The Last Queen tells the tale of Juana la Loca (the Mad), the last native-born queen of Spain. Juana was the second daughter of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. She was married to Phillip the Fair of Flanders, sole heir of the Habsburg Empire.
I have to confess that this was my first foray into a novel about Spanish royalty – I usually stick to England, France, Italy or the Netherlands. I knew of Ferdinand and Isabella and of their youngest daughter, Catalina (Henry the Eighth’s first wife) – but not much else. C.W. Gortner convinced me I was missing out. I was even shocked midway through the novel when I flipped to the back cover and realized C.W. is a Spanish-born male author. I assumed the author was female. While trying not to sound sexist, I’m going to say that that is a good thing, because the majority of this type of fiction- especially from a female point-of-view- is written by women.
Juana is the rebellious child, strong-minded, but empathetic. She grew up on the crusade trail with her parents and siblings and initially wants nothing to do with marrying Phillip. She submits ‘for the good of Spain’ because the alliance will help protect them from evil France. Once in Flanders, Juana grows to love her handsome husband. The only fly in the ointment is Phillip’s closest advisor, the archbishop Besancon – a man more focused on Phillip’s advancement than on religion. After several years of marriage things become complicated as Phillip and Besancon scheme against Juana’s parents to try to have Phillip named heir to the Spanish crown, something Juana’s parents know the Spanish people would never accept. What was fascinating about this book is that the politics were completely new to me and unusual for that time, in the world of royalty. Isabella and Ferdinand had unified Spain, but they were also held in check by their respective governing bodies. With the death of their only son, the line of succession became incredibly complex and tenuous. Gortner did a wonderful job of explaining these details, while moving the plot along and not losing touch with the characters.
While history might dismiss this mad queen, this novel does not. It also creates a convincing perspective of Juana as a loving wife and mother that was driven to madness by politics in a world that used marriage and children as pawns in a game of power.