There are four different royals called Isabel of Portugal. The woman we’re looking at today is the first one, and is best known for her reputation as The Mad Queen, a woman whose mental illness affected later generations of Spanish royals, someone who ended her life screaming at ghosts in an abandoned castle. As per ever, this is one part true and one part “history is written by the asshole men who hated her”, and her actual story is somewhere in the middle. I like the word “mad” in her situation because it’s a word with two meanings so it can either mean angry or insane. And Isabel of Portugal, Queen of Castile and León was definitely angry for reasons you’ll learn about very shortly. I wouldn’t say she was “insane” because she reacted in a wholly understandable way to a series of VERY FUCKED UP THINGS.
Today, I hope, her family and doctors would understand her a bit better. We know today about things like post-partum depression, how traumatic childbirth situations can cause PTSD, and how mental health can be affected by lack of sleep and eating and being ABANDONED IN A SPOOKY CASTLE AND KEPT AWAY FROM THE WORLD. So Isabel was a Mad Queen: she was angry, she was dealing with mental health concerns, she ended her life disassociated from her own personality and just screaming at ghosts. But know what? Sometimes, you just have to scream.
Isabel was born in 1428 into the powerful Aviz family of Portugal. Now, this was the late Medieval period which meant that Europe was comprised of a bunch of little kingdoms who were warring with each other when they weren’t marrying their kids off strategically. Her father, Joao, was the uncle of the Portuguese king, Afonso V, meaning that Isabel was particularly valuable as a pawn to be married off for alliance reasons. And in Isabel’s case, her family decided to marry her off to King Juan II of Castile. Which is where all her problems began because — and this won’t surprise anyone who’s ever read Bluebeard, or any article I’ve ever written — he SUCKEDDDD.
So, the thing about King Juan II of Castile is that he sucked in a useless way, rather than a malevolent way. Although this was the Medieval era, he was an early adopter of the Renaissance Prince ideal of hanging out and reading poetry and discussing philosophy and tapping your beard while you go, “Hmmm” very thoughtfully. Which is a great and chill way to be, but not when you’re the King of Castile and everybody is invading everywhere because it’s the late Medieval period in Western Europe. So why didn’t someone seize power from him? Well, because his right-hand man was this dude Alvaro de Luna who MURDERED EVERYONE WHO CROSSED THE KING.
For instance, Juan’s first wife had been a woman named Maria of Aragon. Together, they had four children but in the usual ratio of child death in this era, only one had survived. Unluckily for them, this sole survivor was Prince Enrique who — surprise! — SUCKEDDDD. So the thing is that Enrique grew up and became a man and got married to a woman named Blanca II of Navarre. And the years went by and they didn’t have any children. And while we all obviously now respect people who choose not to have children, when you’re the Heir to the throne of 15th century Castile, having some sons was pretty non-negotiable. Everyone was like, “Why aren’t Enrique and Blanca having any kids??” and in fact, the bigger question was “Why have these two not even consummated their marriage after numerous years??” And the answer was that Enrique had an unusually shaped penis and couldn’t impregnate a woman, but that’s a bit too detailed for the Medieval gossips, and so everyone just started calling him EL IMPOTENTE.
I promise we’ll get back to Isabel VERY SOON, but this foundational stuff is important to get what happens later. So, Juan was reading poetry and whatever and Evil de Luna was like, “Look, Juan, your son El Impotente is clearly never going to have children, and your wife Maria is past her childbearing years, so you should get a newer younger wife and start having some more SONS!” As a Catholic King in a Catholic country, Juan couldn’t divorce Maria, so he was like, “What can you do, de Luna?” And de Luna was like, “What I can and WILL DO is I will POISON MARIA TO DEATH” and that is what he did. Because murder was kind of his thing. And this is why 43-year-old Juan was on the market for a new wife. He sent de Luna out to find a suitable match, and it was this evil poisoner who noticed 19-year-old Isabel and thought, “Hey, she seems both fertile and compliant” and began writing up the papers for this new marriage.
