Monday, June 25, 2012

Joan, The Fair Maid of Kent: More Fourteenth Century Royal Scandal ...

by Anne O'Brien

Alice Perrers might cause considerable scandal at the Plantagenet court of King Edward III but she was not on her own.  Joan, known in her day as The Fair Maid of Kent because of her undeniable great beauty (whereas Alice was 'famously ugly'), ran Alice a close second.  But because Joan was well born and eventually became wife to Edward of Woodstock, much was forgiven her.  Alice was never forgiven.

Joan was the daughter of Edmund, Earl of Kent, half brother of Edward II.  When Edmund was executed on the orders of Queen Isabella and Lord Mortimer, Joan, still a young child, was eventually taken under the maternal wing of Queen Philippa, and she was raised at court with the rest of her royal cousins.  This is where she met Prince Edward for the first time.

This delightful little contemporary illustration shows Joan, probably holding a mirror which is definitely in character.  Prince Edward had a strong affection for her, calling her his Jeanette, and wanted her for his wife.  What Joan felt for Edward is not so clear but she had no objection to becoming the wife of the heir to the throne.  Unfortunately it was not a popular move, both King Edward III and Queen Philippa opposing the match.  But why?  Joan was strikingly lovely, with all the qualification of good birth and upbringing and royal blood.  She was Countess of Kent in her own right after the death of her brother.  Nor was the opposition to the match merely a desire for the heir to the throne to marry some European woman of birth and breeding to bring political advantage to England.

The problem was Joan's scandalous private life.  at the age of thirty two Joan was no innocent virgin.

Joan was first married when very young, probably only twelve - to Sir Thomas Holland.  This seems to have been a clandestine event but certainly legal.  Sir Thomas went off on Crusade, leaving Joan who was forced - in her own words - into a second marriage with the Earl of Salisbury.  When Sir Thomas returned, he discovered his wife wed to another in a bigamous union, and promptly took up the position of Steward in the Salisbury household.  Such a situation beggars belief.  How I wish we knew more about that menage a trois!

Sir Thomas wanted his wife back and appealed to the Pope that Joan had promised herself to him, shared his bed, and so he claimed her for his own wife.  Joan supported this story.  Did she prefer Sir Thomas to the hapless Earl of Salisbury?  It took the Pope eighteen months to decide, and then he ordered that the Salisbury marriage be ended and Joan return to her rightful husband, Sir Thomas Holland.  Which she did.  They had five children together before Sir Thomas died in 1360.

This magnificent stained glass window, made in the late nineteenth Century, shows Joan holding the church at Ware in Hertfordshire, which she paid to have restored.

So why, if Joan was a widow by 1360, was Philippa against Joan's marriage to her son Edward?  Philippa was not the only one with concerns.  So was the Archbishop of Canterbury.  One of Joan's husbands might be dead, but the other, Salisbury, was very much alive.  If anyone care to stir up trouble and cast doubts on the legitimacy of any children Joan would have with Prince Edward, here was  the ammunition.  It took the Pope to give assurances that the marriage with Salisbury was not legal before Joan and her Prince were wed at Windsor Castle in October 1361.

This is the superb representation of Prince Edward, later know as the Black Prince, from his tomb in Canterbury Cathedral.

Joan was contemporary with Alice Perrers.  When Joan returned to England with Prince Edward after a lengthy stay in Aquitaine, Joan would have expected to be pre-eminent at the royal court, but her husband's illness and Alice's control of affairs would have thwarted her.  An interesting relationship, I think.  There was no love lost between the two head-strong women.

Joan's name was further associated with scandal.  She was said to be the woman raped by King Edward III after the siege at Wark in 1341even though she was only thirteen years old at that time.  She was also the lady whose garter Edward rescued, which was to become the insignia of the Order of the Garter, as shown in this glorious early twentieth century painting.

There is evidence for neither.  It is thought that they are examples of French propaganda, Joan's name being added later, to paint King Edward as immoral and dishonourable.  Joan, with her dubious marriages and undoubted beauty, was the perfect choice to play either the  innocent maiden or the femme fatale.  

Despite the complications of her past, Joan appears to have been a caring wife to the tragically ailing Prince and supportive of her son Richard II.  She died in 1385, leaving her newest bed of red velvet embroidered with silver ostrich feathers and gold leopards' heads to Richard.  She also left a bed to each of her sons by Sir Thomas Holland.  Interestingly she ordered that she should be buried at Greyfriars in Stamford in Lincolnshire.  In her will she stipulated:
'My body is to be buried in my chapel at Stanford, near the monument of our late lord and husband, the Earl of Kent.'
This of course is Sir Thomas Holland.  Did she prefer Sir Thomas to either Salisbury or Prince Edward at the end?
We will never know ...

Anne O'Brien: author of The Virgin Widow and Queen Defiant/Devil's Consort.
The Kings' Concubine, a novel of Alice Perrers in now available in the UK, Australia and the USA.

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  1. Fascinating lady! Thanks so much for sharing her history.

  2. Wonderful blog as always, Anne.

  3. Very interesting and confusing! Thank you for sharing.

  4. The episode of King Edward picking up his dancing partner's dropped garter and tying it below his own knee, with the words "Evil to him who evil thinks," is dealt with at some length by the archeologist Margaret Murray in her book The God of the Witches. There are strong feelings for and against Murray's studies of the survival of the pre-Christian faith in England and its links to the Crown, but if her views have merit, perhaps the reason for objection to Joan was a link to the "old faith"? There might be more excuse to explore this than there is for Gregory's making much of Elizabeth Woodville's supposed descent from Melusine.

  5. Nice piece, but it was not Joan implicated in the Wark castle rape but her mother-in-law, Katherine, countess of Salisbury. The garter incident probably didn't happen either. Edward's personal mottoes were in English. That the garter motto is in French suggests it was rather more stately than personal, and refers to the claim on France. I think Ian Mortimer will be the safest research reference for both these stories.


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