Guest Post: Joan, Lady of Wales by Danna R. Messer

Today it is a distinct pleasure to welcome Danna R. Messer to History … the Interesting Bits to talk about her favourite medieval heroine, Joan, Lady of Wales. I recently review Danna’s new, excellent, biography of Joan and now Danna is here to shine some light on Joan.

Joan, Lady of Wales by Danna R. Messer

When Sharon invited me as a guest she happily told me I could write on ‘any subject relating to Joan’. In theory, given such free range to write about one aspect of my long-lived preoccupation with this true ‘heroine of history’ was a blessing and should have been a cinch. In practice, it stumped me. I have just spent almost three years cobbling together my research to write a book about Joan, never mind the seven years spent using her activities and status as a centrepiece for my PhD research on the wives of native Welsh rulers, or the numerous years before and after exploring as many avenues as I could to find out more about her. What more is there to cover, especially on a woman whose presence only peaks through the evidence and events on what sometimes seems the rarest of occasions? Well, it turns out the answer to that is, there’s plenty. And that is what has stumped me.

By nature, my inclination was to either 1) lean further into her role as a ‘Welsh queen’ and try to continue unpack any of those layers that might still be pliable or 2) think more about her role and expectations as a wife. Old habits are hard to break – especially when these two factors combined have already helped in painting a portrait of her. But, I had to really ask myself, what is missing? What are the things that should be given further, serious consideration when it comes to understanding such a complicated woman as Joan – and by complicated I mean the complications of not only her general life circumstances, but the complications also related to lack of sources.  

After much pondering and reflection, I have decided that the largest part of the answer to ‘what is missing’ is the most obvious and lies in Joan’s experiences and the human emotions that dictated every moment of her life. The study of emotions and their impact on how we react to our own worlds, the world at large and during ‘historical’ events has grown in importance over the past thirty years. The understanding of human emotions and how they make us tick as sentient beings should not, and does not, simply fall under the sole remit of psychologists or neuroscientists. It is also an understanding that should be embraced, or in the least, accepted by historians when writing about the past. As I have often said students taking my medieval history courses, ‘Nothing happens in a vacuum, right?’

Of course, I am aware of the debates surrounding the study of and emphasis on emotions when it comes to constructing a better understanding of history: the argument that emotions are culturally constructed and carry their own specific meanings in context to period and place and are therefore variable over time versus the more universal argument that people in the past felt the same way we do, about their lives, themselves, their relationships, their situations, simply because they, too, were people, human beings just like us. Whether emotions themselves have a history is a mute discussion here. The point is emotions play a role in every situation – for every one of us, in every waking moment of every day. For Joan and the characters that surrounded her, from Llywelyn to John, to Susanna to Dafydd, to her ladies in waiting and her own priest, this was also the case.

Although I do touch on aspects of Joan’s emotions and those of her loved ones, as a trained historian, that is all I felt I could allow myself to do. The human part of me wanted, and still wants to, throw them into the fray and exclaim, ‘Look! Can’t you see? She was [insert] angry/sad/stressed/annoyed/happy/excited/eager. That’s why she did what she did when she did it’. She was human after all. Perhaps this is why historical fiction is such a popular genre. An astute and attentive author like Sharon Penman can give, and has given, a woman such as Joan real depth, a personality, a visceral humanness that by nature is missing from any biography or history written on any individual whose own voice seldomly speaks from the grave.

Having researched Joan for well over twenty years, I often wonder what she thought, how she reacted, how she felt. I envision her as trepidatious – perhaps scared, excited or both — on her initial journey to Wales. I imaging frustration and annoyance at not being able to understand the language of her new home on arrival. The anxiety of ensuring she fulfilled her roles as Llywelyn’s consort and wife; the pressure she felt to learn and adopt the new customs at an accelerated speed. The desire to be accepted, the shame or anger at being rejected as a foreigner. As a bastard. An incomprehensible fear of looming death in 1211 for husband or her father, or even herself and her children. A sense of determination to do right by both her natal and martial families over her long career. A growth in her self-esteem from her younger years as a ‘political princess’ to a deeper sense of empowerment and prerogative as political diplomat, based on knowledge, experience and wisdom as she aged.

