Joan, Lady of Wales

On March 21st 2024, members of the History of Deganwy Group gathered in Peniel Chapel to hear Diane Williams talk about Joan, Lady of Wales. The meeting began with a few moments of silence to reflect on the life of Gwyn Hughes, who was one of the Group’s driving forces for many years. Many of our older members have memories and stories of him from childhood onwards, and all will remember his tremendous work 10 years ago to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Avro Anson crash in Llandudno Junction, and his very moving speech following the Memorial Service for the 80th anniversary last month. We are so sorry that he is no longer with us; his humour and charm will be missed as much as his research skills.

As well as being the Group’s vice chair, Diane was a lecturer in Law at Llandrillo and an Associate Lecturer in Law at Bangor University. She is the author of legal textbooks for the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, and a contributor to academic journals. Her research interests include Welsh legal history, and women in medieval Wales – and both topics featured in this evening’s talk.

Joan (Siwan in Welsh) was the daughter of King John, and the half-sister of his successor Henry III. She was born c. 1189 in northern France, and was trained from an early age to fulfil the life of a noblewoman. In 1205 she became the wife of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, the prince of North Wales and seasoned warrior who was to become known as Llywelyn the Great. Their marriage was a political alliance, and despite their age and language differences their marriage seems to have been successful on personal, dynastic and diplomatic levels.

Joan. St Marys Church Trefriw

Joan and Llywelyn had a son, Dafydd, born in 1211 and at least 3 daughters. Before his marriage, Llywelyn had fathered several children, including Gruffydd, born in 1199. Under Welsh law, illegitimate children had major inheritance rights, unlike in England and most of Europe. However on his marriage to Joan, Llywelyn promised to disinherit Gruffydd, so that his heir would be her child rather than his first-born son.

Joan was by no means a subservient wife, and there are many instances of her contributing to Anglo-Welsh politics and diplomacy. For example, when King John invaded North Wales in 1211, Llywelyn sent Joan to make peace, and after John’s death in 1216, Joan’s negotiations continued with her young half-brother, Henry III.

Her impact has tended to be overshadowed by later historians because of an incident in 1230. In 1228 William de Braose, known as Gwilym Ddu and hated by the Welsh for his alleged cruelty, had been taken prisoner by Llywelyn and ransomed for a huge sum. Two years later he was at the llys at Garth Celyn (now Abergwyngregyn) arranging the marriage of his daughter to Llywelyn’s son, when he was discovered with Joan ‘in Llywelyn’s chamber’. The fact that the King of England’s daughter had allegedly been caught in flagrante caused a huge scandal throughout Wales, England and Europe. William was hanged, probably at Abergwyngregyn, and Joan imprisoned. However, she was back on the political stage a few months later, probably because of the strength of her relationship with Llywelyn or her proximity to the English Crown and her diplomatic skills.

Joan died at Garth Celyn in 1237 and was buried at the Franciscan Priory at Llanfaes on Anglesey which was founded by Llywelyn in her honour. The town of Llanfaes was to vanish when Joan’s nephew, Edward I, relocated the entire population to Newborough when Beaumaris Castle was built. Joan’s remains were lost when the priory was plundered in 1537 during the chaos of the Reformation, and in 1808 what is believed to be her coffin was discovered in use as a horse trough near Beaumaris. The coffin lid complete with the effigy of a royal woman in a wimple was discovered nearby, and both were relocated to the porch of the Church of St Mary and St Nicholas. There has been some recent debate as to whether the effigy actually is that of Joan, and we will probably never know for sure.

Llywelyn was said to have been grief-stricken at his wife’s death, and suffered a stroke not long after. He took holy orders and retired to Aberconwy Abbey – which was to be relocated from Conwy to Maenan, again by Edward 1– and died in 1240.

Joan was a powerful woman who acted as a peacekeeper and a negotiator, and whose children married for political advantage into prestigious Marcher, English and Scottish families. In fact, her royal lineage continues as the current Prince and Princess of Wales can both trace their ancestry back to her and Llywelyn’s children.

Many thanks to Diane for illuminating the politics and intrigue of the late medieval world on a local, national and international scale during a particularly interesting period of history, and for shedding new light on a remarkable woman who deserves to be remembered.

Lucinda Smith

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