Today is the birthday of Joanna of Castile, also known as Joanna the Mad. She was born in 1479 in Toledo, the Capital of the Kingdom of Castile, now in Spain. Joanna didn’t have a great life, certainly not a brilliant life, so I feel the need to explain why I am choosing to celebrate her life today. One of the things that first got me interested in the odd lives of historical figures, and hence an inspiration for this blog, was a podcast called The Bugle presented by Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver. In the early days it had a segment called ‘Hotties from History’ in which listeners were encouraged to email with the names of characters from history to whom they were attracted. It all started with Florence Nightingale it was very silly. It was full of snippets of bizarre information about all sorts of people I knew nothing about. Joanna the Mad and her odd life featured quite heavily so I can’t possibly ignore her today.
Joanna was the third child of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon who did a great job of uniting and strengthening the country that would become Spain. They also aided Christopher Columbus in his discovery of the New World. Although women were allowed to inherit the throne of Castile, Joanna was never thought of as a potential ruler and, although she had a good education, was very clever, and spoke several languages, she wasn’t really taught anything about leadership or diplomacy. In 1496 she was shipped off to Flanders to be married to Philip the Handsome, Duke of Burgundy and member of the Habsburg dynasty. They were both madly in love to begin with, but then Philip began to take mistresses. Joanna was still in love with him and was very jealous. This led to heated and sometimes violent arguments.
By 1500 both of her elder siblings had died, leaving no heirs. Joanna was next in line to inherit Castile when her mother died. Philip was pretty happy about it because he assumed that would make him king of Castile. They travelled to Spain so that Joanna could swear an oath making her official heiress. Joanna was pregnant with the couple’s third child and her parents tried to use this as an excuse to keep them in Spain. Philip refused and went home, but Joanna found herself held in a castle against her will. She made it quite clear that she wanted to leave. She kept her bags packed She refused to eat. When she realised they had raised the drawbridge to imprison her, she ran out and clung to the portcullis and refused to go back into the castle. Eventually her parents had to let her leave.
When she arrived home she found that her husband had found himself a permanent mistress. She was furious, she cut off the woman’s hair at the roots. When Isabella died, Joanna should have inherited her throne; but it was behaviour like this that led both her husband and her father to declare that she was mad and unfit to rule. Both of them thought they could make a better job of it. The matter was decided when, in 1506, Philip died. What seems to have happened after that was that Joanna journeyed all around Spain, travelling only at night, with her husband’s corpse. Repeatedly opening the coffin, embracing his body and talking to him. It’s quite possible that this version of the story comes from her father Ferdinand. She did travel a long time with Philip’s body, because he wanted to be buried in Granada, which was quite a long way away. Also Joanna was pregnant with their sixth child and it was too hot for her to travel during the day. She definitely did open his coffin though, as she had become paranoid that someone had stolen his body.
Although Joanna was nominally queen of Castile, she was never allowed to rule in her own right. So we’ll never know if she would have made a good job of it. In 1509 she was imprisoned by her father and remained in prison for the rest of her life. Even when her son Charles inherited her titles, he did not treat her any better. So, although Joanna of Castile wasn’t very well, she was certainly not helped by being surrounded by men fighting over who ought to be allowed to rule in her stead.
Also born on this day was her great-great-great-grandson, Charles II of Spain in 1661. Almost 200 years after Joanna was born, the Habsburg Dynasty had become hopelessly inbred; to the extent that all eight of Charles’s great-grandparents were descendants of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. Charles was not very well either, generations of inbreeding led him to be physically and mentally disabled and he was also infertile. He could not speak until he was four or walk until he was eight. Yet he inherited the throne when he was just three. He suffered from a condition known as the Habsburg Jaw which made it difficult for him to speak or even eat. Mostly, others did his ruling for him, but he did order an investigation into the activities of the Inquisition that had some very damning things to say about them. The Inquisitor General was most unhappy, he persuaded Charles to burn it. When his successor Philip V took the throne, he called for a copy of the report, none could be found.
Towards the end of his life Charles became very odd indeed. He insisted that the bodies of his family be exhumed so he could look at them. There is even a story that he slept with the body of Saint Francis of Assisi, in the hope that it would cure him. I can’t confirm this. Maybe this and the behaviour of Joanna of Castile are signs of insanity, or maybe there’s just something about renaissance Spanish people and their relationship with the dead that I just don’t understand, He died in 1700 and an autopsy was performed on his body. They said it didn’t contain a single drop of blood, that his heart was the size of a raisin, that he had one single blackened testicle and that his head was full of water.