Joan of Kent (1328–1385)

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Joan of Kent (1328–1385)

English noblewoman, famous for her beauty, who married Edward, prince of Wales (the Black Prince), was the mother of Richard II, king of England, and left her own her mark on history. Name variations: Princess of Wales; Fair Maid of Kent; Joan, countess of Kent; Joan Plantagenet. Born on September 28, 1328; died on August 7 (or August 14) 1385, of dropsy(?) at Wallingford Castle, Oxfordshire, England; buried in Stamford, Lincolnshire, England; daughter of Edmund of Woodstock (1307–1330), 1st earl of Kent, and Margaret Wake of Liddell (c. 1299–1349); married Sir Thomas Holland, 1st earl of Kent, around 1346 (died, December 28, 1360); married William de Montacute, 2nd earl of Salisbury, around 1348 (annulled by pope Clement VI on November 13, 1349); married Edward, prince of Wales (known as the Black Prince), on October 6, 1361 (died, June 8, 1376); children (first marriage) five, including Thomas Holland, 2nd earl of Kent (1350–1397); John, duke of Exeter (1352?–1400); Matilda Holland (c. 1359–1391, who married Hugh Courtenay); Joan Holland (who married John IV, duke of Brittany); (third marriage) Edward (1365–1372, died of the plague at age seven); Richard II (1367–1400), king of England (r. 1377–1399).

Father beheaded (1330) when she was two years old; married Thomas Holland and then contracted to earl of Salisbury; restored to Holland (1349); became countess of Kent (1352); left England for Normandy with Holland (1358); married Edward, prince of Wales (1361), following Holland's death; lived in Aquitaine where another two sons were born (1362–71); following death of husband (1376), her son Richard became heir to the throne of England and succeeded his grandfather (1377); guided her son and played a significant role in English politics until her death (1385).

As the Kentish rebels gathered for the attack on London in June 1381, Princess Joan, returning from a pilgrimage to Canterbury, found herself surrounded. She had become countess of Kent following her father's death some 20 years before and now, as mother of the young King Richard II, might provide either a useful hostage or a symbolic victim for the desperate peasants. However, though she was certainly aware that her life was in the gravest danger, Joan, showing great courage and presence of mind, managed to persuade the rebels to set her free. She then rushed straight to London to be at her son's side throughout the violent and bloody days which were to follow.

The life of Joan of Kent was marked by frequent, sudden change and was full of adventure. Born in 1328, the third child and second daughter of Edmund of Woodstock, earl of Kent, and Margaret Wake of Liddell , she was of royal blood, as her father was the sixth son of Edward I Longshanks. However, Joan was only two years old when the earl was executed for treason. Once her cousin, Edward III, took control of the kingdom, Joan was welcomed into the court and was made the special protégé of the queen, Philippa of Hainault (1314–1369). By her early teens, Joan had become a strikingly attractive woman: to the French author of the Chronique des Quatre Premiers Valois, she was "one of the loveliest women in the world." The chronicler Froissart, who came to England in the retinue of Philippa, was overwhelmed by the girl's beauty; it was he who described her as "the most beautiful woman in the whole realm of England and the most amorous." It is difficult to be certain what Froissart meant by the French word amoureuse; the word may simply be a synonym for charming, but whether or not young Joan fell in and out of love or welcomed the attentions of the many young knights at Edward's court, she certainly inspired devotion and even rivalry. She must have been admired for more than her pleasing appearance, for another court observer called her "a lady of great worth, beautiful, pleasant and wise."

The English court at Westminster in the mid-14th century was cultured and refined; in 1348, Edward founded the Order of the Garter, in conscious emulation of King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table. The French conceit of courtly love had crossed the channel and become the fashionable mode of behavior; ladies were the objects of knightly devotion, and love was as important at the court as courage was on the battlefield. However, Joan inspired more than merely conventional admiration. Perhaps when she was as young as 11, but more likely when she was 15 or 16 years old, she was the subject of a dispute between two prospective husbands, William de Montacute, earl of Salisbury, and his steward of the household, Sir Thomas Holland. Holland seems to have been Joan's own choice; they had made a verbal marriage contract and probably lived together for a short time before he was called away to the war in France. In his absence, the earl of Salisbury seized his chance to enter into a contract of marriage with Joan. Once Holland returned, he appealed to the pope to have Joan restored to him; he won his case, and the return of his wife, in November 1349.

