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

The Struggles of Alice

tickhill_castle
The bailey of Tickhill Castle, South Yorkshire

Alice, Countess of Eu, was born into 2 of the noblest families of England and France, and married into a 3rd. The daughter of Henry, Count of Eu and Lord Hastings, her mother was Matilda, daughter of Hamelin and Isabel de Warenne, Earl and Countess of Surrey.

Through her maternal grandparents, Alice was closely related to the kings of England. Her grandfather, Hamelin, was the illegitimate  half-brother of King Henry II of England. Richard I and King John, therefore, were her cousins. Alice’s grandmother, Isabel de Warenne, had been one of the richest, most prized heiresses in England and had first been married to the younger son of King Stephen, before she married Hamelin.

Alice’s father, Henry, held lands in England and Normandy. The Honour of Tickhill, in Yorkshire, had been granted to Henry’s father John, Count of Eu, by King Stephen, in 1139, after proving his rights as heir to the original owners, the de Busil family, through Beatrice, the sister of Roger de Busil, who died in 1102. However, in 1141, Empress Matilda captured the castle after Count John was taken prisoner at the Battle of Lincoln. The castle seems to have stayed in  royal hands for many years afterwards, with Richard I taking possession on his accession; he then gave it to his brother John, as part of his holdings. As a consequence, the castle was besieged by the Bishop of Durham when John rebelled against Richard in 1194 and was surrendered only when the king returned to England following his capture and imprisonment in Germany, 3 years after Henry’s death.

Matilda and Henry had 4 children, 2 sons and 2 daughters. Alice was the eldest of the daughters, her sister Jeanne being younger. Sadly, both sons, Raoul and Guy, died young and in consecutive years, with Guy dying in 1185 and Raoul in 1186, leaving Alice as heir to her father’s lands.

Alice’s father died in 1191, and Alice became suo jure Countess of Eu and Lady Hastings. Alice’s mother, Matilda, later married again; her second husband was Henry d’Estouteville of Eckington, Lord of Valmont and Rames in Normandy. Matilda had a son, John, by d’Estouteville, and it was Alice’s half-brother, therefore, who became the heir to all the lands Matilda held in her own right, leaving Alice solely with the inheritance from her father.

Very little is known of Alice’s early years; we do not even have a year for her birth. Given that her grandparents did not marry until 1164, her parents would not have married until the early 1180s, which would mean is likely that Alice was born sometime around the mid-1180s. On her father’s death in 1191, she came into possession of lands in both England and Normandy, France. In August, 1209, Alice officially received the Comté of Eu from Philip II Augustus, King of France, when she also made a quitclaim of all rights to Neufchatel, Mortemer and Arques. Mortemer was a part of the de Warenne ancestral lands in Normandy, given to William I de Warenne by Willliam the Conqueror; suggesting that Alice was renouncing her own rights to the French de Warenne lands, as a granddaughter of Isabel de Warenne, Countess of Surrey.

Alice made a prestigious marriage to Raoul de Lusignan, the second son of Hugh IX de Lusignan and a powerful Poitevin lord. It was Raoul’s brother, Hugh X, who would repudiate Joanna, the daughter of King John, in order to marry the dead king’s widow and queen, Isabelle d’Angoulême.

Raoul had been previously married to Marguerite de Courtney, but the marriage had been annulled by 1213, suggesting Alice and Raoul married around that time. On marrying Alice, Raoul became Raoul I, Count of Eu in right of his wife.

Arms of Humphrey de Bohun, 2nd Earl of Hereford and Earl of Essex, Constable of England

Raoul and Alice had two children together; a son, Raoul and a daughter, Mathilde. Raoul II de Lusignan, Count of Eu and Guînes, was married 3 times and had one daughter, Marie de Lusignan, by his 2nd wife, Yolande de Dreux. Raoul died sometime between 1245 and 1250 and was buried at the Abbey of Foucarmont. Mathilde married Humphgrey de Bohun, 2nd Earl of Hereford and Earl of Essex, and had 7 children together, including 4 boys. Mathhilde died in August 1241 and was buried in Llanthony Secunda Priory, Gloucester. Her husband was buried beside her when he died in September 1275.

In 1214 Alice, as Countess of Eu, was restored to the Honour of Tickhill by King John as part of the conditions of an agreement with her husband’s family, the de Lusignans. However, Robert de Vipont, who was in physical possession of the castle, refused to relinquish it, and claimed the castle in his own right. It took many years and much litigation before Alice finally took possession of the castle in 1222. Her husband, Raoul, died on 1st May, 1219, and was succeeded as Count of Eu by their son, Raoul II, still only a child.

It was left to Alice, now Dowager Countess, to administer the Eu inheritance. She paid 15,000 silver marks to the French King to receive the county of Eu in her own name and regained control of her English lands, entrusted to her uncle, the Earl of Surrey, as her representative, following her husband’s death.

Alice was a shrewd political survivor. However, with lands in France and England, two countries often at war, she found herself caught between a rock and a hard place. In 1225 she handed Tickhill Castle to Henry III, until the end of hostilities with France, as a means of safeguarding her lands. Nevertheless, this did not save her when she was ordered to levy troops for the French king, Louis IX, as Countess of Eu, and send her forces to fight for him. Henry III seized Tickhill Castle, although it was only permanently attached to the English crown after Alice’s death.

Alice was renowned for her wide patronage, both secular and religious, and has left numerous charters as testament. She was a benefactor of both French and English religious houses, including Battle Abbey and Christ Church, Canterbury in England and Eu and Foucarmont – where her son would be laid to rest – in France. Alice issued a charter in 1219, to Roche Abbey, which was witnessed by her uncle William, Earl de Warenne. She also granted an annual allowance to Loretta, Countess of Leicester, who was living as a recluse at Hackington.

Alice also granted several lands to others, such as Greetwell in the county of Lincoln, which had previously been held by Walter de Tylly in Alice’s name and was given to Earl de Warenne in August 1225; the earl was to annually render a sparrowhawk to Philippa de Tylly in payment.  In 1232 Alice issued a charter to Malvesin de Hersy, of Osberton in the county of Nottingham, providing him with all customs due to Tickhill in return for 2 knights’ fees. Malvesin had been constable of Tickhill in 1220-1 and his brother Sir Baldwin de Hersy was Constable of Consibrough Castle, seat of Earl de Warenne.

The gatehouse of Tickhill Castle

Having spent most of her life fighting for her rights to her lands in England and France, caught between 2 great nations, whose relations were acrimonious to say the least, Alice appears to have conducted herself admirably. Her connections to the powerful de Lusignan and de Warenne families could not have harmed her situation.

Now in her early 60s, and having been a widow for almost 30 years, Alice died sometime in May 1246, probably between the 13th and 15th, at La Mothe St Héray in Poitou, France, leaving a will. It seems likely that she was buried at her husband’s foundation of Fontblanche Priory in Exoudon.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Sources: Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings by Robert Batlett; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; british-history.ac.uk; kristiedean.com; English Heritage Guidebook for Conisbrough Castle by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadrei; oxforddnb.com; Tickhill Castle Guide Leaflet, Lords of the Honour of Tickhill.

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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 – the famous, the infamous and the unknown – Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in paperback from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon in the UK and US and worldwide from Book Depository.

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Be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebookpage or joining me on Twitter.

©2017 Sharon Bennett Connolly.