21 January, 2006

PhD thesis on Isabella (Katherine Gretchen Allocco)

You can find the thesis here.
(warning: PDF file, 3.8MB)

I can't tell you how excited I was to stumble on this online a few months ago. A feminist analysis of Queen Isabella, re-assessing her mostly-ignored role in English political life prior to 1325 - wonderful. Exactly what I need, I thought: a really good, scholarly, re-appraisal of Isabella's life. I settled down to read with enormous anticipation.
By the end, however, I realised I was wrong. This thesis is not about Isabella's political and intercessory role, but should be sent to the Vatican immediately, for Isabella's immediate inclusion into the list of saints. Sancto subito! I had no idea Isabella - or anyone - was so utterly perfect in every way, and never did anything wrong, ever. According to Allocco, her every action was fully justified and the only 'right' thing to do. And not only was Isabella important, she was probably the most important person in the whole of medieval England. I've never had the misfortune to read any bio that is so incredibly biased. Allocco makes Weir's recent overly indulgent bio of Queen Isabella seem viciously hostile.

Unfortunately, I have never in all my days read anything quite so shoddily researched and presented as Katherine Gretchen Allocco's thesis. The typos are numerous - I found myself puzzling over the word 'wire' before realising Allocco meant 'wife' - and I can't help but wonder if she actually picked up a book on Edward II's reign, as the (again, numerous) errors she makes are truly mind-boggling. Many times I did a double-take, re-reading a sentence, thinking "did she really write that??!! Why?? How?? For the love of God, how??"
Here are just some of the howlers Allocco makes - time does not permit me to write all of them, as it would take me a week at least (many thanks for the help I received in spotting some of these):

1) On p. 80, Allocco correctly states that Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester,was killed at Bannockburn. So why, in the name of sanity, does she state on p. 130, having just described the loss at Bannockburn, that the Earl of Gloucester 'kept a low profile' after the battle?? Of course he did; the poor man was dead. About as low a profile as you can get. What an embarrassing mistake! Really, this point is vital, as Gloucester's death was the key to the younger Despenser's later rise to power, as he was married to Gloucester's eldest sister Eleanor and inherited a great deal of the Clare wealth. How can Allocco write a PhD thesis on Edward II and Isabella and not know that Gloucester was killed at Bannockburn? How can she not know? It's like writing a history of American politics during WW2 and not realising that Roosevelt died before the end of the war! This was a mistake that, I have to admit, made me howl with derisive laughter.

2) We 'learn' that Philip IV ruled for 46 years - in fact that was his total lifespan (b. 1268, d. 1314). He ruled France for 29 years, 1285-1314.

3) On p. 75, Allocco talks about Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford (married in 1302 to Edward II's sister Elizabeth) and says that he turned against Isabella in 1330. Umm, no, dearie; Humphrey was killed at Boroughbridge in 1322, fighting against his brother-in-law's army, as anyone with the slightest knowledge ofEdward's reign knows. I think you must mean one of his sons.

4) The ancestry of Blanche of Artois and her sons Thomas and Henry of Lancaster is apparently 'unknown'; p. 73, footnote 25. Blanche's ancestry is, au contraire, very well-known: she was the niece of Louis IX, married first Enrique, King of Navarre, which marriage produced Isabella's mother Jeanne of Navarre, then married Edmund of Lancaster, Edward I's brother. Thomas and Henry of Lancaster were thus Isabella's uncles, the half-brothers of her mother, and Blanche was Isabella's maternal grandmother. Again, I struggle with the incredible ineptitude Allocco displays here - she says she is 'unable to find' Blanche's accurate genealogy. Where the hell did she look?? It's perfectly well-known!

5) p. 81, footnote 61 has Isabella writing a letter to Edward II's favourite Roger Damory in November 1326, when he had in fact died in March 1322. (Allocco presumably means Damory's brother, Richard.) This is a bad mistake, given that it occurs in the middle of her discussion about the family of Edward II's niece Elizabeth de Clare, Roger Damory's wife. And it's a truly horrendous mistake considering that a few lines earlier, she said that he was 'executed' in 1322 (he wasn't, though he did die then). On page 275, she correctly states that the letter of 1326 was sent to RICHARD Damory, who was Roger's brother, but then incorrectly identifies him as Edward's former favourite. Didn't she read her own work at all?? Did nobody proof-read this thesis??