What we know about Isabel as a person is that she was a) dark-eyed, b) beautiful, and c) felt things Very Strongly. Like the ideal at this point was for young women to be pretty and submissive, but Isabel was a passionate sort of person whose personality would not be restrained by societal conventions. Like, we don’t know much about many other women who were living in the late Medieval period apart from how pretty they were, but Isabel’s personality was so interesting and unconventional that chroniclers wrote about it. I mean, how cool must she have been? Before they officially got married, Juan came down to meet Isabel and he was immediately smitten with her because: of course he was. She sounds AWESOME. Teenage Isabel, who never felt the need to even attempt to have a poker face, was like, “Ew,” but she had no say in the matter and the two got married. Which is when her problems got WORSE.
Isabel was clever and also very observant, and it took her 0.0005 seconds to notice the toxic power relationship between her husband Juan and his murderous BFF de Luna. She was like, “Why does Juan just lie around reciting poetry? Why is de Luna in charge of literally everything, including how often and for how long I have sex with my husband???” Because: yes. Evil de Luna was so meddling and so obsessed with power that he literally scheduled when Juan and Isabel could have sex. And the way that de Luna lurked murderously around the corridors may have tipped Isabel off to what had happened to Juan’s first wife, and she started to suspect that de Luna might be trying to poison her as well. This is a situation in which paranoia is not just understandably, but justified and probably the best possible way to live.
So, Isabel decided it was time to get rid of de Luna. Juan was so useless he couldn’t be without someone telling him what to do all the time, and so Isabel decided to make herself into his new advisor. And so, in a The Favourite-like twist — but more murderous — Isabel and de Luna began a rivalry to see which of them would land on top. Isabel had one tactic that de Luna couldn’t match her on, and that was: sex. She would whisper suggestions to Juan while they were in bed together, like, “Sure, I’ll do that sex thing you like if you get rid of de Luna” and Juan was like, “I do whatever people tell me to!” and the next morning de Luna would be like, “Murder your wife!” and Juan was like, “I don’t know who to listen to!!”
When Isabel became pregnant, she gained even more influence over Juan, which was bad news for de Luna. But the pregnancy itself was bad news for Isabel, because this is Medieval times and obstetrics were not especially great, and she had a very rough pregnancy and childbirth. But good news: both she and the baby (a girl, who she named Isabel after herself, a move I always love!) both survived. Just to be clear, we’ll call the daughter Isabella. Anyway, due to hormonal shifts and sleep deprivation and potentially the PTSD of giving birth in MEDIEVAL TIMES, Isabel experienced some awful post-partum symptoms. And instead of being like, “Post-partum is a real thing, let’s support her with talk therapy and medication and self-care,” the doctors of the time were like, “Izzy’s gone MAD!!” and basically abandoned her.
And so Isabel did the best she could, survival-wise, alternating between sitting around mostly inert and having screaming rage fits, which: understandable. She shut herself into a room by herself, and would only speak to Juan. Now, considering that de Luna is still on the scene and she didn’t know who she could trust, this all MAKES SENSE TO ME. But also? Her only being willing to talk to Juan worked well to make him even more devoted and loyal to her, and wound up helping with Operation Get Rid Of De Luna. It seems perhaps like she was experiencing NORMAL and HEALTHY MENTAL SITUATIONS given what was going on, and that she ALSO found a way to use this to her advantage, scheming-wise.
While all this post-partum scheming was going on, de Luna was still creeping around trying to figure out a way to murder Isabel and/or to regain his influence over the King. But Isabel — BEDRIDDEN AND POST-PARTUM IN MEDIEVAL CASTILE — was three steps ahead of him, even still, and brought in a third co-conspirator to help out her side. This new member of #TeamIsabel was a man named Alonso Pérez de Vivero. But then!! Alonso’s double-dealing was discovered by de Luna, who proceeded to MURDER HIM by THROWING HIM OUT A WINDOW IN FRONT OF WITNESSES. And Isabel was like, “Oh snap, guess now we can arrest de Luna for murder, which means he won’t be your advisor anymore.” Next thing you know, de Luna was arrested for murder! Do we think Isabel used Alonso as a pawn to get de Luna arrested? I mean, I wouldn’t put it past her, Isabel was a legit mastermind even in the midst of some really serious medical and mental health concerns.
So, de Luna was put on trial and while he was busy (I assume) bribing and murdering members of the jury, Isabel was now busy being pregnant and not dying in childbirth for the second time. The trial ended with de Luna found guilty, and executed, which Juan (remember him? The useless king?) found really upsetting because of Stockholm Syndrome. Five months after de Luna’s execution, Isabel gave birth to a son she named Alfonso. But even the birth of a new baby son and heir didn’t cheer up Juan, whose health was now suffering from his extreme grief. Juan became so ill from grief and probably not eating and just general Medieval germs, etc., that his son El Impotente was called to royal court because he might need to take over as King.
