A joint post by my friend Rachel - who gets all the credit for the brilliant idea - and myself. Here's the first meeting of the Support Group For People Unfairly Maligned In Historical Fiction! (And in case you haven't seen it, take a look at our Support Group for Tragic Queens.)
Edward II: Welcome to the group, everyone. I'm your moderator, King Edward II, though do feel free to call me King Edward for short, and I’m glad to see so many of you here. Well actually, I’m not glad at all, as you’re only here because of the nonsense written about you in historical novels. But anyway, I'll get the ball rolling. How haven't I been maligned by writers? I've been accused of physical cowardice...
George Boleyn: Damn right! I've even read that you fled the field after the battle of Bannockburn. As if!
Edward: Well, there's a teeny tiny chance I did actually do that. In a way. You know, just a little bit.
Edward: But only when I had no other choice once the battle was lost and because the earl of Pembroke forced me to leave the field before Robert Bruce could capture me for, well, a king's ransom. I soooo was not one of the first men to flee the field. That's deeply unfair. Isabella did not despise me for cowardice at Bannockburn as some novelists like to believe. And talking of whom, could someone please, for the love of God, tell the numerous writers who keep mindlessly repeating it that I did NOT abandon her weeping and pregnant to the mercy of our enemies at Tynemouth in 1312? I sent her by land to York and met up with her there a mere nine days later. Do writers honestly think I should have taken a woman in the first trimester of pregnancy on a five-day journey bobbing about in a small boat on the North Sea?
Piers Gaveston: If you had, Ned, no doubt they'd gleefully portray you as callously not caring about the health of your wife and unborn child rather than callously abandoning them. It's a lose-lose situation for you. Talking about myths, here's another one: you did NOT give Isabella's jewels and your wedding gifts to me to keep for myself. You sent them to me to store them safely, but obviously that explanation is too prosaic for some people. Aside from anything else, I might have been ostentatious, but a drag queen? I don’t think so. And by the way? I wasn’t a rent boy either. Where do people get this from? I was a member of the Gascon nobility! Do people seriously imagine that in 1300 - 1300! - the king of England would have selected a boy not of noble birth, who'd been a prostitute for years to boot, to be his son's chief companion? Apparently they do.
Hugh Despenser: On the subject of birth, why do novelists insist on depicting me as a humble knight and basically a nobody? Why can't they do a bit of research and learn that I was in fact a high-ranking nobleman, grandson and nephew of earls of Warwick and step-grandson of the earl of Norfolk? And seriously, I'm going to haunt the next writer who says that Edward II arranged my marriage to his niece Eleanor after I became his lover. Apparently, it's just too much effort to look at the numerous sources which make it clear that I married her in May 1306 and her grandfather Edward I arranged it, and that we'd had half a dozen kids by the time I, erm, you know, kind of accidentally seduced her uncle. *whistles innocently*
Isabella of France: I am somewhat baffled by the way I used to be portrayed as an evil cackling murderous unfeminine she-wolf but am now a) a long-suffering tragic neglected wife dumped on over and over from a great height by her nasty cruel gay husband, who in 1325 is b) miraculously transformed into a strong empowered proto-feminist, but then c) suddenly becomes - ta-da! - a helpless little victim of nasty men again and in no way responsible for anything she does wrong in the late 1320s because it's all Mortimer's fault. Whether I'm a helpless victim of men or a strong empowered feminist icon completely in control of all her actions depends entirely on whether I'm doing something the author approves of or something s/he doesn't like, of course. I'm also portrayed as eventually and oh-so-romantically finding Twu Wuv after years of the worst marital awfulness any woman in history has ever had to endure and discovering that the route to personal fulfilment and contentment lies in shagging a married man who has a dozen children. Isn't that just the sweetest most romantic thing you've ever heard of?
Joan Mortimer: Well, now you come to mention it, no, not really. Funny how my husband's adultery with you is romantic and entirely forgivable while Edward II's is deeply icky, isn't it, and that the same novelists who write scene after indignant scene about Isabella's neglect at the hands of her husband do their utmost to pretend that my husband isn't actually married? One novelist has me being very overweight and deeply unattractive, and the sad thing is that I'm actually grateful that she even bothered to mention me in the first place. They usually don't.
