There's one scene which appears to be obligatory in Edward II novels (Susan Higginbotham's The Traitor's Wife thankfully being an exception), and in most non-fiction works too. The scene takes place at Tynemouth in early May 1312. Piers Gaveston has returned to England illegally, and his and Edward's baronial enemies are pursuing him. Taken by surprise at the imminent arrival of the earl of Lancaster, Piers and Edward flee Newcastle and meet Isabella at Tynemouth Priory. They then depart by boat to Scarborough, abandoning Queen Isabella, pregnant with Edward's heir. The scene must contain one of the following: 1) a distraught Isabella pleading with Edward not to leave her, or 2) a distraught Isabella watching her husband depart with Piers without so much as a goodbye to her. The narrative and/or the other characters will make many disparaging comments about the 'fact' that Edward is far more concerned with his favourite than with his pregnant wife, and is negligent towards her to the point of callousness.
Is there any truth to this often-reported, tragic story of a weeping, abandoned Isabella? Is it accurate to say, as Alison Weir does, that Edward had "twice fled and left her behind, all in order to keep his favourite safe, and with little thought for her own safety, even though she was carrying his child"? The statement that he 'left her behind' twice is presumably a reference to the fact that Edward sent Isabella from Newcastle to Tynemouth on 23 April, probably fearing that the earl of Lancaster (her uncle) might seize her and use her as a hostage. Weir states here that Edward sent Isabella to Tynemouth for her "safety" and so that she "could escape by sea if necessary". However, on the very next page, this changes to 'leaving her behind' with "little thought for her safety".
Admittedly, there are two chroniclers which mention that Isabella begged Edward in tears not to leave her (which Weir of course presents as a certain fact): Thomas Walsingham and John Trokelowe. But Walsingham died in 1422, which means that he can't have been born much before 1360 or 1370 - half a century later. Hardly a reliable source! Trokelowe, although writing not too long after these events (though after 1330, as he refers to Mortimer's execution) was a monk of St Albans. St Albans is 270 miles from Tynemouth, so Trokelowe is hardly likely to be a reliable witness of these events. The many northern chronicles - Lanercost, Gesta Edwardi de Carnarvon, Meaux, Walter of Guisborough, Thomas Grey, Ranulph Higden - do not mention the incident. Neither does the very well-informed author of the Vita Edwardi Secundi, who was probably a royal clerk and who wrote about Edward II's reign with great detail and accuracy.
In my view, Edward was, in fact, doing his best to protect Isabella, and was deeply concerned about her welfare. After leaving Tynemouth to head for Scarborough, he and Piers spent a full five days bobbing about in a small boat on the North Sea - a bleak, cold, uncomfortable prospect, even in May - and was surely anxious to spare Isabella such a horrible journey, especially as she was about three or three and a half months pregnant. The risk of miscarriage, which is at its highest in the first three months or so, may have factored into his decision. (Tynemouth is about ninety miles from Scarborough, by road anyway.)
Another, rarely-mentioned fact is that Piers Gaveston was ill at this time. On 26 April, a doctor named William de Burntoft and a monk named Robert de Birmingham were each paid £6, 13 shillings and 4 pence for treating him. Isn't it possible that Edward II was keen to keep Isabella and Piers apart, to ensure that she wasn't infected? That his hurried departure from Tynemouth, the day after he and Piers arrived, might have sprung from anxiety over Isabella's welfare, and - naturally - concern for their unborn child?
Edward II's biographer Roy Martin Haines has stated that the story that Isabella was abandoned, and contacted by the earl of Lancaster to promise her that he would remove Piers from the king's side, "has the appearance of a fictitious tale." He and Paul Doherty have speculated that Trokelowe, the St Albans chronicler, confused the incident with another time when Isabella was at Tynemouth Priory, in 1322 (next post).
Edward II left Piers at Scarborough Castle, and hurriedly travelled the forty miles to York. In the meantime, Isabella and her household travelled via Darlington and Ripon...to York, where she met her husband a mere nine, or eleven at the most, days after he had so cruelly 'abandoned' her. Obviously, this was a prior arrangement. The day she arrived, Edward reimbursed her controller for the expenses - twenty pounds - she and her household had incurred. Isabella, when leaving Tynemouth, was so keen to be reunited with her husband that she left many of her possessions behind. She remained utterly loyal to Edward and clearly felt safer when she was with him. If not, there were a thousand other places where she could have travelled instead, if she'd been angry with Edward and his 'callousness' towards her. Edward and Isabella stayed together in York, Beverley, Kingston and Burstwick for the rest of May and almost all of June.
Does any of this sound like a woman angry and resentful with her husband for abandoning her and putting the well-being of his favourite over hers? Not to me. The royal couple didn't see each other again until 9 September at Westminster, but this was not because of ill-feeling on Isabella's part. Edward was deeply involved in defending himself and his kingdom against the earls of Lancaster, Warwick, Hereford and Arundel. The country teetered on the brink of war, and no doubt he thought that his pregnant queen was safer in the north, hundreds of miles from where he was engaged in furious discussions with Gaveston's killers.
From early September, Edward and Isabella spent almost all of the remainder of 1312 together (Isabella gave birth on 13 November). They retired to Windsor together in the middle of September. They spent Christmas together at Windsor, with their baby son. They remained at Windsor together until the end of January 1313, then travelled together to Westminster. From the middle of September 1312 to early February 1313, there are no more than a dozen days when king and queen were not together. There's a common theme of 'together' here, isn't there?
[In the next post, I'll be re-examining another occasion when Edward II is frequently said to have callously abandoned Isabella, in 1322.]