Anne Thériault | Longreads | July 2018 | 23 minutes (5,932 words)
From the notorious to the half-forgotten, Queens of Infamy, a Longreads series by Anne Thériault, focuses on badass world-historical women of centuries past.
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Are you the sort of person who loves a high court drama with plenty of devious intriguing? Is learning about grisly murders one of your guilty pleasures? Do you get a voyeuristic thrill out of tracking the rise and fall of royal romances? What about plagues? Do you like plagues? If you are currently clutching your chest and muttering “yes, yes, a thousand times yes,” then: a) sick, and b) keep reading. We’re about to take a deep dive into the life of Joanna I of Naples, and shit’s about to get really, really real.
Joanna — or Giovanna, as she was and still is known in her mother tongue — was born in 1326 to Charles, Duke of Calabria and heir to the Kingdom of Naples, and Marie of Valois. Although she was Charles and Marie’s fourth child, Joanna was predeceased by her three older siblings and became second in line to the throne at birth. A member of the Angevin dynasty, Joanna was the great-great-great-great-great granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Like Eleanor, she would prove to have a knack for ruling. Also like Eleanor, her ambition and capability would threaten the powerful men around her. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both queens found themselves having to run for their lives. Joanna’s flight — which involved escaping her besieged castle under the cover of night and then undertaking a dangerous journey across plague-ridden seas (all while pregnant, mind you) — might be less famous than that of her predecessor, but it’s arguably an even more incredible story.
Joanna was raised at the Neapolitan court by her grandfather, King Robert the Wise, and his second wife, Sancia. Joanna’s father had died when she was just 8 months old; her mother, who was pregnant at the time of her father’s death, had given birth to Joanna’s sister Maria in 1329 and then died in 1331. Robert taught Joanna and Maria how to rule, and Sancia attended to their spiritual needs, but most of their care fell to a woman named Philippa the Catanian.
Philippa was a one-time wet nurse who, after a meteoric rise in the royal court, had become something akin to a foster mother to Joanna and Maria. She had been an impoverished Sicilian laundry maid until a twist of fate had landed her in the household of Robert the Wise’s first wife. Always one to press any advantage she might have, Philippa had quickly made herself indispensable and then used her charm and beauty to further her social position. While the former laundress was elbowing her way through the medieval patriarchy, a young man named Raymond of Campagno was similarly rising in the king’s estimation. Raymond was Ethiopian, and had been brought to Robert’s father’s court as a kitchen slave; he somehow managed to win his freedom and work his way up to the position of head chef. From there he was, quite improbably, made a guard of the king’s wardrobe. Eventually, he would be appointed royal seneschal and become a close advisor of the king’s.
Raymond and Philippa married and, through royal favor and shrewd money management, became incredibly wealthy. By the time Joanna was born, Philippa and Raymond were a power couple, who, in just three short decades, had risen from poverty and slavery to become two of the most successful people in Naples.
RAYMOND: I love you, babe
PHILIPPA: as much as you love taking money and property away from rich white people?
RAYMOND: maybe next year we’ll buy Portugal
At the royal court in Naples, Joanna learned from her grandfather everything she needed to know to be a monarch. Robert the Wise was a good teacher — and, as his byname suggests, a good role model. Naples was stable and prosperous under his rule, and he was a patron of the arts and of higher learning. Most of Robert’s success as a king was due to his astute statesmanship, but at least a small part of it was due to climate; his reign came at the end of the Medieval Climate Optimum, a historical period where slightly warmer temperatures had led to higher crop yields, an improved economy, and a population boom. This was especially true in Naples, which was a major player in the international grain market.
Like Eleanor, she would prove to have a knack for ruling. Also like Eleanor, her ambition and capability would threaten the powerful men around her.
