Anne O Brien

Is this the real Joanna of Navarre?

Posted on June 5, 2015

Historical Paintings: fact or fiction.

Is this the real Joanna of Navarre?

Historical paintings:  Authenticity v. Drama


This is a painting of Duke Arthur III of Brittany, painted by the French artist Henriette Lorimier and exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1806 when Romanticism was the order of the day.


It is of interest to me because it is one of the few representations we have of Joanna of Navarre, second wife of King Henry IV of England.  It shows her, beside the tomb of her late husband Duke John V of Brittany, in the role of caring mother, instructing her young son in the need for piety, in the importance of family history, and in his duty to the role of Duke which he would inherit from his dead father, John de Montfort.  Joanna is dark-haired, attractive, every inch a Navarrese and Valois princess. 

I would like to think this would be a valuable image for me in bringing Joanna to life when writing about her.  But how accurate a representation is it?  There is much to intrigue the historian in this painting, and the choice that Henriette Lorimier made when deciding to portray Arthur as the young Duke. 

In colouring and appearance of Joanna, we have no historical idea.  It is not on record.  We have no contemporary portraits of her.  If she is seen kneeling at her husband's impressive tomb, it would have been after 1409, when Joanna had personally had the alabaster image sculpted in England and sent to Nantes Cathedral.  She would have been at least 40 years old.  Arthur by this time would have been 16.  Yet both mother and son look younger than this - clearly to maintain the romantic image of the young and beautiful widow and the young child with all the duty on his shoulders.  As Queen of England, Joanna never returned to Brittany to see the tomb completed, as far as the records show. 


It could be argued of course that this image was from the date of Duke John's death in November 1399, in which case Joanna was only thirty one, and Arthur was six years old, which makes the image more realistic, but still does not explain the magnificent tomb beside which she is kneeling. 

Another interesting point: Arthur was not the heir to the Dukedom when John de Montfort died.  Why chose to paint this child, receiving his mother's encouragement and instruction?  The heir was another John, the eldest son, who became John VI on the death of his father in 1399.  So why paint Arthur? 

The choice of costume is also highly romantic.  Joanna is wearing a fur trimmed cote-hardie, which by 1409 would have been regarded as not the height of fashion by members of the Court.  Joanna, who was known to spend extravagantly on clothes, would have worn a houppelande with its high neckline and heavy folds, and her hair would certainly have been covered by a veil if not one of the rolled chaplets or a caul.  Arthur appears to be wearing something  romantically childlike for 1409.  I expect that the artist thought that a romantic, easily recognisable 'medieval' image was more important than authenticity.

 And finally, to return to why Henriette chose to paint Arthur.  He actually became Duke of Brittany but not until 1457 in the final year of his life, taking the title after his nephew Peter who died childless.  Thus Arthur was 64 years old when he became Duke.  I would suggest that he was chosen for the subject of this highly romantic picture because of the role he played in French history, where he gained something of a reputation as Constable of France, particularly fighting alongside Joan of Arc.  Arthur also played a major role in bringing peace between France and Burgundy at the Treaty of Arras.  This alliance led ultimately to the defeat of English pretensions to the French crown.  Duke Arthur commanded the French army in the Battle of Formigny in 1450 which resulted in the conquest of Normandy.  Thus Arthur was a heroic figure in French military history.  I can only presume that this was the reason for the painting in the nationalistic years of Napoleonic France.


What a splendidly sentimental portrait this is.  Do the historical inaccuracies matter? 

 I would suggest that accuracy has no bearing on the subject, and so we must be prepared to accept dramatic license.  It was not painted to make a genuine historical comment but to heighten the emotion of the relationship between the young widowed duchess and her little son, to tug at the heart-strings of the onlooker.  It makes her an appealing figure, which is what was intended.  As long as we know the intentions of the artist, then we are able to appreciate the worth of this romantic painting.

 As an interesting post script; this painting gained an immense success when it was exhibited in 1806. Empress Joséphine immediately purchased it for her paintings gallery at the Malmaison. 

Please feel free to leave a comment.  Click on 'Click here to read comments.' I always enjoy hearing from readers.


Categories: All Things Romantic, The Queen's Choice, Women in History,

Celebratory Giveaway

Posted on February 25, 2015

To mark the release of The King's Sister in paperback in the UK and Australia.

My Celebratory Giveaway

To mark the exciting release of The King's Sister in paperback in the UK and Australia on 26th February 2015.

Is Now Closed.

Thank you to all who dropped by.

I will post the two winners on Facebook.



For a chance to win a copy, click on 'Click here to read comments' ion the right below the reviews for The King's Sister, and leave a message.  I will be delighted to hear from all lovers of historical fiction.

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Reviews for The King's Sister

' -it's a tale of scandal and its effects, of loyalty worth dying for and it's all put together in a beautiful, seamless and completely readable fashion.' Gizzimomos Bookshelf

'It’s a brilliantly researched and well-told story; you won’t be able to put this book down.' Candis

' - a fast paced historical drama that is full of suspense.'  Essentials Magazine

'Anne O'Brien evokes the spirit of the age in full colour with all the detail and drama needed to fully engage the reader. Her characters are well developed and appealingly real, their choices are not clear-cut and the consequences are devastating adding up to an exciting and intriguing story of love and historical politics.'
We Love This Book
'... packed with love, loss and intrigue ...'  S Magazine
'... moving account of tangled loyalties and impossible choices.'  Historical Novel Society
'... epic historical adventure ...'  Heat

Categories: ,

The King's Sister; A Family at War

Posted on November 2, 2014

Elizabeth of Lancaster, THE KING'S SISTER. A Fourteenth Century royal family torn apart by rebellion and war.

