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La Beltraneja – or when a nickname permanently destroys your life

Enrique IV according to a late 16th century depiction

In 1462 King Enrique IV of Castile welcomed a daughter to the world. Baby Juana was the much-awaited heir to the throne of Castile, but there were those who murmured she was, in fact, the daughter of the royal favourite, Don Beltrán de la Cueva. That both Don Beltrán, the king AND the baby’s mother, Queen Juana, swore on everything holy that this was not the case did not help. It suited the political opposition to Enrique IV to paint the baby as a cuckoo.

These days, historians seem to lean towards believing Enrique was the real father—if nothing else, Don Beltrán was nowhere close to the queen when she became pregnant. I found some rather interesting articles indicating that the king may have had genuine physical problems when it came to the more intimate aspects of life, and that one of his Jewish physicians suggested an approach that, effectively, is a form of insemination. (A major no-no according to the Catholic Church back then)

Whatever the case, little baby Juana was never to escape the cruel nickname her father’s opponents loaded her with: La Beltraneja – i.e. she that came from Beltrán.

A year or so after Juana’s birth, her mother miscarried a male fetus. Somewhere around there, the relationship between the king and his wife seems to have become broken beyond repair—or maybe all those rumours about the much younger queen and her interest in other men was getting to the king. Whatever the case, Queen Juana was carried off to comfortable captivity in the custody of a Bishop Fonseca. Baby Juana, meanwhile, was living with the Menendez family, a sort of hostage to ensure the king did not forget to compensate the Menendez family and their cronies for their continued support of him. Let’s just say that Enrique was a weak king, but he was also unfortunate in that he lived in a time where every single hidalgo felt entitled to more land, more power—and all of it at the expense of the king. That’s what you get when there’s been a sequence of weak kings…

The coming years further eroded Enrique’s position and in 1464 the powerful nobles forced him to disinherit his daughter in favour of his half-brother, Infante Alfonso. After all, the nobles said,  there was no guarantee Infanta Juana was trueborn, no matter that the king swore she was.

Enrique was between a rock and a hard place. But he did try to put some protection for his daughter in place by demanding that Alfonso promise to marry Juana and make her his queen. (This, of course, would require a papal dispensation as not only was Alfonso little Juana’s uncle, but Alfonso’s mother was Juana’s second cousin…)

Prior to this wedding arrangement, Enrique had expended efforts on trying to see his baby girl safely wed. Among others, he’d suggested to Afonso of Portugal that Juana marry his eldest son, Joao. Juana and Joao were first cousins, so maybe it is fortunate that marriage never happened. Over the coming centuries the Trastámara family (Enrique’s family) and the Hapsburgs (following on the Trastámara via Charles V & I, grandson of Isabel of Castile and Fernando of Aragon) would elevate incestuous marriages to an artform, with dire consequences for their future progeny.

Early in 1468, it became common knowledge that Queen Juana was pregnant. This time, there was no doubt: the king had NOT fathered her child (children, as she gave birth to twins) Once again, the rumours about little Juana’s paternity flared into violent life, and when Infante Alfonso died in the summer of 1468, the nobles forced Enrique to yet again pass over his little daughter and instead recognise his half-sister, Isabel, as his heir. He did so reluctantly, agreeing only once Isabel had agreed to marry the husband Enrique chose for her.

Fernando and Isabel

In 1469, Isabel sneaked off and married her cousin, Fernando of Aragon, in secret. Thereby, she’d made null and void her agreement with Enrique, who now made it known that his true heir was his daughter Juana. Even better, this time Enrique had France in his corner, as he had managed to arrange a marriage between Juana and Charles of Valois, younger brother of Louis XI of France. Yay! Enrique could finally relax: he’d managed to steer little Juana into a safe harbour and big, powerful France would protect her and her future children against the grasping hands of Isabel and Fernando.

In 1470, Juana was married by proxy to Charles of Valois, Duke of Guienne. He was 26, she was eight, but the difference in age was never to become an issue as, two years later, Charles died of tuberculosis. Oh dear, oh dear: now what? Enrique scrambled frenetically for a solution, but time was running out for this monarch—and, potentially, for his daughter. Once again, Enrique turned to his brother-in-law, Afonso V of Portugal, suggesting a marital alliance.

Late in 1474, Enrique IV died, without having sorted out the matter of his daughter’s future husband. No sooner was he dead, but Isabel of Castile claimed the throne, proclaiming that she was a true born daughter of a Castilian king, while Infanta Juana…well, who knew, hey? After all, there was a reason she was called La Beltraneja, wasn’t there, and had Enrique been totally certain he’d fathered her, surely he would never have disinherited her, as he did back in 1464. Besides, Isabel went on, given just how scandalously Juana’s mother had behaved—twin sons by a mere royal servant!—it was difficult to believe Juana was Enrique’s daughter, who, Isabel reminded people, had been nicknamed The Impotent for a reason.

It didn’t help that Enrique’s last will and testament conveniently disappeared. (Some sources indicate the will was found many years later and handed over to Isabel who, supposedly, destroyed it)

Afonso V

Things did not look good for our young Juana, who at the age of twelve found herself pretty alone in the world. But some of the more powerful Castilian families spoke up on her behalf and approached Afonso of Portugal. Again. “She’s your niece,” they said. “Are you going to let her be robbed of her rights?”
“Hmm,” said Afonso.
“Seriously,” said the Castilians, “she needs a champion. More importantly, she needs a husband, and we need a man who can be a strong king of Castile. Someone like you.”
“Hmm,” said Afonso, before deciding all of this sounded very nice. So what that Juana was his niece—that’s what you had papal dispensations for, right? And so, in 1475, Afonso of Portugal married Juana and proclaimed himself rightful king of Castile. The bride was only thirteen, twenty years younger than her combo uncle/bridegroom, but Juana was old enough to understand that this was all about politics, and she was also old enough to want to claim what was rightfully hers.

