An unforgettable heroine in a novel of the Crusades.
Joanna is the strong-willed daughter of King Henry of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Close to her brother Richard Lionheart, she grew up at courts in France and England. From jousts to the infamous Courts of Love, from family quarrels to international intrigues, Joanna's youth was spent in the thick of it all.
With her ambition to become a queen, like her much-admired mother, Joanna marries King William of Sicily and is swept away to a court that is a crossroads for Normans, Italians, Jews, Arabs, and Byzantines. She is furious when she learns that her husband William possesses a harem—but she refuses to accept it in silence, acting like a true descendant of Vikings.
That is only the beginning of Joanna's adventures. When Jerusalem falls to Saladin, her husband and the Lionheart make plans to go on Crusade. And Joanna persuades Richard to let her accompany him.
This historical epic introduces a strong and truly unforgettable heroine, Joanna Plantagenet, whose drive and persistence helped change the course of history.
Hilary's brother-in-law Gregory Benford—my coauthor on MAMMOTH DAWN—read her epic historical novel about Joanna Plantagenet, sister of Richard the Lionheart during the Crusades, and he suggested that we publish it at WordFire. Joanna's story is so amazing it's hard to believe it's NOT a made-up fantasy. Hilary's research makes this entire period come alive. – Kevin J. Anderson
"Joanna, the main character in this novel, is a compelling individual, both the daughter of a king and later the wife of a king. Her tale begins in childhood, and the hardships of medieval life quickly become apparent, even for a woman of high royal birth. Joanna could be viewed as a modern feminist. These views complicate her life considerably, especially when she learns after her arranged marriage that her husband, the king of Sicily, has a harem. Despite all, Joanna is indomitable, and the reader wishes only the best for her. There is a glossary of medieval terms at the end of the book which is essential! "– Amazon Review
February, a cold cloudy day with no wind. In the royal apartment of the great Abbey of Fontevrault, Joanna and her older sister Eleanor watched from an upper window as their mother, Queen Eleanor, left for Poitiers. The stone sill was slippery from the mist and Joanna's nurse held onto her to keep her from falling out. Below them, the horses and men of the escort churned the Abbey bailey into a mud pond. Smells of horse dung came up to the girls at the open window and the sounds of jingling harnesses and snorting horses mingled with murmured conversations below. Joanna took her hands from the cold sill and rubbed them together to warm them. She wiped her nose on her sleeve. Everything felt clammy and dank.
Joanna saw her father, King Henry, mounted already and riding up and down impatiently. As usual, it looked as if he had tossed his clothes on in a hurry. His cloak was slipping off one shoulder and his tunic looked all crumpled. He never cared about such things. Yet, despite the fact that the men around him were richly dressed, a stranger would have known which was the King. As he wheeled his horse around, the knights fell back, allowing him room. He was clearly in a bad mood and nobody wanted to get in his way. He sat hunched forward in the saddle, his bull neck sunk into his heavy shoulders. His complexion was always ruddy, but he looked more than usually high-colored today, either from anger or the cold air.
"In God's name, where is the Queen?" he bellowed suddenly, catching sight of Queen Eleanor's maid who had emerged from the Abbey with a leather box in her hands. The King rode straight at her and for a moment, it looked as though he would run her down. Joanna gasped, but Amaria had known him for years and, although she sank into a curtsey, she held her ground. The King swung by inches from her and reined in. His horse snorted and shook its head and he automatically calmed it, laying a hand in its heavy leather gauntlet on the horse's mane.
"She's coming immediately, my Lord King," Amaria said, rising.
"Immediately? Sweet Lord, I know her idea of immediately. Tell your mistress I'll wait no longer for her. If she's not here in a cock's crow, I'll leave without her, by God I will."
"Sire." Amaria inclined her head and turned back.
At that moment, silence fell upon the bailey. The blacksmith stopped hammering, the knights and men stopped talking and laughing. It was as though they had been frozen in place, one with a mug of ale halfway to his mouth, another with one foot in the stirrup about to mount. All eyes turned to the entrance of the royal apartments. Joanna almost fell from the window, craning to see what they were looking at. Then Queen Eleanor rode into view.
