In 1700, an entire Royal dynasty came to a crashing end with the death of Charles II of Spain. After sixteen generations of inbreeding, his mental illness and extreme physical deformities rendered him unable to produce an heir. This inherited insanity was often thought to have originated with Joanna of Castile but actually began with her grandmother… Isabella of Portugal, Queen consort of Castile and León.
Isabella of Portugal (1428-1496) was born to Prince John (Infante and Constable of Portugal and son of King John I of Portugal) and his half-niece/wife Isabelle of Barcelos (granddaughter of King John I). Little is known about Isabella’s childhood, and she did not appear on the stage of history until age nineteen when she became the second wife of King John II of Castile, age 42. John’s son & heir, Henry, was rumoured to be impotent and thus unable to provide an heir to secure the Crown. So, a new marriage was masterminded by the King’s favourite, Álvaro de Luna, less than two years after the death of King John’s first wife, Maria of Aragon.
During the marriage, Isabella was described as jealous, possessive and violently irrational. These first signs of insanity were exacerbated when, in 1450, Isabella became pregnant and began showing signs of additional melancholy and depression. Her long and difficult confinement led her to alternate between a stupor or a deep depression during which she refused to speak to anyone but her husband. After the birth of a daughter, whom Isabella named after herself, her symptoms and traits came to a head. She shut herself away and fell into “profunda tristeza”. Historians generally agree that this “deep sadness” was what is now called postpartum depression or psychosis. Isabella would sit motionless, void of emotions, and stare into space. She was described as a “nervous invalid” after the birth and continued to speak and show emotions only to the King, whom she tired out with hysterical tantrums. Her insanity abated somewhat in time but was repeated during a second pregnancy and delivery of a son in 1453.
To the dismay and dislike of the nobles and Queen Isabella, King John was in thrall to his favourite, Álvaro de Luna, the noble who arranged their marriage. De Luna took great personal and political advantage of his hold over the King and was even rumoured to have masterminded several political murders, including that of Queen Maria, whose death has been considered suspicious. De Luna expected to be able to control Queen Isabella as well and even attempted to limit the frequency and amount of intimacy between the Royal couple. Isabella chafed at the influence of de Luna over her husband and was in constant competition with him for the King’s affection. After de Luna was implicated in the murder of the King’s accountant, Isabella was finally successful in persuading the King to have de Luna arrested. He was soon tried, condemned to death, and executed by beheading.
Eight months after the birth of their son, King John died, and the Crown went to his son, who became Henry IV of Castile. Immediately, Henry had Isabella and her two children exiled to the Castle of Arévalo. Having spent her entire life in luxury, she struggled with their new extremely austere life which was sometimes just above the poverty level. This lifestyle change caused Isabella to sink deeper into the melancholy and paranoia that began after childbirth.
Though still in her twenties, Isabella never remarried and led a socially isolated life. Every passing year saw a further worsening of symptoms, especially when she was separated from her daughter, who was sent to a convent to continue her education, and again when her son was taken away and brought to the Royal court, to be officially named as Henry’s heir. This separation from her children, combined with a state of seclusion and constant depression, caused her to become totally and completely unhinged.
The dowager queen withdrew into a complete state of melancholia. She forgot everyone she had previously known, was unable to recognise even her children and in time even forgot who she was. Isabella became physically aggressive with her servants, spent days talking to herself, and loudly raged and cursed at imaginary conspirators, tormentors and enemies. She would run up and down the castle stairs, fleeing from spirits and ghosts, especially those whose voices supposedly taunted her. She even claimed to be haunted by de Luna, her husband’s favourite and lover, whose execution she had contrived at.
After their separation, Isabella never again saw her son, Alfonso. He died suddenly at age 14, possibly of an illness but also rumoured to have been deliberately poisoned by his enemies. During this time, Isabella’s care was supervised by her daughter, who intentionally kept her separate from the court, but no visits took place until 1496 when it became obvious that she was dying. The visit didn’t go well since the deranged and distraught Isabella did not recognise her daughter anyway and then covered her own face so no one could look at her.
Queen Isabella died in 1496 and was entombed next to her husband and son. Her death was a sad end to a tortured life and the beginning of a long line of madness in the Spanish family of monarchs. While Isabella’s granddaughter, nicknamed Juana la Loca (or Joanna the Mad) definitely showed signs of insanity, it’s not recorded that her daughter was affected at all. In fact, the daughter herself once made reference to her mother’s “black malady”, explaining in a letter to a friend that only her faith in God and devotion to her country kept this mysterious malady at bay.
Her daughter was the famous Isabella I of Castile, wife of Ferdinand II of Aragon. Through her, Isabella of Portugal was the grandmother to numerous descendants who went on to marry extensively and thus possibly spreading the familial insanity, into every royal house in Europe.
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