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On March 15, 1348, twenty-two-year-old Joanna I, Queen of Naples, stood trial for the murder of her husband before the Pope and his court in Avignon. Determined to defend herself, Joanna won her acquittal against overwhelming odds. Victorious, she returned to Naples and ruled over one of Europe’s most prestigious courts for the next three decades — until she herself was killed.
Courageous and determined, Joanna was the only female monarch in her time to rule in her own name. She was widely admired: dedicated to the welfare of her subjects, she reduced crime, built hospitals and churches, and encouraged the licensing of female physicians. A procession of the most important artists and writers of the time frequented her glittering court. But she never quite escaped the stain of her husband’s death, and the turmoil of the times surrounded her — war, plague, and treachery would ultimately be her undoing.
With skill, passion, and impeccable research and detail, Nancy Goldstone brings to life one of history’s most remarkable women. The Lady Queen is a captivating portrait of medieval royalty in all its incandescent complexity.
The Papal Court at Avignon, March 15, 1348—On this day, more than six hundred and fifty years ago, Joanna I, queen of Naples, Sicily, and Jerusalem and countess of Provence, stood trial for her life.
The entrance of the queen’s party into the old city earlier that morning had been marked by suspicion and fear. For the previous two months, Avignon had writhed in the grip of the Black Death, a pestilence so relentless and infernal that it has no modern equivalent. Thousands upon thousands had perished in agony; in the end, the city would lose half its population. The symptoms were terrifying. Victims maintained a high fever, spat blood, and developed painful inflammations under the arms and around the groin, which turned black—hence the name. There was no hope for the stricken. In almost every instance, those suffering from the disease died within five days. “The plague began with us in January and lasted seven months,” wrote Guy de Chauliac, a scholar and eyewitness. “[It] was extremely contagious… so that one caught it from another, not only through close proximity but also through receiving a glance from another. As a consequence, people died without assistance and were buried without priests.” The number of corpses was overwhelming. In desperation, the pope purchased a nearby field for burial, but even this measure was insufficient, and the pontiff was forced to sanctify the Rhône for this function. Joanna and her entourage were greeted that early-spring morning to the macabre vision of decomposing human remains floating with the current.
A crisis this severe naturally prompted speculation as to the source of the epidemic. The prevailing opinion, not unreasonably, was that it represented a punishment from God. The pope himself had admitted as much in a sermon where he had affirmed that the plague was evidence of the sinful state of the world. The populace tried to make amends; long lines of penitents, barefoot and dressed in sackcloth, paraded through the streets flagellating themselves. The pope held a special mass and distributed indulgences. Nothing worked. As the sickness continued to rage, some whispered that, rather than the general sinfulness of the world, one sin in particular was responsible for the Black Death. These rumors were given weight by Louis Sanctus of Beringen, chaplain to Cardinal Giovanni Colonna. In a treatise titled Tractatus de Pestilentia, the cleric suggested Avignon was being penalized as a result of the actions of Joanna, queen of Naples, who had violated the word of God by murdering her husband, Prince Andrew of Hungary.
As a result, not even the plague could prevent the lower classes from spilling out into the narrow streets of the old city, jostling among themselves for a glimpse of the woman accused of one of the most infamous crimes in history. Nor was the tumult limited to commoners. From every balcony, incongruously strewn with flowers and draped in rich tapestries as befitted the occasion of a visiting monarch, peered the wary eyes of Avignon’s aristocracy, each nobleman and woman dressed as elaborately as lineage and circumstance could afford.
The crowds were not disappointed. In the Middle Ages, royalty understood the need for spectacle, both as a distraction from the cares of everyday life and as a means of reinforcing authority. Because of the rumors, the queen’s need to impress took on even greater urgency. A battery of thirty knights on horseback, wearing highly polished chain mail and armed with lances and brightly colored pennants emblazoned with their families’ coat of arms, clattered down the streets. They were followed by Joanna’s ladies-in-waiting, some reclining in litters, others sitting upright in side chairs, their ornate headdresses fashionably embellished with braided ropes of false hair made of yellow silk, the exaggerated points of their shoes just visible beneath the hems of their gowns.
