If there ever was a case study for a Medieval woman’s life taking the shape of a romance novel plot, it would be Joan of Kent, England’s first Princess of Wales. Born “royal adjacent,” she grew up close to the throne, married three times (though not all of them were legal), delivered seven children and constantly found herself going up against the power brokers of court and the Vatican.
Joan was born on September 29, 1328 to Edmund of Woodstock, Earl of Kent and Margaret Wake at Woodstock Palace in Oxford. Her father was a son of Edward I via his second marriage to Marguerite of France, thus making him half-brother to the troubled Edward II. By the time of Joan’s birth, Edward II had already been deposed and executed at the hands of his wife, Isabelle of France, and her lover, Roger Mortimer. The new king was Kent’s nephew, the teenage Edward III, who came the throne as a result of his father’s downfall, but took quick issue with the machinations of his mother and Mortimer.
Eight months before Joan’s birth, Edward III married Philippa of Hainaut, and on June 15, 1330, the new queen gave birth to the couple’s eldest child, Prince Edward, at Woodstock Palace, the same house in which Joan had been born nearly two years before. By then, Joan’s circumstances had dramatically changed. While Kent had stood by his brother’s overthrow, he never made his peace with a Mortimer-led government and was viewed suspiciously by Queen Isabelle. In March 1330, he was arrested and put to death in what many viewed as undue haste, most likely because there was a fear Edward III would put a stop to it.
Joan’s mother, Margaret, was left a widow with three young children – Joan had two elder siblings, Edmund and Margaret. A few week’s after Kent’s execution, Margaret gave birth to a fourth child, John. Generally, the heirs of an indicted traitor would be stripped of their inheritance, but in this case, Kent’s memory was quickly rehabilitated to be seen as a political martyr at the hands of a corrupt government. The birth of Edward III’s son galvanized him into action and by that autumn, Mortimer had been overthrown and executed, and Queen Isabelle relegated to obscurity in the countryside. The true reign of Edward III had begun.
He took pity on his uncle’s family, allowing Joan’s brother to inherit the title Earl of Kent and her mother to keep custody of her children in lieu of a wardship. The following year, in 1331, Joan’s brother, Edmund, died and the infant John became the family’s heir. That same year, Margaret remarried to a man named John De Forbes.
Throughout all of this, Joan and her two remaining siblings were brought into Queen Philippa’s household and raised alongside the growing royal nursery. That proximity to the royal family was a valuable insurance policy for the Kents, as was Joan’s beauty. By the time she was an adolescent, she was known by courtiers as the “Fair Maid of Kent,” and there’s good reason to believe her admirers were sincere in their praise. Her grandmother, Marguerite of France, was a famously beautiful woman and it would make sense that those traits were passed down through the royal side of Joan’s family.
It is likely this beauty that first caught the eye of Thomas Holland. Thomas was the second son of yet another indicted traitor, Sir Robert, who was executed in 1328. By 1340, Thomas was in his mid-20s and set on making his fortune and career through military success, an opportunity for which arose when England launched a campaign in Flanders and then again, in 1342, when he was sent to help defend Gascony against the French. Notably, Queen Philippa accompanied the English to Flanders in the early 1340s and while there is no concrete evidence that Joan accompanied her, it’s likely that she did.
Our assumptions for this are based on the fact that at some point in 1340 Joan and Thomas secretly married without first gaining permission. While the marriage was a coup for Thomas in theory, it was also a risky gamble given Joan’s royal blood and her proximity to the Plantagenets. As for Joan, she was around 12 years old and likely embarked on the relationship out of youthful sense of love. Knowing that the match would anger Joan’s family, the two kept it a closely guarded secret for years, probably betting on Thomas’s success in the military campaigns as a way to soften the blow of Joan having married beneath her. Were Joan in Flanders, she would have had greater freedom than had she been in England, thus lending credence to the idea that she spent some time abroad.
