Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Queen Juana: The mad or the betrayed?

Juliana Menegakis
London, United Kingdom


Juana I de Castilla
Juana I de Castilla, ca. 1500 Master of Affligem. Museo Nacional de Escultura. Via Wikimedia.

Juana of Castile is known by her epithet “the Mad.” But was she truly insane? Infanta Juana of Castile and Aragon was born in 1479 to Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, the famed Catholic Monarchs who united Spain. Juana had two older siblings, Isabella and John, and two younger sisters, Maria and Catherine. All five children were well-educated, learning Latin, French, and the three languages of the Iberian Peninsula, but as the eldest two—the heir and the spare—were trained to rule, Juana and her younger sisters were trained for important marriages. This came to fruition in 1496, when Juana was betrothed to Philip of Flanders and Austria, son of the Holy Roman Emperor. Eager to escape the harshly pious rule of her parents, she agreed happily and left for Flanders at only sixteen.1

Meanwhile, Juana’s older siblings were making their own dynastic marriages; Isabella married first Afonso and then his uncle Manuel I of Portugal, while John’s marriage to Philip’s sister Margaret of Austria solidified his parents’ alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor. Tragedy struck the family in quick succession, however. John died mere months after his marriage to Margaret, and his daughter was stillborn shortly after. Less than a year later, in August 1498, Juana’s sister Isabella died giving birth to her son, Miguel, who himself would die in July 1500.

This cascade of deaths left Juana the unexpected heir to both Castile and Aragon, but the newly-minted heiress had little support from either her remaining siblings—who were both married by November 1501—or her husband. The couple’s marriage was strained by Philip’s near-constant infidelity and his struggle to retain control of his political power amidst the political turmoil in Austria, putting more strain on Juana’s mental health.8 Meanwhile, Juana was fulfilling her duty to continue her line; she gave birth to Eleanor in November 1498, Charles in February 1500, and Isabella of Austria in July 1501. Shortly after her recognition as heiress by the Castilian Cortes (governing council) in Toledo and the Aragonese Cortes in Zaragoza in 1502, Juana gave birth yet again, to Ferdinand of Austria in March 1503.

In November 1504, Isabella I of Castile died, leaving Juana queen regnant of Castile. However, her reign was threatened as quickly as it had begun, as her father and husband fought over the right to rule in her stead, contributing to the difficult birth of her daughter Mary in September 1505.5 Despite this, Philip insisted on their return to Flanders. On their journey home, the couple was shipwrecked and rescued by Juana’s sister Catherine of Aragon (first wife of Henry VIII), now the Dowager Princess of Wales—the only meeting Juana had with any of her siblings between her marriage and her death. However, contact with her family did not necessarily bode well; when they returned to Castile in June 1506 to meet with Juana’s father Ferdinand, Ferdinand and Philip secretly agreed to exclude Juana from her government.5 And the deaths kept mounting; after a sudden illness in Burgos, Castile (rumored to be a poisoning by Ferdinand), Philip died in September 1506. Pregnant and alone, Juana was distraught.

Determined to secure their son Charles’s right to the throne, Juana wanted Philip buried in the resting place reserved for Castilian royalty, the Royal Chapel in Grenada. She refused to bury Philip in Burgos as custom demanded, instead setting off across Castile. This sent rumors of her madness spiraling, and her people whispered that she refused to accept Philip’s death, regularly opening the coffin to talk with his corpse.4 Simultaneously, plague and famine were ravaging Castile, and a regency council was set up for Juana against her will. In January, a heavily pregnant Juana was forced to halt her travels to Grenada in the village of Torquemada, where she gave birth to her sixth child, Catherine of Austria. Meanwhile, four of the grieving queen’s children were taken from her. Eleanor, Charles, Isabella, and Mary were sent by the Holy Roman Emperor to the court of their aunt Margaret of Austria, now governor of the Netherlands, where they would be raised for most of their childhoods.

Juana I beside her husband's coffin
Juana the Mad Holding Vigil over the Coffin of Her Late Husband, Philip the Handsome, 1877 Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz. Museo del Prado. Via Wikimedia.

In July 1507, Ferdinand II returned to Castile, coinciding with a lessening of the plague and famine. Juana’s court was relieved, and Juana was forced by her father to give up her royal powers in Hornillos. In February 1509, Juana was confined with her children Ferdinand and Catherine in the palace of Tordesillas, while Ferdinand II was named administrator of Castile in 1510. Her loyal servants were replaced by Ferdinand’s,3 and rumors of the queen’s madness continued to swirl. Any hope of rescue from her family, too, was dashed, when her father died in 1516 and her now-grown children Eleanor and Charles came to see their mother in Tordesillas. Although Juana authorized the son she had not seen for ten years to rule alongside her, Charles would not release her.