In 1352, Joan inherited the title of countess of Kent in her own right, following the deaths of her two brothers and her older sister Margaret of Kent , becoming a very wealthy woman as a result, and in 1358 she left England for Normandy where her husband had been appointed governor of the English fort of Creyk. Two years later, Holland died, leaving Joan with five young children. The pattern of her life changed significantly once again within a few months of her husband's death when she agreed to marry the king's eldest son, Edward, prince of Wales, known as the Black Prince (so-called because of the color of his favorite armor). Joan, now aged 33, was two years older than Edward, who was Europe's most eligible bachelor. Rumor has it that the prince had worshipped Joan since they had played as children together and that he had refused to marry anyone else. A French account of their courtship, which compensates in charm for what it lacks in reliability, has Edward acting as the intermediary for another noble who was eager to marry Joan. She, so the story goes, would have nothing to do with the proposition and only when repeatedly pressed did she admit that she was already in love with someone else. Since marriage to her beloved was impossible, Joan told Edward that she had resolved never to marry. The object of her affection was, of course, ultimately revealed to be the prince of Wales himself.

The match was not made without some difficulty; the king's permission was sought only after the event and, once given, a Papal dispensation had to be obtained, since the two were related and Edward had served as godfather to Joan's sons. The wedding was celebrated in October 1361, and, after spending a few months in England, the couple left for Aquitaine. Recognizing his need for independence now that he was married, King Edward conferred this fertile region of western France upon his eldest son and, as a contemporary observed, "the very noble Prince took his wife with him, for that he loved her greatly." Joan was to remain in Aquitaine for nine years.

Jean Froissart">

In her time she was the most beautiful woman in all the realm of England and the most amorous.

Jean Froissart

The prince was a better soldier than administrator; his harsh and unbending rule of the region lead to resentment and revolts, and his love of the battlefield meant that he was frequently away from his capital at Bordeaux, campaigning in French territory and in parts of Spain, leaving Joan alone. Two more sons were born during this period, Edward in 1365 and Richard in 1367, and it was during 1367 that Joan found herself in danger at Bordeaux. With the prince campaigning actively for Peter the Cruel, one of the rival claimants to the throne of Castile, the other contender, Henry II Trastamara (known as the Bastard), assembled his forces for an attack upon Aquitaine. Having received word that Henry was using French territory to assemble his army, Joan sent a series of letters and messages to the king of France "desiring him not to consent that the bastard of Spain should make her any manner of war, saying that her resort was to the court of France, certifying to him that much evil might ensue and many inconveniences fall thereby." The French king was persuaded by Joan's arguments, and Henry, who had already begun his attack, was instructed to withdraw from Aquitaine and leave France.

The embattled period in Aquitaine, for all its dangers, and despite her husband's frequent absences, was probably a happy and fulfilling time for Joan. Joan and Edward continued to be deeply in love, indeed their marriage helped to create a new courtly and literary emphasis on the possibility of love existing within marriage; earlier fashion had regarded marriage among the nobility as a practical necessity, undertaken for reasons which were primarily political and economic, with love confined to extra-marital liaisons. There is ample contemporary evidence of their affection; Edward, in a letter written to Joan in the spring of 1367, after the Battle of Najera, calls her "My dearest and truest sweetheart and beloved companion" and hastens to assure her that he and his companions have secured a victory and survived the encounter unscathed.

Joan was, no doubt, in need of reassurance, for what might well have been an eyewitness account, written by the French herald of Sir John Chandos, describes her grief at the prince's departure in January 1367, a week after the birth of their son Richard:

Alas! What should I do, God and Love, if I were to lose the very flower of nobleness … him who has no peer in the world in valour? Death! thou wouldst be at hand. Now I have neither heart nor blood nor vein, but every member fails me when I call to mind his departure; for all the world says this, that never did any man adventure himself on so perilous an expedition.

The prince was gentle and reassuring in his response: "Lady, we shall meet again in such wise that we shall have joy, we and all our friends, for my heart tells me so."

Once established in Aquitaine, Joan would probably not have often pined for home. England's political interests were so firmly focused on the Continent that their courts at Bordeaux and Angoulême were constantly receiving visitors from home, and the court culture which Joan and Edward developed in Aquitaine was not inferior to that of Westminster; indeed Froissart, who must often have visited the area himself, observed that "the state of the Prince and Princess was so great that in all Christendom was none like." The account of the Chandos Herald is even more impressive:

[S]ince the birth of God such fair state was never kept as his, nor more honourable, for ever he had at his table more than fourscore knights and full four times as many squires. There were held jousts and feasts in Angoulême and Bordeaux.

Also, the prince's frequent campaigns gave Joan the opportunity to play a role which extended beyond the courtly and domestic spheres to which most medieval women of her class were confined. She was astute and courageous, and life in Aquitaine gave her the chance to demonstrate these qualities. We can only speculate on what kind of a queen of England she would have made, for although her father-in-law was aging rapidly, her husband was never to become king.

