Hidden historical heroines (#09: Joanna Plantagenet)


Joanna Plantagenet of England (October 1165 ā€“ 24 September 1199) was the seventh child of Henry II of England and his infamous queen consort, Eleanor of Aquitaine. During the course of her life she was a Princess of England, the Queen of Sicily and the Countess of Toulouse.


Being the youngest of the royal couple’s three daughters, Joanna spent her youth at her mother’s courts at Winchester and Poitiers and didn’t seem to have much to do with her father. She did however spend periods of time in the company of her various brothers, a few of whom are noted by contemporaries to have been fond of their little sister. In 1176, William II of Sicily sent ambassadors to the English court to ask for Joanna’s hand in marriage. The ambassadors reported back that the young Plantagenet Princess was a beauty, with strawberry blonde hair and fine features and was already well versed in languages, music and household management. The betrothal was confirmed and little Joanna set sail for Sicily.


After a hazardous voyage, Joanna arrived safely, and on 13 February 1177, she married King William and was accordingly crowned Queen of Sicily. She was just twelve, her husband twenty-three. The couple had one son, Bohemond, born in 1181; Bohemond disappears completely from the historical record so it can be deduced that he did not survive infancy. As a result, the direct line of Norman-Sicilian Kings through William II died out.


William II died suddenly in November 1189. His only potential heir was his aunt, youngest child of the late King Roger II. This aunt, Constance, was at this time married to the Emperor Henry VI of Germany. Before the Empress could muster herself to claim her hereditary rights, the Sicilian crown was claimed by one Tancred. Tancred was – like William II had been – a grandson of Roger II, however he was from an illegitimate branch and had no right to the throne. Tancred however was a master politician and had managed to garner favour and support from the tempestuous Norman-Italian barons.


Joanna of course supported the legitimate and lawful heir, the Empress Constance. Joanna had been a good queen and was well-loved by the Sicilian people, both the nobility and the lay-folk. Fearing her influence, Tancred clamped down on her freedoms, taking away her right to travel around the kingdom and also seized both her pension due to her as Queen Dowager and also the land and revenue therefrom that she had brought into her marriage with William. Joanna was a virtual prisoner.


By this time, Joanna’s closest brother – Richard I (“the Lionheart”) had succeeded their father as King and was incensed by this treatment of his sister, a Norman Queen. He detoured to Italy on the way to Crusading in the Holy Land in 1190 where he demanded the bodily return of his sister to her family along with every penny of her dowry. Tancred refused and so Richard decided he’d spend the winter in Italy, seizing monasteries, castles and the entire city of Messina to highlight his military might and his deadly seriousness when it came to his sister. Tancred had no option but to return Joanna and her lands.


Richard was in the process of taking a bride, Berengaria of Navarre, a match championed by his mother Eleanor, as Navarre bordered her land of Aquitaine. Eleanor arrived in Messina with Berengaria in March 1191, but as it was the Lenten season the wedding could not take place. Richard put his young bride into his sister’s custody when his mother returned to her estates and the two young women became close friends. Richard, Joanna, Berengaria and the rest of Richard’s retinue set sail for the Holy Land.


Two days out to sea Richard’s fleet was hit by a terrible storm which destroyed several vessels and forced the ship carrying Joanna and Berengaria miles and miles off course; they became stranded on the island of Cyprus. Sovereignty of Cyprus at this time had been seized by a tyrant, one Isaac Comnemus, who must have thought his luck had come in indeed when he realised the importance of two of the passengers now in his control.


Richard meanwhile had made it to Crete where he restocked before sailing out immediately in search of his sister and bride. He sped to Cyprus where he quickly liberated the women, however he lost his treasure in the process. The indomitable Richard of course simply chased the piratical Isaac down and captured him. According to Cypriot tradition, Isaac begged Richard not to be put into irons, which Richard magnanimously agreed to, before shackling him in chains of silver instead. He declared himself ruler of Cyprus for good measure. Richard also seized Isaac’s only child, a daughter, who goes nameless in all historical records. This daughter joined Richard’s court, attached to the ‘household’ of Joanna and Berengaria. After a time, both Isaac and his daughter were ransomed into the care of the Duke of Austria, who was a distant relation of theirs.


Richard and his fleet once again started for the Holy Land. They arrived in Acre (now Northern Israel) in June 1191. Joanna and Berengaria (now formally married to Richard and recognised as his queen) lived quite comfortably whilst the various Christian Kings of Europe kept themselves busy. It was the capture of Acre that gave rise to the famous image of Richard, suffering from scurvy, picking off Moslem guards on the walls with a crossbow whilst being carried about on a stretcher.


The protracted warfare soon took its toil on both Richard and Saladin (a Sultan of an empire that included Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, Hejaz, Yemen, and parts of North Africa) and they sought peace. At this time Richard offered Joanna in marriage to Saladin’s brother Al-Adil, with a view to making the pair joint rulers of Jerusalem. It seems that Saladin wasn’t totally against the idea, but both Joanna and Al-Adil put paid to the plan very quickly, both stating that they could never marry someone with whom they had such religious differences. Crusader history might look very different had this Plantagenet princess taken co-rule of Jerusalem in her own right in the early 1190s…


European royalty began to consider Joanna with interest. Richard had no legitimate children, so those who wished to make marriage alliances with his dynasty could only do so with his cousins, or – if they were lucky – siblings. Phillip II of France put in a suit for Joanna’s hand but the marriage was blocked on the grounds of consanguinity; Phillip’s father – Louis VII – was the first husband of Joanna’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine.


Eventually Richard settled Joanna on Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse, giving her generous dower lands. The pair married in October 1196; their marriage would go on to produce three children, Raymond (to be Raymond VII, Count of Toulouse), a daughter Mary and a second son who died shortly after birth.


The marriage was not a happy one. Raymond did not treat Joanna with respect, nor did he expect their household to. He took a mistress – some say entered into a bigamous marriage with – that same Cypriot maid, daughter of Isaac Comnemus, previously of Joanna’s household. In 1199, pregnant with her third child, Joanna was left along to face a rebellion in her husband’s lands. Exercising her powers as regent, she arranged to lay siege to the castle of the leader of the rebellious lords, but was betrayed at the last minute. Heavily pregnant, Joanna escaped the threat to her life, heading northward to where her brother Richard was at war in Normandy. When she got to his lands however, she discovered that he had just recently died (6 April 1199). Her mother Eleanor was present and whisked Joanna away to safety at her court at Rouen.


Joanna was world-weary. As the final months of her pregnancy approached she prevailed upon her mother to let her be admitted to Fontevrault Abbey. Eleanor then used her considerable influence to have the nuns take her in; it would usually have been totally inconceivable for a still-married, pregnant woman to be permitted into the Abbey. Joanna went into labour on September 23rd; the boy lived long enough to be baptised Richard. Joanna herself died soon afterwards and was veiled as a nun on her deathbed and buried in the Abbey. She was only 33 years old and was well-mourned around Europe. Her son, the future Raymond VII of Toulouse, was to name his daughter in her honour and when he died, nearly 50 years later, he instructed that he was to be buried at Fontevrault too. His effigy is depicted as kneeling beside his mother, facing her, both praying on their knees at the feet of Henry II. Eleanor and Richard are also buried in the same vault.


Books featuring Joanna.



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