Medieval protocol dictated the order of procession, and so Joanna, seated on a purebred white mare, led her entourage through the crooked passageways of the city. The queen wore a magnificent cloak of purple velvet trimmed in ermine and meticulously woven with gold thread in a recurring pattern of fleur-de-lis, symbol of the French crown from which she traced her lineage. Her horse was similarly attired in purple and fleur-de-lis, with a bridle and stirrups of gold. Although Joanna was an accomplished equestrian, on this occasion her mount was led by two grooms, as the queen needed her hands free to carry her orb and scepter, insignia of her royal status. Over her head was stretched a canopy of purple silk fringed in gold thread held aloft by four of her vassals.
The queen’s party had been met at the outskirts of the city by an official delegation of senior church officials and government functionaries. Such was the gravity of the occasion that all eighteen cardinals of the Sacred College, formally attired in their traditional red hats and robes, appeared to escort her procession to the vast courtyard adjoining the Palace of the Pope.
This was the queen of Naples’s first glimpse of the great stone fortress designed to glorify the majesty of the church on earth. Still under construction, it was four times the size of any existing cathedral, dwarfing the Louvre in Paris and the Tower in London. Its vaulted ceilings rose two stories into the air, its towers, supplemented by spires, pierced to yet another story. The overall effect was one of soaring celestial grace combined with a monumental secular power. Here was a building constructed specifically to awe, to intimidate, to unnerve.
Joanna was offered the traditional refreshment of wine and pastry and then led inside the palace to the great hall of the consistory, the ceremonial public room on the ground floor customarily used by the pope to greet visiting royalty. It was a long room, very grand. One entire wall was masked by magnificent, life-size frescoes portraying the story of John the Baptist. These were the vivid creation of Matteo Giovannetti of Viterbo, the pictor papae (pope’s painter), a master artist imported from Italy. At the far end of the room was a two-tiered dais with two velvet-and-gold thrones placed at the center of the top tier. The pope, wearing his tiara and white robes, sat upon one of the thrones. The other remained empty. The lower tier of the dais was occupied by the cardinals, who were arrayed in a semicircle. Together with the pope they represented judge and jury.
Joanna, her mantle held by two pages, walked the long length of the hall until she reached the dais. The room was filled with spectators. “From the upper end of the spacious hall to the entrance appeared prelates, princes, nobles, and ambassadors of every European power,” wrote seventeenth-century church scholar Louis Maimbourg. Following protocol, the queen knelt on a cushion before the pope and kissed the gold cross embroidered on his slipper. Afterward he raised her up, kissed her on the mouth, and motioned for her to sit on the empty throne beside him. The pope then said a prayer and the room fell silent. The trial began.
The charges against the queen of Naples were read aloud in Latin, the only language recognized by the papal court. Joanna stood accused of conspiracy to commit murder. Her principal adversary, the powerful king of Hungary, brother of Prince Andrew, the victim, had earlier sent a squadron of ambassadors and lawyers to the pope to present Hungarian demands and evidence against the queen. It was common knowledge, they had argued, that Joanna and her husband had been estranged, and that her barons had tried to thwart his rule while he was alive. Additionally, the murder had taken place at one of the queen’s own palaces, and very nearly in her presence; worse, she had not shown the proper level of remorse and had been so slow to investigate the crime that it remained unsolved. Lastly, she had been recently married again, to a man rumored to have been her lover, without prior dispensation from the pope, as was required by papal law. For these great sins the king of Hungary insisted that justice be done—that Joanna be deposed as ruler of Naples in his favor and that she be sentenced to death for her crimes.
The pope and cardinals listened to the evidence and then turned to the woman seated on the throne. Joanna had brought with her two highly educated, extremely experienced advocates, the brilliant statesman Niccolò Acciaiuoli and his cousin the bishop of Florence. But the queen of Naples had previously asked for, and received, papal approval to address the court on her own behalf, a highly unusual proceeding, particularly as it meant speaking in Latin.
Joanna was under no illusions as to the magnitude of the forces working against her. At stake was her crown, her kingdom, and her head. She rose from her throne and began to answer the charges.
She was twenty-two years old.
The Kingdom of Naples
This city [Naples]… is joyful, peaceful, rich, magnificent, and under a single ruler; and these are qualities (if I know you at all well) which are very pleasing to you.
