Tag Archives: Empowered Women Leaders

Queen Isabella of Castile, and the Mysterious Madness of Princess Juana

It is said, madness runs in families.

Isabella I of Castile
(wikipedia)

While Isabella of Castile became one of the most powerful female monarchs the world would ever know, her daughter, Juana, could not seem to find empowerment at any time in her life, even when she became Queen of Castile. Suffering from bouts of ill temper, melancholia, jealous rages and utter despair, Juana was proclaimed “mad” early into her marriage and she never successfully alluded the title.

Both never intended for the throne, Isabella and her daughter Juana came to their prospective reigns through the untimely death of siblings, and also through powerful alliances in marriage. Both raised at court, they received the finest education a princess could receive, but their lives, and any hope at happiness in their younger years, came at the mercy of their male superiors and overbearing mothers. Isabella’s mother, known as Isabella the Mad, often flew into paranoid rants about ghosts or people wanting to kill her or her beloved.

Raised under the reign of her half-brother Henry IV, Isabella endured several betrothals and refused one or two before she married the man she had first been intended for, Ferdinand of Aragon. Knowing her half-brother wanted an alliance with Alfonso of Portugal, Isabela fled from her brother’s court to Valladolid, and married her second cousin, Ferdinand.

From that point on, Isabella and Ferdinand embarked on a quest to make Castile and Leon (now Spain) a pure nation. With Isabella at the helm, they reorganized the government and saved the kingdom from the overwhelming debt her brother Henry left behind. Isabella and Ferdinand became known as the “Catholic Kings,” after they ruthlessly resurrected the Reconquista by taking Grenada from the Muslims, and exiled Jewish subjects in the Spanish Inquisition. Isabella established Spain as a world power that lasted for more than a century with her support of Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage to the “new world.”

Although having given birth to five children, Isabella had little time to raise them. Juana, the third child, an extremely beautiful, intelligent and sensitive girl, started exhibiting strange behaviors when her mother became ill, or traveled away from court. The young princess often locked herself away and refuse to eat or sleep.

Juana the Mad
Juana de Castile (pinterest)

In 1496, Isabella sent Juana, aged 16, accompanied by a fleet of over 100 ships, to Flanders to marry Phillip the Fair, or Phillip the Handsome, the heir to the Austrian empire. The alliance would strengthen Spain’s presence against the power of France, and align it with Flanders, the top producer of Iberian wool. After the setback of a tremendous storm delayed the arrival of the princess, the two teenagers finally met, and fell in love at first sight. With the wedding set for the next day, the two decided they could not wait, and had a priest marry them immediately.

But the passionate luster soon wore off for Phillip, known to love his wine and his women. When Phillip misbehaved, Juana flew into long, drawn-out jealous rages, or took to her rooms, refusing food or drink for days.

Despite their marital troubles while living in Flanders, Juana became pregnant. She first gave birth to a daughter, Eleanor, in 1498, and then Charles in 1500. During this span of time, Juana’s elder brother John and her sister Isabella both died, leaving Juana heir to the throne of Spain. In order to keep an eye on Juana, who’s public displays of ill-temper had become renown in Flanders, and Phillip who’d become too lenient with France, Isabella and Ferdinand encouraged the couple to move to Spain. If they were to inherit the realm, they needed to be schooled for their eventual accession to power.

Finally, in 1502, Juana and Phillip arrived in Spain where Juana was recognized as Isabella’s successor and Phillip her consort. Feeling like a fish out of water, Phillip soon returned to Flanders, but Isabella would not allow Juana to leave with him.

Desperate without her husband, Juana resorted to her melancholic state and refused to eat or drink. Phillip wanted Juana back in Flanders as badly as Juana wanted to be there, but for different reasons. He wanted his wife out of Spain’s control. Isabella feared that Spain would revolt should Juana try to rule from Flanders, so the tug of war continued until 1504, when fearing for her daughter’s mental stability, Isabella let Juana return to Flanders.

juana and phillip
(pinterest)

But love and life did not improve for Juana. Phillip continued his affairs and Juana continued her embarrassing public outbursts. These public displays of outrage and then overt affection toward Phillip only made Phillip despise his wife more. He had her locked away in her rooms.

