06 April, 2010

Saint Isabella The Avenging Angel And The Horrid Husband From Hell

By popular request, here's another snarky, a tad ranty and extremely long, oops, post on the same lines as the last one. (Thank you to Rachel and Anerje for their contributions here.) So...if you want to write a novel about Edward II and Isabella of France, or even just write an online article about them or a review of a book which features them, then please take note of the following points:

- It is an article of faith that anything even slightly negative ever written about Isabella, either in her own time or in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, cannot be trusted or taken seriously because it was written by men. Bonus points for describing medieval chroniclers and modern male historians as 'misogynists' and Isabella as 'wronged'. According to this theory, Isabella never did the slightest thing wrong except commit adultery and find Twu Wuv 4Ever with that audacious studmuffinage* the Manly Mortimer, which by modern standards is cool and sexy and makes her a feminist heroine, and is the only reason why monkish chroniclers and male historians with their sexual prejudices were/are nasty about her. Not because she ever actually did anything wrong. Of course she didn't; only a misogynist with sexual prejudices could think otherwise. [* Rachel's expression, from the comment thread of my last post, which is so brilliant I just had to get it in here.]

- It is also an article of faith that everything negative ever written about Edward II at any point during the last 700 years is completely 100% true and accurate and must go into your novel, even when it can actually be proved not to be true. After all, Edward callously abandoning his weeping pregnant wife to the mercy of the earl of Lancaster (who of course was not in any way her uncle) and the Scots in 1312 makes a much better and more dramatic story than "Sweetheart, I don't want to take the risk that you might miscarry in this small boat that Piers and I are going to sail in on the rough North Sea for five days, so you go to York by land and I'll meet you there in a few days, and here's the money for your travel expenses." A scene where Piers Gaveston flaunts himself in front of his lover's wife wearing her own jewels is far more compelling than the reality of "Dearest Perrot, please store the enclosed jewels and wedding gifts safely in the Tower for me. All my love and can't wait to see you again soon, Ned xoxoxo."

- You should whine as often as possible about poor Isabella being a 'mere pawn' in the hands of powerful men used at a tender age to cement an alliance between countries, as though all other royal women of the Middle Ages married someone of their own choice for love when they were adults. (Edward II himself didn't have the slightest say in who he married either, of course, but it's only ever royal and noble women who are described as 'pawns' or 'chattels' when it comes to arranged marriages.) Why people think that someone like Isabella, daughter of the king of France and the queen of Navarre and a woman with a powerful sense of her own royalty, would ever have wanted to marry anyone except a man who was as royal as she herself was, I can't imagine, but this whole 'pawn' nonsense is a typical example of the unwillingness or refusal these days to see Isabella in the context of her own times and to write her as though she was a time traveller from the twenty-first century with modern notions of sexual equality, marrying for love and having the right to an awesome sex life.

- On the other hand, when Isabella arranges the marriage of her seven-year-old daughter Joan of the Tower to the future David II of Scotland in 1328, Joan is somehow not a 'mere pawn' cementing an alliance at a tender age between two countries but proof of her mother's amazing political astuteness and foresight (see also below). Joan of the Tower's marriage was, historically, a deeply unhappy one; her husband David took many mistresses, one of whom was murdered in 1360 by "certain great men of Scotland" angry at her excessive influence over the king and his infatuation with her - hmmm, does that remind you of anyone? - and eventually Joan returned to England. No-one ever beats their chests, gnashes their teeth and wails about poor little Joan's neglect and mistreatment at her husband's hands the way they do about Isabella's, however, because David's lovers were women and therefore they don't count.

- Isabella was described by various fourteenth-century chroniclers as beautiful and of course everyone knows that she was incredibly, awesomely speshul, which means that her supposed marital suffering is infinitely worse than that of women unfortunate enough to be plain and ordinary. Her daughter Queen Joan was not physically described by any fourteenth-century chroniclers, so modern writers have no idea if she was beautiful or not - though as she was the child of two very good-looking people, I'd say it's pretty likely that she was - and therefore she was considerably less speshul than her mother, another reason why her husband's philandering isn't seen as important.

- Isabella's story has to be forced to fit the popular modern narrative of The Gutsy Victim Survives Adversity And Strikes Back, wherein our brave heroine overcomes some hideous problem like extreme poverty, drug addiction, physical abuse or, in Isabella's case, the appalling suffering inflicted on her by The Most Horrid Cruel Abusive Neglectful Husband In All Recorded History Otherwise Known As King Edward II, and, with the healing power of the Twu Wuv 4Ever she has so fortuitously found with her gorgeous virile stud-muffin boyfriend, becomes a stronger, better and healthier person and/or avenges herself on her abuser. Exaggerate Isabella's 'suffering' as much as you can and ignore all her flaws and the mistakes she made after 1326 because this narrative requires a happy ending, which in this instance means Isabella destroying The Nasty Despensers and the horrid neglectful husband who so singularly failed to appreciate her amazing speshulness, and being incredibly happy and madly in lurrrve with the Manly *coughmarriedcough* Mortimer. The fact that Isabella's story does not actually fit this modern pattern at all is completely irrelevant. (See Susan Higginbotham's excellent post from a while ago, and the comments.)

- When you write the scene of Isabella first seeing her husband in 1308, you must make Edward the epitome of handsome virile manly stud-muffinly goodness. As soon as she learns, however, that he loves Piers Gaveston and that he doesn't, for some odd and completely unacccountable reason, want to jump into the nearest bed with her twelve-year-old self, he immediately becomes weak and womanish.