Richard III:Coming back to Isabella's point about people's reputations doing a 180, for half a millennium I was regarded as the epitome of all that is evil and deformed and hideous, but these days some writers seem to think I was some kind of saint who never did the slightest thing wrong ever while others still think that I was an evil nephew-murdering monster who never did the slightest thing right ever. Ummm, shades of grey, people?
Elizabeth I: Hello, everyone, England’s greatest queen here. There’s one idiot, I mean author, who seems to think that I – who never married, and was attended at just about every step of the way even when I was queen - managed to pop out six kids without anyone noticing. And I thought I’d scotched that stupid pregnant-by-Thomas-Seymour rumour at the time, but 460 years later people are still banging on about it.
Anne Boleyn: Where to start with my unfair vilification? I did not commit adultery. I sure as heck did not commit incest. (Sex with my brother?? There is not enough ewwww in my vocabulary.) I was not a serial killer, or a poisoner. Or convicted of witchcraft. I did not miscarry a deformed foetus. Neither was I deformed myself. Because of course Henry VIII would have spent seven years trying to get his marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor’s aunt annulled so he could marry someone hideously disfigured. Makes perfect sense.
Margaret of Anjou: I'm usually portrayed as this evil vengeful bitch without whom England would never have become embroiled in the Wars of the Roses for several decades, but what should I have done, for heaven's sake? Allowed my son to be disinherited in favour of that man York? And for all the writers who think I cackled like a mad cackling harpy at the sight of York’s head after the battle of Wakefield, I wasn’t there, all right? I was in Scotland. Yes, Scotland.
Edward II: Oh, for Piers', I mean Pete's, sake. You mean, there are writers who can’t even figure out what country the queen of England was in at any given time? That’s dreadful.
Margaret of Anjou: It certainly is. And as for that nasty little rumour that my husband Henry VI was not the father of my son? Of course he bloody was. Henry was perfectly well and sane when we conceived Edward and for a few months afterwards, thank you very much. Obviously I was most grateful for the duke of Somerset's loyal support, but seriously, go to bed with him? As if! And regarding the inutterably inane suggestion that the duke of Suffolk was my son's father - dearie me, this is so painfully stupid - he'd been dead for three and a half years by the time Edward was born. I have two words, four syllables, for writers: Basic Research!
Isabella of France: And on that subject, I am sick to death of this nonsense about me shagging Roger Mortimer or some random Scottish man to conceive Edward III. It's crap. My husband was the father of my eldest son, and of all my other children. Got it?
Edward II: No-one ever thought to doubt that until the end of the twentieth century, then it suddenly became wildly popular to claim that some other man, any random man who wasn't me, had fathered my eldest son Ned, regardless of plausibility. In fact, the more implausible the candidate, the better. My favourite theory is - get this - that my father Edward I was the real father of my son. Yes, that's my father who died more than five years before my son was born.
Margaret of Anjou: Your dead father is meant to have fathered your son? Where on earth do people get this crap? I feel your pain, Edward.
Isabella: And for the last time, I never even met William bloody Wallace, okay? I was still a child when he was executed and wasn’t even in England. Neither had I been abandoned in Scotland when my eldest son was conceived, as one novelist thinks, or for that matter, when my other children were conceived either. I can confirm Margaret of Anjou’s story that there are writers who can’t even figure out what country the queen of England was in at any given time. I echo Margaret's comment: do some research, people!
Roger Mortimer: Talking of being in the wrong country, evidently some writers have also failed to notice that I was in Ireland nine months before Edward III was born, and for a good while before and afterwards too. Even I, manly, virile, audacious and unequivocally heterosexual as I undoubtedly am, would struggle to impregnate a woman who’s in another country.
Edward II: Hey, what are you doing here? This is the group for people maligned in historical fiction! The back-slapping self-congratulatory group for men lauded to the heavens in crappy romance novels as perfect wonderful manly heroes just because they like having sex with women is down the corridor. I believe my grandson John of Gaunt is chairing it.
