Joan of Flanders was born around 1200 to Baldwin IX of Flanders and Hainault and his wife Marie of Champagne. In 1202 Baldwin went on a crusade and his wife, missing her husband, decided to join him. Marie landed in Acre and soon died of the plague. Baldwin, who had been made Emperor of Constantinople, went missing after a Bulgarian campaign and it was assumed that he had been captured and eventually killed while in prison. They left behind two young daughters, Joan and her younger sister Margaret.
Baldwin left his daughters under the guardianship of his brother Philip of Namur and the Dowager Countess of Flanders, Matilda of Portugal. Philip of Namur put up little resistance when the French King Philip Augustus demanded that the two young girls be sent to Paris to be raised under his watchful eye. He also required Philip of Namur to agree to not arrange marriages for them without his consent. Philip Augustus clearly wanted to assure that a husband he could control would be selected. When Matilda of Portugal suggested her great-nephew Ferrand, the son of Sancho I of Portugal, Philip Augustus agreed to the match. Ferrand and Joan were married in Paris in 1212.
Ferrand, however, turned out to have ideas of his own. He was unhappy to see the French immediately encroaching on Flemish territory and soon entered into an alliance with King John of England against Philip Augustus. At Bouvines in 1214, Ferrand was captured by the French and held prisoner for the next 12 years.
Joan attempted to raise funds to ransom her husband, but Philip had no interest in letting him go. In the meantime, Philip of Namur died, apparently with regret for turning his nieces over to the French King. He reportedly told the monks at the Abbey where he lay dying; he should be “ dragged through the streets so he could die like a dog since he had lived like one.”
On her own, Joan turned her attention to governing. Many of the nobles were less than enthusiastic about having a female ruler. To build support from the merchant class to support her against the nobles, Joan regularly gave more liberties to the cities, Ghent, Bruges and Ypres which led to the formation of these powerful city governments.
She also ran into trouble with the Emperor, Frederick II, however who initially gave her imperial lands to the Count of Holland, claiming that Joan had not come to do homage to him as required, however, she was able to argue that it was too dangerous for a woman to travel alone and that she had been unable to come while her husband was imprisoned. The letter from Frederick agreeing with this argument survives.
In 1223 Philip Augustus died. Joan might have hoped that she could now recover her husband, but another crisis soon occupied her. In Valenciennes a man now claimed to be her father, returned after 20 years, having escaped from prison in the East. At least that is what many of the nobles who still chafed at Joan’s rule claimed. The man himself seemed unsure at first but later began calling himself Count of Flanders and Hainault and King of Constantinople. He even began negotiating with Henry III of England. Led by Joan’s brother-in-law, (who was her enemy – more about that in Part 2), fighting broke out. Joan was forced to take refuge in Mons, the only town that remained faithful to her. Those that spoke against the claimant were accused of having been bribed by Joan. Joan turned to the new King of France, Louis VIII, who after receiving promises of payment, agreed to support her. In May 1225, Louis met with the man. After failing to answer questions regarding his wedding and his Knighthood, Louis declared him a fraud, a False Baldwin. The man was determined to be someone called Bertrand de Rains who had previously claimed to be the Count of Blois. Louis gave him three days to flee, but Joan eventually caught up with him, and he was arrested and executed.
In the meantime, Joan had been attempting to annul her marriage and became engaged to Peter of Brittany. With the prospect of a marriage between Flanders and Brittany, the French decided to deal. Joan had to reverse course, get released from her engagement to Peter, and her marriage reinstated. The increased taxes she had raised to pay off Louis, also paid for her husband’s release. In 1227 Ferrand finally returned home. Sadly, he was to die within five years, leaving her with a baby girl who also soon died.
Joan went looking for a husband again. At Louis IX’s suggestion, she eventually married Thomas of Savoy, who was the uncle of both the French Queen and the English Queen.
In later years, the story that the False Baldwin was the real Baldwin again gained traction, notably through the chronicler Matthew of Paris, who accused Joan of patricide. It was not until the middle of the 19th century that her reputation was restored.
She died in 1244 and was buried with her first husband and daughter. She was succeeded by her sister Margaret. 1