- You should write Isabella as rebelling against her husband in 1325/27 out of concern for her son's inheritance because Edward II is destroying it, because of course this makes a far more attractive and sympathetic motive than self-interest. This means you will have to ignore the rather inconvenient fact that Isabella herself did a great deal to diminish her son's inheritance by a) signing away most of Gascony to her brother Charles IV in 1327, b) signing away all her son's claims to Scotland in 1328, and c) bankrupting his kingdom by leaving at the time of her downfall in 1330 the not entirely enormous sum of forty-one pounds (yes, 41 pounds!) out of the £60,000 which Edward II had left in his treasury four years before, which doesn't even include the £20,000 given to England in 1328 by Robert Bruce, a few more thousand from the forfeitures of the Despensers and the earl of Arundel, and loans of many thousands more to Isabella and Roger Mortimer from Italian bankers. Also, none of Isabella's actions between 1327 and 1330 indicate that she ever put her son's needs above her own and Mortimer's, and she tolerated Mortimer's disrespectful and discourteous treatment of the young king.

- The fact that Isabella granted herself in early 1327 the largest income that anyone (except kings) received in England during the entire Middle Ages, nearly three times higher than her previous income, over twenty percent more than her enormously, fantastically wealthy uncle Thomas of Lancaster received from his five earldoms, and a third of the entire annual royal revenue, has nothing at all to do with greed but is an entirely justifiable reaction by an amazingly beautiful and speshul royal lady to the terrible, dreadful, unprecedentedly awful and appalling suffering which The Most Horrid Cruel Abusive Neglectful Husband In All Recorded History subjected her to.

- Edward's confiscation of Isabella's lands in September 1324 when he was at war with her brother Charles IV of France is a brilliant opportunity in your novel for lots of pathos and making sure that your reader is 1000% convinced that Isabella is indeed a Tragic Suffering (But Gutsy) Victim. Ignore the fact that Edward granted her an income of over seven pounds a day* for herself and her household - in 1314, the earl of Lancaster reduced Edward's own income to ten pounds a day for a household more than twice the size of Isabella's, and Edward's father in 1305 had reduced his income to a mere five pounds a day - and that he had for the last sixteen years of their marriage paid all her expenses and allowed her to overspend by £10,000 a year. Make out instead that Isabella has to dress in rags and is so impoverished that she might as well go out begging on the street to feed herself and her servants. Also ignore the fact that Our Tragic Suffering Victim was perfectly happy to keep her son Edward III humiliatingly short of money between 1327 and 1330 while she and Mortimer gorged themselves with it. [* Not a pound a day, as some chroniclers thought and some commentators continue to claim.]

- A scene or several where Edward and Hugh Despenser stupidly underestimate Isabella in 1325 and fall into her and Roger Mortimer's oh-so-cunning and clever trap by sending Edward of Windsor to France are compulsory. (Never mind that they didn't.)

- Double standards must abound in your Edward II and Isabella novel, especially relating to sexuality, and here's another exciting opportunity to use them: attitudes to peace treaties with Scotland. Edward II signed a thirteen-year treaty with Robert Bruce in 1323, though continued to refuse to acknowledge Bruce as king or to give up his claims to be overlord of Scotland, which in your novel must make him an incompetent snivelling coward and a betrayer of his brave warrior father's legacy. Isabella and Roger Mortimer signed a permanent peace treaty with Bruce in 1328 in exchange for £20,000, acknowledged him as king and arranged the marriage of her daughter Joan to Bruce's son, which gives you a chance to write Isabella as enlightened, psychically aware of the later existence of the United Kingdom, and a holder of 'War Is Teh Evil!' attitudes 600 years before anyone else.

- Isabella and Mortimer's treaty with Scotland as related in your novel has, of course, nothing at all to do with the fact that Bruce's army invaded the north of England in 1327 and the Mortimer-led campaign against them was a complete disaster which nearly got Edward III captured, and that it thereafter dawned on Mortimer and Isabella that by signing a peace treaty they could a) avoid the expense of future campaigns, b) avoid the humiliation of Mortimer being no more able to defeat Robert Bruce and his allies than That Useless Edward II had been, and c) get pot-loads of money from Bruce which they could keep for themselves rather than pay into her son's treasury. Noooo, of course not. Only a complete cynic not overwhelmed, as any right-thinking person should be, by the amazing romantic wonderful speshulness of Isabella and Mortimer's relationship could think such a thing. And accusing Edward II at his deposition in January 1327 of 'losing Scotland' and then giving up all English claims to the country less than two years later? Not in the least bit hypocritical at all.

- Always judge Edward II by fourteenth-century standards, but Isabella by modern ones. So, for example, the fact that Edward loves men should be written as revolting, perverted, unnatural and sinful, but Isabella's adultery is romantic, sweet, wonderful and entirely forgivable because of her husband's cruel heartless neglect of her and his failure to appreciate her beauty and amazing speshulness.

- Edward II being dominated by his lovers makes him weak, feeble and unmanly, and you should call Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser his "puppetmasters" or similar. For Isabella to be dominated by the Manly Mortimer, however, is sweet and romantic, and yes, you are saying here that it's OK for a woman but not for a man to be dominated by a lover. Accuse male historians and medieval chroniclers of 'misogyny' and sexual double standards while being totally oblivious to your own blatant sexual double standards, then declare that Isabella couldn't help making mistakes and doing things wrong, the poor lamb, because she was so terribly in love with and so infatuated with Mortimer - an attitude which is at least as paternalistic and patronising as the attitudes you're criticising. (In point of fact, it's remarkable how few fourteenth-century chroniclers condemned Isabella for adultery, and most of them weren't even sure what kind of relationship she had with Mortimer anyway, one saying that he was her "chief adviser" and another merely that he was "of her faction." They criticised her, perfectly reasonably, for her and Mortimer's incredible greed during their regency and for running her son's kingdom into the ground. But don't let that stand in the way of a good rant about misogyny and the horrid unfairness of men presuming to judge women's sexuality.)

