A Weir(d) Myth-take: The Legend of Joan of York
After the time of long barrenness,
God first send Anne, which signifyth grace,
In token that at her heart’s heaviness,
He as for barrenness would from them chase.
Harry, Edward, Edmund, each in his place
Succeeded; and after twain daughter came
Elizabeth and Margaret, and afterwards William.
John after William next born was,
Which both be passed to God’s grace:
George was next, and after Thomas.
Born was, which son after did pace.
By the path of death into the heavenly place
Richard liveth yet; but the last of all
Was Ursula, to Him who God’s list call.
Above is the section of the famous Clare Roll where the children of Richard Duke of York and his wife Cecily Neville are all, quite clearly, listed.
However, you could be forgiven in thinking that there was another York child who mysteriously got left off the list—a daughter called Joan. The eldest daughter of the Duke and his wife, no less.
A number of sites on the internet, both informational and genealogical, firmly state Joan of York was Richard and Cecily’s firstborn child, a short-lived daughter named after her maternal grandmother, Joan Beaufort. Several books have appeared that mention Joan, mostly notably one by Alison Weir and a later one by Amy Licence. A birthdate of 1438 has appeared for the mysterious Joan, and York was posited as her birthplace.
So what is the truth about this putative daughter? The truth is, it would seem—Joan of York never existed, and not only that, her ‘birth’ only took place in the later 20th c!
The first mention of her was in Weir’s book Britain’s Royal Families: The Complete Genealogy. Now Alison Weir is a hugely well-known popular ‘historian’ and many of her acolytes believe her research is impeccable, and henceforth the misinformation about Joan passed, without being questioned, into general ‘knowledge’ and remained undisputed for a considerable amount of time.
Apparently, the unfortunate error occurred when erroneous information was gleaned from a 1960’s geneaology chart. I am quite stunned the author used the reference without any additional verification, since it is well-known that some compilers of family trees frequently hove in ‘ancestors’ such as King Arthur , Ivar the Boneless, Jabba the Hutt and any other number of unlikely figures. (In fairness to Alison Weir, she has now admitted that Joan’s existence is doubtful and will be removing her from future editions of the book. Whether Ms Licence will also remove references to Joan from her works is at present unknown.)
It is quite mystifying why anyone would doubt the veracity of the Clare Rolls (or the other medieval documents that published a similar list) especially when it was specifically stated that Anne was the first child, born after ‘long barrenness’, and all the other short-lived York children such as Henry and Thomas were accounted for.
What is striking and of interest to me in particular is how such errors can be quickly accepted as canon without question. At least the odd myth that Richard III had seven, yes, seven, bastards, (also, I believe, included in an edition of Alison Weir’s Complete Genealogy book) including Tudor poet Stephen Hawes, whose only connection with Richard seems to be in a vintage novel, never seemed to gain much if any credence. (Richard surely has enough myth and rumour surrounding him without adding additional dubious stories.)
So hopefully Joan of York, the girl who never existed, will finally be laid to rest, alongside many of the other myths that have attached themselves to Richard and his family over the years…