I frequently receive comments on my posts and blogs that Joan of Kent must indeed have been an outstandingly beautiful woman. Do not the images of her, that can be found widely on the internet, prove it?
The answer has to be no, for the most part they do not. There are indeed a number of images of Joan of Kent but very few are contemporary. They are certainly not authentic and give no true idea of her attractiveness or otherwise. Even worse, many of these picture of Joan give no indication of their origins, so that any net-surfer might well believe that they are accurate. Instead, they are figments of the artist’s romantic imaginings. Some of them I admit to finding ‘cringe-worthy’. I dislike then intensely and find them historically misleading.
Take this one for example. A 20th century rendition of what Joan may have looked like. It is certainly not a 14th century image. It comes purely from the artist’s colourful imagination. Beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder.
And then there is this one. Despite the ‘historic’ background and ‘pseudo-medieval’ trappings and dress and coat of arms, it has no veracity whatsoever, and is part of a 20th century collection of similar impressive but inaccurate images of important women. I find them sentimentally affected. It is all guess work, made to look historic.
This is an engraving on a wooden board, it is said from around 1385, the year before her death, and titled as an authentic image of Joan. I can find no real authority to say that it is Joan, merely labels stating that it is, without any evidence of where it originated. I can find nothing of its origin or where the engraving – which is quite likely to be 14th century – is to be found now.
Here is a painting of Joan and Edward III from the early 20th century. Joan’s name was much associated with scandal, apart from her clandestine marriages. She was said to be the lady whose garter Edward rescued, which was to become the insignia of the Order of the Garter. There is no evidence of truth here. Joan’s name was not associated with these scandalous events until the 1500s, nor is this painting anything but a dramatic work of art, with Queen Philippa glowering in the background. In soite of its limitations, I quite like it.
This, below, is an image of Joan of which I am very fond, in a stained glass window, made in the early twentieth century by the celebrated artist Christopher Whall, which shows Joan holding the model of the church at Ware in Hertfordshire, which she paid to have restored. It is cool and elegant, but much as I like it, I cannot guarantee that this is anything like how Joan actually looked.
So what do we have, to point us in the right direction? Some of the chroniclers were fulsome in their praise:
‘ … the most beautiful lady in the whole realm of England …’ Jean Froissart
‘…she was beauteous, charming and discreet…’ Chandos Herald
But we must remember that Froissart was appointed as her secretary by Philippa of Hainault who was responsible for Joan’s early upbringing at the English court, while Chandos Herald was a close friend of Prince Edward, so neither of them would perhaps be prepared to be too critical of Joan’s appearance. Still it’s good to know that some who knew her thought that she was beautiful.
But still we have no real description of Joan, of her figure, her face, or even the colour of her hair. This is what we have. It can be disappointing.
This is contemporary image of the lady. A lovely image of Joan with a mirror, as depicted in a manuscript from the Abbey of St Albans. But it is very small and stylised and not intended to give a true representation of her features.
There are two roof bosses in Canterbury Cathedral that at are thought to be representations of Joan. This one is to be found in the Black Prince’s Chantry, with Joan, her hair confined, as was fashionable, in a magnificent golden net. It is less than flattering of her in later life. It is said that in these final years Joan was ill and increasingly obese so that she could travel rarely.
And this one, far more flattering, in the north nave aisle of Canterbury Cathedral, possibly of Joan.
So where does that leave us? By the time we reach the Tudor period we are blessed with useful portraits of all the royals so that the characters are immediately recognisable. For medieval women we are left to our own imaginations.
But all in all, I do think that Joan the Fair Maid of Kent was a beautiful woman. Even her enemies had to admit it.