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History’s Real Mad Queens

gem-encrusted gold crown sitting on moss-covered stone in misty field

The “mad queen” trope is as popular in history as it is in pop culture. However, all too often, we see this moniker attached to complex—and more notably, powerful—women whose influence exceeded the social restrictions or expectations of their time period, causing their contemporaries to view them as a looming threat or a literal offense. Were three of history’s most famous “mad” queens actually suffering from mental illness, or were they simply the victims of slander? Let’s find out, shall we?

Marguerite de Valois

Fashionable and educated during her life, and slandered and despised after her death: So goes the story of Marguerite de Valois, commonly known as the hedonistic, wicked “Queen Margot” of Navarre. She was born a princess of France, the daughter of Henry II and Catherine de’ Medici, and the sister of three successive kings of France. The St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre—a violent slaughter of Huguenots that was widely blamed on her mother, Catherine—blighted the day of her wedding to Henry of Navarre. The marriage did not go well: Marguerite failed to bear any children, and Henry openly flaunted his mistresses.

Marguerite soon found herself caught in the middle of a string of wars between her brothers and her husband, and became the subject of “very injurious reports about her private life,” as historian Hugh Noel Williams writes in Queen Margot, Wife of Henry of Navarre. She did, in fact, have an affair with Jacque de Harlay; however, she was far from the selfish hedonist that her detractors paint her as. Indeed, even after the end of her marriage, she remained a beloved public figure, acting as the patron of charities as well as of the arts and humanities.

So, what changed her image from that of a typical queen to that of an evil nymphomaniac? Well, it was most likely the word of three prominent male authors. First, a piece of propaganda aimed at her and her husband called The Satiric Divorce (Le Divorce Satyrique)—most likely the work of Théodore Agrippa d’Aubigné—was taken seriously as fact rather than satire. Then, centuries later, Alexandre Dumas wrote La Reine Margot as part of a trilogy on court intrigue in France and Navarre, which presented the queen in a poor light. Finally, Historian Jules Michelet used Queen Margot’s character as a figurehead for the depravity of the old French monarchy in his writings. With so many powerful voices turned against her, how could Marguerite’s reputation have survived untarnished?

Juana of Castile

Monument to Juana I of Castile in Tordesillas, Valladolid, Spain
Dolores Giraldez Alonso/Shutterstock

Juana (or Joanna) was the daughter of the powerful Spanish monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. She had three siblings: a brother, Juan, heir to the dual thrones of Aragon and Castile, and three sisters, including Catalina, the future Queen Catherine of England. Historian Ann Foster notes that Juana, like her sisters, was brought up to be accomplished, educated, and pious, but also, “from what is left of Juana’s writings, there are hints that she was witty and also that she may not have taken religion as seriously as the rest of her family.” She was married at the age of 18 to Philip, son of the Holy Roman Emperor. The couple fell passionately in love at first sight.

However, Juana and her family’s good fortune didn’t last. First, her husband began to have numerous affairs. Then two of her siblings—including her brother—died, leaving her as the heir to her parents’ thrones. Also, at this point, she was suffering from an unknown mental illness following the strain of several pregnancies and her husband’s infidelities. Although she formally became Queen of Castille upon her mother’s death in 1504, Gillian B. Fleming notes in Juana I: Legitimacy and Conflict in Sixteenth-Century Castile that neither her father nor her husband was willing to relinquish power, and jointly claimed that she was “mad” in order to appoint themselves co-rulers. When her husband died in 1506, Juana slipped even further into illness, unable to juggle her sudden grief and her father’s relentless ambition.

“Historians have interpreted Juana’s alleged catatonia—together, curiously enough, with her failure to weep in public—as a symptom of her mental illness,” Fleming writes, suggesting that there is little evidence that Juana was actually suffering from a breakdown and was likely only observing the appropriate royal protocols of withdrawal and flowery language that went hand in hand with grieving. She did eventually succeed her father as monarch of Aragon, but her son Charles soon took over the role and had her confined. While imprisoned she became increasingly paranoid as Charles isolated her more and more. It appears that Juana did suffer from some degree of mental illness, but the extent of it was likely exaggerated in order to justify her removal from power.

Maria I of Portugal

Maria’s moniker varied from country to country; for example, Portugal called her “Maria the Pious,” but she was referred to as “Maria the Mad” in Brazil. As the first monarch of Brazil and the first queen regent of Portugal, she was a woman of high prestige. H. V. Livermore writes in A History of Portugal that Maria was perceived as fairly pleasant, if overly pious. He cites a contemporary description of her:

“[She is] a woman worthy of esteem and respect, but she has not the qualities that constitute a great queen. No one is more human, more charitable nor more sensitive than she, but these good qualities are spoiled by an excessive and misplaced devotion.”

Maria’s husband died in 1786, and two years later, she lost her eldest son and heir as well. When she subsequently began to suffer from depression, paranoia, and nightmares, medical intervention failed to provide relief. According to Livermore, “the queen, possessed of the idea that she was damned, and frequently delirious, ceased to govern in 1792,” and her surviving son became regent. Sadly, in this case, Maria was truly a mad queen suffering from mental illness. However, despite this, she is still held in high esteem by the Portuguese and Brazilians alike due to her lasting reputation for fair governance during her ruling years. Also, her position as Portugal’s first undisputed queen regent makes her something of an icon as well as a strong, capable woman worthy of remembrance.

Amanda Prahl Amanda Prahl
Amanda Prahl is a freelance contributor to MindBounce. She has an MFA in dramatic writing, a BA in literature, and is a former faculty associate focusing on writing craft and history. Over the past several years, she's researched and authored a wide range of articles centered on the arts, humanities, history, and pop culture. Read Full Bio »