Joanna of NaplesQueen Joanna I of Naples (Source: Wikimedia, Public Domain in the U.S.)

Queen Joanna of Naples (born 1326) is a notable figure as a reigning queen of the Middle Ages. She is the subject of a recent biography by Nancy Goldstone, The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily. This biography is a sympathetic portrait of a woman who was constantly challenged by the intrigues of many rivals, including popes and her own husbands, but who managed to survive these storms until she was eventually murdered in 1382. Accused of murdering her first husband, Joanna was tried before a papal court and won acquittal after arguing her case in Latin. She was 22 years old at the time. While this modern biography praises her persistence and dedication to her realm, older accounts dismissed her as a criminal. Such is the attitude of Clara Erskine Clement in her 1894 book Naples, the City of Parthenope and its Environs, which I have been quoting from in my posts on the Kingdom of Naples. Accoding to that book, after a section describing the tomb of her grandfather and predecessor King Robert:

The erection of this monument is almost the only reputable act recorded of Queen Joanna I. She is believed to have instigated the murder of her first husband, Andrew of Hungary, which occurred in 1345 in the garden of the Celestine Convent at Aversa. This murder was made the pretext for arousing the Neapolitans against the queen by her cousins, Robert of Taranto and Charles Durazzo; and she fled with her lover, Louis of Taranto, to Pope Clement VI., at Avignon, where the guilty pair were married. It was under the rule of Queen Joanna, and during the life of King Andrew, that Petrarch witnessed those gladiatorial combats at Naples, in the arena near the church of S. Giovanni a Carbonara, which filled him with disgust and horror. The tomb of the second spouse of Queen Joanna is in the famous church of Monte Vergine, beside that of his mother, Catherine of Valois, who gave to this monastery the miraculous image of the Virgin, so celebrated in Southern Italy, which she obtained from Constantinople.

Louis of Taranto is also known as Louis I and reigned as co-ruler with Joanna I from 1352 to 1362. His tomb is at the Territorial Abbey of Montevergine. The gladiatorial combats witnessed by Petrarch, mentioned in the passage above, took place during the reign of King Robert. They are discussed in an article, “Petrarch at Naples,” by Marie-Louise Egerton Castle (The Treasury, Vol. XI, September, 1908):

Petrarch loathed his second sojourn in Naples. The state of affairs was daily going from bad to worse, the fighting and murder which took place every night in the streets made it impossible for decent folk to venture out after dark. ‘The roads are filled with noble youths all armed,’ he wrote, ‘and neither . . . the authority of the magistrates nor the power of the King succeed in bridling them.’ The worthy poet himself was wont to slip away from the councils even during the discussion of the two questions which he truly had at heart, and hie him home at the first approach of dusk, so fearful was he of the street peril.

He had an especial horror of another of the abuses of the time—the gladiatorial games. This sport, a curious survival of the cruel classic days, was still carried on in the neighbourhood of Naples. It would seem as if the memory of the vice of ancient Rome still clung about the lovely land infecting the souls of those who dwelt there. Pope John XXII had strictly forbidden the games, but for that the Neapolitans cared nothing. Youths of noble birth continued to fight and die in the arena, as had been the custom from time immemorial ; anyone who showed the least shrinking from this useless hazard of life was thrust out from his fellows as a coward. It was as impossible for a man of honour to shirk his share in the games as it was in a later century to refuse a duel.

On a certain day in November Petrarch was taken by some friends to witness a festival, held in a place near the city. The King and Queen were present with all their Court, most gorgeously arrayed.

There also were the officers of the Neapolitan army, as well as a throng of townsfolk. Beholding on the face of every one an expression of the gayest expectancy, he inferred that he was about to witness some splendid pageant, and prepared to take his share of pleasure.