Even though things were going pretty well in Naples, Robert had a decades-old Hungarian problem to worry about. You see, for most of his childhood, Robert had not been his father’s heir; that honor had gone to his older brother, Charles Martel. When Charles Martel died in 1295, his young son Carobert should have been next in line according to the law of primogeniture. But national security in Naples was a bit dicey at the time, and the king had decided to name his oldest surviving son heir in lieu of his grandson. Anyway, Carobert would inherit the crown of Hungary through his grandmother, Mary of Hungary, so everything was chill, right?
Predictably, everything was not chill.
After being passed over for the Neapolitan crown because of his youth and inexperience, King Carobert had, ironically enough, turned into one of Europe’s most formidable warriors. He also had heirs to spare — sons Louis, Andrew, and Stephen, as well as several daughters — and was still furious that he had been denied what he believed to be his birthright.
In an attempt to resolve this problem and stave off a possible Hungarian invasion, Joanna was betrothed to Carobert’s son Andrew, with the stipulation that Andrew’s heirs would rule Naples, but he himself would only ever serve as Joanna’s consort. Joanna would retain ultimate power throughout her lifetime, and her children would, through virtue of being raised in her court, be Neapolitan enough to rule Naples. This last part was especially important: a big part of the reason people disliked Carobert and his sons was that, in spite of their heritage, they were just too, well, foreign to rule Naples. The Neapolitans held a strong bias against the Hungarians, believing them to be rude, hairy barbarians; the idea of a Hungarian on the throne appalled their fragile sensibilities.
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Joanna and Andrew were married in 1333, when she was 7 years old and he was 6. Robert drew up an illustrious guest list and organized an elaborate ceremony that involved an exchange of vows and even a brief kiss between the children. The opulence of the event was as much a power move as it was a tribute to Joanna’s rank; Robert hoped that his pricy display would demonstrate to Hungary — and any others who might be intriguing for the crown — just how much might he wielded.
After the wedding, Andrew remained in Naples while his parents returned to Hungary. Before leaving, Carobert made sure his son had a well-appointed suite of rooms and a large Hungarian retinue, including a doctor, a furrier, and several sommeliers (because heaven forbid a 6-year-old be served inferior wine). From Robert’s perspective, keeping his new grandson-in-law around was a smart move; it gave Andrew the chance to learn the customs of the Neapolitan court and eased his transition into his new role. From Joanna’s perspective, it meant that she almost certainly came to view her husband as an obnoxious younger sibling.
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Andrew had a difficult time growing up in the court of Robert the Wise; he was isolated, lonely, and bombarded by anti-Hungarian sentiment. Unsurprisingly, he grew into a surly and intractable teenager who felt Very Hard Done By. By all accounts, he lagged behind his wife when it came to social and emotional maturity (pretty normal for teenage boys, who apparently haven’t changed much since the Middle Ages), and by the time he was 15 and Joanna was 16, they still hadn’t consummated their marriage. Meanwhile, Joanna’s cousins, the Taranto boys, had just returned from Greece looking extremely dreamy. Boccaccio, years before writing The Decameron, described the Tarantos as having “remarkable beauty” as well as possessing a “notable excellence” that made them “exceedingly pretty to those who looked at them.” If Europe had been a suburban high school, the Tarantos would have been the quarterbacks and Andrew would have been that band geek with an awkwardly patchy beard.
In 1343, Robert the Wise died at the age of 68; in a will written just four days before his death, he appointed a special council to help Joanna rule until she was 25. The Naples Robert left behind, however, was not the Naples he had overseen at the height of his power. The Medieval Climate Optimum had ended around 1300, and Europe had been beset by endless rain and poor crop yields. A series of famines, beginning in 1339, had weakened the general population. Seventeen-year-old Joanna, whose ability to govern was already considered doubtful because of her age and sex, came to the throne at an incredibly precarious time.
If Europe had been a suburban high school, the Tarantos would have been the quarterbacks and Andrew would have been that band geek with an awkwardly patchy beard.