More sad news would reach Juana a few months later when she learned that her mother, Isabella, had died. Her father, Ferdinand, in order to keep control from Phillip, claimed Juana incompetent to rule, and he intended to rule as regent until his grandson Charles became of age.

To thwart her father’s plan, Juana and Phillip sailed for Castile in the hopes that powerful nobles who opposed Ferdinand would side with Juana. They did. Ferdinand then remarried hoping to beget another son to take the throne from Juana’s control.

In 1506, perhaps tired of working around Juana, Ferdinand and Phillip made an alliance. Without Juana’s knowledge, the two men met and declared Juana unfit to rule. Ferdinand turned Castile over to Phillip and Juana in a monetary exchange, knowing that Phillip would wrest control from Juana, but also that Spain would likely not accept a foreign ruler.

To everyone’s surprise, in late 1506, Phillip fell ill with fever (some say poison.) Juana nursed him around the clock for six days until he finally succumbed. Bereft, Juana, according to chroniclers of the time, had her husband’s coffin reopened on several occasions so she could caress his face and look upon him.

These claims were probably exaggerated by Ferdinand and then later, Juana’s son Charles, to discredit her and thwart any hope of her rising to power, again. To Ferdinand’s relief, Juana had no interest in ruling, and in 1507 she turned the government over to him. In return, he had her imprisoned in Tordesillas castle, where she continued her bouts of refusing to eat or sleep.

When Charles finally came into power after the death of Ferdinand, he did not treat his mother much better than Phillip or Ferdinand had. But, the people loved her, and often rallied to her cause, but Charles clamped down even harder on his mother because of her popularity. She finally enjoyed about 8 months of freedom before she died.

Was Juana actually mad, or did she possess a tender heart and have a sensitive nature? Did she suffer from bi-polar disease, or did she pose too much of a threat to the men in her life who wanted power above all else? We may never know. I wonder if Isabella had lived longer, would she have come to the defense of her daughter, or would she have treated her as ruthlessly as she did the others she deemed weak? I would hope the former, but then, I’m an eternal optimist.

Joan of Arc – Maid, Mystic, Heretic, Saint

joan of arc astride a horse in battle
(Encyclopedia Britanica)

What possessed, Joan of Arc, a normal, 15th century teenaged girl from a modest village, to travel for 11 days to tell the dauphin of France she needed to lead an an army to Orléans to save the country from English power?

What possessed the dauphin to grant her request, against the advice of his councilors and generals?

When I reacquainted myself with the story of Joan of Arc for this blog post, a thought kept popping into my mind: What would happen if a common girl today went to the leader of her country and claimed that God commanded only she could save her country from its enemies? The leader would probably laugh at her and then have her committed. She would not be taken seriously.

At all.

So what made the dauphin and military leaders of the time, follow the advice of this young, country peasant?

#1) Her piety.

Like other girls in the village of Domrémy, Joan helped her mother with spinning and sewing, and her father with watching the cattle and livestock. The daughter of a pious Catholic woman, Joan and her sister Catherine attended confession and mass regularly, helped to nurse the sick of her village, and often visited nearby oratories and chapels. But at age 12 or 13 Joan began to spend more time in church and in prayer. The other children took notice of this and sometimes ridiculed her for her pious ways. What they, nor her parents or sister didn’t know was that Joan had a secret. One she felt she couldn’t share with anyone else.

