Joan of England and the Black Death

Rebecca Wilson

When the Black Death hit England in 1348, no one was safe.

The Black Death was no respecter of age or social position, it killed indiscriminately. It moved across Europe, ripping apart families and loved ones and left the few remaining people reeling for their losses. No amount of prayer seemed to save them from the disease; no amount of hope rescued their loved ones from its clutches. It had many names, such as The Great Mortality, The Death and The Pestilence, and was feared deeply. A young princess, Joan, would soon discover that even her royal blood was susceptible to the sickness. She was born sometime between December 1333 and January 1334 at The Tower of London. She was the daughter of King Edward III and his wife, Queen Phillipa of Hainault. She lived with her sister, Isabella, her brother, Edward, who would be known to history as The Black Prince, and her cousin, also called Joan, who would go on to be the mother of Richard II and known as The Fair Maid of Kent. Joan would have had a relatively pleasant childhood, better than most of her contemporaries. She joined her father, the king, on a journey to Koblenz in Germany in 1338 when she was still only a small child. They met with Louis IV, Holy Roman Emperor and joined an alliance with him against Philip VI of France. She remained abroad for two years with her mother’s sister, Margaret II of Hainault. Young Joan was betrothed to her cousin at this time, but the engagement was called off. In 1345 she became betrothed to Peter of Castille, also known to history as ‘Peter the Cruel’, due to his cruelty towards the clergy. He was the son of Alfonso XI of Castille and Maria of Portugal. The betrothal was with her parent’s blessing. Joan’s dowry was a significant one, allegedly, so large, it required a ship alone to carry it. The couple were the same age, they seemed to be suited to each other, and all seemed to be positive in her life. However, this was short lived.
Joan of England and the Black Death
Joan of England

The Historians Magazine

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Joan of England and the Black Death

When the young Joan set off to marry her husband-to-be, she did so feeling safe.

Joan had an entourage of guards around her, so felt sure that no harm could come to her person as she travelled across Europe. At the time she began her journey, there were no rumours of illness. No one reported unusual deaths as they travelled through the villages and towns. No one understood about microscopic organisms that could kill. Her guards were defenceless against the invisible killers that stood in wait for them. When there was a vicious outbreak in Bordeaux, it did not occur to any of the group to move on. Instead, they waited, perhaps in denial that they would not get sick. Slowly, one by one, the royal entourage began to get ill and die, as the Black Death began to grip Europe. Joan, fearing for her life, moved in with some close members of the retinue in the town of Leremo, further out of the way. Princess Joan, however, would be the first person to die from the Black Death in this town some months later. Perhaps she had already contracted the disease when she arrived in the town, or perhaps one of her entourage already had. Joan died on the 2nd of September 1348. She was only 14 years old and left her family saddened and the country shocked at her passing. When her father died in 1377, a small brass statue or ‘weeper’ of Joan was incorporated into his tomb. This was likely to show that Joan was loved during her life and even into death. A weeper is a statue on someone’s tomb to represent the mourners. These weepers are sometimes to represent anonymous people and sometimes specific family members or loved ones. You can still see the tomb and Joan’s weeper statue in Westminster Abbey, as well as her actual burial site at Bayonne Cathedral, in France.
Ancestry UK
Joan of England and the Black Death

Rebecca Wilson

I am Rebecca Wilson, a Cumbrian historian. I read History and English Literature at Liverpool University and became a Secondary School teacher for many years. I now live just outside the Lake District with my husband, son and two puppies, Betty and Marlowe, and enjoy running my history page @tudorghostmammy and writing for The Historians Magazine. I also write freelance, and I am a committee member of a charity to raise money for and awareness of the beautiful medieval ruin of Egremont Castle @egremont_castle. I also volunteer at The Theatre Royal in Workington @playgoersworkington where I perform, direct, write plays and the theatre newsletter.
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