A Glimpse into the Circumstances of the Life of Queen Juana I of Castile

The Catholic Monarchs and the Infanta Dona Juana. Image from the “Rimado of the conquest of Granada”, by Pedro Marcuello


Reading about Queen Juana I of Castile (and Aragon) is just heartbreaking.  Imagine growing up and being given a fine humanist education and speaking extemporaneously in Latin.  Imagine having loving but extremely strict parents who teach you to believe, as a woman, you are totally subservient to the men in your life:  father, husband, son, councilors, etc.  Imagine you were never meant to be a ruling monarch but suddenly you are your mother’s heir and successor when your brother, elder sister and nephew die unexpectedly.  Imagine you make a long journey from Spain to the Low Countries to marry.  Your husband is handsome and there is a great deal of sexual attraction with him.  Then, he takes away your Spanish ladies, allows you absolutely no income, keeps you pregnant and locks you up.

Once your revered mother dies, you are suddenly Queen of Castile and you are hundreds of miles away with little self-esteem or confidence and perhaps, suffering from a low grade or even moderate clinical depression.  Together with your husband, you travel to Spain where warring factions, including your husband and your father, are manipulating the situation, denigrating your mental health and taking away your kingdoms and your right to govern them, all in the name of familial and fatherly love.

Your husband dies suddenly when you are eight months pregnant.  There are disparate factions with their own agendas who are giving you conflicting advice and it’s nearly impossible to make critical decisions.  You hold out until your father returns, banking on his sage advice and assistance.  But he proceeds to appropriate your entire kingdom, locking you up in a fortress and ruling in your name.  Then, when your father dies, you are not told for years while your son defies Castilian law and declares himself king without informing you and proceeding to govern in a newly declared, illegal dual monarchy.

With your one chance at freedom after years of incarceration, the rebel Communeros obtain access to you.  They speak eloquently, begging you to rule and administer their agenda.  You enjoy your moment in the spotlight, dressing sumptuously and holding audiences just like your beloved mother used to do.  But you rightly insist on speaking with the Royal Council, the one thing the Communeros and your son do not want to happen.  You issue orders for the Royal Council to come to you but no one carries out the command because your son won’t allow it.

Eventually, reality hits.  The rebels only want your signature on their documents to give them legitimacy and they have no intention of allowing you to govern them.  You acquiesce to your son, saying everything that is yours belongs to him as well.  The crisis is averted but you are back where you started, lonely and depressed in a mighty fortress, having little to no contact with the outside world. Any unusual behaviors being exhibited, like refusing to eat or dress properly and declining to hear mass can be attributed to depression and protesting your unwarranted treatment.

This story has plenty of drama and is, quite frankly, pathetic.  The Castilians had female rulers in the past.  There was no effort to create a Salic Law type scenario like the French perpetrated to bar women from the throne.  Juana was highly intelligent and she had learned from the best, sitting at the feet of her mother.  She probably even learned a great deal from her cunning-as-a-fox father too.  There were so many factions in Spain at the time that ruling would have been difficult even in the best of circumstances.

Queen Isabel’s will and the rule of law in Castile designated that Juana was queen and many never stopped believing she was their monarch. To insist she was loca or mentally ill was particularly egregious.  And to imprison and torture her was unforgivable.  Juana was never allowed a reasonable and adequate opportunity to govern with her own initiatives as there was always someone who thought they could do better.  They literally expropriated her power and authority.  If she had been given a chance and had the right advisers, there is no telling what she would have been able to accomplish.


Further reading:  “Juana I:  Legitimacy and Conflict in Sixteen-Century Castile” by Gillian B. Fleming, “Juana the Mad:  Sovereignty and Dynasty in Renaissance Europe” by Bethany Aram