Interview with Queen Juana la Loca of Castile of The Last Queen
“The queen rarely grants interviews anymore. The long years of seclusion have confused her memory,” says the sour-faced custodian as he leads me down the long passageway to her apartments. He gives me a suspicious glance. “You are fortunate indeed she has agreed to see you all. She doesn’t like being questioned, especially not about her husband the late archduke. If she starts crying or shouting, you must call for us at once.”
I nod warily. He double-checks my papers again, lingering over the signed permit from His Imperial Highness’s Secretary’s Office, which allows me to travel here to Tordesillas to see Her Grace Queen Juana. He snorts. “Everything seems to be in order.” He knocks on the brass-studded door at the end of the passageway. “You have ten minutes,” he says, with the arrogance of a menial in charge of someone far too grand for his limited talents. “Not a minute more.”
The door opens; a lady in waiting conducts me past a well-appointed antechamber into a large common room, part of the apartments where the queen has spent the last twenty years of her life, a prisoner in this castle.
She waits by a mullioned window that overlooks the castle courtyard and adjoining convent where the bone of contention and reason for my presence here—her husband’s coffin— rests and where she often visits it. As I bow before her, I’m startled to discover that she’s quite tall, even if the willowy beauty of her youth— as legendary as her uncontrollable passion—has been thickened by age and suffering.
“Rise,” she says with a hint of impatience, and I do, feeling like prey caught in the unsettling focus of her keen green eyes. Underneath the veil of her severe widow’s coif, I catch a glimpse of faded red hair, still long and full as it tumbles down her back. I’m stunned by the sight: she is no longer a girl to wear her hair loose yet she greets me like a virgin bride on her wedding night.
A small smile chases across her lips. She takes her seat on an imposing chair by the window and drapes her long hands regally upon the carved-lion armrests. “You’re here by my son the Emperor’s request,” she says. “You wish to ask me a few questions. You may proceed. As my custodian must have told you, I dislike intrusions.”
I nod, struggling to find my voice as I quickly draw out my note pad, quill and ink from my satchel, and, after receiving a permissive flick of her fingers, set these up on the side desk nearby, which she has obviously had readied in anticipation of my visit. I await her leave to sit on the stool; she inclines her head, granting it.
Looking at the page before me where the questions have been carefully scripted out by my superior, and avoiding her feline stare, I begin the interview:
CLERK: His Highness the Emperor sends his greetings. He trusts Your Majesty is well and wishes to know why you insist on retaining the late archduke’s coffin, when he has found an appropriate resting place for it elsewhere?
QUEEN JUANA: There is no more appropriate place than here, with me. I am his wife. He was bound to me by marriage in life and now he is bound to me in eternity by death. He is exactly where he belongs.
C: Yet Your Majesty must realize that this unusual attachment to his coffin . . . well, it does fuel rumors that—
QJ: That I’m insane? [She lets out a gusty laugh] Of course, it does. That is how they wanted it to be. Why should I, after all these years, disappoint them now?
C: But, His Imperial Highness looks only to your comfort and fears these rumors do you a grave injustice. Why do you insist on abetting your detractors, rather than relinquishing the coffin and putting an end to it?
QJ: [softly, almost mockingly] Is my son the Emperor truly so concerned? I find that rather hard to believe. After all, the last time he deigned to see me was over twelve years ago.
C: Your Majesty knows the Emperor resides in Austria and has many obligations. He regrets—
QJ: Nothing! [Again, she laughs.] He doesn’t know the meaning of regret. [She leans forward in her chair, her teeth showing through her parted lips] You are very young, aren’t you? An aspiring clerk to my son’s secretary of state, sent here to intimidate the forgotten queen of Spain; if you do your job well, you’ve been promised a promotion, yes? Another rung scaled in the endless upward climb to prestige. All you need to do is persuade one lone madwoman to give up her dead husband’s coffin.
C: Your Majesty, I—I must protest! I’m charged with asking you these questions and to record your answers. Why do you think I harbor ulterior motives?
QJ: Because men always do. Why should you been any different? Now, move on. I weary of this game.
C: [surreptitiously wiping my brow of sweat] His Imperial Highness insists that all future veneration of the coffin must end. He deems it unworthy of Your Majesty’s dignity to be seen sitting by it and talking to it as if the archduke your husband were still alive.
QJ: That is not a question, but I’ll answer it anyway. Tell His Imperial Highness, he has left me nothing else. Don’t stare at me like that. Write it down: He has left me with nothing else. All I have is that coffin. I speak to it because no one will let me step outside these walls. No one else can bear witness to my life, and so I must re-live it with the dead. And the dead owe it to me after everything I have endured.
She abruptly stands. I’ve managed to ask two of the questions on my page but I can see by the schooled look on her face that our interview is over. I hastily gather up my articles, crushed by the knowledge that I have failed. The archduke’s coffin will remain on its dais in the convent, under its moldering cloth of estate, and I shall return to a life of clerical drudgery, though I aspire to so much more.
Then, she steps so close to me I feel her breath on the back of my neck. I whirl about to find myself pinned like an insect by the power of her stare. In her eyes I see a vast panorama of darkness and light, of a life haunted by shadows and memories. But, to my amazement, I see no regret. This queen accused of madness and locked away from the world regards me as if she’d willingly suffer another thousand years thus, rather than surrender what is rightfully hers. I understand then that she cares nothing for the coffin. It is a symbol for something far more important.
She lifts her chin. She smiles at me, nods, and glides away.