There’s much talk at present in Europe about strong women who occupy positions of power. I suppose it’s inevitable since we have a female Prime Minister in the UK plus, in the shape of Queen Elizabeth, the country’s longest reigning monarch; a female Chancellor in Germany and at one time it looked possible that France could have its first female President. Discussions in the media about these modern-day women at the helm of government proved a fitting companion for reading The Shadow Queen by Anne O’Brien.
This is a novel which takes us back seven hundred years to a woman who, while she never became Queen in her own right, was a pivotal figure in the mid 1300s. Joan of Kent (also known as the Fair Maid of Kent in celebration of her beauty) was cousin to one King, Edward III, and mother to another, Richard II. For a large part of her son’s reign she was the mastermind behind the throne since Richard was too young to govern in his own right.
She was quite a girl was our Joan. As a princess in the Plantagenet dynasty, the question of who she would marry was a matter of political expediency not love. She was meant to get hitched to either a European prince or an English lord from one of the foremost families in the land. But at the age of 12 Joan fell in love with and secretly wedded a humble knight who had barely a penny to his name. She kept it secret for three years during which time she went through a bigamous ceremony with the future Earl of Salisbury. When her bigamy was discovered it naturally caused a furore and became an international cause celébrè with various sides taking their appeals for help to the Pope. Joan got her own way but her reputation was tarnished.
You’d have thought one brush with ignominy would have been enough. But not a bit of it – years later, as a wealthy widow wooed by Edward, Prince of Wales (who later history labelled The Black Prince), she once again married in secret and once again incurred the wrath of the King.
Anne O’Brien’s novel brings to life a woman who from an early age was resolute in following a course of her own choosing:
I would never again act against my better judgement in future. I would never allow myself to be persuaded to renounce what I knew to be in my best interests. … I had learned from my mother that a woman had to keep her wits and her desires sharp if she were to follow the path of her own choosing.
A brave – though dangerous – stance to take in the highly charged atmosphere of the fourteenth century court, especially for a woman. But Joan is no shrinking violet – she is a girl intent on making a mark on the world:
What would enhance the pattern of my life further? One word slid into my mind. A seductive word. A dangerous word, perhaps, for a woman. Power.
The Shadow Queen is essentially a blend of romance and adventure that reveals how Joan kept one step ahead of the political intrigues with a combination of good judgement of character and some luck. She spent all her life at court. She knows what games those who surround the throne play – and how to beat them at their own games.
It makes for a good yarn with plenty of drama as Joan’s future ebbs and flows. After the discovery of her first marriage she is banished from the court and kept under close confinement by her family but years later she is in France ruling the roost with her 3rd husband as Princess of Aquitaine, (an English-owned territory). Written in the first person, Anne O’Brien’s novel gives us immediate access to Joan’s reactions to all the set backs and successes of her life.
This is a period of history about which I know very little so I enjoyed the insight The Shadow Queen provides. This is a period when knights and noblemen seemed to spend most of their time either preparing for war or engaged in battle. It was one way to keep them from squabbling and jostling for power and since every prisoner they captured could be ransomed, success on the battlefield was lucrative. The fate of their women folks was to be sit quietly at home caring for the children, sewing and praying.
Joan is strongly characterised but for me the most interesting character was the Prince of Wales. I’ve always had this impression of him as a ferociously brave military leader who won renown for his astonishing victories over the French at the Battles of Crécy and Poitiers, In The Shadow Queen, where he is generally referred to as Ned, he comes across as also a spendthrift and arrogant man who is so intent on enforcing his will on the people of Aquitaine that he forces them to seek support from their former ruler, the King of France. It’s Joan who sees the danger of her husband’s attitude but her sound counsel falls on deaf ears for once.
I thought the book could have been shorter without losing its impact but generally its blend of the personal and the political made it an enjoyable reading experience, especially for the glimpse it provided into a largely uknown episode in British history.
The Book: The Shadow Queen was published in May 2017 by HQ, an imprint of Harper Collins in e-book and hardback. I received a copy from the publishers via NetGalley in return for an honest review.
The author: Anne O’Brien was born in West Yorkshire. After gaining a BA Honours degree in History at Manchester University and a Master’s in Education at Hull, she lived in East Yorkshire for many years as a teacher of history. She now lives in the Welsh Marches in Herefordshire, on the borders between England and Wales.
Why I read this book: Quite simply it was a chance to learn about a period of British history about which I knew next to nothing. The names of the Fair Maid of Kent and the Black Prince were familiar but I couldn’t have told you anything about the individuals themselves. I’m glad to have put some flesh on the bones now.