Friday, August 5, 2011

Joan of Kent: The First Princess of Wales

Joan of Kent,
Countess of Kent and Lady Wake of Liddell
Countess of Salisbury,
Princess of Wales
(Modern portrait by Stephen Warde Anderson)

"The most beautiful woman in all England, and the most loving.”
-Jean Froissart, Medieval Chronicler


In modern times, the British courtesy title Princess of Wales has become synonymous to style, beauty and charm. The most well-known bearer of this title was the late Lady Diana Spencer, and she was the epitome of that title. There were over forty kings who occupied the British throne since William of Normandy conquered England in 1066, but the women who held the title Princess of Wales - a title reserved only for the wife of the heir to the throne - were only ten. Eight of them eventually became Queens Consort, but the remaining two were never crowned because they were predeceased by their husbands.

Joan of Kent was one of those two who never became Queen, and she was the first woman to become Princess of Wales. She was the consort of Edward, Prince of Wales or known famously as "The Black Prince", son of King Edward III. Joan was known in history as "The Fair Maid of Kent", a nickname that later historians ascribed because of her immense beauty. She was of royal blood, a Plantagenet, through her father, and because of her royal descent and beauty, she was a much sought-after bride. She was born around 1328, the third child of Edmund of Woodstock, Earl of Kent (a son of King Edward I) and Lady Margaret Wake of Liddell.

During Joan's lifetime, three important historic events occurred: the Hundred Years' War, the Black Death, and the Peasants' Revolt. The backdrop of her story was the Hundred Years' War, the age when the Plantagenet monarchs of England claimed the throne of France and made many attempts to secure it. The Black Death reduced the able-bodied people of England, thus causing labor shortage. And finally, the Peasants' Revolt, a consequence of the Black Death.

When Joan was two years-old, tragedy struck her family. King Edward II was murdered at the instigation of his wife, Queen Isabella. Joan's father, a younger brother and a supporter of the king, began investigating the circumstances of his murder. This greatly infuriated Queen Isabella, and arranged to have Edmund charged with treason. Soldiers seized Arundel Castle and held Edmund's wife and children prisoner. Edmund was later executed, leaving a total of three children to his wife.

When the new king, Edward III became aware of the injustice done to his uncle, he banished his mother Queen Isabella to Anglia. The new queen, the virtuous Philippa of Hainault, set out to make amends, and arranged for the Kent Family to be brought to court so that the Joan and her siblings could be raised with their royal cousins. Joan was given a governess, Catherine Montague, Countess of Salisbury. The Countess and her husband the Earl were a very enterprising couple, and raised an ambition to wed Joan to their son and heir William. However, Joan had other ideas. At the age of twelve, she had fallen in love with Thomas Holland, a steward in the Salisbury household and a man eight years her senior. They contracted a secret marriage, without royal consent. The following year, Thomas Holland went overseas to fight in one of the many campaigns of Hundred Years' War. With Thomas absent, the Saliburys forced Joan to marry William. Joan later claimed she was afraid that disclosing her previous marriage would lead to Thomas's execution for treason on his return, and so did not disclose it. She may also have become convinced that the earlier marriage was invalid.

When Thomas returned from France he could do little to reclaim his wife, and he soon went off again serving with Edward, the Black Prince. Meanwhile, back at court, Joan was now Countess of Salisbury, since her father-in-law had died in 1347. She was a great favorite of Edward III and Queen Philippa. But Thomas Holland had not forgotten Joan. Now wealthy and influential, he appealed to the Pope to arrange Joan's divorce from Salisbury. The Pope decided in favor of Sir Thomas's claim and Joan was returned to him. She had no children by her previous marriage to Salisbury, but with Holland she soon became a mother of five.

Her cousin the Black Prince stood as godfather to her two children, and gave his cousin "Jeanette" a silver cup. By 1353, Joan became the Countess of Kent after the death of her brother. She inherited a substantial property, but her happy marriage with Sir Thomas ended in his death in December 1360.