Roger: No, actually this is the group I wanted to join. After all, novelists rarely bother to characterise me beyond 'strong and virile hetero hero who is the antithesis of horrid gay effeminate Edward II' and then later, 'nasty unscrupulous greedy villain' who is nothing more than a useful scapegoat all your wife’s misdeeds and mistakes can be dumped on. And sorry, by the way. You know, for having an affair with Izzy and holding your son hostage and invading your kingdom and all that.
Edward II: No problem. I didn’t like her that much anyway. And I’m much happier doing my own thing in Italy with everyone in England believing that you had me murdered, and besides, my son and me got all our problems resolved when I secretly met him in Germany, so it all worked out in the end.
Roger: Well, how terribly nice for you. Shame I've gone down in history as the man who - ha! - had the former king of England killed with a red-hot poker. I mean, please, a red-hot poker? Can you think of anything less plausible?
Edward: Sheesh, can you believe that old chestnut's still doing the rounds? Incredible. Never mind, Rog, the truth will out, eventually. But seriously, how come you’re always characterised as the manly virile strong manly macho man who is incredibly strong and manly while I, acknowledged by my contemporaries as one of the strongest men in England and with a serious addiction to outdoor exercise, am frequently portrayed in fiction as shrieking, flouncing around, throwing tantrums, stamping my foot, fluttering my hands and generally behaving like a twelve-year-old girl in a strop? For pity’s sake, I’m a man and I love Piers and Hugh as a man. Yes, they’re also men. What of it?
Piers Gaveston: Isn’t it profoundly irritating when novelists write tired outdated old stereotypes rather than characters? Some of them think they have to write you as the screechiest, campest, most incredibly effeminate man who ever lived, Ned, and I'm especially keen to forget that novel which makes some utterly feeble joke about you not being a king but a queen, or some rubbish like that. And as for me, I'm bisexual so therefore writers think I have to be desperate to shag anything that comes within 100 feet of me.
George Boleyn: Same with me, Piers. Modern writers have decided that I'm also bisexual - not quite sure on what grounds, but still - and therefore I’m the obnoxious amoral manslut who will shag anything with a pulse, regardless of sex, age or even species.
Hugh Despenser: And don't forget the double standards. Mortimer's sexual dominance over the queen is romantic, proof of how much they loved each other and a useful excuse for her not to be held responsible for anything she does wrong. My sexual dominance over the king on the other hand is - hold on, let me check - OK, I've got "perverted" in this book and "unnatural" and "sordid" in this one. I know I didn't exactly live in the most enlightened times and men having sex with men was taboo and forbidden, but then, so was the queen committing adultery, so I'm not quite sure why one relationship is usually written as sighingly romantic and the other as disgusting.
Isabella: The difference is that you really are icky, Despenser, and I am queen and therefore I'm right, so shut up. And I’ll tell you what else is irritating. Novelists who think that the best way to make their medieval and Tudor royal or aristocratic female characters sympathetic and even, God forbid, 'relevant' to twenty-first century readers is to have the women acting astonished and horrified when they're told that they’ll have to marry a man of their male guardian's choice in a political alliance, and whining about how unfair and unreasonable it is that they can't marry for love and choose their own husband. Makes as much sense as a woman of the early twenty-first century going "Whaaaat?? You're saying that I can marry a man of my own choice, just because I love him?? That's crazy!"
Katherine Woodville: Good evening, fellow maligned people. I've had novelists accuse me of child abuse on the grounds that my husband Henry Stafford was half my age and a mere child when he was forced by my wicked greedy family to marry me, then supposedly a grown woman. Let me say this for the last time: He. Was. Older. Than. Me. Got it? We were both children when we married. Oh, and I was not automatically a complete bitch just because I happened to be born a Woodville, mmmkay?
William Hastings: I've been accused of abuse, too. I'll never deny being a womaniser, but that's about seventeen million miles from being a child-rapist and murderer. I mean, please. The horror of seeing that vicious calumny in print!
George Boleyn: Ugh, you poor thing. Me, I've been accused of sleeping with my own sister, and it gets worse: not only was I besotted with Francis Weston in that same novel – which, if you knew Weston, well he was nice enough but really, you just wouldn’t – and an avowed homosexual but at the same time I was supposedly sexually attracted to my own sister. I’d be offended if it wasn’t so psychologically preposterous. Actually … scratch that, I’m still offended.
