Posted on: December 29, 2013

I’ve always been intrigued by Joanna the Mad, ever since finding her name in a children’s history encyclopedia many years ago. She was listed on a family tree of the Spanish royal line, simply as Joanna The Mad (or Juana La Loca). I wondered what she had done to earn such a disturbing title. Had she been some terrible despot, viciously torturing and killing thousands of people? The truth is more sad and tragic than evil, and there is some dispute these days as to whether Joanna was truly certifiably mad, or simply (a) the victim of ruthless political machinations, or (b) a woman hindered by violent mood swings and hormones.

There is no doubt that Joanna had always been a bit “loco” as it were, though it is probably fair to say she was more eccentric than truly bonkers. Dr David Starkey describes her as being more neurotic than truly insane, at least certainly in her younger years. She was born in 1479, the second daughter of the mighty Ferdinand and Isabella, and a sister to Katherine of Aragon, who would become the first wife of King Henry VIII of England. As a child she had been an odd little thing, with a highly imaginative way about her. On one occasion she told her governess that she wanted to try on her skeleton. When it was pointed out that this wasn’t possible, as her skeleton was inside her, Joanna burst into a tearful temper tantrum. She was obsessed with death, and the macabre side of life generally, and announced that she wanted to be a nun. I can imagine Joanna as an eccentric sister, entertaining the convent with her religious flights of fancy, but generally leading a harmless life behind cloistered walls. This was sadly not to be though.

As an attractive, healthy young princess, Joanna was simply too valuable on the marriage market to be locked away in a life of piety and seclusion, particularly where her ruthlessly ambitious parents were concerned. In the Summer of 1496 a fleet of over a 100 ships escorted Joanna to Flanders, where she was to be married to Archduke Philip of Burgundy. The marriage struck a tragic note right from the very start. Before Joanna had even landed, the ship carrying her trousseau sank, with the loss of life of all on-board. The bridegroom couldn’t be bothered to turn up to welcome her to his land, and instead sent his sister Margaret in his place.

Philip had been raised in a decadent court, far removed from the rigid formalities of Spain. He was spoilt, and the nickname of Philip The Handsome must have gone to his head, because he certainly had an eye for the ladies. He also had a reputation for being highly malleable, and many of his advisors objected to this marriage, and wanted Philip to exert his energies more in the direction of France. It is possibly their attitude that made Philip keep Joanna at arm’s length, certainly where love and affection were concerned.

There was a definite sexual attraction between the young couple, which boded well for future heirs, but tragically for Joanna, she fell head-over-heels in love with her dashing young husband, whereas Philip, although he no doubt fancied her, saw being wedded to her as simply Doing His Duty. The royal wedding took place on 20 October 1496, in Lier, Belgium, alongside that of Margaret marrying Joanna’s brother Juan. It is reputed that Philip and Joanna could hardly wait to get to the marital chamber to consummate their union.

If sex was all there was to marriage, then the relationship between Philip and Joanna could have been counted as a stunning success. Theirs was a stormy relationship, which always seemed to get resolved in the bedchamber, and thus resulted in Joanna having 6 children in 10 years. But there is rather more to marriage than that. Philip was soon casting his eye around the other attractive ladies at his court, and Joanna’s jealousy was intense. A more mature, sophisticated woman might have shrugged her shoulders and thought “what the heck, he’s still married to me”, and gone hunting for her own diversions. Joanna though was very young and very volatile. She was also very homesick. Philip’s court was very different to the one she had known back home in Spain, plus she was usually kept short of money, and couldn’t afford to pay her Spanish attendants.

Pathetically, Joanna tried to keep him interested by changing her gowns several times a day. Philip had a particular weakness for blondes, so Joanna fired all the blonde women in her entourage, and dyed her own auburn hair to a lighter shade.

In 1500, after the deaths of her brother Juan, and her elder sister Isabella in childbirth, Joanna became the heir to the Spanish throne. Instead of raising her prestige, as you might think, Joanna was treated shabbily from the start. She returned to Spain with Philip, so that he could survey his future realm. Soon after the couple set sail another terrible storm blew up in the Channel. Philip was said to have braved it with great courage. Joanna meanwhile hung onto his legs, saying she would not let him go even in death. The royal party had to seek refuge in England, and were invited to the royal court by King Henry VII.

Joanna’s sister, Catherine, had been recently widowed when her young husband Prince Arthur had died unexpectedly, (leaving the thorny issue of “did they or didn’t they consummate the marriage” a tantalising mystery for posterity). Whether or not she was truly a virgin widow, Catherine was now in limbo in England, being kept there as a possible bride for the future King Henry VIII. Catherine was delighted to see her sister. Both girls had been packed off to far-off lands, and both had suffered from terrible homesickness as a result. It must have been a great comfort for them to finally meet up again, but Joanna’s unrestrained behaviour was causing concern even at this stage, and the English royal family would only meet her out of public gaze, arranging to see her in back rooms.