Joan, now thirty-two years old, was a very sought-after prize. Suitors flocked around the beautiful and wealthy widow, but she was uninterested. By this time, she had her eyes only to her cousin, Prince Edward, to whom she shared a strong attachment ever since they were children. When Edward knew that she was in love with 'somebody', he entreated her to identify the object of her affection. Joan then revealed that she was in love with him, and Edward, who had been in love with her for quite a long time, asked his parents' consent for marriage. Although the King and Queen liked Joan, they were not pleased with Edward's choice. Queen Philippa was especially concerned about Joan's reputation and her flighty disposition. But Edward was adamant that if he was to marry, he would only marry Joan, his true love. Finally, the King and Queen acquiesced, a papal dispensation was sent (because of consanguinity), and Edward and Joan were married on October 10, 1361 at Windsor Castle.

The Black Prince owned several residences but Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire was his favorite. There the newly-weds went to stay, but not to long. The Prince was anxious to return to France to secure more territory. In February 1362, Edward and Joan sailed for France accompanied by her children. They set up their home in Bordeaux, and two years later Joan gave birth to a son they named Edward. The Black Prince was delighted. Another son was added in family on January 1367 and they named him Richard. Once assured that Joan had recovered, the Prince set out for the south, to check an advance over the Pyrenees by a Spanish army.

Edward and Joan appeared to be a very loving couple. Before Edward left for the south, the couple "very sweetly embraced and take farewell with kisses." And on his return, they went on an informal walkabout: "The Princess came to meet him, bringing with her her first born son...very sweetly they embraced when they met together. The gentle prince kissed his wife and son. They went to their lodging on foot, holding each other by the hand."

Upon his return to Bordeaux, the Prince was far from well. His health grew steadily worse after the death of the little six year-old prince Edward. The parents were grief-stricken with the loss, and decided to sail back to England. As he became increasingly ill, the Prince fretted over the succession, suspicious that his brother John of Gaunt would claim the throne on the death of the King. Edward feared that his son Richard might be set aside by John of Gaunt. Meanwhile, Joan did not involve herself in politics, but she showed no small skill when the future of her son might be in jeopardy.

Edward the Black Prince died in June 1376, when Richard was only nine years-old. One year later, King Edward III died, and Richard became King of England. Early in his reign, the young King faced the challenge of the Peasants' Revolt. The Lollards, religious reformers led by John Wyclif, had enjoyed the protection of Joan, but the violent climax of the popular movement for reform reduced the feisty Joan to a state of terror, while leaving the King with an improved reputation. As the power behind the throne, the now Dowager Princess of Wales was well-loved for her influence over the young king, She maintained a cordial relationship with her brother-in-law John of Gaunt for the sake of her son, and was supportive of her new daughter-in-law, Richard's wife, Anne of Bohemia.

Joan then retired to Wallingford, but she did not remain uninvolved. Richard was a peaceloving, artistic youth, clearly lacking the warlike qualities necessary in a successful 14th century monarch. These were present in John of Gaunt, and Joan felt compelled to continue as peacemaker between the young King and his grasping uncle. At the end of her life, Joan was disturbed by a quarrel between her two sons, Richard II and his half-brother John Holland. This eventually lead to a reconciliation between the two, thanks to the effort of their mother. But the strain proved too much for the Dowager Princess of Wales, now fragile at the age of fifty-seven, and died in August 1385 in her castle at Wallingford. According to her will, she was buried not near the Black Prince, but beside her first husband, Sir Thomas Holland, Earl of Kent, at Church of the Grey Friars at Stamford.

Joan of Kent, the first Princess of Wales, was a strong character who exercised considerable influence in the years after the Black Prince died. She was a Plantagenet and an heiress, and through her children by Thomas Holland, the ancestress of many English aristocratic families.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dear Gem,
Thank you so much for this great post. I really enjoyed the reading. It is very informative. It is nice to know more about the future title of the Duchess of Cambridge.
It has been a few months since I am reading your blog on a regular basis, and it is always a treat.
Congratulations for your wonderful choice of illustrations as well, they add beauty to your posts.
Regards
Lili

Gem said...

Dear Lili
Thank you for your comment. I'm glad you found my post informative. And thank you for reading the posts in this blog. I greatly appreciate it. :)

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