Queen Phillipa sighed. ‘Despite everything, I love you. I can’t help it. Oh, Joan, I look at you now, you still appear virginal, despite everything you have done.’
Joan of Kent-10th March 1355
Five hundred yards of riverbank separated the Prince’s stables from the Palace of Westminster, although it took longer to reach them by road. The rooms above the stables gave a lie to the term ‘stables’. They were far more luxurious than the palace itself.
Long-pile eastern rugs in cream and gold covered the floor. Even at this early hour, light streamed from a window set into the sloping roof, highlighting the pure white sheets and covers Joan of Kent nestled within. As she curled up on the tightly stuffed ducks-down mattress, she felt as if she was lying on a cloud. The beams and panelling of the room were fashioned from a dark timber, accentuating the beams of light from the roof window, made visible by a myriad of minute dust particles. Two flags pinned tightly to the ceiling were the only decoration of the mezzanine level. On one side was the single lion rampant of the Prince and on the other the silver and blue montage of Kent; subtle symbolism. Even when the Prince and Joan were apart, in this room they were always together.
Joan of Kent woke to the sound of cheering. She turned over lazily and stretched out her hand to find the Prince, before remembering that the Prince had left, somewhat noisily, many hours earlier.
The cheering now seemed to be below her room. She heard the unmistakable sounds of two sets of guards negotiating someone’s passage and knew the new arrival must be of some importance. The door swung open. Joan of Kent pulled the sheets up to her chin as Queen Philippa entered the room.
‘Hello, mother. How…’
There was no sign of any affection in Queen Philippa’s voice. ‘How did I find you? I make it my business to know where you are. Sometimes you manage to disappear but for the last twelve months, it has been comparatively easy. All I have to do is find the Prince and you will not be far away.’ Philippa turned away and gazed through the window at the river. ‘Ah, so, Joan, there is something I did not know about. The Prince has a private dock. Is that how you get in and out of the country? Everyone else seems to think you are in Brittany at the moment.’
‘Not exactly.’ Joan hesitated. ‘Do you really want to know?’
‘I do. Satisfy my curiosity.’
‘I do use the dock, but I don’t travel via the mouth of the Thames. Going all the way around Kent and down the Channel just takes too long. I go down the river as far as Staines, where the Prince has another stable and from there I am taken to Old Sarum or Clarendon by one of William’s coaches.’ I then have an arrangement with a French shipping company, which sails out of Poole Harbour. I come back the same way. William often travels with me to prosecute the war in Brittany. She hesitated. ‘Which he is winning,’ she said, unable to keep a note of pride from her own voice. ‘As you correctly say, I am invisible. Even the redoubtable Monsieur Froissart has no idea of my comings and goings.’
‘Let me guess. If you stay at Clarendon you sleep with the Prince and if you go to Old Sarum, you sleep with William.’
Joan realised she had told the Queen more than she should. She lifted her shoulders coquettishly and looked at the Queen out of the corner of her eye, in what she hoped was an appealing manner.
The Queen ignored her. ‘Or do you still take both of them to bed as you used to do… incidentally what exactly do you do with two men at the same time?’
Joan softened her voice. ‘Oh, Mother!’ The Queen’s voice also suddenly softened. ‘Sometimes I wonder why I took such an instant liking to you. Why I brought you into my family, treated you as my daughter. Her lips curled into a smile. ‘I used you, Joan. My skin, hair and eyes are all deep brown because I have Arab, Moorish and African blood in my veins.
When Bishop Stapledon was sent to examine me as a potential bride for Edward, I was surprised that he insisted I should strip completely naked, so that he could examine me. I still have a copy of the bishop’s report. It goes something like this: Her nose is fairly smooth and even, save that it is somewhat broad at the tip and flattened, yet it is no snub nose. Her nostrils are also broad, her mouth fairly wide. Her lips are somewhat full, especially the lower lip. Moreover, she is brown of skin all over, and much like her father, and in all things, she is pleasant enough, as it seems to us.’
Philippa raised her brow, her smirk still present. ‘The colour of my skin set me apart. At first, I found that to be a problem, but soon I was proud to be different, proud of my heritage. I used you, Joan—you have fair hair, pale skin and eyes of the brightest blue. You provided such a perfect contrast to me. It made it possible to emphasise and glorify my differences.’ She sighed. ‘Despite everything, I love you. I can’t help it. Oh, Joan, I look at you now, you still appear virginal, despite everything you have done.’
Joan momentarily lowered her eyes. ‘Forgive me, mother, for I have sinned, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.’ Joan lifted her head and looked the Queen in the eye. ‘Do you think you have always treated me well, mother?’