On 14 January 1507 Queen Joanna of Castile gave birth to her final child, a daughter whom she named Catarina after the baby’s aunt, Catherine of Aragon, who was languishing as an unmarried widow in England at the time.
Queen Joanna would soon know something of captivity and hopelessness as well. Her husband, of King Philip I, had died the previous September, leaving his pregnant wife distraught … but not ‘mad’, whatever would be written of her later. Queen Joanna’s ‘madness’ arose more from her father’s narcissistic lust for power than any mental illness.
Catarina was born in Torquemada, a relatively small village in Castile, because her mother was in the kingdom fighting for her crown against her father, Ferdinand II of Aragon. When Queen Joanna’s mother, Queen Isabella I, had died in 1504 she had left the crown of Castile to Joanna. However, King Ferdinand would not give it up – declaring himself ‘Governor and Administrator of Castile’. Although Joanna’s powerful husband was able to become King of Castile jure uxoris, with his death King Ferdinand saw an opportunity to pounce on the throne once more.
Worse luck for Queen Joanna, the death of her “brother John, the stillbirth of John’s daughter and the deaths of Joanna’s older sister Isabella and Isabella’s son Miguel made Joanna heiress to the Spanish kingdoms.” She also had a young son, son Charles, who would later become Charles I of Castile, Leon and Aragon and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Whosoever ruled as the boy’s regent, ruled most of Europe. As a result, Joanna’s father lost no time stealing his daughter’s birthright (and the regency over his grandson) for himself in the summer of 1507.
Queen Joanna continued to fight, so shortly thereafter she was found to be ‘mad’ and needed to be locked away for her own good. Ferdinand “had Joanna confined in the Santa Clara in Tordesillas, near Valladolid in Castile, in February 1509 after having dismissed all of her faithful servants and having appointed a small retinue accountable to him alone … Decoded letters that passed between the Marquis and Marchioness of Denia, her “wardens”, and King Ferdinand, cover the decades of incarceration in the Castle of Tordesillas report the use of torture to force compliance.”
Queen Joanna would remain in Tordesillas for the rest of her life, even after her father died and her teenaged son came to the throne. After years of torment and captivity, she did indeed become ‘mad’ – she became severely depressed, and as many people with severe depression she could go days without eating or bathing or sleeping. This ‘madness’ was the excuse her son would use for keeping his mother locked away … or perhaps he truly believed she was mad? The only comfort that Queen Joanna had was the fact that her final daughter, Catarina, was allowed to stay with her, even if it was only to ensure Joanna’s compliance by threatening to take her daughter away.
Young Catarina would only leave her mother at Tordesillas when it became time for the girl to marry. Catarina of Austria, who had never been to Austria at all, would leave Tordesillas shortly before her 18th birthday, and wed her first cousin, King John III of Portugal, on 10 February 1525.
They were not the only cousins marrying each other in that family, either. The groom’s sister, Isabella of Portugal, would marry the bride’s brother, Charles V. Catarina and John had only two surviving children out of nine pregnancies, and both those children married their double-first cousins, the children of Charles V and Isabella of Portugal. King Philip II of Spain wed Catarina’s and John’s daughter, Maria Manuela, while Catarina and John’s only surviving son, João Manuel, Prince of Portugal, wed Charles V’s daughter, Joanna of Austria, Princess of Portugal. In sum, the family tree didn’t exactly branch out.
Thanks to inbreeding and the early death of João Manuel, Queen Catarina and King John’s had only one grandchild, Sebastian, who was only 3 years old when he inherited the kingdom after King John III’s death from apoplexy in 1557. The new king, who was practically his own grandfather he was so closely related to himself, needed someone to rule in his stead. The toddler’s mother, Joanna, who was also technically his aunt, and his grandmother, Queen Catarina, who was also technically his great-aunt, both wished to act as the King Sebastian’s regent. Emperor Charles V decided that his sister, the boy’s grandmother and great-aunt, would be a better regent that Charles’s daughter, the boy’s mother.
(Surprisingly, the bloodline did not die out because King Sebastian was sickly. He was actually killed in Morocco, at the Battle of Alcácer Quibir in 1578. He was unmarried at the time, so we’ll never know if he was fertile or if the family genetics could be untangled in the future. )
Dowager Queen Catarina ruled Portugal for her grandson until 1562, when she voluntarily relinquished the regency to her brother-in-law and first cousin, Cardinal Henry of Portugal. She died during her grandson’s brief reign as an adult king, on 12 February 1578. She was 71 years old, noted for her piety, and secure in the future – inasmuch as her grandson was alive and doing a good job being king of a huge empire. There was every hope she would have great-grandchildren, and she died without having to give up this dream.
What Queen Catarina is chiefly remembered for now was having “one of the earliest and finest Chinese porcelain collections in Europe … a total of 692 pieces of porcelain and other exotic goods.” Some of the ‘exotic’ goods she collected “fossilised sharks’ teeth, a snake’s head encased in gold, heart-shaped jasper stones to stop bleeding, a coral branch used as a protector against evil spirits, bezoar stones, a unicorn’s horn (a narwhal tusk) and piles of loose gems and stones such as rubies, emeralds, and diamonds.” This collection was possible due to the wealth the Portuguese empire, which had colonial holdings in India, South America, the Maluku Islands, as well as trading contact with China and Japan.