Joan Plantagenet, the English Queen of Sicily


It’s safe to say that Eleanor of Aquitaine’s five daughters have pretty much been over-shadowed by their legendary mother, but her youngest, Joan, gave her a solid run for her money. At the time of her October 1165 birth at Angers Castle in Anjou, the marriage of Eleanor and her second husband, King Henry II of England was on its last legs. Within a year, her father had begun what would become a flagrant and notorious affair with his mistress, Rosamund Clifford, and within two, her parents had seemingly agreed to separate, Eleanor packing up her belongings and leaving for Poitiers.

The tepid peace wouldn’t last long: By 1173, Henry II’s eldest son, also named Henry, launched a revolt against his father, aided and abetted by Eleanor and his two younger brothers, Richard and Geoffrey. The fiasco would end in Eleanor’s imprisonment by the King, who gained custody of her that spring and moved her to back to England in 1174. This same year, the sister closest in age to Joan, another Eleanor, left home to marry the King of Castile.

Joan likely accompanied her mother’s household to England, however she wouldn’t be there for long. On May 20, 1176 she was betrothed to King William II of Sicily and by August 27th she had left home, making what would be a long and dangerous voyage to her new husband’s court. On February 13, 1177, Joan married William and was crowned queen of Sicily in Palermo Cathedral. Aged only 11 at the time, it’s highly unlikely the marriage was immediately consummated, but it certainly was by 1180 or 1181, since she gave birth to a short-lived son, Bohemond, Duke of Apulia, in the latter year.

William’s deathbed

There would be no further children for the couple and on November 11, 1189 William died at Palermo without an heir, leaving Joan a widow at age 24. The kingdom was seized by the late duke’s illegitimate half-uncle, Tancred, who promptly took back the lands Joan had been given by her husband as sources of revenue and held her prisoner.

Meanwhile in England, Joan’s father, Henry II, had died on July 6th and the throne passed to her brother, Richard I (Prince Henry having died in 1183). Richard promptly released his mother from captivity, in which she had been kept for the last 16 years and took off on a crusade. He would arrive in Sicily in September 1190 where he quickly secured Joan’s release, but was unable to convince Tancred to restore her inheritance. Winter closing in, instead of continuing towards the Holy Land, Richard attacked the town of Messina and held it until Tancred agreed, via a treaty signed on March 4, 1191, to pay Joan 570 kilograms of gold and to name Richard’s nephew, Arthur (son of their brother, Geoffrey), as his heir and marry him to one of his daughters.

While in Messina Richard ended his betrothal to Alys, daughter of his mother’s first husband, King Louis VII of France, and was instead betrothed to Berengaria of Navarre, daughter of King Sancho VI of Navarre. Eleanor would travel to accompany Berengaria to Sicily, bringing her to Richard who didn’t wish to postpone the marriage until he returned to England after the completion of his crusade. In this way, Joan was happily reunited with her mother and was able to meet her new sister-in-law, with whom she struck up a friendship.

Given that it was Lent, Richard and Berengaria couldn’t immediately be married. Instead, Eleanor returned to England and Richard set sail to Crete, Joan and Berengaria following him in a separate boat. However, while the King would safely make it, the two women, along with several other vessels in the fleet, would be wrecked on the coast of Cyprus. The island’s ruler, Isaac Komenos, held them as prisoners, along with the other survivors, until Richard arrived to rescue them on May 1, 1191. Komenos initially refused to set any of the captives free, which was a strategic misstep for Richard was quickly joined by other European princes on crusade who secured the support of the local magnates. By June 1st, Richard had conquered the entirety of the island, which he eventually sold to the Knights Templar.

Richard I and Berengaria of Navarre with Joan Plantagenet

During this time, on May 12th, Richard and Berengaria were married at the Chapel of St George at Limassol with Joan present. The marriage would be a strange one: Historians debate whether it was ever consummated, and while Berengaria would accompany her husband for a portion of the Third Crusade, she had returned to Christendom well before he was captured at the end of 1192.

This particular crusade was notable for Joan in a few other ways, too. Richard, with whom Joan was close, briefly considered marrying her to Al-Adil I and making her queen of Jerusalem before he was threatened with excommunication. And King Philip II of France, brother of the Alys Richard had recently repudiated and who accompanied Richard on the crusade, also reportedly entertained thoughts of marrying her.

Joan and Richard I with Philip of France.gif
Joan and Richard with Philip of France

In 1194 Richard was released from captivity and made his way back to England. In his absence not only had his younger brother, John, revolted and attempted to seize power, but he had done so with the backing of his former ally, King Philip, resulting the loss of much of Normandy. After making peace with John, Richard launched a full-scale campaign to re-conquer England’s lost territory and was reunited in France with his wife.

Joan, meanwhile, entered into her second marriage, marrying Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse in Rouen in October 1196 at the age of 30. She would give birth to a son, Raymond, the following year and a daughter, sometimes called Joan and other times, Mary, in 1198. It’s unclear what the relationship between Joan and Raymond was like, with some chroniclers maintaining the marriage was so unhappy that Joan was attempting to seek refuge with her brother, Richard, in April 1199, when she learned of the latter’s death. Others maintain that Joan was perfectly happy and fond of her husband.

Joan Plantagenet

Whatever the case was, at some point in the summer of 1199, Joan, pregnant with another child, requested to enter Fontrevault Abbey. She died in childbirth at the age of 33, being “veiled” as a nun on her deathbed. Her final child was born via caesarean after her death, who was christened Richard after her late brother immediately before dying.

Her husband, Raymond, would live another 20+ years, marrying a daughter of the king of Aragon in 1204. When he died in 1222, his title was inherited by his son with Joan, who became Raymond VII of Toulouse. At his death in 1249 he requested to be buried alongside his mother at Fontrevault where Eleanor of Acquitaine and Richard I are also interred.

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