This is an interesting book about one of the neglected figures of medieval English history – Joanna of Navarre, Duchess of Brittany, the second wife of Henry IV. It’s strange that both Henry and Joanna receive so relatively little attention from either historians or historical novelists, especially as Shakespeare wrote two plays about Henry and Shakespearean plays seem to have a lot (rather too much, if you ask me!) of influence on popular views of history. Maybe they get overshadowed by Henry V, who’s usually presented as a very glamorous figure – mainly because he gave the French a good old thrashing!
Anyway, to get back to Joanna, her marriage to Henry is presented in this book as having been a love match, and that is the generally accepted view of it. They met whilst Henry was in exile at the Breton court, at which time he was a widower and Joanna was married to the reigning duke, John IV. After John’s death, Joanna, at a time when it was rare for a woman to hold political power, was made regent for her eldest son. Henry, who’d overthrown Richard II and made himself King of England a few weeks earlier, then proposed, leaving Joanna with a big dilemma: if she accepted, she’d have to leave her sons behind in Brittany and leave the duchy to be governed by the Duke of Burgundy. She eventually did accept, and most of the book covers the period of her marriage to Henry.
It concentrates on the domestic side of things and on Henry’s ill-health, but we do see quite a bit of the politics of what was a very difficult period in English history. I’ve never been keen on Henry because of his treatment of the Lollards, but that didn’t really come into the book at all, but Owen Glendower’s rebellion and the clashes between Henry and the Percys are covered. Again, it’s strange that such an eventful period in English history is so neglected. Maybe it is that Henry IV just doesn’t have the glamour factor of Edward I, Edward III, Henry V, Edward IV, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, and hasn’t been made into a pantomime baddie like Richard III either.
We then come on to another interesting and neglected story – after Henry’s death, Henry V accused his Joanna of witchcraft. Relations between them, which had once been good, broke down over Henry’s treatment of Joanna’s eldest son, Arthur of Brittany, although that isn’t made very clear in the book. The horrific use of claims of witchcraft against some prominent women, most famously Joan of Arc and Anne Boleyn, is well-known, but the use of it by the great hero of Agincourt as a pretext for seizing his stepmother’s money, leaving the poor woman in fear of her life, doesn’t receive much attention. It should do. Joanna was eventually released from imprisonment by order of Henry V when he was on his deathbed and presumably feeling very guilty. Joanna then lived peacefully on until her mid-60s, a good age for the times, although the book doesn’t go that far.
Joanna and Henry both merit a lot more coverage than they get, and it’s always nice to find a book about an interesting but little-known figure in our history. There isn’t that much information about Joanna available, so of necessity the detail in the book is fictitious; but it comes across very well indeed.