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 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.
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.
One of the most pivotal Plantagenet reigns was that of Edward III between 1327 and 1377. Part of that is due to its sheer length – 50 years would be a remarkable reign today, so imagine how that felt in the 14th century. Another facet is everything that was accomplished during that time, not least of which were strategic victories against the French at Crecy and Poitiers. But its greatest legacy was the dynasty that Edward left behind, one which in some respects was night and day from the England which he inherited as an adolescent, and in others was an eerie mirror image of it.
Eleanor of Woodstock had the misfortune to be born a daughter of Edward II and Isabelle of France, but the stubbornness, resourcefulness and tenacity that she may have inherited from them saw her through the dark side of a Medieval arranged marriage.
Edward III and his wife, Philippa of Hainaut are best-remembered for their plethora of sons, but between them they also produced five daughters, the eldest of whom was Isabella of England. Believed to be her father’s favorite, Isabella was born at Woodstock Castle on June 16, 1332 and named for her paternal grandmother, Isabelle of France.
In the usurpation of Richard II’s throne in 1399 and the establishment of the House of Lancaster, much credit is given to Henry IV (obviously) and his father, John of Gaunt. But it’s worth recognizing that without the wealth and inheritance of Blanche of Lancaster, neither would have been as well-positioned to challenge their Plantagenet cousins.
Blanche was born in March 1347 to Henry of Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster and Isabel de Beaumont. She was the youngest of two daughters, her elder sister, Maud, having been born in 1339. Given the gap between the two girls’ birth and the lack of subsequent children, including a male heir, it’s clear that the couple suffered from fertility issues, a situation that led to their daughters growing up to be extremely desirable heiresses on the English marriage market.
Edmund of Woodstock’s trajectory would likely have been familiar terrain to the more famous Beaufort clan of the Wars of the Roses. Brother to a king, Edmund’s fortunes were tied to his relationship with the throne and, as a younger son, he was dependent on his own performance, ability and strategic marital alliance. In many ways, Edmund had the makings of an ideal Medieval prince and his brother, Edward II, was lucky to have him. Unfortunately for Edmund, the same couldn’t be said for the King, who was mercurial, self-interested and failed to understand the enormity of his position.
Loyal to the crown for the vast majority of his life, Edmund’s eventual defection to the coup that would bring his brother down speaks less to his own personal feelings and more to what he believed necessary to maintain England. That he wavered in his last years is tragic and his eventual arrest and execution mark one of the first instances a prince of the blood was put to death on the orders of a family member – its legacy can most closely be seen by the death of George, Duke of Clarence when Edward IV was on the throne and by the arrest of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester by Henry VI.
Philippa of Hainaut had the opposite problem of Henry VIII’s wives. Over the course of her 41-year marriage to Edward III she gave birth to 13 children, eight of them sons. Of those eight sons, five lived until adulthood. That might not seem extraordinary today, particularly in light of the fertility of Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in the 18th century or Queen Victoria in the 19th century, but for the 14th century’s infant mortality rate it was remarkable. Usually, in instances where the monarch had multiple sons they would slowly be picked off through warfare or illness, but the issue remained that several adult princes was both expensive and a liability, for all that it shored up the succession.
Earlier this month we examined the case of Katherine Howard, Henry VIII’s unfortunate fifth wife, who was accused of adultery and executed in 1542. I highlighted recent scholarship which casts doubt as to whether she was guilty of infidelity during her marriage, however today we will be taking look at a union in which there is little doubt of mutual adultery. The events that transpired during the reign of Edward II in the 14th century, and the role that his wife, Isabelle of France, played in them are so fantastical as to be hard to believe. Put another way, when it comes to rebelling against the edicts of her husband, Isabelle puts her 16th century peers to shame.