Joan, Countess of Kent (September 29, 1328 – August 7, 1385), known to history as The Fair Maid of Kent, was the first Princess of Wales. The French chronicler Froissart called her "the most beautiful woman in all the realm of England, and the most loving." The "fair maid of Kent" appellation does not appear to be contemporary.
Her father, Edmund, was a younger half-brother of Edward II of England. Edmund's support of the King placed him in conflict with the Queen, Isabella of France, and her lover Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March. Edmund was executed after Edward II's deposition, and Joan, her mother and her siblings were placed under house-arrest in Arundel Castle when Joan was only two years old.
At the age of twelve (1340), Joan entered into a clandestine marriage with Thomas Holland of Broughton, without first gaining the royal consent necessary for couples of their rank. The following winter (1340 or 1341), while Holland was overseas, her family forced her into a marriage with William Montacute, son and heir of the 1st Earl of Salisbury. Joan later claimed she was afraid that disclosing her previous marriage would lead to Thomas's execution for treason on his return, and so did not disclose it. She may also have become convinced that the earlier marriage was invalid .
Joan is often identified as the countess of Salisbury who, legend says, inspired Edward III's founding of the Order of the Garter. It is equally possible, however, that the woman in the case was her mother-in-law Catherine Montacute, Countess of Salisbury.
Several years later, Thomas Holland returned from the Crusades, having made his fortune, and the full story of his earlier relationship with Joan came out. Thomas appealed to the Pope for the return of his wife and confessed the secret marriage to the king. When the Earl of Salisbury discovered that Joan supported Holland’s case, he kept her a prisoner in her own home.
In 1349, Pope Clement VI annulled Joan’s marriage to the Earl and sent her back to Thomas Holland, with whom she lived for the next eleven years. They had four known children (though some sources list five), before Holland died in 1360. Their children were:
Additional children also listed:
The secret marriage they are said to have contracted in 1361 would have been invalid because of the consanguinity prohibition. At the King's request, the Pope granted a dispensation allowing the two to be legally married. The official ceremony occurred on October 10, 1361, at Windsor Castle with the King and Queen in attendance. The Archbishop of Canterbury presided.
In 1362 the Black Prince was invested as Prince of Aquitaine, a region of France which belonged to the English Crown since the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II. He and Joan moved to Bordeaux, the capital of the principality, where they spent the next nine years. Two sons were born in France to the royal couple. The elder son, named Edward (27 January 1365 - 1372) after his father and grandfather, died at the age of six.
Around the time of the birth of their younger son, Richard, the Prince was lured into a war on behalf of Pedro the Cruel, ruler of Castile. The ensuing battle was one of the Black Prince’s greatest victories, but King Pedro was later killed, and there was no money to pay the troops. In the meantime, the Princess was forced to raise another army, because the Prince’s enemies were threatening Aquitaine in his absence.
Joan’s son was next in line to succeed King Edward III. Edward III died on 21 June, 1377 and Richard became King. He was crowned Richard II at the age of 10 in the following month. Early in his reign, the young King faced the challenge of the Peasants' Revolt. The Lollards, religious reformers led by John Wyclif, had enjoyed the protection of Joan of Kent, but the violent climax of the popular movement for reform reduced the feisty Joan to a state of terror, while leaving the King with an improved reputation.
As a power behind the throne, she was well-loved for her influence over the young king - for example, on her return to London (via her Wickhambreaux estate) from a pilgrimage to Becket's shrine at Canterbury Cathedral in 1381, she found her way barred by Wat Tyler and his mob of rebels on Blackheath but was not only let through unharmed, but saluted with kisses and provided with an escort for the rest of her journey.
In 1385, Sir John Holland, an adult son of her first marriage, was campaigning with the King in the Kingdom of Scotland, when a quarrel broke out between him and Ralph Stafford, son of the 2nd Earl of Stafford, a favourite of the new Queen Anne of Bohemia. Stafford was killed, and John Holland sought sanctuary at the shrine of St John of Beverley. On the King’s return, Holland was condemned to death. Joan pleaded with her son for four days to spare his half-brother. On the fifth day, (the exact date in August is not known), she died, at Wallingford Castle. Richard relented, and pardoned Holland (though he was then sent on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land) but the damage was done.
Joan was buried, as requested in her will, at the Greyfriars, the site of the present hospital, in Stamford in Lincolnshire, beside her first husband. Her third husband, the Black Prince, had built a chantry for her in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral (where he was to have been buried), with ceiling bosses of her face. (Another boss in the north nave aisle is also said to be of her.)
Joan is a primary figure in The Lady Royal, a fictionalized biography by Molly Costain Haycraft. It presents Joan as an antagonist to her cousin Princess Isabella, and a rival for the affections of Enguerrand de Coucy.
She is also the protagonist of Sweet Passion's Pain, republished as The First Princess of Wales, by Karen Harper. The novel depicts Joan throughout her life, as a young, headstrong teenager sent to court for the first time, to her marriage to the Black Prince many years later after overcoming adversaries and scandal.
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