23 March 2012

Women Who Ruled: Joanna I of Naples - Queen in her own right

Orphaned by the age of five, Joanna was raised by her grandfather, Robert “the Wise”, the King of Naples. She was his heir, and when he died in 1343, Joanna, at the age of 17, became Queen of Naples. Her grandfather left her with a boatload of trouble, however.

To forestall conflict with the King of Hungary, who claimed the throne of Naples because he was descended from Robert’s elder brother, Robert arranged for Joanna’s marriage to her Hungarian cousin, Prince Andrew. Andrew, younger than Joanna, unsophisticated, and unhappy that he was not to be a ruling king, was not well-received in Naples. Joanna faced threats to her sovereignty from various branches of her family who would take advantage of her youth, those who didn’t want to be ruled by a girl. She needed a strong partner, and Andrew didn’t qualify.

Rumors that Joanna had taken various lovers were circulated by those wanting to discredit her, and her marriage suffered for it, though nothing was proven. When she became pregnant, the prospect of an heir strengthened Joanna’s position—and Andrew’s—and provoked her cousins to the desperate act of murdering Andrew.

The kingdom went from difficulty to chaos. Joanna was besieged by one cousin, demanding she marry him; by the church, investigating Andrew’s death; and by the Hungarians who were not satisfied that their claim to the throne would be settled through Andrew and Joanna’s son—whose birth in December of 1345 brought a male heir to the line.

Public dissatisfaction with the lengthy murder investigation reached the level of riots as a long list of Joanna’s trusted servants were accused. The queen escaped to her most secure fortress, while those demanding justice tortured the accused courtiers.

The kingdom was in shambles. The church sent a cardinal to sort out the criminal inquiry and return some stability to Naples. But in early 1347, Louis of Hungary formed an alliance and declared war on Joanna’s kingdom, seeking to avenge Andrew’s death and claim the throne.

In a period of history when arranged marriages look suspiciously like bribes, Joanna worked the system as she had been trained to do at the knee of her grandfather. Negotiating with popes and barons, Joanna married her cousin Louis of Taranto, an able defender of her kingdom who was put to the test when the Hungarians attacked. She secured further support through arranged marriages for her son, as well as a niece.

When the Hungarians, with an impressive army, defeated Benevento—just three days from Naples—several of the Neapolitan princes betrayed their queen and led the Hungarians into Naples. In the dark of a January night, Joanna fled for her life, setting sail for Provence and the papal court at Avignon. The victorious Hungarians in Naples sent demands to the pope that Joanna be arrested and executed. The pope heard her case, and declared her above suspicion.

The King of Hungary terrorized Naples through the early months of 1348, making himself very unpopular. And then, in April, the Black Death arrived. Within three months, half the population of Joanna’s kingdom was dead. Before the end of May, the King of Hungary slipped out of the country and headed home. Joanna and her husband Louis of Taranto returned to Naples, preparing to vanquish the remaining invaders and restore unity to the Kingdom.

The pace of Joanna’s first five years of rule continued through four decades and four husbands. Her three children all died in early childhood. She reigned for nearly forty years over the Kingdom of Naples. Joanna was also Countess of Provence, titular Queen of Jerusalem, and Princess of Achaia.

When the western schism occurred in the late 1370s, Joanna supported Pope Clement in Avignon over Pope Urban in Rome. Pope Urban excommunicated her, calling her “the new Jezebel”, and bestowed her kingdom on Charles of Durazzo. She was secretly assassinated in the castle of Muro Lucano in 1382, defending her kingdom to the end.

You can learn more about Joanna’s life inThe Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I” by Nancy Goldstone, a biography I highly recommend.

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