like all her sisters who married into foreign dynasties, was expected to promote Spanish interests. She had been accompanied by a huge contingent of Spanish grandees who expected material benefits from Juana’s new country. They were sadly disappointed, and it is claimed that 9,000 of the 15,000 people who accompanied her perished due to the lack of elementary comforts. Slowly, her Spanish attendants were replaced by the Flemish council, and she was not allowed to handle even the expenses for her household. Powerless to influence either the council or her husband, Juana did not answer her mother’s letters.
By 1498, Isabella, having heard nothing from her daughter, sent an envoy. All his reports speak of Juana suffering from strain and emotional distress held rigidly under control. His final comment was that Juana ‘is so cowed she cannot hold her head up.’
By 1500, Juana’s only brother had died and her elder sister and her child had also died. Juana was now heir to the thrones of Castile and Aragon. Philip promptly styled himself ‘Prince of Castile’, and received a drubbing from Isabella. It was essential that Juana returned to Spain to receive the approval and homage of the Cortes. Philip knew that he needed to make the journey or he would have no claim to any power in Spain.
To further antagonise Isabella, Philip planned an over-land journey through France, where King Louis endeavoured to turn both Philip and Juana into vassals of the French Crown. For the first time, Juana had an ally – the Bishop of Corbova had been sent by Isabella to accompany the couple on their journey. With his help and advice, Juana refused to allow Louis to belittle her position or to assert lordship over her. She is reported to have acted with great dignity and finally ‘persuaded’ Philip to continue the journey by donning Spanish dress.
In 1502, both Philip and Juana received the homage of the Cortes. Isabella and Ferdinand tried to use Juana’s third pregancy to encourage Philip to remain in Spain to learn about his future kingdom, but Philip was having none of it – he left. Isabella’s reaction was immediate. She laid a law before the Cortes which declared that Juana was to rule, not Philip, and should Juana be unwilling to rule or absent then her father, Ferdinand, was to rule in her stead.
What occurred next, I believe, was of great significance in the way one should interpret Juana’s future actions. The Castillo de la Mota was given to Juana for a residence. But, it became increasingly clear that Isabella had no intention of allowing her to leave Spain. Juana refused to eat and finally had her belongings packed. Isabella ordered that Juana be restrained, by force if necessary. When Juana realised that the drawbridge had been raised and the portcullis lowered to bar her exit, she lost control. After exhausting herself she remained crouched by the portcullis, refusing to move until the following day. A relentless struggle between mother and daughter then ensued, but finally in March the following year, nearly eighteen months later, Juana won her battle against her iron-willed mother and returned to the Netherlands.
It is said that Juana’s insanity dates from this scene at la Mota, but apart from that one outburst she seems to have used passive resistance to win her freedom.
By the time Juana returned to the Netherlands, Philip had found himself a permanent mistress. It was expected that Queens closed their eyes to such matters. Juana did not. She personally cut the woman’s hair to the roots. The marriage deteriorated into a cycle of physical violence, imprisonment, reconciliation, followed by outbursts against Philip’s numerous mistresses, and around and around. It soon became the gossip of other European courts. Philip, determined to justify himself, ordered a diary to be kept of Juana’s behaviour which he sent to the her parents. The diary had not been found when I researched this, but it seems fairly clear that Philip would not have sent anything that did other than paint Juana in an unfavourable light – and indeed was later used against her.
By 1504, Isabella was dying. When she died, Castile would pass to Juana. Prior to her death, Isabella added a codicil to her will making Ferdinand regent should Juana be absent, or unwilling or unable to rule. The codicil was to prove fatal to Juana despite Isabella making Ferdinand swear ‘not to rob Juana of her crown’.
On the afternoon of the 26th of November 1504, Ferdinand formally renounced his title of ‘King of Castile’. He was convinced that by renouncing his title, the Cortes would grant him power. He was mistaken. Without Castilian money, Aragon would be a penniless state, and Ferdinand was not going to accept that. He drew the Cortes’ attention to Isabella’s codicil and said that Isabella had ‘become aware of the malady and passion with which Donna Juana had become afflicted’. He then read Philip’s diary to them to prove that Juana was unfit to rule. The Cortes appointed Ferdinand Curator, but increasingly began looking to Philip who they thought would rule with a far lighter hand than Ferdinand.
Ferdinand knew full well that were Juana to be declared sane he would lose his position. He wrote to Juana requesting that she authorise him to rule in her absence. She did, but Philip intercepted her letter and forced her write a new one stating that it was never her intention to stand in the way of Philip’s rights (although he had none under Isabella’s will) and that she and Philip would be arriving in Spain shortly.
