Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Book Review: Sister Queens by Julia Fox

The family of Katherine of Aragon is one that has not had nearly enough attention drawn to it in English language biography.   In the past few years there has been a welcome reexamination of Katherine of Aragon who did not have a major scholarly biography since the 1940's era one by Garrett Mattingly.   This was changed by the 2010 biography by Giles Tremlett which took advantage of reexamining the Spanish archival sources to provide a more detailed background for Katherine's life based on her Spanish heritage as the youngest daughter of the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabel.  

Now, comes Julia Fox's newest biography, a joint biography of Katherine of Aragon and her sister, Juana, Queen of Castile.    This is a welcome development as the life of Juana has been reduced to the stereotype of Juana La Loca, stricken by grief over the death of her husband, Philip of Burgundy, dragging his corpse from place to place as she could not bear parting with him.    Fortunately for readers, Ms. Fox provides context for Juana's life and mental behavior.    She sifts through the reams of propaganda that was used to justify Juana's life-long imprisonment to show that Juana was quite probably a victim of her father and her sons who sought to maintain control over Juana's rightful inheritance as the queen regnant of Castile.

In many ways, one wishes it was a solo biography of Juana as it is Ms. Fox's material on Juana that is the more fascinating read.   It is not that her scholarship on Katherine of Aragon isn't sound or engaging. Katherine's early history growing up amidst the reunification of Spain and the expulsion of the Moors and the Jews has been covered much more extensively by the aforementioned Mr. Tremlett's biography.    However, for a reader not who has not read extensively other biographies of Katherine of Aragon, Ms. Fox's book is a perfectly good place to begin.

One feels that the reason this book is not a solo biography of Juana of Castile is simply that there is not enough extant original documentation of Juana's life.   This may seem surprising as Juana was the wife of Philip of Burgundy, the heir of her mother, Isabel of Castile, and the mother of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.   Juana was also the longest surviving child of Ferdinand and Isabel dying in 1557.    Yet, due to her long forced incarceration following the death of her husband, there is scant reference in the historical record to Juana's later life.   Yet,  Ms. Fox uncovers material that shows that Juana La Loca was not nearly as mad as history as dictated.    It is a sad story that readers should be grateful that Ms. Fox has peeled back a few layers from and provided welcome insight.

For those unfamiliar with the family history of Katherine and Juana, their parents were Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabel of Castile.   Isabel, while fighting to claim the throne of Castile married Ferdinand without her half-brother's approval and gained a valuable dynastic ally.    They had five surviving children, Isabel, Juan, Juana, Maria and Katherine.     Each of those children would make strategic dynastic marriages and in some of those marriages we see reasons for some of the future choices that both Katherine and Juana would make.

As an example, for readers of Tudor history it is well known that Katherine of Aragon was first married to Arthur, Prince of Wales.   Following his death, Katherine was betrothed to his younger brother, Henry who decades later would decide that his decision to marry his brother's wife contradicted the laws of God.   For Katherine, she had seen several examples of this in her own family.   Her sister Isabel married Afonso Prince of Portugal in 1490.    He died in 1491 and Isabel was, according to the historical record, hysterically grief-stricken swearing she would enter a convent rather than re-marry.   Clearly, her profound grief can be seen in her sister Juana's later reaction to Philip of Burgundy's death.    Isabel married again, to Manual I of Portugal in 1497. This preserved the Spanish/Portuguese alliance.  Isabel died in childbirth in 1498.  Her son would die in 1500.

Manual I of Portugal then married his wife's sister, Maria, again preserving the Portuguese alliance.   So, Katherine of Aragon had the example of her two sisters remarrying close relations for dynastic reasons.   Meanwhile a double alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I was proposed in 1495.   The sole male heir of Ferdinand and Isabel, Juan would marry the Emperor's daughter, Margaret of Austria and his sister, Juana would marry the Emperor's son, Philip of Burgundy.    These marriages took place and Juana traveled to live in Burgundy.    Only months after his marriage, Juan died.  Margaret who was pregnant gave birth to a stillborn girl.   With the deaths of her brother and her elder sister and her nephew,  that left Juana as the heir to the throne of Castile which permitted women to ascend the throne.

Philip and Juana visited Castile in 1502 in order for Juana to receive fealty from the Cortes of Castile as the recognized Princess of Asturias, heiress of the Castilian throne.   Juana stayed in Spain giving birth to the last of her six surviving children, Ferdinand.  Ferdinand would be left in Castile to be raised there.  It is here that the campaign to control Juana and Castile began between her father, Ferdinand, her husband Philip and later her sons, Charles and Ferdinand.

