The Fascinating Marital Exploits of Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent (2024)

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Joan of Kent was the daughter of Edmund of Woodstock, Earl of Kent and brother of Edward II. Edmund was a younger son of Edward I by his second wife, Margaret of France; he married Margaret Wake in 1325.

Joan was the third of four children, and was born on 28/9th September 1328 at Woodstock. When she was just 18 months old, Joan’s father was beheaded for treason on the orders of the Regent, Roger Mortimer and his lover, Queen Isabella; after becoming convinced that his brother, Edward II, was still alive Edmund had become involved in a plot to free the erstwhile king.

Joan’s mother, Margaret Wake, was held under house arrest at Arundel Castle, along with all four of her children; Joan’s baby brother, John, was born a month after their father’s execution. Just a few months later, Edward III escaped Mortimer’s control and assumed power; he took over responsibility for the family and Joan, a favourite of Edward’s queen, Philippa of Hainault, was raised at court.

The leading beauty of her day, Joan had little to offer a potential suitor, beyond her looks and keen intelligence. She had grown up in the same household as Edward III’s oldest children; his son and heir, Edward and his daughters Isabella and Joan.

Sometime around the age of 11 it seems Joan secretly married, or promised to marry, Thomas Holland. However, shortly afterwards Holland left on Crusade to Prussia and during his absence, Joan was married to William Montague, the Earl of Salisbury in 1340/41.

When he returned Thomas Holland became the steward to the Earl of Salisbury and found himself in the dubious position of working for the man who was married to his ‘wife’. In May 1348 Holland petitioned the pope, stating that Joan had been forced into her marriage with Salisbury. He went on to say that Joan had previously agreed to marry him and that their relationship had been consummated. He claimed her as his own wife, and Joan backed up his story.

It took 18 months for Joan’s marital status to be resolved, and for some of that time Salisbury kept Joan a prisoner; he was ordered to release her in order that she could give evidence at the inquisition looking into her marriage status.

In the mean time, England itself was in the grips of the Black Death, the bubonic plague. In order to lift the country’s spirits the king, Edward III, had arranged a grand tournament at Windsor, on St George’s Day, 23rd April 1349. The knights in contention were founding members of the Order of the Garter; England’s greatest chivalric order, consisting of the king and 25 knights, it was probably founded in 1348, though the date is uncertain.

Joan herself is a part of the legend of the foundation of the Order of the Garter. She is said to be the lady who lost her garter during a ball celebrating the fall of Calais. Edward III is said to have returned the item to the 20-year-old damsel with the words “honi soit qui mal y pense” (evil to him who evil thinks).

Although the story is probably apocryphal, Joan’s connection with the inaugural tournament is all too true; she brought an added bit of spice to the St George’s Day tournament of 1349. Her current husband, the Earl of Salisbury, fought on the king’s team, while Sir Thomas Holland was on the side of Prince Edward. Joan’s two husbands faced each other across the tournament field, with the object of their affection watching from the stands.

Although I couldn’t find the results of the tournament, Joan’s marital status was decided by Papal Bull on 13th November 1349, when the pope ordered her to divorce Salisbury and return to Holland. Which she did. I suppose we will never know if Joan had married Holland at the age of 11, or if they had an affair that only started after Holland moved into Salisbury’s household, and the claim of a pre-contract was a clever ploy to get Joan out of an unhappy marriage.

It is easy for the cynic of the 21st century to nod their head sagely and say ‘good plan’. However, Joan and Thomas Holland were risking their eternal souls if they lied to a church court; such an oath was not to be undertaken lightly. It may be the romantic in me, but I cannot help but believe that Joan and Thomas were telling the truth about their promises to each other.

Joan succeeded her brother, John, as Baroness Wake of Liddell and Countess of Kent in December 1352 and was confirmed in her new titles in February 1353. Sir Thomas Holland, therefore, became Earl of Kent by right of his wife.

Joan and Sir Thomas Holland had five children together; three sons and two daughters. Edmund was born in 1352 and died young. Thomas, Earl of Kent, married Alice, the daughter of Richard FitzAlan, 10th Earl of Arundel; he died in 1397. Their third son, John, was created Duke of Exeter in 1397 by his younger brother, King Richard II. He married Elizabeth of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt and Blancheof Lancaster, but was executed in 1400 for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Henry IV and return his brother to the throne.

Of their daughters, Joan married John V, Duke of Brittany (who would marry Joanna of Navarre as his second wife, the future queen-consort of Henry IV), but died in 1384. Their youngest child, Matilda, was born in 1359 and married twice; first to Sir Hugh de Courtenay, who died in 1377, and then Waleran of Luxembourg, Count of St Pol and Ligny. Matilda died in 1391.

At the end of 1360 Sir Thomas Holland, a veteran soldier who had fought in the Crecy campaign, died and Joan was left a widow.

Edward Prince of Wales – the Black Prince – may have offered comfort to the Lady Joan, his friend from childhood. Although a widow with five children, and bringing no beneficial foreign alliance to the marriage table, Joan and Edward appear to have fallen in love. It was not the political match his father had wanted for the heir to the throne, but all attempts at a marriage alliance with a princess from the Low Countries had come to nought; and it seems the king was quite happy to accept his son’s choice of wife.

