Joanna The Mad: Mentally ill monarch or political pawn?

‘Mad’ monarchs have always been studied as fascinating case studies on the treatment of histories mentally ill, perhaps because there are just so many of them, and because they are so well documented in comparison with the lives of the rest of the medieval population. Whether power drove the royals of the past to madness, the inbreeding common in their families damaged them neurologically, or rumours of insanity were simply exacerbated to serve a political aim, we are morbidly interested in the complicated minds of some of the most influential figures in history. One of the most notorious and controversial of these monarchs is perhaps Joanna (Juana) of Castile, also known simply as ‘Joanna the mad.’

Joanna was born in 1479 to Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon; regions which were then separate kingdoms constituting modern day Spain. She was known to be a beautiful and educated woman, headstrong enough even to display scepticism regarding her families stringent Catholic faith. This ‘blasphemy’ allegedly resulted in her own mother using torture methods to admonish her, including dangling her by ropes with weights around her ankles; a form of abuse that many would argue certainly gives reason for her to have developed mental health issues as she grew older.

Joanna herself was never expected to be monarch of either Castile or Aragon as her parents were, with as many individuals standing between her and the throne as there are preventing Prince Harry from becoming King today. However, she was thrust very suddenly into power by a string of human tragedies within her immediate family. Her elder brother Juan died at the age of 19, leaving behind his pregnant wife Margaret of Austria, who sadly miscarried his only heir. Joanna’s remaining older sibling Isabella died a year later following the traumatic birth of her son Miguel, who then passed away at only one year of age. This rendered Joanna Princess of Asturias (heir to the throne of Aragon) up until her mothers death in 1504, making her queen of Castile.

However, Joanna was not to rule entirely alone. At 17 years old in 1496, she had been married to Philip the Fair – Archduke of Hapburg – a fortunate pairing due to the fact that he was only a year older than her and renowned for his good looks. Joanna is believed to have adored Philip intensely, and behaved possessively toward him as a result, despite this being improper for a lady at this time. Over their decade long marriage, she bore him 6 children. Eleanor in 1498, Charles (more on him later) in 1500, Isabella in 1501, Ferdinand in 1503, Mary in 1505 and Catherine in 1507. But, Joanna was Queen, and Philip merely her consort; creating a power imbalance between them which opposed traditional gender roles and may have served as a motive for Philip to have her removed from power, by cultivating rich claims of madness.

With the context in place, I will now explain some of the central ‘evidence’ that Joanna was suffering from a mental illness, either throughout or towards the end of her life. While I explain, please keep in mind that the sources for much of this information are the three people who would have most stood to gain from dethroning her; her husband who would have become king-regent were she proven unfit to rule, her own son Charles who ultimately succeeded her as King and then Holy Roman Emperor, and her father; who sought to produce his own male heir to rule in her place, rather than see the throne of Aragon pass to a woman upon his death.

