By Penny Lawne
Amberley Publishing, 2016
Immortalised by the chronicler Froissart as the most beautiful woman in England and the most loved, Joan was the wife of the Black Prince and the mother of Richard II, the first Princess of Wales and the only woman ever to be Princess of Aquitaine. The contemporary consensus was that she admirably fulfilled their expectations for a royal consort and king’s mother. Who was this ‘perfect princess’?
In this first major biography, Joan’s background and career are examined to reveal a remarkable story. Brought up at court following her father’s shocking execution, Joan defied convention by marrying secretly aged just twelve, and refused to deny her first love despite coercion, imprisonment and a forced bigamous marriage. Wooed by the Black Prince when she was widowed, theirs was a love match, yet the questionable legality of their marriage threatened their son’s succession to the throne. Intelligent and independent, Joan constructed her role as Princess of Wales. Deliberately self-effacing, she created and managed her reputation, using her considerable intercessory skills to protect and support Richard. A loyal wife and devoted mother, Joan was much more than just a famous beauty.
Read an Excerpt from the Introduction:
Jean Froissart, probably the most famous of the fourteenth-century chroniclers, described Joan as ‘in her time the most beautiful woman in all the realm of England and the most loved’ (‘en son temps la plus belle dame de tout le roiaulme d’Engleterre et la plus amoureuse’). His description has proved remarkably enduring, and it is by her posthumously bestowed sobriquet of ‘Fair Maid of Kent’ that Joan is best known. Successive chroniclers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were fascinated by the legend of her beauty and desirability, and by the seventeenth century Joan had been identified as the blushing beauty rescued from embarrassment at the ball by Edward III in Vergil’s account of the founding of the Order of the Garter. Although historians have rejected the Garter story, it is the view of Joan that generally remains. Yet this description is misleading, and belies the significance of Joan’s life. Joan was Princess of Wales for twenty-four years, and one of the most important and influential women of her age. A granddaughter of Edward I, in 1361 she married Edward III’s eldest son, Prince Edward (after his death better known as the Black Prince), and became Princess of Wales, the first member of the English royal family to have that title. Until the prince’s death in 1376, Joan was expected to succeed her mother-in-law, Queen Philippa, as the next queen. For seven years she helped Prince Edward preside over the principality of Aquitaine, and bore him two sons. When Edward III died, a year after the prince’s death, Joan’s son Richard became king at the age of ten. As Richard’s mother, Joan was in a position of considerable power and authority up to her death in 1385. Despite her distinction, there has been no full-length biography of her life, and her story remains largely untold. This book is an attempt to tell her story and examine the real woman behind the legend.
There are obvious difficulties in looking at Joan’s life. There is no surviving collection of private correspondence by or to Joan, and there are no family or personal papers. None of the records kept for her, such as household accounts, administrative records, wardrobe accounts, livery rolls and estate accounts, have survived. Without such accounts, much that could be known about Joan is lost. The dearth of archive material relating to Joan is a serious handicap for a biographer, and partly explains why historical writing on her is lamentably limited. In addition, histories of the fourteenth century have traditionally been male dominated. The contemporary chroniclers and later historians concentrated their attention on war, politics and government, all areas from which women were largely excluded as they could not hold office, or go to war, and although they were allowed to own land they had no independent legal standing unless widowed. The law, reinforced by the Church’s attitude, stressed the subordination of women. Inevitably the official records contain far more about the men in Joan’s life (in particular the prince and Richard II) than they do about her, despite her rank and status. A biographer therefore also has to draw on the lives of those closest to Joan to help provide some of the missing details of her life.
Edward III’s claim to the French throne initiated the start of the Hundred Years War, and the conduct of the war, the deliberate fostering of the chivalric culture by the king and the resulting upheavals in domestic politics, with the escalating tensions that culminated in the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, have fascinated writers for centuries. The fourteenth century is rich in tales of chivalry, expounded by contemporary writers such as Froissart and Jean le Bel. Men carry out brave deeds in accordance with a knightly code of conduct, often with the aim of winning the hearts of their fair ladies, as in Froissart’s tale of the English knights at Valenciennes who vowed to wear eyepatches on one eye until they had performed feats worthy of their lady. Edward III consciously promoted the chivalric ethos of his court, with his creation of the Order of the Garter as its most visible symbol, to foster unity among his nobility and to ensure support for his war with France. His eldest son, Prince Edward, was considered by his contemporaries to be the exemplar of chivalric knighthood. The Church assisted in the glamorisation of war, calling knights to the aid of fellow Christians on crusade. Tales of knight errantry and worthy deeds of arms were encouraged. Romantic literature with the tales of heroes like Arthur, Charlemagne, Roland and Oliver were popular reading among the aristocracy. Chivalry was an elitist culture, restricted to the nobility, in which women were portrayed as supportive adornments, and the dividing line between reality and fairy tale sometimes deliberately blurred, as in the depiction of Joan as one of the objects of gallantry at Valenciennes, and her representation by Chandos Herald as the perfect knight’s lady.
Much that is known about Joan derives from the accounts of the contemporary chroniclers, who present her as a popular figure in her lifetime. Although there are no contemporary portraits, her beauty was undoubtedly a real attribute, firmly established by Froissart, and her depiction by the prince’s panegyrist, Chandos Herald, as beautiful, pleasant and wise (‘que bele fu plesant et sage’). The Chronique des quatre premiers Valois described her as ‘une des belle dames du monde et moult noble’. Froissart and Chandos Herald had first-hand knowledge; Froissart was a member of Queen Philippa’s household at the time of Joan’s marriage to the prince and stayed at their home at Berkhamsted after the marriage, and he was later a guest in their house in Aquitaine when Joan gave birth to Richard in 1367, while Chandos Herald served Sir John Chandos, one of the closest of Prince Edward’s friends and knights. The prince’s marriage is recorded by most of the chroniclers, and these recite Joan’s royal lineage and her marital history. Joan’s desirability is evident from her colourful marital history; she was Thomas Holand’s widow when she married the prince, but was known to have gone through a form of marriage with William Montague which had been set aside. The births of her two sons by the prince are recorded, and during Richard’s reign there are more frequent references to Joan, particularly of her intercessions on behalf of John of Gaunt during the Peasants’ Revolt, and her death in 1385 is attributed to her distress at her failure to reconcile Richard with his half-brother John Holand.