The Early Years

Joan would have spent the first two and a half years of her life in the care of nursemaids chosen for her by her mother, Margaret. As well as the nursemaids she would have had the company of her brother, Edmund who was probably the older of the two children. The children’s nursery may well have been at Arundel Castle which their father had acquired in February 1327 and they almost certainly remained there when in June 1329 their parents left England and crossed to France. On their return Joan’s father and mother were actively engaged in the plotting which led to the eventual arrest and execution of Earl Edmund at Winchester in March 1330. A heavily pregnant Margaret who had remained at Arundel with her two children, was placed under house arrest, deprived of most of her servants and stripped of her jewels.

It is impossible to know how much if anything Joan remembered of their captivity but she may well have witnessed the birth of her brother John on 7th April 1330 which would have been a traumatic event. She may also have remembered the baby’s baptism which took place on the same day in the church of St Bartholomew, in the priory adjoining the castle. For want of more suitable sponsors, Margaret chose Joan, her brother Edmund and John de Grenstede, prior of the order of Friars Preacher of Arundel to stand as godparents to baby John and “lift him from the sacred font”.

We don’t know how rigorous the terms of their confinement were but Margaret and her children were to remain at Arundel for seven and a half months. In October 1330 the king (Joan’s half-cousin, the young Edward III) effected a coup against his mother, Isabella, and the Earl of March, Roger Mortimer, who were the de facto rulers of England, and shortly afterwards the order was given for the release of Margaret and her children.

In November 1330 when she was three years old Joan was placed by her mother in the royal nursery. Here she was to share her life for the next few years with her cousin’s children – Edward, Isabella and Joanna (Joan) – as well as with her brothers Edmund and John. This may sound an odd arrangement but would have been considered a great privilege in Joan’s day and not particularly unusual. Noble women had almost no hands-on role in the raising of their children, their duty being the arranging of suitable men and women to be in charge of the children’s upbringing. For royal children, governors and governesses would be appointed who in their turn would arrange for the members of the children’s establishment: the grooms, maids, cooks, pantlers, nursemaids, rockers (for the cradle) and most important of all – a wet-nurse for each baby as he or she was born.

There would have been other small children in the royal nursery to provide company for Edward (born16th June 1330), Isabella (born June 1332) and Joanna (born February 1334). As well as Joan and her brother, John (Edmund died in the autumn of 1331) there might have been William Montagu or Monacute (born 25th June 1328) son of the king’s close friend, the Earl of Salisbury (another William Montagu) and also the young Roger Mortimer (born 11th November 1328). Roger was grandson of the recently executed Roger Mortimer, Earl of March. The Montagu daughter, Elizabeth (born 1326) may also have been part of this small group of privileged children.

The children would have spent most of their time in the safe surroundings of royal residences such as Woodstock (where Blenheim palace is today), Clarendon, Windsor Castle or the Tower but would have seen a great deal of the King and Queen Philippa, as they were fond and indulgent parents. In 1335 the royal children (and possibly Joan and John) appear to have accompanied Queen Philippa to York where special rooms were prepared for them in the castle.

We returned to the palace at Woodstock for a visit to the royal nursery and I was surprised to discover how little the Queen’s daughters still were and how slowly they walked.

‘Small steps!’ hissed Lady la Mote from behind my left shoulder. ‘Not so fast.’

 Our procession advanced at a snail’s pace across the inner courtyard, my view blocked by the broad swaying backs of a dozen royal pages. Above the clomping of their brown leather boots and the heavy swish of the women’s skirts I could only just hear the soft tip-tap of my own satin slippers.

Edward led the way because he was the king’s son and the second most important person in all England. He was preceded by two liveried grooms carrying rods, and accompanied as always by Sir Nicholas, the master of his household who was puffing a little with the effort of keeping everyone in order.