-Further to the rule in my previous post that Isabella abhors her husband's imprisonment of women and children and that you therefore must not mention her own imprisonment of eighteen children at Chester Castle in 1327, you must not mention her forced veiling of three of Hugh Despenser the Younger's daughters five weeks after their father's execution either. Just say that the girls "became nuns," thus implying that it was their own or their family's choice. Remember that Saint Isabella The Avenging Angel is a strong empowered righteous feminist heroine setting her own and the English people's wrongs to rights, and cannot be seen to take any actions which a reader might consider morally dubious or less than 100% nice and pleasant. (Same applies to the judicial murder of the earl of Kent in 1330, the murder of Edward II, if you choose to go down the route of having him murdered in your novel, and anything else you might deem less than perfect, such as spending every penny in the treasury and then some; these are entirely the fault of the ever-useful scapegoat Roger Mortimer. On the other hand, Isabella is solely responsible for any action the author approves of.)

- From an online review of a book about Edward II and Isabella: "Brought to England at the tender age of 12 to be the bride of Edward II, as a mere pawn in cementing the political alliance between France and England, Isabella was certainly neglected horribly and ill treated by Edward II and his homosexual lovers."

Hmmm, let's change that to feature their daughter Joan, queen of Scotland, shall we, in a statement which would be equally factually correct? "Brought to Scotland at the tender age of 7 to be the bride of David II, as a mere pawn in cementing the political alliance between Scotland and England, Joan was certainly neglected horribly and ill treated by David II and his heterosexual lovers." When we get to a day when someone would actually write something like that, then maybe I'll believe there are no double standards regarding sexuality. In fact, when people ever bewail Queen Joan's unhappy marriage in books and online articles even a fraction as often as they do her mother's, then maybe I'll believe there are no double standards regarding sexuality.

- From another online book review: "Certainly, the story of Isabella and Edward has to be seen as one of the most tragic relationships in English history. Think of the twelve year old girl making her way from France to England. What does she expect? A great and loving husband who would prove himself to be a great king. What did she get? A man who was very much in love with his male favorites, hostile to women, and an idoit [sic] of a king. Tough break from [sic] Isabella. And take the revenge of Edward's favorites against her. First Gaveston, and then Despenser. It is no wonder that she got rid of her husband."

Quite why any royal person of the Middle Ages would have expected a loving husband or wife - they may well have hoped for one, but that's not at all the same thing - I can't imagine, and this statement betrays a lack of understanding of the nature of medieval royal marriage. This lack of awareness that societal and familial norms were different 700 years ago is so all-encompassing when it comes to Edward II and Isabella that it almost seems wilful. The bit about Edward being "hostile to women" is completely untrue and ridiculous; Edward's household accounts demonstrate that he enjoyed the company of women, if perhaps not as much as he enjoyed the company of men. (And so? Does that automatically make him 'hostile' to the female half of the population, or is this just some lame notion that gay men must hate women?) What Piers Gaveston's 'revenge against' Isabella is meant to have been, I have absolutely no idea. And seriously, their marriage was "one of the most tragic relationships in English history"? The mind boggles.

Anyway, let's change the above quote to feature Joan of the Tower and David II: "Certainly, the story of Joan and David has to be seen as one of the most tragic relationships in Scottish history. Think of the seven year old girl making her way from England to Scotland. What does she expect? A great and loving husband who would prove himself to be a great king. What did she get? A man who was very much in love with his female favorites, and an idiot of a king. Tough break for Joan." David II was no more competent than Edward II, and ended up being captured in battle in 1346 and held in custody for eleven years by his brother-in-law Edward III. The amount of hostility aimed at Edward II seems to me to be completely excessive; he's been described in print as "a coward and a trifler," "a weakling and a fool," "a scatter-brained wastrel," "brutal and brainless...incompetent, idle, frivolous and incurious," "a greater ninny never sat on the English throne," and worst of all, "worthy never to have been born." (I think frankly that's an evil thing to say.) Yes, Edward was incompetent and he was deposed for it, but so were other kings, who don't get even a fraction of the abuse thrown at them that Edward does.

I laughed out loud to see that the person who wrote the above review, wailing and gnashing his teeth over Poor Neglected Isabella and her deeply tragic relationship with her horrid neglectful cruel gay husband, has also written a review of a book about Katherine Swynford, long-term mistress and later the third wife of Edward and Isabella's grandson, in which he writes that Swynford "is a very unknown figure of fourteenth century England. But her career is famous. She was the wife of a knight of John of Gaunt, then Gaunt's mistress, and then, amazingly, John's wife and the Duchess of Lancaster. A really fantastic life if you ask me...Katherine's story was a great triumph for a woman of that time. First a wife of a middle class knight, to hated mistress of the Duke of Lancaster, and then to become his wife as well as his Duchess. Incredible story of love, passion, desire, and heroines in medieval England. A compelling read I assure you."

I can't help but notice the lack of any sympathy for or even a passing mention of Constanza, duchess of Lancaster and rightful queen of Castile in her own right, who just happened to be John of Gaunt's wife for almost the entire period that this "incredible story of love, passion, desire, and heroines" was going on. And a woman who has a long-term affair with a married man is a 'heroine' now, is she? In the Support Group for Tragic Queens, Rachel wrote about Katherine Swynford, Isabella of France and Mary Boleyn holding a workshop called Female Empowerment Through Shagging Married Men, and now it seems that the notion is actually being taken seriously. Interestingly, the review doesn't contain the comment "Certainly, the story of Constanza and John has to be seen as one of the most tragic relationships in English history. Think of the seventeen year old girl making her way from Castile to England. What does she expect? A great and loving husband who would prove himself to be a great king. What did she get? A man who was very much in love with his female favourite, hostile to Castilian women, and an idiot of a king." (Seeing as Gaunt called himself king of Castile for many years but never actually managed to make himself king of Castile, that's a reasonable enough comment, no?)