It must have caused quite a scandal at the time. Although a reputed beauty, Joan’s bigamous marriage to William Montague was well-known – and he was still alive. She had five children by her first husband, Thomas Holland. Moreover, she was 33 years of age, two years older than her prince. She hardly appeared ‘queen’ material.

However, according to the Chandos Herald Joan was “a lady of great worth…. very beautiful, pleasing and wise”. Edward III sent one of his own people to the pope to ask permission for the marriage, which was swiftly granted.

With great ceremony Edward and Joan were married at Windsor on 10th October 1361, by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Shortly after the wedding, the couple moved to Berkhamsted, where the king visited them after Christmas.

In 1363 they moved their entire household to Bordeaux, after the prince was given the Duchy of Aquitaine by his father. Their court there was lavish, exceeding the king’s own in brilliance.

In 1365 their first child was born; a son, Edward of Angoulême. His brother, Richard of Bordeaux, followed on 6th January 1367.

The chronicler, Froissart, tells the story:

In due course Joan, the princess, went into labour and by God’s grace was delivered of her child. It was a fine son, Richard of Bordeaux, born at Epiphany, 6 January , which that year fell on a Wednesday.

The child came into the world early in the morning to the great joy of the prince and the whole household, and was baptised the following Friday in the early afternoon on the holy font of St Andrew’s Church in the city of Bordeaux. The child was named Richard and he afterwards became King of England.”

Richard’s baptism was attended by three kings; Pedro of Castile, James IV of Majorca and Richard of Armenia. William Thorne, the Canterbury Chronicler, described them as the three ‘magi’ (or wise men), as Richard had been born on Epiphany, Twelfth Night; an auspicious sign for a bright future.

The Black Prince wrote fondly to his wife whilst campaigning in Spain: “Be assured, dearest companion, that we, our brother of Lancaster and all the great men of our army are, thank God, in good form.”

Froissart wrote of the Black Prince’s return from Spain, and his arrival in Bordeaux; “Where he was received with great celebrations. Princess Joan came to meet him and had Edward, her eldest son, carried with her; he was then about three years old.”

The Spanish campaign was aimed at supporting Pedro of Castile’s claim to the throne against that of his illegitimate half-brother, Henry of Trastamara. Although the Black Prince managed to re-establish Pedro’s rule, the Castilian king could not pay the English army and Edward, already with a reputation for heavy-handedness in Aquitaine, taxed the duchy in order to raise funds.

Sometime in late 1370 or early 1371 the young family suffered a heartbreaking tragedy. Little Edward of Angoulême died of bubonic plague. He was buried in Bordeaux, his funeral arranged by John of Gaunt and attended by all the great lords of Gascony.

Shortly afterwards, the remaining family returned to England, as reported by the chronicler Walsingham:

“When he had done this, Prince Edward hurried to return to England, as much because of the infirmities which troubled him, as because of lack of money. Therefore, at the beginning of January [1371], with his wife and small son Richard, and with his household following behind, he reached Plymouth.”

The Black Prince’s health had been destroyed by a lifetime of campaigning. He returned to England a virtual invalid and died in 1376. Left a widow for a second time, Joan still had custody of her young son and was in charge of Richard’s education until his accession to the throne.

Edward III died in 1377, leaving the throne to 10-year-old Richard of Bordeaux. In his will he gave to Joan, Princess of Wales, a thousand marks and the free restitution of jewels she had pledged to him.

Despite her marital history, and a reputation for extravagance – she was said to have spent £200 on a set of jewelled buttons – Joan was loved by the English people. It was with her that John of Gaunt sought refuge following the sacking of his Savoy Palace in 1376, when the people were discontented with his rule.

Joan was seen as a calming influence of her son, Richard II, and was by his side during the dangerous days of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381; she sheltered in the Tower of London and rode in a whirligig to accompany her 13-year-old son to meet with the rebels at Mile End.

In 1385 Joan’s son, John Holland, while campaigning in Scotland, killed Ralph Stafford, son of the second Earl of Stafford, in a quarrel. He fled to sanctuary at the shrine of St John of Beverley, but was condemned to death. Joan pleaded with Richard for days, begging him to pardon his half-brother. She died at Wallingford Castle, probably on 7 August 1385. The King pardoned his half-brother the following day.

Although the Black Prince had built a chantry chapel for his wife, at Canterbury Cathedral, with ceiling bosses of her face, Joan was not buried at Canterbury with the Black Prince, but at the Greyfriars at Stamford in Lincolnshire, beside her first husband, Sir Thomas Holland.

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Pictures taken from Wikipedia.

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Sources: The Perfect King, the Life of Edward III by Ian Mortimer; The Life and Time of Edward III by Paul Johnson; The Reign of Edward III by WM Ormrod; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; Britain’s’ Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; The Plantagenets, the Kings Who Made Britain by Dan Jones; englishmonarchs.co.uk; The Oxford Companion to British History edited by John Cannon; Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; The Black Prince by Michael Jones.

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©Sharon Bennett Connolly 2015 FRHistS

The Fascinating Marital Exploits of Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent (2024)

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