Andrew, drunk on the heady power of toxic masculinity (and maybe on all that wine his sommeliers were giving him), decided that he should be king. This was unsurprising, considering that he had been raised on the idea that Naples was rightfully his. While Robert had been alive, forwarding this agenda would have been impossible. Now that he was gone, Andrew took advantage of what he and his family perceived as a vacuum in power.
ANDREW: I’m very mature and cool. Total king material. Extremely capable of handling my own shit.
ANDREW: right mom?
ELIZABETH OF POLAND: of course, honey
ANDREW: can you call the pope and tell him to let me be king?
ELIZABETH OF POLAND: anything you want, dear
POPE CLEMENT VI: so, uh, hey, I talked to your mom. I guess you can have a crown or whatever
POPE CLEMENT VI: we’ll do a whole ceremony
POPE CLEMENT VI: make you feel special
ANDREW: *strums a cool riff on his lute* Aw fuck yeah I’m gonna be king!!!
POPE CLEMENT VI: but Joanna will still be the boss, sorry
ANDREW: what the fuck, dude. Whatever happened to bros before hoes? Isn’t that, like, the church’s motto?
POPE CLEMENT VI: actually, Jesus had many female followers
POPE CLEMENT VI: but look
POPE CLEMENT VI: since I’m a nice guy, I’ll give you a special dispensation so that you alone in all of Naples can eat meat on fast days
POPE CLEMENT VI: that’s just as good as being king!
Remarkably, Andrew was not satisfied by this response and continued to press his cause. Even after Joanna became pregnant — potentially ensuring that one of Carobert’s heirs would, in fact, someday wear the Neapolitan crown — Andrew refused to let up. He began making veiled threats toward Joanna (who, in return, apparently taunted him mercilessly). He bullied and insulted everyone at court who wasn’t a member of his personal household. He freed the Pipinis, three brothers who had been imprisoned for terrorizing the country, and offered them knighthoods if they promised to take up his cause. To say that he was unpopular in Naples would be a vast understatement.
On September 18, 1345, after spending an evening of drinking and dancing with his buddies, Andrew returned to his rooms. Joanna was already there, apparently fast asleep in bed. Andrew was just getting ready to join her when a servant came to the door telling him to come quickly to see a courier with important papers he needed to sign. Andrew hurried out into the gallery, where he was seized by a group of armed men. They strung a rope around his neck and dragged him to a balcony, where they dangled him over the railing. In the garden below, several men grabbed his ankles and pulled in an effort to speed up the strangling process. While this was happening, Andrew’s nurse, Isabella the Hungarian, stumbled on the scene. Her screams scattered the attackers and roused the royal household, but it was too late. Andrew was already dead.
Joanna, six months pregnant and nineteen years old, was a widow. She was also the prime suspect in her husband’s murder.
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Rumors began to swirl in the wake of Andrew’s death. Some described the queen as being unable to cry and guiltily refusing to make eye contact with anyone; others said that she immediately fled the castle where Andrew had died out of fear that her involvement in his death might be discovered; still more said that she neglected Andrew’s corpse for three days until the canon at a local cathedral took it on himself to bury the body. All of these things were untrue: there are dated letters with Joanna’s seal on them that prove that she remained at the castle after Andrew’s death, and historical record shows that he was interred the day after his murder. But they made for such salacious gossip that people believed them anyway. Certainly there were some elements that made Joanna look less-than-innocent — aside from having spent several years openly loathing her husband, there was also the somewhat damning fact that after Andrew had been lured from the rooms he shared with Joanna, someone had locked the door from the inside so that he couldn’t get back in — but there was nothing that conclusively tied her to the attack.