She was in her late forties, but she sat her horse with an ease and grace that few women half her age could muster. She should have been an old woman, but somehow she was not. People sometimes speculated whether she had indeed renewed her grandmother's pact with the devil. She was still beautiful. If she had gray in her hair or lines on her neck, her wimple hid them. For the rest, her face was as gay and her back as erect as a young woman's. She was riding astride her horse, a fine black mare, and wearing a skirt that was not a skirt, but divided in two. It outlined her thighs and hung loosely to her ankles. Over this, she wore a man's knee length divided tunic and a jeweled belt low on her hips. The whole extraordinary costume was of fine white wool heavily embroidered with gold thread and over it a crimson ermine-lined mantle held in place by a huge ruby brooch.
The King straightened up and opened his mouth as though to speak, then closed it again. She stopped perhaps six feet from him and they stared at each other. The girls could not see her expression as her back was toward them, but they could see their father's and it frightened them. The Queen turned her horse's head and for a terrible moment Joanna thought she was going to lead the way out through the gate, but even she was not as bold as that. She walked her horse around in a circle as though challenging everyone to see and admire her. Some of the younger knights seemed to admire, but the older men were plainly scandalized.
Without a word or a signal, King Henry set spurs to his horse and galloped through the gates. His bodyguard raced to catch up with him and the vanguard crashed into each other trying to get out in front. The Queen's guard assembled around her and with much clanking of arms and jingling of spurs, the rest of the men fell in behind them and they all moved off. As she reached the gate, the Queen turned back and Joanna saw her face for a moment. She was laughing like a girl.
It was not to see the children that she turned. She had forgotten to say goodbye to them.
"Well!" Nurse exclaimed, letting out a long breath.
Joanna came suddenly back to her present surroundings. In imagination, she had been riding high and proud beside her mother on the muddy road south to Poitiers. Beyond the Abbey walls, she could see the Queen's red mantle hanging down over the mare's black tail, the only spot of color in the gray-green, mist-shrouded landscape.
"I have never seen anything so scandalous! Sitting astride a horse like a man, it's not right, it's—downright sinful! And that costume—in all my born days—if I had known, I would never have let you watch. Well, great ladies have their whims, but that's beyond all. Dress it up how she will with gold thread and all, those were breeches and it's against God's law for a woman to dress as a man."
"I thought she looked splendid," Joanna asserted boldly.
Nurse shook her soundly. "Splendid, you little ninny! Shameless, more like. She's your mother and she's the Queen, but I'm bound to say it, though don't you ever tell her I said so. Someone must care for your immortal soul to keep it from the fiery pits …"
Eleanor and Joanna started to giggle as they usually did when Nurse started on the fiery pits.
"Come to the fire, come away from the window, you'll catch your deaths." She sat heavily on a bench by the fire and held out her hands to the glow. "Page, it needs more logs! What, are you dreaming? Come on, come on, children, warm yourselves. Your hands are quite red with cold, Joanna."
She took Joanna's hands and rubbed them vigorously between her own. The numbness in them gave way to stabbing needles of pain.
"Ouch! That hurts, Nounou," Joanna protested.
Nurse took no notice. "It's a sorry business, the whole thing. I don't know what the world is coming to, a wife leaving her husband and setting up court on her own, it's unheard-of. That's what it is, for all that the Earl of Salisbury is there to keep an eye on her, she's off to rule on her own, and why King Henry allows it, I can't imagine. A whistling woman and a crowing hen …"
"Aquitaine is her own fief," Eleanor pointed out. "She is King Louis' vassal for Aquitaine and Poitou."
"She's a married woman. Vassals and fiefs notwithstanding, it's her husband's place to rule them. Who ever heard of a woman ruling anything? It's not natural. Look at the trouble it caused in England when your grandmother Matilda tried to set herself up as Queen. War and fighting and suffering and it never did her any good, they put Stephen on the throne anyway." Nurse wagged her head dolefully and Eleanor went off into giggles again.
