WHY DO we neglect the royal families of the 13th and 14th centuries, while raking so endlessly over their Yorkist and Tudor successors? Edward III, Queen Philippa, the Black Prince, and John of Gaunt inspire few studies and fewer TV programmes, and yet their lives were just as varied and dramatic. Not least in this respect was Joan of Kent.
She was born in about 1328, a granddaughter of Edward I. An orphan whose father was beheaded for treason, she inherited his earldom of Kent after the deaths of her siblings. Rated as exceptionally beautiful, she was both amorous and adventurous.
Secretly wedding a young knight, Thomas Holand, in her early teens, she was then made by her family to marry another adolescent nobleman, William Montague. Later, in 1347, Holand, now grown up and influential, reclaimed her and got the Montague marriage annulled. The affair provoked much comment, but Joan and Thomas lived contentedly thereafter and had four children.
Thomas died in 1360, and Joan soon made a second clandestine marriage, this time to the Black Prince himself. He was 30 and had never married; she was two or three years older. The marriage vexed Edward III, who had other plans for the prince, and caused further scandal. Joan’s nickname of “the fair maid of Kent” may have begun as an ironic comment on her sexual history. But again the union worked and bore two sons. Joan became an influential princess of Wales and, for a time, princess of Aquitaine.
Further dramas were to follow. The Black Prince died in 1376, and Edward III in the following year. Joan became effectively queen dowager to her second son, Richard II, and a leading figure in the early years of his reign. She was caught up in the Peasants’ Revolt, and had a frightening experience when they invaded London in 1381.
Thereafter, she was a moderating force between the increasingly wilful Richard and his nobility, until her death in 1385. Intriguingly, she chose to be buried in Stamford with her noble husband, not in Canterbury Cathedral with her royal one.
Joan’s life as a princess inevitably had a religious dimension. She was a devotee of St Alban and his abbey, and a substantial benefactor of the Franciscans. Most notably, she patronised the reformer John Wycliffe, intervening to save him from prosecution by the bishops in 1377. It is unlikely that she approved of his later more radical views, but several of her household knights became his convinced adherents — the Lollard knights as they are now known — and helped to establish his cause as a lasting one.
Anthony Goodman, the author of this study, was a leading historian of the later Middle Ages, who wrote on the Wars of the Roses, John of Gaunt, and Margery Kempe. He had the genius to write originally and accessibly, clearly explaining the context of his stories and analysing their significance. His life of Joan, which he finished just before he died, is both a worthy account of her and a fitting coda to his own career.
Dr Nicholas Orme is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Exeter.
Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent: A fourteenth-century princess and her world
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