Note: Juana’s name is often Anglicized to Joanna or to Joan. I’m using the Spanish spelling. So, bear in mind that when you encounter mentions elsewhere of Joanna of Castile (e.g. on The Spanish Princess), it’s the same person.
Just to orient us all as to the time and place we’re looking at by way of other women written about on this site: Juana of Castile was the granddaughter of Isabel of Portugal, the daughter of Isabella I, older sister to Katherine of Aragon, and the aunt of Mary I. Isn’t it interesting that each of these women is, to varying extents, remembered for being both very passionate and stubborn, as well as for being allegedly insane. They were also all women with a larger amount of power than usual for the era, who were seen as threats and/or pawns by the ambitious men who surrounded them. Coincidence? I’ll show you the evidence and you can decide for yourselves. About Juana, though, note that the events of her life are such that her behavior is often quite reasonable considering the bonkers things that kept happening to her. Let’s dive in!
Juana was both on November 6, 1479, the third child and second daughter of the legendary Catholic monarchs Isabella I and Ferdinand. Like her mother, Juana (despite most artistic and film representations of her) had pale skin, blue eyes, and strawberry blond hair. Juana was a moody child, who liked to spend time alone, especially reading books. Her mother felt that education was important for girls, and provides much more extensive schooling for Juana and her sisters Isabella, Katherine, and Maria than other young women at that time. Juana had one brother, Juan, who was being groomed to take over the throne of Spain because boys always inherited things instead of girls. With Juan covering the role of heir to the throne, Juana and her sisters grew up knowing that they would be married off to princes or Kings of other kingdoms in order to strengthen alliances.
Point of clarity: Queen Isabella ruled Castile and León, and King Ferdinand ruled Aragon; they never amalgamated the countries, it’s just that they all happened to be ruled by a married couple. So whichever of them died first, their eldest child would inherit that kingdom but not the other if you see what I mean? Even if you don’t, what you need to know is that Juan was the heir to both kingdoms, and then his children; if for some reason they all died, then Isabella and Ferdinand’s oldest daughter Isabella would inherit, and then her children. Juana, their third child, was never expected to inherit anything. But sometimes life takes you by surprise!! #spoiler
Juana was an excellent student and became fluent in numerous languages including French, Latin, Castilian, and Catalan. She was also recorded as having been a skilled musician, as well as extremely knowledgeable about history, politics, and the arts, and was skilled at hunting and riding. Contemporary accounts report that Juana was more moody and solitary than her sisters. She was also not known to be as extremely pious as her mother, or her older sister Isabella. She and her sisters were, however, exemplary models of the type of femininity that their mother advocated for: the girls were extremely well-read, talented in just about every conceivable capacity, devoted to their faith, and also expected to be subservient to the men in their lives. That Isabella herself was a one-woman powerhouse who bulldozed her way through life meant, however, that the girls were seeing from her example the way that women could potentially wield power on their own terms. From what is left of Juana’s writings, there are hints that she was witty and also that she may not have taken religion as seriously as the rest of her family — though, few could compare to the performative and violent piety of Queen Isabella (see: the Spanish Inquisition, the Reconquista). Some reports suggest that Isabella may have tortured Juana for her childhood rebelliousness, but these have not been verified.
By 1496, Juana was seventeen years old, and her family arranged her betrothal to eighteen-year-old Philip of Flanders. Philip was known as Philip The Handsome, but if you look at his pictures, I find that name… debatable. Technically, I think the soubriquet can also be translated as Philip the Fair, which makes sense given his light complexion and eyes. Either way, Philip’s pedigree was just what Juana’s parents wanted for her: his father was Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor, from the Habsburg line. This was a connection between two wildly powerful families, both of whom currently hated the French. Juana and Philip’s engagement cemented this alliance, and Philip wasn’t fifty years older than her so already this seems not SO bad, right?
Juana left Castile in August 1496 to get to Philip’s home base of Flanders. Their wedding ceremony was held on October 20th, 1496. In fact, the pair were so physically attracted to one another upon their first meeting that Philip insisted they get married right away so they could make sweet passionate love as soon as possible.
From the beginning, their relationship was notoriously passionate. Juana was completely and entirely in love with Philip. But Philip, because every man in all of these stories is The Worst, was a philanderer and cheated on Juana more or less all the damn time. Part of the “evidence” of Juana’s “madness” is the way that she would go into fits of rage, screaming at Philip. Is this madness? Or is this reasonable behavior of a very smart, very accomplished, very beautiful and very sensitive/passionate woman whose husband is treating her like garbage? Particularly if the woman in question was perpetually pregnant (she gave birth to six children over ten years) and who had gone through A LOT OF DEATH IN A VERY SHORT PERIOD OF TIME.
