Joan, Lady of Wales

Detail of the sarcophagus thought to belong to Joan in St Mary’s and St Nicholas’s Church, Beaumaris

Many daughters, especially those of kings, had little or no say in who they would marry; they were bargaining pieces in the search for alliances. Even their legitimacy mattered little compared to what they could bring to the table, if their fathers were powerful enough. Joan, or Joanna, the illegitimate daughter of King John, was one such young lady.

Very little is known of Joan until her appearance on the international stage in 1203, aged twelve or thirteen. It was in that year mention is made of a ship, chartered in Normandy, ‘to carry the king’s daughter and the king’s accoutrements to England’.¹ The daughter in question appears to be Joan, born around 1191 to an unknown mother, possibly a lady by the name of Clemencia or Clementina. Nothing is known of Joan’s childhood, which appears to have been spent in Normandy. However, although she grew up in obscurity, Joan must have received an education suitable to her rank as the daughter of a prince and, later, king; after all, her father intended to marry her to a prince and so would need her to be able to act the part of a princess.

By 15 October 1204 Joan was betrothed to the foremost prince in Wales; Llywelyn ab Iorweth, prince of Gwynedd, also known as Llywelyn Fawr, or Llywelyn the Great. In the summer of 1204, he had paid homage to King John for his Welsh lands, having recognised the English king as overlord by treaty in July 1201; allowing him to marry Joan was a sign of John’s favour. By the time of his marriage, Llywelyn was already an accomplished warrior and experienced statesman; and was the father of at least two children, a son and daughter, Gruffuddd ab Llywelyn and Gwenllian. Their mother was Tangwystl, but her union with Llywelyn was not recognised by the Church and the children were considered illegitimate under Church law.

Joan and Llywelyn were probably married in the spring of 1205; part of Joan’s dowry, the castle and manor of Ellesmere, were granted to Llywelyn on 16 April 1205, suggesting the wedding took place around that time. Joan was fourteen or fifteen at the time; at thirty-two, Llywelyn was about eighteen years her senior. Having been uprooted from her home in Normandy, she had probably spent a year at the English court, learning of the politics and duties associated with her new home in Wales. The language and traditions of her new homeland would have been completely alien to the young woman. Even her name was not the same, in Welsh, she was known as Siwan.

Arms of the royal house of Gwynedd

For someone barely into her teenage years, all these changes must have been daunting. Not only was she expected to become a wife and a princess to a nation that was totally alien to her, but her responsibilities also included the role of peacemaker. In a prestigious marriage for an illegitimate daughter, Joan was thrown into the heart of Anglo-Welsh relations. She was to become an important diplomatic tool for her father and, later, her half-brother, Henry III; acting as negotiator and peacemaker between the English crown and her husband, almost from the first day of her marriage.

Despite the marriage of Joan and Llywelyn, relations between England and Wales were rarely cordial. Following a devastating defeat by the English in 1211, in which the invading army had swept into Gwynedd, capturing the Bishop of Bangor in his own cathedral, Joan’s skills were sorely needed and

‘Llywelyn, being unable to suffer the King’s rage, sent his wife, the King’s daughter, to him by the counsel of his leading men to seek to make peace with the King on whatever terms he could.’

Brut y Tywysogyn or The Chronicle of the Princes: Peniarth MS 20 Version, editor T. Jones

Joan managed to negotiate peace, but at a high price, including the loss of the Four Cantrefs (the land between the Conwy and the Dee rivers), a heavy tribute of cattle and horses and the surrender of hostages, including Llywelyn’s son, Gruffudd.

Following a deterioration of Anglo-Welsh relations, and as a precursor to invasion, twenty-eight of the Welsh hostages were hanged in 1212. However, the attack was called off when John received word from Joan that his barons were planning treason closer to home. The last years of John’s reign were taken up with conflict with his barons, leading to the issuing of Magna Carta in 1215 and a French invasion by Louis, eldest son of Philip II Augustus. The last thing John needed, if he was to save his kingdom, was to be distracted by discontent in Wales. In 1214 Joan successfully negotiated with her father for the release of the Welsh hostages still in English hands, including Llywelyn’s son, Gruffudd; they were freed the following year.

Following her father’s death in October 1216, Joan continued to work towards peace between Wales and England. She visited Henry in person in September 1224, meeting him in Worcester; Joan seems to have had a good relationship with her half-brother, evidenced by his gifts to her of the manor of Rothley in Leicestershire, in 1225, followed by that of Condover in Shropshire, in 1226. An extant letter to Henry III, addressed to her ‘most excellent lord and dearest brother’ is a plea for him to come to an understanding with Llywelyn.

