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Curse of the Janes

Updated on August 8, 2017
An illustration piece featuring royalty with a name variant of "Jane".
An illustration piece featuring royalty with a name variant of "Jane".

Curse of the Janes

It seems that "Jane" and its variants has been an unlucky one for princesses. Ladies of noble birth with the name have a tendency to be widowed while still in their thirties or to proceed their husband in death. They have a tendency to die young, even when taking short life expectancies of past centuries into account. They tend to be insane, imprisoned, executed or even a combination thereof.

Ironically enough, the name "Jane" means "God is merciful", though princesses with that name rarely experienced mercy. In the original Hebrew, the name was Yehochanan which evolved into the Greek Ioannes and the Latin Johannes, where the male name "John" stems. In Old French, the name was feminized as Jehanne. It became either Jane or Joan in Medieval England, with Jane becoming the more popular form in the 17th century. Other variants include Joanna, Jeanne, Giovanna and Juana.

It starts back in the year 1200 with the birth of Joan of Flanders. Her troubles started when she became a very young countess, orphaned, minor and fought over by men who coveted her land. The troubles continued when she and her husband Infante Ferdinand of Portugal were kidnapped on their honeymoon, by Joan's cousin no less. They were not released from imprisonment until they agreed to sign the Treaty of Pont-a-Vendin, ceding much of their territory to France. Joan would be widowed at age 30, losing her husband to a long struggle with urolithiasis. The next Joan was the daughter of King John I and Isabella of Angoulême. The princess would go on to marry Alexander II and become Queen of Scotland. However, she didn't get along well with her husband or his family and would get away to visit her family as often as possible. It was on one such visit that she would die of Black Plague at age 27.

Joan of Acre had the misfortune of being born while her parents, King Edward I and Eleanor of Castille, were on crusade, left with a grandmother and forgotten until her father decided it would be a good idea to marry her off. Her first suitor drowned. Her first husband spoiled her, but was so old he left her a widow at 23. Her second husband, Ralph de Monthermer, she wed in secret due to him being a lowly squire. Her father was so enraged that he seized her land and had Ralph imprisoned. When Joan revealed she was pregnant, Edward released Ralph and made him an Earl. Her second child with Ralph was not as advantageous, resulting in Joan's death at 35. There have been allegations of miracles concerning Joan of Acre's tomb, but nothing to substantiate beatification.

Jeanne de Clissson (born 1300) is the lowest ranking of the "princesses" but was born to nobility and married a man rich enough to own a castle. However, money could not prevent Olivier de Clisson from being arrested on allegations of treason nor from being publically executed with his corpse exposed and head impaled on a pike outside the Sauvetout Gate. What was poor Jeanne to do? Sell everything she owned and become a pirate of course! She became The Lioness of Brittany, the scourge of the English Channel. Her pirating days ended in 1345 with the sinking of her flagship My Vengeance resulting in the death of her son, Guillaume. Jeanne was rescued with her surviving children and died at age 59. Joan of Savoy was the daughter of a duke who died the same year she married. She would've inherited the title, but she had the misfortune of being a woman in 1329 and her nine-year-old cousin was considered more fit to rule. This Joan would be widowed at 31 and would follow her husband scant years later.

Joan of the Tower, as her name suggests, was unlucky from the start, being born in the Tower of London where her mother Isabella "The She-Wolf of France" was imprisoned for rebelling against the king. At age 7, (a young age even for the time) she was forced to marry four-year-old David II of Scotland. David himself would be imprisoned in the Tower of London after his loss at the Battle of Neville's Cross. Joan would die at age 41, possibly from Black Death, her final resting place unknown. Joan of Kent knew incarceration at an early age, sharing house arrest with her mother, Margaret Wake, from age 2 after the execution of her father, Edmund the Earl of Kent. Though known as "The Fair Maid of Kent", this Joan wasn't a maid for long. She married Thomas Holland at age 12, but forgot to ask for royal consent. When he was away, Joan's family talked her into a bigamous marriage with William Montacute. Holland was not pleased with this turn of events to say the least and appealed to the Pope. Joan was returned to Holland, only to be widowed at 32. Her troubles didn't end here. Marrying Edward the Black Prince gave her power behind the throne, but led her into situations where she had to mediate between her hot-blooded male relatives and armies besieging the land. Her death at age 57 convinced one of her sons not to execute his half brother.

