Though Elizabeth Woodville was the first post-Conquest English-born queen consort, this was only through mischance. Had Edward III’s eldest son, known popularly as “the Black Prince,” survived his father, the prince’s English bride, Joan of Kent, would have become his queen. And Joan of Kent had a scandalous marital history that outdid Elizabeth’s.
Joan, born around 1328, was a granddaughter of Edward I. Her father, Edmund, Earl of Kent, was the youngest of Edward I’s sons, a product of his second marriage. Her mother was Margaret Wake, the sister of Thomas, Lord Wake.
When Isabella, Edward II’s queen, invaded England with her lover Roger Mortimer, the Earl of Kent sided with the pair against his half-brother. Later, however, he became disillusioned with the queen and Mortimer. Believing Edward II, whose funeral had been held in 1327, to be still alive, he entered into a conspiracy to rescue him from captivity and restore him to the throne. Whether Edward II was actually alive is a question way beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that the conspiracy proved a fatal one for the Earl of Kent. He was beheaded on March 19, 1330. His wife, who was nine months pregnant, and her small children, including the two-year-old Joan, were imprisoned. Fortunately, the family did not suffer long, for Edward III arrested Roger Mortimer at Nottingham Castle in October 1330 and executed him a few weeks later.
The hero of the hour at Nottingham had been William de Montacute, who despite being a good decade older than the 18-year-old Edward III had become a close friend. William himself had young children, including his son William, born on June 28, 1328. Apparently because of Queen Philippa’s interest in the late earl’s children, Joan of Kent was taken from her mother’s care and raised with the young Montacutes. She also seems to have spent some time with the king’s children, but the details of her upbringing are quite murky.
At age twelve, Joan somehow became romantically involved with Thomas Holland, who was born around 1315 and thus was around thirteen years her senior. The age gap, and Joan’s extreme youth, would not have shocked her contemporaries—such gaps were common enough between partners, and a twelve-year-old girl could consent to marriage—but Thomas was clearly not of Joan’s social class. She was a king’s granddaughter and the first cousin to the reigning king; he was a younger son of Robert Holland, who had been murdered in 1328. During Edward II’s reign, Robert Holland had sided with Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, only to desert him. This act of betrayal had not ingratiated him with Edward II, who kept him in prison until he was released by Isabella and Mortimer. But there were still grudges against him, and Lancaster’s younger brother, Henry, might have sanctioned his murder.
Thomas, then, as the second son of a disgraced, turncoat lord, would not have met with overwhelming excitement on the marriage market. But Edward III’s reign offered great opportunities for men of disgraced families to redeem themselves through military service, and Thomas, who had been campaigning for the king probably since the early 1330’s, was a household knight by 1338. It was probably at court that he encountered Joan. In the spring of 1340, the couple secretly married. The marriage might well have been a love match on both sides, since Joan, who had one living brother at the time, was not an heiress. According to testimony later given before the papal courts, the couple had witnesses to their marriage, which took place around May 1340, without a priest being present. The marriage was then consummated.
The wedding, however, remained a well-kept secret, and later in 1340, Thomas went to Prussia on crusade. Joan’s elders, meanwhile, were making other matrimonial plans for her. The elder William de Montacute had been made Earl of Salisbury by Edward III in 1337, and the new earl began to look around for suitable marriages for his children. Thus, in early 1341, Joan of Kent found herself with a second husband—the younger William de Montacute, a boy of about her own age. According to her and Holland, she was coerced by her family and friends to proceed with the marriage—not surprisingly, since she was but thirteen years old and her family and friends included the king and queen themselves. Thus, Joan and William, however unwilling Joan might have been, began married life together. On February 10, 1341, they were granted the castle, town, and manor of Mold in north Wales—not the most romantic-sounding habitat for newlyweds.
Thomas Holland, meanwhile, returned home to England later in 1341 or 1342, and must have been taken aback, to put it mildly, to find his wife married to the son of the king’s close friend. Under these circumstances, he apparently decided not to contest the matter, but to bide his time until he was in a position to challenge the marriage in the papal court. Probably he did not confront the Montacute family about the marriage, for after the Earl of Salisbury’s death following a jousting accident in 1344, Holland became steward to the new earl. It must have been an uncomfortable position for Joan, but fortunately, Holland was more of a soldier than a steward.
The French campaign of 1346-47 was a turning point in Holland’s relationship with Joan. Having captured the Count of Eu at the siege of Caen in 1346, Holland was granted 80,000 florins by Edward III in exchange for his prisoner. He might not have seen all of the money, but he saw enough of it, in 1347, to begin proceedings in the papal courts to have Joan returned to him.
Many of the documents for these proceedings have survived, and have been published by Karl Wentersdorf. Nineteen-year-old William Montacute was unwilling to give up his wife, and for a time she was apparently held in seclusion by him and was prevented from obtaining independent counsel. There were changes of attorneys for both William and Joan, with William’s final attorney being a man by the splendid name of Reginald Bugwell. At last, in 1349, a verdict was issued in favor of Thomas Holland, and on November 13, 1349, a papal bull was issued ordering that Joan be restored to Holland and that the marriage be solemnized in a church ceremony. A remarkable aspect about these proceedings, which took place in Avignon, is that while much of this was going on, the Black Death was ravaging Europe; yet business, including the necessary travel between England and Avignon for the parties’ counsel, went on much as usual.
