Dan Jones

Sad, not mad

The Catholic Monarchs — Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile — had five children together.

The Catholic Monarchs — Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile — had five children together.

The Catholic Monarchs — Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile — had five children together. Each child was married off to a promising European neighbour, thereby acting as a diplomatic tool in the Monarchs’ reassertion of royal authority over Spain. Two of those children remain famous today, chiefly for their reputation as the 16th century’s most wretched doormats.

Katherine of Aragon was the youngest child. As we know, her first marriage was to Henry VII of England’s eldest son, Prince Arthur. When he died, her second marriage was to the man who would become Henry VIII. The rest barely needs rehearsing. A relatively happy marriage turned sour when Katherine could not bear the king a son. Eventually, since Henry was incapable of using a nutcracker where a baseball bat was available, Katherine was cast aside in favour of Anne Boleyn, and the English Church seceded from Rome.

There have been many studies of Katherine of Aragon, most recently Giles Tremlett’s excellent biography. But Julia Fox’s vivid and sympathetic book now shows us her life and marriage in another context, setting it against the even more terrifying story of her elder sister, Juana.

I realised as I was reading this book that almost everything I knew about Juana of Castile derived from a single A-level history class many years ago. We were introduced to her as ‘Joanna the Mad’, wife of Philip the Fair of Burgundy. Poor old Joanna was written off during that lesson as a rather pathetic, weak-minded puppet, gibbering in her husband’s shadow and subsequently dragging his corpse around with her when he died: yet another regrettable product of the late medieval high aristocracy’s policy of encouraging close cousins to marry.

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