The destination for history

Joan, Lady of Wales


Three hundred years before Anne Boleyn was executed for allegedly committing adultery, the wife of Welsh prince Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, more commonly known as Llywelyn the Great, was forgiven for the same crime.

Joan, Lady of Wales, also known by her Welsh name Siwan, was an illegitimate and favoured daughter of King John, and one of several illegitimate medieval women married off by her father for the sake of politics. Years earlier Henry I only had two legitimate children, leaving his throne to his daughter, Matilda, when his only son died, but married three illegitimate daughters to various noblemen across Europe. One daughter, Sybilla of Normandy, even became queen consort of Scotland after she was married to Alexander I.

Born in 1191, most likely to a French mother when we consider her upbringing in Normandy, Joan was brought to England in 1203 to marry Welsh prince Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, who was eighteen years her senior. The pair were married between December 1203 and October 1204 at St Werburgh’s Abbey in Chester and went on to have at least two children; Elen ferch Llywelyn, born in 1207, and Dafydd ap Llywelyn, born in 1212.

Illegitimate sons could be rather problematic, something Llywelyn himself would eventually learn. In 1226 Joan obtained a papal decree from Pope Honorius III which declared her legitimate on the basis that neither of her parents had been married to other people at the time of her birth; though this didn’t give her any claim to the English throne, it did legitimise her children with Llywelyn over his others. In Wales the line between legitimate and illegitimate sons was blurred until well into the thirteenth century; Llywelyn wanted to leave Gwynedd to his younger, legitimate son with Joan, Dafydd, who was also the grandson of King John and nephew of Henry III – something Llywelyn hoped might encourage peace between England and Wales. Some of Llywelyn’s nobility, however, preferred his older and illegitimate son, Gruffudd, and indeed Gruffudd himself believed his claim to be as good as Dafydd’s.

Illegitimate daughters, on the other hand, were rather more useful. In the eleventh, twelfth and early thirteenth centuries the illegitimate daughter of the king of England was considered a perfectly suitable and appropriate bride for one of his major vassals or a neighbouring ruler – particularly a neighbouring ruler of lesser stature – and provided her father with a way to consolidate alliances.

King John was attached to his children, both legitimate and illegitimate, and both Llywelyn and John stood to gain from a marriage between Joan and the Welsh prince. Llywelyn had been seeking a politically advantageous marriage for some time and had looked to arrange a marriage between himself and the daughter of the king of Mann, which would give him support and a potential source of military aid from outside the lands controlled by John. It was in John’s interest as much as Llywelyn’s, then, to offer his own daughter as a bride, and Llywelyn certainly stood to gain from the marriage; the union would bring with it royal support and potential security for his lands, not to mention the opportunity to enter the network of blood ties which bound the leading rulers of western Europe. By marrying his daughter to Llywelyn, John was effectively acknowledging Llywelyn’s status and position as prince of north Wales and as a fellow ruler of a lesser, though not inconsiderable, power.

Joan and Llywelyn’s marriage appeared to be a happy one, and there is evidence that the prince doted upon his bride. When the royal couple resided in Trefriw, where Llywelyn had a hunting lodge, they were forced to trek up a steep hill to Llanrhychwyn to attend church. When it became clear that Joan was growing weary of the journey, Llywelyn had a church built for her in Trefriw in around 1230 on the site where St Mary’s Church now stands; the pair have been commemorated there in a set of stained glass windows.

In the Middle Ages it wasn’t common for women to be involved with politics unless they happened to be from a noble family, in which case their marriages, by their very nature, were political. Such women possessed greater freedom of action than many of their contemporaries, and indeed Joan proved her worth as a diplomat as well as a wife eight years into her marriage when she brokered a peace settlement between Llywelyn and her father in 1211 after a disagreement involving land ownership.

Things for the couple took a turn for the worst in 1228. Llywelyn was forced to imprison his illegitimate son, Gruffudd, who had previously been sent to lead Llywelyn’s men to intercept royal forces on their way to seize castles in south Wales. Despite being entrusted with this position of responsibility, Gruffudd was not reconciled to his exclusion from the succession and his resentment erupted into violence, forcing Llywelyn to seize him and imprison him at Degannwy. He remained there until 1234. Llywelyn was also involved in a campaign in Ceri in 1228 against Hubert de Burgh, who held Montgomery and wanted to further expand his lands. During the course of the campaign, Llywelyn captured the influential Marcher William de Braose and held him captive for some months. Llywelyn used this time to persuade de Braose to never take up arms against him again and to wed his daughter, Isabella de Braose, to Llywelyn and Joan’s son, Dafydd, solidifying Wales’s southern bodies by unifying Llywelyn’s heir with the family who had vast holdings in mid and south Wales.

De Braose agreed to the terms and was released, but in 1230 he was discovered in Joan’s bedchamber in the dead of night. Llywelyn had his wife and de Braose imprisoned separately, and for the only recorded time in his life reacted without thought, but with anger and distress. Joan was banished from court and placed under house arrest, and on the 2nd May 1230 William de Braose was publicly hanged for adultery.

Diplomacy momentarily forgotten, Llywelyn was fortunate in that his relations with King Henry III, John’s heir and Joan’s legitimate half-brother, remained peaceful despite de Braose’s execution. He quickly sought peace with de Braose’s widow and four daughters and the marriage between Isabella and Dafydd went ahead in 1231.

Remarkably, despite the scandal the affair had caused throughout Wales, Joan was also restored to Llywelyn’s favour that same year and returned to their palace at Abergwyngregyn. When she died there in 1237 Llywelyn was grief-stricken. In her honour he founded a Franciscan friary opposite the royal home in Llanfaes, formerly known as Llanmaes, which was consecrated shortly before Llywelyn’s own death in 1240.

Joan rested peacefully there until 1537, the year after an English queen paid the ultimate price for alleged adultery, when Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries reached Llanfaes. It wasn’t until 1808 that what is believed to be Joan’s stone sarcophagus was rediscovered and taken to St Mary’s and St Nicholas’s Church, Beaumaris, Anglesey after sadly being used as a watering trough for horses. It can still be seen there today, a final reminder of the woman a Welsh prince loved too much to punish.

You might also be interested in:

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books