13 January 2014

Tough Love: A Day in the Life of Juana of Castile, also known as la Loca

If by chance you type her name into a search engine, you will get dozens of results, including Juana of Castile, necrophilia.  Apparently, the woman, born to the monarchs Isabel I and Fernando II of Castile and Aragón in 1479, remains a perverse individual to many, a reputation that has dogged her for over five hundred years.  Her story, unfortunate in many ways, has been told and retold in plays, poems, novels, and movies.  Few of her biographers have been able to resist the dark legend that surrounds her—and whether the accounts are sympathetic or sensational, hard historical evidence is difficult to come by. 
Juana of Castile

In 1956, Amarie Dennis published Seek the Darkness:  The Story of Juana La Loca.   In this torrid book, the case for Juana’s supposed lunacy begins with a snapshot of her childhood.  She was the third child of two of Europe’s most formidable sovereigns, crusaders, whose military campaigns made for a peripatetic life.  Without missing a beat, indeed, admitting to “conjecture,” Dennis describes Juana “as a silent and moody child, not given to the wholesome laughter of children, old for her age and wise with the wisdom gathered from continuous association with people who were years her senior.”  She is further described as a witness to “storybook events;” she “seems to have wandered in a dream-world;” she was “pensive.”  “Her mouth was small and pouting;” she was “a prey to moodiness and a seeker of seclusion (15).”  From this description, the reader can only assume that Juana was abnormal from the start, unable to separate reality from fantasy, and deeply anti-social.

Or, we can turn to José Luis Olaizola’s Juana, la Loca, subtitled:  The tragic life of one of the most legendary figures of the Spanish monarchy.  Descriptions of the woman who would one day inherit an empire are plentiful.  Popularly known as “doña Juana, la Loca de amor” or "doña Juana, the love sick,” the author takes issue with the notion that Juana was the victim of erotomania.  Instead, due to the extreme suffering the world inflicted on her, she drank from a chalice of tears until she drained it to the dregs (9).  For those who have a taste for lachrymose prose, Olaizola’s book makes for quite the read.   Juana lived one hell of a life, and few would envy her position.

Coat of arms of Juana's parents, Isabella of Castile
and Ferdinand of Aragon
With a little more certainty, we can say that Juana, being third in line for the succession, would have passed into obscurity had not Prince Juan, heir to Castile and Aragón, died shortly after his marriage; nor is it incidental that he too is said to have had his young life extinguished due to excessive love.   Love is also given as a reason for why the monarchs’ second child, Isabella, retreated into temporary solitude after the death of her husband.   Catherine of Aragón would eventually become the wife of Henry Tudor only to be divorced when she could not provide him with a son.  Her refusal to accept the divorce as legitimate is also characterized as the result of her steadfast love for her lord.  Either Isabel and Fernando’s children were extraordinarily sensitive creatures, or they were oblivious to the political underpinnings of royal marriages.  The former seems unlikely.  What is more likely is that these arranged unions often led to conflicting interests.  Once Juana had been married off to the Philip IV, Archduke of Burgundy, son of Maximilian I, she wielded little influence and even less power.

In, Juana the Mad, Bethany Aram dispenses with the sentimental approach common to Juana's biographers.  She also manages to dispel any illusion that Juana was hopelessly in love with Philip, known as “the Fair.” Her research focuses on the complex system of codes, symbols, and courtly practices that governed Juana in matters personal and political.

Juana with her parents
After bearing children, it became clear that Juana’s loyalties lay not with her sovereign parents nor her husband, but in securing the Spanish crown for her offspring—and, in particular, for the son who would one day be known as Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.  History proves that royal succession is rarely straightforward, and in Juana’s case, the distrust between Spain and Burgundy was acute. The power struggle over the will left by Isabel I has marked Juana in ways that are as contradictory as they are negative.

Philip's actions prior to and after the death of the queen indicate that he intended to deny Juana of her inheritance.  He was not the sort of man to play second to his wife, much less allow her to rule while he stood idly on the sidelines.  Chroniclers have spared him little, describing him as a womanizer, a drunkard, a spendthrift, a pawn of the French, and a wife-beater.  Even his nickname, “Philip, the Fair,” may refer to his vanity rather than his appearance or any sense of justice.     

According to Aram, after Isabel’s death, Juana and Philip set out for Spain.  Juana appeared before her subjects in Murcientes in July 1506.  Fernando was still alive, and out of deference to her father, she stated that she would respect his wishes, dress in the Castilian manner, and refuse female attendants.  Philip had already sought to deprive her of her ladies in an effort to isolate her.  Juana’s objections to establishing a court of her own may have been an attempt to appease him.   Despite these concessions, Juana wanted to have the Cortes (the government of Spain) moved to Toledo, her birthplace.  Philip intervened, perhaps with Fernando’s assistance, and insisted that the Cortes be held in Valladolid.  At this point, we must realize that Juana was essentially a political captive.  Unless she was willing to mount a revolt against her husband, she had no choice but to acquiesce.  On July 10, Philip and Juana made a ceremonial entrance to Valladolid.

Juana and Philip before her subjects
Juana’s reputation was not helped due to a falling out with her mother prior to the queen’s demise.   Philip capitalized  on the rupture in his determination to have Juana declared unfit.  He had kept Fernando appraised of Juana’s health, sensing that the king was not above playing sides against his daughter.  As a result, Philip was declared proprietary ruler by the Cortes, which gave him power over his wife, as well as her Castilian possessions.  A bloodless and masterful coup if there ever was one.  Weeks later, Philip would be dead, having fallen ill during festivities held in his honor.

And the rest, as they say, is legend.  From the moment of Philip’s death, Juana took charge of her husband's corpse, jealously guarding the coffin, and fending off the Burgundians and Castilians in attempt to have him entombed beside her mother in Granada.  This led to the macabre peregrinations that made Juana infamous.  In addition, her refusal to appoint a regent, as Aram points out, demonstrated an unwillingness to allow others to rule on her behalf.  And yet, everything she did exacerbated the crisis, causing the populace to think her either mad, unable to rule, or both. In the end, Fernando had her locked up.  She lived out the rest of her days as many a dispossessed queen before her--a prisoner whose only solace was that she had achieved one of her aims:  Charles V would indeed succeed her.


Aram, Bethany, Juana the Mad: Sovereignty and Dynasty in Renaissance Europe, John Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Dennis, Amarie, Seek the Darkness:  The Story of Juana la Loca, Madrid, 1956.

Olaizola, José Luis, Juana, la Loca, Editorial Planeta, 1996.

All images via Wiki Commons

Note:  All translations are mine.

Kathryn A. Kopple is the author of Little Velásquez, a novel set in 15th century Spain.