Joan of Kent: a perfect princess?

An English noblewoman with a controversial marital history, Joan of Kent (1328–85) was an unconventional bride for a future king of England. Penny Lawne examines the life of the medieval princess…

Detail from a wooden engraving of Joan of Kent c1385. (Hulton Archive/Getty Imag

Detail from a wooden engraving of Joan of Kent c1385. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The marriage of Edward, Prince of Wales, on 10 October 1361 in the chapel at Windsor was reported by all the contemporary chroniclers, as befitted his importance as heir to the throne. The prince was 31, tall and handsome, the hero of Crécy and Poitiers; he was a gifted, successful and popular soldier and commander. Posthumously known as the Black Prince, his biographer, the Chandos Herald, tells us that Edward was renowned throughout Europe as the epitome of a chivalric knight.
His bride, described by Jean Froissart as “the most beautiful woman in all the realm of England”, wore a red dress with cloth of gold decorated with birds. Joan, Duchess of Cornwall, Countess of Chester and Countess of Kent, was the first member of the English royal family to bear the title Princess of Wales. The service was conducted by the archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Islip, in the presence of the prince’s parents – Edward III and Queen Philippa, the rest of the royal family and the most important members of the clergy and nobility. The prince was deeply in love; in 1367 he addressed his wife as “my dearest and truest sweetheart and well beloved companion”. The marriage was very successful, the couple were happy and their union blessed with two sons, Prince Edward (born 1365) and Prince Richard (the future Richard II, born 1367). Yet, despite the prince’s love for his bride, she was in many ways a surprising choice, and, it has been argued, an unsuitable one.
Heirs to the throne were expected to make a match that would bring political and diplomatic advantages to the crown. With these objectives in mind, the prince’s father (Edward III), grandfather (Edward II), and great-grandfather (Edward I) had all married foreign princesses. Arguably, there was an even greater need for Prince Edward to do likewise.
In 1340 Edward III had made a claim to the French throne, starting the lengthy conflict with France known as the Hundred Years’ War. The stunning military successes culminating in the capture of the French king at Poitiers in 1356 had brought a cessation of hostilities. The ensuing treaty of Brétigny in 1360 granted the English crown much of the disputed lands in France. Edward III had needed allies to help achieve these results, and would need them again to help him keep the fruits of the treaty. A royal marriage was an obvious and usual way to cement an important alliance. Indeed, several foreign matches had been proposed for the prince over the years, but none had come to fruition. Either the proposed alliance had lost its attraction for the king, or it was thwarted by the requirement for a papal dispensation, which the pope, favouring France, refused to give.
At 31, the prince was unmarried and free to marry the woman of his choice. His sweetheart (whom he called Jeanette) was his cousin Joan, the daughter of Edmund, Earl of Kent. Marriage to Joan would not bring any political or diplomatic advantage, nor would it enhance the prestige of the English crown in any way. In addition, Joan was a widow with four children.

