Book Review: Joan Lady of Wales: Power and politics of King John’s daughter by Danna R. Messer

I’ve actually never written a book review on this blog before. I’ve done book previews of books I already own, but never an actual review. My book previews are more a look at whatever the book is about, essentially a preview of the contents and a chat about whatever the book is talking about. Joan Lady of Wales by Danna R. Messer has enticed me to branch out.

First a little background, Joan has been one of my favourite medieval figures since I first read Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman probably about fifteen years ago. It was written in 1991 and, while still an incredible book, some more history has been unearthed since it was written, especially about how many children Joan had.

Joan was the illegitimate daughter of King John of England and married Llywelyn Fawr Prince of Gwynedd in North Wales, and (arguably) eventually Lord of most of Wales by the time he died. I have written about Joan and Llywelyn before. Though I will extend my post on Joan at some point, having now finished Joan Lady of Wales which is the first biography every written about her.

You can read my post about Joan here:

https://historicalragbag.com/2014/11/23/marriage-alliances-1180-1250-part-3-joan-of-wales/

And Llweyln here:

https://historicalragbag.com/2016/04/11/llywelyn-the-great/

And below you can see Joan’s possible effigy

To return to the book though.

Messer takes a very interesting approach to writing a biography, one that is largely necessitated by the paucity of sources surrounding Joan, she makes use of a great deal speculation. This is not a criticism. One of the reasons I didn’t go into academic history, and why I find popular history sometimes frustrating, is because of the lack of nuance in discussing historical detail. Too often history is presented as blanket fact, and this is often the ‘fact’ heralded by the dominant narrative, which in Western history is usually, not always, white, wealthy, western and male and quite often militaristic.

In this blog you might have noticed that I use ‘arguably’ a lot. What I’m trying to do is tell interesting historical stories, often of the smaller parts of history, but I want to keep in the forefront of people’s minds that what I’m saying is arguable, that there is more than one perspective.

This is true of most history, that there are always multiple sides and the closest we can come to an understanding of an issue in the past is to recognise that it is made up of a multiplicity of views, opinions and versions and that parts of all of them are probably true. So when you are trying to tell the story of a medieval woman, even one as prominent in her time as Joan of Wales, you are relying largely on male monastic sources, which tend to relegate women to the shadows. Therefore Messer’s book draws on the context of the role of medieval women of Joan’s time, through laws and through other examples to explore what Joan’s role most likely was even if we do not have explicit contemporary fact to back it all up.

Messer does tell the story of Joan’s life, as much as it can be told. This book has been a twenty year project for Messer and it’s clear when you look at the references that she has found every mention of Joan than can be found. Joan’s story is one of what we would now see as a high level diplomat, maintaining ties between her adopted homeland of her husband’s Wales and her father and later brother’s world of Plantagenet England. For her whole marriage she was the key peacemaking, negotiating force between the two countries and this is the story that Messer presents. She makes clear that she does not wish to either overstate or understate Joan’s importance. She positions her, using the sources available, in the known roles of medieval queenship, Welsh marriage laws, Welsh law more generally and the role of women in the society at the time as much as it is understood.

An excellent example of the way Messer has written the book is her discussion about Joan’s mother. There has never been agreement as to who Joan’s mother was. There are a number of candidates, but all that is really known is that her name was probably Clemencia, and this comes from Joan’s own obituary in the Teweksbury annals where Joan is described as the daughter of King John and Queen Clemencia. Messer provides a fascinating and detailed analysis of what the term ‘queen’ meant in this context. Messer then goes on to examine all the likely candidates for the role of Joan’s mother, whilst never specifically naming one as definite. This is the sort of nuance that is found throughout the book.