Isabel of Castile died in 1504.    With the heiress Juana, living in Burgundy, her father Ferdinand acted as regent for his daughter's kingdom.     He was guided in this by Isabel's will which permitted Ferdinand to govern in Juana's absence or, if Juana was unwilling or incapable of ruling, in the name of her heir unit that heir reached the age of twenty.   Ferdinand had coins minted in the name of Ferdinand and Juana, King and Queen of Castile.  Philip of Burgundy had coins minted in the name of Philip and Juana, King and Queen of Castile.   Ferdinand heightened the tension by marrying Germaine de Foix, the niece of King Louis XII of France.

Philip and Juana set sail for Spain in January 1506.   Along the way, storms in the English channel blew their ships ashore in England.   This led to the last meeting of the two sisters as Philip and Juana were feted at the court of Henry VII.   Or, more accurately, Philip was feted.  Juana and Katherine only met for a few days before Philip sent Juana back to the coast to wait for them to set sail.   After three months they finally arrived in Spain.   Ferdinand and Philip signed a treaty stating that Juana was mentally unstable and incapable of ruling.   Ferdinand double-crossed Philip by denouncing that treaty.    Philip and Juana were declared King and Queen of Castile and their eldest son, Charles, heir apparent to the throne.  Yet, Philip continued to try to have the Castilian Cortes agree to Juana's imprisonment as being mentally unstable so that he could rule in her name.  They refused to do so without physically seeing Juana for themselves.

Then tragedy struck as Philip died in September 1506.    There is speculation to this day over the timing of the death, but it was most likely an infection that in the days before antibiotics could easily become life threatening.   With Philip dead and her father in Italy at the time, Juana could prove she was capable of ruling on her own. And thus, Juana discovered another enemy, Cisneros, the Archbishop of Toledo who tried to have a regency council established when it was clear that Philip was going to die.  Juana however, did nothing.   Her marriage to Philip had been tempestuous.  With his death, she showed signs of the same deep levels of grief that her sister, Isabel had done.  She would not sign documents.  She refused to  see anyone and this was the beginning of Juana's end as an independent woman.   What sealed her reputation to history was her decision to order that Philip was to be buried in the royal vault in Granada.  This would symbolize Philip's place in Spanish royal history.   Juana was eight months pregnant and had to stop accompanying the body in order to give birth to her last child, Catalina (Catherine).   And it is here that Ms. Fox finds the propaganda that Juana was so grief stricken that she couldn't bear to allow Philip to be buried and that she opened his coffin to kiss and embrace him.    As Ms. Fox states, are the allegations true or was Juana simply dictating where the father of her children should be buried?

Ms. Fox points out, Pedro Martir, the chronicler who traveled with Juana makes no mention of coffin-opening and Ms. Fox notes that Martir was not a partisan of the Queen.     Yet, because of her grief, and the history of hysterical grief noted in her sister, Isabel, it is not surprising that first Ferdinand and then her son, Charles would use this as a way to control Juana and Castile.    Juana would end up Queen of Castile in name only, confined in the Santa Clara convent in Tordesillas.  

Ferdinand died in 1516.   For several years no one told Juana of his death.   The regency of Castile passed to her eldest son, Charles who now, as Ferdinand's heir in Aragon,  reunited the thrones of Spain.    Yet, there was one other incident in Juana's life that is rarely mentioned.   In 1520 rebellion broke out in Castile over the foreign-born and raised Charles' rule.  The rebels gained access to Juana and asked her to give her written consent to the rebellion.   Juana refused to do so.    Juana would remain confined until her death, her conditions and her health deteriorating over time.    She would be buried in the royal vault in Granada alongside her husband, Philip.

Meanwhile, in England Juana's sister, Katherine had a similarly tempetuous life.    She would spend eight years as the widow of Arthur, Prince of Wales largely over her father and father-in-law's battles over the payment of her dowry.   Married to Henry VIII in 1509 she would see her father betray her husband's trust in the French invasion of 1513.  This would lead to the breaking of the marriage contract between Henry's sister Mary and Katherine's nephew Charles.    After numerous pregnancies, Katherine would produce one living child, a girl, the future Queen Mary I.   Katherine would fight a six year battle to save her marriage only to be discarded completely in 1531 and have her marriage annulled when Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic church and declared himself the head of the Church of England.   Moved to more and more obscure locations Katherine would die in January 1536 at Kimbolton Castle.   Buried in Peterborough Abbey, now a cathedral, her grave is regularly honored on the anniversary of her death.

Julia Fox provides a welcome look into the life of Juana, Queen of Castile.   In tandem with her other subject, Queen Katherine of Aragon she provides a well written biography of these two queenly sisters.

Sister Queens: Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile was published in Great Britain in 2011 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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