19 March 1355
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.
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 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 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 that seemed to absorb all light, 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 rampart of the Prince and on the other the silver and blue montage of Kent—a subtle symbolism. Even when the Prince and Joan were apart, in this room they were always together.
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 Phillipa entered the room.
’Hello, mother. How—’
Queen Phillipa allowed no affection to enter her 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.’
Phillipa 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, with a note of pride. ‘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!’
‘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.”’ Phillipa 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 before looking up again. ‘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?’
Phillipa cocked her head in an unspoken question.
‘Yes, I entered into a stupid marriage at a ridiculously early age, but it should never have been taken seriously. I was seduced by the environment you created, at your own court.’
‘At my court?’
‘Yes at your court, where you gathered around you the best of English society. Not just the lords, nor even the knights—though they were not excluded—but the artists, writers and musicians. The walls at Gillingham were lined with fine art and tapestry and the court was filled with music and resounded with laughter and the buzz of conversation as the nightly drama of courtly love unfolded.’
‘When I was very young, I used to peep through the spindles of the balcony, whilst you thought I was in bed.’
‘No, we knew you were there.’
‘As I got older, I watched more closely as the rules of courtly love played out. Men were expected—as the central feature of social activity—to pay court to a lady of their choice, who was never their own wife. The lady might or might not have been married but, in any case, the man could not expect any formal response until he had displayed total devotion.’
‘As men’s skills varied enormously, admiration could be expressed through song, poetry or prose. The whole process was presented as perfect unrequited love, but the possibility remained that the lady might eventually succumb. In practice, everybody knew that many of the ladies did succumb. The ladies used to confide in me as they prepared for an assignation.’
‘Too late now, Joan. We should have had this conversation long ago. You immersed yourself in the game of courtly love but at an age and with a disposition that has led you to ignore the rules. And the marriage to John Holland?’
‘My love of the game led me to give my favour. I was only twelve—too young and inexperienced to realise he was taking advantage of me. I cannot remember how I came to be in the church, who organised it and arranged for the Roman priest. Possibly no friend of mine. I can’t remember details of the marriage, but I do remember the consummation. That was my invention— pure theatre, I lay on the altar, draped in white—a virgin princess sacrificing herself to a barbarian invader to save her people. There were many observers, although again I have no idea who invited them. But I was pleased to have an audience. Those people, whom I hardly knew, gave witness later that the consummation had actually occurred.’
Joan sighed. ‘The truth is, that is not what I remember. I remember the richness of the tapestries and furniture, the nights of music and laughter, the elaborate costumes and the endless expressions of love. I just wanted to be a part of it.’
She paused. ‘But I have always loved the Prince. It is you and the King whom have never accepted the inevitability of our love.’
‘But what about William Montacute?’ asked Phillipa sharply. ‘You do still see him, don’t you?’
Joan looked firmly into Phillipa’s eyes. ‘You married me to William. You hoped it would make me unavailable to the Prince, but you forgot that he was the Prince’s best friend. At first my marriage was unconsummated, as we used it to cover my continuing love for the Prince, but I spent so much time with William that we came to love each other. It is a short step from being in love to becoming intimate.’
She took a deep breath. ‘It was the happiest time of my life.’ Her cheeks reddened. ‘Have you any idea how wonderful it is to be adored by two men, who have no jealousy for the other’s involvement? But be aware, I did not create this situation. You did.’ Joan’s breasts heaved. She long desired this conversation.
Phillipa’s voice quavered. ‘And my husband, the King?’
‘My lady, I think you probably know as much about that as I do.’
She tried hard to weed the accusative note from her voice. ‘That night at Calais, the King was disturbed. When he decided to execute the Burgers for their unlawful opposition of him, you gave spirited objection. From that point on, you remained as King and Queen, but you were no longer partners. He wanted solace, and he picked on me. I tried to resist, but he forced himself on me. Ever since, the court has attempted to place the blame on me. Attack is obviously the best form of defence. He has made his possession of my garter as the symbol of his new order of chivalry, Knights of the Garter. I ask you!’
Phillipa looked away. ‘What about your subsequent appearance at court dinners with your breasts barely covered, men clustering around you as if there were no other women in the room and your claim that there was no man alive that would not bed you if you asked them to. You deliberately confronted me with the knowledge that one of those men was the Prince.’
‘When you became aware that my marriage to William was not separating me from the Prince, I was forced to divorce William and to submit to the advances of my childhood husband, a man I no longer loved or even knew. There seemed to me no difference between lying with him or any other man. I made it clear that I was available. In this way, I built my power, wealth and influence.’
Renewed courage welled up inside her.
‘You know, some of them actually loved me. King David Bruce of Scotland was a major conquest, during his captivity in England. He left his wife and never married again. I didn’t intend for that. In the end, there were only two men I loved.’
Phillipa moved forward and stroked Joan’s hair. ‘Froissart christened you the most beautiful and amorous woman in Europe, and there could be no doubt what he really meant. Now, Joan, what about the present?’
‘It is all over. I found that even men I had no interest in expected to bed me, simply because so many others had done so. Suddenly, it was not the life I wanted. There was one particularly dreadful man who was nothing less than a nightmare! Bertrand du Guesclin expected my favour just because he asked for it. Du Guesclin’s parents were relatively close neighbours of mine in Brittany on the Frankish side of the border. Their son had a reputation for mindless violence and cruelty. When I firmly rejected his advances, he laid siege to me in the Château Suscinio. I could not leave for fear of being abducted by him. He threatened to kill my friends and servants if I did not submit. I was terrified.’
‘I knew nothing of this.’
‘William arrived in Brittany, as if by magic, when I needed him most. He brought a small army from Brest and confronted Du Guesclin. Du Guesclin was given twelve hours to leave and told that if he ever returned he would be executed. William then spent several weeks at Château Suscino, while he confirmed that Du Guesclin had left. While William was there, I happily fell back into a loving relationship with him.’
‘And does that relationship still exist despite the renewal of your relationship with the Prince?’
Joan found it necessary to lower her eyes. ‘Yes, Mother.’
Phillipa held Joan’s hands to her lips and kissed them tenderly. ‘The King has instructed the Prince to marry Ximene Trencavel. He has also instructed him to terminate his relationship with you. If you really do want to marry the Prince, I will give you a tiny window of hope. Almost anything might go wrong in arranging the marriage with Ximene, and if it does fall through, I could persuade the King to look more favourably on you. However, you will be marrying a future King. Any children you may have will rule this kingdom. There must be no doubt about their parentage.’
She narrowed her eyes. ‘Therefore, here is my ultimatum—end your involvement with William and end it soon. If the marriage with Ximene does not occur for any reason I will intercede on your behalf, but only if you distance yourself from William.’
Joan’s eyes rested on the older woman’s. A promise. ‘Yes, Mother.’