Unfortunately, given that Joan’s family had no idea she was married, they went about arranging a match of their own. An exact wedding date is unknown, but in February 1341, William Montagu, Earl of Salisbury granted a life interest in one of his manor houses to his eldest son, William, and Joan. As with Thomas, Joan still enjoyed a better lineage than her new husband, but the marriage is indicative of the high esteem that Edward III and Queen Philippa viewed Salisbury and the entire Montagu family. In light of that friendship, it’s clear they had no idea Joan was already married as jeopardizing the match of Salisbury’s heir would have been insulting.
As for what Joan was thinking, it was likely twofold. With Thomas campaigning and their relationship a secret, she would have had no idea whether he was alive at any given time. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that she was given reason to believe at various junctures that she was a widow. Secondly, she would have been under an immense amount of pressure by her family to follow through on the proposed marriage to William – without recourse or a husband to physically turn to, she probably felt like she didn’t have much choice but to keep her head down and see where the chips fell.
Between the summer of 1341 and the spring of 1342, Thomas returned to England and discovered Joan had been married. Still a landless second son without a strong case to take on the King, the Kents and the Montagus, he kept his silence. Over the next several years he continued to support Edward III in wars against the French and crusades against Muslims in Granada.
The bet paid off – in 1346, Thomas was one of the commanders of the vanguard at the Battle of Crecy, a decisive English victory against the French led by Edward III’s eldest son, Prince Edward. He followed that up with successes in the Siege of Calais through 1347, garnering himself the monarch’s goodwill and gratitude, a small fortune and a favorable reputation both at home and on the continent. The final cherry on top of the sundae was his induction into the Order of the Garter in 1348. In short, he was finally in a good position to reclaim his wife.
Thomas made his first move in 1347, but by then Joan was 19 not 12 and the Countess of Salisbury thanks to death of her father-in-law. She had no children, but she had been living as William Montagu’s legal wife for six years and she and Thomas hadn’t seen each other for at least half a decade. Were they still in love? It’s entirely possible, but Thomas’s motivation for bringing their marriage to light could have been motivated by more practical reasons. Now finally able to come home, it was also time for him to beget an heir and he couldn’t risk his own second marriage being declared invalid later on should his relationship with Joan be discovered.
Thomas petitioned the papal court at Avignon, alleging that not only were he and Joan married, but that the marriage had been consummated. He further wrote that Joan was only married to William because she had been too afraid to defy her family and thus the marriage had been entered into under duress – a not insignificant claim in the eyes of the Church. The Pope delegated the case to Cardinal Adhemar Robert, who summoned William and Joan to appear alongside Thomas and plead their case. Neither showed up.
In 1348, Thomas made a second petition to the court, arguing that William was keeping Joan in solitary confinement under guard to bar her from responding to summons. Even so, William continued to ignore the situation. Annoyed, the Pope appointed Cardinal Pectin de Montesquieu to see if he could make more headway. The new Cardinal found an attorney to represent Joan and he managed to get her statement, which defended her marriage to Thomas as valid and supported his claim that she had been coerced into marrying William. When the Montagu family refused to appear at another summons, the case was declared closed: Joan’s marriage to Thomas was legal and her marriage to William was bigamous. A papal bull dated November 13, 1349 allowed the court’s findings to be legally enforced.
The Montagus gave way, Joan was released and the Hollands’ marriage could finally begin in daylight. As for what William thought of all of this, we don’t know. He was about the same age as Joan, so it’s highly probable that any arm-twisting inflicted on his wife was at the behest of his family, not him. William and Joan would continue to encounter one another over the years as active participants at court, but there’s no record of ill-feeling between either family.
As for Joan, she steps back from the public record for the next decade, seemingly happily married to her childhood sweetheart and playing the role of a traditional aristocratic wife. She retired from court around the same time, a step which might have been motivated by the not inconsiderable scandal in which she had been embroiled, but may also have been a more organic decision due to pregnancy and childbirth. Within a year of living with Thomas, she gave birth to his namesake son and heir, with Prince Edward standing as godfather.
The infant was followed up by a second son, John, in 1352, and a third, Edmund, in 1354, who died young. Two daughters, Joan and Maud, were born in 1356 and 1359, respectively.
