A Rich Inheritance

The marriage of his parents, Philip and Juana, in 1496, brought together many of Europe’s ruling families. Charles’ birth was the culmination of the policy of ‘matrimonial imperialism’1 pursued by his grandfathers. Charles’ father, Philip, was the son of Emperor Maximilian I, whose Habsburg family held considerable lands in southern Germany and Austria as well as being elected to the Imperial throne since 1438. Maximilian I had married Mary of Burgundy, the daughter of Archduke Charles the Bold. That marriage had joined the Habsburgs to the junior (Burgundian) branch of the Valois. Through his father the young Charles was heir to large and diverse territories.

His mother, Juana, was the third child of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. These rulers had completed the ‘Reconquista’, driving the last Muslim rulers (based in Granada) out of Spain in 1492, thus earning the epithet 'the Catholic Monarchs' from Pope Alexander VI, though they had not united their two kingdoms in any other than a personal sense. Juana was soon to be heir to all the kingdoms of Spain and their lands overseas, the Balearics, Sardinia, Sicily, Naples and growing lands in the New World. Her only brother, Juan, had died childless only six months after his wedding to Charles’ aunt, Margaret, in 1497, and he was followed to the grave by his eldest sister, Isabella, in 1498. The subsequent death of Isabella’s young son, Miguel, left Juana with this vast inheritance.

That Charles might inherit all of these territories was the unintended result of various marriages, births and deaths in the years before or shortly after his own birth. ‘Let others wage wars, (but) you fortunate Austria, marry’. It is easy to see that what Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, wrote about the Habsburgs in the late fifteenth century was still accurate in the early sixteenth century. But little was certain at a time of high infant mortality, ruthless political manoeuvring and ever changing alliances. Given that both his parents were in their early twenties it could well be several decades before Charles would come into his birth-right. The wheel of fortune could quite possibly turn, and turn again, before then.

Absent parents.

Eleanor (1498), was followed by Charles (1500), Isabella (1501), Ferdinand (1503), Mary (1505) and Catherine (1507). While Eleanor, Charles, Isabella and Mary had been born in the Low Countries, Ferdinand and Catherine were born in Spain. In late 1501, after Isabella’s birth, Philip and Juana left their young family and travelled through France to Castile so that they could be acknowledged as heirs to the throne. That achieved, Philip left for Austria and then the Low Countries leaving his pregnant wife in Spain. Juana gave birth to Ferdinand, in March 1503. It was at this stage that Juana’s unpredictable behaviour first emerged. Philip, known as ‘the Handsome’, cut a fine figure, steeped in the chivalry and sophistication of the Burgundian court, in contrast to the more austere Spanish traditions. Juana was intensely jealous of all who had her husband’s attention. She had not wished to be separated from him and she now violently insisted that she re-joined him. Lodged in the castle of La Mota, near Medina del Campo, she had to be forcibly restrained as she made frenzied attempts to leave and make her own way to the coast, much to the despair of her mother. When at last she was considered fit to travel she was escorted back to the Low Countries and their son Ferdinand was left in Spain in the care of his grandparents. Once reunited Juana gave birth to another daughter, Mary, in September 1505.

The combination of Philip’s widely known infidelities and Juana’s violent reaction to his betrayals, many real and even more imagined, meant their relationship all but collapsed. But Philip needed her if he was to further his ambitions. In November 1504 her mother Isabella died leaving Juana as queen of Castile. She refused Philip’s demands that she sign away her inheritance and his response was to undermine her position. Philip put the word around that she was insane, her independent funds were withdrawn and she was kept out of the public eye, although it should be remembered that her pregnancy and the birth of Mary would have meant that she would have withdrawn from public appearances for several months in any case.

Shipwrecked off the English coast. In January 1506 they set sail for Spain to claim the throne. Shipwrecked on the south coast of England Philip was escorted to Windsor by the young Prince Henry to meet the king. As a guest he was subjected to Henry VII’s charm offensive although it was clear that he would not be able to leave until he agreed to a number of demands – a trade agreement advantageous to England, a mutual defence alliance and plans to marry Philip’s son Charles to Henry’s youngest daughter Mary. Philip talked of Juana’s unpredictable behaviour as an excuse for delaying her journey to Windsor. When she did arrive she only had one day in which to meet her sister, Catherine of Aragon, who had married Henry VII’s eldest son Arthur only for him to die after less than five months. The king later commented that Philip’s accounts of Juana’s insanity did not match the behaviour of the queen that he had met.

On arrival in Spain Philip’s claim to be king was immediately challenged by Ferdinand of Aragon, Juana’s father, who had done all he could to prevent their arrival. But Ferdinand would never gain the support of the Castilian nobility, who feared domination from Aragon. Ferdinand recognised this and accepted that his ‘most beloved children’ should take over control of Castile. Ferdinand and Philip then agreed that Juana (the rightful heir) was neither inclined nor fit to rule ‘considering her infirmities and sufferings, which for the sake of honour are not expressed’. But on the same day Ferdinand, admiringly referred to by Machiavelli as ‘the fox’, drew up secret documents renouncing both treaties on the grounds of coercion. He then withdrew to Aragon.

Philip's death and Juana's isolation.

Philip was never able to enjoy his apparent victory. On 25th September 1506 at the Casa del Cordon in Burgos he was suddenly taken ill and died. Many suspected poison, but a fever developing from a chill and typhoid fever have also been suggested. His early death meant that Charles would inherit Castle sooner than had been expected (and Aragon as well, so long as Ferdinand had no more children on his re-marriage). Philip’s death left the once again pregnant Juana distraught. For months she had his coffin carried with her in torchlight processions. A regency council was set up, headed by Archbishop Cisneros, with Ferdinand as ‘administrator’, though he focused mainly on foreign policy. By 1509 Juana was persuaded to settle in the Convent of Santa Clara overlooking the river Douro in Tordesillas, south-west of Valladolid, where she remained, excluded from power or influence for forty-six years until her death in 1555.


1 Parker, G.’ The political World of Charles V’ in Soly, H. Charles V 1500-1558 and his Time. Mercatorfonds. Antwerp. (1999)