Book Review: Joan, Lady of Wales: Power and Politics of King John’s Daughter by Danna R Messer

Genre: History, nonfiction

Publisher: Pen and Sword

Pub date: 30 September 2020

Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

The history of women in medieval Wales before the English conquest of 1282 is one largely shrouded in mystery. For the Age of Princes, an era defined by ever-increased threats of foreign hegemony, internal dynastic strife and constant warfare, the comings and goings of women are little noted in sources. This misfortune touches even the most well-known royal woman of the time, Joan of England (d. 1237), the wife of Llywelyn the Great of Gwynedd, illegitimate daughter of King John and half-sister to Henry III. With evidence of her hand in thwarting a full scale English invasion of Wales to a notorious scandal that ended with the public execution of her supposed lover by her husband and her own imprisonment, Joan’s is a known, but little-told or understood story defined by family turmoil, divided loyalties and political intrigue.

From the time her hand was promised in marriage as the result of the first Welsh-English alliance in 1201 to the end of her life, Joan’s place in the political wranglings between England and the Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd was a fundamental one. As the first woman to be designated Lady of Wales, her role as one a political diplomat in early thirteenth-century Anglo-Welsh relations was instrumental. This first-ever account of Siwan, as she was known to the Welsh, interweaves the details of her life and relationships with a gendered re-assessment of Anglo-Welsh politics by highlighting her involvement in affairs, discussing events in which she may well have been involved but have gone unrecorded and her overall deployment of royal female agency.

Joan was the illegitimate daughter of King John of England although she was later legitimised. She was married to Llywelyn the Great, a Prince of Wales and although I was not previously aware of her, I do have an interest in the Plantagenets so this book appealed to me in an effort to broaden my knowledge of the earlier Plantagenets.

Unfortunately, there are very few sources related to Lady Joan so the author has had to make educated guesses based on events and actions of others.

Joan was daughter and sister to Kings and must have often felt her loyalties torn as she struggled to hold the peace between England and her marital home of Wales. Due to the constant threat of war between England and Wales, Joan had an extremely tough but successful role as a diplomat, keeping the peace between her husband and father and later her brother when her father died. Joan found herself married to Llywelyn as part of an alliance between England and Wales and she would work to maintain that alliance and avoid strife.

Messer begins by explaining the background of Joan’s life,  who her parents were, interestingly the identity of her mother cannot be certified but it was intriguing toread about the possibilities.  Messer also discusses the role of noble women at the time and other noble females are referred to throughout.

Although there are few sources directly regarding Joan the author has brought a previously unknown Joan to life through other events and sources referring to alternative individuals and events where she may have been present or had input.

One part of Joan’s life I wasn’t expecting to read about was an alleged affair with William de Braose which unfortunately led to Joan’s imprisonment and much more dire consequences for William. I would have loved to have known more about this as due to a lack of sources Messer has had to make assumptions and guesses and whilst these provide very interesting reading it’s a shame we don’t have more evidence.

I really enjoyed this and would recommend to all who have an interest in the history of noble women, not just Joan as this book includes others!

Thank you to NetGalley and Pen and Sword for the opportunity to read this in exchange for an honest review.

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