The Elegy of Lady Fiammetta, 1344
Joanna I was born in 1326, eldest child of the heir to the Angevin kingdom of Naples, the largest and most prestigious sovereign entity in Italy. At its northernmost point, the realm jutted up past the great forests of Abruzzi and into the central mountain range of the Appenines. Its long eastern shore boasted an enviable number of ports, including Vieste and Brindisi, from which fast boats ran cargo, passengers, and armies across the Adriatic as a first stop toward such distant destinations as Hungary and wealthy, exotic Byzantium. At its western toe the important duchy of Calabria, on the Mediterranean, offered quick access to the lucrative trading posts on the island of Sicily. The kingdom took its name from its capital city of Naples, which housed the royal court, but this was a relatively recent designation. In 1266, when Joanna’s great-great-grandfather Charles of Anjou (from whence the name Angevin derived) first established the family’s claim to sovereignty by wresting the realm away from its former ruler, the domain had included the island of Sicily, and for this reason had originally been called the kingdom of Sicily. But in 1282, in an incident famously known as “The Sicilian Vespers” for having occurred at Easter, the people of Sicily rebelled against Charles’s harshly autocratic rule and instead invited the king of Aragon to reign in his place. Charles of Anjou’s descendants never accepted this diminution of their authority, however, and strove mightily to retake the island through both military and diplomatic means. As a result, during Joanna’s lifetime, the kingdom of Naples was still known, variously and confusingly, as the kingdom of Sicily, or, sometimes, as the kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
Charles of Anjou, a man of little scruple and great ambition, was venerated as the founding patriarch of Joanna’s family, and his legacy and vision informed its every movement in the century after his death in 1285. He was the youngest brother of Louis IX, king of France, later Saint Louis. As a member of the French royal family, Charles had the opportunity to make an extremely fortuitous marriage. Joanna’s great-great-grandmother was Beatrice, countess of Provence, the youngest of a family of four sisters famous in their day for having all become queens. Charles then used his wife’s aid and resources to conquer his Italian realm so that thereafter the kingdom of Naples and the county of Provence were inextricably linked. Joanna was therefore destined at birth to inherit the prestigious title “countess of Provence” and to rule over this strategically important region as well.
Most men would have been content with administering these two domains, but Charles was fueled by the need to become more respected and powerful than his older brother Louis IX, in whose shadow he had lived the majority of his life. Supremely confident of his abilities, Charles dreamed of an empire that would rival that of the kingdom of France. Conveniently, one seemed to be available—the Byzantine Empire to the east, which incorporated the storied city of Constantinople, had been weakened by a series of incompetent rulers. Charles moved quickly to transform aspiration into reality. In May of 1267 he contracted to acquire the legal right to the principia of Achaia, on the western coast of Greece, as a stepping-stone toward invasion. Although he did not realize this ambition during his lifetime, he never relinquished his goal, and the scale of his desire may be measured by his subsequent purchase, on March 18, 1277, of the title to the kingdom of Jerusalem, an honor for which he paid a thousand pounds of gold outright and an additional stipend of four thousand livres tournois annually. Charles was not a man to pay good money for an empty title; he believed himself or his descendants capable of capitalizing on this opportunity. Henceforth, all the Angevin sovereigns of Naples, including Joanna, were therefore also styled king (or queen) of Jerusalem, a durable reminder of their benefactor’s expectations.
Dreams of empire aside, the southern Italian kingdom conquered by Joanna’s great-great-grandfather was a place of profound physical beauty. A land of spectacular white cliffs and mysterious sea caves, of inviting beaches, fertile plains, and ancient forests, Naples was universally acclaimed for its scenery. A sixteenth-century notary referred to it as “an earthly paradise” in an official government report. The kingdom was also famous as the home of the baths of Baia, the most fashionable spa on the continent, a vacation spot that traced its celebrity back to the giddy days of Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire. “My lady, as you know, just the other side of Mount Falerno… lies the rocky coast of Baia high above the seashore, and no sight under the sun is more beautiful or more pleasant than this,” wrote Giovanni Boccaccio, a brilliant author and haunting storyteller from the period who knew Naples well. “It is surrounded by the most lovely mountains thick with trees and vineyards; in the valleys any game that can be hunted is available;… and for amusements, not far away… are the oracles of the Cumaean Sibyl… and the amphitheater where the ancient games convened.” Even Francesco Petrarch, the most important scholar of the fourteenth century, and a man who ordinarily scorned the pursuit of frivolous pleasure, was impressed by Baia. “I saw Baia… and do not recall a happier day in my life,” he wrote to his friend Cardinal Giovanni Colonna in a letter dated November 23, 1345. “I saw… everywhere mountains full of perforations and suspended on marble vaults gleaming with brilliant whiteness, and sculpted figures indicating with pointing hands what water is most appropriate for each part of the body. The appearance of the place and the labor devoted to its development caused me to marvel.”