Equally we never get, regarding Roger Mortimer and his wife Joan de Geneville: "Certainly, the story of Joan and Roger has to be seen as one of the most tragic relationships in English history. Think of the woman who supported her husband faithfully for many years and bore him a dozen children. What was her reward? She and three of her sons were imprisoned for more than four years after he rebelled against the king, and three of her daughters were also imprisoned after he fled to the Continent and left his family at the king's mercy. She was then shunted aside and ignored for years on end while he flaunted his relationship with his female favourite."

Is it just me and Rachel who find these double standards absolutely incredible? Isabella of France and Constanza of Castile were very similar: daughters of kings, married at a young age to a powerful man, the king of England or his son, who arrived in England to find that their husband was in love with someone else. This 'someone else' is if female a great romantic figure, but if male, well, not a great romantic figure at all. Let's change the above quote: "Piers Gaveston is an unknown figure of fourteenth-century England. But his career is famous. He was the husband of the king of England's niece, and, amazingly, the king's lover and the earl of Cornwall. A really fantastic life if you ask me...Piers' story was a great triumph for a man of that time...Incredible story of love, passion, desire, and heroes in medieval England." Well, Piers, hot sexy Piers, is my hero anyway, and maybe I really should start calling his relationship with Edward an "incredible story of love, passion, desire, and heroes in medieval England."

- From another online review: "The author quotes from documents such as those at the time which justly condemn Edward II such as the observation by Adam Murimuth that "Edward loved and [sic] evil male sorcerer more than he did his wife, a most handsome lady and a very beautiful woman". Maybe Edward was not judged harshly enough for that!"

Yes, let's harshly judge and condemn Edward II for the heinous crimes of loving a man (the "evil male sorcerer" means Piers Gaveston) and not madly adoring the woman he had to marry for political reasons just because she was beautiful. Oddly enough, nowhere does the reviewer say that we should harshly condemn Roger Mortimer for loving Isabella, assuming he did, while he was married to someone else. A simple oversight, I'm sure.

- And from another review: "...considering the grotesque travesty that Queen Isabella, from the age of 12 onward, had to endure from her "husband"..." How about we change that one to "...considering the grotesque travesty that Joan de Geneville, from 1326 onward, had to endure from her "husband"..."

A friend of mine on Facebook, where we were talking about this, made the point that there is no Hollywood film featuring the unhappy marriage of, say, Joan of the Tower and David II, whereas Braveheart has gone a very long way to popularising the (incorrect) notion that Edward II and Isabella had a disastrous marriage from beginning to end, not to mention the spectacularly silly notion that Edward didn't father Edward III. Likewise, a romance novel of the 1950s which is still extremely popular today, where John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford are the gorgeous and oh-so-in-love hero and heroine and poor Constanza of Castile a background figure who is - poor maligned lady! - smelly because she never washes, has gone a long way to popularising a very romanticised view of Gaunt and Swynford. It's interesting to see how popular culture affects the way we see historical people, such as the bestselling novel and film which have had a major impact on the way many people view Anne Boleyn and her family, and I could write an entire blog post about that. (Also about the way people's reputations swing from one extreme to another over time, Richard III being a prime example, or Isabella, all the way from She-Wolf Of France to Saint Isabella Of Feminism.) There are two biographies of Katherine Swynford, two of Mary Boleyn and countless biographies of other royal mistresses in history - and my goodness, royal mistresses are amazingly popular these days, aren't they - but Edward II's relationships with men are not viewed in this same forgiving romantic light, not even close, and instead we get this endless whining about Poor Neglected Isabella. When I see numerous books, articles and reviews written from the perspective of the queens or noblewomen whose husbands cheated on them with women, condemning the ladies' 'horrible neglect' and describing their marriages as a 'grotesque travesty' rather than making mistresses out to be glamorous, fascinating and sexy, then maybe I'll believe there are no double standards regarding sexuality.

I have to quote part of Rachel's awesome response to the 'tragic relationship' review above: "As for the wailing and gnashing of teeth over poor Isabella being married to Nasty Geigh Edward, let's reverse the situation, shall we? Think of the twenty-four-year-old man, very much in love with someone whom he can't live with because society condemns such relationships (to the extent that people who acted on their attraction for a member of their own sex risked death), forced to marry a pre-pubescent whom he's never met before, for political and dynastic reasons, and then centuries later he's STILL mocked for not immediately falling head over heels for and wanting to leap into the nearest bed with a *twelve* year old."

And regarding the statement that Edward and Isabella's marriage was one of the most tragic relationships in English history, Rachel says "I suspect Katharine of Aragon (discarded after 20 years of marriage and her beloved daughter declared illegitimate), Anne Boleyn (executed on spurious grounds, with HER beloved daughter also declared illegitimate), Arbella Stuart (locked in the Tower by her cousin James I for having the gall to want to marry someone she loved), Berengaria of Navarre (hardly ever SAW her husband - how's that for neglect!), or if we head to the Continent, Catherine de' Medici (humiliated by her new husband, Henri II, who flaunted Diane de Poitiers in front of her and treated her as though she was the real Queen of France), Juana of Castile (shafted by her husband AND father when she tried to claim her birthright), and many other princesses, queens and noblewomen throughout history who were forced to marry men who were violent, abusive, repeatedly unfaithful or just plain hideous, and put up with it, might have something to say about that."