Statue of Llywelyn the Great, Conwy

In the letter, Joan uses her relationship with Henry to try to ease the mounting tensions between the two men. She describes her grief ‘beyond measure’ that discord between her husband and brother had arisen out of the machinations of their enemies, and reassures her brother of Llywelyn’s affection for him. In the mid-1220s, Henry acted as a sponsor, with Llywelyn, in Joan’s appeal to Pope Honorius III to be declared legitimate; in 1226 her appeal was allowed on the grounds that neither of Joan’s parents had been married to others when she was born.

Joan and Llywelyn’s marriage appears to have been, for the most part, a successful one. Joan’s high-born status, as the daughter of a king, brought great prestige to Gwynedd. As a consequence, her household was doubled from four to eight staff, including a cook who could prepare Joan’s favourite dishes. Llywelyn seems to have valued his wife’s opinion; as we have seen, he often made use of her diplomatic skills and relationship with the English court and he often consulted her on other matters. Her influence extended to Welsh legal texts, which, from this period onwards, included French words. Joan’s position was strengthened even further by the arrival of her children. Sometime between 1212 and 1215, her son, Dafydd, was born; in 1220 he was recognised as Llywelyn’s heir by Henry III, officially supplanting his older, illegitimate, half-brother, Gruffudd, who was entitled to his father’s lands under Welsh law.

The move received papal approval in 1222. As a result, in 1229 Dafydd performed homage to Henry III, as his father’s heir. A daughter, Elen, was probably born around 1210, as she was first married in 1222, to John the Scot, Earl of Chester. Her second marriage, in 1237 or 1238, was to Robert de Quincy. Joan was the mother to at least two more of Llywelyn’s daughters, Gwladus and Margaret. Gwladus was married to Reginald de Braose. Her stepson, William (V) de Braose, was to play a big part in Joan’s scandalous downfall in 1230.

Joan’s life in the first quarter of the 13th century had been exemplary; she was the ideal medieval woman, a dutiful daughter and wife, whose marriage helped to broker peace, if an uneasy one, between two countries. She had fulfilled her wifely duties, both by providing a son and heir and being supportive of her husband to the extent that she should not be included in the roll call of scandalous women – however, in 1230, everything changed.

William de Braose was a wealthy Norman baron with estates along the Welsh Marches, he was the grandson of Maud de Braose, who starved to death in King John’s dungeons. Hated by the Welsh, who had given him the nickname Gwilym Ddu, or Black William, he had been taken prisoner by Llywelyn in 1228, near Montgomery. Although he had been released after paying a ransom, de Braose had returned to Llywelyn’s court to arrange a marriage between his daughter, Isabella, and Llywelyn’s son and heir, Dafydd. During this stay, William de Braose was ‘caught in Llywelyn’s chamber with the King of England’s daughter, Llywelyn’s wife’. ²

Contemporaries were deeply shocked at Joan’s betrayal of her husband; indeed, following this scandal, Welsh law identified the sexual misconduct of the wife of a ruler as ‘the greatest disgrace’. Joan was no young girl struggling to come to terms with her position in life; she was about forty years old, had been Llywelyn’s consort for twenty-five years and had borne him at least two children when the affair was discovered. The most surprising thing about the whole affair, moreover, is Llywelyn’s response. His initial anger saw William de Braose impoverished, put on trial and hanged from the nearest tree on 2 May 1230. Joan was imprisoned in a tower. This rage, however vicious, was remarkably brief.

Maybe it was due to the strength of the previous relationship between Llywelyn and Joan, or maybe it was the high value placed on Joan’s diplomatic skills and her links with the English court; but within a year the terms of Joan’s imprisonment had been relaxed and just months after that, she was back on the political stage. Llywelyn appears to have forgiven her; the couple were reconciled and Joan returned to her life and position as Lady of Wales. Indeed, Joan soon reprised her diplomatic duties. She attended a conference between her husband, son and her brother, Henry III at Shrewsbury, in 1232. Despite William de Braose’s betrayal of Llywelyn, and subsequent violent death, the wedding between his daughter, Isabella, and Llywelyn’s son, Dafydd, was not derailed and by 1232 they were married.

