Joan of the Tower has a storybook-sounding name and her eventual status as queen consort of Scotland would indicate that she did fairly well for herself as a Medieval princess. Instead, Joan’s life was in keeping with many members of her immediate family – much promise and status, little reward.
Joan’s name is derived from her place of birth, the Tower of London, where she was born on July 5, 1321. She was the fourth and last child of her parents, King Edward II of England and his wife, Isabelle of France. At the time of her birth, Joan’s mother was only in her mid-20s and faced her final confinement sans husband, but with a leaky roof thanks to the Tower’s conditions. Three days later, Edward would join his family and meet his new daughter.
Joan’s parents’ marriage was an increasingly unhappy one thanks to her father’s lackluster royal career and his increasingly public preference for his male favorites. At the time of Joan’s birth, this exalted role was played by Hugh le Despenser the Younger, who had no problem taking advantage of Edward’s generosity, affection and reckless sense of judgment by personally enriching himself and his family. Naturally, this wasn’t well-received by the English barons and 1321 also marked the year civil war finally broke out. The royal marriage in shambles and the noble class at their wits’ end with the King, this was the perfect time for France to start trouble, which they did in 1324 by going after English-held French territory.
It was a tense, chaotic and violent time, but Joan and her siblings would have been largely unaware of it. Joan had three elder siblings – Edward (b. 1312), John (b. 1316) and Eleanor (b. 1318) – and during her first years she lived with them, receiving regular visits from her parents, who, despite their faults, were loving and attentive to their children.
It was a short-lived period, for sometime before February 1325, Joan and Eleanor were moved into a separate establishment under the protection of Hugh le Despenser’s sister, Isabel, Lady Hastings, and her husband. While it was common practice for upper-class children to be reared in other households, it’s a safe bet that particular move didn’t please Queen Isabelle. She, meanwhile, was about to make moves of her own. In response to France’s demand that the English pay homage as the dukes of Aquitaine, the King named his eldest son Duke of Aquitaine and sent him with Isabelle to France.
That was the wrong call. Once abroad, Isabelle cemented her relationship with a nobleman, Roger Mortimer, into a political rebellion, their position made all the more powerful thanks to their custody of the Prince of Wales. But while Isabelle and Mortimer plotted, affairs in England naively continued on. Joan and Eleanor were moved in 1326 to the custody of Joan Jermy, sister-in-law of the king’s younger half-brother Thomas, Earl of Norfolk, while their father negotiated marriages for them both in Spain. The idea was to marry Eleanor to the future king of Castile and Joan to the future king of Aragon. Nothing came of it thanks primarily to dowry issues, but the invasion of the brides’ mother against their father certainly didn’t help.
In September 1326, Isabelle and Mortimer invaded and were joined by a considerable number of nobles, including the Earl of Norfolk, in whose custody Joan and Eleanor were. Within two months, the Queen’s party was victorious, Hugh le Despenser was dead and the King was in custody. Under debatable circumstances, the King was given the “option” of abdicating and did so, thus prompting the reign of the 14-year-old Edward III under the control of the Queen and Mortimer. By September 1327 Edward II was declared dead.
It was against this backdrop that Isabelle and Mortimer began running England, carrying out policies in the teenage king’s name whether he liked them or not. One such decision was to find peace with Scotland, which the Queen proposed solidifying through the marriage of Joan with the son of Robert I (Robert the Bruce), David. The alliance brought about an end to the First War of Scottish Independence, which had begun back in 1296 thanks to England’s invasion in the reign of Edward I. The young Edward III found the treaty humiliating, but it was nevertheless signed in March 1328 by King Robert and in May by Parliament.
The treaty was nothing short of a full capitulation on England’s side – not only did England recognize Scotland’s independence, but they recognized the national borders as those clear in the reign of Scotland’s Alexander III (d. 1286, long before England’s invasion) and that King Robert and his heirs were the country’s rightful rulers.
Pointedly, neither Edward III nor Robert I attended the wedding at the center of the peace. Instead, Queen Isabelle escorted her seven-year-old daughter alone to Berwick-Upon-Tweed where she married the four-year-old David on July 16. Joan was thus handed over to the Scots, who nicknamed their new princess “Joan Makepeace.” She entered the royal household, joining David and his siblings in the nursery. Unfortunately for Joan, before she could even find her footing in her new normal – or grow up, for that matter – Robert died on June 7, 1329 and the throne passed to David, making Joan queen. When the two were crowned jointly in November 1331, they were not only the youngest monarchs to undergo a coronation at 10 and 7, but Joan was the first queen consort to be duly honored in Scotland.
