“Our Lady Cannot Govern”

Although born to proud and devious parents, none of her portraits beheld a lady of any haughtiness – there was no richness, none of the sumptuary honor which only a royal child could wear.  Instead, her eyes were shadowed with religion and the various arts of an heiress.  Her face was as round, as meek, and as pale as a saucer of milk.  And in time that milk would sour:  for history – with all the cruelty of the schoolyard – would always know her as "Juana La Loca."

What lurked beneath that white modesty?  What monsters in her DNA traveled down a weakened ancestry, down broken and diseased stairs?  Did sickness and incest weave through her lineage, a worm eating at a threadbare tapestry?

But maybe the myriad condemnations of birth weren't to blame – and names could be given to the people who drove Juana, the trained Iberian Infanta, to despair.

In 1496, when she was 16, Juana married Philip, the Duke of Burgundy.  Her flaxen, Flemish husband was called "The Handsome" – and although only a teenager like his bride, there was already a cruel seduction in his lush mouth and swollen eyes.

Juana had to accept the courtly abuses inflicted upon a woman born into royalty:  infidelity, political resentment…a jealous husband.  Soon stories of her depression and neuroses – dark, invisible wings beating in her ears – began to circulate.  It was even said that she was  imprisoned by hyer husband – annoyed and embarrassed by such a petty annoyance as a wife in torment.

By 1506 Philip was dead.  But Juana would live for almost 50 years more.  Affairs of state coiled about her like snakes – a Medusa's head of government and greed.  When her mother, Isabella I of Castile, died, Juana became Queen, but found herself battling with both her husband and her father for control of that arid and medieval province.  Her father, Ferdinand II, convinced the Castilian Cortes to admit that Juana's "illness…is such that the said Queen Dona Juana our Lady cannot govern."

But she remained defiant – her thoughts cloudy and dim, a vague storm.  Juana would not sign the Cortes' demands, and for her courage was confined to the Santa Clara convent by her father.  All of her servants were dismissed.  She was alone, save for one person – she still kept her faithless husband's corpse with her.  It was 1509.

In 1516 her father was dead.  The following year, Castile went to Juana's son Charles I.  Officially it was his mother's, but a kingdom can't be given to a woman who is unable to change her own clothes.

Juana, raised on the rules of religion, the grace of languages and the gentility of her birthright, now found it difficult to eat, sleep or bathe.  She tasted poison in her food, felt it in her subconscious – her body was awash with it.  She even believed that the convent nuns wanted to kill her.  Charles confided in them, "It seems to me that the best and most suitable thing for you to do is to make sure that no person speaks with Her Majesty, for no good could come from it."

Juana died in 1555, at the age of 75.  She was still in her holy prison.  She had been betrayed by her father, her husband, her son…her heredity.  No good had come from it. 

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13 responses to ““Our Lady Cannot Govern”

  1. hhhhhhmmmm. interesting tale.

  2. alas and alack, a common tale for too many women…
    beautifully written

  3. I am quite intrigued by your post. Being very interested in psychology but not so interested, I must admit, in history, I was drawn to the way you presented this bit of history.

  4. So sad…I love reading your historical posts. They're beautifully written and transporting.

  5. Wow. Imagining the lives some of these "privileged" people had to endure gives me the shivers. I always love the different directions my mind travels through your posts.

  6. Wow, Aubrey, this is fantastic. So well-written and so engaging. I particularly liked this phrase, "down broken and diseased stairs."

  7. Good post! Interestingly, it appeared just as I was reading about the Revolt of the Comuneros, an early socialist-democratic revolt of the Spanish populace that took place under the rule of Juana's father, Charles V. The uprising took place on account of the corruption of the Spanish court and its failure to respond to complaints by local lords and community leaders about unjust taxes and graft by officials of the throne. Juana was used as a pawn during these years, and the corruption was unfairly blamed on her. Earlier histories written by male scholars have also been unfair to Juana, so it's good to see others right her name.

  8. save for one person – she still kept her faithless husband's corpse. That sentence really stands out to me.

  9. Waterbaby – I've come to realize that behind every portrait, famed or not, important or not so very much, is a story to be told.
    FD – So many times, a royal lady is considered an inanimate object, a signature, a title, a potential producer to be kept in hiding.
    Freedom – I've read stories that she kept the head of Philip with her…considering that state of Iberian politics at the time, it was in most people's interest to keep Juana in an emotionally weakened state. 500 years ago she was considered insane – now, she would have been considered neurotic, schizophrenic possibly. She would have been treatable, not hopeless.
    LM – Thank you – transporting maybe: but not always to pleasant places!
    Lauri – That's one of the reasons why I love history so much: all the directions, all the journeys, all the people – waiting with their own stories to tell.
    AmyH – Thank you, my fellow heat-sufferer! (but it's a dry heat, right?)
    Ms. Firefly – That was one of the first visuals I had for this post – and once a visual gets stuck in my head, it must get written down!
    Hangaku Gozen – Very true! This was a sad time in history, but an important one, too – with the merging of Castile and Aragon and the creation of Spain, the rising power of Charles and the Hapsburgs. But it's frustrating about the previous scholars – one should have at least trusted them!
    Emjay – That line sort of popped into my head and sat there grinning like the Cheshire Cat, until I took note of it and put it in the post. Sly thing!

  10. 1496 – were there even humans back then? Things were so incredibly different. You do a good job expressing that.
    Great passage, this one reminds me just slightly of Mists of Avalon.

  11. An excellent story well told.
    Also quite analagous with the lives of Jackie O and Lady Di wouldn't you say?
    "down broken and diseased stairs." ha ha !! Quite briliant.

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