Joan Beaufort caught the eye of the then imprisoned James I of Scotland, inspiring him to write The Kingis Quair. So entranced was the king, he made marriage to the girl among the agreements for his release. So far so good, until her husband was assassinated in 1437 and she herself badly injured. The idea of a queen regent was still unpopular. After all her efforts to put her son James II on the throne, she lost custody of him and was arrested in 1439. She would die six years later when her castle was laid siege. Her daughter, also named Joan, would marry James Douglas, the Earl of Morton after one suitor died and another balked at the idea of marrying a deaf woman. Joan Stewart, known as The Mute Lady, scandalized the court by- horror of horrors- using sign language. Her great misfortune was being deaf in a world that had yet to learn to accept the handicapped. She died a few months before her husband. Unfortunately, the stone effigies on their tomb, one believed to be the oldest image of a deaf person, were ravaged by erosion.

Joana of Portugal also had an inauspicious start in life, being born six months after the death of her father. The daughter who shared her name was called La Beltraneja due to rumors that her father was Don Beltran de la Cuerva rather than King Henry IV of Castille. Based on these rumors, Joana was banished from court, leading to her having an affair with a bishop's nephew and bearing most definitely illegitimate children. This in turn led to Henry demanding an annulment. Joana still championed her daughter's right to the throne until her sudden death at age 36 in 1475, and that naturally progressed into the War of Castilian Succession. 1479 marked the birth of Joanna of Castile, where she was known as Juana la Loca. As this is Spanish for "Crazy Jane", one can assume it was never to her face. She had a passionate if somewhat turbulent relation with her husband, Philip the Handsome, Duke of Burgundy. Upon his death from typhoid fever, Juana (pregnant at the time) insisted he wasn't dead and refused to give the body up for burial, even when it started to decompose. Her eldest son, Charles, had her permanently confined in the Royal Convent of Santa Clara until her death in 1555.

The Tudor period in England saw the death of three royal Janes in the span of twelve years. Jane Boleyn, sister-in-law to Anne Boleyn, was executed along with her husband in 1542 for refusing to confess that her husband and sister-in-law were having an adulterous and incestuous affair. Seeing as how the only confessions to Anne's infidelity were brought about by torture, it's dubious as to whether Jane Boleyn had anything to confess. Jane Seymour quickly took up the vacancy Anne left as wife of King Henry VIII. Jane Seymour succeeded in giving Henry the son he craved, only to die less than two weeks after giving birth to the child who would be Edward VI. Jane Grey was born in 1537, the same year as Edward VI. When the teenage Edward lay dying of tuberculosis, he declared his cousin to be the next queen, largely due to Jane Grey being Protestant. Mary I declared Jane Grey and her husband traitors and both were executed in 1554. Jane Grey will forever be known in history as The Nine Days Queen, marking the length of her reign.

As the twentieth century approached, the curse seemed to fade somewhat. Jeanne Bonnaparte, a great-niece of Napoleon I, managed to duck the curse by focusing more on artistic pursuits than royal intrigue. The worst that happened to her was going into exile at age nine with the rest of her family. She died in 1910 at age 48. Giovanna of Italy had the bad luck to be living on the wrong side of Europe during World War II. When she married Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria in 1930, none other than Benito Mussolini was among the guests. Giovanna did the right thing, however, and slipped some travel visas to a large number of Jewish people allowing them escape to Argentina. The stress of working for Nazis got to her husband and killed him in 1943, leaving Giovanna a widow at 36. After the invasion of the Soviet Union, Giovanna and her son were put under house arrest until 1946, when they were banished by the Communist government. She is the longest lived of the Janes, dying in 2000 at age 92. The most current princess to bear the name Jane is The Right Honourable Cynthia Jane Fellowes, daughter of Edward John Spencer, the 8th Earl Spencer. (She has always preferred her middle name.) As of this writing, she is alive and well at age 60 and has been married to Baron Robert Fellowes since 1978. They have three children and four grandchildren. The single biggest tragedy in Lady Fellowes' life has been the sudden death of her younger sister, Diana in a vehicular accident in 1998 while fleeing paparazzi. For reasons known only to herself, Lady Fellowes has remained silent on this subject, preferring as quiet and private a life as her station allows.

A few notes on the accompanying illustration: Either no portrait was made of Jane Boleyn or none survives to present day. Her portrait is a still from BBC Films' The Other Boleyn Girl where she was portrayed by JunoTemple. Here, Ms Temple seems to be emoting nervousness, as Jane Boleyn had every right to be. The only surviving (and then, barely) portrait of Joan Stewart is her ruined effigy atop the Morton Memorial. The only way to distinguish her from her husband is the long gown. Jeanne Bonaparte, Giovanna of Italy and the Baroness Fellowes were the only ones to live in an age of photography.

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    • Melissa Maxwell profile image
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      Melissa Maxwell 4 months ago from Lafayette, Louisiana

      Thank you! I find things like this very interesting. Being a princess wasn't as easy as people would think!

    • Autumn Echoes profile image

      Autumn Echoes 4 months ago

      This was a very intriguing read indeed! Kudos to you for curating this information and putting it together so well... :)