Great examples, and here are some more. Let's think for a moment about Edward II's mother Eleanor of Castile, who married the future Edward I in November 1254 around the time of her thirteenth birthday (he was fifteen). Assuming that she was ready to consummate her marriage a year or two later, so in 1256 or thereabouts, it's odd that her first child wasn't born until about 1262 or perhaps even later. Eleanor was thus at least twenty when she first gave birth, a pretty advanced age by contemporary standards, and given the large number of children she eventually bore, it seems unlikely that her fertility was the issue. So why did it take her so long to become pregnant? Could it be because her husband wasn't sleeping with her and spending much time with her? Seems possible. But have you ever seen Edward I criticised for being a neglectful husband in the early years of his marriage, or Eleanor pitied for being ignored and 'horribly neglected', or described as a 'mere pawn' used at a tender age to cement an alliance between Castile and England? I never have. Edward II's sister Margaret married the future Duke Jan II of Brabant in July 1290 when she was fifteen and he nearly fifteen, but their only child wasn't born until late 1300, ten years later - although Jan didn't deprive himself of female company and fathered four illegitimate sons (brilliantly all called Jan) and an illegitimate daughter. Ever seen Duchess Margaret pitied for her cheating and neglectful husband? Nope, me neither. I still see people commenting on the 'very long' gap between Edward II and Isabella's marriage and the birth of their first child. Given that Isabella was only twelve at marriage, it wasn't a long gap, and as Edward had already fathered an illegitimate son, his relationship with Piers Gaveston is most unlikely to have been the issue.

Let's take a look at some other royal women of the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and their marriages. Edward II and Isabella's elder daughter Eleanor of Woodstock, married at the beginning of her teens to a widower twenty-five or thirty years her senior who grew tired of her and tried to repudiate her on the grounds that she had leprosy. Violante of Aragon, married to Edward II's uncle Alfonso X of Castile and so badly treated by her husband that she fled back to Aragon and the protection of her brother Pedro III. Maria of Portugal, married in 1328 to Alfonso XI of Castile who flaunted his passion for his mistress Leonor de Guzman, had ten children with her and allowed her far more power and influence at court than he allowed his abandoned wife. (Maria's father Afonso IV of Portugal invaded Castile to avenge the insult to his daughter; her sixteen-year-old son Pedro the Cruel had Guzman murdered soon after his father's death.) Isabella of France's first cousin Marie of Evreux, whose husband Duke Jan III of Brabant, Edward II's nephew, had something like twenty illegitimate children. Henry of Grosmont's daughter Maud, married to the insane William of Wittelsbach. Henry of Grosmont's wife Isabella Beaumont, forced to tolerate her husband's numerous infidelities with lowborn women, and his cheerfully publicising them in the religious treatise in which he failed to mention her even once. Edward II's niece Alice of Norfolk, beaten up so badly by her husband Edward Montacute that she died of her injuries. Alice's sister Margaret, whose unhappy marriage to John Segrave ended in formal separation in 1344. Isabel Despenser, Edward II's great-niece, whose marriage to the earl of Arundel was annulled and her son bastardised. Margaret Audley, another of Edward's great-nieces, and Alice de Lacy, both abducted from their homes, raped and forced into marriage. Possibly the worst of all, fourteen-year-old Blanche of Bourbon, who married King Pedro the Cruel in 1353, was imprisoned within days of the wedding while Pedro went off with his mistress Maria de Padilla (Constanza of Castile's mother), was held in solitary confinement for eight years then mysteriously died, almost certainly murdered, still only twenty-two and the queen of Castile her subjects never even saw. I'm sure you can think of other examples, and these are all just women more or less contemporary with Edward and Isabella that I thought of off the top of my head. But in Edward II And Isabella Of France Bizarro Fantasy World, none of what I've mentioned here comes even close to the cruelty, neglect and appalling suffering that numerous novelists and commentators claim Edward piled on his poor little tragic queen.

29 comments:

Susan Higginbotham said...

Great post! And I love the points about Isabella's daughter Joan and about Constanza

Brian said...

Excellent post.

Historical novels are of course influenced by the social mores of the times in which they are written, and some modern authors, in particular, have an obvious agenda. In a sense they are not writing about the past at all, but making a point about feminism, gay rights, or whatever.

As someone who has studied history I get seriously pissed off my authors who simply will not accept or understand the context in which their characters are living. It's a sort of arrogant historical imperialism that believes our culture is automatically superior and the only valid hero or heroine is one who is as near to being a modern person as possible.

To go still further, and actually distort historical FACT to pursue and agenda is unforgivable.

Finally, and sadly some writers have not grasped the distinction between a strong woman and a feminist. There were many strong women in the middle ages, but no feminists at all. (Christine de Pisan is sometimes called the first feminist, but I don't think those who claim this can have read her work.)

Elizabeth said...

Great points all around! I also think Mr. Wainwright makes a good point about remembering the context in which books are written - something not only authors sometimes fail to do, but readers fail to do very often. And speaking of teeth-gnashing, I did a bunch of it the other day when someone started talking about 'Braveheart' and how Edward III must really be William Wallace's son and not Edward II's; and 'I wonder if his father really threw his boyfriend out of the tower window?' There were no words. Actually, there were a lot of words, but they were all fighting for dominance in my mind creating quite a traffic jam.

I particularly liked the points raised about the other queens/princesses/nobles, etc. in history that had their fair share of heartbreak and misfortune and for some reason or another are not recognized as the great tragic figures as Madame Isabella.

Gabriele C. said...

Those double standards are still in good working order today. Look at the Charles/Camilla/Diana thing. Charles' and Camilla's affair was evil, bad, cruel to Diana and whatnot. The fact that Diana at the same time also slept with men was either ignored or put into the Poor Neglected Princess in Desparate Search of a Bit Love-file (and after her death she was turned into a saint for good). I always thought that was very much double standard. Just because Diana was pretty and Charles obviously was supposed to be madly in love with her because of that.

- It is an article of faith that anything even slightly negative ever written about Isabella, either in her own time or in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, cannot be trusted or taken seriously because it was written by men.

Is there none written by women, except for your blog? :)

Anne Gilbert said...

