Book Review: “A Queen of Unrest” by Harry Tighe

A Queen of Unrest book cover

This book is subtitled: “The story of Juana of Castile, mother of Charles V., born 1479, died 1555” and is a reprint of a 1905 edition that was in the library of the University of Michigan. I’ve mentioned before I enjoy reading older history books and we are lucky some publishers are reprinting some of them or publishing them digitally so we can read them. In doing research on Juana, I found this book completely by accident as it came up as a recommendation on Barnes and Noble.

I’m just going to disclose up front I found this book to be a very weird. I can’t seem to find much information about the author but from what I did find, he was a playwright and a novelist. He may have written other historical books but it’s hard to determine the subjects of some of his titles as there is no information listed about them. This volume is a curious mixture of historical biography and descriptions of historical events mixed with elements of fiction. His list of sources is not very detailed and includes the “Encyclopedia Britannica” and ‘A Spanish book entitled “Juana of Castile”’ with no author given. This is not very promising.

From the early chapters, he says Juana was sickly, unattractive and not very bright. And he fervently insists that she was insane! From what I’ve read so far, Juana was at the very least attractive if not beautiful. I can’t see Philip the Handsome being instantly sexually drawn to a woman who was considered ugly. I also find it hard to believe a sickly woman gave birth to five healthy children. She was highly educated and spoke and read Latin so she must have had at the very least a modest intellect. As for her being insane, the jury is still out on that one.

Tighe gives a nice description of Juana’s childhood in Castile. He doesn’t waste much time on her life in Burgundy. There is some good information on her tours of Spain to be recognized by the Cortes as her mother and father’s successor. He spends a lot of time on Philip. There is a large chapter with a complete description of Philip’s visit with King Henry VII at Windsor which is a reprint of a chronicler’s record of the event. While this is of great interest, it doesn’t really have much to do with Juana. He only gives a passing reference to the fact that Juana was imprisoned for most of her life.

There is no explanation for the origin of the title of the book. It is unclear if he means that Juana was full of unrest or her kingdom was in disarray or a combination of both. The book is very short at 228 pages so I’m afraid there is not a lot of detailed and useful information on Juana. She is a woman about whom volumes could be written. That being said, I did get one huge insight from reading this book. Some of the descriptions of Juana’s behavior reminded me of a family member who suffered from depression. This has given me a great deal of food for thought and I’m going to do some further research on this illness.

Book Review: “Juana the Mad: Sovereignty & Dynasty in Renaissance Europe” by Bethany Aram

Juana the mad book cover

Earlier this year I read two biographies of Isabella of Castile by Liss and Downey. Liss doesn’t tell us a whole lot about Isabella’s children but Downey has a great chapter on her progeny, especially Juana. So the debate about Juana is whether she was insane or not and Downey writes quite a bit about Juana’s abominable treatment by her father and husband, basically saying Juana was not mad. I was intrigued and looked at the notes and bibliography section and found Downey referenced this book. So I purchased a copy.

Bethany Aram is a professor of Spanish and European history at the Institute of International Studies, Seville, Spain. This book is one in a series of the Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science. Aram spent many years in archival research and draws upon recent scholarship. Aram gives us a biography of Juana’s life along with a study in royal authority in the Renaissance.

Aram puts Juana’s life entirely in perspective for the times. The first section of the book explains several aspects of royal authority in Renaissance Europe. The sovereigns’ household was a microcosm of the government of the country. In this respect, Juana never had control of her own household. It was first controlled by her mother, then her husband, followed by her father and finally her son. Secondly, the sovereign was viewed as having two bodies: their personal bodies and their monarchical body. Juana was held as a virtual captive which didn’t allow her to bodily rule. Thirdly, a sovereign ruled by alternating fear and love. Aram gives a complete explanation of these concepts and how they applied to Juana’s situation.

Aram quotes all primary sources. Throughout the rest of the book, she weaves conventional biographical information along with putting Juana’s life into the context of the times. Juana was third in line for the throne and was not prepared to take the reins of government. When the time came, she was either unwilling or unable to take control. The political situation in Spain was not stable and would have taken a strong monarch to rule.

Aram gives us a jaw-dropping picture of Juana’s treatment by those who wished to control her and rule in her place. The descriptions of her life in Burgundy, her treatment by her husband Philip, her captivity in Tordesillas, Spain by her father and later her son are amazing to read. She had no say in who worked in her household her entire life. Philip was the epitome of the abusive husband, not allowing her enough money to even eat sometimes, let alone run her household.

Under the domination of her father after Philip died, she was a prisoner with no outlet. Some officials tried to get her to sign away her rights as queen but she always found an excuse not to sign. She complained loudly about those who had control of her household and greatly mistreated her. Aram gives an impressive explanation of why Juana held on to the body of Philip. She wanted to bury him in the family mausoleum of Granada for dynastic reasons and for political motivations, her father didn’t agree. Aram says there is only one chronicler who describes Juana opening Philip’s coffin. She explains this might have been to confirm his body was still there, not some kind of macabre obsession.

After the death of Ferdinand, Juana’s son Charles maintained her position in captivity. When a group of rebels gained access to her and tried to persuade her to rule in her own right, she basically signed no documents to that effect and kept her son in power. While her behavior may not have been royal and eccentric for the times, it doesn’t appear she was mentally ill. She either didn’t want to rule or was unprepared and chose not to rule.

I found this book fascinating and a real eye-opener. It’s not entirely an easy read as the academic explanations of Renaissance sovereignty are complex and deep. But it sets the backdrop and once the reader gets to the descriptions of Juana’s life, it’s a real page turner. If you want to know the true story of Juana of Castile, I recommend this book.