Joan of Navarre

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.

7 thoughts on “Joan of Navarre”

  1. Hmmmm, so the brave King Henry V of Shakespearean fame ‘Once more into the breach dear friends’ wasn’t quite the hero I’d been led to believe.

    Why am I not surprised? 😉

  2. Oh, he was a hero. If by that you lean more towards the ‘bravery’ side of the occasion!

    I don’t know that I’d really trust Henry VI for highly analytical and reliable judgement. The poor man was always very eager to trust everyone and believe the best of everyone and everything around him – signing documents put in front of him apparently without reading them, repeatedly granting pardons to criminals (including some quite unpleasant ones), refusing the money bequested him by his uncle because “he gave us so much while he was alive and we won’t take any more from him”, apparently forgetting the extreme state of debt his treasury was in… I doubt he’d believe (possibly even hear of?) whispers of witchcraft unless it was forced on his attention.

    Poor man shouldn’t have been a king, but I rather like him. I hadn’t known those details about Joan, though – that’s very interesting!

  3. Lol, Lady D, Shakespeare has to answer for a lot when it comes to ‘basing his plays on history’. 😉

  4. Alabama Book Worm

    Lots of interesting details about Joan of Navarre. I have not really heard too much of her before. I am looking forward to reading this book.

  5. Henry IV gave Joan a dower that he couldn’t really afford. It was well above the going-rate for English queens. 10,000 marks, the best part of seven grand sterling, in an age when 1000 marks was reckoned enough to support an earldom. I suspect Henry V found that wars in France cost a lot of money, and that grabbing his stepmother’s cash helped with the liquidity problem.

    I bore for England on this topic, but English medieval finances were just not up to paying for a long war with France, which is why Richard II, William de la Pole (Suffolk) and Edward IV had the right policy and Edward III, Henry V, Humphrey of Gloucester, Richard of York and Richard III were mistaken.

  6. Well I am writing a play about Mary de Bohun Henry IV first wife poor thing. I am planning to cast Joanna of Navarre as the baddie who is poisoning her Husband. Why else would that strange burning skin illness come upon him so suddenly a couple of years after his marriage?! I think she was trying to currie favour with teenage Henry in the hope that she could rule through him when her husband died. Fortunately he saw through her.

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