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Joanna of Castile was declared unfit to rule by her father but many historians believe she suffered from bipolar disorder or clinical depression.

Joanna of Castile, Juan de Flandes, c 1500

Joanna of Castile, Juan de Flandes, c 1500

She was born in Toledo, the capital of Castile, on 6 November 1479, the Catholic Monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand’s third child. She inherited her Trastámara ancestors’ very fair complexion, blue eyes and reddish-blonde hair. However, Joanna was a tearful, restless baby who grew into a sullen, somewhat fearful child who preferred her own company. She was also prone to dark melancholic moods which she inherited from grandmother, Isabella of Portugal.

Joanna was intelligent, studious, well-read, thoughtful and devout but she enjoyed dancing, playing the clavichord, equestrian skills and she was multi-lingual in preparation for her role as queen consort. She was married to Philip of Burgundy, sealing an alliance between Spain and the Holy Roman Empire.

Isabella & Ferdinand with daughter Joanna

Isabella and Ferdinand with daughter Joanna

Philip the Handsome

In 1496, Joanna left her parents court to marry Philip of Burgundy, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian’s son, accompanied by a splendid entourage. It proved to be lust at first sight, as Philip insisted the wedding was held immediately.

Their marriage was unhappy as Joanna was obsessed and insanely jealous of her husband’s many mistresses. She became fiery, temperamental, suffering from depression, anxiety and fainting fits. Joanna was also haughty and obstinate so Philip punished her by avoiding his wife for days. Joanna was left alone in her bedroom for days either crying herself to sleep or banging her body against walls in frustration.

Isabella even sent an emissary to question Joanna who refused to reveal anything, but he reported back Joanna appeared miserable, tense and unstable.

Philip the Handsome (1478-1506), Duke of Burgundy, Anonymous, c 1500

Philip the Handsome (1478-1506), Duke of Burgundy, Anonymous, c 1500

Yet she remained madly, hopelessly in love with him despite Philip’s lengthy absences from the marriage bed they produced six children.

Both her brother John and her older sister Isabella queen of Portugal died within a year of each other so Spain’s Catholic monarchy’s future now rested with Joanna.

Isabella and Ferdinand urged Joanna to return to Castile immediately but Philip began playing power games with his in-laws. She was formally declared her mother’s successor, and Philip her king consort, when they finally arrived in Castile in 1502. Joanna was also recognised as Ferdinand’s heir in Aragon.

Philip hated Spain and returned to Burgundy whilst Joanna remained with her parents during her pregnancy. She was distraught by the separation, but her parents were furious by Philip’s betrayal by negotiating an immediate treaty with Louis XII of France.

Joanna abandoned her newborn baby and left her parents’ court to rejoin her husband. However, she was enraged to discover Philip had another mistress and attacked the woman with a pair of scissors, even hacking off her hair.

Isabella was extremely concerned about her daughter’s mental health so she changed her will, so Joanna was crowned Queen at her death. Philip was powerless to intervene in Castilian Government affairs and Joanna’s father was appointed Regent instead of her husband, should she be unable to unable to fulfil her duties as queen.

Despite Isabella’s good intentions, Joanna was completely unprepared for the battle between her husband and her father for possession of the throne after her mother’s death in 1504. Joanna deeply mourned her mother’s death in seclusion so her father declared his daughter unfit to rule and assumed power in Castile.

Queen of Castile

Neither her father nor her husband showed any real concern for Joanna’s personal well-being as they squabbled for power behind her back. They even signed a document declaring Joanna insane, but Ferdinand had second thoughts and changed his mind.

The Castilian nobility intervened, with the Admiral of Castile demanding a meeting with the Queen. He declared Joanna sane, after meeting her in person, as he recognised her as his queen and Philip as consort.

Philip & Juana's son, Charles V

Philip and Juana’s son, Charles V

Philip enjoyed his news powers for less than a month. He overindulged at a banquet one night and was dead by the following morning. Joanna went into seclusion for three months, distraught with grief. She kept Philip’s corpse with her during the long journey to Granada where some claimed she regularly opened the coffin to kiss his feet.

Ferdinand again seized power, claiming his daughter was mentally unstable. Emperor Maximilian took control of Joanna’s children except for her youngest child, Catalina. They were locked up in the fortress of Tordesillas where Joanna remained for the rest of her life.

Her son Charles V, came from The Netherlands to assume the regency when Ferdinand died in 1516, but Joanna had no voice in government. She became more pious and retreated into her own dark and cloistered world, where she remained a prisoner for nearly 50 years. She died on 12 April 1555, aged 76.


Carr, Raymond [ed], Spain: A History, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000

Gold, Claudia, Queen, Empress, Concubine: Fifty Women Rulers from the Queen of Sheba to Catherine the Great, Quercus, London, 2008

Ralph Lewis, Brenda, Passion, Politics and Juana: the Queen who lost her mind, RoyaltyMagazine, Volume 11, No 3, 1991

Ritchie, Robert, Historical Renaissance of the Renaissance, Checkmark Books, New York, 2004

Tibballs, Geoff, Royalty’s Strangest Characters, Robson Books, London, 2005

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© 2010 Carolyn M Cash

This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 13 November 2010.