Joan of Kent-26 April 1355
The rider thundered over the plain towards the great bulk of the castle at Suscinio, strategically placed on the southern peninsula bordering the Gulf de Morbihan, which was in itself a dramatic indentation in the southern coast of Brittany. He dismounted almost before his horse had halted and sprinted down the vaulted corridors lined with silver-blue banners.
A group of ladies were laughing and talking in the seclusion of a rooftop garden. Even in Brittany, it was now spring and the courtyard was filled with the scent of the seasonal flowers and the music of the madrigal and harp.
The courtyard offered magnificent views over the azure waters of the Gulf, the sandy shored islets and the crowns of pines. One of the ladies, fair-haired, tall, slim and dressed in silver tinged with blue, dominated the group. The rider handed her a small figurine, a knight holding a sword. The lady smiled almost triumphantly and immediately departed to her apartments at the rear of the terrace. None of the other ladies seemed the slightest bit surprised by her sudden departure.
Less than thirty minutes later, Joan of Kent, now dressed in hunting garb and accompanied by half a dozen guards, was riding around the Gulf at full gallop. Another twenty guards travelling in the opposite direction headed for Aquitaine by the coastal road through Frankish territory.
Joan bypassed Vannes and rode west. She arrived at the port of Brest before dark and took her usual room at the Quayside Inn. She always travelled in one of two ships, Elle or Belle Fille. One or other of the ships left Brest for Bordeaux every second week. They carried wool, grain, cloth and herring to Bordeaux and returned with salt, wine, brandy and armour.
The winds and tides determined their actual time of arrival and departure and on this occasion, Joan did not get a full night’s sleep. Her escort, one of the hotel staff, gently woke her at two in the morning. After she dressed in a dark cloak with a hood, the escort led her through the murky streets to a quay. A large brazier lit at dusk and kept alight throughout the night, illuminated the steps down to the water.
She had no difficulty boarding a fishing boat, which then slipped away into silky darkness. The reflections from both the brazier and the moon highlighted the movement of the water. The indistinct collage of the buildings of the inner harbour glided past as the boat tacked into the wind and sailed past the quay they had just left. She glanced back at the illuminated steps and caught her breath.
There at the top of the steps stood a short, overweight figure of a man. Was her imagination playing tricks on her? Maybe, but even at this distance, she thought she could see the untidy mop of red hair. Her mind reeled. Bertrand du Guesclin was here watching her at two o’clock in the morning. How on earth had he known she would be here?
The swell picked up as they traversed through the outer harbour until as they turned past the outermost quay, she saw the silhouette of the boat which would carry her south. She recognised the Elle instantly.
She clambered aboard and was able to make her own way to the cabin she always used. Lined with dark wood and with massive shutters intended to keep out the waves as well as the light, the cabin was warmer than the majority of the castles she had lived in.
The cabin smelt strongly of beeswax, a function of both the polishes used and the multiple candles lighting the interior. On the Elle, she slept in a cot, made so that it could also function as a double bed or into a seat for daytime use. In fact, although her cabin offered her little space, she loved it with a passion. To her, it was like a nest.
Joan heard the familiar sound of the sails being set and felt them catching the wind. She leaned against the slope of the deck and listened as the gentle lapping of the waves against the hull, turned into the roar of a ship underway. For the next two days, she could relax completely and enjoy the rocking and swaying as the ship pushed its way through the waves.
As she reached into her travel bag to pull out her nightdress, her hand encountered an unexpected hard object. She pulled out a small wooden box fitted with a sliding lid. Opening it, she recoiled in horror. In the box was her pet nightingale which lived in an aviary at Chateau Suscinio.
The small brown nightingale often came on to Joan’s hand to sing joyously.
This evening it lay motionless. The bird was dead; its throat cut so that its head hung loosely from its body.
Joan remembered the bird perched in the aviary when she had left the chateau. How could it have reached her bag? She found herself glancing nervously around the cabin. She summoned the captain and showed him what she had found. She described du Guesclin to the captain; ‘Short and grossly overweight, nose misshapen, one nostril badly out of line, no chin but jowls of hard fat hanging down from his cheeks to below his jawline, arms abnormally long, unkempt bright red hair, lines of grime on his unwashed face.
The captain grimaced. ‘Sounds a horror! No, I have never seen anyone of that description anywhere near my boat. Judging from that description I have never met or even seen the man. However, Madame, I can see how badly this has affected you. You are safe on my boat but to give you increased peace of mind I will personally guard your door.’