Joanna stared solemnly at them. "But why is it bad for Mother to ride astride?" she said, reverting to the original issue, which was not yet satisfactorily clear in her head. "Would God really make her go to Hell for that?"
Nurse seemed to recollect herself. "It's not my place to criticize my superiors," she said primly and pursed her lips.
"But you just did!" Joanna pointed out. Grown-ups could be very confusing at times. "I've ridden astride, behind the soldiers. Is that bad? No one told me not to."
"You're only a child, that's different. You'd fall off if you tried to ride sidesaddle, as like as not."
"You mean," said Joanna, pouncing on this, "that it's easier and safer to ride astride?"
"Then why do women have to ride the difficult way? That's not fair."
"Fair! Easy! It's not a question of that. It's a question of what's modest and seemly. And," she added, as Joanna opened her mouth to argue further, "the worst fault a woman can have is to be argumentative and obstinate, as you show every sign of becoming. No, not another word!"
Joanna closed her mouth and frowned. Her mother was Queen of England and Duchess of Aquitaine. She was tall and beautiful and imperious and Joanna could not imagine that anything she did was wrong. She admired her mother more than anyone in the world.
Yet she loved Nounou. Nounou had loved her and cared for her since she was born, had sat up at night with her when she was sick, had fed her and dressed her and played with her, had prayed for her and with her every night that she could remember. Nounou would never lie to her. If Nounou said that women should be modest and quiet and submissive, it must be right. And yet her mother was none of these things. Was there a special dispensation for Queens? Joanna looked thoughtfully across the hearth at her nurse. Nounou sat with her knees apart, her pudgy hands held out to the blaze. She was not even noble, after all, let alone royal. How could she know what was right or wrong for a Queen? Painfully, Joanna struggled to sacrifice Nounou's omniscience for her mother's impeccability. She hunched her shoulders and wrapped her arms around her knees and stared into the fire.
O O O
Eleanor and Joanna left Fontevrault some weeks later with their households to join the Queen in Poitiers. It was early March and a glittery, bright, rain-washed morning. The girls had furs tucked around them in the litter they shared. They laughed together about the poor horses that were to bear the weight of Nurse's litter and laughed again when they moved off and the rocking motion of the litter tumbled them together.
For the first part of the way, Joanna was alert and excited. It was still early, not long after Prime, and they had twenty miles or more to go before they reached the royal castle of Mirebeau, where they were to sleep that night. Joanna had never been on such a long journey except when, as a baby, she had gone from Angers, the city of her birth, to Fontevrault and, of course, she did not remember that. So now she looked around her eagerly and plied Eleanor with questions that the older girl tried patiently to answer.
The sun was not yet far above the horizon. Its angled rays struck light off the windows of the Abbey church and its great gilt cross. Joanna craned behind her to watch it recede.
"See how little it looks, Eleanor? And the houses—just like little toys."
"Don't lean over so far, you'll tip us out. And you're letting all the cold air in under the furs," Eleanor said.
"Look over there, see that man pushing his wife in a wheelbarrow? No, there! Yes, isn't that funny? He's pushing her to work in a wheelbarrow!"
Peasants fanned out across the fields around them, their bent heads wrapped in dark hoods, their arms folded against the cold. The ploughs turned over heavy clods of earth and magpies followed them, skimming the furrows in search of worms. In the fallow fields, sheep were grazing and at the fields' edges, up against the hedgerows, wild flowers grew among the ragged grasses, daisies and anemones and pale primroses. Fresh green leaves showed on the hedges and spiders' webs, glittering with raindrops, spanned the thorny branches.
Joanna could hardly bear to sit there in the litter. In all this exuberant landscape, only the peasants moved stolidly, silently to their work. She watched two of them who had stopped at the top of the furrow. The ploughman was binding his hand with something, rags perhaps or strips of leather. His beasts stood waiting, their breath steaming in the cold air. Presently he took up the handles and the oxen moved slowly forward. A hare, its ears laid back, raced for shelter, raising a trail of glittering drops behind it. The sower settled his pouch on one shoulder and followed the plough, his arm swinging rhythmically as he scattered seed that was invisible to Joanna at that distance. They seemed unreal, tiny, in that wide landscape.
