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On This Day: Death of Joan of England

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On this day, 1 July 1348, Joan of England died in Gascony. The daughter of King Edward III of England and his wife, Philippa of Hainault, Joan had been on her way to marry Peter of Castile. Her wedding trousseau had been stuffed with sumptous fabrics and jewels, her household furniture was the finest quality that money could buy, and her wedding dress was designed to show the Castilian court that England was wealthy and powerful, and it's princess was a valuable treasure. Sadly none of it could stop the terrible ravages of the Black Death.

Princess Joan

Joan was born in 1334 at the Palace of Woodstock in Oxfordshire, the third child and second daughter of Edward and Philippa. In total her parents had fourteen children, and Joan grew up in a loving household. She and her siblings had a retinue of servants, but they were still close to their parents, who took an active interest in their children's lives.

Like many Royal girls, Joan was betrothed at a young age to a suitable man from another noble family. At the age of four Joan and her mother travelled to Herenthals, where Joan was placed in the care of her aunt, Philippa's sister Margaret. Together with a suitable retinue, Joan travelled across Germany to meet her fiance Frederick, son of the Duke of Austria. Since she was only a little girl there was no chance of Joan pulling the same trick as her sister Isabella, who consistently refused to wed various men that caught her attention, and at one point came within a week of marrying before she changed her mind.

Instead Joan's marriage was called off after her future father-in-law died, leaving his brother to act as regent. The alliance that Joan's marriage was meant to cement was called off, as was the wedding. The little girl had barely arrived in her new home before circumstances meant that she had to turn around and return to Ghent, where her mother was still residing after giving birth to another son.

Joan's second wedding was arranged with just as much care. The Castilians were allied with the French, and their ships were a perpetual problem for English merchant ships, which were frequently attacked. A marriage between a Castilian prince and an English princess would hopefully pacify the Spainish, if not lead to a proper alliance. It wasn't the first time there was a wedding between the two kingdoms, Joan's great-grandmother was Eleanor of Castile (this connection naturally meant that a papal dispensation had to be arranged for the couple), but it was the last such wedding for over one hundred years, when Catherine of Aragon (daughter of Isabella of Castile) married King Henry VIII.

The Plaguejoan of england

At the age of fourteen, Joan was considered old enough to be sent to Castile. Although she had been sent to Germany at a young age, it had been anticipated that the wedding itself wouldn't have been until she was a more suitable age. Her sisters were all married in their late teens, older than expected for the time, and it may be that Joan and Peter weren't expected to live together until the bride was a little older.

The first stage of the journey was the sea voyage from her home, to the English county of Gascony in France. At the time she left the plague hadn't reached England, although stories of it were becoming known. Her household and belongings were carefully packed up on to several ships, a grand farewell was held, and then Joan set sail. As the ships arrived at Bourdeaux, they were told not to come on land. The town was in the grip of the plague, and it wasn't safe for the English retinue to be there. The warnings were ignored, the party moved to the castle in the town, but two weeks later members of the group started to fall ill.

Those that were currently healthy, including Joan, fled towards Castile. But sadly the disease caught up with them quickly. Joan fell sick, and died in the village of Loremo, having never met her betrothed. Mystery still surrounds the fate of her remains, some stories state that she was buried in a local church, others say that she was repatriated to England at the insistance of her distraught parents. A memorial was raised to her in Westminster Abbey, but no tomb has been found, suggesting that if she was indeed buried in a church near her place of death, then it would have been the kind of anonymous grave that many plague victims were given. 

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