By the time the Elle had reached the open sea, Joan had removed her clothes, donned her nightdress, and snuggled under her wool-filled blanket. She consoled herself repeatedly that there was no way du Guesclin could reach her here!
Loneliness overtook her. Thoughts of previous trips suddenly dominated her mind.
Thierry d’Arques, the previous captain of the Elle had always looked after her well. She had travelled with him so often that in the end, they both knew that they were attracted to each other. He had the best-developed body of any man she had ever met. Huge shoulders and a narrow waist, rippling stomach, bulging thighs… He had once asked matter-of-factly, whether she slept well on board.
It was a well-judged question. ‘I wake up lonely,’ she had replied, fluttering her lashes. ‘Also, I feel so afraid when the seas rise.’
The following night he had slipped into her cabin to see whether she was comfortable.
She had leant into his arms. ‘Nothing that ever happens in this cabin must ever be made public and you must never make an attempt to meet or communicate with me outside of this cabin.’ She had watched as he took a step towards her. ‘Is that clear?’ She spoke with a raised voice, but even she heard the breathless catch in her throat.
He took another step, closing the space between them, and put his mouth to her ear. ‘It’s clear,’ he whispered, taking her into his arms. Within seconds they were in bed together. After that, Joan had made love to Thierry on every trip.
He was as good as his word and Joan became impressed with his discretion. Eventually, he had been promoted to be the coordinator of passenger transport for Les Etoiles in the western Mediterranean. It was a position of great trust. Many of his passengers would be political exiles or refugees. Now over a year later, Joan still kept in contact with him through his parent organisation’s courier system.
She yawned, thrust the fear and loneliness from her and fell into a deep sleep.
Because the sea was relatively calm, the overhead hatch had been left open and Joan wakened with first light. She then drifted in and out of sleep for many hours. She dreamed of the important episodes in her life and in the dreams was given a chance to live her life differently. The latter part of her sleep was disturbed by dreams of her meeting with Queen Philippa.
The Queen repeated the key phrases over and over again. This is so difficult. In a way, you and the Prince are both my children. The King has instructed the Prince to marry Ximene Trencavel. He has also instructed him to terminate his relationship with you … I will give you a tiny window of hope. I will intercede on your behalf, but only if you distance yourself from William.
Joan heard, then felt the rising sea. Fully awake, she pulled up the side of her cot and rearranged her mattress. If it was difficult for the Queen, it was doubly difficult for her.
In the period after the episode with du Guesclin, Joan had no difficulty in encouraging William to see her often. He quickly drove away other unwelcome suitors. He treated her with the utmost respect and it was months before they went to bed, but once achieved, this became a frequent event.
He confided in her that he had been made commander of the Prince’s rearguard. This, Joan knew was a euphemism for the Prince’s intelligence and espionage activities. Joan learned that with the Prince’s encouragement and full blessing, William had used this position to keep an eye on her welfare. Anyone William perceived as a threat, he warned off, which explained how he had reacted so promptly to Guesclin’s siege.
The redevelopment of her relationship with William meant that she was aware of everything the Prince did or even contemplated; as well as every risk he faced, every risk he took. She realised, too, that William’s position, in turn, ensured the Prince’s knowledge of everything she did.
William brought the Prince to see her regularly, and during these visits, he declared his everlasting love for her. She travelled regularly so they could be together. They had developed a code where the heraldry of the little knights he sent her told her where to meet him and when. She now had dozens of the little figurines.
The seas now became rough. From outside, the overhead hatch was pushed shut. She realised that she was at a watershed. There and then, in a tiny cabin rocked by an increasingly restless sea, she made a firm resolution that she would find a way to marry the Prince. She would be the next Queen of England. She was not prepared to continue forever as the Prince’s mistress. She wanted to found a dynasty of kings.
To achieve this, she must prevent the Prince marrying anyone else. She must end her relationship with William and, in some way, persuade both the Pope and King Edward to look favourably on her union with the Prince.
She shivered with a mixture of hope and apprehension. She knew it was not going to be easy. She’d have to be gentle with William. He was, after all, the man who dominated her happiest memories and the man who had saved her.
Her days as an amoureuse had come to an end.
She would have to find a point of leverage, somebody with some influence, who would be prepared to argue her case with the King and inevitably, the Pope.
And then, of course, there was Ximene Trencavel, a bigger threat to her ambition than any other.