Soon they entered the forest and the sucking noise of the horses' hoofs in mud gave way to a soft thudding. At first this too was interesting to her, the herds of swine rooting among the dead leaves for acorns and beech nuts, the woodcutters leaning on their axes to watch them go by, the squirrels chattering high above them in the oak trees. The sun dazzled Joanna as it alternately hid behind the slender trunks of the beeches or shone through their pale new leaves. As they went deeper into the forest, it grew quieter. The rocking of the litter, the continual jingling of the horses' bridles, lulled Joanna and she slept.
O O O
She was sleeping again the next day when they emerged onto the broad plain below Poitiers. Eleanor woke her and Joanna struggled up from under the furs, rubbing her eyes.
"Eleanor, it's so big!" she gasped.
The city spilled down the hillside, houses, churches, inns, shops clustered within walls that were within walls as the city had spread and enclosed more and more parishes, all the way down to its encircling rivers. Everywhere the pale stone of new buildings caught the late sun's rays. Beyond the rivers, valleys fanned out into the distance, with here and there a priory near a stream or a hamlet or a mill. Joanna saw vineyards and orchards and a neat checkerboard of fields where peasants were still working at the spring planting.
The sun was already going down, and as they crossed the bridge of Moutierneuf, the Angelus rang out from St. Hilaire. The horses' hoofs clattered on the cobblestones as they went up through the town to the palace. Everywhere people stopped putting up their shutters for the night to crowd along the sides of the narrow streets and watch them pass. A barber and his last customer came out to see, the customer with a white cloth still tucked around his neck. Furriers stood with their arms full of pelts and a pastry cook with a tray of tarts. Joanna saw one little girl of her own age peering from behind her mother's skirts and staring round-eyed at the royal children in their fur-lined litter.
Ahead of them, the men-at-arms shouted, "Clear the streets!" The town seemed noisy after the day's ride through the forest. Joanna heard sheep bleating, people calling to one another, the banging of shutters and clanking of utensils, dogs barking, the horses' hoofs drumming on the stones, and, above everything, the bells of the churches of Poitiers.
It seemed to take forever to push through the narrow, stinking streets. At last they came through the gatehouse and into the bailey before the Maubergeonne Tower. The litters were set down. Poor Nurse was so stiff that the soldiers had to help her out. Bewildered by the strangeness of the place and the confusion around them, Joanna clung to Eleanor's hand. Knots of men stood arguing in the bailey and steaming horses were tied by the door, as though messengers had just arrived on urgent business and would leave again immediately.
Nurse came bustling up. "Now then, here we are at last. Oh my poor bones! I'll be glad to sit by a good fire on something that isn't jogging up and down. I swear those beasts hated each other or me. They could not get into step. All the way, it was up at one end and down at the other until I felt I was being pounded into jelly. Where is the seneschal, I wonder? The place seems very poorly organized. I wonder the Queen permits such disarray. We must pay our respects to your mother and then it's straight to bed for you children. Oh, that must be Sir Ralph over there. Come along!"
She pulled them over to where the seneschal, Sir Ralph, was talking agitatedly to the captain of their escort.
"Sir Ralph? Here are the royal children. We would like to greet the Queen. Be so good as to lead us to her, if you please."
"The Queen is not here, mistress."
Joanna felt cold suddenly. The man looked drawn, as if he had not slept for a night or two. There was a day's growth of beard on his cheeks and chin.
Instinctively, Joanna clutched at Eleanor's hand and the two sisters drew close together.
"An attack? On the palace? Heaven preserve us!" Nurse's hand flew to her throat.
"No, an ambush. She was on her way here, to receive the children."
"And the Queen is kidnapped? Merciful Lord! In her own domain?"
"We don't know yet what has happened to her. Come in, all of you, into the Hall."
