Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Final Tragic years of Joan of Kent: a memorable medieval woman.

by Anne O'Brien

Born in September 1328, Joan of Kent -- the above image is named as Joan, but is not an accurate representation of her -- was one of the most colourful figures of the 14th century. Her marital escapades with Thomas Holand, Earl of Kent, and William Montecute, Earl of Salisbury, have been much written about, followed by her apparent love match with Edward, the Black Prince, against the wishes of both King Edward III and Queen Philippa who doubtless looked askance at her reputation. She -- the much praised and admired Fair Maid of Kent -- was described as the most beautiful woman in England and appeared in legend as the woman whose garter exercised such a powerful attraction for King Edward. Knights jousted for her favours. This is a splendid 19th Century image of how history has portrayed her.

But what about her later years? What do we know of those? Joan was widowed in 1376 when Prince Edward finally succumbed to the appalling symptoms that had afflicted him for a number of years and prevented him from continuing his military career in Aquitaine. From that moment she devoted herself to her son Richard's care and upbringing, showing considerable political acumen, but I doubt that her later life was one of contentment or happiness for her.

We hear of her in terrible days of the Peasant's Revolt in 1381, when she was not short of courage, riding out at Richard's side to meet the rebels at Mile End.

The jeering crowds however grew too much for her so that she was escorted back to the Tower, but there she was accosted by the rebels when they forced the gates. Joan was roughly kissed and manhandled and although not harmed, still causing her to fall into a faint. Fortunately she was able to escape by river into the city where she took refuge. Some were not so fortunate, such as the Archbishop and the Chancellor, captured and executed.

In the following years, although so overweight that she could barely stand, Joan was diligent in acting in the interests of Richard, being influential in his choice of Anne of Bohemia as his bride, and in the subsequent negotiations. 

Perhaps more importantly she was a strong supporter of John of Gaunt, acting as a successful mediator to prevent a total breakdown in relations between Richard and his powerful uncle. Joan saw that Gaunt's influence over Richard was far preferable to that of Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford. In 1384 Joan, fearing for Richard when he plotted with de Vere to have Gaunt murdered, Joan faced Richard and demanded that he make efforts to restore himself to Gaunt's favour. With some success on this occasion, Gaunt and Richard were reconciled.

The magnificent contemporary portrait of Richard in Westminster Abbey.

But success for Joan was not always possible when persuading Richard to take a diplomatic line. Joan died on 8th August, 1385 at Wallingford Castle after a particularly tragic family confrontation. This was the dispute between her two sons, Richard and Sir John Holand, Earl of Exeter, when Holand, for revenge in a personal quarrel, killed Ralph Stafford, a royal favourite, particularly with the Queen. Richard demanded that his brother John face the full penalty of the law, which was death. Joan sent messengers, begging for mercy but Richard refused any intercession from his mother. 

Joan collapsed, plunged into grief at the expectation of John's imminent death, and died within the week at the age of 57 years. Richard did ultimately pardon John, sending him on pilgrimage to the Jerusalem instead of suffering the penalty for murder, but the pardon was not given in time for his mother to rejoice. She died believing that one son would be responsible for the death of another. I wonder what she made of her family? I can only imagine her despair. What heart break she must have suffered at the end.

Joan remembered Richard in her will with fondness, describing him as her very dear son, but she chose not to be buried with his father, the Black Prince, but with Thomas Holand, the father of her other children, at Greyfriars, in Stamford, Lincolnshire. Perhaps this is where her heart always remained.  Below is the tomb of the Black Prince in Canterbury Cathedral. 

As a Postscript: how fortunate Joan was to die before the terrible year of 1400, when she would have been 72 years old (so it might have been possible). If she had lived she would have had to witness the violent destruction of some key elements in her family. 

Her son Thomas Holand, Earl of Kent, was already dead from natural causes in 1397. 

In the overthrow of Richard in 1399, her son John Holand, Duke of Exeter switched sides, thus betraying his half brother King Richard in favour of Henry Bolingbroke, even going so far as to officiate at Henry's coronation as King Henry IV. Here he is, shown in what Joan must have thought of as an act of treason, negotiating with Henry against Richard.

In 1400, after switching back again, John Holand was executed at the behest of the mob in Essex at Pleshey Castle, after the abject failure of the Revolt of the Earls to dethrone Henry IV and release Richard from captivity. 

Joan's grandson, Thomas Holand, Duke of Surrey, was executed in Cirencester in the aftermath of the same rebellion, his head sent to Henry IV in a basket with that of the Earl of Salisbury. 

And finally, of course, her son King Richard II, dethroned, imprisoned and murdered at Pontefract Castle in 1400. 

At least Joan was spared all knowledge of these terrible events that set brother against brother and destroyed much of her family.


To keep in touch with my new novel for 2014, The Scandalous Duchess, the ever-green love story of Dame Katherine de Swynford and John, Duke of Lancaster, do visit my website.


  1. Fabulous post and so I take it she married Holand after the Black Prince had died?

  2. No, Carol. Thomas Holand was one of her earlier marital adventures. He was Joan's first husband, to whom she returned after her second 'marriage' to Salisbury. All hedged about with scandal. Joan remained unwed after the Black Prince's death.

  3. Ah, I did wonder. The period is so interesting.

  4. Wonderful details thank you. Just went to see Richard II at the RSC and it was so moving - it's even more so after reading your post.

  5. she was also known as :
    1.4th Countess of Kent and 5th Baroness Wake of Liddell
    2.The Fair Maid of Kent


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