From the Bookshelf: The Last Queen

I finished up The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner.  This is the kind of historical fiction I love - Lots of facts and details that breathe life into a person.

The book is centered on Juana of Castile, who was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella (yeah, THAT Ferdinand and Isabella - of Columbus fame).  There were a lot of "OH!" moments in this book for me.  I mean... everyone knows the story of Ferdinand and Isabella funding the voyage to the new world.  But did you know that Isabella was Queen of Castile in her own right, and if the description of her in this book is anything like the truth, the woman was a force.   She wielded more power than her husband (who was ruler of Aragon) and rode into battle 8 days after giving birth to one of Juana's younger sisters.

Juana, as a middle daughter, had been groomed to be the wife of some important political alliance.  Her older brother was to inherit the joint thrones of Castile and Aragon.  By all accounts, Juana was a lovely young woman, strikingly beautiful, and had been extremely well educated, spoke several languages fluently.  At 16, she was married to Phillip of Flanders, who also happened to be the heir to the Hapsburg empire.  (Side note:  One of the marked OH! moments in this is when I realized Juana's baby sister, Catarina, is better known as Catherine to us English history buffs.  As in Catherine of Aragon, who marries Henry VIII and is mother of Mary Tudor.  OH!)

History, which is most often recorded by men, wasn't particularly kind to Juana.  By historical accounts, after the death of Phillip (when she was pregnant with child #5 by him and still in her 20s), and following the deaths of both her older brother and sister, and then her mother, which placed her on throne of Castile, she became increasingly mentally unstable.  The author of this book paints a very interesting picture of her as a woman thrust into impossible situations - being forced to sit on the throne, but not given any real power.  Having had virtually no power at all to make decisions for herself or her children while married, and even after Phillip's death, also appears to have been a major stressor in her life.

Whether or not she truly was mad or whether she was just a woman caught in a lot of political upheaval in which she had no control, she lived into her late 70s, but is made a prisoner and her father takes control of the Castillian throne as regent.

A really interesting book.  I felt like it was a balanced perspective, drawing on historical references, but also the author's imagination to create a very well-rounded picture of a woman caught on the edge of being invested with the power of a queen, and being completely powerless to control her own destiny.  Definitely recommended for Renaissance history buffs, but a good story of an interesting woman, no matter what your era of interest is!

PS:  For those of you keeping notes, Juana of Castile will be one of the Heroines I'm featuring in a lace design in next year's (2015) shawl club.

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