Book Corner: Joanna of Flanders, Heroine and Exile by Julie Sarpy

The new research in this biography solves the riddle of the disappearance of Joanna of Flanders early in the Hundred Years’ War, a leader described by David Hume as ‘the most extraordinary woman of the age’.

Joanna of Flanders, Countess de Montfort and Duchess of Brittany, vanished from public life after 1343 amid the Breton Wars of Succession during the Hundred Years’ War. As wife of the late Duke John de Montfort, Joanna’s rightful place was in Brittany as regent of the duchy for their five-year-old son and heir, John of Brittany. Famed for the defence of Hennebont in 1342 during her husband’s imprisonment, she, along with her children, had accompanied Edward III to England in February 1343 and never departed. She resided in comfortable obscurity at Tickhill Castle, Yorkshire, until her death around 1374.

What happened to her and why? Her extended absence should have provoked more suspicion, but it did not. Edward III certainly orchestrated her relocation from London to Yorkshire and sanctioned her indefinite detention.

Delving deeper into her story the answers to those two questions explore the complexities of medieval social structures, notably in the care of the vulnerable and the custody of women. The 19th-century Breton historian de la Borderie asked if Joanna’s ‘many tests had reversed her intelligence and thrown her into the abyss of madness’, a position accepted by many modern historians – but not by Julie Sarpy.

When my publishers, Amberley, asked if I would like to review Julie Sarpy’s Joanna of Flanders: Heroine and Exile I jumped at the chance. I first came across Joanna of Flanders when writing an article about her son, John V, Duke of Brittany; and I remember thinking, ‘I must look into this woman’. I have not yet had the opportunity (though I will write a blog post if I ever get the time). So, although I was aware of Joanna, I know only the bare bones of her story. Which is why this book intrigued me so much!

Julie Sarpy has done an incredible job of researching the story of Joanna of Flanders. Her investigation has uncovered some remarkable facts about Joanna’s life, the times she lived through and the treatment she received at the hands of her supposed ally, Edward III. This is a balanced, in-depth study of a woman who deserves her time in the limelight. Joanna of Flanders is, in short, an amazing woman, whose story deserves to be known by a much wider audience.

I have to admit to a personal interest in the tale, in grew up not far from Tickhill Castle, South Yorkshire, the site of Joanna’s imprisonment. And though everyone in the area knows about the castle’s connections to King John, to the de Warennes and to the dukes of Lancaster (it is now owned by the duchy of Lancaster), no one seems to know of its role as the prison of poor Joanna.

Joanna of Flanders’ life has not been given its full measure. One wonders how such a remarkable woman has been lost to the ages and ostensibly marginalised. For Joanna of Flanders, Countess of Montfort and Richmond, Duchess of Brittany, was, in her time, the heroine of Hennebont, the pivotal siege during the first half of the Breton Civil War (1341-1365) that prevented the French from taking over Brittany and routing the English early in the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). That was no small feat for anyone, especially a fourteenth-century woman. In fact, she seems to have been exceptional in many ways. Medieval French chronicler and contemporary Jean Froissart professed Joanna of Flanders ‘to possess the courage of a man and the heart of a lion.’ Breton historian Dom Lobineau said of the Countess of Montfort, ‘no adversity could crush her. her consistency in the most desperate circumstances always reassured those who attached [themselves] to her.’ She marshalled men and resources, unlike her rival the Breton-French Jeanne de Penthievre’s husband. Joanna of Flanders rallied her husband’s supporters, the pro-English Montfortist faction, in his absence during the Siege of Hennebont and then secured the safety of his heirs in England, with the aid of Edward III.

Julie Sarpy’s investigation into the life and imprisonment of Joann of Flanders is a fascinating study. The author follows the evidence from the records and chronicles of the time and reconstructs Joanna’s story, dispelling the false stories of her madness and clearly presenting Joanna of Flanders as a political prisoner; a remarkable woman whose imprisonment was essential to furthering the ambitions of her ally, Edward III.

Well written, entertaining and informative, this is an engaging and enjoyable book that should attract any history fan who wants to learn more about Joanna’s life and the wider story of the the Breton Civil War. From the first page, the author draws you in with the mystery of Joanna’ imprisonment and the teaser of who may benefit from having her out of the way. Julie Sarpy then takes you through the complexities of the Breton ducal family, the background and prosecution of the war before concentrating on Joanna’s imprisonment, the reasons behind it and the legal implications.