Let’s just pause to check in on what El Impotente had been up to throughout these few soap operatic years. Unsurprisingly if you’ve read any men’s history, El Impotente blamed his wife Blanca for their childlessness and divorced her. In a trial just like when Henry VIII annulled his marriage to Anne of Cleves, or when What’s His Face tried to stop Frances Howard from divorcing him, El Imponte was like, “I can have sex with any other woman in the world other than Blanca! It’s totally her fault, not me!” Blanca was looking around like, “Seriously? Does anyone believe this shit?” And El Impotente was like, “Blanca is a witch! She has ensorcelled my penis, which is totally functional by the way!” And then Blanca was forced to go through a MEDIEVAL COURTROOM PAP SMEAR scenario, where her inside bits were examined to see if she was still a virgin. She was! Because El Impotente’s penis was not made to go inside of vaginas.
And so, now single again, El Impotente married a new wife for us all to feel badly for. His second wife was called Juana of Portugal and guess what? They did not conceive any children and she still had her hymen because maybe it’s you, El Impotente, did you ever think of that?? Perhaps it’s your unconventionally shaped penis that clearly does not produce ejaculate?????
So, Juan died of grief and probably tuberculosis or whatever, and El Impotente became the new King of Castile. El Impotente wasn’t much of a fan of Isabel or his two baby half-siblings, so he sent them away to live in the spooky and Crimson Peak-esque Castle of Arévalo. He provided Isabel with far less money than she’d been accustomed to, so she and her babies and her CONTINUING POST-PARTUM MENTAL HEALTH CONCERNS, were now living an austere and frugal life with no visitors, all alone and guess what?? SHE GOT MORE DEPRESSED like YOU DON’T SAY.
Meanwhile, El Impotente and his wife Juana still didn’t have any kids, which meant that the next Castilian King was potentially going to be Isabel’s son Alfonso, which annoyed El Impotente. And then suddenly and out of nowhere, seven years after the marriage, Juana was pregnant! She also, coincidentally, had most likely just taken a lover named Beltrán de la Cueva! Juana had a baby daughter who she named after herself (seriously, let’s bring this naming convention back), but everybody was basically like, “We all generally accept that El Imponte is not this baby’s father, right?” And so Baby Juana became known as La Beltraneja, sort of named after the guy everyone assumed was her bio-Dad.
And so at around this same time, Isabel’s children Isabella and Alfonso were finally freed from living with their mother at the Castle of Arévalo, and got to come hang out at royal court with their half-brother El Impotente. This was great news for them, because they were children and it’s great to see the sun and socialize and not be trapped in a spooky castle with your troubled mother. This was also bad news for Isabel, who without her children, had now lost most of her grip on reality. Allegedly, Isabel wound up not recognizing anyone — not even family members — and spent her days and nights wandering the empty castle corridors, screaming at ghosts. One of the ghosts who she saw was, apparently, that of her old nemesis de Luna. During this time period, her son Alfonso died suddenly at age 14 of, let’s assume, plague although there were RUMOURS that he had been POISONED which is not not a possibility, all things considered.
When Isabella was a bit older, she pretended to be going to visit her mother at the Castle of Arévalo when in fact, she was running off to get secretly married… but that’s a story for another day. What I’ll leave you with here is that Isabella, in her adulthood, oversaw her mother’s care. When word reached her in 1496 that Isabel was on her deathbed, Isabella returned to the Castle of Arévalo for real. In her final years, Isabel had forgotten her own identity, and just wandered around being sort of randomly aggressive. Shortly after their reunion, Isabel passed away at sixty-eight years old.
Isabel was interred at Cartuja de Miraflores, next to her husband Juan and son Alfonso. Her legacy of passionate living continued on as her daughter Isabella became one of the greatest monarchs in European history, her granddaughters Katherine of Aragon and Juana of Castile both became Queens, and her great-granddaughter Mary I was the first woman named Queen of England. The flip side of this legacy is that each of these women dealt with rumours of their own madness… which is why I’ll be examining their lives in the next few weeks. Stay tuned!
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter