Isabella of Portugal

Published on 18 January 2023 at 17:03

The Mad Queen 

Isabella is often known as the Mad Queen and is credited with passing down her mental illnesses to her grand daughter Juana La Loco and in turn to royalty over all of Europe. She is the Mother of Isabelle the 1st of Castile, also known as the warrior queen and the catholic monarch. The Isabella we are looking at here married into the Castilian royal family, after a series of long and very unfortunate events she was sent away and isolated in a deserted palace where she descended into "madness." 

Quick explanation: Many of the characters in this story are known as more than one name because of english translations. 

Juana the first is often called Joana 

Her father Joao is called John 

King Juan is also John 

Enrique "El Impotente" is called Henry the impotent  

Early life 

Not much is known about her young life before marriage. However we do know that Isabella was born into a very influential family in 1428 as the daughter of Isabella of Braganza and Joao of Portugal. She was also the granddaughter then niece of the king, which made her an important player on the marriage market. At about the age of 18 she became the second wife of King Juan the 2nd of Castile. 

The new family  

The first thing to know about Isabella's new husband is that Juan pretty much sucked at being king. He had a very will, and relied almost entirely on advisors, the most influential being a man named De Luna. Juan had already been married once before to a woman named Maria of Aragon. The two had four children but only one survived to adulthood. 

The now grown son Enrique was married to Blanche of Navarre. After several years of marriage the two had no children or pregnancies. Enrique became known as El Impotente to the public as it became obvious he would never have children. De Luna made it clear to Juan that he should be having more children to ensure that his line would stay on the throne. Unfortunately, Maria was past her childbearing years so they would never be able to have more children. Mysteriously, and very conveniently, Maria passed away at this time of unknown causes. 

Thus De Luna set about looking for a new bride for the king. He wanted someone with royal blood but not too much power, someone young, fertile, soft spoken, and obedient. That is not what he got. Enter our girl Isabella who was so extremely passionate and strong willed her personality was written about in a time when really only women's looks were mentioned. 

Her time as queen 

In 1447, 19 year old Isabella arrived in Castile and wed King Juan II. Keeping in mind that not only was Juan much, much older than she, his son was also older than she. She wasn't too impressed with her new husband at first sight but she tried to embrace court life. 

As we've already said Juan sucked as king but not so much in a tyrannical evil way as just a useless and weak way. However, he still managed to get all of his king things done because he had a super scary and intense right hand man De Luna who murdered and otherwise got rid of anyone the that stood in his way. 

Isabella quickly understood that De Luna had a very unhealthy control over her husband and set about trying to convince Juan to get rid of him. The problem was, Juan genuinely could not do anything without being told first. De Luna had so much control that he even scheduled when and for how long the two could be intimate together. As she got the lay of the land and started to understand her new husband, she decided that if her needed someone telling him what to do it would just have to be her. 

So, the teenaged Isabella set off on a battle of wills with De Luna. Juan went back and forth and back and forth with who he listened to as they both tried to convince him to get rid of the other. At this time, Isabella put together that De Luna had most likely poisoned the previous queen to death. This began her lifelong paranoia and rumors that she may be "mad" started. 

She quickly became pregnant and the country was ecstatic. Juan was over the moon to be a father again. This gave Isabella even more sway over him and De Luna began to loose his grip on power. Unfortunately for our girl, the pregnancy and the delivery was ROUGH and people feared for both her and the child.  Luckily they both survived and on April 1st 1451 a daughter was born who she named Isabella after herself. (I'm gonna call her Izzy for the rest of this to differentiate.) 

This is when she first was called the Mad Queen. Isabella suffered a very intense postpartum depression that led medieval doctors to throw in the towel and say "welp, she's crazy, nothing to be done here." (remind me to never live in this time.) This would often go into screaming rage fits followed by an almost comatose state. Her paranoia was high (rightfully so with De Luna lurking around honestly) so she locked herself in her room and refused to talk to anyone but Juan. 

I've read some references that seem to think she would only talk to Juan so he would trust her more, or that he was the only with a legitimate reason to keep her alive (having more babies), or that she was simply mad. My own assessment of the situation is that she really grew to love him. We don't have any real surviving records of their interactions but I think this proves it to me. When you go through something this traumatizing and awful you want to keep people you love and trust close. Also looking at her daughter, granddaughters, and even great-granddaughters future marriages, they were all absolute ride or die of their husbands no matter how terrible they were. This leads to me to think they got that from Isabella. 

Either way, This tipped the scales in Isabella's favor in the war between her and De Luna. She enlisted the help of a man named Alonso Pérez who would funnel her information from De Luna because he was in good with him. De Luna eventually discovered the treachery and threw Alonso out a window killing him in front of several witnesses. Now, was this Isabella's plan all along or did it just happen who's to say. With witnesses Isabella was finally able to convince Juan to put De Luna on trial for murder. 

As that went on, she became pregnant for a second time (not a great idea for her mental health to say the least.) De Luna was found guilty and executed. Juan was crushed. (Honestly, he had a little bit of madness when it cam to De Luna in my opinion.) He mourned the death of his close and trusted friend deeply. 

Five months later Isabella has another rough birth and survives, this time with a son. On November 17th 1453 Alphonso was born. Isabella had done exactly what she came to do and her postpartum did not improve. 

With the birth of his son Juan's mood did not improve. He still grieved De Luna and his health was declining rapidly. His older son, Enrique was called back to court in case of the worse. 

Her time as dowager queen

Juan died on July 22 in 1454. Some say he died of a broken heart at the loss of his good friend De Luna but it was likely just the 1400's and everything killed you and doctors sucked. Enrique was crowned king and he had a lot of beef with Isabella and her children. 

While all of this was going on with Isabella Enrique had been busy with his own problems. He lamed his wife Blanche for their lack of children and decided to ditch her. He took her to court for an annulment with the reasoning that they had never consummated the marriage. He also claimed that Blanche had put some magic spell on his penis that made it so he couldn't perform because "He totally could have sex with anyone else." In court Blanche had had to go through a procedure to "check her maidenhood" and it came back with proof they were never together. The pope granted the annulment siting the "witchcraft" as grounds. 

If you can't tell I do not like Enrique. Blanche was sent back home to Navarre and imprisoned by her family. She had a very strong claim to the throne and should have gained power but because of her imprisonment she was unable to. She died at age 40 of poison and her younger sister eventually took the throne. 

In reality Enrique had a deformation of his penis that made intercourse impossible. 

As it seemed likely he may never have his own heir Alphonso would most likely become the next king and alphonso was not cool with that. There was also probably some hate just because his stepmother was younger than him and his own mother had been murdered to make room for her. Honestly fair to have a little resentment but what he did next was horrible. 

Isabella was sent away from court with her children to Arevalo Castle which was really not a nice place to be and they weren't given enough money to live as royals. Being confined and kept away during her time of mourning caused a rapid decline of her already fragile mental health. 

Castle Arevalo 

Isabella was sent away from court with her children to Arevalo Castle which was really not a nice place to be and they weren't given enough money to live as royals. Being confined and kept away during her time of mourning caused a rapid decline of her already fragile mental health. She fell deeper and deeper into her depression. 

To help her cope, Isabella leaned heavily into her catholic religion for comfort. She poured everything she had into raising her children and imparting that religion onto them, which highly affected her daughter, Isabella the first, in her future. 


Back at court, Enrique found a new wife in Joan of Portugal. This gave him both the possibility of having his own heirs and cementing the alliance with Portugal. However, this did not go as planned. As you can imagine, they still weren't having children. Joan was proving not to be the timid obedient figure that was expected of a queen consort at the time. They had found yet another strong-willed-not-to-be-controlled young woman from Portugal. Joan was a scandalous figure at court. It was said that she took too much control from her husband, wore dresses that showed off too much cleavage, and had many affairs. Things started to get interesting when, seven years into the marriage, she took up an affair with the nobleman Beltran de la Cueva. Right around the same time, she miraculously fell pregnant. Which of these men were the father is still debated to this day. The daughter is now known as Juana la beltraneja (daughter of Beltran) and in English she's simply called Joana the bastard. 

Biology aside, the court of public opinion was clear. El Impotente was not the father. However, he claimed the baby and made her the new heir of Castille. With his own line of succession set Enrique felt more secure in his own reign and Alphonso became less of a threat. 

With all this in motion, the optics of keeping royal children locked away weren't great and it was time to start planning an advantageous wedding for his young sister. He called his siblings back to court. 


Final Days

Losing her children was absolutely devastating to Isabella and her mental health hit an all time low and continued declining. She was now seeing things. She described seeing the ghost of De Luna, who haunted her for the rest of her life.

In 1468 Alphonso suddenly died (probably from poison) and this was the final nail in the coffin of Isabella's "madness."She started to not be able to recognize anyone and eventually she even forgot who she was. 

With Alphonso gone, the question of who would be queen, young Isabella or Juana, led into the Castilian War of succession. Sadly, Isabella was unable to help her daughter because of her mental health. 

She spent her final days as a shell of the person she had once been. Her daughter made her way back to Arevalo to be with her mother in the end. She passed in 1496 and was interred in the Carthusian convent of Miraflores at Burgos near her husband Juan II. 

It is said that she passed down her madness to her grand daughter, known to history as Juana La Loco, who would many children who spread over all of Europe. Many royal families can trace their roots back to her for centuries to come. 

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