Less than two days after the murder, a man named Tommaso Mambriccio was arrested in connection with the crime. In their zeal to avenge Andrew’s murder, prosecutors skipped an actual interrogation in favor of public torture that involved the removal of the prisoner’s tongue. This created a problem, because although it was very clear that Tommaso hadn’t acted alone, the violence inflicted on him by his captors meant he couldn’t name any names. Was this simply an oversight on the part of over-enthusiastic torturers? Or were they trying to protect someone by making sure that Tommaso couldn’t identify any of his co-conspirators? It was rumored that Philippa the Catanian and Raymond of Compagno were somehow involved; some thought that by having Tommaso’s tongue cut out, Joanna was ensuring not only her own safety, but the safety of two of her favorites.
Joanna, six months pregnant and nineteen years old, was a widow. She was also the prime suspect in her husband’s murder.
The Hungarians were furious, and demanded a papal inquiry into Andrew’s death. The pope agreed to launch one, but then proceeded to drag his feet on the matter. Andrew’s older brother Louis, who was now king of Hungary, began to talk about invading Naples. International tensions heightened, and things seemed pretty grim for a few months.
Then, on December 25, 1345, Joanna gave birth to a healthy son. By producing an heir — and a male heir, at that — Joanna could finally imagine the possibility of a stable nation. She named the child Charles Martel and appointed Isabelle the Hungarian as his nurse, a move that was, no doubt, intended to placate her Hungarian in-laws. Some placating was definitely in order: the same emissaries sent to inform the Hungarian crown of their adorable new family member were also tasked with negotiating Joanna’s way out of certain clauses in her nuptial treaty. The queen, having secured the line of succession, was hoping to remarry.
The man Joanna wanted to take as her second husband was none other than her hot blond cousin, Louis of Taranto. This astonished exactly no one, since there had long been speculation that the two were romantically involved; some even went so far as to say that Louis was the real father of Joanna’s child. Whatever the truth was, Joanna’s remarriage so soon after Andrew’s death wasn’t a great look. On the other hand, it might have been the threat of Hungarian invasion that pushed her to find a new husband right away. Louis, after all, was not just a pretty face; he was also a seasoned warrior, and, although Joanna’s education had covered a lot of bases, military command was not something she’d learned. Given the political upheaval, it made sense that she wanted to secure her champion’s loyalties by marrying him (not that marriage had ever made Andrew particularly loyal). Plus, again, Louis of Taranto was just really, spectacularly hot. Which was exactly what Joanna needed.
As the papal investigation continued, another faction of Joanna’s family began plotting against her. Robert and Charles of Durazzo (who, along with the Tarantos and Louis of Hungary, were also Joanna’s cousins — so many fucking cousins in this story, sometimes quite literally), saw the turmoil at the Neapolitan court as a chance to make their own grab at power. Claiming to be very concerned about finding justice for Andrew (an interest that had suddenly sprung up six months after his murder), the Durazzo brothers went to Naples to stir up some shit. They did their utmost to turn popular opinion against the queen, which frankly wasn’t that hard — the ongoing delays in the papal inquest made it seem as if Joanna had something to hide. As the population grew more restless, court seneschal Raymond of Campagno issued a decree that forbade civilians from openly carrying weapons in public. On March 6, 1346, Raymond was ambushed while trying to enforce this decree and taken prisoner by the Durazzos.
Having learned a thing or two from the non-interrogation of Tommaso Mambriccio, the Durazzo brothers immediately removed Raymond’s tongue. They then had him publicly “confess” by nodding his head along to various statements, including the naming of his alleged co-conspirators. The people he listed off included his own wife, Philippa the Catanian, as well as his granddaughter Sancia. The mob, enraged by this 14th-century predecessor of Fake News, began trying to attack the castle, shouting “Death to the whore queen!” and “Surrender the traitors!”
Joanna eventually made the difficult decision to hand the accused over to the Durazzos, who, in turn, promised that the captives would be kept safe until the chief justice of the kingdom arrived to investigate. It didn’t take the Durazzos long to break their promise, though — their ally, Hugo del Balzo, took the prisoners out to sea and tortured them in full view of the Neapolitan shore.