6) A really bizarre comment occurs at one point (p. 41, footnote 41). : Allocco quotes an article which 'claims' that Edward I wanted his son (the future Edward II) to marry Margaret, the Maid of Norway (d. 1290, aged about 7), not Isabella. This is a well-known fact! Edward II could hardly have been betrothed to Isabella in 1290, as she was years away from being born. Why does Allocco state this as though it's an exciting new fact?

7) Allocco gets many titles and names wrong: Isabella and Edward's second son John of Eltham was Earl of Cornwall, not Kent (p. 172). The Earl of Winchester was Hugh Despenser the Elder, not the Younger (p. 300). And neither Despenser was ever Regent of England (p. 256). The Dowager Queen of England was not 'Margaret of Provence' (p. 185). At one point, Allocco even refers to Edward II and Isabella's elder daughter as Isabella of Woodstock, although in other places she sensationally manages to get the name (Eleanor) correct.
The misidentification of the younger Despenser as Regent is a worse mistake than might first appear. It was because Despenser didn't dare to allow Edward II to leave England in 1325 (the only reason he could have been Regent is that Edward II left him behind in England) that Isabella was sent to negotiate in France in her husband's place. While in France she met Mortimer and they planned the invasion of England. This demonstrates Allocco's complete failure to comprehend the political events her subject was involved in.

8) Allocco again demonstrates her complete failure to understand the complex politics and machinations of the year 1325 by stating (p. 212) that Isabella travelled to France in March that year, accompanied by her son. I don't have time to go into the incredible ignorance displayed by this single statement, but suffice to say that I have never read any other text on this subject which was so staggeringly ill-informed.

9) pp. 241-2 sees Isabella 'sweeping' into London, 'storming' the Tower (personally?) in October 1326. Nope, afraid not: Isabella deliberately did not enter London at this time, and didn't go there until January 1327. P. 244 has her son John being 'rescued' from the Tower, which is interesting, as he wasn't a prisoner (he was Edward II's son too, for goodness' sake). On p. 245 Allocco presents Isabella as a soldier, who 'chased' her husband out of Neath and captured him. She wasn't a soldier; she was a woman, she did not fight, and she was nowhere near Neath anyway. Page 246 has Hugh Despenser imprisoned at Kenilworth - in fact, that was Edward II.

10) Katherine Allocco somehow - and I cannot begin to imagine how - confuses Parliaments which were in session more than 3 years apart, confusing the Parliament that met after Mortimer's arrest in 1330 with the Parliament that was meeting when Edward II's death was announced in September 1327. She writes that Gourney, Ockle, and Maltravers were listed as criminals at the time of Edward II's funeral and that Isabella was determined "to see Edward II avenged." (Despite saying near the beginning of the thesis that Isabella may have had her husband killed)

I don't even want to go into Katherine Allocco's incredibly, even ludicrously, biased interpretations of Isabella's relationships with anyone who happened to disagree with her. It's far too depressing and awful, as is her insistence that Isabella was solely responsible for every good thing that happened in England between 1327 and 1330, but not responsible at all for anything negative. I'll leave it to my readers to follow up that themselves!

Just a couple of examples anyway, to illustrate my points: Allocco claims that Isabella was solely in charge during the period 1327-30, but absolves her of any responsibility in the judicial murder of the Earl of Kent because 'she had no reason' to kill him - only Mortimer did. Elsewhere, Allocco argues that Mortimer had little if any power, so how did he manage to have Kent killed - a man who was son, brother and uncle of kings? What was his reason, and why was it different from Isabella's? Apparently, Katherine Allocco didn't find such debate relevant.

Allocco's attitude to her sources is irritating: any chronicle that dares to be even slightly critical of her beloved Isabella is dismissed as 'propaganda to blacken her name' (and written by a misogynist monk who couldn't cope with powerful women, naturally) while any source hostile to Edward II or the Despensers is taken at face value and assumed to be 100% true, as is any chronicle favourable to Isabella. Obviously, every chronicler had his (and it's always 'his') own opinions and prejudices and reasons for writing which must be taken into account when assessing them, but Allocco's airy dismissal of the chronicles which state Isabella's role in Kent's death, say, simply because they don't fit in with the image of Isabella she wishes to project, is appalling scholarship.

Of course, it's very easy to say for Allocco to 'prove' that Isabella was not greedy when she doesn't mention her income, stolen lands, cash grants, money appropriated from Bruce, or the fact that she refused to give her daughter-in-law Phiippa the dower lands she was due as Queen (and when Isabella finally did, she immediately helped herself to lands of greater value).