For real though. Between 1497 and 1500, Juana’s older brother Juan died, and then his widow suffered a stillbirth, and then her older sister Isabella died in childbirth, and then Isabella’s toddler-aged son died. So on top of the familial loss, the loss of her older siblings and their children meant that Juana was now the eldest child of the Catholic monarchs and, as such, was suddenly heir to the thrones of Castile, León, and Aragon. Nobody had expected this, least of all her. In 1502, Juana and Philip traveled back to Toledo for her to be recognized as Princess of Asturias, the title given to the heir to the throne of Castile.
Later that same year, she went through something that sounds like a nervous breakdown. And how did Philip support his frequently-pregnant wife through her mental health issues? Oh, just by abandoning her whenever she got upset. Like, he’d just up and leave and have an affair with someone else anytime Juana’s behavior got to be “too much” for him. And as a bonus on the Philip-The-Handsome-Is-The-Worst cake, he would also spread rumors about how his wife was so crazy. “Why is she always so upset all the time?” he would whine. “I guess she must be insane.” I HATE YOU PHILIP THE HANDSOME.
Juana would deal with his on/off desertion by throwing herself against the walls to injure herself, by crying herself to sleep, and by otherwise doing the best she could in an era before cognitive-behavioral therapy or antidepressants or knowledge about post-partum disorder. And all the while, Philip would run around like, “My wife is crazy, I tell you! CRAZYYYY!”
In 1504, Juana’s mother Isabella fell ill. Juana, who clearly loved her mother even though they scream-fought much of the time, became so upset at her mother’s illness that she herself stopped eating or sleeping. Anyone who stops eating and sleeping will likely wind up behaving in some unusual/erratic ways but then add to that the way Philip left without saying goodbye (because he was tired of Spain’s throttling Catholicism and how he wasn’t able to party and have sex with random women as much as he wanted). Upon finding he’d returned to Flanders, Juana was determined to follow him, but her mother — from her deathbed! — was like, “Girl, look at your life, look at your choices.” Juana was desperate to leave, but Isabella had her restrained and kept in town. This wasn’t just the normal Isabella abusive behavior: Juana was heavily pregnant, and traveling would be dangerous for her. Juana freaked out completely at being separated from Philip and continued to not eat or sleep and wandered around babbling incoherently. To me, this sounds like perfectly ordinary behavior of a young woman who had been consistently pregnant for eight years, whose mother was on her deathbed, who lived in a time when nobody understood psychology, and who had not been eating or sleeping for a while. BUT WHAT DO I KNOW.
After giving birth to her baby, Juana pleaded with her parents to let her chase after Philip. When they forbade her from leaving again, Juana ran away only half-dressed, threw herself against the front gates of the castle, screaming until she exhausted herself and she was brought inside to rest. It wasn’t until one year following her son’s birth that she was finally granted permission to leave. And when she got back to Flanders, what did she find? Oh, just her beloved Philip in the arms of a mistress!! With the rage-fuelled passion of someone who’s been traveling by boats and carriage in the 15th century through a war zone of people dying of the plague, Juana confronted her rival with scissors and cut off the rival’s hair. And then – allegedly – stabbed her rival in the face with the scissors. OK, at this point, her actions are maybe getting a little beyond “she’s kind of stressed out at the moment” but at the same time, Philip quite clearly had been gaslighting and toying with her to the point that this sort of thing feels unavoidable. When stabbing the mistress didn’t make Philip love Juana any more, she turned to local witches for love potions. But then Philip found out about that and was like, “My crazy wife visited a witch!” and still didn’t love her the way she wanted him to.
In the midst of this marital crisis, Juana got the news that her mother had passed away. This meant not just a whole “my mother is dead” grief cycle, but it also meant that Juana inherited her mother’s role as Queen of Castile and León. Guess who wasn’t a fan of this turn of events? Her husband, Philip, whose role was now just as her consort. Guess who else wasn’t a fan? Her father, Ferdinand, late in the game revealing himself to be The Worst. Both men began scheming to usurp Juana’s power by proclaiming themselves her co-monarch. First, Ferdinand went to the mint and had coins produced that said: “Ferdinand and Joanna, King and Queen of Castile, León and Aragon” hoping that would make it official he was co-ruler alongside his daughter. Philip was like, good idea, and minted coins of his own that said “Philip and Joanna, King and Queen of Castile, León and Archdukes of Austria, etc.” In the meantime, Juana was doing her best to hold it together, while — yes, still — being pregnant and having more babies and getting worse and worse post-partum issues.