Llywelyn with his sons, Dafydd and Gruffudd

Joan’s indiscretion was forgiven by Llywelyn, maybe even forgotten, and when she died on 2 February 1237, the Welsh prince was deeply affected by grief. Joan died at Garth Celyn, Abergwyngregyn, on the north coast of Gwynedd. She was buried close to the shore of Llanfaes, in the Franciscan friary that Llywelyn founded in her memory – a testament to his love for her. The friary was consecrated in 1240, just a few months before Llywelyn’s own death in April of that year. The friary was destroyed in 1537, during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

Joan’s remains were lost, but her coffin was eventually found, being used as a horse trough in the town of Beaumaris, on Anglesey. It is a testament to Joan’s personality, and the strength of her relationship with Llywelyn, that her affair with de Braose had few lasting consequences for her. Had she been younger, when the legitimacy of her children could have been called into question, her punishment could have been much harsher and the consequences more far-reaching.

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Footnotes: ¹ Magna rotuli, 2–569, quoted in Joan, d. 1237, by Kate Norgate and Rev. A.D. Carr in Oxfroddnb.com; ² ibid.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources: Oxforddnb.com; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225 by Robert Bartlett; Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Story of Britain by Roy Strong; The Plantagenets, the Kings who Made England by Dan Jones; The Life and Times of King John by Maurice Ashley; The Plantagenet Chronicles Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Oxforddnb.com; magnacartareseearch.org; Magna Carta by David Starkey; King John by Marc Morris; King John, England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant by Stephen Church; 1215, the Year of Magna Carta by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham; Women in Thirteenth Century Lincolnshire by Louise J. Wilkinson.

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16 thoughts on “Joan, Lady of Wales

  1. Janice Harshbarger 02/05/2020 / 13:14

    Lady Joan is one of my favorite ancestors.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lynne Aldridge 19/08/2020 / 12:44

      Also recently discovered she’s an ancestor of mine on the maternal side.

      Like

      • Sharon Bennett Connolly 19/08/2020 / 12:58

        How wonderful, Lynne. She’s such a fascinating character – would have loved to meet her. Best wishes, Sharon

        Like

  2. Jean Setering 02/05/2020 / 13:28

    Thank you. Very interesting.👑

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Michael Dearth 02/05/2020 / 15:13

    Nice article on a lady I’d not heard of as usual Sharon, thanks

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  4. foodinbooks 03/05/2020 / 15:58

    Great article and very informative. Another wonderful story about a woman previously lost to history and that you have brought to light. Keep at it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. c.curtis 06/05/2020 / 14:50

    Thank you! I wonder if the affair with William de Braose was not an affair at all, but rather a rape. In those days (and all too often in ours) the woman would have been seen as a guilty accomplice. That might explain her being so quickly forgiven. (You give references; I shall have to read more!)

    By the way, Siwan is not a radical name change, it is simply how you spell “Joan” in Welsh. “Si” is a “sh” of “zh” sound, and “w” is a long “o”. The result would be a bit different from our modern pronunciation, but very close to the French (and presumably Norman) pronunciation of “Joan that she grew up with.

    Like

    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 06/05/2020 / 15:02

      Hi, thanks for the reply. I have considered the possibility of a rape. Although it is possible, I think the fact they were in the lady’s own chamber, and in her own property argues against it. Joan would have been well protected and guarded against such an attack, which suggests she invited William in. I also think Llywelyn’s reaction also suggests otherwise. In his letters to William Marshal and Eve Marshal – Braose’s wife – he excuses his execution of William as a matter of necessity, forced on him by his barons, to protect Welsh honour and makes no mention of violence against his wife. Although this isn’t proof against an assault, it certainly reads as Llywelyn believing the liaison was mutual. Joan’s return to public life only 12 months later was also more of necessity than anything – she was Llywelyn’s link with the English court and seems to have had a knack of getting Henry III to be more lenient towards Llywelyn than he might otherwise have been. Joan was, after all, a member of the English royal family and it is not beyond credibility that Henry put pressure on Llywelyn to forgive Joan. It is a strange quirk of the children of King John that, while he was a tyrant, his children were all very close to each other, even though they had not grown up together.
      The true answer, of course, is that we will never know the truth of the matter. But it is great to consider the possibilities. And I may change my response when I have read the new biography of Joan, which is coming out in August. It’s actually written by Danna Messer, my editor for Ladies of Magna Carta – and it should be a good read!
      My very best wishes,
      Sharon

      Like

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