#2) Her visions and voices.

joan visted by Michael the Archangel
(fr.wikipedia.org)

Joan’s village suffered raids and burnings from the English and the neighboring Burgundians many times. Once, it burned to the ground and had to be re-established. When things calmed down after one of these raids, Joan, while working in her father’s garden experienced something that would change her life forever. The Archangel Michael appeared to her in blinding white light. He told her she would be visited by him again, and to prepare for visitations from St. Catherine and St. Margaret, who had an important message to deliver to her. When they appeared on several other occasions, they told her she must drive the English out of France, and bring the crown prince, the dauphin, to power as king in the city of Reims. Joan did not tell others of these visions and voices until well into her mission.

#3) Her devotion to her country.

Joan dropped everything in her life in Domrémy to save her country. She defied her father, who’d arranged a marriage for her, telling him she had a greater mission in life. She traveled to nearby Vaucouleurs to implore the local magistrate, Robert de Baudricort, to assist her in her mission to reach the dauphin, Charles. After Baudricort laughed at her, he told her to be a good girl, go back to her mother, and find a husband. Joan would not be dissuaded and 6 months later, returned to Vaucouleurs where she convinced a band of men  she was the prophesied virgin destined to save France. She cut her hair, donned men’s clothing, and traveled 11 miles with this band of men to Chinon to deliver her message to the dauphin.

#4) Her divine prophesies.

  • When Joan traveled to Vauclouleurs she immediately recognized Baudricourt without having seen him. She later claimed her guides’ voices told her,”there he is.” She explained to him her prediction of the deliverance of Orléans, the rise of the Dauphin at Reims, and of the defeat of the French at the battle of Harengs, as it took place.
  • Once she arrived at Chinon and entered into the chamber of the dauphin, she knew him in a moment, despite his concealment behind a group of 300 people. Amazed at her detection of him, he gave her a private audience where she promised he would be crowned at Reims if she could lead an army of soldiers to stop the siege at Orleans.
  • Still skeptical, the prince told her of a sword buried in the church of St. Catherine de Fierbois, and requested she bring it to him. With the assistance of her divine guides, she found the sword behind the altar of the church. It became her most beloved sword – although she refused to carry a sword into battle, but instead carried a white flag.
  • She predicted she would be wounded at Orléans, where she was pierced with an arrow between her neck and shoulder.
  • After the dauphin had been crowned as King Charles VII at Reims, Joan stated to him she “would last a year, and but little longer.” She also explained she would be captured by mid-summer. Fourteen months later near Compiègne, Joan was pulled from her horse by a Burgundian supporter and taken prisoner. She remained imprisoned until her death.

# 5) She never relented.

Joan at the stake
(Encyclopedia Britanica)

Imprisoned at Beaurevoir Castle by the Burgundians, Joan made several escape attempts, including jumping from her 70-foot tower. Unable to escape detection, her captors moved her to the town of Arras. The English paid 10,000 livres to claim her from the Burgundians and then moved her to the city of Rouen where she stood trial.

The English wanted to try Joan for heresy, but no evidence could be found. Hersey was only a capital crime if it had been committed twice, which did not stand up in Joan’s case. They initiated the trial anyway, despite the fact that no one stood to represent Joan—a requirement of the law.

When interrogated, Joan confessed her visions and her voices, stating that she acted according to God’s will. When a clergyman mocked her and asked what language her voices spoke, she claimed they spoke French—far better than he did.

Under inquisitorial guidelines, Joan should have been confined in an ecclesiastical prison under the supervision of nuns, not in a secular prison with only male guards. When captured, Joan wore her usual attire of men’s clothing. Unable to try her for heresy, the English changed the charge to “cross-dressing.” Joan then agreed to wear a dress, but after her a guard tried to rape her, she changed back to her masculine attire. After this abjuration, they claimed she relapsed into heresy by cross-dressing. The trial commenced and Joan was sentenced to death for the crime of heresy.

At the stake, she requested to wear a cross on her breast, and for someone to hold a cross before her. Her last words were, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”

The Roman Catholic church recognized her as a saint in 1920.