Over the weekend (in between the excitement of using my big hole puncher), I finished Witch Queen by Maureen Peters. Witch Queen is about Joan of Navarre, who married the widowed Henry IV and thus became his queen and the stepmother to his children, including the future Henry V.
Witch Queen follows Joan from her childhood with her depraved father, nicknamed Charles the Bad, who forces young Joan to learn the ways of witchcraft. It follows Joan through her two marriages to the Duke of Brittany and to Henry IV, her imprisonment by Henry V on trumped-up charges of sorcery, and her release several years later. An epilogue follows Joan into her old age.
Those expecting a novel about witchcraft should look elsewhere, as Joan uses her powers only on one occasion, early in her life. Her main interest, which deepens as she ages, is in keeping her income secure, and it is her refusal to lend Henry V money that leads to the charges against her. Joan’s increasing avarice, in fact, makes her a less attractive heroine as the novel goes on, though Peters manages to keep the reader from losing all sympathy for her.
There are some nice moments in this novel, such as the scene where Joan encounters an old admirer and finds, to her chagrin, that he no longer carries a torch for her. All in all, it’s a quick and enjoyable read.
Having finished the novel, I was interested in learning more about the historical Joan of Navarre, who was indeed accused by Henry V of witchcraft in 1419. Henry V never proved the charges, and most historians, including Henry V’s biographer Christopher Allmand, believe that they were a pretext for the cash-strapped Henry to seize Joan’s revenues. (Tensions between England and Brittany, where Joan’s son from her first marriage ruled, probably didn’t help either.)
Peters portrays Joan’s imprisonment as being a spartan one, but this was hardly the case. A.R. Myers in his article “The Captivity of a Royal Witch” notes that Joan was provided with a large household, rich clothing, and varied foods and wines. She received illustrious visitors, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Winchester, and her stepson the Duke of Gloucester. One visitor, Thomas, Lord Camoys, stayed for a whopping nine months during 1420-21. One wonders if Camoys, a widower who returned for a brief visit in February 1421 before his death in March that same year, was a special friend of Joan’s. Myers also notes that Joan was appointed a Portuguese physician and was allowed to buy medicines.
Noting that Joan was never tried for witchcraft, Myers suggests a reasonable explanation: if Joan were tried and acquitted, she would have to be freed and given back her income; if she were found guilty, she would have to be punished, which the king may have been reluctant to do. Keeping Joan imprisoned without trial allowed the government to enjoy her income while keeping her in comfort at the same time.
Six weeks before his own death in 1422, Henry ordered that Joan be released and her dower restored. Her last years were comfortable and uneventful. She appears to have been on good terms with Henry VI, who gave her a fine tablet of gold in 1437 and saw to it that she received a state funeral when she died that same year, aged sixty-nine. She was buried beside Henry IV. It seems unlikely that Henry VI would have treated Joan with such respect had he believed the witchcraft charges against her to have substance.