Edward, the Black Prince, and Joan of Kent: a pair of star cross’d lovers that eventually came together in one of history’s true love matches. It took three marriages and over thirty years before Joan finally became the Princess of Wales, but if the chroniclers are to be believed, it was worth the wait.
|Seal of Edward II|
Young Edward III had been placed on the throne by Isabella and Mortimer, but he was more filial to his father’s memory than his mother’s commands. When he came of age, he organized a coup to remove the adulterous pair from power. Mortimer he executed, Isabella he imprisoned, and in a kindly gesture, he took Edmund Woodstock’s widow and her brood into his household to be provided for.
|Edward III and the Black Prince|
Joan, on the other hand, was in the unenviable position of having too many marriages materialize. When she was twelve years of age (fifteen or sixteen, according to other sources), she contracted a secret marriage with Thomas Holland, a man twice her age and seneschal to the house of Salisbury. Her royal family, it is certain, knew nothing of this marriage to Holland, for a few years later they betrothed her to William Montacute, the Earl of Salisbury. What happened next is unclear, whether Joan actually did go through with the marriage to Salisbury or whether the news of her earlier marriage came out first and prevented the ceremony. Holland, it is thought, must have been overseas at the time or he would have spoken up to prevent the polyandrous relationship. One fact at least is certain: there were now two Englishmen claiming Joan of Kent as their wife.
Joan’s opinion on the matter was that her first marriage to Thomas Holland was binding and ought to be recognized. But Joan’s opinion was also of little consequence. One story, perhaps apocryphal, describes the Earl of Salisbury locking the lady up in a tower and refusing to let her go to her first husband. An appeal was sent to the pope asking him to rule on the situation. Even though it had been undertaken without her guardians’ permission, Pope Clement VI decided in favor of the first marriage, and Joan took her place in Holland’s home as his wife.
Joan’s marriage to Thomas Holland produced two sons and two daughters. Her oldest son, Thomas, was privileged to have the Black Prince stand godfather to him at his baptism, a sign of the mutual regard between his mother and her cousin Edward. Holland, although his first appearance on the scene was as a lowly seneschal, rose swiftly in the world. He became Earl of Kent in right of his wife, and shortly before his death in 1360 was named captain-general of all of England’s holdings on the continent.
At Holland’s death, Joan—fabulously wealthy, still young, and still beautiful—was the most eligible widow in all of England. A French chronicler tells how many of the English lords sought her hand in marriage, asking the Black Prince to be the go-between and make the match. Here is historian Henry Dwight Sedgwick’s delightful summary of the story:
The widow, as I say, was a great catch, and, as in those martial days there was little time for the more delicate hesitations and diffidences of life, suitors very soon gathered round. Many gentlemen, knowing that she and the Prince were not only cousins but good friends, went to him and asked him to say a few words to her in their favor. The most importunate of these was Lord Brocas, a very gallant nobleman of high rank, who had served the Prince well both in war and peace. The Prince, accordingly, accepted the commission and went to see the Countess of Kent several times on the suitor’s behalf. The chronicler states that he went very willingly; for which, apart from the commission, there were reasons enough. First, she was his cousin; second, he took notice of her very great beauty and of her gracious manner that pleased him wonderfully well; and third, the time passed agreeably.
On one occasion, when the Prince was speaking to her of the said gentleman, she answered that she should never marry again. She was moult soubtille et sage and repeated this to the Prince several times. The Prince replied, “Heigh ho! Belle Cousine, in case you do not wise to marry any of my friends, the great beauties, of which you are compact, will be wasted. If you and I were not of common kin, there is no lady under heaven whom I should hold so dear as you.” And the Prince was taken unawares by love for the Countess. And then, like the subtle woman, and skillful in ambush, that she was, the Countess began to cry. Then the Prince tried to comort her; he kissed her very often, and felt great tenderness for her tears, and said to her: “Belle Cousine, I have a message for you from one of the gallant gentlemen of England, and he is besides a very charming man.” The Countess answered, still weeping: “Ah, Sire, for God’s sake forbear to speak of such things to me. I have made up my mind not to marry again; for I have given my heart to the most gallant gentleman under the firmament, and for love of him, I shall have no husband but God, so long as I live. It is impossible that I should marry him. So, for love of him, I wish to shun the company of men. I am resolved never to marry.”