The letter runs counter to all that is known about Juana at this time. It is clear that her first thoughts were for Spain – she had no intention of Spain or her American colonies becoming merely part of the Hapsburg possessions. She became ever more rebellious, and Philip tried to move her to an isolated castle. Ever mindful of la Mota, Juana refused. Philip dared not make a public display of force, but he isolated her completely by posting soldiers in her antechamber.
Ferdinand needed Juana to be declared insane to retain control of Castile, Philip needed her to be declared sane long enough for him to gain control of Castile.
There followed a brief interlude before the final reckoning in Spain. The Flemish fleet set sail for Spain on the 8th of January 1506. On the 13th a gale sprang up, and on the 17th the royal ship limped into Milcombe Regis. Henry VII was delighted – he inveigled Philip into staying for three months and into entering treaties of friendship. Juana visited her sister, Catherine, but Catherine was persona non grata at the English court and it seems that they had little to say to each other.
When the ships docked at Coruna, Juana rode through the streets in silence without any attendants, thus emphasising her captive status. The couple were greeted with wild enthusiasm. Philip swore the traditional oaths; Juana refused saying that she would wait to see her father. This was open revolt, and Philip could do nothing about it.
Philip was no match for the wily Ferdinand, who promptly changed tactics and suggested a meeting. Philip arrived, clad for war with a full military guard; Ferdinand arrived with a few unarmed men, dressed in a plain black cloak and bonnet. Two treaties were signed. In the first, Ferdinand renounced the government of Castile and promised to leave, the second was an agreement that Juana should never rule.
Philip was jubilant. He believed he could proceed openly against Juana, but he had overestimated his position and had seriously underestimated his wife. The couple moved to Valladolid, where Philip summoned a Cortes. Juana was kept under close guard. Accompanied by Juana, Philip entered the assemble hall to receive the oath of allegiance but before this could be done Juana intervened and asked the assembly whether they recognised her as the legitimate daughter of the late queen. After they affirmed that they did, she ordered them to Toledo where she would be acclaimed Queen of Castile and where she would swear to abide by their laws and rights. She then left the hall, leaving a furious Philip who could do nothing.
The procurators of the Cortes sought an audience with Juana, where she declared that she did not wish her kingdom to be ruled by Flamencos and the proper course would be for her father to rule until her son, Charles, came of age. The country was divided. Even those who supported Philip had doubts about his insistence that Juana was mad. The Admiral of Spain spent twelve solid hours with her, and pronounced her sane. He warned Philip that the populace were already incensed at her imprisonment and it had become an open secret that he planned to incarcerate her for the rest of her life.
On the journey to Toledo, Philip fell sick. Forgetting all that she had suffered Juana nursed him day and night. Six days later, Philip died. Juana was twenty-seven, mother of five children and in her sixth pregnancy.
Most historians claim that Philip’s death sent Juana ‘over the edge’. There is no doubt that she was distraught – why not? Legends have grown up concerning her wandering all over Spain at night following her husband’s coffin. It was asserted that she constantly opened the coffin to kiss the corpse, and that she fled from a convent in the middle of the night out of jealousy of the nuns.
Juana did not ‘wander’ all over Spain. For reasons best known to himself, Philip wanted to be buried in Granada. It was a long journey, the season was hot and it was customary to travel at night. Philip’s followers had stolen most of his belongings following his death, and it was rumoured that they had also stolen his body to take back to the Netherlands. Other, more friendly sources, state that she opened the coffin first to check that the rumours were untrue and again after leaving the coffin with the monks of Miraflores. Juana frequently left the coffin in monasteries over night. She simply refused ever to enter anywhere that she might not be able to leave.
After a period of mourning, Juana burst into action. She revoked all Philip’s grants and appointments and set out for Granada immediately. She was delayed by the birth of her final child, Catalina, but as soon as she recovered she continued her journey. During all this time she had no word from her father.
When Ferdinand arrived in Castile a year after Philip’s death, Juana was delighted to see him. They talked privately and there seems little doubt that she envisaged some form of joint rule. But Ferdinand had no intention of sharing power with his daughter. He continued the process of isolation by surrounding her with his own people. It did not take long for her to realise that she had been duped by the man she trusted most and within a few months letters were being sent to Ferdinand warning him of her rising rebellion.
It was at about this time that Henry VII asked for her hand in marriage.
