Joanna Hickson’s latest novel, The Lady of the Ravens, is the first in a trilogy based on the life of an unusual woman of the Tudor age, Joan Vaux. Joanna tells Historia what drew her to write about this little-known yet influential figure.
There is never a set way to find credible fictional plots based in history, nor is it always possible to balance the expectations of a modern readership with the apparent truths of medieval sources. However, with my latest novel, The Lady of the Ravens, the more I researched my narrator and chief protagonist, the easier I considered it became to present her to the 21st-century reader.
For far from being the average, poorly educated, male-dominated medieval daughter and wife, Joan Vaux must have been practically unique among women in early Tudor England.
Firstly, the exact date of her birth is unknown but she was almost certainly not born in England. In 1461 her staunchly Lancastrian father, Sir William Vaux, having fought for the defeated Henry VI at the battle of Towton, had been stripped of his lands and possessions by the Yorkist conqueror Edward IV. He fled with his young wife and baby son across France and the Alps to take refuge with her family in Piedmont; for Joan’s mother, Katherine, was a French/Italian immigrant, who had come to England in the train of King Henry’s queen, Marguerite of Anjou.
1463 is a vague date for the arrival of their daughter, based on the fact that Sir William is recorded later in that year as having left Piedmont to join the knightly retinue of the now-exiled Queen Marguerite at her court in northern France, presumably leaving his heavily pregnant or recently delivered wife with her parents.
Today Piedmont is geographically and linguistically part of Italy but in the fifteenth century, as a result of war it had been annexed by the duchy of Provence. Therefore the baby Giovanna, named after her grandmother, was officially French, despite her first language being Italian and her mother’s determination to teach her English, the language of her fatherland.
It was not until the little girl was five or six that the Vaux family was reunited after the exiled Queen Marguerite moved her impoverished court to Angers, the capital of her father’s duchy of Anjou, and her mother returned to the queen’s household, where Giovanna quickly learned French.
Thus it was that by the time they followed their queen back to England with an army of French mercenaries to confront Edward IV of York, eight-year-old Giovanna was fluent in three languages.
As history recounts, this attempt to re-establish the Lancastrian throne failed miserably, ultimately defeated in battle on a muddy field at Tewkesbury in May 1471 when Queen Marguerite’s only son, 17-year-old Prince Edward, was killed alongside Sir William Vaux, his faithful guardian knight.
Sir William’s widow and children were taken to London with the captive queen, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London, confined there on the day after her long-incarcerated husband, ex-King Henry, had died, apparently from ‘melancholy’ at the death of his son and heir, but more likely at the hands of a guard acting on King Edward’s orders.
The widowed Lady Vaux agreed to share the distraught ex-queen’s confinement and arrangements were made for her two children to be fostered by Lady Margaret Beaufort, with whom she had become acquainted years before, when both were young maids of honour at the Lancastrian court. Sad though she must have been to be separated from her mother, this situation proved to Giovanna’s advantage, for Lady Margaret provided her wards with an excellent education and her household contained an extensive library.
Over the ensuing years Giovanna’s name was anglicised to Joan and, as well as continuing to use all three of her languages, she also added Latin to her portfolio, in order to read many of the books available to her. Not only was she a linguist; Joan Vaux became a scholar of high intelligence – a rare achievement for a woman in 15th-century society.
Of course, she could not join the Church or follow an academic career, such as an educated man might have done at the time, and so she was lucky that her position in Lady Margaret’s household gave her an entry into royal employ after the Lady’s son, Henry Tudor, became king ‘by right of conquest’, when his invading army defeated Richard III of York at the Battle of Bosworth.
I won’t go into any more details of her extraordinary life and career for fear of spoiling readers’ enjoyment of The Lady of the Ravens, except to note that moving in royal circles gave her an opportunity to meet the renowned Dutch philosopher and scholar Erasmus and engage him in lengthy conversation, with the result that he later wrote a letter to her son in which he asked to be remembered to her, mentioning how much he had admired her and wishing her ‘happiness and prosperity’. Whether they conversed in English, French, Italian or Latin is not recorded but I would make a guess that it was Latin, the international medieval language of scholarship.
Joan Vaux had a long and eventful life and I will be following more of it in my next novel. For not only was she unusually bright, she was also friendly and sympathetic, able to successfully navigate the complexities of court society and prove an important advisor to two generations of Tudor royal women, as well as sharing the lives, trials and gossip of ordinary working men and women.
Obviously I have embroidered her character onto the very basic information I was able to glean from my researches but I maintain that I was a lucky author when I found Joan Vaux buried in the pages of history. She just shouted at me to bring her back to life!
Joan avoided the restrictions of marriage until she was 25, and the fact that she chanced to marry a man who happened to live in the Tower of London provided the perfect background to her crucial role as confidante to Queen Elizabeth of York in the uneasy early years of Tudor power.
The marriage of Margaret of Anjou and Henry VI of England, from Les Vigiles de Charles VII, c1484: via Wikipedia
The Battle of Tewkesbury from a late 15th-century Ghent manuscript: via Wikimedia
Lady Margaret Beaufort by Meynnart Wewyck, c1510, in the Master’s Lodge, St John’s College, Cambridge: via Wikimedia