Joan I of Naples was born around 1326. Her grandfather, King Robert, ruled Naples from the early to mid-1300s. During his reign, Naples experienced economic prosperity and stability. Robert encouraged learning, and his kingdom flourished as a center of education. Due to his respected leadership, the king became known as Robert the Wise.
Towards the end of his reign, Robert faced a succession crisis. All of the king’s sons, including Joan’s father, had died before him. After much consideration, Robert chose his eldest grandchild, Joan, as his successor. In 1343, the king died, and 16-year-old Joan inherited his throne. As a member of the French Capetian dynasty’s cadet branch, Joan also became the Countess of Provence and Forcalquier.
Queen of Naples
At the time of her succession, the newly crowned Joan I was engaged to her cousin, Andrew of Hungary. Their marriage was intended to build a stronger relationship between Naples and Hungary. Although Robert intended for Joan to rule Naples solely, he allowed Andrew to receive certain titles as compensation. Despite this arrangement, an unhappy Andrew would try to gain political influence throughout their marriage.
Due to his ambition, Andrew looked for ways to become king. Joan I excluded Andrew from governing and treated him as a consort. When the queen began suffering from an illness, Andrew attempted to put his plan into motion. The consort reached out to the pope and made a deal with him to become king. However, Andrew’s scheming made him unpopular with Naple’s nobility. As a result, the nobles began to plan his assassination.
On September 18, 1345, Andrew was away from court on a hunting trip. During the middle of the night, an assassin strangled Andrew with a cord and threw his body out a window. Joan I had accompanied her husband on the trip and was nearby when he died. In turn, the queen would be accused of planning Andrew’s murder. However, there wasn’t any evidence to support this claim.
Andrew’s assassination had political consequences for Joan I. Angered at his brother’s death, King Louis I of Hungary’s relationship with Joan soured. Previously, Hungary had a strained relationship with Naples due to Andrew’s exclusion from governing. When Joan subsequently married Louis of Taranto in 1347 instead of Andrew’s younger brother, Stephen, the relationship between both kingdoms would be damaged beyond repair.
In 1348, Louis I invaded Naples to get his revenge. Realizing that she couldn’t withstand the king’s forces, Joan I and her husband fled to Avignon, France. While in Avignon, the queen met with Pope Clement VI. The pope agreed to investigate Andrew’s murder and eventually cleared Joan of any involvement. Having learned from her former marriage, the queen decided to rule equally with Louis.
Through Pope Innocent VI’s help, Joan I would return to Naples in 1352. The Black Death plague had swept through the Hungarian army, which forced them to withdraw. Upon her return, Joan allowed her husband to become a military commander and continue the war with Hungary. Louis served in this position until he died in 1362.
After Louis’ death, Joan I focused on securing her control over Naples. To this end, the queen began passing new laws and dismissing unfavorable officials. Since Joan’s children had all died young, the queen also searched for a new husband. The following year, Joan married James IV of Majorca. Like Andrew, James became a consort with no political influence.
James had spent 14 years of his life imprisoned due to his involvement in a power struggle over Majorca’s throne. In turn, his years of imprisonment had made him into an unstable person. James cared little for Naples and obsessed over regaining control of Majorca. He eventually left Naples to engage in a military campaign. Unsuccessful in his efforts, James died in Castile in 1375.
Joan I remained childless yet determined. The queen continued her efforts to consolidate her power. After the war with Hungary ended, Naples experienced peace. Through her leadership, the kingdom again prospered, which strengthened Joan’s position. Like her grandfather, Joan encouraged learning and supported scholars. In 1376, Joan married for a fourth time to Otto of Brunswick, a supporter who had participated in her military campaigns.
As Joan I enjoyed her success, the Catholic church became divided over the election of two popes (Avignon and Rome). Beginning in 1378, the Western Schism affected not only the church but also the rest of Europe. Since she had French ties, Joan I choose to align herself with Antipope Clement VII of the Avignon faction. In response, the Roman Pope Urban VI declared Joan’s queenship to be invalid. As a consequence, Joan was now vulnerable to her enemies.
One such enemy was Charles of Durazzo. The lord had formerly sought to gain power in Naples with little success. However, he now had a perfect opportunity to overthrow Joan I. Rallying Hungary’s support, Charles invaded Naples and bested Otto. After enduring Charles’ assault, Joan surrendered to him and was imprisoned.
As Joan I resided in the castle of Muro, Charles gained Urban VI’s support of his claim to Naples’ throne. In 1381, the pope formally crowned Charles as Naples’ new king. With his position secured, Charles III ordered Joan’s death. On May 22, 1382, the former queen suffered the same fate as her first husband: strangulation by a cord. Since Urban had excommunicated her, the former queen would be buried without any honors.
Joan I proved to be a capable ruler of Naples. Like Robert the Wise, the queen brought prosperity to Naples and promoted education. However, her missteps as queen created dangerous enemies. Joan’s refusal to give Andrew political power, his murder, and her rejection of his brother caused a permanent breach with Hungary. Likewise, the queen’s support of Clement over Urban led to her eventually losing her throne. Her downfall and subsequent death ended an era of stability in Naples.
Dougherty, M. J. (2018). Kings & Queens of the Medieval World: From Conquerors and Exiles to Madmen and Saints (pp. 76-78). London: Amber Books.
Rattle, A., & Vale, A. (2008). Mad Kings & Queens: History’s Most Famous Raving Royals. New York, NY: Sterling.
Joan I. (n.d.). Retrieved March 14, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Joan-I-queen-of-Naples