Livin’ La Juana Loca

The Players

Combine and Conquer

By now, we are well acquainted with the sad story of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife who he cast aside after 25 years of marriage. But Catherine was not the only woman in her family who suffered at the hands of a man; her older sister Juana of Castile, or Juana la Loca (“Juana the Mad”) as she is unfortunately known, is remembered by history for all the wrong reasons.

Juana’s parents, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon were married in 1469, after receiving special permission from the Catholic Church (they were second cousins – please pretend to be shocked!). Their union was significant because at the time, Spain as we know it today was divided into separate kingdoms and territories. Isabella inherited the throne of Castile (essentially Western and Central Spain) in 1474 and Ferdinand inherited Aragon (Eastern Spain) in 1479. As husband and wife, they began the process of creating a unified Spain. It didn’t happen overnight, however, because while Isabella and Ferdinand were alive they each continued to rule and govern their kingdoms autonomously. If Isabella were to pass away, the throne of Castile would not automatically pass to Ferdinand, and vice versa with Ferdinand and Aragon. The title of heir for both Castile and Aragon belonged to their eldest living child and the unification would be complete once both thrones were held by the same person.

A rough illustration of the two kingdoms that would unite to create Spain. Note- Isabella was clearly the more powerful one in the relationship.

Crazy, Stupid Love

Juana was the third of Isabella and Ferdinand’s five children. Although she was not raised with the pressures of inheriting her parents’ crowns, she was expected to marry into a good family and provide her parents with strong allies. Being the daughter of Isabella of Castile must have been both awe-inspiring and intimidating. In a world run by men, Isabella was a queen in her own right, respected for her intelligence and her military acumen. And for Isabella, it was important that her daughters were also raised to become strong, intelligent, Catholic women. Juana and her sisters were given every educational opportunity a woman could have in those days, and so Juana entered the marriage market as a highly desirable match for her looks (she rocked the same famous red locks as her mother and sister Catherine), intelligence, and pedigree. 

In 1496, at the age of 16, Juana was engaged to Philip, Duke of Burgundy, son of Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor (and also a Habsburg!). Juana and Philip had two sons and four daughters: Charles and Ferdinand would go on to become Holy Roman Emperors; and Eleanor, Mary, Catherine and Isabella would all be queens. And as far as arranged marriages go, theirs was a success in the romance department (Philip was known as Philip “the Handsome”, although judging from his portrait, we must have VERY different opinions of “handsome”…). With the way that Juana was devoted to Philip you would have thought he was the world’s greatest husband. But nothing was further from the truth. Philip had a notoriously wandering eye and controlling nature. Royal women in the 15th and 16th centuries did not have a lot of control, but decisions concerning their household were one area where they had dominion. But even this was not the case for Juana. Philip controlled her money, her servants, and where she went. The couple often got into passionate arguments, with Philip locking Juana up or depriving her of her children and servants, and Juana threatening to starve herself in protest. In one incident that was particularly damaging to Juana’s reputation, she became so jealous of one of Philip’s side-pieces that she attacked the woman. The result of this outburst and the passionate arguments that followed “was, understandably, a growing reputation for instability”. 

I understand that the definition of beauty evolves over time, but seriously, this guy was worth losing your mind over?

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Juana’s volatile marriage was already a significant stressor, but a series of unexpected deaths led to pressure of a different kind. In 1497, her older brother John died as a result of an illness. A year later, her older sister Isabella died in childbirth, leaving Isabella’s newborn son as the heir to Isabella and Ferdinand’s thrones. Sadly, the boy was dead before the age of two. Suddenly, Juana was catapulted to the forefront of her family-as the oldest surviving child, all roads pointed to her being named as the future Queen of Castile and Aragon. But although her position as lawful heiress should have been clear, her path to the throne would be anything but easy. Juana was surrounded by men who were greedy for power and, as we will explore in a couple of weeks, saw every opportunity to prey on her weaknesses.

After the death of her siblings and nephew, Juana traveled with her husband back to Spain in 1501, where Isabella hoped to get a good gauge on just how prepared her daughter was to inherit her legacy. Needless to say, Isabella and Philip did not have a warm and fuzzy in-law relationship, and Juana constantly found herself pinned in the middle of conflicts between her husband and her mother. Philip was eager to blow the popsicle stand that was Spain and did so at the first opportunity. Unfortunately, Juana was pregnant with their fourth child and couldn’t travel and so was left behind. You’d think it was a great opportunity to enjoy some much needed freedom from her overbearing other half, but Juana was beside herself with grief at being abandoned. Following the birth of their son Ferdinand, Isabella tried to convince Juana to remain in Spain, but Juana wore her mother down in a manner 15-year-old Stefanie would have been proud of. The heiress of Castile and Aragon “staged an astonishing display of histrionic, even hysterical, behavior… She refused to eat, to talk, or to sleep, she attempted to force a ship’s captain to prepare to sail, she stood in the driving rain and would not take shelter for hours….In the end her tantrums worked” (Fox), but at a price. Those who witnessed her behavior, including her mother, began to have serious doubts about her fitness as a ruler. 

