Say Jerry Springer came to you with a time machine (Tardis, DeLorean, whatever) and a mission: to travel back in time and bring him the most dysfunctional people you can find to guest star on his show.
Who would you bring? The Tudors? The Kennedys?Possibly. But you really couldn’t go wrong if you made a stopover in Spain and grabbed Queen Juana the I of Castile. History remembers her as Joan the Mad. Though whether she deserves that title is up for debate.
Joan’s parents are Spain’s original power couple, Ferdinand and Isabella. The ones who gave Christopher Columbus financial backing. To understand some parts of this story, you need a little information on them. Especially Isabella.
There are three Isabellas in this story. Joan’s mother, Isabella of Castile, Joan’s grandmother Isabella of Portugal and Joan’s sister, Isabella of Aragon. I know it’s confusing, but try to keep them straight.
Isabella of Castile’s mother, Isabella of Portugal is credited with “bringing madness into the line of Spain.” She suffered from what was probably postpartum depression after the birth of the future Isabella of Castile.
Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon were an ideal power couple. They were extremely devout and politically savvy. They would have had to have been, to maintain control of their fragmented kingdoms Spain didn’t become united Spain until the time of their grandson Charles I. Prior to that, they were “the Spanish kingdoms,” or “the Spains.” Similar to the way that Dallas and Fort Worth are two separate cities,yet we call them both the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Both Ferdinand and Isabella were extremely devout Catholics. Under their rule, they expelled all Muslim people from the Iberian peninsula (the Reconquista), and forced all Jews to either convert to Christianity or leave their lands. They also started the Spanish Inquisition. (Which, despite what you see on Monty Python, everyone pretty much expected.)
And they were rich. In addition to all the gold they got from the new world, they also got lots of money and power from converting or expelling all the Jews and Muslims from Spain.
(As a side note, Joan’s younger sister was Catherine of Aragon, The first of King Henry VIII’s wives. Part of the reason Henry couldn’t just execute Catherine was that her family back in Spain was so powerful and wealthy.)
This is the environment that Joan grew up in: über religious and highly controlled.
From an early age, People thought Joan was a melancholy child – similar in temperament to Isabella’s crazy mother Isabella of Portugal. One story says that Little Joan once asked her governess if she could try on her skeleton. When her nurse told her that it was already inside her, Little Joan broke into a truly epic sobbing tantrum.
But no one could deny that Joan was brilliant. With the formidable Isabella overseeing their educations, the infantas of Castile and Aragon were possibly the most well-educated women in all of Europe. Joan could speak seven languages, play three instruments as well as all traditional courtly feminine pursuits from dancing and needlepoint to horsemanship hawking and hunting. She also excelled in her classical education, which included literature, cannon and civil law, heraldry, mathematics, history, genealogy, grammar and writing.
Some stories say Joan was skeptical of certain aspects of her religious teachings, which was taken as an early sign of her encroaching insanity (because questioning the church got you tortured in those days). Not wanting word to get around that Joan might be inclined to insanity or worse, heretical thought, her mother ordered the rumors hushed up.
Other stories say that Joan wanted to be a nun, but her parents insisted she marry to cement political alliances.
What is known is that Joan was a third child, so her parents never expected her to inherit their thrones. Instead they put her in a very advantageous marriage with Phillip the Handsome, Hapsburg ruler of The Low Countries and the son of Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor. (In theory, the Holy Roman Emperor was chief monarch of all the European monarchs as dictated by the Catholic Church. In practice, not really an empire, not really Roman, debatably holy.)
On paper, this seemed like a good idea. Joan was a smart girl. She and her advisors might be able to exert some influence on Phillip and his court, maybe shift them away from French influence.But Joan and Phillip got along like a house fire: they wanted to burn each other to the ground. You know those couples who seem to thrive on chaos? That’s Phillip and Joan: The Sid and Nancy of the Renaissance.
Phillip was in lust with Joan. But then, he was in lust with every pretty woman who crossed his path (especially the blondes). And Joan was obsessed with Phillip. So whenever his attention wandered (which It always did), Joan got it back by picking a fight with his new favorite and him by extension. Then Phillip got even by avoiding her. Joan would cry all night, wander around her bedroom, bump into walls. She just couldn’t accept that Phillip just wasn’t as into her as he was into partying, drinking and blondes.
Isabella’s advisors reported back to her that Joan’s temperament isolated her from everyone at court. Which made it unlikely that she’d be able to exert much influence.
In the period between 1497 and 1500, Joan gave birth to a girl and a boy (Eleanor and Charles). So yay! The Low Countries have an heir and a spare!
But then Joan’s two older siblings Juan and Isabella of Aragon died, along with their children (not with each other). Then Joan’s baby brother Miguel also died, making Joan the heir to Castile, Aragon and all of their holdings (that whole Columbus discovered a new world thing). A bit worrying to Ferdinand and Isabella that their new heir was off in Flanders, instead of under their thumb here in good old Future-Spain.
So Isabella asked Joan to come for a visit, and bring the husband!
Joan and Phillip didn’t exactly rush to pack a bag. First Joan waited until the birth of her next daughter. Then she and Phillip left their children behind and headed out. They spent some time visiting Joan’s sister Catherine in England. Then they stopped for a visit with the French king in Blois, paused in Burgos to take in a bull fight and finally (finally) arrived in Toledo.
Phillip hated Spain. His in-laws were stuffy and too religious, the climate was too hot, the church ceremonies were never-ending and there never seemed to be a chance for skirt chasing. The Spanish either kept their women locked up, or chaperoned them everywhere.
Then he got measles.
