Joanna Hickson writes about the unusual life of Joan Vaux, child prodigy, second-generation immigrant, champion of the Tower ravens and lady-in-waiting to four queens, who is the subject of her latest novel, The Queen’s Lady.
When I was researching the history of Joan Vaux I very quickly realised that her character and life were too remarkable and eventful to be contained in one novel. It had to be two.
Those who have already read The Lady of the Ravens, (published January 2020) will know that it tells of Joan’s rapid change of fortune from obscurity to royal service shortly after Bosworth, the battle which catapulted Henry Tudor on to the throne of England.
Chance brings Joan into the household of his new queen, Elizabeth of York, where she views at close quarters the constant threats to the establishment of the Tudor court, in a period when loyalty and trust are fickle commodities, and the legend that the presence of ravens at the Tower of London is essential to the security of the country and the throne, is regularly threatened.
Initially, The Queen’s Lady recounts the final morbid years of the first Tudor king Henry VII, before things change radically under his young and flamboyant successor, Henry VIII.
Early in the narrative Joan finds herself out of royal favour when the hard-won trust that she and her husband, Sir Richard Guildford, have long enjoyed at court comes under serious threat. Tragedy stalks the royal family, conspiracies build against the throne and, overcome by illness and paranoia, Henry VII develops a chronic distrust of his courtiers and counsellors, particularly Sir Richard.
In consequence Joan experiences a series of personal ups and downs and eventually, although held high in the royal favour of young Henry VIII, faces an uncomfortable choice between continuing loyal service to the crown or considering her own happiness.
I found completing Joan’s story an emotional lockdown marathon. I became immersed in her dilemmas and full of admiration for the strength of character she showed in overcoming them, especially in view of the vicissitudes of late medieval life.
Her mother had been born in Italy and from the start of my research it was obvious that Joan’s European origins, the travels she had made in France and Italy before the age of ten while fleeing the Wars of the Roses, and the education she subsequently received in England as a ward of Lady Margaret Beaufort, had stood her in excellent stead, despite losing her father on the battlefield and her mother to the demanding service of the imprisoned and widowed Marguerite of Anjou.
I believe that few 15th-century girls, even had they received the benefit of a cosmopolitan childhood and the use of Lady Margaret’s extensive library, would have become widely-read and fluent in French, Italian, Latin and English by the age of 16. All of which stood Joan in good stead through the rest of her life.
Joan Vaux lived to the age of 75, was much admired by the internationally-famous scholar Erasmus, and entrusted with the care and education of Henry VII’s children including Margaret, Queen of Scots, King Henry VIII of England and Queen Mary of France.
However, much though she must have influenced the monarchs of three countries, she failed to win the honour of having her portrait painted by Holbein, which might possibly be the reason she has received little attention from Tudor historians.
I hope these two books might go some way towards correcting that deficiency.
Find out more about this book.
And Historia’s running a giveaway in which five people will each win a copy of The Queen’s Lady and Joanna’s previous book about Joan Vaux, Lady of the Ravens. With many thanks to Harper Fiction for generously providing the prizes! It starts on 23 January.
Read Joanna’s feature about Joan’s earlier life in Finding Joan Vaux, an unusual Tudor woman.
And see more on the early Tudors in Joanna’s Historia feature about Henry VII.
There’s more on Henry VIII this month when we mark 475 years since his death (on 28 January, 1547) with a feature from Carol McGrath, whose Sex and Sexuality in Tudor England is published on 30 January. Expect some fascinating revelations about the reason why he was so unsuccessful in fathering a male heir – or many healthy babies at all. It was a problem which drove so many of his actions and has left us with the endlessly fascinating story of the six wives.
- Erasmus and Thomas More visit the children of Henry VII at Windsor by Frank Cadogan Cowper, before 1958 (Joan is far right, holding the baby): Wikimedia
- Inscriptions to Joan by her son, Sir Henry Guildford, and her nephew, Thomas, 2nd Baron Vaux, written in the Vaux Passional: ©Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru – The National Library of Wales
- A man presenting a book to a sovereign (presumed to be Henry VII), miniature from the Vaux Passional, c1502–3. The man on the right in the foreground may be Sir Richard Guildford: ©Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru – The National Library of Wales