I selected The Last Queen by C. W. Gortner because the novel explores the life of Juana of Spain, daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand and sister of Catherine of Aragon. She married Phillip the Fair of Flanders and two of their sons were to become Holy Roman Emperors (Charles V and Ferdinand I). Then there are the stories of her insanity to add an additional component that makes Juana a captivating subject. Truly, this reader thinks it a pity that so little is known or that this dynamic woman is marginalized in the historical, fiction and non-fiction, dialogue. Therefore I was delighted to come across The Last Queen and being a fan of some of C. W. Gortner’s other work it quickly rose in my TBR pile!
As fans of Tudor historical fiction will understand Juana, being the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand, meant a certain marriage for diplomatic purposes, much the same as their youngest daughter Catherine's marriage was meant to seal an alliance with England. At 16 Juana was betrothed to the 18-year-old Habsburg prince, Philip “The Fair”. The pair had never set eyes on one another and Juana was reluctant to leave Spain for the unknown life as the wife of a stranger in the unknown land of Flanders. However, when the two did finally meet the attraction was instant and intense. Juana felt free to live as she wanted and the rebellious free spirited girl jumped into independence without a backward glance. Upon meeting the two insisted on an immediate marriage, quite uncommon if not extraordinarily rare in the early 16th century. Following their hasty marriage the two made an immediate retreat into their bedchamber to consummate the union without any of the traditional ceremony.
Sadly, though the marriage started with intense passion it did not last. Phillip was a well-known womanizer and marriage didn’t stop him in his pursuit of bedmates. In turn, Juana reacted with furious jealousy, something that was also uncommon as most noble women accepted their husband’s affairs and looked the other way. Juana did not have to look very far for an example as her mother, the revered Isabella, had done that very thing herself. Perhaps seeing this example fueled Juana’s jealousy. Whatever the reason, once the fire had been ignited inside her it only increased in its intensity.
It was this jealous rage that eventually led to Juana being dubbed insane and is known to history as Juana la Loca, Juana the Mad. Interestingly, this insanity seemed to be raised publically when Juana was named heir to the throne of Castile upon Queen Isabella’s death. However, many historians now question whether she was truly insane or if the power-hungry men in her life, chiefly her father Ferdinand of Aragon and her husband Philip, who both wanted the throne of Castile for themselves, spread this slander.
Thankfully, Gortner does not portray Juana as an incompetent lunatic but instead his portrayal is one of an intelligent, determined woman, fiercely passionate, unconventional and rebellious but entirely sane. Juana is determined to protect her beloved Spain, and her mother’s legacy, from becoming annexed by the Habsburgs. This reader found The Last Queen truly engaging and educational, especially as Gortner’s afterward clearly indicates the fiction and the history.
Without a doubt The Last Queen is historical fiction at its best! It challenges stereotypes and leaves the reader wanting to learn more. Being inspired to research is my hallmark of stellar historical fiction and Gortner does not disappoint.