Juana la Loca (Joanna the Mad) – Spain ’s first Queen
by Rod Younger
The name of Catherine of Aragon resonates through English history as the spurned Queen of Henry VIII. But what do non-Spaniards know of her sister Joanna the Mad (Juana la Loca as she is known in Spain)? In fact, Juana la Loca played a much more important role in European history than Catherine of Aragon and both were children of Ferdinand and Isabel of Spain, the first couple in Europe to rule a kingdom jointly, who funded Columbus’s expedition to America and who expelled Boabdil, the last Moorish caliph, from Granada in 1492.
Juana la Loca, was the third child and second daughter of Ferdinand and Isabel of Spain, or the Los Reyes Catolicos (the Catholic Kings) as they became known, and was three years older than her sister Catherine of Aragon. She was born in 1479 in Toledo, Spain and was, by all accounts, an intelligent child and good student, to the extent that she mastered 6 languages and was accomplished in religious studies, court etiquette, the arts of dance and music, and equestrian skills.
As a third child, she was not expected to inherit the throne of either Castile or Aragon (interestingly at this time Spain did not operate Salic Law, i.e. the eldest child could inherit the throne regardless of gender) and she was groomed for a significant royal marriage that would extend Spain’s power and security.
So in 1496, Joanna, aged sixteen, married Philip the Handsome, Duke of Burgundy, whose parents were Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor and his first wife, Duchess Mary of Burgundy. This marriage, between the Habsburgs (Philip) and the Trastámaras (Juana) was designed to strengthen both houses against growing French power.
It was not a happy marriage and Joanna’s name of Juana la Loca alludes to her behaviour following her marriage to Philip. Philip was regularly unfaithful to his (supposedly beautiful) wife and consistently attempted to usurp her legal birthrights to power – something her father, Ferdinand I of Spain attempted to prevent.
Nevertheless, despite this unhappy marriage, between 1498 and 1507, she gave birth to six children. Now here’s the interesting thing, versus Catherine of Aragon, who was unable to give Henry VIII an heir, Juana la Loca gave birth to two Holy Roman Emperors and four queens (see below)!
She herself was the first queen to reign over both the Kingdoms of Castile (1504–55) and of Aragon (1516–55), a union which evolved into modern Spain. In addition, besides these kingdoms of Spain, she also ruled the kingdoms of Sardinia, Sicily, and Naples in Italy; a vast colonial empire in the Americas; and the prosperous Burgundian Netherlands. Eat your heart out Catherine of Aragon!
Her elder siblings died and her unexpected inheritance of the throne of Castile in 1504 by virtue of her mother Isabel’s death lead to civil war in Spain between Juana’s supporters and those of her father Ferdinand who was vehemently opposed to her husband’s attempts to rule Spain.
However, throughout her long reign, she was under the regency of her husband, father, inquisitor, or son and she was long confined to the Santa Clara convent in Tordesillas, near Valladolid in Castile for reasons of mental illness.
Historians and academics have debated for centuries whether Joanna was actually mad in the true sense of the word but the consensus now is that her behaviour was due to depressive or neurotic acts while she was imprisoned or manipulated by her husband.
So what was Juana la Loca’s legacy? Well apart from the two Holy Roman Emperors and four queens she gave birth to, namely:
she also gave Spain the Habsburg dynasty!
Juana la Loca died on Good Friday, 12 April 1555 at the age of 75 in the Convent of Santa Clara at Tordesillas. She is buried in the Royal Chapel of Granada (la Capilla Real) in Spain alongside her parents “los Reyes Catolicos” and her husband Philip I. A statue of her stands in Tordesillas and the convent in which she was confined for fifty years can be visited.
Books about Juana La Loca
There are few books in English which examine in detail Juana la Loca’s life and times, perhaps the two best being
Sister Queens by Julia Fox – “the accomplished daughters of Ferdinand and Isabella, the founders of a unified Spain. A gripping tale of love, sacrifice, the demands of duty and the conflict between ambition and loyalty – at a time when even royal women had to fight for their positions in society.”
The Last Queen by C W Gortner, “an enthralling and moving tale of a woman ahead of her time, who fought fiercely for her birthright in the face of an unimaginable betrayal. Juana’s story is one of history’s darkest secrets, brought vividly to life in this exhilarating novel.” The Last Queen eBook.
Other books on Books4Spain which cover with the Kingdom of Aragon, its history and its rulers include:
How did an illiterate 17-year-old peasant girl manage to become one of histories most salient females? It is almost 600 years since Joan of Arc heard the voices of angels that would change her life forever: in a breathtaking story her quest saved France from English domination and restored France’s hereditary monarchy. This revisionist biography unearths the secular and verifiable basis for Joan of Arc’s heroic exploits: Yolande of Aragon, a forgotten mentor. This is a story of not one life, but two; two lives that together were intertwined in the restoration of France’s greatness.
In April 1609, King Philip III of Spain signed an edict denouncing the Muslim inhabitants of Spain as heretics, traitors, and apostates. Later that year, the entire Muslim population of Spain was given three days to leave Spanish territory, on threat of death. In Aragon and Catalonia, Muslims were escorted by government commissioners who forced them to pay whenever they drank water from a river or took refuge in the shade. An estimated 300,000 Muslims were removed from Spain, nearly 5 percent of the total population. By 1614 Spain had successfully implemented what was then the largest act of ethnic cleansing in European history, and Muslim Spain had effectively ceased to exist. “Blood and Faith” is Matthew Carr’s riveting chronicle of this virtually unknown episode, set against the vivid historical backdrop of the history of Muslim Spain.
The image of Catherine of Aragon has always suffered in comparison to the vivacious eroticism of Anne Boleyn. But when Henry VIII married Catherine, she was an auburn-haired beauty in her 20s with a passion she had inherited from her parents, Isabella and Ferdinand, the joint-rulers of Spain who had driven the Moors from their country. This daughter of conquistadors showed the same steel and sense of command when organising the defeat of the Scots at the Battle of Flodden and Henry was to learn, to his cost, that he had not met a tougher opponent on or off the battlefield when he tried to divorce her.
Books4Spain also have some more serious (and expensive) academic books and a few Jean Plaidy “classic” historical fiction set in Spain and about Aragon, e.g. Daughters of Spain
Pilar Lopez de Ayala
There is also a highly regarded film, “Juana la Loca” (in Spanish) starring Pilar Lopez de Ayala who won a Goya (Spanish equivalent to the Oscars and BAFTA s) for her portrayal of Juana la Loca.