Book Corner: Joan, Lady of Wales by Danna R. Messer

The history of women in medieval Wales before the English conquest of 1282 is one largely shrouded in mystery. For the Age of Princes, an era defined by ever-increased threats of foreign hegemony, internal dynastic strife and constant warfare, the comings and goings of women are little noted in sources. This misfortune touches even the most well-known royal woman of the time, Joan of England (d. 1237), the wife of Llywelyn the Great of Gwynedd, illegitimate daughter of King John and half-sister to Henry III. With evidence of her hand in thwarting a full scale English invasion of Wales to a notorious scandal that ended with the public execution of her supposed lover by her husband and her own imprisonment, Joan’s is a known, but little-told or understood story defined by family turmoil, divided loyalties and political intrigue. From the time her hand was promised in marriage as the result of the first Welsh-English alliance in 1201 to the end of her life, Joan’s place in the political wranglings between England and the Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd was a fundamental one. As the first woman to be designated Lady of Wales, her role as one a political diplomat in early thirteenth-century Anglo-Welsh relations was instrumental. This first-ever account of Siwan, as she was known to the Welsh, interweaves the details of her life and relationships with a gendered re-assessment of Anglo-Welsh politics by highlighting her involvement in affairs, discussing events in which she may well have been involved but have gone unrecorded and her overall deployment of royal female agency.

Finally!

I have got my hands on this much-anticipated book, Joan, Lady of Wales by Danna R. Messer. I have to admit, I devoured every word. Joan has been in need of a biographer for some time, and I am so pleased that Danna took up the challenge and produced this remarkable study of the illegitimate daughter of King John who became Lady of Wales as the wife of Llywelyn ap Iorweth – Llywelyn Fawr.

Ever since I have known this book was being written, I have been itching to get my hands on it!

Anyone who is a fan of Sharon Penman will have heard of Joan, and most likely have a soft spot for this incredible woman. This biography gives you the chance to study the facts, to meet the woman behind the story and read of how deeply involved she was in Anglo-Welsh relations in the first half of the 13th century. Danna R. Messer portrays a politically astute and powerful woman, aware of her duty, importance and capabilities, not only as the daughter and sister of England’s kings, but also as Llywelyns wife and consort – and as the mother of his heir.

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

Beautifully written, with clear, concise arguments and a passion for her subject, the author has brought Joan to life. This is a book that is impossible to put down. Danna R. Messer does not shy away from areas of controversy, either, examining every aspect of Joan’s relationship with William de Braose, the man who was hanged after being found with Joan in Llywelyn’s chamber. the deconstruction of the event, the aftermath and the repercussions make for fascinating reading – its worth getting the book just to discover how everything unfolded.

As are all life stories, that of Joan of England’s is complicated; the complexities of which are further irritated by a dearth of contemporaneous material related to her. The identity of her mother remains a mystery and is much debated by today’s genealogists, as is who her children were. how many she really had and where some even ended up in their own lives. How many times she travelled as an envoy, how many charters she issued and just how fully she participated in effecting Welsh polity can never be fully known. No matter the daunting aspect of approaching such an ill-documented existence, which is a painstaking project indeed, it is one that yields both exciting and long-overdue results.

This study of Joan of England seeks to revise the master narrative of native medieval Wales in the early-thirteenth century – to generate a better ad more inclusively nuanced understanding of the history of this fascinating and wild region of Britain and its relationship with England by placing this particularly interesting and fascinating woman at the forefront in the sequence of events…

Although Siwan’s role in Anglo-Welsh history has received recognition by historians, she has been still largely relegated to the sidelines; an indication that her role was not entirely critical to the stability and growth of Welsh polity, or peace with England overall. On the flip side, it is sometimes difficult not to naturally overplay our hand and emphatically conclude that Joan was, indeed, a heroine and that if it were not for her, the very fabric of native Wales would have been fundamentally altered by the time Llywelyn died in 1240. On balance, however, it is vitally important to understand that the aggregate of Joan’s interventions in the early-thirteenth century ensured that she really was a crucial player in the political wranglings between the ruler of Gwynedd and the rulers of England. The famous early-twentieth-century Welsh historian J.E. Lloyd concluded that Llywelyn ap Iorweth ‘had one emissary whose diplomatic services far outran those of the seneschal and who helped him in this capacity for the greater part of his reign. To the assistance of his wife Joan, both as advocate and counsellor, there can be no doubt he was much indebted.’ To the assistance of Joan, Lady of Wales, there can be no doubt that the history of native medieval Wales is also much indebted.

Joan, Lady of Wales by Danna R. Messer not only examines every aspect of Joan’s life, but places that life in the wider context of English and Welsh events, of Anglo-Welsh relations and of the place of women in Welsh society and history in general. This in-depth study provides an overview analysis of the status of women in Welsh history, the laws surrounding marriage and adultery, legitimate and illegitimate children and demonstrates how Joan’s own confirmation of legitimacy in the 1220s added prestige and legitimacy to her husband’s position within Wales and the wider sphere of Anglo-Welsh relations.

Arms of the royal house of Gwynedd

Danna R. Messer also explores the use of title and authority for women in the 13th century, depicting Joan as a queen, both in her actions and relationship with others. Although she was not crowned and anointed in the same manner as an English queen would be, she held the same level of authority and respect, both in the public and the private sphere of the Welsh court.

A collection of a bout 20 black and white photos help to illustrate Joan’s story, Joan, Lady of Wales is a stunning, comprehensive study of the unique character and position that Joan occupies in both English and Welsh history.

Despite a woeful lack of sources mentioning Joan, Danna has managed to tease out every piece of information she could find on Joan and her position and duties, not only in Wales as the wife and consort of Llywelyn, but also in England as the daughter and, later, sister of the king. Joan’s status as the primary diplomat in Anglo-Welsh relations comes through clearly in the way Joan was treated by her husband and the rewards she was given by the English crown.

In brief, in Joan, Lady of Wales, Danna R. Messer recreates the life and times of this incredible woman, giving us a more complete portrait than has ever been achieved since her own lifetime. We are given a full and complete analysis – as far as the sources and distance of time will allow – of Joan’s political and personal life, the good and the bad, including the scandal, the ambition and Joan’s own legacy and what it meant for those who followed her.

Joan, Lady of Wales has long needed her own biography, to bring her out from the shadows of the lives of her father, brother, husband and son – and this book does not disappoint. It is, quite simply, a beautifully-executed, fascinating and addictive read.

Joan, Lady of Wales is available in hardback from Pen &Sword and Amazon.

About the author:

Dr Danna R. Messer has published on various aspects of the wives of the native Welsh rulers before 1282, providing a gendered perspective of medieval Welsh politics. As an editor and historian, she is widely involved in medieval history and queenship studies generally, including her roles as Series Editor for Medieval History for Pen and Sword, editor for the Royal Studies Journal and editor for Normans to Early Plantagenet Consorts, the first volume of the forthcoming four-book series, English Consorts: Power, Influence, Dynasty (Palgrave). She is also Acquisitions Editor for Arc Humanities Press and the Executive Editor for the Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages, a partnership project with Bloomsbury Academic and Arc Humanities Press.

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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

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