By 1505, Juana had given birth to five children. Her eldest son, Charles, would be next in line for all of the thrones Juana currently stood to inherit. He was back in Flanders, being raised by some of Philip’s Habsburg relatives, which Ferdinand was really upset about. So Ferdinand took a new wife, hoping that they’d have a new son who would supplant Juana as his heir. But the thing is, Ferdinand’s new wife was French, and France was not very popular among the Spanish citizens, though, so this just made the public support Juana and Philip even more. And so, Juana and Philip — who had been living at this point back in Flanders — decided to return to Castile and deal with this whole Ferdinand situation. But they were shipwrecked (!!!) on the English coast. Where would they go?? Well, luckily Juana’s sister Katherine of Aragon had just recently married England’s Prince Henry, and they were happy to host her in-laws at Windsor Castle. After some family togetherness, Juana left England in January 1506, and that was the last time she would see any of her siblings again (#foreshadowing).
Upon her return, Castile was on the brink of civil war due to some people supporting Ferdinand, and others supporting Juana/Philip. When Juana and Philip arrived in A Coruña, the nobles all deserted Ferdinand in order to support this younger couple. Ferdinand saw the writing on the wall, but also had a new scheme up his sleeve, and invited Philip for a secret meeting. At this meeting, Ferdinand agreed to turn control of the government of Castile over to his children, and would himself return to Aragon. BUT in the fine print, he and Philip had also agreed to a clause throwing Juana under the bus. Because of her illness* (*alleged insanity), she would be found incapable to rule, and so she would be excluded from all decision-making and also kept confined in a castle without any chance of escape. And so Ferdinand peaced out back to Aragon, leaving Philip in charge of Castile, and Juana a prisoner.
But then just one year later, Philip suddenly died of official cause typhoid fever. Everyone secretly agreed he’d probably been poisoned by Ferdinand and WE WILL NEVER KNOW THE TRUTH (I bet it was poison, though). Whatever the cause, the newly-widowed and yes, still pregnant Juana was recorded as having displayed another example of “madness”.
Just to recap before getting into what she did that others thought was mad: Juana had been consistently pregnant for by now, nine years (she’d had six children in that time), her mother had just died of self-inflicted starvation, two of her siblings had recently died at very young ages, she’d been imprisoned by her gross and horrible father, and her terrible husband/abuser had just unexpectedly died. There’s a lot of hormones and chemicals coarsing through her body, is what I mean. Add to that the fact that Juana had always been a very passionate sort of person, and what she did falls into a context that’s not necessarily she’s lost her marbles.
So what did she do? She refused to part with Philip’s coffin. Rumor had it (and still does!) that she was Weekend at Bernies-ing Philip’s corpse, sleeping next to it, eating dinner with it at the table, talking to it like a person a la Norman Bates. THAT IS NOT WHAT HAPPENED. What dud happen is that she just wanted to keep Philip’s coffin nearby; she had it kept in a church near the palace where she lived, so she could pay her respects daily. When she traveled, she had the coffin brought along. Eccentric, maybe. But not MAD.
During all of this, Ferdinand saw a way to steal his daughter’s powers from her — by continuing to allege she was insane and unfit to rule, he was able to appoint himself her guardian and to put himself in charge as administrator of the country. Juana, however, had just given birth to her sixth and final child and was ready to get back in the game. But on top of literally everything else going on, plague had rolled into Castile and people were dying all over the place. Ferdinand, still back in Aragon, just sat around and waited for Castile to sort of implode so he could swoop in and take over. Juana kept trying to get enough powerful allies and money to regain the throne, but she couldn’t muster enough support. Her asshole father then swanned into town in 1507, coincidentally at the same time that the plague was less of an issue, and he was able to use this random occurrence to make people think he’d been responsible for their change in fortune.
So then, her TERRIBLE FATHER used all of his decades’ worth of slimy experience to metaphorically stomp all over Juana and steal the throne of Castile for himself. Juana refused to sign the paperwork that removed her royal powers and issued a statement saying basically, this was all bullshit. But Ferdinand was far more powerful than she, and she became again a Queen in name only. On top of making all of the ruling decisions, Ferdinand also had all of Juana’s loyal servants fired, replacing them with a smaller staff of people loyal to him alone, and ordered her to be confined to the Royal Monastery/Convent of Santa Clara in Tordesillas, Castile. All of her children were left in Flanders to be raised by Philip’s sister, Margaret of Austria, apart from her youngest daughter, Catherine. Juana refused to be parted from baby Catherine, and so the young girl remained to be raised in the convent (not unlike how Juana’s mother Isabella had been raised in a convent with her allegedly-insane grandmother, Isabel).