Meanwhile, in the east, two forces were preparing to invade Naples: the Hungarians, and the Black Death. Only one of them would make people poop blood (presumably; I mean, I don’t know what kind of spooky shit Louis of Hungary was capable of). Both would arrive in early 1348 and change the future of the Neapolitan crown forever.
As Louis of Hungary made his way across the Italian countryside, conquering towns and villages as he went, the Neapolitans had to figure out what to do. The Durazzos, who had initially promised to set their differences with the queen aside and fight with their fellow Neapolitans, defected to the enemy camp; two of Louis of Taranto’s brothers, Robert and Philip, quickly followed suit. Meanwhile, Joanna decided that the best course of action was to lose the battle in order to win the war. Pregnant with Louis’ child, the queen fled her castle in the middle of the night with Avignon — the site of the papal court at the time — as her eventual destination. Louis of Taranto, who was fighting the Hungarians in Capua when he received news about the queen’s hasty departure, chose to do the same.
Meanwhile, in the east, two forces were preparing to invade Naples: the Hungarians, and the Black Death. Only one of them would make people poop blood (presumably; I mean, I don’t know what kind of spooky shit Louis of Hungary was capable of).
Before leaving, Joanna had made the heartbreaking decision to leave her toddler son, Charles Martel, behind. Considering that she was often described as a loving and attentive mother, the queen could not have made this decision lightly. She would have known that her flight would be difficult and dangerous — possibly even deadly — to a small child. She would also have known that the Hungarians would take good care of her son; after all, he was Andrew’s son too. After assessing the situation, she decided that it was safer not to bring him with her.
On January 19, 1348, Charles of Durazzo and Robert of Taranto led a procession of turncoat Neapolitan nobles into Aversa, just north of Naples, to greet their conquerors.
KING LOUIS OF HUNGARY: hey guys
KING LOUIS OF HUNGARY: kind of a weird question for you!
KING LOUIS OF HUNGARY: have you ever read or watched Game of Thrones?
CHARLES OF DURAZZO: I mean, not yet, but I’m planning on it
ROBERT OF TARANTO: yeah, I’ve already downloaded the first three seasons
KING LOUIS OF HUNGARY: ok so you’ve never heard of, for example, the Red Wedding?
ROBERT OF TARANTO: is that when a girl gets her period on her wedding night?
ROBERT OF TARANTO: LOL
KING LOUIS OF HUNGARY: LOL
KING LOUIS OF HUNGARY: totallyyyyyy
KING LOUIS OF HUNGARY: anyway, you guys are invited over for a special dinner on Tuesday!
Louis was not a man to let bygones be bygones and he had a long list of grievances against his cousins. In spite of the fact that they had openly betrayed their queen in favor of the Hungarian invaders, the night ended with the arrest of the Neapolitan nobles. Robert and Philip of Taranto were thrown in prison, as were Louis and Robert of Durazzo. Charles of Durazzo was condemned to death and then executed in exactly the same spot where Andrew had been murdered. Apparently their calculated risk was ill-calculated.
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As Joanna was traveling towards Avignon, the Black Death was doing the same. It had arrived in Sicily the previous fall, in a fleet of Genoese vessels carrying the most dangerous cargo. Sailors, many of them already desperately ill, stumbled down the gangplank and into the dockyards of Messina. Within days, the plague held the city in its grip. By the spring of 1348, it had spread to the rest of Italy and beyond.
The general population, weakened by years of famine, died in droves. Mortality rates varied by region, but in some cities — like Florence — it hovered between fifty and ninety percent. Thousands of small villages were wiped off the map through a combination of people dying and fleeing. In many areas, the population wouldn’t reach pre-plague rates again until the 17th century.