Allocco hilariously claims in her last chapter that she can't possibly be expected to know the reasons for Edward III's coup of 1330 against his mother and Mortimer - oh, I don't know, maybe he was just in a teenage strop that day? Or, just possibly, that he was sick of the way they were running his kingdom into the ground, and he was afraid for his life?? Allocco's attitude to Edward III's seizure of power is one of total disbelief: how could the naughty boy do that to his perfect mother, who was doing a perfect job, and being, you know, all powerful and perfect? How dare the King of England take power in his own country? Obviously he had issues with powerful women, and was a total misogynist.

Contrary to what Allocco says, Isabella wasn't her son's chief counsellor after 1330, or much involved in government at all, though it's true that Edward III treated her leniently. Allocco says that the Nottingham coup comes across as hastily organised, which I think is beyond question, but I believe that Edward III had been plotting against his mother and Mortimer for many months, even years, patiently building a party of young men he knew to be loyal only to himself, and took an opportunity to rid himself of Isabella and Mortimer as soon as one presented itself. And yes, the coup was directed at the saintly Isabella as much as her lover - but of course, Edward III wasn't going to execute his own mother.

To be fair, some of the thesis is interesting; the parts about Isabella's household seem quite well done, although little more than a list of what Isabella owned, wore and ate, and who worked for her. The parts on her patronage and intercession are also fairly good, although predictably Allocco drastically over-estimates Isabella's significance, and a lot of what she writes in the thesis is more or less taken from any number of general histories of England, only far more inaccurately.

But on the whole, I believe that both Isabella and Edward deserve far better than this shabby, shoddy nonsense, written by someone who doesn't come anywhere near to an understanding of the complex politics and personalities of Edward II's reign, and which reflects very badly on anyone who had anything to do with it. I've only covered a small part of the sheer awfulness of it, and I'm very depressed.

Oh well, she got her doctorate out of it. One can only pity Katherine Allocco's undergraduates.


Prince_Lieven said...

Oh my God! Thanks for typing this Alianore. It really does astound me how things so riddled with errors 'make it' - it makes one wonder about the things that don't make it!! I really loathed Isabella being sanctified as a faultless queen - no one's faultless, and she most certainly wasn't. It's too ridiculous - these people want to believe Isabella had all the power after Edward's death, but want to absolve her from taking the blame of any of the bad things that happened.

ilya said...

i just read this and i'm rolling on the floor laughing... i am quite biased myself about some historical people but the bias shows itself in the interpretation of the facts not in the total ignoration of them!

Alianore said...

Exactly - Allocco was obviously desperate to write a feminist analysis of Isabella - which I'm highly in favour of, in theory - and decided not to put anything in that reflected badly on her subject. She obviously didn't bother to do a great deal of research either. This is soooo not how you write history!

Laura said...

Yes, feminism is a wonderful thing and I am all for it. But unfortunately, the truth is that women, while certainly not inferior to men in any sense, are also not superior and given half a chance will make just as bad a mess of things as any man could do! I think that's the moral of Isabella's story if there is one.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Isabella's sympathizers seem strangely inconsistent--when she does something they approve of, she's a strong, independent woman. When she does something questionable, she's suddenly a fragile, vulnerable woman under the influence of Mortimer. Rather hard to have it both ways!

I've also noticed that the writers who view Isabella's adultery as a justified response to marital neglect tend to overlook the fact that Mortimer himself was married. They go on about what a wonderful friend Isabella was to other women during her years of power, but somehow never get around to mentioning the woman whom Isabella deprived of her husband.

Alianore said...

Exactly, Susan. When anything that required astuteness and strategic planning occurred - for example, the invasion of England in 1326, or negotiating peace with Scotland in 1328 - Isabella's fans insist she and she alone was in charge, and neither Mortimer not anyone else was responsible. When it's something that required ruthlessness and lack of conscience, such as Edward II's murder or the execution of the elder Despenser in 1326, suddenly Isabella fades into the background and only Mortimer (or Henry of Lancaster, another useful scapegoat) had any say in the matter.
And I agree it's shameful how Mortimer's wife Joan de Geneville is ignored by historians, as she doesn't fit into their shining image of Isabella.

Michael said...

In the middle of trying to analyse Isabella's motivations, I came across this. And I have to say, after sitting at my desk with squinting eyes and the grim approaching horror of a deadline, this post made me laugh out loud. I only wish I had time to read her thesis, because if it's half as poor as you say, it'd be worth it for light relief.

Ah well, back to serious research material. Thanks again for the delicious disection!