Joan's life began another of its many turns when the Black Prince became ill during the summer of 1367. After some brilliant victories, he had been ultimately unsuccessful in his efforts in Castile, and, largely because of the burdensome taxes he imposed, the prince had made himself highly unpopular in Aquitaine. One chronicler suggests that the illness was the result of poisoning. Whatever its cause, all accounts concur that from that time until the day of his death, the prince never again enjoyed good health. The spirits of both parents were further crushed by the death of the prince's favorite elder son, Edward, in 1370, at the age of seven years. In January 1371, the family returned to England. The citizens of London welcomed the prince and princess on April 19 and presented them with a magnificent gift of gold plate to celebrate their return; Joan wrote personally to thank the citizens for their generosity and, as will be seen, she was to call upon their friendship and support in later, more troubled times. However, the return home did nothing to improve the prince's health; he was able to manage one more campaign with his father in the summer of 1372, but, on June 8, 1376, he died at the age of 46. In a truly touching passage, the Chandos Herald describes the prince calling his family and all his men to his bedside and requesting that his father the king, his brother the duke of Lancaster, and his men swear to protect his wife and son:

[T]he lovely and noble Princess felt such grief at heart that her heart was nigh breaking. Of lamentation and sighing, of crying aloud and sorrowing, there was so great a noise that there was no man living in the world, if he had beheld the grief, but would have had pity at heart.

Less than a year later, the prince's father, King Edward III, died, and Joan's life was to change for the last, and perhaps the most significant time.

Her son Richard had been created prince of Wales four months after the death of the Black Prince, at the age of 9. Joan appears to have had sole charge of her son and was given some early indication of her new powers, even before the death of the old king. In February 1377, while the princess and Richard were staying at the royal manor of Kennington, just outside London, Joan's brother-in-law, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, had provoked the animosity of the citizens of London and, together with Lord Henry Percy, had been forced to flee from the infuriated citizens by taking a boat down the Thames River. They sought refuge at Kennington where Joan received them. She subsequently sent three of her knights to entreat the Londoners, "out of their love for her," to agree to make peace with the duke and to restore order. They responded, the chronicler reports, respectfully (reverentia), and agreed to a settlement, provided the duke accepted certain conditions.

A governing council was set up to administer England during Richard's minority. One modern historian, R.H. Jones, has suggested that Joan "lacked the experience and disposition to have been named as regent" but close examination of her life and her demonstrated abilities does not support this view. Rather, given the extreme political tensions and rivalries of the period, the setting up of a council to prevent any one individual or clique from gaining permanent control of policy, seems the obvious solution. Joan's interests were well represented by the appointment of several of her loyal supporters to the council, and Joan herself remained at the center of the court, close to her son in both physical proximity and affection.

Two very different incidents which occurred in 1378, the first full year of the new reign, indicate Joan's powerful position: she was inducted into the Order of the Garter, and she succeeded in stopping heresy proceedings against the reformist preacher John Wycliffe. The question of Joan's religious views is the subject of some speculation. There was certainly sympathy among many at Richard's court, including John of Gaunt, for Wycliffe's criticisms of the Catholic Church, and in particular for his anti-papal theories. A Papal Bull of 1377, instructing the archbishop of Canterbury to warn the king against Wycliffe's heresies, mentioned Joan by name and included several of her household knights in the list of Wycliffe's followers. These same knights were included as executors of Joan's will, but their presence is counterbalanced by two archbishops and by Joan's firm affirmation in the document of her devotion to the Catholic faith.

However, the most dramatic events of Joan's event-filled life were yet to occur. The Peasants' Revolt of June 1381 challenged the way in which the governing classes saw the world; their Godordained, time-honored position was being violently threatened, and they could neither explain nor control the chaos which ensued. The events, which involved peasants from all over southern, northern, and eastern England, centered upon the attack of the rebels from Kent and Essex upon the city of London and, reflecting the stunned, horrified reaction of the ruling classes, the chronicles of the period describe the events minutely, almost in the equivalent of frame-byframe slow motion, in order that the reader should miss none of the bloody turmoil of the time. Joan, as might be expected, appears in the central focus of all the accounts, though the incidents happened so quickly and amidst so much confusion that the descriptions of her whereabouts are sometimes contradictory.

Having escaped the clutches of the Kentish rebels, Joan completed the journey from Canterbury to London in one day. She found her 14-year-old son, the king, in the Tower of London, having gathered together with a number of his ministers in fear and bewilderment, apprehensive of the advancing peasant mobs and uncertain that the citizens of London could be relied upon to provide defense. Also in the group were Joan's other two surviving sons, Thomas, earl of Kent, and John Holland. On Thursday, June 13, the rebels entered the city and began burning and looting, one of their first targets being John of Gaunt's palace of the Savoy.

