I received a copy of Joan, Lady of Wales from Pen and Sword Publishing, for the purposes of this review. This post also contains some affiliate links. If you decide to click on the links to make a purchase, I may receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you, that goes back into supporting the blog. Thank you.
I'll be honest.
I hadn't heard too much at all about the Lady Joan, which is pretty surprising when you consider that she was the daughter of the infamous King John, served many years as a Welsh royal, was Henry III's half sister and also grand-daughter of the Empress Matilda.
Like, really? Where the heck is all the info about this woman?
|Sarcophagus of Joan, Lady of Wales, in Anglesey. Photo: Cate228 / Public domain|
Which is why I was really interested in reading the new book, Joan, Lady of Wales by Danna R. Messer.
It goes into the life, political significance and achievements of the Lady Joan. We learn that she was born in the late twelfth century, but we don't know who her mother is. She was born illegitimately (she was legitimised later on). Her father King John - who she had a good relationship with, by all accounts - married her to Llywelyn the Great of Gwynedd, one of the powerful princes of Wales, in 1201. She was welcomed and respected by the Welsh, ended up being briefly imprisoned because of an affair she likely had with the English noble William de Braose and served - successfully it seems - as a peaceweaver between the English and Welsh courts.
This is an amazing story, and one that needs to be told. It's definitely gripping - with war, love affairs, grisly executions and powerful family dynamics - but although I absolutely loved all of this, there are a few points to make.
The historical record for Joan's life is scarce. The author points to a few surviving contemporary sources to back up quite a lot of the story, relying at times on sources written hundreds of years after she died. There is a lot of uncertainty and vagueness and quite a lot of 'probably', 'may have' and 'could have been'. The lives of Joan's contemporaries are sometimes used to try and flesh out Joan's character and the roles she was expected to fill, to give us a comparison. Researching Joan's life can't have been an easy task.
However, the author still manages to give us an idea of this royal woman who lived 800 years ago. I feel, to an extent, like I know some of Joan's personality, and have an idea of her weaknesses, strengths and her struggles. I even agree with the assertion, based on what we know she achieved, that she could have influenced how other, later queens carried out their royal duties. Just wouldn't it be amazing to stumble upon a thick bundle of dusty yellowed, crinkly parchment, of Joan's life, written about her by a contemporary?
All the vagueness, all the doubt - even though everything isn't totally certain (and then, when we talk about history, what is?) this book is still a good read. Generally, Joan isn't talked about enough, as a queen, a mother or political figure of Wales, and it's refreshing to hear her in this book. You'll learn about her and the other women that negotiated between powerful rulers in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. You'll read about how we can interpret the sources that do survive and what they might reveal about Medieval Wales and Angevin family dynamics.
And surely it's the author's job - the expert - to introduce to us their interpretations of these sources. We don't have all the answers and as historians, it wouldn't hurt to acknowledge this, or even come up with our own ideas. That the narrative surrounding Joan is at times vague is not a fault on the part of the author but more of an observation of the time period that's been studied.
I thought this book was a good read - I looked forward to opening it up whenever I had a few minutes - and am so glad it was written. Joan's story deserves to be told.