The plague moved swiftly and horribly; some contemporary accounts describe people who were healthy at sunrise and dead by sunset. Those who died so swiftly were fortunate, though; in most cases the illness, which was incredibly painful and debilitating, lasted for several days. Because of the (entirely justified) fear of contagion, many people had no one to nurse them while they were sick. They died alone and terrified, without even the spiritual comfort of the church’s last rites. There were so many dead bodies that cities didn’t have enough room to bury them. In Avignon, Pope Clement VI consecrated the Rhône river. Every day, hundreds of stinking corpses choked the river and slowly floated downstream to the open sea.
After being driven out of her own city and spending months fleeing the Hungarian forces, the adoration of the people of Avignon must have been a balm for her soul. But she also knew that at the end of that long walk she would be tried in the papal court for the murder of her husband.
This was the Avignon that Joanna entered with great fanfare on March 15, 1348. At the head of her procession were the bishop of Florence and the chancellor of Provence, followed by eighteen cardinals. Next came Joanna, dressed in a gold-and-crimson robe, her blond hair gleaming in the morning sun. She was a known beauty — the poet Petrarch had described her as “exquisite and enchanting”; Boccaccio had called her “fair and goodly to look upon” — and her charms were on full display during her march through the town. Louis, who was a few paces behind her, managed to look just as alluring; with his blond hair cut short and wearing a tight Spanish jacket, he was, as one observer put it, “as beautiful as the day.”
This colorful parade was the first bright spot Avignon had seen in months, and people turned out in droves to watch the young queen make her way through town. After being driven out of her own city and spending months fleeing the Hungarian forces, the adoration of the people of Avignon must have been a balm for her soul. But she also knew that at the end of that long walk she would be tried in the papal court for the murder of her husband. If the pope found her to be innocent, she would have a chance of re-taking Naples. If she was found guilty, she faced certain death.
Joanna asked for permission to speak on her own behalf, an extremely unusual request in the papal Den for Men. The pope, who was also dressed to the nines in a triple tiara, white silk robes, and gold-embroidered slippers, granted the queen the right to defend herself. She was the only woman in a room full of dudes who were absolutely not accustomed to taking anything women said seriously.
JOANNA: I’m not here to tell you that I loved Andrew because lol we all know that’s not true
JOANNA: But I swear that I didn’t kill him
JOANNA: as proof, I offer the fact that I just calmly walked through the plague-ridden streets of your city
JOANNA: If I were guilty, would God not have immediately struck me down with a bad case of the pestilence?
JOANNA: and yet, I don’t have a single bubo on me
JOANNA: gentlemen, just look at my smooth, bubo-free neck
JOANNA: in conclusion, God has already judged me innocent, and who are you to go against His wisdom?
CLEMENT VI: I… wow, I actually can’t argue with that
The papal court found Joanna not only innocent but, in fact, completely above the suspicion of guilt. And then, just over a month after Joanna’s arrival in Avignon, Clement VI issued a papal bull legitimizing her marriage to Louis of Taranto. A few weeks later, he declared that Louis of Hungary should get the heck out of Naples. Having followed through on exacting revenge for his brother’s murder, Louis of Hungary was just about ready to retreat anyway. It turned out that managing a kingdom whose population was both dying of the plague and also deeply hostile to their new overlords was more work than he wanted to put in, especially since he had his own affairs to handle back home.
In just a few short years, the Neapolitans had gone from yelling “Death to the whore of a queen!” to welcoming her back with open arms. It was nothing short of miraculous.
The queen spent the next few weeks preparing for her homecoming, dispatching letters to various high-ranking officials to solicit their help in reclaiming her crown. On June 30, she gave birth to a daughter, Catherine. On August 1, the queen, her husband, and their new baby boarded their fleet in Nice. On August 17, they disembarked just outside of Naples. Although some Hungarian forces remained in Naples, Joanna’s army was eventually able to defeat Louis of Hungary and take back her kingdom. In just a few short years, the Neapolitans had gone from yelling “Death to the whore of a queen!” to welcoming her back with open arms. It was nothing short of miraculous.
