Friday, 27 February 2015


Joanna the Mad (1479-1555) and Catherine the Stubborn (1485-1536)

The next two in our list of powerful women were not, in the end, powerful enough. Why, then, include them? Partly because they provide continuity - they were both daughters of Isabella of Castile - but principally because their struggles demonstrate what royal women were up against in a world where men, by long established tradition, held sway.

Ferdinand and Isabella had five children who reached maturity - four of them girls. They were all married into other royal houses in order to provide secure alliances for Spain, whose rulers already saw themselves as leaders of Catholic Europe, with a divine mission to convert the world. By a treaty of 1495 the pope, Rodrigo Borgia, calmly divided all newly-discovered overseas territory between Spain and Portugal. The importance of the Iberian alliance was demonstrated by the remarkable marital history of Manuel I of Portugal. His first wife was Elizabeth, eldest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella (and also the widow of his own elder brother, who had died in a riding accident). When Elizabeth died Manuel married her sister, Maria. After her death he took to wife Eleanor, who was the niece of both of his former wives. Papal dispensations were necessary for these unions but they, as far as we know, raised few eyebrows. Anything, it seems, was permissible in the interests of dynastic survival.

The remaining two Spanish royal sisters were similarly disposed of in dynastic marriages. Joanna became the wife of Philip, son of the Emperor Maximilian. The political purpose of this match was to isolate and contain France. By her will Isabella of Castile left the sovereignty of her country to Joanna, guided if and when necessary, by Ferdinand, Joanna's father. In reality what happened was that the two men in her life competed for control of her considerable territory. After Philip's sudden death in 1506, Ferdinand mercilessly bullied his daughter into yielding up effective control. Under this unremitting pressure Joanna's mental health gave way. Whether or not she suffered from an inherited disorder or was driven 'mad' by the treatment meted out by her closest male relatives (Her son, Charles, equally determined to exercise unbridled power, also treated her badly.) has never been established. She resisted with spirit and sometimes tantrums in her attempts to prevent her status being diminished. Such behaviour made it easy for her adversaries to proclaim her unfit to rule. In 1509 she was confined to the castle of Tordesilas where she remained, deliberately isolated from the outside world for the remainder of her long life. 

1509 was also the year that Joanna's sister, Catherine, became Queen of England. Her route to this happy eminence had been tortuous and beset with difficulties. Her parents had selected the heir to the English throne for her in order to complete the encirclement of France. After protracted negotiations, she and Prince Arthur were married in 1501 but within six months Catherine was left a widow. There now followed seven years of painful uncertainty. Henry VII was anxious not to forego the prestigious Spanish match and plans were made for Catherine to marry Arthur's younger brother, Henry. But negotiations were repeatedly on and off, while Catherine remained in limbo as Henry's 'guest' and separated from her family. Only after the old king's death did Henry VIII, on his accession, precipitate plans for the Spanish match. 

The story of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon is too well known to need repeating. The point I want to stress is the difference of attitude between husband and wife over the eligibility of women to rule. Henry pursued his decision to divorce Catherine because he wanted a male heir to prolong the Tudor dynasty. Like Manuel I, he regarded this as an imperative before which all other considerations must bow down. Catherine saw no reason why their daughter, Mary, should not inherit the crown. Her own mother had ruled Castile and her sister was titular head of state in Spain. She fought to the last ditch for her own daughter's rights and Henry was forced to use every stratagem he could devise. The break with Rome and all that followed is testimony to Catherine's strength of character.

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