But for all its natural beauty, the chief allure of Naples was the royal court, which supported a thriving metropolis. The many and varied personages traditionally drawn by the glow of princely wealth—solicitors and supplicants, ambassadors and architects, financiers, silk merchants, poets and pickpockets—gravitated to the capital city, swelling the number of its inhabitants to capacity. In 1326, the year of Joanna’s birth, only four cities in Europe could claim a population of one hundred thousand: Paris, Venice, Milan—and Naples. London, by contrast, was home to only about sixty thousand people.
Although Venice and Milan, and even Florence, with a population of eighty thousand, might rival Naples in terms of size, they could not match it in distinction, for Naples was the only kingdom in Italy. This meant that, among the various heads of state, only Joanna’s family hailed from royalty, and in the lineage-conscious fourteenth century, this made a very great difference indeed. Venice, with its monopoly on shipping lanes, was stronger economically, but it was administered by a large council, some of whose members were not even noble. Florence might be the acknowledged seat of European banking, but it was governed by an ever-changing group of middle-class burghers. The self-styled lords of Milan, the Visconti family, were members of the minor provincial nobility, ruthless parvenus who tried to buy their way to social and political legitimacy. Milan wouldn’t even become a duchy until the very end of the century.
Joanna’s ancestral credentials, on the other hand, were impeccable. Her father was Charles, duke of Calabria, only son and heir of her grandfather, Robert, king of Naples, by his first wife, Violante. Violante had been a princess of the house of Aragon before her marriage. Joanna’s mother was the exceedingly lovely Marie of Valois, daughter of the powerful Charles III of Valois, a younger son of the crown of France. On her father’s side, Joanna’s French ancestry was even more impressive: she was directly related, through Charles of Anjou, to Louis IX, the most revered king in living memory. Louis had been canonized in 1298, but he was not the only saint in the family. Joanna’s great uncle Louis of Toulouse had also been beatified, and she was distantly related to the famous thirteenth-century Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. Even her father’s tutor, Elzear, count of Ariano, would eventually be sainted. The blood of great men and women flowed through Joanna’s veins, of kings and queens crowned by representatives of the pope and thereby invested with the heavy authority of the church. Hers was a legacy of stirring deeds, courage in battle, wisdom in ruling, piety, chivalry, and honor, the very best that the medieval world had to offer.
Almost from the moment she drew breath, Joanna was fated to be the victim, through her father and grandfather, of the unremitting capriciousness that constituted the politics of Europe, and especially of Italy, in the fourteenth century.
Italy existed only as a geographic designation, not as a political entity, in the Middle Ages. What we recognize today as the country of Italy was simply a string of independent, warring cities, anchored to the south by the Papal States and the kingdom of Naples. As a result, an individual living during Joanna’s lifetime would not have considered himself or herself to be an Italian, but, rather, a Florentine or a Venetian, a Pisan or a Roman.
The exception to this rule was a small intellectual circle of which Francesco Petrarch was the undoubted focal point. Petrarch, who devoted his life to recapturing the lost knowledge of the ancients, was enamored of the idea of a united Italy under the rule of a wise, benevolent emperor as a first step toward reinstituting the greatness of the Roman Empire. Actually, there was an emperor in Europe, the Holy Roman Emperor, but he lived in Germany, which was all that remained of Julius Caesar’s vast dominions by the fourteenth century. The German emperor did have a great number of supporters among the people of Italy, who saw his influence as a counterweight to that of the church. This did not mean that those who upheld the emperor’s authority were not religious, only that they did not want their particular town or city to become a fief of the papacy, which required conforming to whatever the pope mandated, like paying more money to the church or allowing one of his legates to adjudicate litigation. It was a secular, political issue, not a spiritual one. Members of the faction who favored the emperor were called Ghibellines. For the most part, the Holy Roman Emperor was so well-occupied by German affairs that he had neither the time nor the inclination to raise an army and venture into Italy in order to unify it benevolently or otherwise (although occasionally this did occur). In his absence, the Ghibellines functioned as the medieval equivalent of a modern-day political party, concerned with all the aspects of governing, from potholes to tax statutes.
