Book Review: Joan, Lady of Wales, Power and Politics of King John’s Daughter by Danna R. Messer

By Andy McMillin

Joan, Lady of Wales, Power and Politics of King John’s Daughter, is a welcome study in medieval queenship as scholarship on Welsh queens has arguably been largely overshadowed by research on their English counterparts. Those who study queenship will recognise the impact of the lack of surviving records and resources from this period which can make it difficult to study women, an issue recognised by Danna Messer. To date, few historical assessments of Joan exist, but Sharon Kay Penman’s Here be Dragons has highlighted her in a fictional manner. However, for royal studies scholars seeking an academic and clear assessment about Joan and the world she lived in, Messer brings Welsh queens to the attention of queenship scholars.  

Joan, Lady of Wales, is introduced in this biography as a powerful driving force who was at the centre of the dynamic circle of the Welsh Princes of Gwynedd. As the illegitimate daughter of King John, she became the consort queen of Llewelyn ap Iorwerth, giving him five children, demonstrating her fulfilment of dynastic continuity, a primary role of queenship . However, as Messer notes, Joan was not traditionally recognised as a Welsh queen. Her official title was Princess, who then fulfilled her role as a consort queen and a “peace weaver”.

Messer’s aims of her work are clear in this chronological assessment. By using identity as a cornerstone of her study, she uses this term to help place Joan and her story within the realms of queenship for the popular reader and scholar alike. By understanding identity as an avenue of queenship, the author outlines how this method establishes connections between Joan’s embodiment of Welsh queenship and reflected the expectations of the wider medieval political world. This approach that the author takes is very useful due to the slim sources available for Joan and others royal figures of the period. For Joan, as this work demonstrates, her identity as a consort queen who played a fundamental role in politics helped give her an identity within her husband’s court in Wales, the English court and her own. Echoed by the author, this was not uncommon for this period as many medieval consort queens’ lives were filled with complicated and interconnected personal and family relationships. Her actions demonstrated how she fulfilled the expectations of consorts through her marriage, intercession, maternity, and patronage.

Messer also uses the theme of marriage to further define Joan’s role as a consort and highlights her abilities as queen. Details of Joan’s role as a wife within the parameters of queenship emphasise her marriage as a political tool which not only defined her position as queen but cemented her identity as a “peace weaver”. This is further defined in the third chapter of this work titled, “Marriage, Queenship and the Roles of Women in Wales.” The chapter discusses how marriage was used as one of the most powerful tools in throughout the middle ages. Marriage was a way to make means to create peace, negotiate treaties, for families to gain lands, transfer property and to obtain or transfer wealth. Joan’s marriage to Llewelyn ap Iorwerth, in the eyes of her father, King John, was just that. Messer notes that Joan’s marriage to the Welsh prince was one of the first recorded Anglo-Welsh treaties. The tensions between the parties who participated in the treaty which arranged Joan and Llewelyn’s marriage affected Joan’s life and shaped her activities as consort. Moreover, Joan was a respected royal figure, as demonstrated in the chapter, “Royal Female Authority”, and acted as a diplomat many times throughout her life to further Anglo-Welsh relations. The full extent of her political expertise is detailed in the chapter,“The Legitimate Diplomat.”

By understanding Joan’s role in medieval dynastic Wales, Messer highlights Joan as a queen with the many abilities and various aspects of queenship, that make her a model for further study.  It is the new and original appeal of the understudied world of medieval Wales and the women who lived there that makes this biography appealing to queenship scholars. By focusing on major themes within queenship, the work fully encompasses who Joan was not only as a medieval woman but as a Welsh princess or “queen”.  Joan, Lady of Wales is an excellent study for anyone wishing to delve into the world of not only Welsh history but also Welsh queenship.

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