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Joan of England Was an Early Victim of the Black Death

Not yet familiar with the plague, her entourage underestimated its severity.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The year and month of Princess Joan of England’s birth is not known for certain. It is the date of her death which would mark her in history. Her early demise in 1348, brought on by the same Black Plague which would carry away 30-40% of her kingdom’s population, shattered the illusion of the royal family’s immunity to the sufferings of ordinary people. All her wealth, guards, learned courtiers, and royal connections couldn't save her from the devastation of the plague.

Related: How the Black Death Led to the Peasants' Revolt

Joan of England was born either in the year 1333 or 1334, the third child of King Edward III and Queen Philippa of Hainaut. As a princess of the English royal family, Joan was born with every possible privilege, and every element of what should have been a bright future. The throne was stable under Edward III. His wife was popular with the people and had advanced the line of succession with a male heir. 

The cultured Marie de St Pol, Countess of Pembroke, was assigned to educate the young royal daughter in preparation for a distinguished arranged marriage. Joan’s destiny, as with most medieval princesses, was to wed the heir of another monarch, and eventually depart from her home to rule over her husband’s land as queen consort. 

In 1345, Joan was officially betrothed to Prince Peter of Castile, the only living son of King Alfonso XI of Castile and Queen Maria of Portugal. Peter was heir to a kingdom which would eventually be united with other nearby provinces to form Spain. His marriage to Joan could have formed a powerful alliance. Unfortunately, that wouldn't be the case. In fact, the two would never even meet each other, as Joan unexpectedly died on the way to her wedding.

In 1348, Joan and her entourage set out on their bridal journey with a dowry that was awe-inspiring to all who witnessed it. Edward III wanted to impress the grand court of Castile, so Joan was traveling with trunk after trunk of treasures and household goods, with a small army to protect both the princess and her riches. But when the party set off by ship and debarked in the French port city of Bordeaux, they were warned by the mayor to leave immediately, and sail for another shore. The plague was already spreading in the town. But Joan’s retinue stayed put instead. The entourage would have been unfamiliar with the Black Death, which had not yet arrived in England, so they likely underestimated the danger.

Related: The War of Spanish Succession Subsumed an Entire Continent

The Black Death, quick and ruthless as an assassin, swept through the princess’s party and killed all but her lawyer, who lived to tell the tale. Though Joan herself was hurried off to Loremo, a small, nearby village with cleaner air and a smaller population, she caught the disease and succumbed to it on July 1, 1348. She was 14 years old. 

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  • Peter of Castile.

    Photo Credit: Alchetron

Her family was devastated by her death. Her father, Edward III, was especially heartbroken. He had lost his favorite daughter, for whom he’d arranged such a magnificent match. In his letter to Joan’s would-be father-in-law, Alfonso XI, he expressed his hopes that the angelic Joan had gone to heaven “to reign among the choirs of virgins.” Edward III made an attempt to have Joan’s body retrieved and brought back to England for burial, but this could not be done. Plague victims’ bodies had to be disposed of as soon as possible, to prevent the spread of disease. Joan’s contaminated remains stayed in France, the exact location currently unknown.

When Joan died, the already shaky alliance between England and Castile died with her. In hindsight, dying from history’s most terrifying plague may actually have been a kinder fate for the young princess than her intended bridegroom. Peter of Castile’s nickname during and after his reign as king would be “Peter the Cruel,” a fitting moniker for the violent tyrant he would become. Five years after Joan’s passing, in 1353, a new marriage for Peter was arranged with Blanche of Bourbon, a French noblewoman.

Related: How Ivan the Terrible Earned His Nickname

Forbidden from marrying his mistress (though he may have done so in secret), Peter was hateful towards Blanche from the very beginning. Throughout their marriage, he would have Blanche locked away in various castles, and his spite deafened him to the complaints and threats of Blanche’s powerful relatives. Even the Pope demanded that Peter treat her with more kindness, but Peter refused. When she died in 1361, there was speculation that Peter had ordered her to be poisoned.

Joan was spared this treatment, at least. A quick death by the pestilence may have been far better than a long marriage to Peter as a helpless pawn of European politics.