Joan’s story is told mainly chronologically, though the book jumps around a bit as it explores tangents such a law, and marriage and the role of women in Wales, as well as the men who were writ large in Joan’s life. In the sources she is, wife, daughter, mother, and queen and much of the discussion of her life revolves around her in these roles. As her narrative is so much tied to Llweyln’s it is unsurprising that much of structure of the book comes from his rises and falls, and his attempts to be lord of a unified Wales. This context is as necessary as the examination of royal medieval women and their roles, to understand the life Joan possibly led.

As Messer discusses, however, it is likely (note the speculation) that Joan’s role was more than a mediator and she was probably involved in the decision making, not just defending or trying to mediate decisions made by her husband, or her father. She wasn’t a passive participant. While there is little documentary evidence of her involvement, as I said the primary sources aren’t extensive, Messer extrapolates from documents like the marriage agreement between Joan and Llweyln’s daughter Elen and John the Scott, heir to the earldom of Chester. Their marriage agreement survives and makes it clear that Joan was involved in granting lands that belonged to her personally as part of the agreement. They were English lands so Llweyln didn’t have to have her permission to pass them on to her daughter, but the fact that she is listed as independently confirming the grant, not only shows her intimate involvement in arranging her daughter’s marriage, but also her likely involvement in the management of her own lands.

Another key factor that Messer discusses with incredible depth is the story that has probably most stuck to Joan, often through local legend and English sources as the Welsh sources are actually fairly quiet on it, her affair with William de Braose. Messer goes into immense detail, about the probability of the affair occurring, the probability of Joan’s subsequent twelve month confinement and how the whole situation would have been read under Welsh law. She looks at the different interpretations possible from the sources and like the rest of the book presents an extremely nuanced if not conclusive examination of the affair, and Joan’s return to public life afterwards.

The highlight of the book for me was actually towards the end, when Messer produces the only letter that has survived that was actually written by Joan. I’ve read a reasonable amount about Joan, but I hadn’t realised that there were any of her letters surviving. I was quite excited

To her most excellent lord and dearest brother, Henry, by the Grace of God, King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Anjou, the Lady of Wales sends her own greetings.

Know, lord, that I am grieved beyond measure, that I can by no means express, that our enemies have succeeded in sowing discord between my husband and you. I grieve no less on account of you than of my husband, especially since I know what genuine fondness my husband used to have, and still has, for you, and how useless and dangerous it is for us, with due respect, to lose true friends and have enemies instead. Thus on bended knee and shedding of tears, I beg your highness to alter your decision, as you may easily do, and do not fail to be reconciled to those who are joined to you by an unbreakable bond and learn both to love friends and oppress enemies. With regard to this, lord, you may know how some have wrongly suggested to you that you should not trust Instructus, your clerk and my lord’, in whom I do not believe you could have a more faithful clerk in England, may God help me. For this reason, he is no less faithful to you if he is faithfully carrying out the business of his lord, because he behaves in the same way carrying out your affairs in the presence of his master; neither you nor anyone would rely on him if he handles the business of his master in a half-hearted or careless manner. Therefore if you wish to have confidence in me for anything else, put your faith in me for this. Farewell.

Messer unpacks the detail of this letter, written in roughly 1230, which I’m not going to do here, but it does incapsulate the context of the role that Joan would have played throughout her life.

The book is also immensely readable, even when delving into the nitty gritty of Welsh marriage law. When dealing with a subject that needs as much contextualising as Joan’s life, this is a real achievement. It also has an excellent index, something I always appreciate.

I’m not saying Joan Lady of Wales is perfect, but in placing Joan in her rightful place in history with as much nuance as possible it is a fascinating and I think important work.

I have not set out to tell the story of Joan’s life in this review, Messer has done this much better than I can manage, but if you want to know more I’d highly recommend reading the book.

On a final note, I’m Australian so was originally stymied on how to obtain a copy of the book. However after talking to the publisher, Pen and Sword, they do actually ship to Australia and it turned up in less than a month which was great.

https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Joan-Lady-of-Wales-Hardback/p/17674

The photos are mine.

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