Labeled as mad by those she loved and confined for most of her life in a tower to keep her away from her royal duty as Queen of one of the greatest territories in history. Her story is both heartbreaking and, for many historians, cruel and unfair. This is the story of a woman who fell madly in love with a man who didn’t love her back. A woman whose parents and children neglected her and used her as a pawn in their political strategies. This is the story of Joanna I of Castile, otherwise known as Joanna “the Mad.”
Joanna was the third daughter of the Catholic Monarchs Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, famous for sponsoring Christopher Columbus’ expeditions, unifying Spain, and expelling the moors from their territories in the south. After years of civil revolts and political scheming, their marriage finally gave Spain the tranquility they had been longing for centuries, or at least that’s what they thought. In that atmosphere, Joanna was raised to be a princess in her parents’ court. Being the third in line, she wasn’t properly educated to become a ruler. She lacked a jolly and social personality. Instead, records state she was a stubborn, temperamental, melancholic, and solitary girl focused on her education and religiousness.
When she was only 16 she was betrothed to the Austrian archduke Philip “the Handsome,” son of the Austrian Emperor Maximilian I. She was sent to Flanders to meet her fiancé in a long and eventful trip that made her ill. She was received by her future sister-in-law, Margaret, but Philip proved to be not so eager to meet his royal bride. After some weeks, they finally met in a ceremony and both were immediately attracted to each other. It’s said that in the case of Joanna, it was love at first sight, while for Philip it was a matter of physical attraction. They married right away and consumed their marriage, and just as Joanne’s infatuation grew, her husband’s neglect did as well.
When both her elder siblings, Juan and Isabella, died in 1497 and 1498 respectively, she became the legitimate heir to the throne of Castile. One time when Philip and Joanna went to Castile to visit the monarchs, the couple had a huge fight, so Philip returned to Flanders to be near their children without telling his wife, who found out of the news the next morning. Enraged and devastated, she begged her parents to send her back to her husband, but after looking at her anxious and unstable reaction, not to mention that she was pregnant with her fourth son, Ferdinand, they told her to stay. She gave birth in her homeland, but her mind was far from taking care of her baby, and she insisted on returning with her Philip. According to the story, she tried to escape, and once she saw the gates were closed, she spent the night lying in front of them and screaming. Her parents allowed her to return and leave her newborn baby behind. The fact that Ferdinand was raised in Spain would later be the cause of an internal conflict in the succession process, but that’s another story.
From this moment on, the rumors of her mental stability were widely known throughout Europe. Some claim it was a hereditary condition, since her grandmother, Queen Isabella’s mother, was declared mad as well. When the Queen of Castile passed away, Joanna was named the rightful Queen, but more than a gift, this was the beginning of her tragic doom. Her father, wanting to remain in charge of that kingdom, claimed that his daughter wasn’t mentally fit to rule Castile. Philip, who didn’t want to be removed from his marital right to become consort King, explained that it wasn’t a matter of madness, but just jealousy combined with her passionate behavior. When the Castilian courts chose Philip and Joanne to be the legitimate rulers, he changed his strategy and claimed that his wife was really insane and that he was the only one who could rule while keeping her safe and comfortable. He managed to convince Ferdinand to give up his right and retire to Aragon, which he did, but in 1506 Philip died of a mysterious fever. Some even claim that he was poisoned by his father-in-law, but it was never proved.
Philip’s death was what ended up forging the nickname of Joanne “the Mad.” It’s said that the Queen traveled from Burgos to Granada next to the coffin and, legend has it, she ordered to open it to make sure it was her husband’s body. Many paintings have been made of her standing right next to the coffin ready to open it. She even gave birth to her youngest daughter, Catherine, during the procession. King Ferdinand took the throne once again, and Joanna was confined to a tower in Tordesillas, where she remained for forty-six years until her death in 1555. But was she really mad or was it all an image created by the greed and thirst for power from her father and her husband?
We’ll never be completely sure about this. What we know is that, while many were aware of her temperamental and sometimes exaggerated attitudes, she never showed signs of mental illness . She always talked with clearness and intelligence. It’s even said that she was actually the smartest of the five siblings. What is known is that the rumors of her madness started after she publicly confronted her husband for his constant infidelity and violent behavior, so, what do you think? I still remember something my history teacher once said about her: from the two Joannes born in that century, meaning Joanna of Castile and Joan of Arc, the first one was the sanest by far, and yet her image is the most damaged.
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Images from the TV series Isabel (2012-2014) and the sequel movie La corona partida (2016)