JOANNA: disrespect me all you want
JOANNA: but show me a king capable of doing half the shit I did
JOANNA: let alone doing it while pregnant and/or right after giving birth
JOANNA: it’s fine, I’ll wait
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I wish that I could tell you that everything was smooth sailing from then on out, but Joanna’s life continued to be an endless series of obstacles and tragedies. Her young son, Charles Martel, had died while she was in Avignon. Louis, fearful that his nephew would meet the same fate as his brother, had sent the toddler to Hungary. But Joanna had been right in her suspicions that her child could not survive the difficulties and dangers of medieval travel, and Charles Martel died soon after his arrival in Hungary. He was just over 2 years old. In early 1349, Joanna’s baby daughter, Catherine, also died. Around that same time, the queen’s second marriage began to fall apart.
Louis of Taranto, who had at first seemed so promising as a husband, turned out to be just as power-hungry as Andrew. He brutalized Joanna and publicly accused her of cheating on him; the queen, in a desperate bid to keep the peace, denied having been unfaithful and agreed to have him crowned king consort. Ever mindful of her need for an heir (and likely terrified of further angering her husband), the queen continued to share a bed with Louis and, in early 1350, gave birth to another daughter, Françoise. On May 27, 1352, Joanna and Louis celebrated his coronation with an elaborate procession through the streets of Naples, only to arrive home and learn that their child had suddenly taken ill and died during their brief absence. In the years that followed, Louis became even more tyrannical, doing his best to undermine her authority and impose his own rule over the kingdom. And then, on May 24, 1362, after 12 tumultuous years of marriage, Joanna lost her second husband to the Black Death.
After Louis’ death, Joanna was finally able to rule her country as she saw fit. “The queen delights in governing,” the archbishop of Naples wrote to the Pope. “She wants to do everything because she has waited so long for this moment.” Joanna excelled at legislation and policy; it was clear that the years she’d spent learning from Robert the Wise hadn’t been wasted. Naples flourished under her hand (well, as much as a nation decimated by plague could flourish), and although she couldn’t upend the patriarchy singlehandedly, she did create a nation where, by several metrics, women were able to succeed in ways that they couldn’t elsewhere. Far more medical licenses were granted to women in Naples than anywhere else in Medieval Europe — 34 in the 14th century alone, as compared to four in Florence. Clearly the queen was doing something right.
Majorca had been invaded by Aragon when James was a teen, and he’d recently spent 14 years as a prisoner in a small iron cage. This, to say the least, did not make for the healthiest of husbands.
But Joanna still had to grapple with the fact that she had no heir. Louis’ death also meant that she needed a new battlefield champion, just in case the Hungarians or anyone else tried to invade. So, at the age of 36, she decided to marry again. This time around she chose James IV of Majorca; his two major recommendations were that a) he was technically king of his own country and therefore probably wouldn’t try to usurp Naples and b) he wasn’t directly related to her and therefore, according to the beliefs of the time, would be more likely to provide her with a surviving heir (also, marrying cousins hadn’t worked out very well for Joanna in the past). The only catch was that Majorca had been invaded by Aragon when James was a teen, and he’d recently spent 14 years as a prisoner in a small iron cage. This, to say the least, did not make for the healthiest of husbands.
James was subject to frequent physical illnesses, and the combination of toxic masculinity and a decade and a half of severe trauma had left him extremely troubled. He was given to frequent outbursts, and was physically violent with his wife — sometimes even publicly. Things became so bad that several family members had to sleep in the royal chambers in order to keep Joanna safe. The queen was advised to stop sharing a bed with James, but she was so desperate for an heir that she persisted; sadly, her only pregnancy while married to James ended in miscarriage.
Eventually, James left Naples to join Edward the Black Prince of England and Henry II of Castile in a war against the kingdom of Aragon. After a resounding defeat, James IV of Majorca died of his chronic illness in Aragon. Joanna was free again, but still without an heir.