My Giveaway to celebrate the publication of The King's Sister,

is now closed.

I am delighted to meet up with so many lovers of medieval history and historical fiction.

I will post the two winners in due course.

Here you can still read about:

A Family at War: The Epiphany Rising of 1399

 As a close member of the royal family, there was no reason why Elizabeth of Lancaster, after the somewhat scandalous beginnings of her marriage to John Holland, should not have lived a life wrapped in royal approval and luxury centred on the glamorous court of King Richard II.  Her marriage to Holland, from all appearances, was a love match.  Holland was smiled on by King Richard who created him Earl of Huntingdon, then Duke of Exeter, and gave him land and authority.  Holland and Elizabeth were blessed with six children, five of whom lived to adulthood. 

We have no portrait or illustration of Elizabeth, but here she is from the effigy on her tomb in the hamlet of Burford, Shropshire, with pale hair and long, fine features.

Blissful harmony was not to be the order of the day for the Duke and Duchess of Exeter, however promising the future seemed.  Because of her intricate royal connections, Elizabeth found herself in a hazardous position:  

- Daughter to John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.

- Sister to Henry Bolingbroke, the Lancaster heir.

- Cousin to King Richard II.

- Wife to John Holland, half brother to the King, as they shared the same mother, Joan of Kent. 

When England was torn apart by uprising in 1399, family loyalties destroyed any chance Elizabeth might have had of happiness with Holland.  It was without doubt a family at war.  Furthermore the clouds had been building for some time. 

It must have been difficult enough to preserve family goodwill when King Richard banished brother Henry from England for six years on a dubious charge of treason.  And then on the death of John of Gaunt, Richard extended the banishment for life at the same time as he snatched the Lancaster inheritance for himself.  Where were Elizabeth's loyalties here?  I doubt that they were with Richard. 

Here is Richard, magnificent in red and gold, from Froissart's Chronicles, in the days before the challenge to his power.  Froissart is shown presenting a book to the King.

 Even worse for Elizabeth's sense of loyalties was when brother Henry returned from banishment with rebellion in mind and usurped the throne from Richard, imprisoning him in Pontefract Castle. 

 Here is Henry, crowned King of England while Richard was still incarcerated.

 Elizabeth might not have been averse to her brother becoming King, but where would John Holland stand in all of this?  Would he support his half-brother or his brother in law?  In past years John Holland had been in receipt of grants from John of Gaunt for his military support in the ill-fated expedition to St Malo, so there were undoubtedly a strong connection between Holland and the Lancasters.  But in the troubled months of the uprising, when Richard returned from Ireland to find Henry Bolingbroke on English soil with an army at his back, Elizabeth's husband acted as mediator with Henry on Richard's behalf.  With no success, and Richard being dispatched to Pontefract, would John continue to oppose Henry, at the cost of being in opposition to the new King of England? 

Here is John, as Duke of Exeter, riding between Richard and Henry with his brother, magnificent in a blue patterned houppelande and hat.  Another little gem from Froissart.


With Henry holding the reins of power, all was smoothed over, at least on the surface.  John Holland gave his allegiance to Henry, taking his part in the celebrations at the coronation of the new king in October 1399.  Certainly Elizabeth must have breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief even though she must have pondered on the ultimate fate for her cousin Richard.  

But then in December of 1399.  All change, and Elizabeth's world must have shattered.  On the seventeenth of the month a group of men secretly met in the chamber of the abbot's lodging at Westminster Abbey.  Probably the magnificent Jerusalem Chamber as shown below.  The plan was to assassinate the new King Henry, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and all four of Henry's sons on the feast of the Epiphany - 6th January 1400 - when Henry planned  a great celebratory tournament at Windsor.  Richard would be released and restored to the throne.  Richard Maudeleyn, a young squire with some superficial resemblance, would be dressed in armour and would impersonate royal Richard and win over the armed support of the people of London until Richard himself could be restored to their midst.


Which ways would John Holland jump here?  Henry or Richard?

Holland, demoted from Duke of Exeter to Earl of Huntingdon by Henry, joined the plotters in the Epiphany Rising, sometimes named the  Rising of the Earls.  He was one of the group of plotters who met together at Westminster to plan Henry's assassination.

 What would Elizabeth do?  Support Brother or Husband?  A terrible choice for her to make.

Read The King's Sister.

 What was the outcome of the Rising of the Earls for Elizabeth and her marriage to John Holland?

Read The King's Sister.

 Live the emotion with Elizabeth of Lancaster, through rebellion and vicious power struggles, through betrayal and death in The King's Sister, released 7th November, 2014. 

'Anne O'Brien evokes the spirit of the age in full colour with all the detail and drama needed to fully engage the reader. Her characters are well developed and appealingly real, their choices are not clear-cut and the consequences are devastating adding up to an exciting and intriguing story of love and historical politics.'


Categories: Elizabeth of Lancaster, Plantagenet, The King's Sister,