Thomas’s military career ensured that he was frequently absent from home. Between 1349 and 1355, he was likely able to spend more time in England thanks to truces with France – as evidenced by the births of their first three children. However, the second half of the decade saw an increased need for Thomas to be abroad for long stints and it’s unlikely that Joan would have accompanied him.
Critical to England’s military strategy abroad and close to Prince Edward, Thomas’s career went from strength to strength. In 1352, Joan’s brother, John, died and Joan was his heir, the title of Earl of Kent duly passing to Thomas. And Thomas, with his military prowess and high-profile wins, enhanced the reputation of his wife’s family, their children better-positioned than either of them thanks to a marriage of royal blood and success.
The glory was cut short on December 28, 1360 when Thomas died in Rouen of unknown causes. Joan was thus a widow at the age of 32, charged with the task of protecting the inheritance of their eldest son, 10-year-old Thomas, the new Earl of Kent.
But where Thomas left off, Joan’s story really begins. Just months after Thomas’s death, she privately married none other than Prince Edward, eldest son of Edward III. As we know, Joan and Prince Edward had known each other since childhood when Joan and her siblings were absorbed into Queen Philippa’s household. He would have been well-aware of her marital history with both the Holland and Montagu families, he had worked closely with Thomas in France over the last two decades and he was godfather to Joan’s eldest son. There is no evidence of an affair or romantic relationship prior to their abrupt marriage, so it’s unclear how or when the two decided to marry.
Edward turned 31 in 1361 and had never been married – strange for anyone in the 14th century, but especially for a king’s son who was on the hook for ensuring the succession. Certainly his preoccupation with wars played a role, but the fact remained that his marriage was a matter of state and a key diplomatic tool in his father’s arsenal. Privately marrying an Englishwoman who was past prime childbearing years, had caused a major scandal just a decade ago and without first getting permission, was a hugely risky step for the Prince to take.
In light of this, we have to assume that he was in love with Joan. Indeed, given the alacrity with which he pursued and married her, it’s not out of the question that he had been in love with her for some time.
To say Edward III was angry would be an understatement. He was livid, but he also behaved rationally in the sense that he accepted what was done was done and now he had to ensure the marriage was legally sound. Because Edward and Joan were cousins and hadn’t received a papal dispensation, their marriage was thus illegal in the eyes of the church and both had been excommunicated. The King went about petitioning the Vatican to grant their approval and separating the couple until the matter was resolved so that any children born weren’t undermined by the question of illegitimacy.
Finally, on October 10, 1361, the two remarried in the chapel at Windsor Castle. Joan wore a scarlet wedding gown, which might seem fitting to us today for entirely different reason than it was chosen – in fact, scarlet represented courage in the 14th century and was widely associated with royalty. If anything can be deduced from Joan’s choice of apparel it’s that she was certainly not embarrassed.
Joan and her children moved in with Edward that autumn, spending several weeks at Kennington and then Berkhamstead, where Queen Philippa visited that Christmas with her younger children. Edward had been made Prince of Wales in 1343 when he was just 13, but at his marriage the title of Princess of Wales was bestowed upon Joan, the first English woman to hold the title within the royal family. Even so, the more glorious monikers of Prince and Princess of Aquitaine were bequeathed upon them in July 1362 by Edward III, thus signalling a transition for the couple to spend more time on the continent as Edward oversaw England’s French territory.
The Waleses were in Aquitaine by the late spring of 1363 and it was here that their first child was conceived and born. Joan delivered a son, another Prince Edward, on January 27, 1365 at the Château d’Angoulême, thus fulfilling her primary duty to her husband’s family. The festivities that followed the infant’s christening and Joan’s churching lasted well over a week and marked a high point in Edward’s rule, used an opportunity to showcase his power, wealth and dynastic success.
A second son, Richard, was born on January 6, 1367 in Bordeaux on the feast of the Epiphany.
