Reign of Madness

One of the most famous—and controversial—figures in all of Spanish history was Juana de Castile, also known as Juana the Mad. As the third child of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, Juana never should have been queen. After her parents’ rule, the line of succession was to pass first to Juana’s brother and his children, then to her sister and her children. However, fate had other plans for Juana. She would indeed become queen, but would also be the victim of a series of betrayals from those she loved most. Ultimately, she would be imprisoned for the majority of her life and kept from power due to her alleged and highly questioned insanity. In Reign of Madness (G.P. Putnam’s Sons; August 4, 2011; $25.95), critically acclaimed author Lynn Cullen sets out to solve a great historical mystery surrounding Juana’s sanity, while creating another richly imagined historical novel based on actual events.

Beginning in April 1493, Cullen introduces thirteen-year-old Juana as she witnesses the jubilant homecoming of Christopher Columbus from his voyage of discovery. The previous year, her parents had finally seized control over all of the Iberian Peninsula except Portugal. Now Columbus’s enterprise, financed by Juana’s mother, Queen Isabella, has opened new trade routes to the Indies. This wave of success leaves Juana’s parents adored and respected by their subjects and poised to dominate European affairs for years to come. To maintain their power, Juana must marry to and is soon betrothed to a young man so beautiful that he is called Philippe the Handsome, a Habsburg ruler born in Bruges.

What begins like a fairy tale ends quite differently. Juana becomes Queen, but is never allowed to rule. She is deemed mad by her husband, then by her father, who locks her away in a palace, where she lives unseen by her people for the next 46 years.

But is Juana really insane? What happens between her hopeful beginning and a locked tower room? Is she called mad as a ruse by those who wanted to usurp her power? Or does she struggle with true mental illness during an age when such was treated with rejection and isolation? Or, possibly, does Juana herself accept her cruel sentence for her own, quite sane, reasons?

As Reign of Madness shows, the answers lie in the courts in which Juana must navigate, where nothing is as it seems and Juana is subjected to constant betrayal. Growing up in the Spanish court, Juana is her father’s favorite, but feels that in her mother’s eyes, she is the black sheep of the family. Her parents enjoy the most celebrated marriage in the western world, yet her father has extramarital affairs and a string of illegitimate children. Her mother, the most powerful woman in the world, publicly defers to her weaker husband, yet privately prefers the company of her favorite priest.

Life in the Habsburg court is just as fraught with contradictions. Juana’s husband beds her with delight, yet showers too much attention upon her ladies. If she complains about his flirtations, he calls her mad for imagining that he is doing anything wrong. Philippe claims to have no care for power, yet he insists that he be named next in line for the Spanish throne. He is so duplicitous that when he suddenly falls ill and dies, the question at court is not how he died but who killed him. Even after his death, the trap he has set for Juana threatens to destroy her.

The real-life history of Juana the Mad is a fascinating tale of love, devotion, betrayal, and deceit during a time of great change in Spain and throughout the world. From the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus, to the introduction of the Habsburg line to the Spanish monarchy, this was a time of vast change and upheaval in Spain, and Juana was at the epicenter of the maelstrom.

Somewhere between the hallowed castle walls in Toledo where she was born and the dark rooms of the palace where she would be imprisoned and die, Juana lived an extraordinary life. That life is often blithely dismissed and ignored by history…but no longer.