Because they were so closely related, the Afonso/Juana marriage required a papal dispensation, and Afonso immediately sent off a messenger to Rome to sort out this rather important detail before proclaiming himself king of Castile by right of his new wife.

“No way!” said Isabel. “That Juana, she isn’t Enrique’s daughter!”
(Which, dear peeps, we don’t know if she was, yes or no. But judging from the efforts Enrique made to try and protect her, it seems he believed she was—or maybe he just detested Isabel and wanted to do everything in his power to stop her from becoming queen)

Things were quickly spiralling out of control. Afonso assembled an army as did Isabel and her hubby, Fernando. Juana did not want a civil war and tried to find a peaceful solution to all this, but she had no real authority, so war it was.

Afonso marched into Castile, and in several towns those loyal to Juana took control, places like Zamora and Toro. But Isabel and Fernando were as determined—if not more—to win this. Fernando was a capable general and Isabel went about welcoming “rebellious” Castilian nobleman into her peace, promising that they would keep their lands if they just lay down their arms—or better yet, joined her army and fought against Alfonso and Juana. Over and over, Isabel and Fernando repeated that La Beltraneja was not the legitimate heir—because obviously, if Juana was Enrique’s daughter, then what Isabel was doing was tantamount to usurpation.

As they would prove repeatedly, Isabel and Fernando were quite the power-duo, totally aligned when it came to their ambitions. Afonso and Juana, not so much, and besides, Afonso was Portuguese, which did not necessarily endear him to the proud Castilians.

Over the coming year, Isabel and Fernando pushed the Portuguese invaders back. In 1476, the two armies met head-on at the Battle of Toro. While the battle ended in a draw (with Afonso’s son, Joao, covering himself in glory) Fernando chose to present things differently, working through the night after the battle to send out messengers to Castilian towns, to Aragon and beyond, proudly proclaiming that Queen Isabel’s brave troops had won the day. Clearly, politically motivated fake news are not a new invention…

The Portuguese faction had lost its momentum. Afonso retired to Portugal and tried to convince France to support him on his legitimate quest to claim Castile for his wife, but France politely declined. A year or so later, Afonso abdicated and retired to a monastery.

So what happened to our teenaged protagonist? Well, she returned to Portugal with her husband in 1476, and two years later her aunt Isabel managed to convince the pope that it was wrong to grant Afonso and Juana a dispensation, so it was revoked, leaving Juana in the disagreeable position of being married but not being married—at least not in the eyes of the Church.

Some years later, Castile and Portugal entered into peace negotiations. At that point, no one really cared about Juana, no this was about creating a strong alliance between the united realms of Castile and Aragón and Portugal. So no one spoke up on Juana’s behalf. In fact, they all turned against her. Isabel and Fernando began by suggesting their eldest daughter marry Afonso V’s grandson and future king of Portugal. The two children were to be raised together so as to assure a happy future union.
“But,” Isabel said, “this will only happen if you, my dear Afonso, renounce your wife and your claims on Castile.” I imagine she smiled at Afonso. “The papal dispensation has fallen through, so renouncing La Beltraneja is a mere formality, verdad?”
Afonso agreed, thereby depriving Juana of the only person who could have championed her rights. Instead, she was given a choice: accept a future marriage with Isabel and Fernando’s baby son, or take the veil. That promise of a future marriage wasn’t worth much as said union was dependent on baby Juan wanting to marry Juana when he grew up and it didn’t exactly take a lot of brains to realise his dear Mama and Papa would ensure he didn’t.

Juana la Beltraneja (?)

Juana had no choice. She retired to the convent of Santa Clara de Coimbra where she took her vows a year later, in 1480. She was eighteen… Just to make sure Juana hadn’t found a way of weaselling out, Isabel sent her chaplain and confessor, Hernando de Talavera to witness this event. The Castilian priest took the opportunity to tell the teenager that she was making the right choice, because no loving parent, no caring kinsman would try and talk her out of her obvious desire to serve our Lord as a nun. Huh. I imagine Juana was tempted to throw something at him.

Juana was not to remain locked up behind the walls of the convent for life. Her Portuguese kin (and I imagine Afonso felt the odd tweak of conscience) gave Juana her own apartments in one of the royal castles. Also, despite her vows, there would be several occasions throughout her long life when Juana received a proposal of marriage. She turned them down. Maybe she found an element of freedom in her life as a nun. Maybe she’d lost faith in man.

There is an unproven rumour that when Fernando of Aragón was widowed, he approached Juana and suggested a marriage. Seeing as Fernando was a very devious (and rather unlikeable) man, he probably did this to shore up his own claims on Castile—he wanted to become king of his wife’s kingdom rather than have it pass to his daughter, another Juana. Whether this is true or not, we don’t know, but if it is, I hope Juana told him to stuff his proposal where the sun doesn’t shine.

Juana, born an Infanta of Castile and plagued through her life by the cruel nickname La Beltraneja, died in 1530. By then, she’d earned a new nickname and was affectionately called a Excelente Senhora (the excellent lady) by the Portuguese. Whether or not she was a true-born daughter of Enrique IV we will never know—especially as her remains disappeared during the Lisbon earthquake several centuries later. Her life was long in years, full of sorrows and disappointments. I hope she found some moments of joy—it seems to me the poor woman deserved them!

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