Meta: On the subject of Isabella I of Castile and Joanna la Beltraneja (will revise soon)


Portrait of Isabella I of Castile.

One of my favorite historical figures whom I’m extremely fascinated by is the woman known in history and to us as Isabella (Isabel), first of that name to rule the Spanish Kingdom of Castile (Castilla in Spanish) and helped bring about the later union of the many kingdoms into Spain through her marriage to Ferdinand II of Aragon.

Isabella led a very interesting life with its fair share of ups and downs, victories and losses, moments of happiness and sorrow. She was born quite fortunate as a princess (known as infanta, though I do not know if this title was already in use during her time — excuse me for my lack of knowledge but I have not yet gotten my hands on a biography of Isabella or any book, for that matter, that deals with this particular subject of titles in the Spanish monarchy, and I have, compared to others, a limited amount but more or less sufficient amount of resources on her for me), as she was the only daughter and eldest child of King John (Juan) II of Castile and his second wife Isabella of Portugal. Her birth date is 22 April 1451. At the time, Isabella’s half-brother Henry (Enrique; the son of John and his deceased first wife Mary/Maria of Aragon) was ahead of her in the line of succession to the Castilian throne and was displaced further by the birth of her younger brother Alfonso two years later.

Isabella’s father died when she was only a child in 1454 and Henry succeeded him as King of Castile (Henry IV), with Isabella, her mother, and her brother left in his care. For some reason that is apparently unknown (but much speculated on), perhaps from simple ineptitude or a pragmatic desire to restrict his half-siblings, Isabella and her family were moved to Arevalo, for while they lived in a castle, the living conditions there were poor and they often suffered a shortage of money. Isabella the elder’s mental health apparently also deteriorated there, which had begun with symptoms of melancholia and post-partum depression after the birth of her daughter. Despite all these hurdles, the three managed to survive and Isabella’s mother gave her children the best education it was possible for them to have there.

Isabella and Alfonso’s living conditions only improved upon their summoning to Segovia, the capital of Castile, for the birth of Henry’s child with his wife Joan (Juana; this can also be translated into Joanna/Joana) of Portugal in 1462. However, it appeared that there were already rumors flocking around the paternity of Joan’s child, since it was known that she could be promiscuous and her not-so-discreet philandering with men was considered scandalous. However, it was only much later when several Castilian nobles rose up against Henry because they considered his half-brother Alfonso his true heir (instead of Joanna, who was supposedly Joan’s illegitimate child by a lover) that it was openly said Beltran de la Cueva was the father and allowed them to call Joan’s child Joanna la Beltraneja (the daughter of Beltran).


Drawing of Joanna of Castile, Queen of Portugal, more commonly known as Joanna la Beltraneja.

Until this very day, Joanna remains an enigma to many of us since there’s so little known about her life compared to Isabella. Only the time when she fought with Isabella for the Castilian throne is the best-documented time of her life and even then there are many unclear things about her, including her much-disputed paternity. Even as she may have been illegitimate, many (especially those in Portugal when she married her uncle Afonso V in 1475) thought that she would be a good ruler, given time and as she was already displaying signs of her ability to govern. Like Isabella, I am fascinated by her, though I would not say that she is at the top of my list of favorite historical figures.

So for this meta, I basically broach the subject of Joanna’s legitimacy. However, it is more of my opinions/theorizing on how Isabella and Joanna (though more on Isabella) felt and thought of each other and their rights to rule/legitimacy instead of actually bringing up evidence and speculating whether Joanna was Henry’s daughter as I am no expert on that yet.

One of my main topics/questions to be explored for this meta is: do I think that Isabella truly believed in the rumors/stories that Joanna was illegitimate or was she being pragmatic and ambitious, unsure of Joanna’s paternity but simply wanting the throne for herself and/or thinking that she would be a better ruler or more deserving of it?

My answer: I cannot be sure so far. However, there is an interesting opinion of mine I’d like to share: if I were to choose between doing something out of belief or pragmatism as ‘less objectionable’ or ‘more forgivable’, I would choose belief. Why? Because doing something out of pragmatism, in my opinion (so this is just for me, no need to go crazy), can be a little villainous/hypocritical for me, as they are doing it for their own selfish gain. For me, that is no good moral value, but this assessment is based on their personalities, not their overall character. But if there’s a situation where a person did something terrible and it was either out of belief/duty or pragmatism, either way I’d not find it ‘less objectionable’ — it’s still bad, no matter what.

Let’s have these two situations: (1) Isabella truly believed in Joanna’s illegitimacy and therefore her right to rule (and maybe her ability to do so as well). It would have been actually quite easy to believe, especially if Joan’s infidelities/promiscuity was already very well-known at that time. However, there is just one conflicting obstacle for her: her half-brother Henry repeatedly asserted Joanna’s legitimacy. For this, I believe that Henry did think Joanna was his, but perhaps only initially as after the nobles’ rebellion that first used Alfonso and later Isabella as their champion, he and Isabella held a peace treaty at Toros de Guisando where he agreed to name Isabella his heir over Joanna. But he could have been merely forced as well for perhaps he yearned for peace, especially with his own half-sister whom he may have been close to before the conflicts, and wanted no more blood on his hands yet still went on believing that Joanna was his until his death in 1474.