Alone in Tordesillas but for her caretakers and her children Catherine and Ferdinand, Juana’s health continued to decline. Ferdinand was soon taken from her, in 1518,1 while her three eldest daughters made their political matches; Isabella married Christian II of Denmark in 1515, Eleanor married Manuel I of Portugal in 1518, and Mary married Louis II of Hungary and Bohemia in 1521. Her sons moved on as well, with Charles elected Holy Roman Emperor alongside his rule of Aragon and Castile and Ferdinand ruling much of Eastern Europe through his wife, Anna of Bohemia and Hungary. Even her daughter Catherine was taken from her in 1524, to marry John III of Portugal.1 Having outlived all of her siblings and one of her children, Queen Juana of Castile died alone in the palace of Tordesillas after forty-eight years of confinement.

The truth of Juana’s insanity has long been a source of scholarly debate. Pfandil thought she had schizophrenia;5 Álvarez argues she was depressed.7 One oft-cited piece of evidence for these claims is the supposed madness of Juana’s maternal grandmother, Isabella of Portugal.2 Like Juana, Isabella’s illnesses are debated, but it is likely that she had postpartum depression, isolating herself after the birth of her daughter Isabella.6 In contrast, Bergenroth argues that Juana’s illness was grossly exaggerated by those around her, while Villas opines that the de Veyre letter—the basis for the position that Juana was mad with her love for Philip—was merely an expression of marital love greatly exaggerated to discredit Juana.3

Whether or not Juana had previously suffered from mental illness, her mental stability was undoubtedly shaken by the abuse she received from her mother and during her imprisonment. Bergenroth cites letters from during Juana’s confinement in Tordesillas as evidence for this position; the Marquis of Denia, Juana’s guardian in Tordesillas, wrote to her son Charles that “torture . . . would in many respects be a service and a good thing rendered to God and to her Highness. Persons who are in her frame of mind require it, and the Queen your grandmother served and treated in this way the Queen our lady, her daughter.”1 Furthermore, when Ferdinand died, the envoy sent to review Juana’s living conditions in Tordesillas suspended Mosen Ferrer, a longstanding servant of Ferdinand sent to watch over Juana.1 Ferrer protested, saying that he only ordered that “la cuerda [a form of torture] should be applied to preserve her life” when she would have “destroy[ed] herself by abstinence from food, as often as her will was not done.”1 Taken together, these seem certainly enough to justify some erratic or unusual behavior from Juana. But regardless of Juana’s actual mental health, it is undeniable that her treatment in Tordesillas worsened any issues. Denia and Charles kept her in near-total isolation, with Charles ordering that “no person speak with Her Majesty, for no good could come from it.”9 Denia also lied to her consistently, refusing to tell her about her children and even telling Juana that her father was alive years after Ferdinand’s death.1 Whether or not Juana of Castile was truly mad, she is undeniably a tragic figure in Spanish history.



  1. Great Britain Public Record Office. Calendar of Letters, Despatches, and State Papers Relating to the Negotiations between England and Spain Preserved in the Archives at Simancas and Elsewhere. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/stream/bub_gb_9q8MAQAAIAAJ/bub_gb_9q8MAQAAIAAJ_djvu.txt.
  2. Duggan, M. (1976). Queen Joanna and Her Musicians. Musica Disciplina, 30, 73-95. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20532188.
  3. Aram, B. (1998). Juana “the Mad’s” Signature: The Problem of Invoking Royal Authority, 1505–1507. The Sixteenth Century Journal, 29(2), 331-358. doi:10.2307/2544520.
  4. Mozzati, T. (2017). Charles V, Bartolomé Ordóñez, and the Tomb of Joanna of Castile and Philip of Burgundy in Granada: An Iconographical Perspective of a Major Royal Monument of Renaissance Europe. Mitteilungen Des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, 59(2), 174-201. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26406042.
  5. Halsey, M. (1978). Juana La Loca in Three Dramas of Tamayo y Baus, Galdós, and Martín Recuerda. Modern Language Studies, 9(1), 47-59. doi:10.2307/3194407.
  6. Brown, K. Isabel of Portugal (1428 – 1496). Encyclopedia.com. https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/isabel-portugal-1428-1496.
  7. Fleming, G. (2019). Juana I: Legitimacy and Conflict in Sixteenth-Century Castile. Palgrave Macmillan.
  8. Penn, T. (2012). Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England. Penguin Books.
  9. Waldherr, K. (2008). Doomed Queens: Royal Women Who Met Bad Ends, From Cleopatra to Princess Di. Three Rivers Press.



JULIANA MENEGAKIS attends the American School of London, United Kingdom.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 13, Issue 4 – Fall 2021

Summer 2021  |  Sections  |  History Essays

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