It’s a little-known fact that two chronicles contemporary with Edward II’s reign state explicitly that Edward had an affair with Eleanor de Clare, his own niece, wife of Hugh Despenser the Younger. Eleanor was the eldest daughter of Edward’s sister Joan of Acre, and only eight and a half years younger than he was.
Both chronicles were written in Hainault, not England: the Chronographica Regum Francorum of 1322/23 and Willelmi Cappellani, in 1326. Cappellani states that the reason Eleanor was imprisoned in the Tower of London from autumn 1326 was because she might be pregnant by Edward. In this context, I should point out that Queen Isabella was in Hainault in 1326, so the source for the allegation may have come from her retinue.
Is there any truth to the statement, or was it merely a rumour, possibly to discredit Edward? In 1326, this would make sense, as Queen Isabella was estranged from her husband and negotiating an alliance with Count William of Hainault against Edward. In 1322/23, however, there was no reason to try to discredit the king. As mentioned, none of the English chronicles refer to a possible affair, except possibly the later chronicler Henry Knighton, who states somewhat cryptically that while Isabella was in France from 1325 to 1326, Eleanor de Clare was treated as though she were queen. Queen in every way – or only in terms of Edward’s affection for her, and the influence she wielded through her husband, the king’s favourite?
It’s important to point out here that no contemporary sources, either in England or anywhere else, state explicitly that Edward II had sexual relations with men, either - although the contemporary Vita Edwardi Secundi talks about Edward’s ‘love and tenderness towards Piers’, Edward’s ‘unswerving affection’ for him, and says, with a notable lack of censure, ‘I do not remember to have heard that one man so loved another’. The chronicler Robert of Reading, who died in 1325 and who hated Edward II, says in his Flores Historiarum that Edward enjoyed ‘wicked and forbidden sex’ and ‘rejected the sweet conjugal embraces of Queen Isabella’. Does this mean sex with men? Or incest? Or both?
In modern times, Edward II is frequently depicted as a ‘gay icon’, the ‘only openly homosexual king’ of medieval England, for example in Derek Jarman’s explicit film version of Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II, the film Braveheart, and numerous online texts. The presumed (and in my view, 100% untrue) narrative of Edward’s murder by red-hot poker is often seen as a punishment for his presumed sexual acts with men. However, it’s apparent that he was capable of enjoying sexual relations with women, too - and that his sexuality was rather more complex than commonly supposed.
I’ve written before of the existence of Edward’s illegitimate son Adam, which presupposes that he had a relationship with Adam’s mother, whoever she might have been – as Edward would hardly have acknowledged the boy if he hadn’t been sure he was the father, which would hardly be the case if he only met the mother for one night. Piers Gaveston almost certainly had an illegitimate daughter, Amie, Hugh Despenser the Younger was probably the father out of wedlock of Nicholas de Litlyngton, Abbot of Westminster, and Roger Damory – another of Edward II’s favourites – seems also to have had at least one illegitimate son, and possibly three or four. (Apologies for all the ‘probably’s and ‘seems’ in that paragraph; it’s very difficult to be sure of paternity 700 years later).
As well as his illegitimate son, Edward showed sexual interest in women on other occasions: two chronicles say that he ‘consorted with harlots’, and when he was fourteen, he paid a woman called Maud Makejoy two shillings to dance for him. In 1313, in Pontoise, he watched fifty-four people dance naked for him – but whether men or women or both, I don’t know. However, Edward’s behaviour makes clear that he was emotionally reliant on men, and no mistresses appear in the records, even though he responded to women physically.
To return to Eleanor de Clare, is there any evidence that she did have a relationship with her uncle? Other than the two chronicles, not directly. However, there are some hints of the closeness between Edward and Eleanor:
After 1322, Edward II generally only granted Queen Isabella’s requests to him (for favours for herself or others, pardons, etc) if they came through Eleanor, who had far more influence with Edward than his wife did. This is rather odd.
In the final year of his reign, Edward visited Eleanor eleven times. He accommodated her at Sheen, a royal manor, in 1325, and visited her there. One of the visits, in October 1325, cost the large sum of 67 pounds and 17 shillings.
Edward showered his niece with gifts, including: expensive jewels, 47 caged goldfinches, and money – lots of money, for example 100 marks (66 pounds) on one occasion, 100 pounds on another. 100 pounds was roughly half of the annual income of Eleanor and her husband Hugh Despenser prior to 1317.
‘Privy dining’ between the two is mentioned numerous times. Edward’s Chamber accounts show that sugar to make sweets for Eleanor was bought on the king's instructions.
When Eleanor was in childbirth in December 1325, probably with her youngest daughter Elizabeth, future Lady Berkeley, he made an offering to the Virgin to give thanks for her safe recovery. He didn't do this with his other nieces, or sisters, that I’ve read about.
Edward’s Wardrobe account of 1319/20 mentions medicines bought for Edward and Eleanor 'when they were ill'. It’s rather odd to see them connected in this way.
On the other hand, there are entries in Edward's Chamber Accounts which point to a degree of intimacy between Edward and Hugh Despenser: for example, on 7 January 1323 three clerks were paid the large sum of forty shillings for playing interludes in the hall of Cowick, Yorkshire, before the King and Hugh Despenser, and on another occasion an oystermonger of Westminster was paid for providing oysters for Edward and Hugh. Many of the expenses of Hugh's household were paid by Edward's Chamber (Hugh was the Chamberlain, not entirely coincidentally), including such basic necessities as wax.
In 1321, according to the Vita Edwardi Secundi, at the height of the crisis between Edward and his Marcher lords which Hugh Despenser himself had caused, the Earl of Pembroke supposedly told Edward: "...take heed of the danger that threatens; neither brother nor sister should be dearer to thee than thyself. Do not therefore for any living soul lose thy kingdom. He perishes on the rocks who loves another more than himself."
This seems to imply that Edward and Hugh's relationship went beyond friendship, though a sexual relationship between the men – however likely it seems – cannot be proved.
So what was the truth about Edward II, Hugh Despenser and Eleanor de Clare? There’s no way of knowing for sure, of course. Was there some kind of weird love (or sex) triangle going on between them? Or can Edward’s actions towards Eleanor be seen in the context of a close familial relationship? Was his very preferential treatment of Eleanor motivated by his close relationship with her husband, out of guilt? (Though as stated, it’s not certain that Edward and Hugh were lovers). Is it even possible that Eleanor alone was Edward’s lover, not Hugh?
Ultmately, a discussion of Edward II’s sexuality and possible sex partners all dissolves into interpretation and later hearsay, and it’s impossible to say who Edward II was having sex with, or who he wanted to have sex with. (Though let me state here, for the seventeenth time, that's there no doubt that Edward was the father of Isabella's children). As for the possible affair with his niece, given that it would of course have been incestuous, perhaps it’s best to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that Edward was motivated by fondness for Eleanor, not sexual desire.