Queen Juana la Loca, also known as Juana the Mad, ruled Spain from 1506 to 1509 and then was imprisoned for the rest of her days on the pretext of insanity. She spent the last 40 years of her life in captivity, and it still isn't clear if she was really mad at all or just a victim of the cruel politics of her age. It's true that she had a temper and a flair for the overdramatic, but she wasn't any worse than anyone else around her.
Queen Juana was the daughter of the formidable Queen Isabel of Castile. Queen Isabel had solidified the Spanish kingdoms of Castile and Aragon through her marriage to King Consort Ferdinand. Readers may best remember Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand as Christopher Columbus's sponsors. Having spent his entire adult life in his wife's shadow, Ferdinand is less than supportive of his daughter when Isabel bypasses him to give the Spanish crown to Juana.
Also among Juana's primary betrayers is King Philip the Fair, the Hapsburg prince of Flanders who Juana is forced to marry. Named for his good looks rather than any sense of justice, when Philip realizes that Juana will not be bullied into giving up her kingdom for the political expediency of Flanders, he stops at nothing to crush her. Mother of his children or not, he and his court start the rumor that Juana is mad, based on her volatile temper. He also schemes with France to bring down Spain if he can't have it for himself, and is not above using marital rape as a tactic in his battle of wills.
The Renaissance was a tricky time to be a queen, and Juana sees the worst of what her age has to offer. Amid constant warfare and political intrigue, she has very little support and never seems to get a break. She's bullied and left out of the loop by her parents when she's young and by her husband when she grows older. As a final insult, her son also refuses to grant her freedom.
THE LAST QUEEN weaves together the complex threads of Juana's world in a way that is natural and easy to read. This is no small accomplishment, given the complicated nature of the Renaissance and Queen Juana's difficult family. Everyone is someone else's pawn; Queen Isabel uses her husband and each of her children in turn, and Queen Juana and Prince Philip have what must be one of the most tempestuous marriages in all of history. It was love at first sight, then he cheated, as kings frequently did, and struggled for years to get Juana to do his bidding. After all that, and given years of imprisonment to think about it, she seemed to forgive him somehow. In her captivity, Philip's coffin rested in her chapel and she was a frequent visitor.
We root for Queen Juana. She's smart, brave and charismatic, with a strong sense of her own destiny. It doesn't seem possible that someone with such a spirit and indefatigable sense of duty won't triumph in the end.
Reviewed by Colleen Quinn on January 7, 2011