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17.12.02, Goodman, Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent

17.12.02, Goodman, Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent

The colourful career of Joan of Kent, Richard II's mother, has long attracted historians' attention by virtue of her two defiantly adventurous marriages, shows of independence which seem to fly in the face of the model of female subordination articulated by the theologians of the Middle Ages, and supposedly for the most part accepted by society at the time. Joan comes across to us today, rather engagingly, as a transgressive figure, a free spirit, someone who dramatically took control of her affairs and either challenged or defied the governing assumptions of her age. It is this boldly independent aspect of her personality--her individuality and ability to exercise power, as he terms it--which the late Anthony Goodman emphasises in this lively new biography, which he completed shortly before his death in October 2016 and which has been brought to publication by his widow, Jackie. In common with all of Professor Goodman's work, the book is meticulously researched and richly nuanced, and written in the terse, matter-of-fact style that he made very much his own. If not quite the 'definitive biography' that Alison Weir hails it to be on the cover jacket--to claim that would be to neglect Penny Lawne's recent study [1]--the book is nonetheless an important work which no student of Joan can afford to neglect. There is much here that is not to be found in Lawne's book.

The bare facts of Joan's career are well known. She was born in about 1328, the daughter and eventual heiress of Edmund of Woodstock, earl of Kent, and Margaret his wife, sister and herself eventual heiress of Thomas, Lord Wake, a Yorkshire and Lincolnshire landowner. After the execution of her father on trumped-up charges of treason by Isabella and Mortimer in 1330, she was brought up under Queen Philippa's tutelage at court, where she caught the eye of a royal household knight, Sir Thomas Holand, who in 1340 persuaded her to marry him. This was a clandestinely arranged match, and it took place in secrecy, remaining hidden from Joan's mother who in ignorance, a year later, was to arrange for her daughter to wed the earl of Salisbury's son, William Montagu. This second marriage, which was probably sponsored by Edward III himself, took place with due ceremony in the winter of 1340-41, while Holand was on active service abroad, and it was only seven years later, by which time he had made a fortune from ransoms, that the latter took the decision to challenge it. In 1347, his hand by now strengthened by his possession of means, he submitted a petition to the papal court at Avignon reclaiming his wife, and so initiated a case which was to drag on through the courts for nearly two years. In the end, it was to be he and not the hapless Montagu who emerged the victor. In 1349 Joan's marriage to Montagu was declared null and void; the union between her and Holand was duly solemnised; and Joan's career thereafter was to be that of a dutiful wife, its blessings counted in the delivery of five healthy children. It was on Holand's premature death in December 1360 that Joan was to embark on the second stage of her extraordinary marital career. In 1361, to almost universal surprise, she accepted an offer of the hand of none other than Edward, the Black Prince, Edward III's son--an unlikely suitor, given that he was expected to wed Margaret, daughter of the count of Flanders and by that means bring Flanders into England's political orbit. For the prince, however, the claims of political advantage counted for nothing compared with the attractions of a beautiful, if by now ageing, widow with a controversial and scandal-ridden past. By the royal paladin Joan was to bear two more children, Edward, born, according to Goodman, in 1364, and Richard, the future Richard II, born three years later. Joan was to survive her second husband by nearly a decade, dying in 1385, by this time a senior and respected figure at court, the king's mother.

Goodman recounts the story of Joan's remarkable career with verve and insight, compressing a great deal into a relatively short study. The problem, however, which faces anyone who attempts to write Joan's life is the distinct lack of sources for her. Joan has bequeathed to us no archive, no body of source material comparable to that which we have for her slightly older contemporary, Elizabeth de Burgh, which Jennifer Ward has put to such good use. [2] For Joan we have no letters, no household accounts, no books which she is known to have owned, not even a good, detailed will to open a window onto her soul: the will which she did make being perfunctory in the extreme. This embarrassing lack of source material constitutes a serious obstacle for anyone wanting to tackle her life, threatening to make any study of it superficial in the extreme. Goodman seeks to get round the problem by writing a "life and times" sort of book, a study of "a fourteenth-century princess and her world," as he terms it in his subtitle. The approach is a perfectly valid one, but the trouble with it is that Joan herself is apt to get lost amidst all the incidental or background detail. In the accounts of her married years Joan virtually disappears, hidden behind the screen constituted by the well reported political or military achievements of her husbands. As Goodman recognises, in common with all in her position, Joan in marriage lost her independent personality at law, leaving as a result little mark in the records. Moreover, to add to the historian's difficulties, she no longer attracted the interest of "the prurient and curious chroniclers" as she "ceased to be a hot topic for gossip and innuendo" (42). The reader is admittedly rewarded with much fascinating information on the careers of her two husbands. Goodman is especially perceptive on the Black Prince, whom he considers an emotional man, apt to see political relations in highly personal terms, and often as a result underestimating or failing to appreciate the wider implications of his decisions. The nearest we come to any insight into the intimate side of his and his wife's marriage is the suggestion that, since Joan did not conceive until at least two years into their union, whereas she had had five children by her previous marriage, her husband may well have been infertile. As for the rest, there is a lot of "it is likely that" (e.g., 8), "one imagines" (106), and "we may surmise that" (e.g., 61). Goodman concedes that "we have only a few indications that she exerted power and influence" (107) in her time in Aquitaine. And he admits that "we cannot [even] be certain where the couple held court when they were in Bordeaux" (85). Nonetheless, he feels confident that in Aquitaine "Joan became a person of authority in right of her character as well as of her status" (107). That may well have been the case; but the trouble is that there is not a great deal of evidence to support the statement.