Edward also saw to it that Joan’s children from her first marriage were well looked after. Joan’s eldest son, Thomas, was married to an heiress, Alice FitzAlan, daughter of the Earl of Arundel, in 1364. Her eldest daughter, Joan, was married to John IV, Duke of Brittany in London in 1366 – a match that had everything to do with her stepfather and was far and beyond anything that would had been contracted without her mother’s marriage. John IV had first been married to one of Edward’s sisters who died in 1362. Fun fact: after Joan died in 1384, he would go on to marry Jeanne of Navarre, the future second wife of King Henry IV.
Meanwhile, Joan’s second daughter, Maud, married Hugh Courtenay, heir to the Earl of Devon in 1365. After Hugh’s death, she would later remarry to Waleran III of Luxembourg.
Following Richard’s birth in 1367, Edward and the rest of England prepared for the occupation of Spain to help Peter of Castile recover his throne in exchange for the lordship of Biscay. Though Edward was quickly successful, defeating Castilian and French forces at the Battle of Nájera that April, Peter reneged on his promise of Biscay and Edward eventually gave up, returning to Aquitaine. While Joan was likely relieved that her husband returned to her, he also did so having contracted dysentery, a disease that would spend the next decade slowly killing him.
Their misery was compounded that winter by the death of their eldest son, Edward, from bubonic plague. The exact date of his death is debated, but it was either in the autumn of 1370 or the early days of January 1371. The Waleses returned to England in January and buried their son in London.
The somber occasion marked Joan’s first return home in eight years, and while her departure had been marked by the still ringing scandal that surrounded her second marriage, she had garnered herself a stirling reputation abroad, helped by the births of her sons.
With the death of the young Prince Edward, the new heir was the four-year-old Prince Richard. With Edward’s health now poor and Edward III in his 60s, the succession was once again delicate should anything happen to the boy’s father and grandfather. In fact, that’s just what happened.
Edward died on September 29, 1376 at the Palace of Westminster in London. His death was followed by that of his father nine months later on June 21, 1377 at Richmond Palace. Suddenly, Joan was not only the Dowager Princess of Wales, but mother to the 10-year-old King Richard II.
Joan attended her son’s coronation on July 16, but it’s unclear how closely she lived with him after the start of his reign. In the immediate days of his kingship, the two lived together at Kennington, however by the dawn of 1380s, it appears that Joan had transitioned to primarily living at Wallingford Castle, which remained the case for the rest of her life. The timing makes a certain amount of sense given that by 1380 Richard was entering his adolescence and would be expected to be surrounded by men and taught both war and government.
As for the execution of Richard’s rule, in the first years it was Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, who oversaw actual governing, a state of play not without some angst. Even so, Joan remained influential thanks to her son’s devotion to her and her relatively good relationships with the extended Plantagenet family. When the Peasants’ Rebellion broke out and the royal family was targeted, Joan was famously immune to public displeasure – at one point, when she came face-to-face with a mob, she was not only let past, but escorted home with cheers. Presumably some of that goodwill stemmed from the popularity of her late husband, but some of it may very well have come from the fact that she was both English and “common” herself.
In 1382 Joan was on hand when Richard married Anne of Bohemia, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor. It would mark one of her last large-scale public events.
Three years later, Joan’s second son from her first marriage, John Holland, got into a fight with another nobleman and accidentally killed him. John sought sanctuary, but was condemned to death. Joan pleaded with Richard to spare his half-brother over the course of four days. On the fifth day, at some point in early August 1385, she died at home at Wallingford Castle. Richard then relented and pardoned John, though he was sent on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
When Edward died nine years before he had made arrangements for Joan to be buried beside him at Canterbury Cathedral in Kent. In fact, Joan defied those wishes and instead requested to be buried alongside her first husband, Thomas, in Lincolnshire, further evidence that marriage had been a genuine love match.
Richard would rule for another 14 years after his mother’s death before being deposed by his cousin, Henry of Bolingbroke, eldest son of John of Gaunt. He would be the last Plantagenet king before the rise of the House of Lancaster and likely died from starvation while in captivity in 1400.