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Who was the Fair Maid of Kent?

Her name was Joan and she was born nearly 700 years ago.

The ceiling boss

Fair?  She was fair in so far as she was “fair of face”. The chronicler Jean Froissart described her as “la plus belle dame de tout la roiaulme d’Engleterre” – the most beautiful woman in all the realm of England. And Chandos Herald wrote that she was “beautiful, pleasant and wise”. As to the colour of her hair, she may have had golden fair hair or she may not, we simply don’t know as there are no confirmed contemporary pictures or representations of Joan. There is a large carved ceiling boss in the chantry chapel beside the Chapel of Our Lady Undercroft in Canterbury Cathedral which might be Joan, as Prince Edward (known to us as the Black Prince and Joan’s third husband) paid for the redesign of the chapel in fulfilment of a papal dispensation for their marriage. The boss shows a woman’s face with her hair in a netted fret which was a popular fashion in Joan’s day. But even if it is Joan the sculptor who carved it is unlikely to have known her.

Maid?  Joan was the granddaughter of a king and therefore in no way was she a maidservant. In the fourteenth century the word “maid” referred to an unmarried girl, a virgin. In her later life Joan’s detractors referred to her as “the virgin of Kent”, a disparaging remark concerning her rather chequered marital history.

Why of Kent?  Not because she was born in the county of Kent (although she may well have been) but because at the time of her birth her father held the title, Earl of Kent.

So who exactly was she?  Joan was the daughter of Edmund, Earl of Kent and his wife, Margaret, daughter of John, Lord Wake. Her paternal grandfather was Edward I, King of England.

Edwardus Magnus. Edward, King of England: warrior, crusader, conqueror, builder of castles, destroyer of Welsh princes, maker and unmaker of Scottish kings, and a man of unusual height and vigour.

Edmund was the youngest of Edward’s sons. He was born on 5th August  1301 at the royal manor of Woodstock in Oxfordshire some fourteen months after the birth of his elder brother, Thomas. The mother of both boys was Marguerite, second wife of the elderly English king. Marguerite was a half-sister of the king of France, Philip IV, and she married Edward in Canterbury on 8th September 1299. She was some forty years younger then her husband.

Joan’s mother Margaret was the only daughter of John, Lord Wake, Baron Wake of Liddell and his wife Joan de Fiennes. Margaret had previously been married to John Comyn (son of John ‘The Red’ Comyn, the man who was murdered by Robert Bruce in the church of the Greyfriars at Dumfries in 1306). The young John Comyn died at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 after only a couple of years of marriage leaving Margaret a widow with a small son, Aymer. Margaret’s tragedy was compounded at some time in the next two years by the loss of  little Aymer. She remained a widow for eleven years before marrying Edmund in 1325. She was probably four years older than her second husband.

To his contemporaries Edmund’s marriage to the widowed Margaret must have been considered deeply unsuitable and rather shocking. Although Margaret’s maternal ancestry was illustrious, her father was only a minor nobleman, neither influential nor wealthy.

       ‘So Lady Margaret, tell me of your family.’

       I could recite every one of my forbears, back to the Conqueror if needs be. Aunt Mortimer said it was important to know exactly who you were and I had a very good memory.

      ‘ My father claimed descent from the great Saxon warrior Hereward, your grace, and my grandmother was a de Quincy, of the family of the Welsh prince Llewellyn and a daughter of the king’s great-grandfather, King John.’

       ‘King John!’  Queen Isabella turned to the hovering group of women and rolled her eyes upwards. ‘Every person I meet is descended from this oh so worthy great-grandfather of my husband.  He was a busy man outside his marriage bed, was he not?’

       The women laughed into their hands and nodded agreement at the queen’s little jest.

       ‘And your mother?’

       ‘She was a daughter of Sir William de Fiennes who fell at Courtrai, fighting for your grace’s father.’

       ‘Ah yes. Courtrai. The Battle of the Golden Spurs. Quelle horreur! And Sir William’s family?’

       ‘Sir William was a cousin to the king’s mother, the Infanta of Castile.’

       The queen raised her eyebrows at this royal connection.

       ‘And my mother’s mother was of the line of Jean de Brienne, the Emperor of Constantinople,’ I added.

       ‘An emperor!  Who would have thought it?’ She looked at me speculatively as if I should have been grander than I was. Perhaps I was a disappointment. Perhaps she wished me to be riding a white palfrey and  be clothed in ermine.

Edmund, as a member of the royal family, would have been expected to make an advantageous foreign marriage. King’s sons were often betrothed in the cradle to the daughters or sisters of other European rulers creating useful alliances or sealing treaties of peace. Queen Isabella herself had been betrothed to the young Edward of Caernarfon (later Edward II) when she was only three years old as part of a peace treaty, although the marriage did not take place until 1308 when she would have been about twelve. In the case of Edmund’s older brother, Thomas of Brotherton, their half-brother, Edward II, had made attempts to negotiate a marriage for him with Maria, the daughter of King Jaime of Aragon but the lady had preferred to take the veil rather than Thomas! So it is hard to imagine that the king would have favoured this particular match with an impoverished little-known widow for Edmund.

       ‘It began in Paris as so many stories do. It was snowing. Your father’s wedding day and he was the happiest man alive. I remember how he laughed and how annoyed my mother was. She didn’t want him to marry.’

       ‘Why not?’

       ‘Your mother wasn’t suitable. He was a king’s son and she was just a baron’s daughter, a widow and much older than him. But your father loved her. I’d never seen someone marry for love.’

Although there is no proof, it does appear likely that the marriage of Joan’s parents, Edmund and Margaret, was a love match.

Sources Edward II: The Unconventional King by Kathryn Warner
Joan of Kent: The First Princess of Wales by Penny Lawne
Excerpts: books by Caroline Newark The Pearl of France
The Queen’s Spy
The Fair Maid of Kent

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