In the absence of any big new idea to offer his readers about Joan, Goodman falls back on the regular historian's stand-by of contextualisation. His argument here is that Joan's career can only be understood in relation to contemporary "developments in religious aims and attitudes [which] gave greater respect and scope for ladies and their potentialities" (177). By the fourteenth century, Goodman maintains, it was increasingly accepted that the partners involved in a marriage should give their free and mutual consent to a match; and that, if the match had been contracted when the pair were under age, then that consent should be given when they attained the age of puberty. While, as he admits, the Church's recognition of mutual rights in marriage may still have been inadequate, it nonetheless, in his view, set standards and to some degree raised female expectations. At the same time, he goes on, this shift in contemporary attitudes was reinforced by new perceptions of the nature of women which had the effect of remoulding gender relations and encouraging more appreciative views of womankind. In this connection Goodman cites the Church's willingness to receive vows of chastity from newly widowed ladies, which much reduced the pressure on them to remarry and paved the way for careers such as that of the long-lived Joan, countess of Hereford (d. 1419), who presided over vast estates in over forty years of widowhood. Goodman concludes that "the greater self-worth which the Church's revisionary attitudes had induced in women by the fourteenth century inspired them with greater expectations of marrying for love, or finding love in marriage" (184). The points which Goodman makes here are all very valid ones, and it is hard to find anything to say against them. Taken together, however, they raise an important question about how we interpret Joan as an historical actress: namely, if we accept this contextualisation of her career, then does she cease to be the boldly transgressive figure which we have long seen her as? Interpreted in relation to the background of the changing attitudes of her times, does her behaviour become more normative and less exceptional? These are questions which Goodman's discussion raises but which he does not directly address.

To offer these observations, and to pose these questions, is not in any way to decry the achievement of Goodman's book. This is a richly nuanced study which offers many new insights into Joan's character and career. To take some examples: Goodman detects in her the "glimmerings of her sometimes unconventional piety, her polished courtliness, her exceptional personal magnetism--and steely determination" (177). He highlights her willingness to take on the role of mediator even though she was not actually a queen or a queen dowager. He draws attention to the restraint which she showed as a landowner, declining both to build up a gentry retinue and to rule the roost locally, instead concentrating her activities on the court; and he commends her for not dissipating her estates in widowhood to the detriment of her son, the king. All these insights help us to capture the real Joan, the lady who attracted the attention of contemporaries but whose allure is so difficult for us today to grasp.

In conclusion, it is worth adding that the book is well produced and contains very few errors (but note that Hargrove, Bedfordshire [145] should read Chalgrave, Bedfordshire). To help the reader, there are four maps of England and France and three genealogies of Europe's royal families. Unfortunately, however, there is no genealogy of Joan's own family, which is the aid of which the reader is most in need. Goodman eschews all jargon and his text can be appreciated by expert and non-expert alike.

-------- Notes:

1. P. Lawne, Joan of Kent: the First Princess of Wales (Stroud, 2015).

2. J.C. Ward, English Noblewomen in the Later Middle Ages (London, 1992); J.C. Ward, "Elizabeth de Burgh, Lady of Clare (d. 1360)," in Medieval London Widows, 1300-1500, eds. C.M. Barron and A.F. Sutton (London, 1994), 29-45; J. Ward (ed.), Women of the English Nobility and Gentry, 1066-1500 (Manchester, 1995).