Joan of Navarre was born around 1368 as the daughter of King Charles II of Navarre and Joan of France. In her youth, Joan and her two siblings suddenly found themselves hostages of the regents of France, who also happened to be her maternal uncles. They were treated honourably and were only released by the intervention of the King of Castile.
Upon her return to Navarre, her father opened negotiations for her to marry John IV, Duke of Brittany, who was thirty years older than her and twice widowed. He had no children by his first two wives and so needed to urgently remarry. The Breton envoys arrived in June 1384 to fetch Joan, and she was married by proxy on 2 September. She sailed for Brittany immediately afterwards and married John in person on 11 September. She quickly became pregnant and gave birth to a short-lived daughter in 1388. Their first son was born in 1389. They would go on to have six more children.
A letter from Joan to Richard II of England regarding some lands that he had withheld survives to this day.
I desire every day to be certified of your good estate, which our Lord grant that it may ever be as good as your heart desires, and as I should wish it for myself. If it would please you to let me know of it, you would give me great rejoicings in my heart, for every time that I hear good news of you I am most perfectly glad at heart. And if to know tidings from this side would give you pleasure, when this was written my lord, I and our children were together in good health of our persons, thanks to our Lord, who by his grace ever grant you the same. I pray you, my dearest and most redoubted lord, that it would ever please you to have the affairs of my said lord well recommended, as well in reference to the deliverance of his lands as other things, which lands in your hands are the cause why he sends his people so promptly towards you. So may it please you hereupon to provide him with your gracious remedy, in such manner that he may enjoy his said lands peaceably; even as he and I have our perfect surety and trust in you more than in any other. And let me know your good pleasure, and I will accomplish it willingly and with a good heart to my power.
Joan was widowed on 1 November 1399, and she was left as regent of Brittany for her minor son. By then, she had already met the man who would become her second husband, and it is likely to have been a love match. They probably first met in 1396 when they both attended Richard II’s wedding to Isabella of Valois in Calais. The future King Henry IV of England was then Henry of Bolingbroke, the son of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster. She wrote to Henry in 1400 in a tone that suggested more than just a formal relationship.
Since I am desirous to hear of your good estate, which our Lord grant that it may ever be as good as your noble heart knows best how to desire, and, indeed, as I would wish it for myself, I pray you, my most dear and honoured lord and cousin, that it would please you very often to let me know the certainty of it, for the very great joy and gladness of my heart; for every time that I can hear good news of you, it rejoices my heart very greatly. And if of your courtesy you would hear the same from across here, thanks to you, at the writing of these presents, I and my children were together in good health of our persons, thanks to God, who grant you the same, as Johanna of Bavalen, who is going over to you, can tell you more fully, whom it please you to have recommended in the business on which she is going over. And if anything that I can do over here will give you pleasure, I pray you to let me know it, and I will accomplish it with a very good heart, according to my power.
On 2 April 1402, Joan married Henry by proxy, but she was forced to give up her regency and the custody of her sons. She and two of her daughters travelled to England and settled into married life. By then Henry had been King of England for three years. Henry had six children with his first wife, Mary de Bohun. She managed to build a relationship with her step-children. In 1408, Henry contracted some kind of skin disease and became a recluse, taking Joan with him. She was widowed again in 1413, and her husband was succeeded by her step-son, now King Henry V.
On 27 September 1419, Joan, who had always been on good terms with the new King, was deprived of all her possessions and revenue and four days later, she was arrested on charges of witchcraft. The charges were probably an attempt at claiming her wealth and Joan had no actual dealings with witchcraft. She was imprisoned in Leeds Castle, where she still maintained quite a luxurious lifestyle. When Henry V lay dying in 1422, he ordered that she be released and have her goods returned to her. Joan resumed her life as a wealthy widow. She is recorded as having gone on a pilgrimage to Walsingham in 1427 but virtually disappears from the records otherwise.
She died in July 1437 and was buried at Canterbury Cathedral with her second husband. 1