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Historical Figure of the Week  | Juana ‘the Mad’ of Castile (1479-1555)

While most people are familiar with her sister Catherine of Aragon and her marriage to the notorious Henry VIII, not many are familiar with the story of her older sister Juana. Immortalized in history as Juana “la Loca” or Juana “the Mad” for her presumed- but never proven – insanity, Juana of Castile was the third child and eldest surviving heir of the monarchs Isabella I of Castile and Fernando II of Aragon who laid the foundation for the political unification of Spain.

Juana is recorded to have been a great beauty in her youth, and one of the most educated women in Europe at the time. She was fluent in several languages and was accomplished in religious studies, court etiquette, the arts of dance and music, and equestrian skills by the age of seventeen.

Betrothed to Philip of Flanders, the Duke of Burgundy, Juana was sent to Flanders in 1496 to finally meet her groom – who famously lived up to his nickname ‘Philip the Handsome’- and consummate the marriage. Together, they had six children of which two lived to become emperors and four queens. Although extremely passionate at first, Juana’s life with Philip was rendered unbearably miserable by his infidelity and political insecurity. He consistently attempted to usurp her legal birthrights to power. This is when rumors of her insanity began to first surface, stoked by reports of her depressive, jealous, or neurotic acts in court, against his mistresses, and when manipulated and imprisoned by him. Regardless, Juana remained madly (yay puns) in love with Philip even after his death.

When her mother died in 1504, earlier marriage capitulations made it impossible for her father Fernando to inherit the throne, making Juana the rightful sovereign of Castile. Through many attempts, both her husband and father sought to break this neat line of succession and push her off the political stage. Fernando and Philip signed a treaty, agreeing that Juana was too mentally unstable to rule, promising to exclude her from the government. Philip died at the age of twenty-eight in 1506 of typhus leaving her pregnant with their sixth child. Accounts of Juana’s erratic behavior in reaction to Philip’s death only fueled the flames of her detractors.

As did her husband, her father Fernando used rumors of her wild devotion and other emotional outbursts as evidence of mental illness to discredit her authority and grabbed Castile from her to rule until his death in 1516. He imprisoned Juana in a windowless room in the castle at Tordesillas in 1509 with her youngest daughter Catherine (later Queen Catherine of Portugal).

Fernando died in 1516, leaving behind Juana and her son, Charles I (1500-1558), as his heirs. Juana was briefly released and Charles finally paid his mother a visit after a twenty-year absence.  According to Castilian law, Charles would not fully be recognized as King until Juana’s death. He refused to release her from her imprisonment and confined her for life in a convent in Tordesillas. She died at the age of 75 on good Sunday.

Some historians argue that Juana only showed signs of manic behavior and clinical depression when she was under duress by the treatment from her husband and father. Others believe that Juana was bipolar or schizophrenic, or that her “madness” only set in after she became a mother. One key point is that whether she was actually insane or simply betrayed by those she loved in the struggle for power, she never signed away her rights to the monarchy and lived as regent queen until her death.

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