This is a thorough and absorbing study of a woman who has been largely neglected by history. It’s a story that deserves to be heard and that has been told, in Joanna of Flanders: Heroine and Exile, with remarkable skill and judgement – and a little sympathy for the heroine. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

About the author:

Originally from Louisiana, Julia Sarpy is a subject specialist librarian and adjunct faculty at Nova Southeastern University. She received her doctorate in European History from the University of Houston. A UCLA alum, she also hold master’s degrees from University of North Texas and Southern Methodist University.

Joanna of Flanders: Heroine and Exile is now available from Amberley Publishing and Amazon in the UK and will be released on 1 October 2019 in the US; it is available for pre-order on Amazon US.

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My books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, 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

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly

John de Montfort and the Struggle for Brittany

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John V de Montfort, Duke of Brittany

After writing about Yolande de Dreux a few weeks back, I became intrigued with the story of her grandson, John de Montfort.

John was the only son of John, count of Montfort, and Joan of Flanders. He was probably born in November or December of 1399. His great-grandmother was Beatrice of England, a daughter of Henry III, who was the mother of his grandfather, Arthur, duke of Brittany. John is first mention in 1341 when his childless uncle, John III, duke of Brittany, provided him with 20,000 livres from his patrimony. However, when the duke died on 30 April 1341, the duchy was thrown into turmoil. Civil war erupted when John’s father and uncle-by-marriage, Charles de Blois, both laid claim to the duchy.

John de Montfort the elder was the son of Arthur, duke of Brittany, by his 2nd wife, Yolande. Charles de Blois was married to Jeanne de Penthièvre, daughter of Arthur’s 2nd son by his 1st wife; Guy of Brittany. The bitter conflict was to be absorbed into the much greater struggle, between France and England, that became known as the Hundred Years’ War. Edward III of England supported young John’s father, while Philip VI of France backed Charles de Blois.

In November 1341 John’s father was captured and it was up to his mother to assume the de Montfort cause. Edward III sent troops to secure various strongholds, but by late 1342, after an unproductive campaign, he had minimised his military involvement, leaving a lieutenant in charge as he headed back to England, accompanied by John, who was about 3 years old at the time, his mother and his sister, Joan.

As his mother fell into a mental illness that eventually saw her imprisoned in Tickhill Castle, Yorkshire, John was raised in the household of the queen, Philippa of Hainault. Their fortunes revived briefly when John’s father arrived in England 1345, paying homage to Edward III at Easter, having broken his parole and escaped the duchy. He led a small force back to Brittany, but died suddenly in September of the same year, leaving 6-year-old John in the guardianship of Edward III.

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Mary of England, John’s first wife

Sir Thomas Dagworth captured Charles de Blois at Le Roche Derrien in June 1347, giving the English the opportunity to discuss the succession issue. It looked for a time, that Edward would sacrifice; in 1353 a treaty was actually drafted that was heavily in de Blois’ favour, depriving John of most of his rights. Luckily, for John, it was never implemented and de Blois was eventually released, in return for a huge ransom, in 1356.

Edward resolved now to back young John’s claims. Around 17-years-old, John experienced his first military campaign when he fought alongside Henry, duke of Lancaster, in the siege of Rennes, from October 1356 to July 1357, and later taking part in the Rheims campaign of 1359-60. In March, 1361, John married Edward III’s daughter, Mary, at Woodstock. The marriage would end in tragedy as Mary, still only 17, died of plague in September of the same year. Discussions throughout the early 1360s offered no lasting political solution and, now having attained his majority, John returned to Brittany in the summer of 1362.

Further discussions hosted by the Black Prince, including plans to partition the duchy, failed. However, when Charles de Blois was eventually defeated killed in battle at Auray on 29th September 1364 Jeanne de Penthièvre was forced to come to terms with John de Montfort and the Treaty of Guérande was signed on 12th April 1365. John was recognised as John IV duke of Brittany  by Charles V of France, to whom he performed homage for his duchy in December 1366.

