Joan of Kent was the daughter of Prince Edmund of Woodstock, 1st Earl of Kent and his wife Margaret Wake; wife of the Black Prince and mother to King Richard II. She is unusual in that on the death of her brother, the 3rd Earl of Kent and 4th Baron Wake, Joan inherited the titles in her own right.
She may well be named after her maternal grandmother who was Princess Joan, King John’s illegitimate daughter who married Llewelyn the Great of Gwynedd. Just to add to the family tangle, Princess Joan was also cousin to Roger Mortimer, Earl of March. And Roger Mortimer was the man who was Queen Isabella’s lover and the man responsible for the judicial execution of Joan of Kent’s father who had continued to be loyal to the deposed Edward II (Kent’s half brother). Once the usurping Earl of March had been done away with and Edward III assumed control of the throne he arranged for Joan and her sister to come to court. The two girls were raised alongside his own children. So Joan grew up with the Black Prince. Eventually Joan became Edward III’s ward.
Clearly Joan was an important member of the royal family. Whoever won her hand in marriage would gain many points in the medieval power game. Joan had other ideas. She fell in love with Sir Thomas Holland. She was twelve. He was twenty-six. His grandmother was Ela Longespee whose grandfather was the Fist Earl of Salisbury and the illegitimate son of Henry II which puts a whole new meaning on the saying ‘keep it in the family.’ Suffice it to say Thomas Holland wasn’t someone of the make. His ancestry was as illustrious as that of Joan.
The problem was that because the pair had run away to get married it wasn’t strictly legal though very romantic. Joan, and indeed Thomas, required the king’s consent to get married. Her guardians at the time wanted Joan to marry their son, Sir William Montague, who was the second Earl of Salisbury. They didn’t see Joan’s marriage to Thomas as a problem. They simply waited for him to leave the country to go on crusade and then forced Joan to marry their son. In 1341 Holland returned home and wasn’t terribly pleased to discover that his wife was married to another man. Undeterred he set about winning fame in France in what was to become the Hundred Years War as a military commander and then set about regaining Joan. Salisbury put up a fight but in the end Pope Clement VI annulled Joan’s marriage to Salisbury.
Joan’s firstborn son Thomas Holland who became the Earl of Kent was an ancestor of Katherine Parr which is definitely an unexpected connection – though given the medieval penchant for familial marriages it probably shouldn’t be quite such a surprise. Another son married one of John of Gaunt’s daughters. And yet another child was an ancestor of Lady Jane Grey. Sir Thomas died in 1360 leaving Joan a rich widow. She was eventually buried beside her first husband.
As well as being wealthy and well-connected with the royal family Joan was also one of the beauties of her age. She was known as ‘the fair maid of Kent’. Many offers of marriage were made. Joan turned them all down. According to one version of events, one of the Black Prince’s men asked Edward to intercede with Joan on his behalf. Edward found himself falling in love with his childhood companion. They were cousins within the degree prohibited by the church so before they could marry a papal dispensation was required. On her marriage she became the first Princess of Wales.
When she became the Queen Mother her life continued to be the stuff of historical novels and mini-series. She was so loved by the people of England that when she encountered Wat Tyler and his men at Blackheath they let her pass unharmed with an escort (you can’t help wondering who let such an important personage as the king’s mother meander into the path of revolting peasants?). In any event the tale demonstrates that as well as being regarded in the light of national treasure she was also conventionally religious. She was returning from pilgrimage to Canterbury when her path crossed with that of Wat Tyler.