“Joanna the Mad” is a name that is positioned at a focal branch of both the Habsburg family tree and that of the Spanish monarchy. Joanna, also known as “Juana La Loca” actually reigned as queen of Castile, and later of Aragon, for several decades. Despite this, her name is often overshadowed by the larger players of the Spanish monarchy and the Habsburg family line. (1)
Who is Joanna?
Born in 1479, Joanna was the third child of the so-called “Catholic Monarchs” of Spain, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. Her parents are considered pivotal figures in Europe’s history. Their “Reconquista” united Spain and began a period of Spanish dominance which would be inherited by Joanna’s own descendants. The pair are also famous for establishing the notoriously brutal Spanish Inquisition and for sponsoring the voyage of Christopher Columbus. (2)
Sponsors of the age of exploration, conquerors and unifiers of Spain, zealous defenders of the Catholic faith; the legacy of Isabella and Ferdinand would seem to have left their daughter with impossible shoes to fill. In actuality, though, the Spanish monarchy was never expected to fall on the shoulders of young Joanna.
Joanna the Mad or Joanna the Genius?
Young Joanna was third in line after an older brother and an older sister. As such, it was expected that she would be raised and educated to make a strategic marriage, furthering the influence of the Spanish monarchy.
Joanna was educated and literate. It is believed that she spoke as many as seven languages and was fluent in both French and Latin. Joanna received an education in law, history, genealogy, falconry, hunting, music, philosophy, and math amongst many other pursuits. Joanna’s intellect is self evident due to her proficiency with language and mastery of several musical instruments, including the guitar and clavichord. (3)
Joanna’s life seems to have been on track for a favorable marriage, despite having a noteworthy rebellious streak. Perhaps due to her extensive education or perhaps to simple teenaged fickleness, Joanna began to question the Catholic faith which was so integral to the monarchy that her parents had established. It is not known to what degree Joanna scorned Catholicism except that she began refusing to correspond with the friars who were intended to be her “confessors.” Confessors were, and are, a major tenant of the Catholic faith. Joanna’s refusal to correspond with her confessors indicates a marked lack of interest in the religious practices which her mother adhered to with absolute devotion. (4)
This act alone was enough to inspire serious repercussions from Queen Isabella who was not so nepotistic as to allow her own daughter to entertain heretical thoughts which might warrant vicious penalties if suspected of commoners. It is said that in order to put a stop to Joanna’s ambivalence towards the state religion, Isabella subjected her to a torturous method of punishment known as “La Cuerda.” This punishment saw victims suspended from a rope with weights attached to their feet. Ferdinand II’s employee’s own account of Joanna’s punishment notes that throughout the inquisition, victims were often warned that their limbs may be broken or dislocated, or that they may even die, by the judges administering this punishment. (5)
Deaths in the Family
Despite her relatively low priority within the line of succession for the Spanish throne, the deaths of Joanna’s older brother, his stillborn child, Joanna’s elder sister, and her elder sister’s toddler son all within the span of just a few years thrust Joanna into the role of heir to the thrones of Aragon and Castile. Just two years after suddenly being forced into the position of heir, Joanna’s mother Isabella of Castile died at the age of 53. Joanna was devastated and, as she was known to do during periods of distress, began refusing to eat. This is one of the first behaviors that is often cited as evidence of Joanna’s “madness.” (6)
Castile and Aragon
The death of Isabella put Joanna into a very difficult position. Although Isabella and Ferdinand are remembered as the monarchs of Spain, their respective kingdoms were actually kept separate. Isabella was the sole monarch of Castile and ruled alongside Ferdinand who was the king of Aragon. When Isabella died, rather than allowing Ferdinand to claim Castile, she left her kingdom to her daughter in her will. This meant that Joanna was to rule Castile alongside her father who would continue to rule Aragon, until her own firstborn turned twenty years old, at which point it was stipulated that her heir would claim the throne. (7)
Isabella did allow for Ferdinand to exercise power over Castile in a governance role if Joanna was absent or deemed unfit to rule. Ferdinand seemed determined to claim the throne of Castile despite the explicit instructions laid out by his wife before her death. In short order he began minting and distributing coins throughout Castile which named Joanna as queen of Castile and himself as Castile’s king. At first, it seems that Joanna did not have a serious interest in resisting Ferdinand’s claim. She is not remembered as being particularly politically savvy nor interested in matters of state. The turmoil would begin in earnest when her husband began to resist Ferdinand’s actions.
