Do you ever wonder why authors write historical fiction – after all, it’s about people they’ve never met and a time they’ve never lived in.
Well, how about this. Imagine the scene:
A young woman stands by a log fire in a wealthy merchant’s house just outside Ghent in Flanders, what is now Belgium. The year is 1340.
The woman is shivering, warming herself by a log fire. The door opens and a young man walks in, shaking the snow from his cloak. The merchant and his wife lead the couple into another room.
The man takes the hand of the younger woman and says: ‘I, Thomas Holand, solemnly vow that I will take you, Joan Plantagenet, as my wife and I will do it before a priest, as soon as I may, and I therefore pledge thee my troth.’
The young woman repeats the vow.
That’s it, it’s done. They have said the words in front of two witnesses. No church, no photographer, no DJ, no collage on Facebook.
In the fourteenth century it is all they need to do to become legally married.
The problem is that the young woman is a princess, and a valuable asset to the English crown. In her day and age she is not free to do as she wishes. She must do what her cousin the king wants her to.
That does not include marrying Thomas Holand, a landless knight with no money and no prospects, with no political value at all.
Why did this story get my attention? Well, we’ll get to that.
Of course, there were many things that were different about living in the 14th century. There was no internet, no coronavirus, no dating apps.
There was also no #metoo movement. In those days, royal women were considered chattels to be traded for political advantage. And romantic love didn’t really exist as a concept at all. Hallmark is a very recent invention.
Joan was considered a very valuable commodity indeed. Not only was she pretty, but her grandfather was King Edward I, Longshanks, scourge of the Scots. Perhaps she inherited her iron will from him.
In 1340, her cousin, King Edward III was trying to force his claim to the French throne, which precipitated the lengthy conflict that later became known as the Hundred Years’ War. (Actually 116 years, but that doesn’t have such a ring to it.)
Somehow, perhaps when she was traveling by ship with the king to Flanders on one of his many military campaigns, she met and fell in love with a bit of a rogue called Sir Thomas Holand, a knight in the king’s army. It was the perfect shipboard romance.
They married in secret shortly afterwards and Holand went off to the wars and left his young bride to face the music. What happened next is extraordinary.
When she told the king and her family what she’d done, they closed ranks against her. Even though she had witnesses who could attest her marriage was legal, the king – with her mother’s backing – forced her into a bigamous marriage with someone they thought more fit for purpose. She still refused to give in.
For ten years – yes, ten – the king, Joan’s family, and some of England’s most powerful families tried to persuade to give up her penniless husband. They exiled her and shut her up in a tower. Holand was not allowed to see her.
They did all they could to break her spirit. Though painfully young and alone, Joan refused to bend, and eventually got her way.
The story of how she did it, and what happened to these two lovers is one of the most extraordinary stories in English history and is the subject of my novel A Vain and Indecent Woman.
Joan’s remarkable history is not the only thing that drew me to the story.
As the father of daughters, I imagined what it would be to be Joan’s father. He was the one person who might have stood up for her – but he was dead. I wondered what it must have been like to be watching on, but helpless to intervene.
So my novel is more than Joan of Kent’s story. At a deeper level, it is about fathers and daughters.
That is why it has a unique perspective.
Joan went on to become mother to the next king of England. Her intelligence and political ability guided her young son through many crises. She is now regarded as one of England’s most respected royal women.
How proud her father must have been, if he were watching from the wings.
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