Image of Joan of Kent dating from around 1380. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
However, Joan was not ineligible. She had royal blood; her father was Edward I’s youngest son. She was also extremely wealthy, having inherited her father’s estates. Although the king needed allies for his war against France, financial security for his sons evidently outweighed the alternative advantages of foreign alliances. With their father’s blessing, three of Prince Edward’s younger brothers had all married wealthy noblewomen. Following the treaty of Brétigny, Edward III planned that his heir would take over the lands held in France as the newly created principality of Aquitaine, and rule in his name without financial help from the English crown. Locally raised taxes could not be guaranteed to cover the costs. The prince’s resources would be stretched, making Joan’s wealth a significant attraction.
But if eligible by virtue of her birth and wealth, Joan’s marital history was a cause of concern. In 1340, aged 12 and under the guardianship of the king and queen, Joan had secretly married Thomas Holand, a humble household knight. A year later Joan’s widowed mother and uncle arranged her marriage to William Montague, heir to the Earl of Salisbury, a close friend of the king. A reluctant Joan was forced into a bigamous marriage. For the next eight years Holand and Montague contested their respective rights to Joan. In November 1349 the pope pronounced in favour of Thomas Holand, the deciding factor being Joan’s evidence supporting him.
Thomas Holand became one of Edward III’s most trusted commanders in France, and was created Earl of Kent shortly before he died after a short illness in December 1360. His marriage to Joan was a success, with four children born over 10 years, and Joan was almost the only noblewoman of her generation to accompany her husband as he fulfilled his military duties in France. But their secret marriage and the wrangle over Joan’s marital status had a lasting effect on her reputation. In 1399, 14 years after her death, the chronicler Adam of Usk described Joan as a mother “given to slippery ways – to say nothing of many other things I have heard”. With this marital history, Joan could hardly be regarded as an ideal choice for the heir to the throne. Especially as in 1361 William Montague was still very much alive (albeit married to someone else). Jean Froissart suggested that the marriage did not have royal approval, and even the archbishop of Canterbury expressed his reservations to the prince.
However, far from disapproving of the match, Edward III went to extraordinary lengths to secure his heir’s marriage. The king and his son were well aware that Joan’s marital history could cause problems, particularly for the succession. Avoidance of this depended on ensuring the legal validity of the royal marriage. A papal dispensation was required. After the prince initially petitioned the pope without success, the king effectively blackmailed him by claiming that the prince was already secretly married to Joan. Rather than offend the English crown by refusing, Innocent VI agreed to the request. He issued a comprehensive bull that reaffirmed the validity of the original Holand marriage, provided dispensation for the prince’s marriage, and confirmed the legitimacy of any offspring of the royal marriage. Mindful that a new pope might overturn his predecessor’s decision, a further confirmatory dispensation was obtained from Innocent VI’s successor, Urban V.  In gratitude the prince donated rather more to the church than the papal dispensation required, endowing Canterbury Cathedral handsomely.
With such effort expended on legitimising the marriage, what was expected of the new Princess of Wales? Joan would of course be expected to provide the prince with an heir, but in addition, how she behaved and was regarded by her peers would be crucial. Any stigma that attached to her would reflect on her husband, and on the crown. Worse, it might instigate a challenge to the royal marriage that the king had gone to such lengths to validate.
Joan more than justified the efforts made to ensure she was the prince’s legal spouse. Her behaviour as Princess of Wales was exemplary. After their marriage the prince set up court in Aquitaine, with Joan at his side. Contemporary accounts describe Joan as a loving and faithful wife and within six years she had given birth to two sons.
In 1367 the prince fought his last major campaign in Spain, leaving his wife to preside over their court. Although victorious at the battle of Nájera, the prince returned with a serious illness from which he never recovered. After the tragic early death of their eldest son, Prince Edward, the couple returned to England in 1371. The prince’s poor health forced him to rely on his wife to represent him, and her role became more public. Joan resolutely kept out of politics but built up close and harmonious relationships with the prince’s family, especially her powerful brother-in-law John of Gaunt, and with many of the most powerful nobles. Despite their marital debacle, William Montague remained a close friend.
As it became clear that the prince was unlikely to survive his father, with Edward III also in failing health, the likelihood was that Joan’s son Richard would succeed as a minor. The prince died in 1376, when Richard was nine. Joan’s devotion to the prince and her discreet conduct as his wife had won her respect and trust, and there was no suggestion that Richard should be removed from her care.

Joan’s son, King Richard II. Portrait by an unknown artist, 1390. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Prince Richard, aged 10, succeeded his grandfather as king in July 1377. Only twice before had a minor succeeded to the throne. Joan was the highest ranked woman at court, and with the king in her charge was in a position of considerable power and influence. Her reputation, and her cordial relationship with Richard’s uncles, especially John of Gaunt, had helped ensure a smooth succession. Joan continued to be circumspect in her behaviour; she made no attempt to use her authority to direct events or to take a prominent role, nor did she take advantage of her position to benefit herself or anyone closely connected to her, even her two Holand sons. Supporting and protecting Richard became her priority; she ensured that his household was made up of his father’s loyal retainers and she fostered family unity between Richard, his uncles, and her Holand children. Difficulties for Richard, in particular with John of Gaunt, were resolved by Joan’s skilful advocacy and mediatory skills.
In 1381 Richard’s personal safety was seriously threatened in the violent unrest known as the Peasants’ Revolt. In London, he became trapped in the Tower. Joan was in Canterbury, on her annual pilgrimage to the Black Prince’s tomb. As soon as she heard of the disturbances in London, she made her way back to join Richard. Her popularity saved her from harm when she was accosted twice by groups of rebels. She made no attempt to intervene personally, simply providing Richard with the support of her presence. Richard’s effective handling of the crisis showed Joan that he no longer needed her to protect him. After arranging his marriage to Anne of Bohemia in 1382 she quietly retired from court to Wallingford Castle. Yet, when she heard of the serious row between Richard and his half-brother John Holand in July 1385, Joan immediately attempted to intervene. Her death in August 1385 was attributed by the chronicler Walsingham to her broken heart at failing to reconcile the two.

The Black Prince’s tomb in Canterbury Cathedral, to which Joan made an annual pilgrimage. (RDImages/Epics/Getty)
Joan was Princess of Wales for 24 years, and one of the most important and influential women of her age. If her reputation was dubious when she married the prince, it was almost beyond reproach when she died, loved and respected, mourned by many outside her immediate family and friends.
Joan’s personality was a substantial contributory factor to her success as Princess of Wales. As a child she had shown independence and courage in choosing to marry and stay with Thomas Holand. As an adult she showed that she was gentle, warm and loving – a natural peacemaker with an innate ability to get on well with people.
The Chandos Herald summed up her contemporary reputation with his description of her as beautiful, pleasant and wise. His description has proved remarkably enduring, and it is by her posthumously bestowed sobriquet of the ‘Fair Maid of Kent’ that Joan is best known. As Princess of Wales, Joan set a standard of behaviour for others to admire and emulate. She was, in many ways, the perfect princess.
Penny Lawne is author of Joan of Kent: The First Princess of Wales(Amberley, 2015).
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