Imagine looking like Philip and thinking you could disrespect this queen (Isabella). That punk is lucky he never met his mother-in-law again following his departure from Spain.

Daddy Issues

And the matter of Juana’s fitness would prove to be pivotal. One year after Juana returned to Burgundy and to her husband, Isabella, Queen of Castile, died after years of failing health. If Juana had any dreams of actually ruling as queen, she would be sadly disappointed. Almost immediately, Philip flexed his muscles and set about positioning himself as the real man in charge, while King Ferdinand of Aragon teamed up with his son-in-law to “provide advice”. In reality, Ferdinand wanted control of Castile just as much as Philip. The two men took turns playing the role of Juana’s regent – a position usually used in the case of rulers who were underage. In 1506, Philip died suddenly at the age of 28, from either an unidentified illness or (less likely) poison (this has Agrippina the Younger written all over it…). Juana’s behavior following her husband’s death is history’s smoking gun for her label as “mad”. She was so devastated she supposedly “refused to leave the body’s side for months, frequently having Philip’s casket reopened to gaze upon and even kiss his corpse” (Town and Country). We can’t know for sure whether any part of that narrative is an exaggeration, but what we do know for sure is that all eyes were on Juana to see how she would react to the death of her husband. And it seems as if her behavior did nothing to instill confidence in the people of Castile.

A 19th century painting of Juana keeping vigil over the body of her dead husband. Centuries later the stories of her behavior after his death continue to be the most well-known thing about her.

With the death of Isabella and the absence of Philip as an oppressive babysitter, the throne of Castile should have unquestioningly been Juana’s. Remember: her father, Ferdinand, had no legal right to it. But, like many men of power (or just men tbh), Ferdinand was not phased by the rules, and like Philip, intended to wield power in Juana’s stead. To get the backing he needed required a strong ally. A year after his wife’s death, Ferdinand married King Louis XII’s niece (if Isabella, a noted French hater, wasn’t already dead, this would have killed her). Now Juana’s father had sole ownership of the regency, a powerful alliance with France, and a daughter who he could easily manipulate. In 1509, Ferdinand had Juana and her youngest daughter Catherine placed in a palace in Tordesillas and kept her there for the remainder of his life. 

One Is the Loneliest Number

Juana spent seven years under the “care” of her father. In reality, he only visited his daughter twice. In 1516, Ferdinand II of Aragon passed away. With her mother and father gone, the crowns of both Castile and Aragon were now solely Juana’s – in other words, she should have been the Queen of a unified Spain. Unfortunately for Juana, her father’s death did not end her captivity. Instead, a new jailer emerged: her own son, Charles, who continued to keep her at Tordesillas. In fact, Charles made sure that no one told his mother that Ferdinand was dead. Backed by allies of Spain, Charles declared himself “co-ruler” with his mother, with no actual intention of sharing the spotlight. His power and influence was cemented in 1519 when Charles’s grandfather, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (father of Philip) died and Charles was declared Emperor. Although he was technically still “co-ruler” of Spain while his mother was alive, he effectively neutralized her influence by continuing to keep her prisoner “and kept her even more isolated than she had been under his father’s control”  (reference).

The beautiful town of Tordesillas. Too bad Juana never got to enjoy any of it.

I am not sure that anyone would react well to being contained to basically the same two rooms for several decades. Understandably, Juana did not always handle her imprisonment gracefully. She suffered from depression, something that both her mother and grandmother battled during their lifetimes. And she was prone to resorting to some of the same tactics she relied on in her youth when things were not going her way – starving herself, refusing to sleep, “even attacking the women set to guard her” (Fox). Perhaps the worst moment came when her daughter Catherine, who had remained at Tordesillas as her only companion, finally spread her wings and left her mother to get married. Juana “stayed for twenty-four hours in the corridor from which she had had her last glimpse of her daughter before shutting herself away and taking to her bed for two days, prostrate with despair” (Fox). Things did not improve after the departure of Catherine, and Juana remained isolated until her death in 1555 at the age of 75.

For over two-thirds of her life, Juana “the Mad” was kept under lock and key and under the control of the men who should have protected and supported her. Next week we will explore what, if anything, plagued Juana and made her particularly vulnerable to the ambition and greed of her husband, father and son. 


The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Joan.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 8 Apr. 2020,

Ferdinandy, Michael de. “Charles V.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 17 Sept. 2020,

Fox, Julia. Sister Queens: the Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile. Ballantine Books, 2011.

Lauren Hubbard Writer Lauren Hubbard is a freelance writer and Town & Country contributor who covers beauty. “What Was Catherine of Aragon’s Sister, Juana La Loca, Really Like?” Town & Country, 10 June 2019,

“The Madness of Juana of Castile.” The Tudor Society, 2 Mar. 2017,

Tremlett, Giles. Isabella of Castile: Europe’s First Great Queen. Bloomsbury, 2017.

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