By the time he was better, Joan was pregnant again. Phillip had enough and decided to leave without her.Joan wanted to go after Philip. Without her around, he’d surround himself with all kinds of other women. (Blonde women!) But Isabella worried about pregnant Joan, trying to make her way across war-torn Europe overland. She insisted that Joan stay on and learn how to be a queen for her future kingdom.
Plus, I can’t state how emphatically Isabella hated Phillip. They would be comparable to oil and water, but only if you lit the oil on fire.
She was devout and religious and he was a skirt chasing drunk who barely gave lip service to the Church. And he had considerable influence over Joan, despite how awful he treated her. So if Joan became queen, Phillip would be the real power behind the throne.
Maybe there was a lot of personal dislike in there as well. After all, Phillip treated Joan badly. And Joan’s infatuation with Phillip seemed to make her crazy (like Glen Close in Fatal attraction).
So perhaps keeping Joan in Castile would lesson Phillip’s hold on her. Whatever happened, Joan’s parents had her confined to La Mota Castle, where she slipped into depression (doctors called it lovesickness). They hoped she’d get better once the baby was born, but she actually got worse (with what was probably postpartum depression).
One story says that Joan tried to escape, barefoot and in her night clothes, only to find the city gates shut before her. She threw herself against the gates until exhausted, cursing anyone who tried to restrain her. When Queen Isabella showed up, Joan cursed her as well. This is where most historians mark the beginning of the end for Joan’s freedom.
Eventually Ferdinand and Isabella let Joan return to Flanders, but gave Phillip permission to restrain Joan if she got too crazy.
As the saying goes, give Phillip an inch, and he’ll take a mile. Within a month he had Joan locked up for abusing the other women in his life. (Reportedly, she forced one blonde rival to cut her hair so she’d be less attractive to Phillip.) In protest of her confinement, Joan went on a hunger strike and spent her time brewing love potions.
Phillip and Joan might’ve continued on their crazy cycle of making up, Phillip neglecting Joan, the two of them fighting, lather, rinse repeat indefinitely if not for Isabella’s death.
Isabella wanted to keep Phillip off the throne of her country so badly that on her death bed she made a tiny change to her will. One that said that if Joan wasn’t fit to rule, Ferdinand would do so as regent.
At that point, Joan became a political football between her husband and father, each trying to rule as regent in her place. Back in the days before mass media, minting coins was political propaganda. You may never see your ruler in person, but you know who it is because their face is on the coins you spend. So Ferdinand had coins minted with his and Joan’s pictures as co-rulers on them. Then Phillip did the same.
Ferdinand had the courts declare him regent, so Phillip and Joan headed to Spain to sort the matter out. When they got there, Phillip and Ferdinand sorted it out without her. When Joan protested, the two of them tried to have her declared Incompetent.Then Phillip died. Joanna, mad from grief, had Phillip’s body embalmed. According to stories she did a Weekend At Bernie’s with the body all over Spain in a truly epic farewell tour.
Rumors say that she was so afraid of other women trying to take her husband for themselves that she traveled only at night, staying in monasteries (never nunneries). One story says that the royal entourage had to take shelter one night due to a storm. When Joan found out that the building they sheltered in was a nunnery, she insisted on leaving.
But the story that raised the most eyebrows is that she would stop to have the casket opened so she could caress, kiss and look at her husband’s body.
Whether any of this is true is all up for speculation. It’s known that she did open the casket at least once to verify that Phillip’s body was still in it.
This ended when Ferdinand returned to Castile. He ordered Joan confined to the Palace of Tordesillas. Joan protested in what was probably the only way she could: she refused to bathe or eat.
Joan spent the rest of her life confined to the same castle. She was kept away from exterior rooms so she couldn’t escape and her guards had permission to “give her the strap” if she misbehaved. She refused to eat in anyone’s presence, so her meals of only bread and cheese were left outside her door.
From Ferdinand’s perspective, keeping Joan confined made sense. The nobles of Castile barely tolerated him. Joan’s freedom would undermine his authority in Castile. rival factions could make her a figurehead in an attempt to overthrow him. Not to mention that if someone else managed to marry her (and Henry VII expressed some interest in doing just that) they could try to claim the throne for themselves.Even after Ferdinand died, Joan’s confinement continued under her son Charles. In fact, things got worse for Joan. Her one comfort up to this point was that she got to raise her youngest daughter Catalina. (Catherine in English. Possibly named after Joan’s sister Catherine.) But after Charles came to power Catalina married John III of Portugal and Joan was abandoned.
Later, during a plague outbreak, Charles told her that she needed to be kept indoors for her own safety. He then had fake funeral processions walk past the castle several times a day to make her think the plague was as bad as he said.
At one point, Joan had a brief taste of freedom when some rebels took the castle. But by this point Joan was so mistrustful that she refused to deal with them or sign anything. Charles retook the castle and it was back to confinement for Joan.
Joan died in 1555 at age 75. By that point she had been a prisoner for nearly 50 years, was paralyzed from the waist down and suffered painful ulcers on her legs.
So was Joan actually insane? By today’s standards, she probably suffered from mood swings and depression. In letters Joan wrote defending her actions, she claimed just to have a hot temper. And after being locked away from the sun and gaslighted by trusted family members for almost 50 years, anyone might go insane.
It’s probable that Joan’s insanity was exaggerated, first by her husband who hoped Isabella of Castile would let him rule in Joan’s place. Then by her father and finally by her son. After all, would they have let her raise her daughter if she was insane?
On the other hand, Joan’s grandmother Isabella of Portugal was known to be mentally unstable, as was Joan’s sister Isabella of Aragon and many of her descendants.
(Her son Charles was said to have suffered a mild depression when he learned that she had died, but I would take that with a grain of salt considering that they were virtual strangers to one another and Charles also had severe gout. )
So the answer is probably a little bit of both.