This is the latest installment in my Great Characters of the Middle Ages series. Some of these folks are people who are appearing my my work. Joanna, alas, I must set aside–though I am tempted to post some of the scenes in which she originally appeared, that work was set aside when we developed the new series outline, and alas, Joanna no longer appears.
When I started researching the people of the 14th century who might relate to my Dark Apostle series, a few immediately leapt from the history books and demanded to be included. Cola di Rienzo, the madman who ruled Rome was one of them, and Joanna was the other. She was married four times and sold Avignon to the pope, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Born in 1328, Joanna acceded to the throne of Naples on the death of her father, King Robert, in 1343–yes, she was only fifteen years old. Like many teens of the era, she was already married, to Andrew of Hungary, who was not mentioned in the king’s will, even as her consort. Almost immediately, the succession was challenged on all sides by the king’s brothers. Andrew was crowned at her side in 1344, but shut out of any role in the government, and almost immediately began to fight for his part–and to fear for his life.
His fear would prove to be justified. One night during a hunting expedition in 1345, Andrew was lured from his room and a servant barred the door after him. He was then attacked, strangled and tossed out a window with a rope around his genitals. Suspicion immediately fell upon Joanna who was in her own room at the time, and controversy raged. One of her most ardent defenders was the poet Boccaccio, who included her in his Lives of Famous Women. To this day, her complicity in the murder has not been established. She gave birth to a son, who died at the age of two in care of his Hungarian relatives.
Andrew’s brother, the king of Hungary, was convinced after she declined to marry the dead man’s younger brother, and marched on Italy. Joanna’s second husband, her cousin Louis of Tarranto, successfully repelled one of his rivals, and they secured a treaty with Sicily to stand against Hungary’s invasion. But she hadn’t sought the appropriate papal dispensation to marry her cousin, and the marriage was widely unpopular. When the Hungarian army reached Naples in early 1348, Joanna fled to her holdings in France. At Avignon, she reconciled with the Pope and transferred the city to him.
Together, Joanna and Louis returned to Naples where they expanded their territory. The couple had two children, both of whom died young. Louis caught cold and died in 1362. It’s hard to say if Joanna missed Louis–certainly his martial disposition brought them a number of victories, but the evidence suggests she had a highly independent spirit and likely chafed under his demands. So his death gave her the opportunity to rule in her own stead, but she still required a husband, ideally to both conceive an heir, and also to cement her position.
Her new husband, younger by ten years, was James IV of Majorca–who had been driven mad by being imprisoned in an iron cage for fourteen years at the hands of his uncle King Peter of Aragon. So, yeah, not a very promising beginning. He did make some attempts to behave in a kingly fashion–to the perturbation of his wife, who really didn’t want someone else to take power in Naples. This strife sent him back to Spain in 1366 where he remained, save one brief return, until his death (perhaps from poison) in 1375.
Still without an heir and desperate to have a bulwark against her predatory relatives, in 1376, at the age of 48, Joanna married Otto, Duke of Brunswick-Grubenhagen, who did his best–but the marriage only irritated Charles of Durazzo, who had been scheming to take power for many years. He allied with her old enemy the king of Hungary, and even her long-standing ties with the papal court frayed to naught during the Great Schism, when she supported the wrong pope. The pope at Rome, Urban IV, supported her enemies and she was declared a heretic and her lands forfeit.
Joanna named an heir from among her cousins who supported her rights, but by then it was rather too late. Charles of Durazzo invaded at the head of a Hungarian army, and Joanna’s few soldiers, under Otto’s command, could not repel them. Charles seized Joanna, and had her killed in 1382, though he would claim the death was due to natural causes.
When people wonder how I can spend so much time researching history, I need only to tell them Joanna’s story–a little-known figure whose life, all by itself, would make a great novel.