Fortunately or unfortunately, all writers of fictional historical biography have to be at least somewhat partisan about the subject of their novel. And it's also true that as Brian said, historical novels are influenced by the contexts of the times in which they were written. It also behooves writers who write this kind of fiction, to be careful to at least try to understand the contexts of the times the subjects of their fiction lived in, and write accordingly. However. . . .I don't think there is any reason to get so snarky about people who read and review the books you've mentioned, just because you disagree with the premise embedded in their writing. In its way, this is being just as "partisan" as the writers who view Isabella of France as a "victim" or Edward II as something of a "hero", even if these viewpoints heavily reflect modern ideas about feminism or gay rights or whatever. There is such a thing as being "true to history" without being so obviously partisan, whether pro or con, about a historical character. My opinion, subject to change without notice is, that it can get quite silly, and not all that different from the way medieval monastic chroniclers wrote about these things(these chronicles were often little more than the "opinion journals" of their day, and very, very "partisan". If they liked you, you could do no wrong whatever, and if they didn't, you were black as the pits of hell.
But again, this is just my opinion.

Anerje said...

WOW! I'm honoured to be mentioned in this superb post! Thoroughly enjoyed reading it! Particularly the double standards of Isabella with Mortimer - studmuffinage as Rachel calls him! Also liked the point made about Katherine Swynford - her story is always seen as a 'great romance', and no mention of Constanza as a 'tragic queen'.

I'm amazed at the interest in writing bios of Mary and Jane Boleyn. We know very little about them - certainly not enough to fill a biography. That's when 'women of this time were expected.....' etc takes over.

Rachel said...

Brilliant work - I just wish more people would read it and actually THINK about what they were saying.

That same reviewer left a gushing tribute to Katherine Swynford ??? Wow. I think I'm going to have to stir that guy a bit more.

In response to Brian - I've had debates on other forums about the habit of people to describe historical figures as "feminist icons" or whatever, and generally to judge them by 21st century standards, which drives me insane. The way you have phrased it says it perfectly. They were NOT feminists, because feminism is a 20th century movement (the word and concept hadn't even been invented then, so if you met Anne Boleyn or Isabella of France or Elizabeth I or whoever and described them to their faces as "a feminist" the response would be, "a what?"). They may well appeal to feminists as examples of strong women in a man's world, but that's another issue. They may also have been "feminists" had they lived today, but the fact is they weren't and didn't, and it's doing all of these women - and men - a disservice to view them outside the time in which they lived.

I had a bizarre online conversation recently - Kathryn's seen it - with a woman who openly insisted on assessing Anne Boleyn's actions by reference to what she (the poster) would do if she were in the same position in 2010 (the illogicality of her position was compounded by the fact that this woman couldn't possibly say what she "would've done" without having been in that situation- she wasn't there!). When I pointed out that you cannot logically make sense of a 16th century noblewoman's actions by reference to 21st century norms, the response was a snippy and defensive, "I KNOW I'm talking outside the era. I'm talking about TODAY. And it's MY OPINION that she had options [other than to accept Henry VIII's suit] and therefore was greedy." (I gave up at that point, because my brain exploded from the stupidity.)

Kathryn said...

Thank you, all, for the supportive and thought-provoking comments! Much to think about, and I'd love to respond to each of your points here, but I have to go to work and I've written a really long essay here already...;) It's interesting that the Charles/Camilla/comparison has occurred to a couple of people (I did want to put something along those lines in the post, but it was getting so long...;) If I'm being 'partisan' by pointing out the double standards in people's attitudes towards Edward, Isabella and Mortimer etc, fair enough, I can live with that. No-one else is ever partisan towards Edward II, certainly not the countless novelists, writers and reviewers who slam him for his vile adultery while lauding Mortimer and Gaunt as great romantic heroes for theirs.

Rachel said...

With respect to the issue of "partisanship" I think there's a difference between having a particular fondness for one historical character over another, and deliberately or unconsciously perpetuating myths and blatant falsehoods about them as fact. The former is totally fine and natural - I freely admit to a massive girlcrush on Anne Boleyn and I'll happily go into bat for her in a debate; I am fond of Edward II and think Piers Gaveston was awesome, and even quite like Isabella (Roger Mortimer is perhaps a bridge too far). It's the latter that I have a real problem with, whether it comes from a purported authority on the topic, or a reviewer or commentator who flatly refuses to accept that his or her preconceptions and prejudices aren't borne out by the historical record.


The comments by the reviewers, who accept unquestioningly the biases and errors of the author, illustrate why it is so crucial that historians (and novelists - yes, "IT'S FICTION!" but FICTION has incredible influence on popular perceptions) make an effort to set aside their biases and get it right. If they don't, they'll be called on it. If they don't, yet claim their work is "accurate" (like a couple of authors I can think of), they deserve to be pilloried.

I'd like to think that if I ever tackled the daunting task of writing a novel about, say, Anne (which is unlikely - I don't think I have the ability or the discipline), I would be able to present those people of whom I am not so fond (Thomas Cromwell, Jane Seymour) in a fair and objective way. If I took liberties with the chronology or made up events or people, I'd disclose them - that's what I expect from other authors as a reader.

Similarly as a reviewer, I try to be careful not to come out with absolute clangers, or to state conclusions as fact when there is a question about that (if I did get something wrong, I'd hope that someone who was more well-versed in the topic would correct me, and hopefully I'd be able to accept it graciously). The reason why historical debate is so wonderful is that you're always learning; through conversations with those more learned in a particular area than me, I've reassessed a number of my assumptions and accepted where my preconceptions were incorrect.