Elizabeth Woodville: That same author has me obsessively fetishising my purported ancestor Melusine. Great-Grandma Water Goddess this and Melusine that. It’s ridiculous and tedious. And don’t get me started on the witchcraft rubbish! My mother Jacquetta was cleared of all those accusations. Cleared. Understand?
Piers Gaveston: Oh don’t talk to me about goddesses and witchcraft. For some reason, I’m always portrayed as some sort of pagan Earth mother-worshipping character. Of course, the actual goddess is never specified, it’s always some strange amorphous hybrid of various pagan legends and twentieth-century Wicca. Please. My religious beliefs were as orthodox as anyone else’s at Court. Secondly, my mother was not burned as a witch, and I’m strongly tempted to haunt the living daylights out of the next person who writes that she was. Say what you like about me, but leave my poor mum out of it.
Mark Smeaton: Is this the group for the People Vilified in Historical Novels?
Edward II: Yes, you’re in the right place. And you are …?
Mark Smeaton: Well, apparently, I was Queen Anne Boleyn’s intellectually below-average socially inept fanpoodle. Or George Boleyn’s equally socially inept boytoy. I keep forgetting which.
George Boleyn: Well in this one here, it seems you’re both.
Mark Smeaton: Seriously? Let me see that. *flips pages* Wow. It even has me coming on to you in public! Because, people totally did that all the time in the 1530s, and everyone else would have been okay with it. Riiiight. That’s totally not anachronistic at all. *rolls eyes* I mean, really – somehow the fact that you gave me a gift of a book is evidence not of a patron/protégé type friendship, but that we were at it like rabbits? Good Lord. That’s definitely putting two and two together to make 567.
Katherine Howard: I’ll see your affair with George Boleyn and raise you … wait for it … Anne of Cleves and me. And no, we’re not going to act out that scene with the honey jar for you lot, so don’t even think about it.
Anne of Cleves : It was a change from the horse-faced social klutz with poor personal hygiene portrayal though. Not necessarily a good one, but still …
Katherine Howard: Well, you know, nothing like a bit of posthumous sexual orientation confusion to make things interesting. Because, obviously, if I was a sex-obsessed teenager, I would totally have jumped anyone with a pulse regardless of age or sex who stood still long enough. It naturally follows.
Richard II: Of course. Naturally. And anyone even remotely attracted to a member of the same sex is by definition so deviant that no one between the ages of six months and 100, let alone animals, is safe from their depredations. Nothing like a bit of realistic characterisation! Speaking seriously, I’m still deeply upset at being portrayed as gang raping some poor woman into insanity with Robert de Vere, who just happens also to be my lover, in some kind of weird homoerotic bonding ritual, for the purpose of … well, I don’t even know. It was extremely revolting and disturbing.
Piers: Thankfully, Edward and I were never subjected to that. That I know of, anyway. How obnoxious. Can you sue for defamation in the afterlife, Dickon? Thinking about it, though, at least three novelists do have me coming on to a teenage Roger Mortimer for absolutely no reason that I can discern except that I fancy men, which apparently means that I have to hit on every single male in sight. I mean, Roger Mortimer?? Seriously, Izzy, I know you like the guy, but as George said about Weston, I just wouldn't. Ever.
Roger Mortimer: Hey, I’m right here!
Piers: Sorry, Rog, no offence. But as, according to various writers, you're the most unequivocally heterosexual man who ever lived, there's no reason why you'd care if I don't fancy you, is there?
Roger: I totally don't care. Let me count the ways in which I do not care.
Hugh Despenser: *under his breath* Bet you do really. But Piers, at least authors actually try to write a bit of minimal characterisation for you, even if it’s not much more than 'man who loves men who can't keep it in his pants' or 'anachronistic Goddess-worshipper with a poignant, albeit completely untrue, backstory of a mum burned at the stake for witchcraft'. I'm usually only this one-dimensional epitome of all evil with character traits taken straight from twentieth-century sadistic genocidists, though one author did have me being a brutal wife-beater but also what I can only describe as all swishy and girly - apparently for no reason except that I was Edward II's lover and The Rules for Crappy Novels state that men who have sex with men are required to be camp. As well as disgusting, perverted and unnatural, of course. Still trying to get my head round that one.