The Prince was very desirous to know who was the most gallant gentleman in the world, and begged the Countess insistently to tell him who it was. But the Countess the more she saw his eagerness, the more she besought him not to inquire further; and, falling on her knees, said to him: “My very dear Lord, for God’s sake, and for His mother’s, the sweet Virgin, please forbear.” The Prince answered that, if she did not tell him who was the most gallant gentleman in the world, he would be her deadly enemy. Then the Lady said to him: “Very dear and redoubtable Lord, it is you, and for love of you no gentleman shall lie beside me.” The Prince, who was then all on fire with love for her, said: “Lady, I swear to God, that as long as I live, no other woman shall be my wife.” And soon they were betrothed.A less colorful, and probably less embroidered version of the story is given in the Life of the Black Prince written by Chandos Herald:
The prince, very soon after this [the Treaty of Bretigny in 1360], married a lady of great worth, with whom he had fallen in love, who was beautiful, pleasing and wise. He did not wait long after his marriage before going to Gascony to take possession of his lands. The prince took his wife with him, whom he loved greatly.Because the two were closely related, they needed to receive a dispensation from the pope allowing the marriage. They had no trouble obtaining it. The historian Richard Barber writes: “Innocent VI, like all the Avignon popes, favoured the French cause, and the prince’s proposed marriage eliminated an important diplomatic weapon for the English.” The French wanted nothing better than to see Edward III’s son make a politically useless marriage.
But although an alliance with Joan offered no political advantage, the prince never appeared to regret his choice. Seven years later, the romance was still alive, as evidenced by a letter written to Joan after the Battle of Najera. The prince’s salutation reads: “My dearest and truest sweetheart and beloved companion.”
Although sickness and time would harden the prince’s character, making him capable of committing the massacre at Limoges in 1370, we never hear of anything but felicity betwixt him and Joan. Together Edward and Joan had two sons, the youngest of whom would become Richard II of England.
As wife to Edward, the Black Prince, Joan became history’s first English Princess of Wales. But there was more to remember about Joan than just her title. She was, in the words of the chronicler Froissart, “la plus belle de tout le royaume d’Engleterre et la plus amoureuse – the most beautiful woman in all the realm of England, and the most loving.” Or to use Henry Dwight Sedgwick’s translation: “the prettiest girl and greatest coquette in England.”
Rosanne E. Lortz is the author of I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince. Set against the turbulent backdrop of the Hundred Years' War, I Serve chronicles the story of Sir John Potenhale. A young Englishman of lowly birth, Potenhale wins his way to knighthood on the fields of France. He enters the service of Edward, the Black Prince of Wales, and immerses himself in a stormy world of war, politics, and romantic intrigue. Joan of Kent appears as a supporting character in the novel as Sir John Potenhale serves as the go-between to carry secret messages between his master the Black Prince and the lady he is forbidden to love.
You can learn more about Rosanne's books at her Official Author Website where she also blogs about writing, mothering, and things historical.
Barber, Richard. Edward, Prince of Wales and Aquitaine: A Biography of the Black Prince. Great Britain: The Boydell Press, 1978.
_______, trans. and ed. The Life and Campaigns of the Black Prince: from contemporary letters, diaries and chronicles, including Chandos Herald’s Life of the Black Prince. Great Britain: The
Boydell Press, 1979.
Froissart, Jean. Chronicles. Translated and edited by Geoffrey Brereton. London: Penguin Books, 1978.
Sedgwick, Henry Dwight. The Black Prince. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1993.