Catherine of Siena, a future saint who claimed to only poop once a month, declared that Joanna was demonically misguided; she was not alone in this opinion.
The period after James IV’s death is considered by most historians to be the most stable and prosperous part of Joanna’s rule. She helped finance the papacy’s return to Rome, hosted the Byzantine emperor, and involved herself in the most minute aspects of governing. She even found time to marry again, this time to duke Otto of Brunswick; she was 48 to his 58 and far outranked him, so he was pretty happy to be bossed around by her. He was also a seasoned warrior, something that the country always needed — even in times of apparent peace.
Joanna seems to have had a few happy years in her fourth marriage (my God, I hope she had a few happy years, because she certainly deserved them), but then the pope died and shit went sideways. The papal court had recently returned to Rome, and things were tenuous. The last few popes had been French (since, you know, the court was in Avignon), and most of the cardinals were French as well. When the pope died, the Romans insisted that the next one should be Roman; to underscore their point, they rioted outside the papal palace. In the spirit of compromise, the College of Cardinals elected a Neapolitan archbishop, who took the name Urban VI. Since he had been plucked out of relative obscurity and elevated to the rank of pope by the grace of the cardinals, they assumed they would be able to control him. They were very wrong.
COLLEGE OF CARDINALS: uh, so, this was a mistake
COLLEGE OF CARDINALS: we want a redo
COLLEGE OF CARDINALS: this new guy is pope now, we’re calling him Clement VII
URBAN VI: he’s the antichrist
COLLEGE OF CARDINALS: uh, actually the technical term is antipope?
URBAN VI: it’s too late, you’ve unleashed the beast
URBAN VI: suck it up, Frenchies, because I’m not going down without a fight
URBAN VI: lol
URBAN VI: but seriously, you’re all excommunicated and we’re going to have a war
Joanna supported Clement VII’s claim to Popedom, but not everyone in Naples agreed with her decision. Urban VI declared her rule to be null and void and, improbably, some people took this proclamation seriously. Catherine of Siena, a future saint who claimed to only poop once a month, declared that Joanna was demonically misguided; she was not alone in this opinion. Sensing the burgeoning unrest in Naples, Louis of Hungary made a final power move: he turned Joanna’s prospective heir, her cousin Charles, against her and financed his invasion of Naples.
LOUIS OF HUNGARY: lol
LOUIS OF HUNGARY: I’m back, bitches
Charles sashayed his way across Italy, his path eased by the governments of various cities that preferred to surrender immediately rather than fight; he soon entered Naples and, after a few days of fighting, took the queen prisoner. Joanna, who had fought for so long to keep her kingdom safe, was murdered by yet another treacherous cousin on July 27, 1382. Because the details of her death were kept secret, no one is sure exactly how she died. Some say she was strangled with a silken cord while praying, and others claim she was smothered between two feather mattresses. Because she was in a state of excommunication (according to Urban VI, at least), she couldn’t be buried in consecrated ground. Instead, her body was thrown down a well at the Church of Santa Chiara.
It was an ignominious ending for a queen who had once been the most powerful woman in Europe. Joanna’s life had never been easy, and the brutal details of her death are no exception. In spite of this, she had managed to hold on to and stabilize her country for nearly four decades, a feat that few kings can claim. Against all odds, she survived invasions, plagues, and three terrible husbands (Otto of Brunswick, who by all accounts was not terrible, survived her by sixteen years and never remarried). Historians have been shitting on her for the past 600 years or so — her notorious reputation and alleged sluttiness are usually the first things they mention — but the truth is that she did amazingly well with what she had. It’s well past time that we recognize her tenacity and bravery.
Long live the fucking queen!
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Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based feminist killjoy. She is currently raising one child and three unruly cats. If she has a looming deadline, you can find her procrastinating on Twitter @anne_theriault.
Editor: Ben Huberman