Thomas Boleyn: I for one don’t blame you all for being upset. These writers seem to be obsessed with sex, and the more scandalous and unpleasant, the better. I was an accomplished diplomat and faithful servant of the king, who wished only to arrange great marriages for my children and improve our family’s standing … well, okay, I was ambitious, but really, who wasn't? ... and thanks to recent novels and a certain TV series, it seems I am now to be known in perpetuity - to put it colloquially - as Pimp Daddy Boleyn.
Richard II: Pimp Daddy?
Thomas Boleyn: Yes. It seems fashionable to portray my wife and me as essentially pimping our daughters to the king as high class escorts. Which not only couldn’t be further from the truth, but I’m sure I don’t need to explain how preposterous or offensive that is.
John of Buchan: That is absolutely outrageous, I agree. No self-respecting aristocrat would prostitute his daughters like that.
Piers: Or his sons or nephews, come to that.
Edward II: Indeed, it was all about advantageous marriage alliances. Speaking of marriages, it seems to be an increasingly tiresome habit to portray my and Isabella’s as the most abusive, neglectful and appalling you could imagine. Apparently, I was unnatural for not fancying my pubescent bride, who just happened to be twelve.
Isabella: Ummmm, hello? I was The Most Beautiful And Desirable Woman In All France. Everyone says so.
Edward II: And also, twelve.
George Boleyn: But if you had fancied her, Edward, you would have been just as unnatural, because twenty-first century romance novelists would have been all, "OMG! Paedophile!" You can't win. Fancy a twelve-year-old, you're an unnatural pervert; don't fancy a twelve-year-old, you're an abusive and neglectful husband. And also an unnatural pervert because of Piers, of course.
Edward II: It appears to be more or less compulsory in novels to include a scene where either my wife or other people talk about how unnatural I am and how incomprehensible it is that I don't instantly prostrate myself at her feet the first time we meet and worship her perfect amazing desirable beauty, and evidently the reader is supposed to feel enormous sympathy for her and annoyance with me rather than thinking 'Why the heck would a man of twenty-three fancy a twelve-year-old anyway?' or 'Why isn't Edward laughing himself sick at the kid with no breasts and no hips who thinks she's all that?' or 'Poor Edward, forced to marry that spoilt self-absorbed little brat when he's already in love with someone else'.
Isabella: Hey! Didn't I put up with enough appalling abuse from you throughout our marriage without being insulted as well? I am queen and you can't say things like that about me. And you're one to talk about being spoilt and self-absorbed. Your kingdom went to the dogs while you messed around digging ditches and thatching roofs and stuff, and enriching your lovers!
Edward: Yeah, yeah, whatever. Talk to the hand, Izzy. Oh, and I should have mentioned the bizarre and frankly offensive attitude some writers seem to have that the presence of an attractive female should have been enough to 'cure' me of loving men. 'How could he look at someone else when he had beautiful Izzy?', they shriek. I mean, really, as though it works like that!
Piers: And I'm sure there must be some kind of checklist with points that writers can tick off to ensure that they're correctly writing Isabella as an abused neglected wife, and never mind that most of the stories are invented or at the very least exaggerated. Edward doesn't fall in love with her at their wedding - check. Gives her jewels to me - check. Kisses me with enormous enthusiasm in front of her at Dover - check. Abandons her pregnant and crying in 1312 - check. Abandons her to the Scots in 1322 - check. Cruelly 'removes' her children from her in 1324 - check. Tries to divorce her in 1325 - check. And so on and so forth, tediously and predictably.
Isabella: Pfft, I am the ultimate tragic neglected wife, and I am queen, as one novelist has me saying in pidgin English without a 'the' approximately once every three sentences, while you're just the second son of a minor Gascon noble who got his head cut off, so don't be talking to me. I am queen. Anyway, twelve is old enough to know that my favourite, erm, position is on my knees from behind, according to one particular recent novelist. I am queen, and I even told my new husband on our wedding night how much I liked it kneeling up "like the animals" and he wasn’t shocked in the slightest, because obviously the king of France's pubescent daughter who’d been betrothed to the king of England since she was three wasn’t in any way expected to be a virgin. No sirree. I am queen.
Edward II: Did you have to remind me? That's the novel where I bang on for a couple of paragraphs about how women's bodies appal and revolt me and declare that I will never ever ever ever be able to have sex with a woman because they revolt me so much while also, errrmmm, telling Piers that I've fathered an illegitimate son. Even though this is 1307 and they won't invent sperm donation for a few centuries yet. Then a few chapters after that contradictory little episode I have sex with the non-virgin twelve-year-old Isabella on her knees "like the animals" with no problems or hesitation at all, because evidently I've forgotten that women's bodies are supposed to appal and revolt me. And I’m still recovering from that voyeuristic heavily-breathing dwarf. *shudders*
Anne of Cleves: A what dwarf? Sounds interesting, if disturbing. Share?
Piers: You don’t want to know. Seriously. You really don’t. I'm disturbed just from having to hear about it.
Anne Boleyn: Well, you're French, Isabella. Don’t you know that French courts were always synonymous with high class brothels? I read that in numerous novels, so it must be true! I can’t count the number of times I’m supposed to have kept Henry hanging using sex tricks I learned in France … I’m sure Marguerite of Navarre and Queen Claude would be thrilled to know their households were glorified harems.
Isabella: Very true. What can I say - we French were obviously born obsessed with sex *rolls eyes*. Anyway, Edward, it still doesn’t excuse you preferring Piers to me. I am queen.
Edward II: He was my age, we shared similar interests, and also, well … hot. Anyway, I have two words for you. Roger and Mortimer. Enough said.
Katherine Howard: *to Piers* Why, hello there! Sorry, Izzy, but I think I’ll have to go with King Edward on this one.
Elizabeth I: Indeed, he reminds me of my sweet Robin. Oy! Back of the queue, stepmum dearest.
Edward II: Ahem. Off topic, ladies. And also, don't forget, the yummy Gascon is mine. Strictly look but don't touch for the rest of you.
Katherine Howard: Sorry, got a bit distracted there.
Piers: Don’t worry, I’m used to it.
Edward II: Hellooo? When you're quite finished, we were talking about how grotesque and abusive Isabella’s and my marriage wasn’t.
Isabella: Was so. I am queen.
Anne Boleyn: Come off it, Izzy, we discussed this the other day and your marriage was infinitely better than lots of other women's. King Edward, if it’s any consolation, authors do that to Henry and me too. I’ve had rapist Henry, violent Henry … notwithstanding the whole being executed thing, our marriage wasn’t that bad all the time. I’m not sure which characterisation I hate more; incestuous slutty serial poisoner or pathetic victim.
John of Buchan: Oh, I’ve certainly come in for the abusive husband treatment too, beating up my wife Isabel of Fife when she's pregnant and the like. It seemed to be a cheap way of drumming up sympathy for Isabel, who was turned into a completely fatuous Mary Sue into the bargain. I understand she was most unimpressed.
George Boleyn: Same here. True, Jane and I were incompatible on a number of levels, and I admit I probably wasn’t the best husband in the world, but it is offensive to be portrayed as someone who would rape his wife from the rear on his wedding night because his nose was out of joint about having to marry at all. What was even more bizarre was that particular portrayal had me marrying ten years after I really did.
Mark Smeaton: That’s because they had you and me involved in an affair before your marriage. By the way, did I mention the incredibly overwhelming evidence for this that doesn’t exist? Anyway. If they’d stuck to the proper chronology and still wanted to keep the affair, I’d have been about eight if that at the relevant time, so …
Elizabeth I: Ugh. I’m pleased to see no-one actually went there.
Mark Smeaton: Give them time. Someone will.
Isabella: If someone can write a screenplay where I produce a child by a man who was executed when I was nine, they surely will. I am queen.
Edward II: In a genre where women get pregnant by men who've been dead for years or are in another country at the time, where a dwarf watches a royal couple consummate their marriage, where jaw-droppingly lame accusations of adultery and incest thrown at the queen of England are assumed to be true and where men who don't fall instantly in lust with twelve-year-olds are deemed weird, I fear that anything is possible. Till our next meeting, ladies and gentlemen!