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

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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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Pen & SwordAmazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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 UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly