Some queens of England are much better known and have been written about much more often than others; I think it’s fair to say that Joanna of Navarre is not one of them. As Henry IV’s second wife, Joanna (or Joan as she is sometimes known), doesn’t seem to get a lot of attention as far as historical fiction is concerned. Anne O’Brien’s new novel, The Queen’s Choice, is the first book I’ve read with Joanna as the main character.
As the novel opens in 1396, Joanna is the wife of John, Duke of Brittany. While she doesn’t love her husband, who is much older than herself, they have had several children together and their marriage is not an unhappy one. To the court of Brittany comes Henry Bolingbroke, having been banished from England by his cousin Richard II, and Joanna is given a brief taste of the love and passion which has so far been missing from her life.
Three years later, things have changed. Henry has returned to England, taken the crown from Richard and imprisoned him in Pontefract Castle, while Joanna herself is now a widow and acting as regent of Brittany on behalf of her young son. When Henry sends one of his men, Thomas de Camoys, to approach Joanna about the possibility of a marriage alliance, she must make the difficult decision to leave her sons and her regency behind and come to England as Henry’s queen.
I won’t say much more about the plot, because I’m sure future readers will prefer to watch the rest of Joanna’s story unfold for themselves. What I will say is that the marriage between Joanna and Henry takes place fairly early in the novel; after this, the focus is on their attempts to make their relationship work – which is not always an easy task! Although their marriage is portrayed as a love match (it seems that there could be some historical evidence to support this), they are both proud people and a lack of communication sometimes causes misunderstandings. After Henry’s death in 1413, Joanna’s life takes a more dramatic turn during the reign of her stepson, Henry V.
I knew almost nothing about Joanna of Navarre before reading this book, but what little I did know was negative. It seems that she was greatly disliked by the English people because of her strong connections with France and Brittany at a time when hostilities between England and France were ever present. Her unpopularity and how she felt about it is covered in the novel – and sometimes her pride and unwillingness to take advice are frustrating – but Joanna is also given lots of good qualities and I liked her overall. There were times when I felt she reacted to certain situations in the way I would expect a modern day woman to react rather than a medieval one, but otherwise I thought she was a believable and strongly drawn character.
I may have had very little prior knowledge of Joanna, but I didn’t know much about Henry IV either and it was good to have the opportunity to learn more about him from this book. Henry only ruled England for fourteen years but his reign was an unsettled one: as well as the threat from overseas, he faced rebellions in Wales and in Northumberland, and rumours surrounding the death of his cousin Richard II, said to have been starved to death in captivity. Although The Queen’s Choice is set several decades before the conflict we know as the Wars of the Roses, we can see how it has its beginnings here, with tensions between rival branches of the family of the late King Edward III (Henry’s claim to the throne coming through the Lancaster line).
This is the third book I’ve read by O’Brien – the other two are The Forbidden Queen (the story of Katherine of Valois) and The King’s Sister (Elizabeth of Lancaster) – and I have enjoyed them all. I’ll look forward to finding out who will be the subject of her next novel.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review.