There are some historical women whose lives have been covered many times in fiction – Elizabeth I is one example and Anne Boleyn is another. The heroine of Emma Campion’s latest novel, A Triple Knot, is a less popular choice: she is Joan of Kent, cousin of King Edward III and once described as “the most beautiful woman in all the realm of England”.
Joan is the daughter of Edmund, Earl of Kent, and his wife, the Countess Margaret. Edmund, the younger half-brother of the deposed Edward II, is executed for treason several years before our story begins, leaving Joan and her brother to grow up in the household of their cousin, Edward III, and his wife, Philippa of Hainault. Joan’s Plantagenet blood and her great beauty give the King reason to hope that he can negotiate a marriage for her that will be useful to him from a political perspective. When he and Philippa notice that their own son, Ned (who will become known as the Black Prince), seems to be showing too much interest in Joan, they decide that she needs to be married off sooner rather than later. However, Joan has other ideas.
On a journey to the Low Countries to see the father of a potential husband picked out for her by Edward and Philippa, Joan meets and falls in love with Sir Thomas Holland. Thomas is twenty-six and Joan is only twelve, but while their relationship would be shocking by modern standards, this is the fourteenth century and an age difference like this is not too uncommon. They marry in secret, knowing that the King would not approve, but are soon parted when Thomas has to return to the army. Back at home with her family, Joan is forced into a second marriage with William Montague, the Earl of Salisbury’s son, and faces a long, difficult battle to prove that her marriage to Thomas was legal. But as she and Thomas struggle to have their marriage recognised, the Black Prince waits for his chance to win back the woman he has always wanted more than any other.
A Triple Knot is the first book I’ve read by Emma Campion, but I’m aware that she has also written a novel about Alice Perrers, mistress of Edward III, as well as a series of historical mysteries published under the name Candace Robb. Having read this one, I’m not sure I would want to try any of her others, as I didn’t really enjoy it very much. While it was good to learn more about a woman I previously knew very little about, I was left thinking that maybe there’s a good reason why not many novels have been written about Joan of Kent – her story just wasn’t interesting enough to sustain a novel of this length. Apart from her relationships with Thomas, William and Ned (I’m assuming this is what the ‘triple knot’ of the title refers to) other aspects of Joan’s life aren’t given much attention. As for Joan herself, I was surprised every time her age was mentioned as she didn’t feel like a child to me – in fact, she didn’t seem any older at the end of the book than she did at the beginning, even though many years had gone by!
There were some things that I did like, of course, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to continue reading. The novel felt very well-researched and there were lots of details of fourteenth century life, both at court and away from it. The historical background is quite complex and it was sometimes difficult to untangle the relationships between various members of the royal family, especially in the first few chapters of the book, but I love reading about medieval history so I didn’t mind this. Overall, though, I was quite disappointed with this book – and as a side note, I really dislike the cover. It’s definitely not an image I would have chosen to represent the story and the time period!
I received a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.