Challenging the Ghibellines for local control of the major cities and towns in Italy was the other national political party, the Guelph, or papal party. Like the Ghibellines, Guelph supporters were in every part of Italy, although they were stronger in the south (closer to Rome) just as the Ghibellines were stronger in the north (closer to Germany). Assigning too much ideological emphasis to these designations would be a mistake, however. Party loyalties were often corrupted by petty personal concerns. If a Guelph businessman cheated his partner, then the aggrieved party might take his revenge by transferring his loyalty to the Ghibellines. Similarly, if a young Ghibelline woman chose one lover over another, the spurned suitor and his family might become Guelphs. The concept of sharing local political authority between factions did not exist in the fourteenth century. When a division of the Guelph party, known as the “Black” Guelphs, seized control of Florence in 1301, for example, its members secured their victory by exiling all their political opponents (known as the “White” Guelphs) and appropriating their property. This, naturally enough, infuriated the Whites, who went over to the side of the emperor, and from their new homes in cities with sympathetic Ghibelline governments, they plotted the overthrow of the Black Guelphs.
As though conditions were not volatile enough, the power struggle for control of Italy was further exacerbated by the removal of the papal court to Avignon in 1305. This abandonment was unprecedented in church history. Except for the east-west schism created by Constantine a millennium before, and some temporary absences, a pope had resided in Italy since the days of Saint Peter. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, however, the papal court, which had heretofore withstood the fall of Rome, the invasion of Attila the Hun, the alien barbarity of the Goths, the advent of Charlemagne, and the abject humiliation of several of its pontiffs at the hands of the powerful German emperors, took fright at the hostility evidenced by its own unruly subjects and fled. The last pope to try to live in Italy had been Boniface VIII, who had run afoul of both the French king and the powerful Colonna family of Rome. Boniface was very nearly murdered in his own castle at Anagni. Although saved by supporters at the last minute, Boniface never again acted independently and died a broken man in 1303. This treatment had rather discouraged Boniface’s successors, who were all closely allied with the French anyway, from taking the risk of setting up residence in the city of which they were, at least nominally, the bishop. Avignon, conveniently situated on the Rhône, with its pleasant climate, docile population, and excellent wines, seemed a much more attractive option.
However, just because the pope was no longer in Rome did not mean that he did not wish to control Italy. In the Middle Ages, popes did not limit their activities to matters of religion and the spirit. They considered themselves princes in the fullest sense of the term, and aspired to own and administer a large domain, maintain fiefdoms, acquire new provinces to increase their secular power, and raise the armies necessary to achieve these goals, exactly as would a king of France or England. Managing Guelph affairs from faraway Provence was unwieldy but not unworkable; the pope simply used surrogates. Often he sent ambassadors or papal legates to coax or bully local legislators into carrying out his instructions. But he also relied heavily on his most important vassal to shepherd Guelph interests in the region: the king of Naples.
Naples had been a fief of the church ever since Charles of Anjou had conquered the kingdom using papal funds and encouragement. By a contract dated November 1265, Charles had agreed to pay the pope eight thousand ounces of gold annually (later reduced to seven thousand) plus one white horse every three years in exchange for the privilege of ruling the realm. Moreover, also by virtue of this remarkable document, Charles had maintained the right to pass on the kingdom to his heirs, provided that they, too, kept to the terms of the agreement and did homage to the pope. As a result of this arrangement, unique in Christendom, over time cooperation between Naples and the papacy had deepened to the point where it approached the status of a partnership. The rest of Italy was of course aware of the Angevins’ special relationship with the pope, and that was why, when Guelph Florence was threatened by Ghibelline interests in 1326, the Florentines turned for help to the son of the king of Naples, Joanna’s father, Charles, duke of Calabria.
Charles of Calabria was twenty-eight years old and already a seasoned warrior when he accepted the Florentines’ offer of two hundred thousand gold florins and unilateral control of their government in exchange for defending the city against the hostile advances of Castruccio Castracani, the Ghibelline lord of neighboring Lucca. Charles was the obvious choice; his father, King Robert, was aging and Charles seemed well suited to the military. As a teenager he had demonstrated such high spirits that his father had felt the need to employ a tutor, the saintly Elzear, to moderate his son’s behavior, but by his early twenties Charles was sufficiently responsible to come into his inheritance and be named duke of Calabria. In 1322 his father entrusted him with the difficult task of dislodging the entrenched Aragonese ruler of Sicily and returning the island to Neapolitan rule, an undertaking King Robert himself had tried and failed many times during his long career. Charles was no more successful than the king at achieving this goal, but he evidently acquitted himself with honor on the battlefield, and his reputation as an able military commander was firmly established.
- On Sale
- Sep 25, 2018
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Back Bay Books