The Last Queen tells the story of Juana of Castile, the third child of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. Known throughout history as Juana la Loca or Juana the Mad, Juana inherited the throne of Castile from her mother due to the untimely deaths of her older siblings, Juan and Isabella, and their heirs. Reeling from these tragedies, Juana becomes heir apparent but her husband, Philip of Habsburg, is determined to claim the throne for himself by declaring Juana insane.
The trouble with historical fiction is that much of it is written about the most famous kings and queens of Europe and mostly set in the same time period, so it is always refreshing to read about someone who is less familiar. As a daughter of the famous Catholic monarchs, Juana may be less well known than her famous sister, Catherine of Aragon, but her story is just as compelling. Catherine has always been my favourite of Henry’s wives, mainly due to her immense courage and absolute refusal to be cast aside, and these same traits are also evident in her sister, Juana.
Although not much is known about Juana’s life, she was a beautiful and intelligent woman who had been trained since birth to make a successful marriage to further her family’s influence in Europe. The story begins with a reluctant Juana being told she is to marry a Habsburg prince, Philip the Fair, which immediately establishes her steely determination to do her duty and her strong bond with the father who will eventually betray her. The young woman who travels to Flanders is vibrant and passionate, and she quickly falls in love with her handsome new husband who is initially besotted with her. The couple seem to spend a lot of time in bed together so it is hardly surprising Juana falls pregnant with her first child in a short space of time, but her joy soon turns to outrage when she discovers her husband has a mistress. As a furious Juana strikes out at Philip, she is soon tagged with the mad label which seems destined to haunt her.
While historians have debated endlessly over the years as to whether Juana was genuinely mad or not, Gortner is definitely supporting the theory Juana was victimised by her husband who spread malicious rumours to cheat her out of her birthright. When Juana returns to Spain, she is appalled by the gossip but she deliberately perpetuates the myth when it is to her advantage. However, there was evidence of mental instability in the House of Trastamara and the author himself alludes to it when he has Juana meeting her maternal grandmother, Isabella of Portugal, whose insanity caused her to be hidden away. Both her mother, Isabella, and her sister, Catherine, suffered from bouts of melancholia during their life so it isn’t a stretch to suggest Juana was also afflicted. There are certain episodes where Juana’s behaviour cannot be explained adequately and that it is why I believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
One of the strangest things Juana did was to cart her husband’s body around with her, and while many stories suggest it was because she could not bear to be parted from him, Gortner has Juana using it to evoke sympathy as the most revered women in Spain were said to be widows and mothers. As Juana was pregnant when her husband died, she hoped the sight of a pregnant widow travelling through Castile with her deceased husband would turn public opinion in her favour. Unfortunately, Juana never quite got around to burying him and Gortner doesn’t help the situation by having her say she isn’t quite sure what to do with him. It is hardly surprising people thought she was a bit strange.
Since there isn’t a lot of documented evidence of Juana’s life, Gortner takes a few liberties with the facts but most readers of historical fiction have come to accept that. I’m not familiar enough with Spanish history to comment on the accuracy of certain events but most of it seems plausible, apart from the circumstances surrounding Philip’s death which are too contrived.
Gortner does a good job of bringing the characters to life, particularly Juana, however I did feel Philip’s motives could’ve been explored a little more as he seems quite one dimensional at times. The majority of the plot is also centred around Juana’s battles with Philip, meaning there is little room for the aftermath of her father’s betrayal which I found far more unsettling. As a consequence, the end of the book seems rushed and Juana’s subsequent years of captivity are glossed over in the afterword. There was plenty story left to tell so it’s a shame the author chose to stop where he did.