Here is a heartfelt lament. Some books are always widely lauded, and rightly so, but what happens when one finds a blooper within the hallowed pages? In this instance I speak of A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, by Barbara Tuchman. It’s packed full of detail, and a great read…until that one blooper leaps off the page. It ruins the reader’s confidence in the rest of the book. I happen to know this is a blooper, but I don’t similarly know everything else in the book. So how much can I trust the rest of what I read?
This particular error is that Joan of Kent, Princess of Wales, Countess of Kent, was “Countess of Holland”. She wasn’t any such thing. She was Countess of Kent in her own right, and her first (well, debatably her first) husband was one Sir Thomas Holand/Holland (both spellings appear). He wasn’t really of any importance whatsoever, certainly not for a bride of royal blood, but through her he became 1st Earl of Kent and a Knight of the Garter.
Joan, who was a granddaughter of Edward I by that king’s second marriage, to Margaret of France, was never Countess of Holland, but she certainly married a Holand!
Joan and Thomas’s eldest son became 2nd Earl of Kent, and their grandson became the 3rd Earl of Kent and 1st Duke of Surrey. So Sir Thomas Holand’s descendants in the senior line reached mighty heights because he won the heart of a very young Joan of Kent. The junior lines didn’t do badly either! I imagine that Thomas’ relatives and friends back home in Lancashire never ceased to be amazed by his good fortune.
As far as A Distant Mirror is concerned, it seems that it has rather fallen from grace since its initial acclaim. Its accuracy has been questioned by far more important people than me. But that doesn’t stop it being a wonderful example of writing about the many tangles of history. And it’s immensely enjoyable at the same time. So I won’t be dismissing it entirely, but I fear it isn’t entirely scholarly. But, I suppose, there are very few examples of books that can be declared 100% accurate. We pick faults in them all, especially if we don’t agree with the writer’s point of view. Which happens all too often when Ricardians read the latest biographies of Richard III.
How Ms Tuchman collected and assembled such a vast store of information about Europe and then made it so interesting I will never know. But, alas, a little bowl of salt needs to be at hand, for many a pinch might be needed.
I have lately been reading an otherwise very good novel set in 1385 where Joan is consistently referred to and addressed as ‘Countess of Kent.’ Inexplicably, the author does not seem to realise that as the king’s mother she was Princess of Wales and ranked over all women except the Queen. (And indeed over all men but the King.) Confusions of this kind are not uncommon. I have just been reading an article by no less a person than James Gillespie, the academic, which claims that Joan Lady Fitzwalter married Edward Duke of York. Joan was actually the stepdaughter-in-law of his wife Philippa! So it’s not just novelists who make errors.
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