When they finally reached Spain, Joanna continued to be treated as a bit of a family embarrassment. Her father, Ferdinand, elbowed her out of the way, sharing his canopy of state with Philip, and leaving poor Joanna to wander along behind them.

On top of all that, Philip hated Spain. The heat was too much for him, and the Spanish insistence on rigid formality at all times didn’t suit him. Philip sulked off back to Flanders. Joanna was desperate to go with him, but she was heavily pregnant and was advised to stay behind. In March 1503 Joanna gave birth to a son, named after her father Ferdinand. After the birth Joanna was virtually confined to the castle of La Mota, her mother, the warrior-queen Isabella, telling her it was too dangerous politically for her to travel, and she should stay in Spain to prepare for being Queen.

Joanna was virtually under house-arrest at La Mota. One stormy night, in her desperation to be back with Philip, the barefoot princess tried to escape. She was stopped at the iron gates, and was later seen stalking the ramparts in a rage. She was eventually found, in the middle of the night, crouched under a table in an apple shed.

Finally, in the Spring of 1504, Joanna was allowed to join her husband in Flanders. It was not a happy reunion. Joanna suspected Philip of having an affair with one of the aristocratic ladies of the court, and in a fit of jealous rage ordered that all the lady’s long fair tresses were cut off. Philip was furious, and was said to have hit her (though there is some doubt about this). Joanna fled to her room, and occupied herself in mixing up love potions, before going on a hunger strike.

For the next 3 years Philip kept Joanna under close supervision. She was guarded by a dozen archers, and not allowed out. On one occasion, when he paid her a visit, Joanna was so enraged she threw an iron bar at him, where it hit an unfortunate elderly attendant instead. By now, Joanna resembles the mad first Mrs Rochester, kept confined out of sight, and prone to violent rages. Astonishingly though, the couple still seemed to have sex. Joanna gave birth to a daughter, Mary, in September 1505. This fiery, unhappy union wasn’t to last much longer though.

A year later, in September 1506, Philip became ill with a fever after drinking cold water at a banquet. Joanna, pregnant with their sixth child, nursed him devotedly, day and night, but in spite of this Philip passed away on 25 September, at the age of 28. His body was taken away to the Convent of Miraflores, where it rested until December.

On 20 December, Joanna went to the Convent and ordered her late husband’s coffin to be opened. Satisfied that it was indeed him, she then set off to travel with it to Granada. They travelled only by night, and it is said that Joanna frequently ordered the coffin to be opened by torchlight, to check on Philip’s remains. Many lurid tales have sprung up over the centuries about this macabre expedition. Rumours abounded that Joanna kissed her husband’s decomposing feet, or slept with his corpse in her bed. It is easy to see that these gothic tales were spun to reinforce the rumours of Joanna’s lunacy.

In January 1507 Joanna went into labour with her last child. She refused the help of any midwives, and gave birth to the child (a little girl, Catalina), herself. Eight months later her father, Ferdinand, had Joanna confined to the palace of Tordesillas, Castile. Joanna was under house-arrest again, and would remain that way for the rest of her life. Once confined again, Joanna’s little eccentricities knew no bounds. She refused to wash or change her clothes, she ate her food off the floor, and became a devout follower of Saint Clare, who had espoused a lifetime of severe austerity. Was Joanna genuinely insane at this point? Or had she become consumed by her old religious fervour? Did she feel she was training to be a saint (the refusing to wash or change her clothes, and the penance of going barefoot and eating off the floor would seem to point that way)?

In her book ‘Notorious Royal Marriages’ Leslie Carroll argues that Joanna can’t be judged truly insane, as she was allowed to keep her youngest daughter Catalina with her, and that she was kept out of the way for political reasons. Certainly her powerful relatives went to great lengths to make sure she stayed confined. When plague broke out in the area, her son Charles told her the outbreak was so severe she had to be kept indoors for her own safety, and he even went to the trouble of organising mock funeral processions to walk around the outside of the castle several times a day to fool her! Her manic mood swings and outbursts of temper were said to be kept under control by application of the strap.

Joanna was to stay a prisoner for 47 years, and the end of her life was gothic in the extreme. She became paralysed from the waist down, her legs covered in gangrenous ulcers. She eventually died on 12 April 1555, at the age of 75. Her body was buried next to the husband she had loved so disastrously.



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