Isabel of Portugal: The Spanish Madness

The long train of Spanish monarchs affected with madness began with one queen. Isabel of Portugal, mother of Isabella of Castile, is known as the woman who introduced madness into the Spanish line. Married to a man twice her age, Isabel was forced to compete with her husband’s advisor for his affection. After the birth of her first child, Isabel suffered from what could be called postpartum depression. From there, her decent into madness only worsened until she was forced by her stepson to live out her days in a gloomy castle, almost completely in seclusion. Isabel died in 1496, alone, apart from the ghost she claimed haunted her regularly.

A Portuguese Princess

Isabel of Portugal was born in 1428 to Prince Joao of Portugal and his wife/niece, Isabel of Braganza. Not much is known about Isabel’s childhood, seeing that she was not the daughter of the King and it had not been anticipated that she would play such a role in history. Isabel did not really become of interest until 1447, when she took center stage as the possible bride for King Juan II of Castile. Alvaro de Luna, the trusted advisor of the King, set his eyes on Isabel as the second queen of Castile, and therefore Juan, a weak and gullible man, headed his advice. Juan and Isabel were married on July 22, 1447. Isabel was 19, Juan was 42.

Struggle for Power

Though Juan was thrilled with his marriage, as any old man marrying a young pretty girl is, Isabel was less than pleased. Not only was she married to a man old enough to be her father, (In fact Juan had a son by his first wife four years older than Isabel) but Isabel was being placed on the shelf underneath her husband’s advisor, de Luna. Isabel was melancholy, headstrong, jealous, ambitious and possessive. All of these contributed to her growing resentment of de Luna, who attempted to control everything about the King (including when he could have sex with his wife). The weak Juan never pushed back on his advisor, but Isabel was not ready to play the role of doormat. Soon a power struggle broke out between the young queen and the handy advisor.  Like many women of the time, the Queen used her feminine charm against her enemy and was able to convince her husband through whispered pleas in the bedroom to end this power struggle. Of course, the end would be in her favor.

Childbirth and Insanity

During her struggle with de Luna, Isabel became pregnant. After her traditional confinement Isabel gave birth to a daughter in April of 1451. Isabel’s experience with childbirth however left her feeling incredibly depressed. She shut herself away and sat motionless, refusing to speak to anybody except her husband. The queen was a nervous wreck, indulging in hysterical tantrums on a regular basis. It was during this time of insanity that Juan finally grew tired of his wife’s constant nagging and agreed to get rid of de Luna. De Luna, remaining one step ahead of the game, found out about the plot and murdered one of the key instruments. This however only backfired and Isabel was able to convince her husband to arrest and execute his top advisor and her number one rival.


The death of de Luna may have left Isabel feeling satisfied, but it left the King feeling weak and depressed. His health began to decline rapidly after the death of his friend, and he was often found weeping. During this time Isabel gave birth to another child, a son, Alfonso. The happiness that could be found in producing an heir was short lived however. Nine months after that joyous moment Juan took to his bed and died on July 20, 1454. His son from his first marriage, Henry IV, became king.

Henry IV, enjoying his new found power, sent his stepmother and two stepsiblings to live in the gloomy and secluded castle of Arevalo. It would be here in her seclusion that Isabel plunged completely into madness.

The Mad Widow

Every year Isabel seemed to grow more and more unhinged, sinking deeper into her own depression. Her mental abilities deteriorated and she began to hallucinate, claiming to be plagued by ghosts. Isabel wandered the castle, calling out to de Luna, claiming his spirit haunted her. Around 1452 Isabella was taken away from her mother, leaving the dowager queen completely alone. The more years she spent in seclusion, the crazier she became. Towards the end of her life Isabel could not even remember how own identity, let alone the identity of anyone else. It was in this tattered state that the sad woman’s life ended. In 1496, alone in the castle, Isabel was finally relieved of her madness. Only in death was she able to escape from the insanity that had haunted her most of her life. However, her legacy lived on through her daughter Isabella, and later, her granddaughter Juana, who favored her maternal grandmother’s temperament.

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