Joanna of Naples was born in March 1328 and would turn out to be the first of only two surviving children of Charles, Duke of Calabria and Marie of Valois. She had three elder siblings, who all died young. Her father was the eldest son of King Robert of Naples and Yolanda of Aragon.
Charles died in November 1328, just nine months after Joanna’s birth. Her mother Marie would give birth to her posthumous sister Maria in May 1329. They were left orphans when Marie died in 1332. She was still only 22 years old. Joanna became her grandfather’s heir and was proclaimed Duchess of Calabria in 1333 and Princess of Salerno in 1334.
Joanna was only five years old at the time of her first marriage to Andrew of Hungary, who had a claim to the throne of Naples. Her grandfather died in 1343 and left the kingdom to Joanna and made no mention of Andrew, probably intending to exclude him from ruling. Since Joanna was still very young, she was placed under a regency council by Dowager Queen Sancha of Majorca, the Vice-Chancellor, a Bishop, the Great Seneschal of Provence and an Admiral. In the same year, Joanna’s sister Maria was married to Charles of Durazzo.
Joanna received a formal coronation from the pope in 1344. Andrew was recognised as King but he was not crowned, and he was excluded from government. Andrew was not happy with this at all. The situation in Naples became perilous, and Andrew began to fear for his life, rightly so. In September 1345 he was brutally murdered during a hunting trip. Apparently, he was strangled with a cord and hung from a window by his genitals. Joanna was probably well aware that she would be implicated in his murder. Three months later she gave birth to Andrew’s posthumous son, Charles Martel, who would die young. Joanna was cleared by a subsequent trial, but the murder would forever taint her reign.
Her second marriage was to Louis of Taranto, who was an experienced warrior. The marriage was quite unpopular, but Joanna continued anyway, even without the papal dispensation. Andrew’s older brother Louis planned to invade Naples and Joanna escaped. During Louis’ taking of the city her brother-in-law Charles of Durazzo was executed. Joanna lived in exile in Provence. While there she was received by the pope, from whom she received a dispensation for the marriage, and he appointed a commission to investigate Andrew’s murder, Joanna was exonerated. While in exile she gave birth to her first child by Louis, a daughter named Catherine.
The plague gave Joanna a chance to return to Naples. Louis’ had fled after its outbreak, and Joanna easily gained popularity after her return. Joanna and Louis began to rule jointly. However, he soon began to take advantage of the constant Hungarian threat. It was not long before he took royal authority from her. In 1349 their daughter died aged just 1. They would have a second daughter in 1351, named Francoise, but she too would die young. Louis of Taranto died in 1362 of a cold.
Joanna quickly took back power, and she was popular in Naples, but by the end of the year, she contracted her third marriage. The groom was James IV, the titular King of Majorca and Prince of Achaea. However, this husband was no better than the previous ones. He had been imprisoned by his uncle for almost 14 years in an iron cage, which had left him mentally disturbed. He too had wanted to be included in government, and when it was made clear that wouldn’t happen he left for Spain in 1366. He was captured by Henry II of Castile and would not be ransomed by Joanna until 1370. He returned to her briefly but soon left again. She would never see him again. He died in 1375.
After this, Joanna had a calm period. Perhaps for the first time in her life, she was truly her own woman. In this time the matter of the succession must have come to her mind. Her younger sister Maria had died in 1366, but she had left surviving children. Her youngest daughter Margaret was married to her first cousin Charles of Durazzo, who would become King of Naples.
In 1375 Joanna herself contracted her fourth marriage to Otto of Brunswick, which greatly irritated the Hungarians. Otto was a great defender of Joanna’s rights, but he was reduced to a Prince Consort.
During this time there were two popes. Urban VI was in Rome, and Clement VII was in Avignon. Joanna decided to support Clement. Urban was supported by Joanna’s enemies, which had begun to include Charles of Durazzo. For this treason, Joanna declared Louis I of Anjou as her heir. Charles of Durazzo responded by invading Naples. Louis I of Anjou did not immediately help because his brother had died and he was regent for his nephew. Even Joanna’s husband Otto could not withstand the forces of Charles of Durazzo. Joanna was besieged in Castel Nuovo. Finally, Louis came to her rescue, but he was already too late. Joanna had been transferred to the Castle of Muro, where she had been brutally murdered. Accounts vary and we’ll probably never know the complete truth. The most reliable sources claim she was either suffocated between two mattresses or that she was strangled with a silk cord. The end result remains the same.