The next day, June 14, Richard, finding only vacillation and indecision among his ministers, agreed to meet with the rebels and discuss their demands outside the city, at Mile End. One source places Joan at the meeting in a carriage (whirlicote) but the other chroniclers have her remaining in the Tower which, either during the meeting or shortly afterwards, was invaded by the insurgents. Entering "the chamber of the king and of his mother with their filthy sticks … they arrogantly lay and sat on the king's bed while joking; and several asked the king's mother to kiss them." As Froissart describes the scene, the invading peasants broke Joan's bed "whereby she was so sore affrayed that she swooned." Joan was probably still in the Tower when the archbishop of Canterbury and the treasurer of England were dragged out and executed outside the gates on Tower Hill. She was smuggled out of danger by her servants, hidden under some covers on a barge which conveyed her to her London residence, "and there she was all that day and night like a woman half dead, until she was comforted by the king, her son."

The climax of the revolt came on the morning of Saturday, June 15, at Smithfield, just outside the city boundaries. During a second meeting between Richard and the rebels, the rebel leader, Wat Tyler was killed and Richard, showing courage and presence of mind which belied his years, told the peasants that he was now their leader and ordered them to disperse, with the promise that their grievances would be addressed. As quickly as they had come, the rebels departed, and Richard's first concern, on reentering the city, was for his mother. He went straight to her residence and, once again, Froissart gives us a detailed description of the scene:

[A]nd when she saw the king her son, she was greatly rejoiced and said: "Ah, fair son, what pain and great sorrow have I suffered for you this day." Then the king answered and said: "Certainly, madam, I know it well; but now rejoice yourself and thank God, for now it is time. I have today recovered mine heritage and the realm of England, the which I had near lost."

Joan was now 53 years old, and whether or not the ordeal she had undergone during the revolt had any lasting consequences, we can never be sure. It may be that her role in the center of England's affairs simply diminished as her son grew older. Certainly the chroniclers rarely mention her after 1381. We glimpse her only twice more, both times in 1385, the year of her death. In the early part of the year, she journeyed between Wallingford, where she now lived, close to London, to Pontefract, in the north of England, in a successful attempt to patch up a quarrel between Richard and John of Gaunt. Richard, on his departure for a campaign in Scotland on June 12, assigned five of his trusted knights to remain with his mother for her protection during his absence. However, it was not an external, physical danger which threatened Joan this time. Shortly after the king's departure, word reached her that Richard had decided to punish John Holland, his half-brother and Joan's second son, for the murder of another knight. She sent messengers with a plea for clemency, but her request was refused. Rumor had it that she died of grief. Already in declining health, the princess made her will on August 7, 1385, and died shortly afterwards.

Joan of Kent left orders that she should be buried at Stamford, near the tomb of her first husband. Her funeral seems not to have taken place until January 1386. Richard, unavoidably detained in Scotland, gave instructions that her body was to be wrapped in wax swathings and kept in a lead coffin until his return, no doubt so that he might make his last farewell. The close bond between the king and his mother endured. Joan's loss was also felt in more than personal terms: during her lifetime, she had been able to reconcile enemies and mediate disputes; after her death, these tensions went unchecked. All three of Joan's surviving sons were dead by 1400, only one of them of natural causes.


Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. IX. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1911–1922.

Froissart, Jean. The Chronicles of Froissart. Translated from the French by John Bourchier, Lord Berners. NY: AMS Press, 1967.

Herald of Sir John Chandos. The Life of the Black Prince. Edited and translated by M.K. Pope and E.C. Lodge. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910.

Knighton, Henry. Chronicon. Edited by J.R. Lumby. 2 vols. London: Rolls Series, 1889–1895.

Walsingham, Thomas. Chronicon Angliae, 1328–1388. Edited by E.M. Thompson. London: Rolls Series, 1874.

——. Historia Anglicana. Edited H.T. Riley. 2 vols. London: Rolls Series, 1863–64.

suggested reading:

Barber, Richard. Edward, Prince of Wales and Aquitaine. London: Allen Lane, 1978.

Dobson, R.B. The Peasants' Revolt of 1381. London: Macmillan, 1970.

Emerson, Barbara. The Black Prince. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1976.

Jones, R.H. The Royal Policy of Richard II. NY: Barnes and Noble, 1968.

McKisack, May. The Fourteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959.

Steel, Anthony. Richard II. Cambridge: University Press, 1962.

(Dr.) Kathleen Garay , Acting Director of the Women's Studies Programme, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada

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Joan of Kent (1328–1385)

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