GOOD NEWS for Juana, though, was that her father’s second marriage had failed to produce a new heir who would supplant her in the line of succession. The position of heir to the thrones of Castile and Aragon, upon Ferdinand’s death, would be Juana’s oldest son, Charles. BUT Charles had been born and raised back in Brussels, whereas Juana’s second son, named Ferdinand (maybe as an attempt to make peace with her father??) had been born and raised in Castile, due to Juana having been captive there at the time of his birth. So, the older Ferdinand preferred the younger Ferdinand to be his heir, not just because they had the same name but also because Baby Ferdinand had grown up in Spain. Ferdinand Sr. briefly even named Baby Ferdinand as his heir in his will, but some clever courtier managed to convince him to switch it back to name Charles as his heir.
But, when Ferdinand finally died (good riddance), Charles was back in Flanders and not able to take over right away. And so Ferdinand’s bastard son, Alonso de Aragón, was put in charge of Aragon, while an Archbishop was put in charge of Castile and León as regent in Juana’s place. Just so we’re all keeping track: Juana was still alive, and being kept trapped in a castle, due to her alleged madness. She could have taken over ruling both kingdoms, but was not permitted to.
So then in 1517, Charles — now seventeen years old — arrived in Asturias to take on his role as King. He and his sister Eleanor met with Juana, acquiring from her the permission that Charles would be her co-ruler of Castile, León, and Aragon. And although at that point Charles could have released his mother, he did not. However, Eleanor did arrange things in the castle-prison such that it was more comfortable and homey for her mother’s comfort.
Charles was not a popular King due to his Habsburg roots and his connection to mainland Europe. There was a revolt in 1520, during which rebel leaders turned to Juana for support to remove Charles from the throne. Since she was technically still the Queen, if she gave them her written approval, the rebels would win and Charles would be deposed. Knowing this, Charles sent a delegation of his own supporters to try and get to her first to have her put in writing that she didn’t approve of the rebels. Juana was like, “Hmm, let me think about this…” and dawdled long enough that the rebels were able to storm into town to officially request her support. Ultimately, Juana decided against signing the document in order to support her son’s reign and to try and bring peace to the land.
But meanwhile, Juana was showing more signs of mental instability. She grew paranoid that some of the nuns tasked with caring for her were trying to kill her — which, frankly, was entirely possible, there was a lot of poisoning going on all the time. Apparently, as Juana’s condition deteriorated, she required assistance with most parts of her day, including eating, bathing, changing her clothes, and sleeping. Charles instructed her caretakers not to let her see or speak to anyone. Obviously we’ll never know what specific things were happening in her brain at this time, though historians’ theories range from schizophrenia to bipolar disorder to a severe case of depression. Like her grandmother Isabel, though, I think a lot of this can be traced back to the hormone fluctuations of her six pregnancies, combined with undiagnosed/untreated post-partum disorder, combined with a sensitive/passionate personality, combined with her troubles eating and sleeping, the effect of Philip’s philandering on her, and the way that her father kept gaslighting her that she was crazy. Is it madness, having all that going on and living in a time and place where mental health was not understood at all, for a woman to sort of shut down psychologically? And if it is madness, which maybe it was, how much of that was a self-fulfilling cycle of her being treated like a madwoman for so long, she just wound up leaning into it?
Juana of Castile passed away at age seventy-five on April 12th, 1555, having spent forty-six years in captivity. Her tomb is in the Royal Chapel of Granada, alongside her parents (which sucks, because they were awful to her), as well as Philip (see above) as well as her sister Isabella’s young son, Miguel. While she herself is remembered for her “madness”, her legacy is through her six children. Her son Charles became Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor; her son Ferdinand succeeded Charles as Holy Roman Emperor; her daughter Eleanor served as Queen of Portugal and Queen of France; her daughter Elizabeth was Queen of Denmark; her daughter Maria was Queen of Hungary; and her youngest daughter Catherine, who had lived for a decade with Juana in captivity, became Queen of Portugal. Through these six monarchs, the Habsburg dynasty would continue unabated through to the 18th century.
Note: a previous version of this essay suggested that Isabella had physically abused and tortured Juana during her childhood. The idea that Isabella or Ferdinand had applied torture methods to Juana seems to have originated in letters from, some of which can be found here. However, as further verification of this cannot be found, all references to Isabella abusing Juana in this manner have been removed from this essay.
For more information about Juana of Castile, I suggest the books: Sister Queens by Julia Fox and Juana I: Legitimacy and Conflict in Sixteenth-Century Castile by Gillian B. Fleming.
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