Little is known about Joan’s time in Scotland, but that’s perhaps unsurprising given that she and her husband would have still been protected by the nursery and the schoolroom. David’s government was run by Thomas Randolph, 1st Earl of Moray until his death in 1332, followed by Donald, Earl of Mar, who also died only days later. Sir Anthony Murray, husband of David’s paternal aunt, then took on the task, but he too was short-lived, having been taken prisoner in April 1333.
Who took him prisoner is where it gets interesting, for while the Scots were playing hot potato with their government, England was getting theirs in order – or rather, Edward III was.
Six months before Joan married David in 1328, Edward forged a marriage of his own to Philippa of Hainaut. The birth of their first child, a son, in June 1330 appears to have helped spur an 18-year-old Edward into action – by the autumn, he pushed out his mother and Mortimer and took over. Mortimer was quickly executed, but Isabelle was merely relegated to glorified house arrest. He wasted no time in undoing the detested Treaty of Northampton and re-opening hostilities with Scotland, taking advantage of their weakened position and seemingly not worrying about the fate of his younger sister.
To make matter worse – and to increase the chaos – Edward pushed into Scotland a pretender, Edward Balliol, who not only claimed the throne, but was in fact crowned king in September 1332. At first, he was forced out of the country, but he returned in 1333 with the full weight of an English army behind him. The outright war and the capture of Murray led to the decision to fall back on the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France – after all, Joan’s mother was a princess of France – and in July 1333, the young couple was sent abroad for their safety under the protection of King Philip VI.
Joan and David were given Château Gaillard in Normandy for their use in the spring of 1334 and they remained there in safety for the next seven years. Unfortunately, little is known about their time in France or how their relationship unfolded as they reached maturity, save that it doesn’t appear to have blossomed into a love match.
The pair were beckoned back to Scotland in June 1341 and David finally took the reins of his government at the age of 17. By then, of course, David was indebted to France and staunchly against England – thus, when France asked for Scotland’s help in 1346, he obliged and launched an ill-fated invasion of England. He was defeated at the Battle of Neville’s Cross that October, captured and ferried swiftly (and ironically) to the Tower of London, Joan’s birthplace. Once Edward III returned from Normandy, the brothers-in-law came face-to-face at Windsor before David was placed under house arrest in Hampshire.
We can only guess at what Joan thought of all this and where her sympathies lay. While she maintained a close relationship with her mother, less is known about her relationship with her brother at this time. And even if warm, she had by this time been living abroad for nearly two decades, the majority of which was in Scotland. She reportedly visited England for the first time since her marriage in 1348, though it’s unclear where exactly she went – to visit David or her family.
A queen without a country – and certainly without protection – it was Queen Isabelle who took up financial responsibility for her daughter. Again, it seems rather notable that Edward felt unmoved, though he was helping to fund his mother so perhaps he viewed it as indirect support.
Over the next decade, Joan frequently returned to England and did make occasional visits to her husband with the permission of her brother. The fact that the couple never conceived a child – certainly the young queen was never recorded as pregnant – seems to support the theory that this wasn’t a particularly happy union, though it’s safe to say that duty would have prevailed. The true indication that theirs was a loveless match is based on what happened next.
David was released in October 1357 following a new peace treaty between England and Scotland. He returned home immediately, only he didn’t bring with him his English wife, but rather his English mistress. In captivity he had begun an affair with a woman named Katherine Mortimer (yet more irony) and their relationship was described as being the cause of Joan’s “neglect.” She would eventually be murdered by the Earl of Atholl, her relationship with the King unpopular, but by then Joan had given up on her husband.
Twice, in 1357 and 1358, Edward issued his sister safe passage to travel from Scotland to England and the last time seems to have stuck – she effectively left her husband. Instead, she took over the care of her aging mother and was with Isabelle when she died in the summer of 1358 at Hertford Castle.
Occasionally, Joan played her part as queen of Scotland, doing her duty when asked as David negotiated the ransom for his release that he could not afford to pay. But she mostly ignored her husband’s political plight, never taking an active role in either bartering for his release or facilitating his relationship with her family after. Joan passed away at Herford Castle, possibly from the Black Death, on September 7, 1362 at the age of 41. Her tomb hasn’t survived, but she was reportedly buried at Christ Church Greyfriars in London.
After her death, David negotiated with Edward that if England cancelled his debt he would bequeath Scotland to his second son, Lionel, Duke of Clarence. This didn’t go down well with the Scots, as David well knew, and so instead of ever paying what he owed, he spent the next several years stringing the English along by dangling their ultimate prize in front of them.
In February 1364, David remarried his mistress, Margaret Drummond. They were also childless, and in the absence of illegitimate children, it’s very possible David was infertile. He divorced Margaret in 1370, however she successfully appealed it to the Pope in Avignon and then went on to outlive her husband. David passed away on February 22, 1371 at the age of 46. His throne passed to his nephew, Robert II.