‘Gaston it is so good of you to consider Ximene’s future so carefully, you are so clever! And who do you think would make the most suitable partner?’
Joan of Kent-13th March 1354
Joan of Kent knew far more about Ximene than either the Prince or the Earl; knowledge she had never shared with either of them.
A little more than a year earlier Joan had entered Château de Pau, in the county of Bearn to act as the sponsor for the first stage of Ximene’s transition to adulthood in the Cathar tradition.
The ceremony was known as The Progression. Joan’s invitation had come because sometime earlier, Joan had visited Paris for the marriage of her close relative, Princess Agnes of Navarre to Gaston, Comte de Foix.
While in Paris, Joan had established a close relationship with Lady Eleanor, their common interest being a secret adherence to the Cathar faith. They had attended Cathar ceremonies together, always a risky thing to do in Paris and the two had remained in contact ever since.
Joan had welcomed the invitation to Ximene’s Progression as it gave her a chance to meet again the young woman who was by now the talk of Europe.
When Joan first entered the Château she had been impressed. The elegant central hall and the huge sandstone pillars which blended smoothly into the vaulted ceiling were she knew the latest fashion in Paris.
Agnes and Lady Eleanor made Joan welcome. They told her that they had made sure that she had been given the best available accommodation.
Joan marvelled at her small suite of rooms. Outside her day room window, a terrace overlooked the gardens. Two rows of pencil pines aligned perfectly with the two sides of the terrace. The main garden promenade ran between the pines, framing in the background a magnificent view of the Pyrenees.
Her large bedroom, decorated in deep red and gold was completely to her taste. She particularly liked the design of the bed linen–pure white silks and a silver coverlet which gave the effect of a shaft of light playing on the bed. Here lay the inspiration for the decoration of the bedroom over the stables in Westminster.
Discovering her own personal bathroom, Joan knew that the Château could offer no more impressive accommodation. The suite had probably been designed for visiting royalty, and as a granddaughter of a French princess and an English king, Joan felt that she fitted that description.
On the afternoon of her arrival, on a lawn by a lake at the end of the promenade, servants offered her light refreshments, as she took the opportunity to converse with the Comte and his wife. She tiptoed carefully around any discussion of politics, deliberately posing as someone with a limited appreciation of worldly affairs – not a difficult thing to do in view of her reputation as a courtesan. However she could not avoid discussing Ximene’s future, an unavoidable topic given her sponsorship role.
‘We are enormously proud of Ximene,’ the Comte told her. ‘Her hand will be acceptable to every royal house that can offer a suitable heir. Of course, if she forms a union with a powerful house, and claims back her rightful inheritance, a major reshaping of the power-base here in the south of France would take place. As such, I must attend to my own security during all lead-up negotiations.’
Joan fluttered her eyelashes.
‘Gaston it is so good of you to consider Ximene’s future so carefully, you are so clever!’
Privately she had already concluded that the Comte was delaying proceedings, seeking to add contractual terms to any betrothal agreement to give him additional land holdings. It seemed he was playing off one suitor against another but she had no clear evidence that this was so.
She fluttered her eyelashes again. ‘And who do you think would make the most suitable partner?’
‘I have to consider my relations with the English, French and Aragonese kings, and I must make sure that I appear to consider them all equally. It is also a question as to whether any of these royal houses have a suitable heir. ‘A note of caution crept into his voice. ‘However, I must say that I will be very disappointed if we cannot arrange a match between Ximene and the Black Prince.’
Considering his answer, Joan knew he was not giving any weight whatsoever to her political standing. She had thought that he also must know about her long-standing relationship with the Prince. Clearly, in his mind, it was of no importance.
Joan did not reply, or react in any way, she simply fluttered her eyelashes a third time, something she had found over the years made conversation with most men totally unnecessary.
Back in her own rooms, she fought back her irritation that Gaston regarded her as a nonentity. She forced herself to look forward to tonight’s reception as it gave her the first opportunity to meet Ximene since her visit to Paris.
She thought long and hard about what she would wear. She had brought only three evening gowns with her. Two were conservative almost dowdy, one grey, one brown, but the third one was rather different, in the style she wore in both the French and English courts.
The dress had been made in pure white with a perfectly normal long skirt, but with a bodice, which laced underneath her breasts in such way that they were pushed upwards and outwards, away from her body. It was intended to be worn with a chemise which was elaborately ruffled at the back of her neck but below that simply outlined the edge of the bodice. This outfit would leave her breasts totally exposed.
She agonised over the decision. She knew that what was an acceptable fashion in Paris or London might be considered quite shocking in the southern countryside. On the other hand, she desperately wanted to make Gaston take notice of her.
After several changes of mind, she decided on the white dress. She had long lived by a mantra that she would rather be remembered than ignored.