c w gortner

Joanna I of Castile as portrayed in fiction:

As the midwife set my newborn child in my arms, I thought without doubt she was my most beautiful—a perfect infant in every way, down to the fuzz of reddish curls on her still-soft crown, her milky skin, and her languid amber-tinted eyes. She did not fuss; rather, she was content to lie cradled beside me, as if her abrupt entrance into the world had left her unaffected.

I kept her with me until Fernando tiptoed into my chamber to stand at the foot of the bed, regarding me with a quizzical air.

“Rumor is you’ll not surrender her to the wet nurse. The ladies are scandalized. They think you’ll nurse her yourself.”

“She’s not hungry yet.’ I peeled back the edge of fleece swathing her face. “Look: she’s fast asleep. She’s been like this since they gave her to me. She’s so at ease, it’s almost unnatural. Have you ever seen a newborn so quiet?”

He came around the bed to gaze at her. “Her hair is red, like my mother’s.”

“Then we must call her Juana,” I said, “in honor of your mother.” I craned over to kiss her warm forehead, upon which life had yet to inscribe any lessons.

“Infanta Juana,” echoed Fernando and he smiled. “Yes, it suits her.”


Juana was a vigorous child with a mass of coppery curls and a temper to match, as Beatriz often teased. My friend had delivered a healthy boy whom she and her husband adored. They had christened him Andrés, after his father, but with the distraction of having to care for her new babe, Beatriz had indulged Juana’s whims. My second daughter dis „played early talent when it came to languages and music, but she was rebellious as far as her daily regimen was concerned, far too much so for a three-year-old.

I had a stern discussion with her about her unseemly penchant for throwing off her slippers to wade barefoot in the garden ponds. “Infantas should not behave thus,” I informed her when she pertly replied that her feet swelled in the heat. “Decorum at all times is essential.”

Juana pouted and proceeded to do exactly as she had been doing, so I decided to take her with me on a long overdue visit to Arévalo to see my mother. I reasoned that time alone with me, away from the distractions of court, would instill in her a modicum of behavior. To my disconcertion, she proved entirely unmanageable during the two-day trip, leaping up on the litter cushions to peer out the window at the passing meseta, and pointing and chattering excitedly about everything she saw, from the swooping eagles that stalked the plains to the crumbled watch-towers pockmarking the barren ridges. I watched her with bemusement, thinking of the fables I’d heard about changelings. Of course „uch tales were nonsense; but though she resembled Fernando in her coloring and disposition, there were moments when she caught my regard with those penetrating eyes of hers and suddenly she would seem years older than she was, as if another being dwelled in her skin.

She quieted down once we reached Arévalo, however. The isolation of the castle under its brooding sky seemed to affect her, and she stared, wide-eyed but silent, at the old servants moving like ghosts about the halls, treating her with the stiff discomfort of those who’d lived for years without ever seeing a child. I tried to reassure her that there was nothing to fear, that this had once been my home, but she only brightened when one of the castle dogs, descendants of my brother’s beloved Alarcón, snuffled up beside her. She had a way with animals, just as Alfonso had had.

She displayed an unexpected reticence at the sight of my mother, ensconced in the faded splendor of her apartments, which she now refused to leave. Dressed in the antiquated fashions of her brief tenure as queen, so gaunt her wrists poked like bones from her frayed sleeves, my mother peered at Juana for a seemingly endless moment before she crooked a finger at her, motioning her forward. Juana refused to budge. I felt her hand clasp at my skirts, resisting my murmured urge that she go and kiss her grandmother.

Then my mother whispered, “Tan desgraciada. So beautiful and so unfortunate, like me.”

Juana gave a frightened gasp; even at her age she understood the tenor of this pronouncement, uttered with the eerie assurance of a prophecy.

“Mama, please,” I said. “You mustn’t say such things. She’s only a child.”

“So was I, once.” My mother’s watery eyes turned distant. “So were you. Youth is no protection; in the end, life scars us all.”


When she practiced it aloud, Juana would peer at her suspiciously. Once, she blurted, “You act as if you’re looking forward to leaving Spain,” then she wrinkled her nose in distaste.