In a daze, Joanna let herself be led inside. Images of her mother floated before her eyes. She saw her on her black mare as she had last seen her, confident, gay, elegant in her crimson mantle, turning back and laughing. Her face was vivid in Joanna's memory, the arched brows, the high cheekbones touched with color on that raw February morning, the even teeth—she had kept them all, which was remarkable, all but one on the far left and that gap was only revealed when she smiled widely, as she had done that day. Joanna felt a heavy lump of misery had settled in her chest, impeding her breathing. The seneschal's words reverberated in her ears. "Disappeared, an ambush, we don't know what has happened.…" Her mother kidnapped, imprisoned, held to ransom, dead … Joanna pushed the thought down before it could fully formulate itself.
It was dark in the Great Hall and the servants had let the fire die down. Now they heaped logs on it and soon it was blazing up again. They lit candles and the torches on the walls, and the graceful arcades running the length of the vast room sprang into relief against the flaring light. The servants went round closing the shutters over the many long windows.
The girls sat on a bench near the fire. Joanna was trembling, from fear or cold, and Eleanor put her arm around her. A servant brought wine and she took a cup. It was warm and spiced and she curled her numb fingers round it gratefully.
"I have sent for William Marshal. He was there and can tell you the whole story better than I," Sir Ralph said.
"When did this happen?" the captain asked. His cloak fell back from his arm as he tossed his wine down and held out his cup for more.
"Yesterday, Sir Gilbert. They were riding from Lusignan. The Earl of Salisbury was the Queen's escort."
"Where is the Earl now? Has he disappeared, too?"
"Lord Patrick is slain, sir."
"Salisbury dead? That is grave news indeed."
The men were silent. Sir Gilbert stood staring into the fire. To herself, Joanna said over and over again, "Please God, please God, please God." She twined her fingers tightly together.
Just then the men crowding into the Hall made way for a tall, slim young man who strode up to the fire.
"This is William FitzJohn, Sir Gilbert. The Earl of Salisbury's nephew."
"Yes, I know your father, Sir William. It is Sir William, isn't it?"
"Yes, sir. I was knighted just before the battle of Drincourt."
Joanna noticed that his left arm was in a sling.
"What happened yesterday?" Sir Gilbert sat down and unpinned his cloak. It fell in heavy folds around him on the bench. Eleanor and Joanna huddled together. Beyond them, beyond the circle of firelight, the soldiers and servants and household officials crowded in to listen.
"Sir, we were riding from the castle at Lusignan on our way north to Poitiers. It was a small escort, twenty men or so, under my uncle Patrick, and we weren't expecting any trouble, so we weren't wearing armor. The King had put down that rebellion after Christmas very thoroughly, as far as we knew. Most of the ringleaders escaped, the Count of Angoulême and the Count of La Marche and the Lusignans, but we thought they'd fled to the Île-de-France. King Louis is offering asylum to the rebels, you know.
"Well, anyway, we were riding along through the woods south of here …"
"Did you have no scouts going ahead?" Sir Gilbert interrupted.
"Er, no, sir. We had outriders, but what with one thing and another … We'd stopped for a meal, in open land, and after that, well, we were not far from Poitiers and the wine we'd had and the Queen was in high spirits and the men telling jokes and the outriders were more of the group than not.
"We should have been more careful. I see that now, of course. We were ambushed in a small clearing, a perfect place for it. They rode out in front of us and behind us at the same time, yelling and shouting, and just came right at us. No warning, no challenge. I heard my uncle call for his hauberk but he never had time to put it on. We had nothing but our swords.
"My uncle shouted to me, 'Guard the Queen.' We had been riding one on either side of her. I turned my horse to cover her left flank and three of them were coming at me. I was kept so busy for a while I couldn't tell who was where or anything."
"Who were the leaders?" Sir Gilbert asked. "Did you recognize them?"
"Yes, sir. Geoffrey and Guy de Lusignan. I recognized Guy de Lusignan myself and their wounded have been put to the question and named Sir Guy and his brother Geoffrey."