If Isabella was sort of close to or had bonded with Henry, she could be somewhat influenced by him and his views and become conflicted. But perhaps the part of her that didn’t think Joanna was Henry’s daughter won out over the part that did and so made her side with the rebellious nobles, if we are to believe that she believed in Joanna’s illegitimacy and thus made her the best candidate to be Henry’s heir and gave her the right to rule.

The other situation: (2) Isabella knew/believed Joanna to be Henry’s daughter or was doubly unsure of her paternity (like for her there was a 50% chance that Joanna was legitimate vs. a 50% chance that Joanna wasn’t). If it was the former (and let us assess objectively and not based on biases, our moral standards today, or by merely looking at her as a person and not both as a person and ‘character’), her brother’s views did not override hers or she did not allow herself to think of it, because she was pragmatic and decided that she wanted or thought that the throne was meant for her (sort of like Philippa Gregory’s portrayal of Margaret Beaufort in her books, who is absolutely sure of her and her son’s greatness and that her son is meant to be the King of England). Are there other possible reasons, aside from the obvious, that Isabella thought she was meant for the throne? Yes, indeed.

As it is well-known and much-documented, Isabella, to the public and to history, was very pious along with her husband Ferdinand (though he is a tad shadier for me) and it manifested best in their reconquest of Granada from the Moors who had dominated it and many areas in the region of Spain for around eight centuries and the period that followed known as the Spanish Inquisition. Of course, it may easily have been pragmatism, great ambitions, and/or a thirst to rule much of Spain solely and gain more power that motivated them. It may even have been a mix of both belief and pragmatism and an example would be of how historical novelist Sharon Kay Penman depicted Henry II of England, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Richard I of England in her books. But as I said before, despite having much religious faith, you can still do terrible things or it may be that the faith itself led you to do those deeds, as is one interpretation of Isabella and Ferdinand’s reconquest and Inquisition.

Another, which I believe is accurate, main goal of Isabella and Ferdinand was that they wished to unite Spain and they believed that this could be best achieved by having only one religion for the people and eradicating all other religions in that place. Why unite Spain? Like I said before, they mayhaps wanted more power, thought that it was theirs by right, or thought that God had sent them visions or meant for them to unite Spain — or a combination of two or all.

Now back to the topic of Joanna and what the second situation has to do with her. What are other possible reasons for Isabella thinking that her destiny was to be Castile’s Queen? I already stated it above: that maybe she had received dreams or visions of her taking the throne and thought them from God (since it is known that she had, since and in childhood, had a deep sense of piety and reverence for her religion instilled in her that she carried to her death, so she was maybe easily convinced that they were Heavenly signs) so that was what she believed to be her destiny, even though they were just initially wishful thinking or products of her imagination. Because if you believe in something that will supposedly happen in the future enough, you will truly think that it is true and you can fulfill it.

If it was the latter that she was unsure of Joanna’s paternity, then like I said maybe her belief that Joanna was illegitimate was greater, her desire to be Queen was greater, or a combination of both.

Now, what of Joanna? What did she think of Isabella and her legitimacy? Like with Isabella, she could have gone both ways: belief and pragmatism. However, I think it was the former though I cannot be truly sure as I already have a lack of resources on Isabella and even more so on the mysterious Joanna. Why do I think that? It is possibly because of Joanna’s mother, the notorious Joan, or Henry himself.

When her daughter fought for her supposed right to the Castilian throne, backed by her new husband and uncle Afonso V of Portugal, Joan, who had been banished from court and later fully divorced by Henry after she got pregnant by another man, fully supported Joanna. This could be interpreted as: Joan knew/believed Joanna to be Henry’s and thus his rightful heir; the supposed entitlement of a mother to her child to give the latter emotional and/or similar support, even if the child or both were in the wrong; or a consuming greed to let the eldest child of her blood sit on the throne so she could pass on her legacy or have her bloodline continue, etc.

Maybe she even planned to let her daughter be a puppet queen and be the power behind her, but it is rather difficult because Joan had already fallen out of royal favor and even though there’s a big possibility that she would rise again had her daughter won because of their blood relationship, it’s not guaranteed because who knows what Joanna thought of her mother as she had been raised by different people who had, I think, anti-Joan sentiments.

If that were the case, perhaps Joanna, after all, would not trust her mother’s judgment and the reason as to why I think she believed she was legitimate was perhaps because of Henry himself.

Again, Henry repeatedly asserted that he was Joanna’s father before the rebellion and remember, he only divorced Joan after she got pregnant by another man, at least publicly, and not because of Joanna’s disputed paternity, so maybe that means that he really still believed he was the father. You may argue that he banished Joan prior to the divorce and indeed he did, but it was already a ‘popular’ demand by his nobles and maybe he was pressured to do it, as with declaring Isabella his heir during the treaty, yet still believed in Joanna’s legitimacy. But, one could argue, he could still divorce (and not annul the marriage) Joan without having Joanna declared illegitimate on the basis that they were closely related but keeping in mind the truth that she hadn’t bore him sons, as Louis VII of France did with Eleanor of Aquitaine. Now that’s a matter for another time, but perhaps he still had some feelings for Joan despite all the scandals surrounding her.

All in all, this is very inconclusive, but as for now, my conclusion is that I think that Isabella did what she did during the War of the Castilian Succession out of a mix of belief and pragmatism and Joanna more out of belief — but this is all speculation and I’m not certain of the truth, as I think many are also.

If you have any comments, suggestions, or reviews, feel free to critique (but I prefer you do it politely) and tell me and I may edit or add some stuff if I feel it is necessary.

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