Initially, as duke of Brittany, John’s ties to England continued to be strong, his financial debts and other obligations ensuring this. In 1366 he married Joan Holland, step-daughter of Edward, the Black Prince. However, when a lull in the fighting ended in 1369 and France and England were at loggerheads once again, John was caught in a dilemma. As his overlord Charles V was expecting John to fight for France, while Edward III was his old ally and mentor and obviously felt deserving of his loyalty. His prevarications meant his Breton subjects grew restive and when John sided with Edward III, after receiving the earldom of Richmond in 1372 as a sweetener, they openly rebelled.

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Joan of Navarre, John’s 3rd wife

By April 1373 John had lost everything; he fled to England as his duchy was overrun by French troops. And yet, worse was to follow. After participating in John of Gaunt’s chevauchée from Calais to Bordeaux, John was tried for treason in the Paris parlement in December 1378. In total, John spent 6 years in exile, living on his English estates and attending court and parliament; he was the 1st foreign prince to be made a Knight of the Garter, in 1374.

John was invited to Brittany in 1379 by his Breton subjects, who were beginning to become suspicious of Charles V’s intentions; realising that his attempts to bring Brittany into the French royal demesne would threaten her traditional privileges and independence. The Breton constable of France, Bertrand de Guesclin, deliberately failed to oppose the duke’s landing. After Charles V died in September 1380 a peace was negotiated with the aid of the count of Flanders and Louis, duke of Anjou, which was ratified in the 2nd Treaty of Guérande in April 1381.

A consequence of the treaty was that John de Montfort now opposed his former allies in England and Navarre. With Edward III dying in 1377, his young grandson was now King Richard II. The English still occupied Brest, and John was had difficulties in collecting revenues from his English estates. John’s wife, Duchess Joan, had been staying in England during the troubles but, after much wrangling, was finally returned to her husband in 1382, only to die in November 1384. Her death removed an important connection to the English court and Richard II, her half-brother.

The 1380s saw John consolidating his position in Brittany, making alliances with other French princes, such as the dukes of Berry and Burgundy and the king of Navarre. He developed the duchy’s institutions, encouraged trade, devised new taxes and exploited minting rights. On a cultural level,  John expanded his court and encouraged the arts by extensive patronage. He also encouraged loyalty to his family and dynasty, which was helped greatly by his marriage to Joan of Navarre in 1386 and the birth of his long-awaited heir in 1389.

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John V, duke of Brittany

As Anglo-French diplomatic relations thawed in the 1390s, John was able to make a marriage alliance with John of Gaunt, whereby one of his daughters would marry a son of Gaunt’s heir, the earl of Derby. John de Montfort attended the wedding of Richard II and Isabella of France in 1396 and Brest was returned to him in 1397.

Joan and John had an affectionate relationship, producing 8 children, 7 of whom survived to adulthood. John and a 2nd son, Arthur, each became duke of Brittany; Arthur was also constable of France and succeeded his nephew, John’s son Peter, as duke. He died in 1458 and was succeeded by his nephew, Francis, son of his younger brother, Richard, count of Étampes, who had died in 1439. A 4th son, Gilles, died in 1412. Joan and John also had 3 daughters: Marie, countess of Alençon; Blanche, countess of Armagnac and Marguerite, vicomtess de Rohan.

John de Montfort paid one last visit to England in 1398, when he took formal possession of Richmond, attended a Garter ceremony at Windsor and spent some time on progress with Richard II before returning home. He died at Nantes on 1st November 1399, where he was buried. In 1402 his widow, now the wife of Henry IV of England, erected an English-made alabaster tomb over his grave; it was destroyed during the French Revolution. Joan acted as regent for her 10-year-old son, John, until her marriage to Henry; when she entrusted the regency and custody of her Breton children, to the Duke of Burgundy.

Brittany remained an independent duchy within France for another 100 years.

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

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

 

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Sources: Ian Mortimer The Perfect King; Marc Morris Edward I: A Great and Terrible King by Marc Morris;  Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; Britain’s Royal Families by Alison Weir; The Oxford Companion to British History edited by John Cannon; The History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn; The Story of Scotland by Nigel Tranter; Scotland, History of a Nation by David Ross; oxforddnb.com; britannica.com; W.M. Ormrod The Reign of Edward III.

©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly.