The Madness of Juana of Castile

Tudor History Tours with the Tudor Society

Thank you to regular contributor Heather R. Darsie for this article on Juana of Castile who has gone down in history as "Juana la Loca".

Juana of Castile, known as Juana la Loca or Joanna the Mad, was the elder sister of Catherine of Aragon and sister-in-law to Henry VIII of England. Juana married Philip the Handsome in 1496, when she was 16. She went on to have six children with her husband, including Charles, who later became the Holy Roman Emperor. Juana was an intelligent young woman and, like her sisters, received a considerable education for the time-period. It was reported that Juana could speak the three main languages of the Iberian Peninsula, along with Latin and French.

Juana was never expected to be Princess of Asturias (the title of the heir apparent to the throne of Aragon), let alone Queen of Spain. Juana had two older siblings, her sister, Isabella, and a brother, Juan. Juan sadly died in 1497 at the age of 19 and his wife, Margaret of Austria, gave birth to a stillborn daughter two months after his death. Juana's sister, Isabella died in 1498, shortly after giving birth to her son Miguel. Miguel died in 1500 before his second birthday. This succession of deaths quickly catapulted Juana to her new position of Princess of Asturias, the title given to the heir to the throne of Castile. Juana's mother, the formidable Catholic monarch, Isabella I of Castile, passed away in 1504. This left the throne of Castile and Leon to Juana. She inherited the Kingdom of Aragon from her father upon his death in 1517.

Juana had started exhibiting signs of mental instability in 1504, when her mother was stricken with a fever. As was seen at other times during her lifetime, Juana was not eating or sleeping when her mother fell ill. After visiting with her mother, Juana wished to join her husband in Flanders, which would mean she would have to travel through France at a time when France and Castile were at war. When she was prevented from leaving for Flanders, twenty-four-year-old Juana flew into a rage.

Perhaps one of Juana’s most notorious, lurid displays of mental instability occurred when her husband died in September of 1506. Already known to fly into jealous rages over her husband's mistresses, even reportedly going so far as to attack at least one, Juana refused to part with her deceased husband's remains for a disturbingly long time. Quite pregnant, Juana travelled with her husband's body from Burgos to Granada, where he was to be buried. This is a distance of 668 kilometres, which would take around 6 1/2 hours to drive in a car today, so an extraordinary distance to cover in those days. Juana was said to have opened her husband's casket to embrace him and kiss him.

Unfortunately, Juana's husband Philip had spread rumours about her madness when he was still alive and her behaviour after his death may have reinforced these rumours. Juana's son, Charles, who became the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, eventually took over from Juana as regent, and then, monarch. In 1509 Juana was either placed in, or retired to, the Royal Monastery/Convent of Santa Clara in Tordesillas, Castile. Charles forbade Juana any visitors. She died there on 12th April 1555, Good Friday, at the age of 75. Juana was laid to rest in Granada's La Capilla Real, the resting place of her husband and parents.

So, was Juana mad? Was she undermined by her husband or son?

Juana's maternal grandmother, Isabella of Portugal, supposedly also suffered from mental illness and was sent to a convent. Juana's grandson Carlos and great-granddaughter Maria of Austria, Duchess of Jülich-Cleves-Berg, reportedly also went mad. It is thought that Juana may have suffered from a wide range of mental illness, including schizophrenia and depression. However, it does seem that her behaviour escalated in response to the deaths of her siblings, her nephew, her mother and her husband. Both Philip the Handsome and Charles V had a lot to gain from Juana being declared unfit to rule. She was also sent, or perhaps banished, to a convent by her son and not allowed any visitors for the rest of her life. So was Juana mad, or was she the victim of ruthless individuals in her life? What do you think?

Heather R. Darsie lives in the United States with her family and three parrots. She works in the legal field, with a focus on children. She obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in German Languages and Literature, then a Juris Doctorate in American jurisprudence, and studied abroad in Costa Rica and France. Heather has always loved history. She first became acquainted with Elizabeth I when she was in middle school and chose to write a book report about her. Since then, she has always held an interest in the Renaissance and its numerous enigmatic citizens, with particular focus on the history of England and Italy. She is currently working on a book on the heraldry of Tudor women and is also researching Anne of Cleves.

Sources & Suggested Reading

Pictures: Juana of Castile by the Master of the Legend of the Magdalen, Juana and Philip the Handsome with their subjects.

