Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent

Joan of Kent, countess of Kent and Princess of Wales (born 19 September 1328)

By and large I'm not that interested in posting about women who are known just for their beauty--and history has mostly reduced Joan of Kent to the description I've used in the title of today's post, "the Fair Maid of Kent." 
Joan of Kent,

Although this phrase is a descriptor used by later historians, rather than by Joan's contemporaries, the chronicler Jean Froissart, who was at the court of Edward III and who knew Joan of Kent, wrote that she was the most beautiful woman in England. 

But she was also more than beautiful.

Joan of Kent, beautiful or not, is one more great example of how "traditional" marriage worked. 

Joan was the daughter of Margaret, third baroness Wake of Lydell, and her husband Edward of Woodstock, earl of Kent. Edward of Woodstock was a son of King Edward I of England, and thus the younger half-brother of Edward II. Unfortunately for Joan, her father was executed for treason after Edward II's deposition.

After her father was beheaded on 19 March 1330, Joan and her mother were at first placed under arrest in Arundel Castle, but by October, at least according to Froissart, Philippa of Hainault, Edward III's queen, took over her care. Joan's wardship was assigned to William and Catherine de Montacute, the first earl and countess of Salisbury.

Although the earl was determined to marry Joan to his son, William, Joan decided matters for herself. In 1340, when she was twelve years old and still living in the queen's household, Joan entered into an irregular (and secret) marriage contract with Thomas Holland, a knight. The two then consummated their marriage. 

Holland was sent away to the continent for military service the following year, in 1341, and when he returned, he wanted his wife, but Salisbury--and, presumably, Joan's mother--refused to believe the marriage was a valid one. When Holland was sent overseas again, in 1342, Salisbury took advantage took advantage of Holland's absence--and married Joan of Kent to his son, William de Montacute, as he had planned.

When Holland returned to England in 1347, he confessed his secret marriage to Joan to the king and sued for the return of his wife. His appeal went all the way to Rome, and he petitioned Pope Clement VI to have his wife returned. It took the pope some eighteen months to decide the issue, but on 13 November 1349, Clement made up his mind. After several years of "marriage" to William de Montacute, Joan was returned to her husband, Holland. (According to some accounts, after William learned of his "wife's" preference for her first husband, he kept her imprisoned.)

Joan spent the next eleven years with Holland, and together they had five children. Meanwhile, in 1352, at the death of her brother, Joan inherited his titles and became countess of Kent and lady Wake of Liddell in her own right.

After the death of Thomas Holland in 1360, Joan once again--and rather quickly--entered into a secret marriage. This time Joan's clandestine marriage was with Edward, prince of Wales--Froissart says that theirs was a love match, but one that had been made without the knowledge or permission of the king, and one that Philippa of Hainault, Joan's earlier protector, found objectionable.

There was after all still the sticky problem of William de Montacute--though his marriage to Joan had been put aside, he was still living, and Joan's marital history could complicate questions of the legitimacy of any children born to the royal couple. Also problematic, Joan, now countess of Kent, and her new "husband," Edward, were related within prohibited degrees. (Sources identify them as first cousins, once removed--I'll take their word for it, since the relationship is so complicated!) And one more sticky point--Edward was the godfather of Thomas and Joan's eldest son and heir--which was also a bar against their marriage.*

Once again there was recourse to Rome to "fix" the problems--so the secret marriage was annulled, a papal dispensation was arranged, and Joan of Kent was married to Edward on 10 October 1361--the archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Islip, officiated.

Joan of Kent, c. 1385
engraving of wooden sculpture
Aside from having such a complicated marital history--and for being "beautiful, pleasant, and wise"--Joan was with her husband, during his military campaign in Aquitaine, where she gave birth to two sons (the eldest, Edward, died at age six, but the younger son became King Richard II). 

When her husband was in Castile, fighting on behalf of the deposed king, Pedro II, Joan of Kent remained in Aquitaine, where she had to raise an army to protect her absent husband's interests. 

After his Spanish campaign, a gravely ill Edward returned to England, where he died on 7 June 1376. Now the dowager princess of Wales, Joan was also the mother of the heir to the English throne, her son Richard. When Edward III died on 21 June 1377, her ten-year-old son became the king.

Although Joan was not officially a regent for the minor king, she is believed to have been an ameliorating effect on him, protecting the religious reformer John Wycliff (1377), having a positive influence on Richard at the time of the Peasants' Revolt (1381), and healing a breach between her son and his uncle, John of Gaunt. When her son, now king, was planning to execute his half-brother (John Holland, one of her sons with her first husband, who was accused of murder), she interceded with one son on her other son's behalf.

For four days she implored Richard for mercy--her grief at his refusal is said to have led to her death on the fifth day, 7 August 1385. Richard relented and pardoned his brother (who was sent on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land).

At her request, Joan, countess of Kent and princess dowager of Wales, was buried not with Edward, the so-called Black Prince, in Westerminster, but beside Thomas Holland, in the chapel of the Greyfriars at Stamford.

Penny Lawne's Joan of Kent: First Princess of Wales is the first full-length biography.

*Among the marriage canons of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) were several relating to godparents, including one that prohibited the marriage of a person to his/her child's godparent. To be a godparent established a spiritual consanguinity (blood relationship)--so the marriage of a godparent to a godchild, of two godparents to one another, or, as in the case with Prince Edward and Joan, of a spiritual and natural parent, were all considered incestuous. (And the Fourth Lateran council extended consanguinity to the fourth degree, so that marriages of fourth cousins, or any nearer relatives, were prohibited--thus the couple would have needed a papal dispensation, since their relationship was much closer.)