Holland and Salisbury, meanwhile, were both made Knights of the Garter when the order was founded by Edward III. Both appeared at the St. George’s festivities at Windsor in April 1349, and jousted on opposite sides of the tournament that followed. As Ian Mortimer has noted, watching the tensions between Joan’s husbands must have been far more agreeable than brooding about the pestilence.
Once the Pope dissolved Salisbury’s marriage, the earl hastened to find himself a new bride. His next one, Elizabeth Mohun, the daughter of yet another founding Garter Knight, John, Lord Mohun, presented little potential for prior marital entanglements: she was only about seven years of age at the time of her wedding to Salisbury.
It should be noted that it has been suggested by Chris Given-Wilson and Alice Curteis that Holland and Joan started an affair after Holland joined the Montacute household and that the story of the prior marriage was concocted by the pair so that Joan could be freed of Montacute. This is possible, of course, though it seems likely that such a scenario suggested itself to the papal judges, who nonetheless rejected it in favor of Holland’s version of the story.
Fortunately, William de Montacute and Joan’s marriage had produced no living children to be affected by its dissolution. Joan went on to have five children with Thomas. When her surviving brother died childless in 1352, she inherited his estates; in 1360, Thomas Holland was given the title of Earl of Kent. It was not one he enjoyed for long, however, for he died in Rouen on December 28, 1360. His later career had been a successful one, with increasing responsibility; a few months before his death, he had been appointed Edward III’s captain and lieutenant in Normandy and France.
Joan soon found consolation with another: the heir to the English throne. Edward the Black Prince, born on June 15, 1330, was still single, though various marriages had been proposed for him over the years. It is quite safe to say that Joan, twice married under faintly scandalous circumstances and an English-born mother of five children, was not considered one of his potential brides. Edward himself had had romantic entanglements, including one with a lady named Edith Willesford, which produced a son, Roger Clarendon, around 1350. (Clarendon was later executed by Henry IV for spreading rumors that Richard II was alive and for supporting Owain Glyn Dŵr.)
Edward’s long bachelorhood has given rise to speculation that he had been secretly pining to marry Joan for years, though as Edith’s case shows, he was clearly capable of finding consolation elsewhere in the meantime. Nonetheless, his marriage with Joan does appear to have been a love match. Without waiting for royal permission or a papal dispensation (needed because of their close kinship and the fact that Edward was godfather to Joan’s sons), the couple married secretly in the spring of 1361. This time, the marriage could hardly be kept secret for long, however, and by summer, a resigned Edward III was petitioning the pope to grant the couple a dispensation so that they could marry publicly. The Pope granted the king’s request on September 7, 1361. As a penance for their impetuosity, the couple was ordered to build and endow two chapels.
In October 1361, Edward and Joan were duly married (remarried, that is) at Windsor Castle by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The king and queen, along with three of their children, John of Gaunt, Edmund of Langley, and Isabella, Countess of Bedford, attended. Edward III’s younger sister, Joan, Queen of Scotland, was present also.
Edward and Joan appear to have been a loving couple. In a letter addressed to Joan following the battle of Najera in 1367, he addresses her as “my dearest and truest sweetheart and beloved companion,” and when he returned to Bordeaux from Spain, Joan met him and the couple “walked together holding hands.” Edward was also content to let Joan spend freely; in 1362, she spent 200 pounds on jeweled buttons alone. In all fairness, however, the prince himself was a lavish spender, as was his mother the queen, so Joan can hardly be blamed for joining in on the fun.
Edward died in 1376. He and Joan had had two sons together. The eldest, Edward, died young; the youngest ascended the throne as Richard II following Edward III’s death in 1377. Thus, Joan never became queen, only mother to the king. It is interesting to wonder what she might have been like as a queen consort: though she was popular with the people and had a reputation as a peacemaker during Richard II’s reign, chroniclers made much of her marital misadventures. Gossip went so far as to question Richard II’s legitimacy; Adam Usk wrote that it was said that “he was not born to a father of the royal line, but of a mother given to slippery ways—to say nothing of many other things I have heard.”
Joan of Kent died on August 14, 1385, having been in poor health that was probably exacerbated by her concern over her son John Holland, who had murdered Ralph Stafford and whose pleas for mercy from Richard II were seemingly going unheeded. (He ultimately received a pardon.) Though she died as Princess of Wales, Joan requested burial not by her royal husband at Canterbury, but at Stamford by the man she had married as a young girl: Thomas Holland.
Richard Barber, The Life and Campaigns of the Black Prince.
Chris Given-Wilson and Alice Curteis, The Royal Bastards of Medieval England.
David Green, Edward the Black Prince, Power in Medieval Europe.
Ian Mortimer, The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England’s Self-Made King.
Ian Mortimer, The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online version).
Karl P. Wentersdorf, “The Clandestine Marriages of the Fair Maid of Kent.” Journal of Medieval History 5 (1979), pp. 203-231.