Mad Joanna

She is still known in history as Joanna the Mad (a.k.a, Joanna la Loca).

Born in 1479 as the second daughter of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon (yes, that Ferdinand and Isabella of Christopher Columbus fame), she had a reputation from an early age of being morbid.  With a longstanding taste for the macabre, Joanna was intensely superstitious and obsessed with death.  According to one story, she told her governess that she wanted to try on her skeleton and cried when her governess informed her that the skeleton was already inside her.  Although she originally wanted to be a nun, her parents knew that a marriage of state would be essential to strengthen their political position. 

While Joanna wasn't the heir (she had two brothers and an older sister), her arranged marriage to Archduke Philip of Burgundy (a.k.a. "Philip the Handsome"), only son of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I made perfect sense. It was actually a double marriage with Philip's sister marrying Joanna's brother Juan so you can imagine how glorious the wedding was.  Sadly, for Joanna, Philip was not a good husband.  A spoiled 16-year old brat with decadent tastes, his arranged marriage to a seventeen-year old princess with little experience of life was a disaster.  Although Joanna quickly fell in love with her husband, it didn't take long for him to neglect her in favour of other women who were more to his taste (he liked blondes).  Joanna had to go to extreme lengths to entice Philip back to her bed (as well as making sure none of her attendants were attractive enough to distract her husband).

Of course, the deaths of her brother Juan in 1497 and her sister in 1498 helped improve Joanna's position immensely.  It was the death of her infant brother Miguele in 1500 that led to Joanna being unexpectedly 200px-Juanalaloca[1]declared  heir apparent for her parents' throne. From the beginning, it was clear that Joanna was nothing more than a bargaining chip between her father and her increasingly ambitious husband.  Despite their growing family (they eventually had six children together), Philip was as distant as ever and he hated the Spanish climate.  When Philip returned to Flanders in 1502, Joanna tried to join him but was eventually locked up by her parents at their castle in La Mota.  Not only did Ferdinand and Isabella want Joanna to be prepared for her future role as queen, they distrusted Philip and his advisers.  It may have been around that time that the first rumours of Joanna's mental instability began (the court doctors diagnosed her as being "lovesick" but it was more likely postpartum depression worsened by her separation from her husband).  

After attempting to escape from La Mota, Joanna went into a hysterical rage and lashed out at her attendants and even her powerful mother.  Which was probably a mistake.  While Isabella allowed Joanna to return to Flanders in 1504, she also gave Philip and his courtiers 'full authority" to restrain Joanna "in the things that her passion can make her do".  Within a month of reaching Flanders, Philip had his wife confined for abusing the various women in his life (including one blonde courtier whose hair she ordered cut off).  Historical records say that Joanna went on a hunger strike and spent much of her free time mixing love potions from recipes provided her by her maids.   She and Philip would reconcile on occasion but the cycle of abuse and neglect would start up again quickly enough.

Whatever Isabella thought about her increasingly unstable daughter, she despised her son-in-law and had no intention of allowing him to rule her country.  While she was on her deathbed, Isabella added a clause to her will specifying that, should Joanna be "unwilling or unable to rule", Ferdinand would serve as her regent until Joanna's eldest son Charles came of age.  Philip was not happy with that arrangement and insisted that he be allowed to serve as regent instead.  It took a formal hearing by the Cortes, Spain's ruling body, to override him and declare Ferdinand regent based on testimony of Joanna's mental unfitness.  When Isabella died in 1504, Joanna became Queen Regnant of Castile and her husband was declared to be ruler de jure uxoris.  After being blocked from taking power himself, Philip would eventually enter into an agreement with Ferdinand (without consulting Joanna at all).  Whatever ambitions Philip had about replacing his father-in-law ended with his unexpected death from typhus in 1506.

Although Joanna had initially intended to rule Castile in her own name, her reputation for being "mad" worked against her.  Pregnant with her sixth child and with her eldest son being only six years old, Joanna was unable to stop the political crisis that arose after Philip's death.  It probably didn't help that there was an outbreak of plague at the time and Joanna seemed poorly suited to handle the crisis.  To prevent civil war, Ferdinand returned to Castile in 1507 and promptly took charge.  Joanna was ordered confined to a suite of rooms in the palace at Tordesillas in central Castille.  When Joanna reacted to Ferdinand's decree by refusing to bathe or change her clothes, the rumours of her madness spread even further.  In 1509, Ferdinand drafted an accord stripping Joanna of any royal authority and Ferdinand maintained his control over her with an iron grip.

Whether Joanna was really "mad" or not, Ferdinand's ruthless actions made political sense.  Not only was Joanna prevented from having any actual influence on government matters, she was also prevented from any remarriage that might have undermined her father's authority (among others, King Henry VII expressed interest in marrying the still-young widow).  The possibility that Joanna might be made a figurehead for any of Ferdinand's enemies was also ever-present.  Joanna's confinement at Tordesillas continued for the rest of her life.  Even Ferdinand's death in 1516 did nothing to change her imprisonment since her son, Charles, took over as regent.  Largely raised abroad, he regarded his mother as being little more than a stranger and he made sure that she was never seen in public.  

For forty-seven years until her death, Joanna was confined to one small chamber with no window and no natural light. Since she refused to eat in anyone's presence, her meals of bread and cheese were usually just left outside her room and her guards were fully authorized to punish Joanna with the "strap" whenever she acted out.  Actual details of Joanna's life at Tordesillas are rare (and usually tailored by her captors to justify her imprisonment) but the only joy in her life seemed to be caring for her youngest child, Catalina, with the help of her two female servants. 

Even this one comfort was eventually denied her when Catalina married in 1525 and Joanna was left alone.  By the time of her death on April 12, 1555, she was paralyzed from the waist down and her legs were covered by painful ulcers.  After a muted royal funeral, Queen Joanna was laid to rest beside her husband and their bodies were later placed in the Royal Chapel at Granada along with the bodies of her parents.  A statue in her honour still stands in Tordesillas and the convent where she spent so long is a tourist attraction.

So, was Joanna mad?  You be the judge.


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