Ferdinand tried to put Juana in an isolated castle, but she steadfastly refused to move. On the morning of the 14th of February 1509 she was summarily awakened by her father’s men and taken by force to the castle in Tordesilla. She was to remain there for the next forty-five years.
Juana’s first jailer was Luis Ferrer, an Aragonese nobleman who had spied on her after Philip’s death. He obviously had instructions on how to deal with his charge and there are intimations that she was subject to torture to break her spirit. Ferdinand visited unexpectedly with members of the Cortes during a time when she refused to eat or bathe. Naturally, they confirmed Ferdinand’s opinion that she was quite insane.
On the 22nd of January 1515 Ferdinand died. His death left Juana queen of Aragon, Sicily and Naples as well as of Castile, but she did not know. One of Ferdinand’s last vicious acts was to send orders to Tordesilla that she shold be kept in ignorance of his death. But that was easier said than done. The citizens of Tordesillas, long angered by her treatment rebelled and tried to storm the castle. They failed, but her jailer was replaced by a kindlier man.
The Flemish council immediately proclaimed Charles King of Spain. Although few knew of her state of mind, many Spaniards were enraged at the flagrant insult afforded to Juana and even more angered at the rate that Spanish money flowed to Flanders and the speed with which foreigners streamed in to take high offices. The country was in uproar, Charles must have his mother’s permission to rule. By a series of devious ruses, and without telling Juana that Ferdinand was dead, Charles obtained that permission.
If Juana hoped that her son might alleviate her situation, she was soon to be disillusioned. Her new jailer was the Marques de Denia who was given control not only of the castle but of the whole town. Tordesilla was removed from civil jurisdiction.
For over three and a half centuries the Spanish Archives hid the secrets of Tordesillas. It was only at the end of the 19th C that the letters between Denia and Charles were decoded. The letters are full of the details of Juana’s days. They reveal a Juana who did not sit apathetically, or run riot through the castle as her adversaries claim she did. She tried to find ways not to be isolated – refusing to hear mass in her own room, she questioned Denia extensively on the details of government, and Denia complained that he had trouble trying to maintain his web of lies that he built to confuse her – she was too intelligent. He stated that she knew she had been duped and hada burning desire to rule herself. Charles’ letters show a determination to hold on to power and money that the rich American colonies were bringing to Spain. His unstated, but broadly hinted at, wish was for Denia to push his mother over the brink and into insanity. That Denia did not succeed immediately says much for Juana’s determination and strength of will.
In 1519, Charles’ grandfather, Maximilian, died. Charles sought and acquired his grandfather’s title of Holy Roman Emperor. It cost Charles a fortune to bribe the electors – a fortune that came from Spain. Rebellion broke out in 1519, and by late June fifteen cities had formed a confederation – among their aims was the desire to see Juana rule in her own right.
On the 25th of August 1520, Charles’ representatives in Spain requested an audience with Juana. She was confused – for it was at this meeting that she was finally told of the death of her father, of Maximilian’s death and the fact that her son was ruling in her name. The leaders of the rebellion also sought an audience. Her words “Had I known of my father’s death I should long ago have taken action to avert these ills’ spread throughout the kingdom and for a few brief weeks Juana was in control.
But, distrust of lower class rebellions, and insecurity left her hesitating too long. Royalist forces dispelled the rebellion, and despite the Spanish nobles’ request that Juana be treated with respect, they preferred an absent, male ruler to a female resident monarch. Once again, Juana was sacrificed to political expediency. Charles ensured that Juana was once more placed under the guardianship of a vengeful Denia and never allowed to escape.
The days, months and years followed in monotonous succession. The letters from first Denia and later his son were increasingly filled with trivia. Their work was done and it is clear that eventually Juana was completely insane.
In February 1555, suffering from dropsy and nearly seventy-seven, it was decided to give Juana warm baths. One was too hot and it scalded her back. The blisters festered and in mid-April it was decided to cauterise them. It was too late, gangrene had set in and on the 12th of April 1555, she died.
By the time of Juana’s death, Charles was worn out and had decided to abdicate in favour of his son and brother. He was unable to dispose of the Spanish possessions because they were never his to give. Within a month of Juana’s death he abdicated saying ‘God has recalled the Queen, my mother, to Himself and my son is old enough to reign and better fitted than I to bear the burden of a crown.’ He retired to a monastery and died six months later. Legend has it that during that time he heard his mother summoning him.
Was Juana’s insanity inevitable? Certainly she was highly strung, but she was definitely not insane in 1520. But the determination of her husband, her father and her son to ‘rob her of her crown’ ensured that, in the end, she became what they wanted her to be – Juana la Loca.