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  • Writer's pictureCaitlyn Lynch

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

Full title: Joan, Lady of Wales: Power & Politics of King John's Daughter.

Joan/Joanna of Wales was the first historical figure I ever became fascinated with, after many years ago reading Sharon Penman’s Here Be Dragons, about Joanna and Llewelyn Fawr, the Prince of Gwynedd. Very few facts are known about Joan; she was an illegitimate daughter of King John, she married Llewelyn and bore his children, and she interceded between her warring husband and father on more than one occasion to try and broker peace. But the documentation of all this is thin indeed; of Llewelyn’s (at least 6) daughters, only one, Elen, is definitively documented to be Joan’s daughter.

Therefore, an awful lot of Joan’s life must be determined by logical supposition. Would an illegitimate daughter of Llewelyn have been considered of value enough as an alliance prospect to marry a man like Reginald de Braose? Would that daughter, not by Joan, have named one of her own children John, and another Joan? Screamingly unlikely, and therefore Messer concludes, as have others, that Gwladys Ddu was Llewelyn and Joanna’s legitimate daughter, and so almost certainly was Marared, definitely Elen, very probably Gwenllian and indeed the mysterious Susanna, mentioned exactly once in any history when she was given over to the custody of the English king as a hostage.

The problem with writing a biography of a woman who lived 800 years ago and of whose life so little documentation exists is that a great deal of the above sort of logical extrapolation has to be applied to make it more than a bare recitation of a very few dates and events. The author does a good job of this, examining the changes in Welsh conventions and law during the period of Joanna and Llewelyn’s reign. It is documented fact that the pair gained in status during the period, evidenced by their changes in titles at the least, but also their power and influence. It is quite literally inconceivable that a queen (for that is what Joan was) did not significantly influence the customs and habits of her court and her country over three decades of ruling, especially with her husband frequently away making war.

Joan’s contribution to diplomatic relations between Wales and England is also delved into, and here is where I think the author deviated from logical extrapolation into supposition a bit too much. There are several documented instances of Joanna interceding first with her father John and later her brother Henry on Llewelyn’s behalf, but there are many occasions when negotiations and meetings occurred and Joanna isn’t mentioned at all. Considering that Joanna had at least four and possibly as many as six children who survived to adulthood (and there would very likely have been more who did not, considering the medieval mortality rate for children) I for one just do not buy that she was constantly traipsing back and forth across the difficult terrain of North Wales to Shrewsbury, Chester or Worcester. (For context, I grew up just outside Denbigh. I know that country. I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to be riding a horse across it while pregnant or soon after giving birth). The author on several occasions makes remarks to the effect that Joanna isn’t mentioned ‘but could very well have been present’ at specific negotiations and, for me, this is just unnecessary conjecture.

In the book’s final chapter, the author notes that the purpose of this book is to encourage greater thought on the impact women such as Joan had on history, and it is beyond doubt that Joan’s impact was long-lasting, even if largely undocumented. The Welsh court was a very different place after Joan of England’s reign, and there can be no question that during her lifetime her efforts decreased tensions and averted battles on several occasions. If you accept (as most historians and genealogists now do) that Gwladys Ddu was indeed her daughter, Joan’s descendants are sitting on the throne of England (and therefore, Wales) today, a fact I think Joan herself would be most pleased by.

I’ll give this four stars, for a soundly researched and thought-provoking biography of a fascinating medieval queen. It’s easy to read and not at all dry, but the author does at times go a little too far for my liking with conjecture and supposition that’s unnecessary.

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this title via NetGalley.

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