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Love in the Time of the Black Death

By Danièle Cybulskie

When I first started writing this blog, I wanted to tell a medieval love story. It is the story of the dashing Black Prince of Wales, and his Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent.

If you are familiar with stories of the Black Prince, they are probably war stories surrounding his participation in The Hundred Years’ War between England and France. Indeed, that is what he is best known for – for better and for worse. The Black Prince was Edward, Prince of Wales (1330-1376), who was the son of Edward III, and the father of Richard II, although The Black Prince, himself, died before he could ever ascend the throne (I have always heard that he died of dysentery – frequently a soldier’s disease). Being the eldest son of one of England’s most famous kings, Edward was a very desirable match for the noble ladies of Europe.

His bachelorhood also made him a very valuable asset in negotiations for peace, as royal marriages traditionally were used to build bridges between nations. In the 1300s, marriages frequently occurred when people were in their teens (and royal betrothals happened well before marriageable age), yet Edward didn’t get married until he was thirty-one. Not only was this a pretty unusual delay for an aristocrat, but it was especially unusual for the heir to the throne to delay begetting his own (legitimate) heirs. One can argue that being essential to England’s campaigns and negotiations in France may have kept Edward pretty busy, but there’s more to the story than a busy timetable.

Joan, Edward’s future wife, was later called The Fair Maid of Kent, so she may have been quite a looker, but she was, in many ways, a very bad match for Edward. First of all, her father had been executed for supporting the previous king (Edward II, her uncle) who had just been deposed (by Edward III, The Black Prince’s father). Joan was, therefore, not only from a traitorous family, but also first cousin to the king, and therefore a close cousin of The Black Prince, himself. Marrying such a close relation was forbidden by the church. Were that not enough to keep Joan and Edward apart, Joan had a strange history of marriage already. She had been married in secret to a man named Thomas Holland, without royal permission (which, since she was royal and fatherless, would have had to come from Edward III).

To add to the scandal, while Holland was away from England, Joan was given in marriage to William Montacute. For whatever reason, Joan didn’t make her earlier marriage known, creating one heck of a mess in an age where proper lineage was paramount – especially when Holland returned. The only person who could sort out a sordid mess like this was the Pope, himself. The Pope decreed that Joan’s first marriage to Thomas Holland was valid (not her marriage to Montacute), and, like it or not, everyone was bound to follow his ruling. Joan and Holland had several children together, and Holland died in 1360, when Joan was thirty-two.

Tomb of the Black Prince, by Nina Aldin Thune
Tomb of the Black Prince, by Nina Aldin Thune

So – for those of you keeping score – Joan was a close cousin, surrounded by scandals both of treason and bigamy, she had no helpful political ties, she had previous children, and she was getting almost too old to bear more children (who would be Edward’s heirs to the throne). Somehow, Edward didn’t care.

With almost indecent speed (considering Joan’s recent widowhood), Edward and Joan petitioned the Pope to grant them a dispensation, meaning that the church could overlook their close blood-tie, and allow them to marry. He did, and the two were married in 1361. They had two children (Edward – how original! – and Richard II), and fifteen years of marriage before The Black Prince died.

Call me a romantic fool, but I think that, for Edward and Joan to marry each other despite all of the obstacles, and all of the disapproval, they must truly have been dedicated to each other. While we do not have any surviving, sappy love letters to bear this theory out, I think that reading between the lines paints a pretty clear picture of a true, medieval love story.

For a romantic read, and one that inspired my interest in learning more about Edward and Joan’s story, read The First Princess of Wales, by Karen Harper.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

Click here to read more articles from the Five-Minute Medievalist

Top Image: UBH Cod. Pal. germ. 359 fol.61

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