There are 19 comments Go To Comment

  1. Carolyn /

    People did not know how to treat mental illness then and in parts of the world now,which is sad. My mother suffered thru life upto her death in 1986,they didn’t know how to treat her as with many unfortunate souls even at that time,it was a practice then and upto the 1990s to shut them away no visitors or family,there is medicine available, but not to everyone unfortunately,,so was her family right in shutting her away , probably not, but thehats how they treated mental illness at that time,

  2. Susan Abernethy /

    I believe it was a combination of both. Juana may have suffered from a form of depression. But I see Bethany Aram’s book listed as a reference for this article. She makes some convincing arguments for verbal and mental abuse by Juana’s husband, father and to some extent her son. Aram also explains why Juana held on to Philip’s body for so long. Juana’s courage and diplomacy in the handling of the Communero rebellion shows she was very capable of rising to the occasion when necessary. It’s tempting to speculate on what kind of queen she would have been if she hadn’t been deposed.

    1. Dyann /

      From most of what I have read about Queen Joanna, it seems to me she may have suffered from bipolar disorder. Justbavthought.

  3. Conor Byrne /

    I do not believe Juana was mad. In her biography of the sister queens, Juana and Katherine, Julia Fox convincingly argued that rumours of Juana’s insanity were put about by her male relatives to justify their control of her and their rule of Castile government. She undoubtedly experienced grief when her husband died, but don’t most spouses? Why should this be seen as evidence of madness? That she might have been mentally abused by her husband and father is likely, and Ferdinand’s shenanigans in the political sphere do not portray him in a favourable light.

    1. La Reina /

      I have actually read the original Spanish sources on Juana, and she definitely had issues, even Isabella herself recognized it, which does not mean she was completely out of her mind. As for KoA and Mary, can you explain why you think they were mentally ill? I have studied them extensively and I simply don’t see it.

  4. GABRIELA ZAYAS /

    I think Juana was very disturbed by the conduct of her husband, as you write in your article. She was an over sexual woman, probably bipolar? In those days, that sexuality could be seen as a mental illness in itself. Add the jealousy, and the power of her father and son, and you have the reason for them toi vanish her to Tordesillas. But it is proved that she was always faithful to her father, as she was to her son when the comuneros went to offer her freedom in exchange for her to go against Charles, and she was known as the queen of Spain until her death. Charles was for very small amount of time king of Spain because he never took the title from her, when she lived.

  5. AmyGee /

    I don’t believe she was mentally ill. Not the way they’d like to paint her. She was more than likely a strong willed woman who a) wasn’t going to take her husband’s philandering lightly, b) dealt with grief in a way that was twisted to suit other’s purposes. The one who I think probably was mentally ill was Katharine and later on Mary.

    1. La Reina /

      I have actually read the original Spanish sources on Juana, and she definitely had issues, even Isabella herself recognized it, which does not mean she was completely out of her mind. As for KoA and Mary, can you explain why you think they were mentally ill? I have studied them extensively and I simply don’t see it.

  6. Andy Djordjalian /

    Thanks for the article. I understand Juana suffered from a BPD that ocasionally branched into delusion. Surely her mental state was aggravated by the stressful environment she endured, particularly from Philip’s behaviour, his death, and her forceful confinement. Perhaps even without modern treatment she could have led a fairly normal life if she had had more love and support.

    However, I think we’re being unfair to her son Carlos if we merely mention that he forbade all visitors, which I’m not sure is even accurate. Surely Carlos should have sought a better environment for his mother, but his reasons for keeping her under control are understandable. Witnesses state that, during her confinement at Tordesillas post Carlos’s (questionable) accession to the throne, Juana was often in deep depression, lacking nourishment and hygiene, or became very agitated. On the other hand, merely decades before, Castile had suffered a civil war of succession. There was a risk of repeating that experience with Juana playing a role, as she could name another regent, her Spanish-born son Fernando for example, to replace Carlos, who had proclaimed himself monarch alongside his mother doubtfully in order to discourage this possibility. With the comuneros uprising of 1520 this risk almost became a reality, as the rebels met Juana to ask her to challenge Carlos’s rule but she refused.

    I find the story of this family quite fascinating, though I wonder if some modern narratives are tainted by remnants of the Black Legend, plus, in the case of Juana, romatic views that are appealing but don’t harmonize with the accounts of her pitiful life under confinement.

  7. Andy Djordjalian /

    I’d like to rectify my previous comment: I wrote “BPD” but I meant bipolar disorder, and it’s just my opinion, borrowed mostly from a paper in Spanish that I could try to find again if someone is interested. I also should have added paranoia to the occasional ramifications of this hypothetical bipolarity.