Where it gets absolutely frustrating beyond belief is when people (particularly in online discussions) post simply to say their piece, and when respectfully challenged by other participants, respond with "Well that's my opinion and I'm not changing it!" I've seen so many examples where experts in a particular era have politely pointed out, with reference to reputable secondary or sometimes primary sources, why (for example) Anne Boleyn could not have committed incest, nor would she have wanted to, and been met with a defensive, "Well YOU weren't there!" or spurious arguments based on fallacies (she must have been guilty of incest because she gave birth to a deformed foetus! Oh wait ... there's no actual evidence of that). It's not so much "disagreeing with the premise" but trying to correct misconceptions and coming up against the proverbial brick wall.

I'm not saying it's okay to go to those reviews and post ad hominem attacks like, "GOD you're a moron," although I think it's fair enough to argue your point robustly and challenge what is being put (and my response to that reviewer betrayed more irritation and was a bit more snarky than I normally would phrase it). But if you're confronted with comments like this, and can't vent or be snarky among friends or on your own blog, where can you?

Carla said...

One of the things that makes the past interesting is that it isn't the present. Stuffing history into a modern narrative always reminds me of cutting bits off jigsaw puzzle pieces to make them fit; yes, you can do it, but what's the point?

Undine said...

"...it's remarkable how few fourteenth-century chroniclers condemned Isabella for adultery, and most of them weren't even sure what kind of relationship she had with Mortimer anyway, one saying that he was her "chief adviser" and another merely that he was "of her faction."

That's rather a fascinating detail, I wasn't aware of that. Sex scandals were just as popular then as they are now--you'd think that would be the first thing they'd mention.

So...from the evidence that we have, do you think there ever even was an actual "affair" between Isabella and Mortimer, or was their relationship strictly a "business partnership." Or some unholy combination of both?

I'm also glad to see the point made about modern-day writers (of fiction and biography both) who delve into the past without being able to take their heads out of their own era. That has become quite common in recent years. The books always wind up telling you much more about the idiot self-obsessed author than about their subject.

Kathryn said...

I don't believe it!!!! I spent ages writing a response, and Blogger just ATE it. Long response has vanished into cyberspace!!! If you leave a comment, it might be an idea to hit control and c before you post it, as Blogger is clearly having an off day!

Have had to post this four times before it actually appeared...!

Will respond again later, as have to go out now...

Isabella de Capet said...

Hey. You can do a lot with 41 pounds.

Christy K Robinson said...

Sorry to change direction in the conversation, so feel free to overtake me and get back in the fast lane, BUT...

"The Gutsy Victim Survives Adversity And Strikes Back" is the description of every Olympic athlete profiled by TV commentators before their event. The entertainment gossip shows do the same. There's enough trauma and drama in history and contemporary life without adding useless opinion to fill airwaves, or crowd cyberspace and bookshelves.

OK, I'm in the wrong lane with my turn signal endlessly blinking. Someone pass me! :)

Rachel said...

Christy - that's so true! And also the backstory of every successful auditionee on a reality TV show - just about everyone who got through on he Australian version of So You Think You Can Dance (which I have just outed myself as watching) had a dead mother whose last wish was to see kiddie live the dream/mum with cancer/dad with cancer/dancer him/herself had had cancer/dancer overcame the Nasty School Bullies/dancer's parents had to work three jobs including cleaning the dance school to afford kiddie's lessons ... the list goes on. It almost implies that you have to have a horrific background or sad childhood to "succeed" in life. It's beyond ridiculous, and quite dangerous if taken to an extreme (to veer even further off topic, the other day I was watching a disturbing documentary about a scary unregistered therapist who convinced his "patients" - who had come to him suffering depression - that they were not only victims of sexual abuse, but perpetrators).

Kathryn said...

Thanks for the comments, all! Christy and Rachel, excellent points about athletes and reality show 'stars' - so very true!

Undine, to answer your question: I'm not at all convinced that Isa and Mort's relationship was the passionately sexual affair just about every modern writer on the subject says it was, which is far more an interpretation than based on any primary sources. The Lanercost chronicler says that at the time of Mort's downfall in 1330, he was rumoured to have had a 'liaison' with Isa (the chronicler says 'by common report', so evidently he didn't know for sure) and Adam Murimuth says Isa and Mort had 'an excessive familiarity', something that was also often said about Ed II and Piers Gaveston. Other than that, you really struggle to find references to a sexual relationship, and I really don't know why so many modern writers claim that Isa 'openly' took Mort as her lover or that they 'flaunted' their sexual relationship. Ed II himself wrote in March 1326 that Isa kept Mort's company 'in and out of house', which may be a ref to a sexual relationship, though this occurs in a sentence where Ed complains about Mort being Isa's chief adviser. Jean Froissart says Isa was pregnant at the time of Mort's downfall, but Froissart wasn't born till about 1337, only arrived in England in the 1360s and is generally completely unreliable for this time period. No English chronicler even hints at a pregnancy, and there was certainly no living child. A correspondent of mine believes that the relationship wasn't sexual as Isa would never have given her body to a man who wasn't royal. I'm not saying my correspondent is necessarily correct, but it's an interesting way of looking at it.

Gabriele C. said...

I'm pretty sure the hormones got the better of Isa and Mort at some point since they spent so much time together; after all Mort obviously was a handsome man, but I think they kept that part under cover as far as possible.

Kathryn said...

You could well be right, Gabriele - they were two very attractive people who spent a lot of time together. ;) I just don't think it's nearly as certain that they really were lovers as almost all commentators these days make out.

Gabriele C. said...

Plus there's a difference between two people enjoying some quality time in bed, and the OMG twu wuw Romance one keeps finding in novels (including Maurice Druon).

Do we know if Mort had mistresses before he met Isa?

Kathryn said...

None that I've ever heard of, Gabriele, but it would only be by chance that mistresses would be mentioned, and even then most probably only indirectly through the existence of illegitimate children (Ed II must have had a mistress as he fathered an illegitimate son, most likely before he became king, but there's no way of knowing who she was).