Presently a great clamour of applause went up from the people, and Petrarch looked about him hastily, not to miss the sight. What was his horror to see a handsome youth fall at his feet, pierced through the breast. Petrarch stood one moment in consternation as the boy gasped his life away. Then the truth dawned upon the poet—these were the hateful gladiatorial games, and in the hearts of these thousands of spectators there was nothing but joy in bloodshed, in the sacrifice of the young life. His first nausea was then swept away in a tide of anger. He elbowed his way out of the crowd, jumped on his horse and, spurring the beast to a gallop, rode away, cursing the cruelty of the people, the foolishness of the combatants, the deceitfulness of his friends who had beguiled him into assisting at ‘such an infernal spectacle.’


As Clara Erskine Clement continues her description of the reign of Queen Joanna:

In 1347 Naples was desolated by a terrible war waged by Louis the Great of Hungary, a brother of the murdered Andrew. The leader of the invading army was that infamous German mercenary, Werner, who boasted that he was “the enemy of God, of pity, and of mercy;” and not until 1351 was peace made between Louis and Joanna, and these mercenary troops withdrawn from her territory.

Meantime, in 1345, Italy had suffered from a famine, and thousands had perished by starvation. Three years later the plague raged with frightful violence; sixty thousand died in Naples alone; and these successive scourges of a cruel and licentious soldiery, famine, and plague, left behind them a lawless and demoralized condition of things from which the Neapolitans emerged in a state of semibarbarism.

Long before and after this terrible period (1305-1377), the Popes had dwelt mostly at Avignon, which Joanna I. is said to have given Pope Clement VI., together with eighty thousand florins, she having inherited it through Beatrice of Provence, wife of Charles I. of Anjou. At length, in 1377, Gregory XI. left Avignon and returned to Rome; and the papal residence in France, having endured seventy years, was called the “Babylonish Captivity.” But on the death of Gregory a great schism again sprung up in the Church, and two popes were elected. Urban VI., who remained at Rome, was a violent man, and so offended Queen Joanna that she upheld Clement VII., who dwelt at Avignon ; while Charles of Durazzo, her cousin and heir, was devoted to Pope Urban VI.

Joanna, who was now married to her fourth husband, Otto of Brunswick, the third having been James of Aragon, was still childless, and in order to thwart the hopes of Charles she adopted, as her heir, the son of King John of France, Louis of Anjou. But Urban crowned Charles King of Naples ; and Louis of Hungary, who had not forgotten the murder of his brother Andrew, sent an army to Charles Durazzo to enable him to seize the throne. Therefore, in 1381, Charles III. entered Naples; and Joanna, being speedily abandoned by the troops of her husband, was made prisoner. Her crimes had been so many and great her support of Clement VII., which was viewed as a crime by his opponents, being recently added to the number that Charles, although bound to her by ties of blood, showed himself a pitiless captor. He sent her, a close prisoner, to the castle of Muro, where, on May 12, 1382, she was suffocated beneath a feather-bed by two Hungarian soldiers, who acted, it is said, on the advice of the aged king of Hungary.

The tomb of Joanna I. is next that of her father in Santa Chiara ; and it is generally believed that Raimondo Cabano, whom she raised from the degraded condition of a Saracen slave to be the High Seneschal of her kingdom, as a reward for his aid in her crimes, especially in the murder of her first husband, is also buried in this church.

Certosa di San MartinoCertosa di San Martino

The name of Joanna I. is associated with the splendid old Certosa of S. Martiuo, which she completed, it having been begun by her father, Charles, Duke of Calabria, who died before his father, King Robert. This convent, near the castle of S. Elmo, is celebrated for its magnificent views, and, since its suppression as a monastery, is used as an annex to the Museo Nazionale, being filled with most interesting objects. It is scarcely possible that anything remains from the time of Joanna; but the cloisters, the audience chamber, chapter house, and church, although rebuilt in later days, still must, in a way, be associated with this queen; and, remembering her character, one involuntarily wonders whether she built King Robert’s tomb and completed her father’s work from filial affection and respect, or because she liked to plan and execute magnificent works for which she should be famous long centuries after her fitful life was ended. She also built the church of the Incoronata as a memorial of her coronation and her marriage with Louis of Taranto.