“That’s my girl,” chuckled Fernando. “A Spaniard to her core, she is.” He swung Juana into his arms; as she squealed and pulled off his cap, revealing his now near-bald pate, I resisted a frown. He favored her too much. He even had a nickname for her, “Madrecita,” because she reminded him of his late mother. I’d told him countless times she must not grow up thinking she was more privileged than our other daughters, for she too must one day take her assigned place in the world, but Fernando would just chuck her chin and say, “My Madrecita will be an envoy for Spain no matter where she goes, eh?” And Juana’s emphatic “Sí, Papa!” did not reassure me, either. At this rate, Fernando would spoil her so much she would think no prince worthy of her, nor capable of living up to her father.


Inés and Beatriz were watching my children: Catalina snug in a cradle while Juana rocked her; María playing with her dolls; Isabel quietly reading from the psalms with Juan. As often happens in families the closest in age were not the closest in affection: While Isabel and Juan had grown close, Juana gravitated to Catalina. María seemed unaffected by her surroundings; at three years of age, she was so placid she astonished her attendants, who declared they’d never cared for a less troublesome child.


I ordered everyone to refuse to entertain any talk of convents, even if it made Isabel feel comforted. Everyone complied, but Juana, in characteristic fashion, goaded Isabel mercilessly. At eleven years of age, my second daughter was unwilling to concede any weakness in herself, much less in others.

“You look like a crow,” Juana remarked as we sat in my pavilion after dinner one evening, the warm wind flowing through the tent’s open flaps. Outside a thousand campfires glittered on Granada’s vega like fallen stars as our men settled in for the night. “Always in black and moping about; it’s unseemly. After all, you were married less than a year. You can’t possibly have loved him that much.”

Isabel stiffened on her stool, the altar cloth we embroidered between us tightening in her fingers. “And who are you to judge? What do you know of love or loss, spoiled selfish child that you are?”

“I might be spoiled,” retorted Juana, “but at least I know I’d never love anyone so much that I’d forget myself.”



I paused. “Is that smoke I smell …?” I started to say, as Juana leapt to her feet, tossing her hopelessly tangled yarns to the floor and rushing to the pavilion entrance. She gasped. “Mama, look! The camp is on fire!”

Pandemonium broke out. As the duennas and other ladies raced to the back of the pavilion to gather sleeping Catalina and María from their beds, I hurried with my older daughters outside. To my horror, I beheld flames leaping like nimble devils from tent to tent, incinerating the velvets and silks and brocades, consuming everything within their path in minutes. All around us courtiers and soldiers were shouting; horses whinnied in terror and tore loose from their tethers, galloping about in panic as the dogs bayed. I didn’t know where to turn; the smoke was already so thick I could barely draw in a breath. Suddenly, the marquis of Cádiz materialized out of nowhere, smut on his face and his clothes. “Majestad, come quickly!”

“Where are my husband and son?” I cried as he led us around the burning encampment, toward a nearby hill that offered protection.

“They are safe,” he said. “The fire started in my tent, where they slept, but they got out in time. The king’s hounds started barking the moment they saw the flames.”

“Gracias a Dios.” I clutched Catalina to me. In the eerie interplay of fire and darkness, I caught sight of Juana’s face. She was pale and wide-eyed; her mouth ajar in an expression I could only describe as exultant, as if the catastrophe had been staged for her amusement. I was appalled. Did she have no fear, no sense of the destruction and loss happening around us?

As if she read my thoughts, Isabel said quietly, “She doesn’t care. She thinks it’s a game. She has no respect for anything.”

I hushed her. With Catalina in my arms and María held by Beatriz, we reached the hill’s summit, which offered a terrible view of the conflagration. Fernando came running out of the darkness, his loyal hounds at his heels. I glimpsed our son, Juan, nearby, still in his nightshirt, his sword in its jeweled scabbard gripped in his hand. He’d recently been knighted in honor of his thirteenth year and refused to be separated from his weapon, even while in bed. At the sight of him, his white-gold hair tangled, his face blackened by soot but otherwise unharmed, tears of relief sprang to my eyes.

Juana plunged into Fernando’s embrace. Encircling her with his arm, he drew the rest of us close and we turned to watch our great cloth city, proof of our vanity and the whimsical folly of fate, burn entirely to the ground.


All the quotes describing childhood of Joanna (in six different scenes) come from: C. W. Gortner. „The Queen’s Vow”.