Louis X said...

I suppose if one writes fiction about historical people, one can abuse them in whatever way one likes. However, such a novel should be presented as such: as total fiction with little or no basis in reality. If you think about it, every historical fiction novel deviates from history in some way. For example, the moment you write dialogue between two people, create a situation, or develop a personality that is not spelled out in primary sources, you have significantly deviated from the truth and can no longer claim historical accuracy. In a novel presented as pure fiction, or one that is presented as partly based on fact, this is acceptable. Where it becomes unacceptable is in those novels where the author proclaims the work to be historically accurate; where he offers up his education or personal research as an unquestionable credential; where the end material is chock full of bibliographies, references, footnotes, quotations, etc., to "prove" that every word the author has written is actual history. If this author deviates from what is known, it ceases to be history and becomes conjecture, and he makes a liar of himself.

While it is true that one must "pick a side" with historical figures, this does not excuse one from sticking to the facts. If there aren't enough facts to support the story one wants to write (or if said facts are inconvenient), one needs to admit to the necessary inventions, instead of trying to bury them in a mountain of citations and hope that nobody will bother to check them out. Someone, somewhere, certainly will.

(Ed II must have had a mistress as he fathered an illegitimate son, most likely before he became king, but there's no way of knowing who she was)

Kathryn, this makes me wonder (and fall into the same kind of conjecture I was just writing about!). If Adam was born before Ed had married, he might not have been born of a mistress; he might have been born of an initiator. It was not uncommon for royal boys in earlier eras to have an older lady prepare them for marriage. Perhaps Ed was simply an exceedingly good student. ;)

Kathryn said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, mon cher Roi Louis! I agree, absolutely. I've just read far too many Ed/Isa novels and non-fiction where myths are treated as historical fact, and novels that change historical reality: at least three I know of which say that Ed and Isa were not together 9 months before the birth of their son Ed III, which they certainly were, and one which even changes Ed III's date of birth by 8 months to make out that Mortimer was his father. Ugh. I know that a lot of people take this one seriously, as it was written by someone who wrote his doctoral thesis on Isa and thus knows perfectly well that she was with Ed II to conceive their son in Feb/March 1312 and that Ed III was not born in March 1312, but didn't even acknowledge in his author's note what he'd done!!! That makes me angry.

Appreciate your thoughts on Ed II's lover! (And the thought of Ed being a good student. ;) It would be great to know who she was. I've read some people express the opinion that she was only a 'one night stand', which is most unlikely to be true, as Ed willlingly acknowledged the boy as his so must have known the mother pretty well.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reminders of all the double standards. Your points are well taken...particularly with how modern-day writers/moviemakers twist the story to fit their own ideas. It does go to show, though, the more things change, the more things stay the same. We want to judge people without looking at all the facts.

Kathryn said...

Thanks! I'm glad you appreciated what I was trying to do here. I don't mind at all when people criticise Edward II fairly - the man made more mistakes than I could possibly count - but these myths about him (that always reflect as negatively as possible on him) that get repeated over and over are really starting to grate on me.

STAG said...

Great. Now I need a new keyboard. This one is covered in snorted coffee. Thanks for the great read!

So Piers didn't get tossed out the window by big Ed? Oh my. Who CAN you believe these days!


Brian....usually it is not the hero who is behaving in accordance with modern mores, but rather, mis-behaving. I can give a dozen examples, but I'll stick to a fictional one...the creation of "Conan the Barbarian" implies a lot of nonsense about what constitutes a "Barbarian". In fact, the reason why say, "Flashman" is so much an anti-hero is not because he behaves appropriately but that this behaviour is so salacious compared to our perceived (but usually wrong) ideas of Victorian, and by extension, modern society.

I think it is possible to write with a head space in the historical period...I think the "13th warrior" comes close, since the first half of the book is from the period. Tolstoy's "Merlin" series seems to accomplish it. Not sure if I want to read "The Trywe Jouornal of Vlad the Impaler". Might be hard to develop much sympathy. (Or could I? Hmmm...now I got me thinkin'!) But I have to ask, "is that the goal?" Most historical fiction is simply fluff, designed to be read on the plane. When I point out that there were no clocks in ancient Rome, Shakespere buffs just say "so what! Its a play! Get over it!"

The hurt doesn't last for long...grin! Now, that being said, do you really think most historical fiction is written to push an agenda? Obviously anybody who spells magic with a K and uses it in her (why is it always a "her"?) novels has such an agenda. Or are they simply attempting to write to a perceived audience?

Regards.
stag

Kathryn said...

Stag, thank you for the kind words! (Sorry about your keyboard. ;) I wouldn't say that most histfict is written to an agenda, though I do think that a lot of Edward II/Isabella fiction has been written to push the notion that Isa was a neglected victim and therefore entitled to hit back at her nasty husband and his nasty gay lovers - a modern idea. I've read 'historical' romances which are basically just modern people in fancy dress pretending to live in medieval England, but also ones that make a great effort to get into the mindset of the era. I hate it when the heroine of historical novels acts all horrified when told she'll have an arranged marriage, and when sympathetic characters hold modern, politically correct opinions while the unsympathetic ones have views true to the era they lived in. Mary Boleyn and Katherine Swynford are incredibly popular these days, in fiction, non-fic and online articles, and seem to have been recast as strong, empowered, amazing feminist icons, which I find bizarre in the extreme.

Oh dear, this has turned into an unstructured rambly rant, I'm afraid. :-)

LondonGirl said...

I agree with almost all the points you make, but there is a slight heavy-handed overkill in the style, surely?

Andy M said...

typical. The Tranter Novel Dealing with David II's early reign is one of the few I haven't read. So now I am browsing Amazon to find it. Thanks Kathryn

Kathryn Warner said...

You're very welcome, Andy!