What about a sense of freedom? Did she have any, either carrying out her role as a ‘queen’, perhaps on circuit, or managing her own English lands? Or did she simply feel trapped deep down, but made the most of her situation? Undeniably, Joan understood her status and position with both her families and within Anglo-Welsh politics. I suspect moments of real pride in herself and her own achievements could be found in attaining legitimacy (including a sense of spiritual security and, I assume relief), and above all, her witnessing her son’s homage at Westminster, where she was there as a mother, but embracing and imbuing the real power of her status as a ‘queen’. From bastard to ‘queen’, not a bad climb up the social ladder. Perhaps all the more empowering with the thought that such an event essentially placed her publicly on par with a number of her female relatives scattered across Britain and the Continent, who themselves were queens.     

Above all, I often wonder about love, the joys and sorrows it brought her. How long did it take for her and Llywelyn to build a relationship? Was there real love involved? What about William de Braose? Did Joan really experience the anguish of losing someone she loved because of her love? How difficult was it for her to love her father and face his cruelties? What about the worry and love that define motherhood, or parenthood in general? How did she feel watching her daughters leave, one by one, to pastures generally unknown, facing an uncertain future? What about her son, knowing full well that his position, his life, was forever in a precarious balance being Llywelyn’s chosen successor?

Such musings easily occupy the time, but should not be deemed frivolous. They really are important to take into consideration when thinking about Joan, Lady of Wales and her impact on history, evidence or no. Her emotions impacted her and influenced the decisions, actions and outcomes we write about and talk about when it comes to Britain in the early thirteenth century. In the words of one of my favourite writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘Life is a tram of moods like a string of beads, and as we pass through them they proved to be many colored lenses which paint the world in their own hue.’

Thank you so much to Danna for a fascinating article. Danna R. Messer’s book Joan, Lady of Wales: Power and Politics of King John’s Daughter is now available in the UK from Pen & Sword and Amazon.


About the Author:

I am a medieval historian by training and trade. My BA history honours thesis, many moons ago, at the University of Denver was, unsurprisingly, about Joan as a ‘political princess’. Researching her at that time, and over the pond, wasn’t terribly easy. I vividly recall asking a librarian for help when searching the (literal) card catalogue, telling her I was researching medieval Wales to which she responded with utter disbelief, ‘The things that live in the sea?!’ That may have unconsciously propelled my move to Britain after graduation. I earned my MA from the University of York, again using Joan as a centre-piece on the role of illegitimate daughters in England’s royal family. Whilst working full time at the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York, I taught classes on medieval and women’s history for the Centre for Life Long Learning and studied for my PhD, via long distance, at Bangor University. My doctoral thesis is on the uxorial agency of the wives of native Welsh rulers, yet again, where Joan features as a case study.

Over of the past few years I have worked in publishing as an editor for medieval history. I am Acquisitions Editor at Arc Humanities Press, the academic publishing arm of the medieval network CARMEN. Part of my role with Arc includes being the Executive Editor for the Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages, an online encyclopedia run in partnership with Bloomsbury Academic and their Medieval Studies Digital Resource. I am also the Series Editor for both Medieval History and Women’s Studies, with Pen and Sword Books.  

My other publications relating to Joan, Welsh queenship and medieval consorts to date include:

‘Volume 1: Norman to Early Plantagenet Consorts’, English Consorts: Power, Influence, Dynasty, edited by Aidan Norrie, Carolyn Harris, Joanna Laynesmith, Danna Messer and Elena Woodacre, 4 vols. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022)

‘A Model of Welsh Queenship: Joan of England and the Medieval Court of Gwynedd’, Special Edition on Medieval and Early Modern Queenship, edited by Louise Wilkinson, Women’s History Review (2020)

‘Welsh Queenship in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries’, Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages: Core Case Study (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), Bloomsbury Medieval Studies, Web

‘Joan (d. 1237), princess and diplomat’, Dictionary of Welsh Biography Online (2018, revised article), http://wbo.llgc.org.uk/en/s-JOAN-TYW-1237.html

‘Impressions of Welsh Queenship in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries’, in A Companion to Global Queenship, edited by Elena Woodacre (ARC Humanities Press/CARMEN, 2018), pp. 147-58

‘Medieval Monarchs, Female Illegitimacy and Modern Genealogical Matters, Pt. 2: Joan of England, c.1190–1236/7’, Foundations: Newsletter of the Foundation for Medieval Genealogy, 1:4 (2004), 294-8

Filia Notha or Filia Regis?: Kinship and the Acquiescence of Royal Illegitimate Daughters, c.1090–1440’, Foundations: Newsletter of the Foundation for Medieval Genealogy, 1:1 (2003), 51-3

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My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly and Danna R. Messesr

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