Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Joan of Navarra, Pamplona’s Queen of England


The historical novelist Anne O’Brien recently wrote that Joan (or Joanna) of Navarre (Juana de Navarra in Spanish) was a queen who was “more invisible than most”, but that’s an unfair verdict. Joan was not only long-lived but the consort in two realms and twice a regent.

Joan was born on 10 July 1370 in Pamplona, Navarra, and died on 9 July 1437 at Havering-atte-Bower, Essex. She was Duchess consort of Brittany and Queen consort of England. Joan was the regent of Brittany from 1399 until 1403 during the minority of her son John and briefly regent of England when Henry V was in France during 1415.

A member of the Evreux family, she was a daughter of Charles II of Navarre and Joan of Valois. Aged 16 she first married the 30-years-older John IV Duke of Brittany, who had two English wives before her, at Saillé-près-Guérande on 2 September 1386. She had nine children of this marriage: four sons and five daughters. The eldest, John V, inherited the dukedom when his father died on 1 November 1399. Joan was the regent of Brittany from 1399 until 1403 during his minority. Years later, her second son, Arthur III, succeeded his nephew.

On 7 February 1403, she married Henry IV at Winchester Cathedral and was crowned at Westminster Abbey later that month. They had married by proxy a year earlier at Eltham Palace. It appears that the marriage was by Henry’s choice rather than for dynastic reasons. Henry Bolingbroke had met Joan, reputedly very beautiful, while in exile at the Breton court in 1398-9.

Although their marriage did not produce any offspring, Joan got along with her stepsons. She even sided with the future Henry V in arguments with his father. Henry IV died in Westminster on 20 April 1413, after 10 years of marriage. From 1405 onwards, Henry suffered from debilitating illness, possibly a form of leprosy, and was cared for by his wife.

Joan’s marriage to Henry was not welcomed at the Breton court and, when she came to England, there was opposition to her and her followers from France, as well as complaints about her dowry and the amount of income bestowed on her by Henry from royal sources.

Despite her good personal relationship with Henry V, she was accused of plotting to kill him through witchcraft and imprisoned in comfort at Pevensey Castle in Sussex and then Leeds Castle in Kent for four years (1419-22). All her properties were confiscated. At the trial, a friar-confessor testified against her. Tension may have built between the king and his stepmother after her son Arthur was captured at Agincourt in 1415 and held as a hostage in England until 1420. In spite of her pleas, Henry refused to free Arthur.

Joan’s father Charles II of Navarre (who later gained the epithet of ‘the Bad’) had a reputation for necromancy and poisoning opponents and she had great interest in astrology. The factors of “like father, like daughter” and Henry’s need to rebuild his treasury for wars in France may have come together in the charges against his stepmother.

She was released shortly before Henry V’s death in 1422 and her assets returned. Joan lived a quiet, comfortable life with her court at Nottingham Castle for the brief residue of Henry V’s tenure and for nearly 15 years of the reign of his successor Henry VI (1422-1461), who gave her a state funeral in 1437.

Despite her experience in Brittany, the queen did not play a part in the regency of her step-grandson, who succeeded his father at just nine months old. Joan died at the age of 66 and was buried in Canterbury Abbey next to her husband.

  •  Joan’s marriage to Henry IV at Winchester in 1403 is celebrated in part of a late 1930s stained glass window in the north aisle of its Cathedral. Crowned and golden haired, she is dressed in an emerald green gown in a palace with the Pyrenees in the distance.


My co-researcher for this blog is Dr Natalia Rodríguez-Salcedo of the Universidad de Navarra, Pamplona.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Book Review – 'Henry VI' by James Ross

James Ross (2016) Henry VI – A Good, Simple and Innocent Man (London: Allen Lane)

Summary: Concise, well-researched, and readable history of Henry VI, described as a "Good, Simple and Innocent Man" but utterly unsuited to kingship. James Ross both tells the sad, tragic story of this Lancastrian monarch and critiques historians' interpretations of his long reign.



From the first sentence of this new biography in the Penguin Monarchs series, James Ross introduces a regal and national tragedy: “Few would agree that Henry VI, son of Henry V and last king of the house of Lancaster, was one of the least able and least successful kings ever to rule England” (p. 3).

Henry was born in 1421, succeeded his father at nine months old and was crowned at the age of eight. By the age of fifteen in 1436, he had put aside regents and was ruling England and its French lands. He was a pious man but his reign has been portrayed as the ‘nadir of the English monarchy”. His reign of thirty nine years was unsuccessful and his personal life had tragic elements of unique proportions for an English monarch.

The concise, well-written biography covers the historiographic debate about Henry VI: Was he a king “who made decisions, especially in the areas that interested him, but who left most of the government of the realm to others” or “little more than a puppet with no independent will.” Those are the two ends of the debate among historians. Ross argues that he was more engaged with administration and decision-making than his critics claims but tended to favour the interests of those close to him. His excessive generosity caused political and treasury problems, too.

Henry eschewed the kingly aspects of leadership, especially of his armies in defence of the French lands and during the opening period of the Wars of the Roses. He lost all the land gained by his father with his behaviour under great threat showing mental detachment. Examples from the crisis of 1460-1 are that he was captured at Northampton in a tent, recaptured by his wife’s forces while sitting by a tree singing, and at the critical Battle of Towton when fighting the Yorkists, he was ten miles away from the battlefield. A warrior-king he wasn’t.

Ross says, “Put kindly, Henry had a deep, sincere and prominent faith; put unkindly, his was an excessive, consuming and compulsive religiosity.” That belief, which led others to work for his canonisation after his death, also appears to have been a barrier to active leadership in peace and war. Henry suffered greatly for his kingship and in 1453 he suffered “an unprecedented mental and physical collapse”. It was a psychological breakdown which left him speechless, almost immobile and unable to perform his role as the king of England. Government of the realm continued with regents and Henry gradually resumed the monarch’s role after 18 months. But the damage to his kingly reputation was great, the Yorkists rose up and he was deposed by Edward IV in 1460-1.

Although he went into exile with his wife, he soon returned to England and was captured in 1465 and put in the Tower of London. However, in 1470, he was released when Edward IV fled in the face of increasing opposition and returned to the throne briefly before Edward returned and took custody of the tragic king. Henry was murdered on the night of May 21, 1471.

One aspect of Henry’s reign that Ross brings forward is the role of his formidable wife Margaret of Anjou whom he married when he was 24 years old. Her political power and landholdings grew during his reign. She took a greater leadership role at Court after Henry emerged from his breakdown. Margaret organised the armed forces that recaptured Henry at St Albans in 1461. She also lobbied her French relatives to come to her husband’s aid when they went into exile after the decisive Battle of Towton. Their only son, Edward of Westminster, was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, the only English heir apparent to die in battle. Without Margaret’s personal strength, Henry may not have returned after his breakdown or have been able to resume his rule, albeit briefly, in 1471.

Overall, this new volume in Monarchs series is well-researched, readable for both academic interest and general historical readers, and tells the story of this tragic monarch in the political context of his times. As James Ross fairly concludes that:

“Henry … was not an able king. He was a manifestly decent man placed by accident of birth in a role to which he was utterly unsuited; a man of piety when he needed to be a man of policy; a man uninterested in the business of kingship when kingship meant business; a man of peace whose inheritance was foreign conflict and whose rule bred civil war…His reign was a catalogue of disasters…”

[ISBN 978-0-14197934-2]