"Ransom, that's their game," Sir Ralph said. "A reckless bid, but I suppose they feel they have nothing more to lose, their castle captured, their walls razed. Tell them the rest, William."
"As I said, I was kept busy. I killed some ten of them, I know that. My sword arm is still stiff." He grinned suddenly and looked very young. "It was a real mess. Most of the horses were not destriers, as we were not expecting a fight, but only palfreys, and they were rearing up and terrifying the others and trampling men trying to flee, and the wounded were screaming.… When I had a moment to take stock of the situation, I could no longer see the Queen, or my uncle, either. I supposed he had managed to draw her out of the scrimmage somehow and was hiding her in a safe place until it should be over. Then they were on me again and I had no more time to think."
It was the kind of story Joanna loved to hear sung by a minstrel, a gallant knight defending his Queen in a forest glade, but this account horrified her. She could imagine the whole scene, the terrified horses trampling on the wounded, the trodden blood-reddened grass, the thunk of sword on flesh. She felt sick. Her mother in the midst of it all … Where was she now?
"And the Queen?" Sir Gilbert asked, echoing her thoughts. "They got her?"
"I don't know, sir. It all seemed to happen so quickly, and yet I suppose we must have fought for an hour. We were completely outnumbered. Some of our men were put to flight and I think some were captured. I fought on until there were none left to fight. Then I saw some of them riding off, going like bats out of hell. I thought of pursuing them, but they were too many for me and had a good start. I couldn't see that they had any prisoners with them.
"I expected my uncle Patrick to return with the Queen at any moment, so I stayed there taking stock of the dead and wounded. I did what I could for our wounded but it was little enough."
"You were wounded yourself, sir, I see," Nurse said.
"Yes, mistress, but it's a clean cut through the flesh and will heal well. My uncle never reappeared, so after I had laid our dead out straight, I circled the area looking for them. I found him face down, some distance from the clearing. He had been killed by a sword thrust from behind. The Queen was nowhere to be seen."
A sigh went up from the crowd, then there was silence except for the crackling of the fire. Joanna held her breath and looked from face to face.
"It sounds to me as though she is taken," Sir Ralph said heavily.
"I am afraid so. What a ransom they could ask for the Queen of England! But there has been no demand for ransom yet?" Sir Gilbert asked.
"None. No news. I have sent a messenger to the King, of course."
There was a silence. Joanna knew they were all imagining her father in a rage.
"Could her horse have bolted?" Nurse asked.
"Easily. But she would have brought it under control and then where would she go?"
"Perhaps she was thrown and is lying out there somewhere with a broken leg," Nurse suggested.
William laughed scornfully. "I'd like to see the horse that could throw the Queen. She has a better seat than most men. Still, we did think of it. The whole area was searched today but we found nothing."
Her mother lying all night alone in the damp forest, unable to walk, with boars and wolves sniffing her out … No, Joanna could not picture her helpless. She was with these Lusignans, whoever they were, and probably ordering them to provide her with more comforts. Captive or not, she would never be less than a Queen.
The fire and the spiced wine were having their effect on Joanna. Her head drooped and she leaned heavily on Eleanor.
Nurse bestirred herself. "Sir Ralph, some refreshment for the children, if you please. And I trust our chambers are ready, despite all this?"
"Yes, mistress. I am sorry. We have been all at sixes and sevens since this happened, but a chamber has been prepared for you." He snapped his fingers at a servant who jumped to attention and ran off. The servant came back presently with slices of cold smoked herring on a silver tray and little quince tarts. Usually Joanna loved them, but she had no appetite. Eleanor was not hungry either.
"Come, child, eat something. You must keep your strength up," Nurse urged.
To please her, Joanna took a bite of each.
"Do I have to eat any more?"
"One more piece of herring and then I'll take you off to bed."
Joanna could hardly get it down though she chewed and chewed.
She thought she would not be able to sleep, in a strange room and afraid for her mother, or that if she did, she would have nightmares. In fact, she slipped almost immediately into a dreamless sleep.