The Shadow Queen by Anne O’Brien

Anne O’Brien’s new novel, The Shadow Queen, tells the story of Joan of Kent, wife of the Black Prince and mother of the future King Richard II of England. Although Joan wasn’t actually a queen, she was never far from the throne – as cousin to Edward III, she had Plantagenet blood, and through her husband, Edward’s eldest son Edward of Woodstock (the name ‘the Black Prince’ was given to him later), she was both Princess of Wales and Princess of Aquitaine. When Richard acceded to the throne at the age of only ten, in her position as the king’s mother she was able to have some influence on the early years of his reign. In some ways, then, she could be considered to be a sort of ‘shadow queen’, as the title suggests.

Despite all of this, however, Joan is probably best known for her beauty – she would later become known to history as the Fair Maid of Kent – and for the scandals caused by her three marriages. The novel opens in 1340, with twelve-year-old Joan learning that a marriage has been arranged for her with Will Montagu, heir to the Earl of Salisbury. Joan doesn’t dislike Will and under different circumstances this would have been a good match. Unfortunately, though, Joan is not free to marry anyone – she has already undergone a secret marriage with Thomas Holland, a minor knight who departed shortly after the wedding to fight for the king. Forced to admit the truth, Joan is horrified when her mother insists that her marriage to Will must go ahead anyway. She faces a long and difficult battle if she is ever to prove the validity of her first marriage and to win the right to live with the man she considers her true husband.

Around half of the novel is devoted to Joan’s relationships with Thomas and Will and the challenges involved in disentangling Joan’s first two marriages and deciding who should be her rightful husband. This seemed to go on for a very long time, but I appreciated that it was necessary to give the reader an understanding of the gossip and rumour that surrounded Joan in the early part of her life and how important it was that, when she eventually married the King’s heir, Edward of Woodstock (Ned, as he is called in the novel), her reputation should be clear of any taint.

The other half of the novel follows the years of Joan’s marriage to Ned, their time as Prince and Princess of Aquitaine and, when back in England, Joan’s efforts to ensure that their son Richard will be named successor to the throne. I don’t think it’s a spoiler – as it’s a well-known historical fact – to say that Ned’s life is cut short by illness and as he is outlived by his father, he never has the opportunity to become king himself. I couldn’t help thinking how different things might have been if he had lived and Edward III had been succeeded by a grown man rather than a ten-year-old boy; what we know of the Black Prince suggests that although he was a good soldier he wouldn’t necessarily have made a good king, but still the whole course of history could have been changed. I liked the way Anne O’Brien portrayed him and I enjoyed reading about his relationship with Joan. There was a lot of love between them, but it wasn’t love at first sight – more a love that developed slowly between two people who had known each other from childhood – and, at least on Joan’s part, there was also a certain amount of ambition involved.

Joan herself is portrayed as a strong, proud and courageous person who does her best to take control of her own life, though always within the confines of what it is possible for a medieval woman to do. I’m not sure that I particularly liked her, as she does sometimes come across as a little bit self-absorbed and lacking in judgement, but I did find her a convincing and well-drawn character. I was intrigued by her prickly, hostile interactions with Edward III’s much maligned mistress, Alice Perrers – I know Alice was the subject of one of Anne O’Brien’s earlier novels, The King’s Concubine, which I haven’t read yet, and now I’m curious to see how she approaches Alice’s character in that book.

The Shadow Queen is an interesting, enjoyable novel, if a bit too long and drawn-out in places. I couldn’t help comparing it to the only other novel I’ve read on Joan of Kent – A Triple Knot by Emma Campion – and I think this is definitely the better of the two books.

A Triple Knot by Emma Campion

A Triple Knot 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.