 We girls and our attendants came next, immediately behind Edward’s pages. There were three of us: Isabella, Joanna and me. Our skirts didn’t swish quite as much as Lady la Mote’s but Isabella’s new satin slippers squeaked in a most satisfying manner.

We crept up the steps and across the polished tiles of the outer chambers towards the private rooms and as we drew near, the  guards threw open the doors. I felt Isabella’s hand slip out of my grasp and before I could stop her she was running across the floor towards her father. She grasped a bundle of velvet robe and clambered onto his lap, settling herself comfortably in the crook of his arm.

The nursery household was the responsibility of the queen who appointed William and Elizabeth St Omer to be in overall charge. We know a little of the make-up of the royal nursery in those years. Joan de Oxenford was nurse to the young Edward, Matilda Plympton was his cradle-rocker and his royal cradle was ornamented with paintings of the four evangelists. Isabella had an even more magnificent cradle adorned with the shields of England Hainault and heavily gilded, lined with silk and spread with a coverlet composed of 670 skins costing £16. The baby wore a rich robe of Lucca silk edged with fur and trimmed with four rows of garnitures. Isabella had a tailor, John Bromley, a rocker, Joan Gambon and a damsel, Jane Pybrook. Amy de Gloucester was nurse to little Joanna and Lady Isabella de la Mote was her governess.

Their beds would have been wonderful affairs, curtained with silks and with coverlets of velvet and fur. For special occasions the children would have had costly clothes but we have no idea what they wore every day. There is a record of Joan’s grandmother, Queen Marguerite, ordering a winter coat with silver buttons and a hat of beaver fur for Joan’s father, Edmund, and it is likely that Queen Philippa took equal care to see that the children in the nursery were suitably clad against the cold.

 I shared the girls’ rooms with Isabella and Joanna, sleeping in a magnificent bed hung with green silk, covered by a bedspread of red velvet. Naturally there were servants: our nursemaids and rockers and a man who filled the log baskets; a musician to entertain us and a chaplain to attend to our prayers. We had a tailor who stitched our clothes and porters who guarded the doors. Downstairs there were cooks and kitchen boys, grooms of the ewery, the pantry and the buttery, and outside in the stables, dozens of men who swept the yards and cared for our pretty coloured palfreys. We were very well looked after.

The queen, who was the kindest of mothers, ordered her girls dressed in fur-trimmed robes of scarlet and grey with buttons of gold and silver thread and, on special occasions, gowns of glittering Lucca silk.

 The children in the royal nursery would have received the kind of education suitable for children of such an early age. Formal education did not begin until a child was seven but even the young were expected to learn good behaviour and to say their Pater Noster. They would have been entertained with biblical stories and songs and music. There would have been games and picnics and expeditions across the river.

It is impossible to know how much Joan saw of her mother during these years or if she saw either of her two uncles: Thomas, Lord Wake and Thomas of Brotherton, Earl of Norfolk. She might be expected to have had contact with her Norfolk cousins, Margaret and Alice who were close to her in age but there is no record of any meetings. However that is not to say that there weren’t any.

We do not know how long Joan spent in the royal nursery or where she went when she grew too old for the company of babies and little children. She may have joined the queen’s household as a damoiselle, or she may have been placed in the household of someone like Lady Catherine Montagu, wife of the king’s close friend William Montagu, Earl of Salisbury. Girls like Joan were often sent away from home at the age of seven (like their brothers) to widen their contacts and improve their education and their readiness for marriage. If she was already betrothed a girl might be sent to live with their future mother-in-law or if she was lucky she might go to a religious establishment like Amesbury Priory where she would receive a superior education and mix with other girls of her own class.

Wherever Joan went it is almost certain that she accompanied the King and Queen and their friends to the Low Countries in 1338 which, for Joan, proved to be a turning point in her life.

Sources: Philippa of Hainault and Her Times by B.C. Hardy

Excerpts: Unpublished part of Joan the Fair Maid of Kent by Caroline Newark

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