Jeanne of Navarre: The Breton Duchess at the Lancastrian Court

Jeanne of Navarre and Henry IV

On this day in 1403 Henry IV, King of England married Jeanne of Navarre, Dowager Duchess of Brittany at Winchester Cathedral. A little less than three weeks later she would make her formal entry into London and be crowned queen at Westminster Abbey. Henry’s new wife received mix reviews: Popular enough within the family, Jeanne had the misfortune of arriving in England in the midst of a surge of nationalism, which made the public wary of her Breton entourage and French family ties.

It was a second marriage for them both. Henry’s first wife, Mary de Bohun, had died in 1394, before he ascended the throne. From their marriage he had six children ranging from the ages of nine to 17 – a significant consideration in Henry taking a second wife was less in securing more children, as he had already four sons, but in providing his court with a feminine presence. Jeanne, for her part, had been married to Jean IV, Duke of Brittany for 13 years, a union which provided nine children.

When Jean IV died on November 1, 1399, her eldest son was only 10 and it fell to Jeanne to act as regent for him until he came of age. It was this same year that Henry IV became king, “usurping” the throne from his cousin, the last Plantagenet monarch, Richard II. Once crowned, and once Jeanne had been widowed, Henry proposed marriage and was well-received. Indeed, the couple already knew each other, since prior to becoming king, Henry had been banished from England by Richard II and spent some time at the Breton court. Notably, this match is often referred to as a marriage of preference, as opposed to diplomatic necessity.

Jeanne initially deferred the proposal on the grounds she had to sort out her affairs in Brittany – specifically, she needed to ensure that her son was well-taken care of after she left for England. Eventually, she was able to secure the guardianship of the powerful Duke of Burgundy, an uncle of King Charles VI of France, who swore to respect Brittany’s autonomy and protect her son until he could assume control of his own government. This guardianship also spoke to fear that once Henry became the Duke’s stepfather he, already a known usurper, would attempt to take control of the duchy.


Henry IV

The negotiations were conducted in secret due to mutual political sensitivities, but a papal dispensation was granted in 1402 and Jeanne prepared to leave for Engalnd. Critically, Jeanne was unable to take all of her young children with her. Of the nine children to whom she gave birth, six were still living by January 1403. Her eldest son would obviously have to remain behind in Brittany. Unfortunately so would his brothers, which made up another three of her children. As the sons of the late Duke, it would have been a diplomatic fiasco for them to be removed from Brittany and raised in a foreign court. Her eldest daughter, Marie, had already been married in 1398, at the age of seven, to the Duke of Alencon. This left her two youngest daughters, Marguerite (age 10/11) and Blanche (age 5/6), who accompanied their mother to England.

A rise in nationalism and growing suspicion of foreigners had been a pressure on Henry’s reign since its start. Foreign diplomats and merchants residing in London were suspected of spying, piracy and heresy. They were subject to close supervision by Parliament, which would dictate where they could live, and how and where they spent their money. In 1402, the year before Jeanne arrived in England, foreign merchants were required to spend any money they made via imports on English exports. Meanwhile, in January 1404 Parliament passed a statute that deported French bishops from the country.

This attitude stemmed, in part, from ongoing Breton piracy undermining English business. It also came from a belief that the French House of Valois, to which Brittany was related, had interfered in English politics and helped to depose the Plantagenet Richard II for the Lancastrian Henry IV. But its effect on Jeanne was troubling as, within the first years of their marriage, Parliament attempted to purge the country of Bretons. While the English court leading to the turn of the 15th century  was actually quite international, largely due to the comings and goings of diplomats and foreign soldiers, there was a mental divide with the public between those they viewed as temporary  versus permanent fixtures. Henry’s household, though made up several foreigners, attracted less attention than Jeanne’s because 1) he, himself, was English and 2) the number of visitors and embassies made it less obvious who was leaving and staying.

Jeanne of Navarre’s coat of arms as queen of England

In 1404, Henry was asked to get rid of all French and Breton individuals from his court. Under political pressure, he complied, but with a few notable exceptions, including the individuals attached to his wife’s household. This, however, wouldn’t be good enough: By 1406, Jeanne would be forced to dispatch all the Bretons in her service and return her two young daughters to her son’s court. For their part, Marguerite and Blanche were married in a double wedding on June 26, 1407 to Alain IX, Viscount of Rohan and Jean IV, Count of Armagnac, respectively.

And so it became that Jeanne found herself at odds with her surroundings not only as a Breton, but as a woman. Henry IV’s court was a notably masculine environment – if not by design, then certainly in execution. His eldest daughter, Blanche, married the future Elector of Palatine in 1402, the year before Jeanne arrived. His younger daughter, Philippa, married Eric of Pomerania, King of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, in 1406, the year Jeanne’s daughters also left England.

Stained glass depiction of Jeanne’s stepdaughter, Philippa of Lancaster, Queen of Denmark, Sweden and Norway

Henry, himself, was a soldier. He surrounded himself with them and, for the most part, he was tied up in the governing of the realm. And while Jeanne has occasionally intervened in political matters as duchess of Brittany, she apparently understood her intervention wouldn’t be as well-received in England and stayed out of the maneuverings of political factions. She appears to have a good relationship with her four stepsons – the future Henry V, Thomas, John and Humphrey – and, indeed, acted as a mediating force between her husband and his eldest son in the last years of his reign.

Snapshots of her appear in the record from time to time. She used her influence on behalf of Maud de Ufford, Countess of Oxford, who had conspired against Henry in 1404. She also spoke up for scholars at Cambridge and Oxford Universities, and helped mediate a short-lived truce with Brittany in 1407.

However, the strength that sustained her marriage was the same force that brought it about in the first place – her relationship with Henry. While no children are recorded to having been born to the couple, a “Northern Chronicle” reported that there were two stillbirths. She was also financially provided for – from new apartments at Eltham Palace to a dower nearly 50 percent larger than the one Richard II had bequeathed his first wife, Anne of Bohemia. Even more tellingly, there was not even a whisper of infidelity on the part of the King for the 10 years they were married.

tomb of king henry iv and joan of navarre
The stone effigies of Jeanne of Navarre and Henry IV today

On March 20, 1413, after years of increasingly poor health, Henry IV died in the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Palace. As proof of her affection – or perhaps the poor relations between Henry and his eldest son – it would be Jeanne that commissioned the elaborate monument to her and her husband over his grave in the mid-1420s.

Age 43 when she was widowed a second time, Jeanne would live another 24 years, choosing to remain in England and not return to Brittany or France. Jeanne’s widowhood would end up rather remarkable and the reign of her stepson, Henry V, would be more tumultuous for her than that of her husband, which will be examined in a later post. Jeanne died at Havering-atte-Bower in Essex and is buried next to Henry IV at Canterbury Cathedral in Kent.

For more, see From Normandy to Windsor 

Canterbury Cathedral in Kent

Further reading: Given-Wilson, Chris. Henry IV. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.

2 thoughts on “Jeanne of Navarre: The Breton Duchess at the Lancastrian Court

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