Joan of England & the Black Death


Joan of England came into the world at some point between December 1333 and February 1334, the second daughter and third child of Edward III and his wife, Philippa of Hainaut. By the time of her birth, the succession had been secured via her elder brother, Prince Edward, and an elder sister, Isabel, while the minority government held by her grandmother, Isabelle of France, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, had been cast aside by her father a few years previously.

A few weeks after Joan’s birth at Woodstock Palace, Queen Philippa traveled with her three children to York to accompany the King during an ongoing military campaign in Berwick. With her husband preoccupied with the Scots, Philippa spent the next several months traveling through the north, acquainting herself with the towns and villages she had hitherto not seen much of. It’s likely that the children accompanied her on some of these journeys.

Joan’s mother, Philippa of Hainaut

Indeed, war, or rather, finding one’s life around a war, became a fixture of Joan’s short life. In October 1337, her father declared war on France, thus beginning the Hundred Years’ War between the two countries. Allied with the Low Countries, Edward took this as an opportunity to betroth Joan to Frederick, the eldest son and heir to Duke Otho of Austria. The following summer, Joan traveled with her parents to Antwerp decked out in finery with an agenda to impress their hosts. Their trip, however, was perhaps most memorable for a kitchen fire breaking out in Flanders, forcing the Royal Family to move to a nearby abbey for shelter. It was here where Philippa gave birth to another child, Prince Lionel, the future Duke of Clarence, and soon after the Queen bid a formal goodbye to her four-year-old daughter at Herenthals.

Joan then traveled with Lord John de Montgomery and her governess, Lady Isabella de la Mote, to Austria where she was established at her father-in-law’s court to be educated. Ostensibly, care of Joan was to be overseen by her mother’s sister, Margaret of Hainaut, the Holy Roman Empress, but her aunt proved to be a negligent guardian. Joan’s wardrobe, upkeep and even food were often sorely lacking and Philippa became concerned enough that she forced Edward to withdraw her. Politically, this worked, for Duke Otho died shortly after Joan’s arrival and power transferred to his brother, whose sympathies lay with the French.

Margaret of Hainaut, Joan’s aunt

As such, Joan left Austria in April 1340 and was returned to her mother in Ghent. Rejoined with her family, she also had the opportunity to meet her new brother, John of Gaunt (Ghent). Upon her return to England, she was set up in a separate household with her sister, Isabel, staffed with a lady-in-waiting, maids, a valet and a minstrel. It was to here that the Queen sent elaborate gifts like robes trimmed in fur, silk stockings and fine dresses for the occasions at which they were seen by the rest of court. The girls, who became quite close, shared a bedroom – and a bed, for that matter – hung in silk and velvet. Based on household accounts, it can be discerned that Joan took a liking to needlework and her mother also often sent through thread for her to practice on.

The girls would eventually be joined by two more sisters, Mary and Margaret, born in 1344 and 1346, respectively.

In 1347, Queen Philippa returned from France and began to prepare Joan for the next phase in her royal career: her second betrothal. The proposed marriage was by far loftier thanks to Edward’s negotiations with King Alfonso XI of Castile and would wed Joan to his eldest son and heir, Peter. The wedding was arranged for November 1348 and in the months leading up to it, Philippa prepared her daughter’s trousseau, full of plate, saddles, tapestries and an ornate cloth-of-gold wedding gown.

War of Peter the Cruel in Castile
Joan’s betrothed, Peter of Castile, would eventually be known as “Peter the Cruel”

Joan left Westminster in January, departing England at Plymouth for Bordeaux. She spent the summer traveling and was due to move to Bayonne for the ceremony that autumn, before catching ill in September and seeking refuge in Loremo. Up until this point, Joan had moved through the continent in unimaginable luxury, Edward and Philippa having spared no expense. Her entourage was made up of hundreds, not tens, of men and women, including at least 100 seasoned bowmen. She also traveled with a portable chapel engraved with vines to hear mass as she slowly made her way to Bayonne.

Unfortunately, this was no ordinary illness. The plague reached England in the late spring of 1348, having originated in China and moved west through the traditional trading routes. The English government went into crisis mode, the military campaign in France was paused and strict measures to contain the disease were implemented. Even so, the European population, including the English, was decimated. Most significantly the loss of able-bodied men to carry out labor put considerable strain on the working class and, by some accounts, helped lead to the Peasants’ Revolt of the early 1380s.

In the short term, however, Joan was one of its most high-profile and first royal victims. She passed away on July 1 at just 14.

Of her death, Edward wrote to King Alfonso:

We are sure that your Magnificence knows how, after much complicated negotiation about the intended marriage of the renowned Prince Pedro, your eldest son, and our most beloved daughter Joan, which was designed to nurture perpetual peace and create an indissoluble union between our Royal Houses, we sent our said daughter to Bordeaux, en route for your territories in Spain. But see, with what intense bitterness of heart we have to tell you this, destructive Death (who seizes young and old alike, sparing no one and reducing rich and poor to the same level) has lamentably snatched from both of us our dearest daughter, whom we loved best of all, as her virtues demanded

No fellow human being could be surprised if we were inwardly desolated by the sting of this bitter grief, for we are humans too. But we, who have placed our trust in God and our Life between his hands, where he has held it closely through many great dangers, we give thanks to him that one of our own family, free of all stain, whom we have loved with our life, has been sent ahead to Heaven to reign among the choirs of virgins, where she can gladly intercede for our offenses before God Himself.

There is some speculation that Joan’s household was warned of the disease and didn’t take heed. That may very well be true. As of when the adolescent left England, the plague had yet to hit the country and it would have been difficult for them to gauge its potency. It wasn’t until the disease began to sweep the party that Joan was quickly secluded at Loremo, but by then she was infected.

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In October, a grieving Edward III paid for Joan’s body to be recovered, but there is no record of it being returned to England. Instead, there are differing accounts of her burial in Bayonne and of her actually dying in Bordeaux, with the mayor setting fire to the Plantagenet castle where Joan’s body lay. Regardless of where her remains ended up, if anywhere, her statue did make its way into Westminster Abbey near her father’s tomb (see above).

Further reading: Horrox, Rosemary. The Black Death. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994.

Hilton, Lisa. Queens Consort: England’s Medieval Queens from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Elizabeth of York. Pegasus Books, 2010.

2 thoughts on “Joan of England & the Black Death

  1. jeff scheidel

    This is the first place I ever saw mention that Joan was to be married in Bayonne. I have always wondered about the origin of the story of her burial there, as it is 100 miles south of where she died. Is there a source for this?

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