Joan of England, a princess famous only for her death, was born on December 19th, 1333, or January 28th, 1334, possibly in the Tower of London. She was the third child and second daughter of King Edward III of England and his wife, Philippa of Hainault. Joan spent her early life traveling across the north of England with her mother. After the Hundred Years’ War began, Joan was betrothed for the first time to the son of Otto, Duke of Austria. Joan, still not yet five years old, went to live in Austria to be educated at her future father-in-law’s court. Her mother’s older sister, Margaret of Hainaut, Holy Roman Empress, was her guardian, though not a very good one, and Joan was not always taken care of well. Soon enough, the still-very young Joan was able to return to her family in Ghent, and the betrothal was called off.
Joan and her older sister, Isabel, were set up in their own household. They grew quite close, even sharing a bed. Their mother sent them many gifts, and it was quite the opposite of Joan’s life in Austria. Joan probably enjoyed needlework, as Queen Philippa would send her thread to practice on. In 1345, Joan, now in her teens, was betrothed again. This time, it was not just the son of a duke who was to become her future husband, it was Peter of Castile, the son of Alfonso XI of Castile. King Edward had previously tried to betroth Isabel to Peter, more than a decade before this, but that never happened. If everything went according to plan, Joan would someday become Queen of Castile.
In 1348, Joan began her journey to Castile. Her father sent her with a large retinue and a fleet of four ships. Her trousseau included many extravagant dresses, corsets, riding outfits, beds, bed curtains, and 150 meters of thick silk fabric for her wedding dress. She left Portsmouth and arrived in Bordeaux, where some say that the mayor warned Joan and her entourage of the plague. Since the plague was not yet in England, they probably did not know of the dangers of the disease. Joan’s entourage did not think much of it, until some of them began falling ill.
Joan was probably moved to a small village, but she soon fell ill. Very quickly after she first caught the plague, Joan died of it on July 1st, 1348. She was one of the first English victims of the plague, and definitely one of the most prominent. Joan may have been buried in Bayonne Cathedral, and there is a statue of her in Westminster Abbey near King Edward III’s tomb. Edward may have made efforts to recover Joan’s body from Bordeaux and have it buried in London, but there is no record of Joan’s body ever reaching England. Perhaps Joan dodged a bullet by never having to marry Peter of Castile, as he abandoned his wife, Blanche of Bourbon, for his mistress, then may have had her killed. Joan’s father, Edward, wrote this to Alfonso XI of Castile, who almost became Joan’s father-in-law:
“We are sure that your Magnificence knows how, after much-complicated negotiation about the intended marriage of the renowned Prince Pedro, your eldest son, and our most beloved daughter Joan, which was designed to nurture perpetual peace and create an indissoluble union between our Royal Houses, we sent our said daughter to Bordeaux, en route for your territories in Spain. But see, with what intense bitterness of heart we have to tell you this, destructive Death (who seizes young and old alike, sparing no one and reducing rich and poor to the same level) has lamentably snatched from both of us our dearest daughter, whom we loved best of all, as her virtues demanded
No fellow human being could be surprised if we were inwardly desolated by the sting of this bitter grief, for we are humans too. But we, who have placed our trust in God and our Life between his hands, where he has held it closely through many great dangers, we give thanks to him that one of our own family, free of all stain, whom we have loved with our life, has been sent ahead to Heaven to reign among the choirs of virgins, where she can gladly intercede for our offenses before God Himself.”