  • Neuroticism. Throughout their marriage, Philip was rarely ever faithful, and Joanna did not turn a blind eye to this infidelity. Instead she became furiously jealous and would fly at her husband in anger, both publicly and privately. Upon discovering one of Philip’s mistresses was an attractive lady of the court, she went so far as to attack the woman violently, hacking off all of her hair before stabbing her in the face with the scissors. Subsequently, Philip would avoid his wife, causing her to haunt the halls of her quarters wailing, sobbing and flinging herself against the walls for hours at a time.
  • Mental breakdowns. At various points throughout her life she was said to collapse mentally and emotionally, becoming irrational and unstable. One seemed to occur when her mother fell ill in 1504. Today, we perceive loss or illness of a loved one as a valid reason to fall into depression, though at this point in history ‘melancholia’ was not at all taken seriously and she would have been expected to function through it; instead she refused to eat and hardly slept. It was around this time that Philip abandoned her pregnant with their daughter Mary to flee the war and return to his home in Flanders. Desperate to follow him, Joanna visited her sick mother to request permission and was forbidden from going, instead facing confinement to her quarters. During this isolation she was reported to have displayed signs of schizophrenia; speaking to herself, muttering in tongues, wailing at nothing and continually banging on the walls as she sobbed, all while refusing food and hardly sleeping. She eventually gave birth in solitude, which may have exacerbated her condition through what we now view as post partum depression.
  • Disturbing mourning behaviour. Despite all the pain that his abandonment and infidelity had caused her, Joanna was devastated when her beloved husband died of Typhoid fever in 1506 at only 28 years old. Heavily pregnant at the time with Catherine, she refused to relinquish Philip’s remains and kept his coffin close to her at all times. She travelled exceptional distances with it, kept it beside her bed, and even had it present while eating. Allegedly, she would open the coffin to kiss and embrace the body on some occasions, and whilst she was grieving her kingdom began to collapse around her. However, it is worth noting that this sensationalised story emerged after her father had his daughter confined to the palace once more and seized Castile from under her, leaving her absent and unable to defend herself. In fact, her own son Charles cruelly seized baby Catherine from her while she was confined, and taking away her only remnant of Philip sent her into such a state of turmoil that she went on a hunger strike until her daughter was returned to her.
  • Paranoia. Following Philip’s death, Joanna became obsessed with the notion that her husband had died of poisoning rather than Typhoid, an unfounded – but not entirely impossible – suggestion. For this she was labelled delusional. In response to her deteriorating mental state, her son Charles declared her unfit to rule, and took over from his mother as monarch in 1509. He had Joanna confined to a convent in Castile, where she remained until she died of natural causes in 1555. During this time, she was said to act out against the nuns entrusted with her care, and make accusations that they had attempted to kill her in numerous increasingly unlikely ways.
  • Isolation. As I have described, Joanna was forcibly placed in what is essentially solitary confinement on several occasions to remove her from involving her unruly emotions in politics. This kind of isolation may have caused her mental state to deteriorate massively, most notably during her time at the convent, where Charles ordered that she be denied visits – even from immediate family – and that the nuns not speak to her at all. Joanna ultimately lived out the last 46 years of her life tragically alone, deprived of human interaction and with very little to mentally stimulate her.
  • Genetics. Joanna had a colourful family history of mental illness likely as a result of generational incest, although many of the specific illnesses I will mention have been posthumously diagnosed and are technically speculation. Her maternal grandmother Isabella of Portugal was declared mad with signs of schizophrenia and sent to a convent, her mother showed signs of instability and religious delusion in her torture of Juana, and following her death, her grandson Carlos and great-granddaughter Maria also ‘went mad’ with signs of depression and schizophrenia.

If Joanna was biologically pre-disposed to mental illness, then her long stream of bereavements, her husbands infidelity and her periods of extended confinement and isolation may have all served as environmental triggers pushing her towards depression, schizophrenia and potentially psychosis. The tragic queen may have been a ticking time bomb, which her mistreatment caused to explode entirely.

However, it is also important to consider the sources of these accusations. For much of her life, she may have been no more ‘mad’ than the average person today, and simply displaying expected responses to tragedies in her life. Tales of her speaking in tongues, talking to herself, showing paranoia, sobbing uncontrollably for hours and using violence may have been exacerbated or even fabricated by the men in her life who saw her as a rung in their ladder to power. With this said, though, it would be entirely understandable if by her arrival at the convent and towards the end of her life, Joanna had in fact been driven mad by her mistreatment.

Regardless of whether she was or wasn’t ‘insane’, the sensational story of Queen Joanna is one of tragedy and misfortune. She has been immortalised as ‘Joanna the mad,’ rather than as a human being who endured great suffering, and was simply locked away rather than granted compassion or support. I think it would be kinder to remember her as a woman who spoke her mind when women were supposed to be seen and not heard, as a mother devoted to her children, and as a wife who loved so deeply and passionately that her romantic heart was perhaps her ultimate downfall.

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