    I have just read the paper by Espi Forcen and see that he effectively believes BPD is the best diagnosis. To judge from his credentials and the authority of the journal, the author must be extremely competent in the medical aspects of the matter, but I’m afraid the historical sections of his paper make me doubt about the biographical basis he used.

    For example, it is stated there that Juana was confined at the monastery of Santa Clara, but she actually lived in a royal palace close to it, until her death. Romantic views of Juana suggest that this building started deteriorating rapidly when she passed away. In any case, by the 18th century it was in a sorry state and was demolished.

    Espi’s paper also states that Juana became Queen regnant after Philip’s death and that Ferdinand tried to “unseat” her. But Archbishop Cisneros assumed the regency temporarily after Philip, supported by a council of notables that were motivated by Juana’s evident incapacity, or at least by the strange behaviour and disinterest in state matters that she showed at the time. This council called Fernando to act as king regent from there on. There was no need to unseat Juana.

    I find other dubious parts in that brief narrative, like saying that Juana’s older brothers (plural) and sister passed while she lived in Flanders (but they were only Juan and Isabella, Miguel being her nephew), that Philip attempted to become King of Castile (he already was), or that Ferdinand was administrator of the kingdom while Juana was regent (but Ferdinand was King regent and Juana was Queen, or “reina propietaria”).

    By the way, when I commented on Carlos yesterday I meant it mostly as a reply to comments on Facebook without realizing that I was writing on this other platform. Those readers were speculating that the alleged prohibition to receive visitors proved that Carlos was hiding that Juana was not really mad. But he had less sinister reasons for keeping tight control, and Bethany Aram reports that at least her children visited her, many times, until her death. Moreover, her younger daughter, Catalina, lived with her until Carlos arranged that she become queen of Portugal, and it was reportedly quite difficult for the child due to her mother’s state of mind.

    Thanks again!

    1. Dyann /

      Bipolar disorder does not usually display with schizophrenia or para pia.

      1. Dyann /

        Paranoia

        1. Andy Djordjalian /

          Dyann, an untreated bipolar disorder as Juana apparently had, when it gets severed like after her husband’s death, can have psychotic features such as paranoid delusion events, which are consistent with testimony of episodes of erratic behaviour from her that earned her her unfortunate nickname. Schizophrenia is a different illness, but look up “delusional disorder”, “paranoid disorder” or “psychotic events” in relation to severe bipolar disorder. Luckily, most bipolar people that we meet today are either treated or leading a healthier and more lovingly life than Juana’s, which protects them from those extremes.

  8. RealTudorLady /

    Joanne wasn’t mad, but she does seem to have had a psychotic break caused by the death of her husband. Her grief was extreme. She refused to allow his burial and locked herself in the room where his coffin lay, talking to him. There is also a possibility that she suffered extreme fear, distress, lack of self esteem, self blame, guilt and stress from the behaviour and abuse she suffered from her husband. Abused women often wrongly feel they are inadequate because their abuser makes them feel like this. Joanne may also have heard the rumours spread by Philip, whom she loved and become depressed. If she also had bipolar disorder she would also experience difficulties processing and controlling extreme emotional states like grief and her behaviour would reflect this. Today we would probably be more sensitive, but those around Joanna seem to have reacted in order to be practical and get on with what protocol dictated, rather than with any compassion towards a grieving widow. Men thought women were basically hysterical anyway, so they just didn’t understand if they had any kind of mental illness, even a temporary condition. Joanne may have had a condition from childhood, aggravated by the abuse of her husband and distress in the grief she felt at his death. If she had become dependent on him, then his loss would make her feel vulnerable, unable to function, static, catatonic even….not mad, but in need of guidance and support. Extreme grief can cause depression. Joanna was misunderstood by those who witnessed her grief and the rumours her abusive husband put about have sadly also misnamed her.

  9. Monica /

    The blame of her being imprisoned cannot be only placed on her son Charles V. Her father Ferdinand had much to lose upon the death of his wife. He not only lost land but prestige on the international playing field. He was no longer King of Spain. He had many reasons to want his daughter to be seen as mad and himself as the ruler of Castile, still. As to Juana’a madness who knows. History is written by the victors perhaps she was merely a woman misunderstood by those around her. Mad or not it is impressive that the propaganda spread about by her husband, father and son continues to be related to this day.

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The Madness of Juana of Castile