The Handsome and the Mad
When Joanna was a teenager, she was betrothed and subsequently married to the Duke of Burgundy and son of the Holy Roman Emperor, Phillip “the Handsome” Habsburg. Phillip and Joanna resided at the court of Burgundy until the news of Isabella’s death reached them. Phillip, seeing this as his opportunity to consolidate his own power over Burgundy and the kingdoms of Spain, began minting his own coins naming himself and Joanna as rulers of Castile as well as the “low countries” of Burgundy. Prior to Isabella’s death, Joanna had been largely kept in confinement in the Burgundian court. As is a common theme throughout her life, her movements were strictly regulated by the men in her life. The event of Isabella’s death, however, gave her more power than she herself seemed to realize. Phillip began an effort to build a strong relationship with Joanna so that the two could provide a united front against her father. (8)
It is here, again, that Joanna’s supposed “madness” rears its head. As Joanna became more attached to and dependent upon Phillip, she supposedly grew very jealous and suspicious of other women. It is said that she refused to allow a convoy of attending women to join in her and Phillip’s voyage from Flanders to Toledo because she suspected that Phillip might stray from her. (9)
In-Law Drama and Europe in Flux
Isabella of Castile was weary of Phillip the Handsome. Keeping Castile’s monarchy under the power of her own bloodline was so important to her that she even excluded her own husband from it. Foreseeing the troubles to come, Isabella’s will mandated that Phillip could only rule Castile in the capacity of a “consort” to the queen, Joanna. He would not be recognized as king. Like Ferdinand, though, Phillip ignored Isabella’s intentions and embarked upon a fraught power struggle against Ferdinand. Joanna, the only one of the three with a legitimate claim to Castile, was caught between the two in their ongoing tug-of-war.
The conflict would become even more complicated when Ferdinand sought a new wife amongst the noblewomen of France. Marrying a relative of France’s king was a move intended to consolidate power, however it actually significantly undermined Ferdinand’s support in Spain, where French influence was not well-received. Recognizing that the battle had been lost, Ferdinand abdicated Castile to Phillip, citing the fact that Joanna was far too infirm to rule without guardianship. (10)
Just as Phillip’s hold over Spain began to calcify, he suddenly died without warning.
Joanna in Mourning
In 1506 a sudden fever claimed the life of Phillip the Handsome. Rumors circulated that Ferdinand’s faction had poisoned the short-lived king of Castile, however Ferdinand’s retreat from Castile just months prior does not support this narrative. Phillip’s death was very unexpected and seems to have been entirely devastating for Joanna. While her supposed sensitivity and weakness had been purported by her father and husband for many years, her reputation for “madness” really begins here. Heavily pregnant and quite dependent upon the now deceased Phillip, it is said that Joanna refused to leave her husband’s side in death. Throughout the hundreds of miles of traveling to lay his body in its final resting place in Granada, Joanna is said to have lain with, caressed, and kissed Phillip. If this macabre story is to be believed, then Phillip’s death may have been the final trauma which severed the thread of Joanna’s sanity; this thread had presumably been frayed by the torturous punishments in her youth, by her constant manipulation and imprisonment, by her mother’s death, and by the losses of her older siblings. (11)
After Phillip’s death, Ferdinand once more took charge of Joanna and Castile. With no real reason to resist this, Joanna and Ferdinand ruled Castile as “co-rulers” until his own death ten years later. Although Joanna was nominally queen, she had little influence, if any, over matters of state.
After the death of Ferdinand, Joanna became ruler of both Castile and Aragon. In short order, her eldest son, Charles V, became the next of Joanna’s male relatives to seize control over her in an effort to consolidate his own power. According to Isabella’s will, Charles would rule Castile when he turned twenty. At age seventeen, however, he convinced his mother to allow him to act as her “co-ruler.” In doing so, he had effectively usurped her. Charles became the king of Spain and the eventual Holy Roman Emperor.
Throughout the remaining years of her life, Joanna was kept in strict confinement, surrounded by attendants who answered only to her son. It is said that in the years leading up to her death in 1555, Joanna became suspicious and paranoid.
Despite the meager power she actually exercised throughout her life, Joanna’s legacy is one of the most important of the Spanish monarchs. Two of her sons, including Charles, would serve as Holy Roman Emperors. Joanna’s descendants through Charles became self-styled inheritors to the legacy of the Roman Empire. Beneath them, Spain became a powerful expanding empire which dominated Europe throughout the period of the late Renaissance. Through her second son, Joanna’s descendants continued to rule Austria and the Holy Roman Empire as recently as the 18th century. Although she is rarely recognized as such, Joanna could reasonably be called the mother of the immensely powerful Habsburg dynasty. (12)
Was Joanna Mad?
Whether Joanna was truly mad is almost impossible to determine. Her younger sister, Catherine of Aragon, was married to Henry VIII and was the mother of “Bloody” Mary Tudor. Several other women in Joanna’s family have been remembered as unstable or excessively emotional. What we do know is that for her father, husband, and son, portraying Joanna as insane and incapable of making decisions was a strategic and profitable move. So too was confining the supposed “queen” in various courts. Joanna’s “madness” deprived her of a voice and incentivized each of the men in her life to manipulate and restrict her. It seems heartbreakingly cruel, then, that this madness is the thing for which she is largely remembered.