Joanna of Austria – The secret Jesuit (Part two)




joanna of austria
(public domain)

Read part one here.

During her regency in Spain, she took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience as the only woman in the male-only Jesuit order under a pseudonym, Mateo Sánchez.1 This was only allowed on the condition that her membership be kept an absolute secret.2 As a powerful protector of the Jesuits, she intervened on their behalf several times. In 1559, she founded the Convent of Las Descalzas Reales. She had so-called women’s quarters installed, where Philip’s wife and daughters could also come to pray.

When Joanna was released from the regency in 1559, she wanted to return to Portugal. By then, her grandfather Charles had died, and Philip had returned from England following the death of his wife, Queen Mary I. However, “Queen Catherine had already given more than enough proof that she was not the type of woman to withdraw easily from the political life.”3

Joanna’s wish for the Portuguese regency never materialised and she settled in Spain. She kept up a correspondence with her son and regularly asked for portraits of him so she could see how he was growing up. Joanna became close to King Philip’s third wife, Elisabeth of Valois. They saw each other practically every day and regularly attended mass together. They were also responsible for the entertainment at court. On 20 January 1568, they organised a masked ball, which was cancelled because of Carlos’s arrest. Carlos’s mental health had been deteriorating for some time. The Portuguese ambassador wrote, “I found her horrified and in tears over the event. I comforted her as best I could, without much success.”4 When Queen Elisabeth died a few months later, she was again in tears. Joanna comforted Elisabeth and Philip’s two surviving daughters, whom “I love and treat like my own daughters like the Queen used to do.”5It was Joanna who organised the funeral, while Philip withdrew to a convent to mourn her. Joanna became the glue that held the family together. When Rudolf and Ernst, her sister’s sons, came to Spain for their education, she also became close to them.6

Joanna never wished to remarry, but this did not mean that negotiations weren’t entered on her behalf. The idea was even floated that she would marry her nephew, Carlos, so that she may be able to rule on his behalf should he be incapable of doing so. However, in the end, no suitor made it across the finish line.

Her son Sebastian had begun to develop an interest in a crusade to Morocco, which worried Catherine as he had not yet married and fathered an heir. Several marriage options had already been discussed for him, such as Isabella Clara Eugenia, the eldest daughter of King Philip II of Spain, and his third wife, Elisabeth of Valois. He remained reluctant to marry and “shows so much hatred towards women, that he takes his eyes off them and if a lady serves him a glass, he tries to take it without touching her.”7

On 7 September 1573, Joanna died at the age of 38 after a long and painful illness, reportedly uterine cancer.8 Her son withdrew to a convent for three days to mourn the mother he had never known. It wasn’t until November that funeral masses were said for her soul at the Jerónimos Monastery. Catherine used this opportunity to press the issue of marriage again, but Sebastian became more focused on his crusade. He left for the Algarve, although Catherine feared it was his intention to go to Africa. She was in “a lot of pain and anguish.”9 She was right, and he indeed went to Morocco. He would not return for many months, and it was feared that he had died. When he finally entered Lisbon on 30 November 1574, he was received by cheering crowds.

Following Joanna’s death, her sister Maria wrote to their brother, “I cannot help admitting to Your Highness that I feel very alone without her, even though we lived so far apart.”10 Philip was “unable to hide his sadness.”11

Five years after Joanna’s death, Sebastian disappeared and was most likely killed during a battle in Morocco. He was 24 years old and left no children.

  1. Philip II by Geoffrey Parker p.249
  2. The Jesuits II: cultures, sciences, and the arts, 1540-1773 edited by John W. O’Malley p.44
  3. Catarina de Austria by Ana Isabel Buescu p.344-345
  4. Philip II by Geoffrey Parker p.250
  5. Philip II by Geoffrey Parker p.250
  6. Habsburg Female Regents in the Early 16th Century by Tupu Ylä-Anttila p.208
  7. Catarina de Austria by Ana Isabel Buescu p.409
  8. Catarina de Austria by Ana Isabel Buescu p.411 and The Jesuits II edited by John W. O’Malley p44
  9. Catarina de Austria by Ana Isabel Buescu p.414
  10. Philip II by Geoffrey Parker p.248
  11. Philip II by Geoffrey Parker p.250






About Moniek Bloks 2763 Articles
My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.

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