Joanna of Austria (1535–1573)

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Joanna of Austria (1535–1573)

Habsburg daughter of Charles V who was regent of Spain and the only female Jesuit. Name variations:Joana or Juana of Austria; Jeanne d'Autriche or Jeanne of Austria; Joanna Hapsburg or Habsburg. Born on June 24 or 27, 1535 (some sources cite 1537), in Madrid; died on September 7, 1573, at Escorial; daughter of Charles V (1500–1558), king of the Romans (r. 1519–1530), Holy Roman emperor (r. 1530–1558) and king of Spain as Charles I (r. 1516–1556), and Isabella of Portugal (1503–1539); sister of Philip II, king of Spain (r. 1556–1598), and king of Portugal as Philip I; sister of Marie of Austria (1528–1603); half-sister of Margaret of Parma (1522–1586); half-sister of John of Austria; married Portuguese prince Joao or João, the infante, also known as John of Portugal (1537–1554), on January 11, 1552; joined Company of Jesus, 1554; regent of Spain, 1554–1559; children: Sebastiao also known as Sebastian or Sebastiãn (1554–1578), king of Portugal (r. 1557–1578).

Birth of Charles V (1500); death of Isabella I of Castile (1504); death of Ferdinand of Aragon (1516); accession of Charles V to Spanish throne (1517); start of Lutheran Reformation (1517); election of Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor (1519); marriage of Charles V and Isabella of Portugal (1526); death of Catherine of Aragon (1535); birth of John, prince of Portugal (1537); death of Isabella of Portugal (1539); Loyola receives papal approval for establishment of Society of Jesus (1540); death of John of Portugal (1554); death of John III of Portugal (1557); death of Mary Tudor, wife of Philip II (1558); death of Charles V (1558); battle of Lepanto (1571); death of Sebastiãn (1578).

Princess [Joanna] was perhaps the most interesting woman of the Spanish Habsburgs.

—Gregorio Marañón

Of those who survived to adulthood, Joanna of Austria was the youngest of Charles V and Isabella of Portugal 's children. She was born on June 24, 1535, in Madrid and passed a healthy childhood. Carefully educated by her mother and royal tutors, by eight years of age, Joanna had learned Latin. She also showed considerable musical ability on the viol and the lute-like vihuela. Her childhood also introduced her to tragedy. She was nearly four when her mother, the Empress Isabella, died from complications of childbirth on April 30, 1539. Like her older brother Philip II, she possessed a solitary personality. Writes historian Geoffrey Parker, "there was something curiously cold about all the children of Charles V."

As was customary for the royal houses of Europe, the marriages of princes and princesses were tools of statecraft rather than personal, romantic unions. Charles V negotiated Joanna's betrothal to Prince John, a nephew of Isabella of Portugal. John was two years younger than she and very sickly. In fact, the Portuguese pressed for an early marriage, hoping to produce an heir to the throne in the event the prince died young. Joanna and John wed on January 11, 1552, in Toro. In the words of Joanna's biographer, Luis Fernández de Retana, "her role was reduced to giving an heir to the Monarchy and retreating to weep her soon-to-be widowhood." Time bore out the Portuguese fears: the marriage was brief. The prince died on January 2, 1554, when she was eight months pregnant. To avoid complications with the impending birth, the court hid his death from Joanna and did not wear mourning. The widow gave birth to Sebastiãn on January 20. Learning the tragic news of her husband's death, she vowed to dress in mourning the remainder of her life. She also fell into a temporary depression reminiscent of her grandmother, Juana la Loca (Joanna the Mad).

Charles V wanted her to return to Spain to govern as regent while he was abroad and while her brother Philip was in England for his marriage to Mary Tudor . Since Sebastiãn was heir to the throne, the Portuguese would not permit her to take him. On the other hand, perhaps because of her emotionally aloof personality, Joanna seems to have developed little maternal attachment to her son. In the spring of 1554, Joanna returned to Spain, to the displeasure of the Portuguese. Her regency lasted from 1554 to 1559, and she never saw Sebastiãn again.

Back in Spain, she gave herself over to the political responsibilities of the regency and religious piety. From Valladolid, where she established herself, Joanna penned long reports to her father and brother. She also gave the court an intensely somber, religious air. On January 16, 1556, Charles V abdicated as king of Spain in favor of Philip II, who in turn reappointed Joanna regent while he remained in England and Flanders. She also tried to supervise Philip's son and heir, Charles. The potential spread of Lutheranism in Spain preoccupied her, and she used the Inquisition to defend the kingdom against the protestant heretics. In 1558, she presided at a large auto-de-fe in Valladolid during which 13 heretics were executed and others were punished. In other anti-protestant actions taken on Philip's behalf, she also issued decrees prohibiting the import of foreign books, and in 1559 she ruled that Spaniards could not leave the country to study. Despite her religious scruples, she also dutifully gathered money and other resources for Philip's war against Pope Paul IV over Spain's Italian pretensions.

Meanwhile she used her power to compel the Society of Jesus to secretly make her a member. Ignatius de Loyola had received official papal recognition for his order in 1540, but the Jesuit leadership had decided not to establish an associated group for pious woman. Nonetheless, Joanna was determined to join the Society and had sufficient influence to prevail. Jesuit leaders admitted her under the alias of "Mateo Sánchez," and she remained a member of the Society for the rest of her life. Her political connections served the Jesuits well, but the leaders worried about the consequences should the secret be discovered. Even Philip II did not know of the arrangement. When he returned to Spain in August 1559, Philip was angry that her frequent contact with Francisco de Borja, a prominent Jesuit at court and her spiritual mentor, provoked rumors that she was his mistress.

Joanna of Austria also founded the Las Descalzas convent in Madrid in 1557 and provided it with a rich endowment. After finishing her service as regent in 1559, she began splitting time between the court and the convent. Thanks to her brother Philip, she had her own household at the court. Given her personality, she undoubtedly enjoyed the solitude of Las Descalzas, although she seemed happy and generous in public. Famed for her beauty and still relatively young, she had suitors. Catherine de Medici tried to negotiate the marriage of her son, Henry of Anjou, to Joanna. At one point there apparently were also suggestions that she marry her nephew Charles, but Joanna remained unwed. Instead she gave herself more and more to religious devotions. Her last months were filled with the pain of cancer. She died on September 8, 1573, in the Escorial Palace and was buried in the convent she had established.


Carrillo, Juan. Relación histórica de la real fundación del Monasterio de las Descalzas de S. Clara de la villa de Madrid. Madrid: Luis Sanchez, 1616.

Fernández de Retana, Luis. Doña Juana de Austria, gobernadora de España, 1535–1573. Madrid: El Perpetuo Socorro, 1955.

Lovett, A.W. Early Habsburg Spain, 1517–1598. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Loyola, Ignatius de. Letters to Women. Collected and ed. by Hugo Rahner. NY: Herder and Herder, 1960.

Pierson, Peter. Philip II of Spain. London: Thames and Hudson, 1975.

Kendall Brown , Professor of History, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah

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Joanna of Austria (1535–1573)

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