Hidden historical heroines (#01: Joan of Kent)


Joan of Kent (1328 – 1385) was a granddaughter of Edward I. She was lauded by her contemporaries as the most beautiful woman in all of England and is known to history as the Fair Maid of Kent.


When she was just a babe in arms, her father – the Earl of Kent – was executed for his continuing support of Edward II against his marauding queen, Isabella – the she-wolf of France – and her lover Roger Mortimer. She grew up a ward of William Montacute, one of Edward III’s closest companions, with his queen, Philippa, also taking an interest in the girl’s upbringing. Details of Joan’s childhood are sketchy, but it seems to have been a happy one, despite the tragedy that had befallen her family when she was a baby. When Joan was 13, she was married to Montacute’s son and heir, another William.


Joan is often credited with inspiring the foundation of the Order of the Garter. Legend has it that she was dancing at a court ball when her garter came loose and slipped down her leg onto the floor. Although nearby courtiers ridiculed her, Edward III picked it up and returned it to her, proclaiming: “honi soit qui mal y pense” (“evil to them, who evil thinks”), the phrase that is the motto of the Order to this day.


Several years after Joan’s marriage to William Montacute however, a minor nobleman, Thomas Holland, returned from the Crusades and was made seneschal (or household steward) to William Montacute. After a short while, Holland began petitioning the Pope, claiming that Joan had entered into a clandestine marriage with him the year before she had been given to Montacute. Joan was apparently in support of her return to Holland – legend has it William Montacute locked poor Joan in a tower – and the Pope agreed, returning her to marriage with Holland. Poor Montacute, once bitten and twice shy, very circumspectly chose a six year old girl for his next bride – lowering the risk of previous, secret marriages!


Some historians suggest that the whole secret marriage was a lie concocted by Joan and Holland after he returned from the Crusades and took up his position as her seneschal; the two could have fallen in love and contrived the whole thing as an expedient way to free Joan from her partnership with William Montacute. Either way, their marriage seemed to be a happy one. They had at least four children – whereas Joan and Montacute’s marriage had been barren – but after eleven years together Holland was killed campaigning in France.


Waiting in the wings to snap up the beauteous Maid of Kent was Edward, the Black Prince, heir to the throne. The Prince, in his thirties, had never been married before, despite being one of Europe’s most eligible bachelors, which has given rise to the romantic tradition that he loved Fair Joan since childhood and would not countenance marriage to any other. It certainly seems to have been a love match; the twice-married mother of four and English-born Joan was certainly no suitable match for the heir to the throne and King Edward and Queen Philippa were against the pairing. Furthermore, their marriage was forbidden on the grounds of consanguinity – they were too closely related and Edward stood as godfather to Joan’s sons with Holland.


Legend tells of a charming exchange between Prince Edward and the newly widowed Joan. Edward was discussing which, if any, of his friends and companions Joan would care to marry. Joan replied that had quite made up her mind to never marry again, as she was already in love with the most gallant man in the world, and to marry anyone else would be treason to her heart. Prince Edward pressed Joan into revealing the identify of her true love, which – of course – was he.


Probably figuring it had worked out okay for Joan the last time, the couple entered into marriage regardless, forcing Edward III to resign himself to the situation and to petition the Pope for a papal dispensation to allow the couple to marry formally and legitimately, which was duly granted. The marriage was a happy one. Edward, certainly, was besotted with Joan, spoiling her dreadfully and allowing her to spend lavish amounts of money. When he wrote to her, he addressed her with sweet phrases such as “my dearest and truest sweetheart and beloved companion”. It is noted in contemporary records that they were very tactile and affectionate with one another, and kissed and held hands often. They had two sons, Edward and Richard, the former dying young, the latter going on to become the much maligned Richard II, until his deposition (and probable murder) by his cousin Bolingbroke, Henry IV, in the first ‘act’ of what would become known as the Wars of the Roses.


If things had played out differently, Joan would have been Queen of England (as opposed to just the Dowager Princess of Wales and mother of a King) – and evidence suggests she would have been an excellent one. She was adored by the people; on her return from a pilgrimage to Canterbury she was stopped by Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasants’ Revolt movement. Not only was she allowed to pass unharmed but was saluted with accolades and kisses and provided with an escort for the rest of her journey home.


Joan was heavily involved in her son Richard’s upbringing, and when he was in his minority, concerned herself with politics and issues of religion, whilst acting as go-between between the young King and his regents, including his uncle, John of Gaunt, father of the future Henry IV.


The story of Joan does not end happily. Her adult son, John Holland, was on campaign in Scotland, when a brawl broke out, resulting in the death of the son of the Earl of Stafford, a favourite of Richard’s II queen, Anne of Bohemia. As was the law, Richard II sentenced his half-brother to death for the murder. Joan pleaded with her royal son tirelessly for four days. On the fifth day, she died suddenly, of unknown causes. A grieving Richard II pardoned his half-brother as his mother would have wished, transmuting the sentence to a forced pilgrimage to the Holy Land.


Even though Prince Edward had made space for Joan beside him in his crypt at Canterbury – even going so far as to commission carvings of his beloved wife’s face to adorn the crypt’s ceiling – Joan specified in her will her desire to be laid to rest beside her first husband, Thomas Holland, in Lincolnshire. Although her Plantagenet line of issue died out with the death of Richard II, through her children by Holland she is the ancestress of many English aristocratic families.




Books about Joan:

The First Princess of Wales by Karen Harper
Lady of the Garter by Juliet Dymoke
The Lady Royal by Molly Costain Haycraft



One thought on “Hidden historical heroines (#01: Joan of Kent)

  1. I find it very interesting that Joan of Kent could have very well been a Queen of England if certain things played out differently, and I didn’t even know her name!

    This was a very interesting thing to read. Thank you! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: