15 April, 2012

Did Hugh Despenser the Younger Rape Isabella of France?

Almost certainly not.  The notion that Hugh may indeed have raped or otherwise sexually assaulted Queen Isabella has become so entrenched in some people's minds over the last few years, however, that an Amazon review of my friend Susan Higginbotham's novel about Hugh's wife Eleanor criticises the novel for not including it.  What's the evidence that he ever did such a vile thing?

Basically there isn't any, except modern speculation.  The first reference to it appears to be found in (as a friend on Twitter reminded me) Susan Howatch's 1974 novel Cashelmara, which is set in nineteenth-century Ireland but is a re-telling of Edward II's story, with the king renamed Patrick de Salis, Isabella Sarah Marriott, Piers Gaveston Derry Stranahan, Hugh Despenser Hugh MacGowan, and Roger Mortimer Maxwell Drummond.  I love the novel, though it's a touch melodramatic in places, and the scene where Edward/Patrick and Hugh both rape Isabella/Sarah is really disturbing.  Going somewhat off-topic here, there are some odd notions about Edward II's sexuality in fiction, not least the popular one that he can't have fathered his children.  Apart from this, the one that probably irritates me most appears in Maurice Druon's The She-Wolf of France (La Louve de France in the French original), a novel I loathed - I still get occasional comments and emails from Druon fans irate at my review of it - wherein Isabella states that Edward, ummmm, needed help from Hugh Despenser in order to be able to perform with her to conceive their children.  As three of their four children were born before Edward's close relationship with Hugh began, this isn't terribly likely.

Paul Doherty's 2003 non-fiction work Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II contains a longish discussion about Edward and Isabella's sex life, which goes on for several pages (pp. 100-102), and discusses the contemporary (albeit not found in any English source) rumour that Edward II had an affair with his niece Eleanor de Clare, Hugh Despenser's wife.  Rather than leaving it there, Doherty goes on to speculate about possible 'wife-swapping' involving Hugh Despenser and Isabella, and states "I suspect that Edward may have tried to pressure Isabella into accepting an open marriage in which de Spencer [i.e. Hugh Despenser the Younger] wished to play a part...Wife-swapping is not a phenomenon solely reserved for the twentieth or twenty-first centuries."  Ummmmm, OK then.  He further speculates "De Spencer's sexual harassment of her would also explain Isabella's conduct with Mortimer.  Because of de Spencer's 'intrusion', she may have regarded her marriage as null and void.  If her husband insisted on playing the pander and allowing his favourite into her bed, why shouldn't Isabella choose for herself...?".  This is fantasy piled on fantasy without a shred of evidence, and I find the bit about Isabella regarding her marriage as 'null and void' particularly silly.  The (dreadful) prologue* of Doherty's (otherwise pretty good) 2005 novel The Cup of Ghosts has Hugh Despenser's "heart bubbling with lust to possess Isabella."  Given the way Doherty writes Isabella, it's hard to imagine how he thinks anyone of the era wasn't bubbling with lust to possess her, but I digress.

* Which contains such gems as Edward III being described as "screaming, his foam-flecked lips curling like those of a snarling dog" as though he was some kind of maniac, Isabella asking to be buried "next to Mortimer, like a bride beside her lover!", a myth Doherty insists on repeating in his novels, and the statement that Isabella "tore her husband from his throne. She locked him in Berkeley Castle, sealing him up like some rabid animal...".  What the hell???

Doherty's theory that Hugh Despenser sexually assaulted or harassed Queen Isabella is based solely on several letters Edward II sent to Isabella and her brother Charles IV in late 1325 and early 1326, after she had refused to return to England.  One letter says "The king knows for truth, and she knows, that Hugh has always procured her all the honour with the king that he could, and no evil or villainy was done to her...".  To Charles IV, Edward wrote that he "wishes the king of France to know that he could never perceive that Hugh, privately or openly, in word or deed, or in countenance, did not behave himself on all points towards the queen as he ought to have done to his lady."  Doherty assumes this means that some 'evil or villainy' was done to Isabella.  Her letters to Edward do not survive, only his replies, so possibly she had indeed complained to her husband about some 'evil' done to her by Hugh - although Doherty doesn't mention Edward's claim that the queen had sent several "loving letters" to Hugh while she was in France, or a letter of the queen which does survive (see below).  He argues that Isabella "had levelled allegations of a very serious nature against de Spencer.  If it was simply the seizure of her estates and household, or a clash over political and administrative issues, this would be apparent.  Instead, the king himself does not wish to spell out what de Spencer allegedly said or did to Isabella which she in turn, had reported to the French court.  In my view, Edward is referring to some sexual misconduct, which Isabella found offensive and disgusting."  In fact it's far more likely that - as discussed below - Isabella had claimed that her life was in danger from Hugh Despenser, not that he had committed any 'sexual misconduct' against her.  This is something that Edward II would have been equally reluctant to 'spell out' to Isabella's powerful brother.  We shouldn't forget either that Edward's messenger may have transmitted more details orally, details which Edward may not have been willing to commit to a written letter.

This supposed sexual misconduct, in Doherty's view, would explain "her elder son's adherence to her as well as the sustained support she received from both the papacy and the English hierarchy."  Isabella's son was only thirteen and not operating under his own agency; Edward of Windsor was essential to Isabella and Roger Mortimer's plans to invade England and they would not have allowed him to return to England and his father even if he wanted to (and whether he did or not is impossible to say).  It is most unlikely that Pope John XXII was supporting Isabella over Edward II - whatever his private sympathies may have been, the pope could hardly be seen to condone a wife refusing to return to her lord husband and her marital duties - and in fact appears to have been doing his best to reconcile the couple and avert war between them.  As for the support Isabella received in England in 1326/27, this is amply explained by Edward II's gross incompetence, his excessive favouritism towards the Despensers at the expense of his royal kinsmen the earls of Norfolk, Kent and Leicester (i.e. Henry of Lancaster) and others, his greed and barely legal land-grabbing, his callous treatment of many of the Contrariants who took part in the 1321/22 rebellion and their families, his numerous military failures, and so on and so forth.  Are we supposed to believe that the English nobility and episcopate knew that Hugh Despenser had sexually assaulted the queen and that this is the sole or main reason why so many of them supported her against Hugh and Edward?  I find that argument very unconvincing.

Alison Weir's 2005 book Isabella, She-Wolf of France, Queen of England, takes up Paul Doherty's theory and runs with it (pp. 148-150).  She cites a letter sent by Isabella to Edward on 5 February 1326, which (unlike the queen's earlier letter(s) to which Edward II responded) still survives, and which says, according to Weir, that Hugh "wished to dishonour her by every possible means".  Weir says "The words 'by every possible means', whilst they perhaps refer to to Despenser's vicious campaign to discredit Isabella, the disrespectful and injurious way in which he was to treat her, and his possible homosexual relationship* with her husband, are also suggestive of some serious sexual misconduct towards the Queen herself with the intent of humiliating and intimidating her.  Had Hugh thrust himself into her marriage bed, with Edward's connivance, or even raped her?  It is not beyond the bounds of possibility, considering his cruelty towards other women."

* The words 'homosexual relationship' really irritate me.  Why is it necessary to call it that when neither Weir nor anyone else would write about Isabella and Roger Mortimer's 'heterosexual relationship'?  Why not just say 'sexual relationship'?

Notice here that Alison Weir goes further than Paul Doherty, who writes of 'sexual misconduct' and 'sexual harassment' but never uses the word rape.  'It is not beyond the bounds of possibility', she says: weasel words that could be used in support of absolutely anything.  Isabella and Roger Mortimer imprisoned eighteen children in Chester Castle as hostages for the good behaviour of the townspeople in 1327 [Close Rolls 1327-1330, pp. 169, 187-188], had three of Hugh Despenser the Younger's daughters (the eldest of whom was about ten) forcibly veiled as nuns shortly after his execution, and had the earl of Kent's three infant children imprisoned with their mother at the time of Kent's execution in 1330.  Maybe Isabella and Roger ate babies.  It is not beyond the bounds of possibility, considering their cruelty towards other children.  The words of their Chester Castle order are suggestive of some serious misconduct towards children with the intent of humiliating and eating them.  I mean, you know, if we're going to accuse people of extremely serious crimes on remarkably flimsy evidence.

And I am really not a fan of meaningless rhetorical questions like Weir's "Did Hugh thrust himself into her marriage bed...?" and Paul Doherty's "Did de Spencer, who, after Boroughbridge, was given virtually everything else, demand Isabella as well?"  Because yeah, obviously there's no difference at all between Edward giving him lots of other people's lands and giving him sexual access to the royal person of his queen.  The 'cruelty to other women' Weir mentions means (presumably) Hugh's alleged torture of Lady Baret, a story I doubt the veracity of, his imprisonment of Elizabeth Comyn until she handed over some of her lands to him, and his threat to Alice de Lacy that she would be burned alive unless she gave him and his father some of her lands.  Nasty, very nasty, but not in themselves evidence that he was a rapist.

Seymour Phillips (Edward II, 2010, p. 491) cites and translates much of the queen's letter to her husband of 5 February 1326: Isabella wrote that Hugh "wished to dishonour us by [all means in] his power" and that she had hidden her dislike of him for a long time in order to escape danger (Hughe...nous voudrait deshonurer a son poiar...nous layoms dissimule longtemps pur le peril eschuver).  This danger is explicitly stated later as being danger to the queen's life, this being the reason Isabella did not dare to return to "the company of our said lord," i.e. Edward, and that this danger caused her so much grief that she could write no more of it (nous ne pourroms retourner en la compagnie de noster dit seignur saunz nous mestre en peril de mort dount nous sumes en plus graves meschief qe escrivre ne poems; Isabella had also written a few lines earlier that she wished above all else, after God and the salvation of her soul, to return to Edward's company and live and die there, estre en la compaignie de nostre dit seignur et vivre et morir en icele, and had called her husband "our very dear and very sweet lord and friend," nostre treschier et tresdouche seignur et amy).  Notice that the letter says Hugh wished to dishonour Isabella a son poiar, literally 'by (or through) his power' in the sense of 'with all his power', not exactly 'by every possible means' as Weir cites it.  There's no hint in the letter of any kind of sexual assault carried out or threatened by Hugh Despenser, though it's interesting to speculate in which ways Isabella felt her life to be in danger from him.

This section of Weir's book, incidentally, puts forward the notion that Edward II in 1322 was "being promiscuous with low-born men", who were, she claims, paid "substantial sums" of money to spend time "in his company", which she describes as "hush money".  Sadly for this salacious theory, the men she names were in fact members of Edward's household, and the supposed 'hush money' was merely - oh dear - their wages.  Weir also claims that Hugh Despenser's influence over Edward "was rooted in a perverted sexual dominance" - needless to say, Roger Mortimer's later presumed sexual dominance over Isabella is not 'perverted' - and that Edward's relationship with Hugh was an "insult" to Isabella's "femininity".  Ohhhhhkaaaaay.

The charges against Hugh Despenser at his trial in Hereford in November 1326 include: that he counselled Edward to leave Isabella in peril of her life at Tynemouth in 1322; that he procured discord between the king and queen; that he persuaded Edward to 'oust' her from her lands in 1324; that he had her sent to France in 1325 'meanly, against the dignity of her estate'; that he tried to bribe French courtiers to have her and her son Edward of Windsor 'destroyed'.  No mention is made of any kind of physical or sexual assault on the queen.  Not that Isabella would necessarily have wanted such an awful experience shouted out in public, of course, but one wonders how all the 'English hierarchy' in 1326 knew of the sexual assault Hugh Despenser supposedly inflicted on Isabella and yet not a trace of it has come down to us in any source.  You'd think a chronicler or several would at least hint at it.  Perhaps Hugh's attempts to bribe someone in France to - presumably - have Isabella killed are the source of her claims that her life was in danger from him.

 Of course, there's no way of proving that Hugh Despenser didn't rape or otherwise sexually assault Isabella, but there's no reason to think that he did, or that he had any sexual interest in her.  Before accusing someone of such a serious and awful crime, we should have more evidence than assumptions by a couple of modern writers that his 'dishonour' of the queen might possibly, perhaps, maybe, have meant something sexual.  Hugh behaved extremely unpleasantly in many ways, but whatever his track record there is no evidence that he was a rapist, and just because he is so often written nowadays as a one-dimensional cartoonish moustache-twirling villain is no excuse to ascribe serious sexual crimes to him just because an unpleasant person 'might' have committed them.  I've noticed a trend in some modern historical fiction to make certain characters highly unsympathetic to the reader by having them commit sexual offences: William, Lord Hastings is written as a rapist and killer of young girls in one novel which portrays the future Richard III, who had Hastings executed without trial in 1483, as not far removed from a saint; the earl of Buchan (d. 1308) is a rapist and beater of his wife Isobel MacDuff, who has what the author obviously considers a deeply romantic affair with Robert Bruce; John Morton, close ally and chancellor of Henry VII, is said to have a taste for young boys.  It's bad enough in fiction to see the posthumous reputations of people who really lived trashed in a blatant attempt to make their opponents more sympathetic and 'tragic' to readers.  I don't want to see it in non-fiction too.


Susan Higginbotham said...

Great post! That sort of character assassination, based on the flimsiest of evidence, disgusts me.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Susan! Me too.

Carla said...

Cashelmara has a lot to answer for, sadly

Anerje said...

I find this accusation ridiculous - there's not a shred of evidence for it. And why on earth would Edward or Hugh want to do such a thing? There were plenty of ways to 'dishonour' Isabella than resorting to rape. Some novelists say Edward couldn't manage a sexual relationship with Isabella, and then he's raping her in others! Talk about extremes!

And as for Weir - I am fed up with 'possibly', 'maybe' etc after her so-called bio of Mary Boleyn! Don't know how she gets away with it!

Gabriele C. said...

If such a thing had happened, I'm pretty sure some chroniclers would have jumped at it. They did so in other cases - justly and unjustly to blackpaint a king, so it's not like Medieaval scribes didn't know the word 'rape'. ;)

Kathryn Warner said...

I'm actually quite angry with writers who make up these nasty allegations against people they don't like. I wonder how they'd feel if someone wrote this kind of stuff about their family?

And all this jumping on the Tudor bandwagon by writing books and blog posts about people we know practically nothing about, like Mary Boleyn and her sister-in-law Jane, is irritating too.

Ian M said...

Great stuff, Kathryn. I echo your point about rhetorical questions being a flimsy and weak form of argument. And damned irritating too.

People need to consider how the writers of the time had access to first-hand info. Did they check their sources? Just for the sake of argument, imagine Hugh Despenser was a rapist: he is unlikely to have gone to any chroniclers and given them a blow-by-blow account. Isabella's status was even more at risk, so her loyal staff would not have been a source for any impropriety. Even if it did happen, it would not have been reported publicly - and probably not even put in a letter, in case the letter fell into the wrong hands. Most often, delicate information was conveyed by the instruction in a letter to trust what the bearer had to say.

When such stories arise in continental sources, often we can link them to propaganda (e.g. Edward III's supposed rape of the 'countess of Salisbury'). But in this case, it is, as you say, more revealing of modern obsessions with sex and ways to paint a villain as timelessly nasty than any actual information stream arising from an event.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks so much for the great comment, Ian!

Cherith said...

It seems like people are getting their English scandal history confused--the idea of Isabella being turned over to Despenser so that he could rape her reminds me of the case of the Earl of Castlehaven. The elements are similar: the patriarch finds "favorites" who, presumably, return the favor sexually, the wife gets raped by one of these favorites at the behest of the patriarch, the young son gets used as pawn for a power play, etc.. Maybe these "historians" are getting their homosexual stories confused?

Kathryn Warner said...

Great point, Cherith! It often seems to me that commentators are imposing archetypal narratives on Edward II's story.

Kathryn Pritchard Gibson said...

Totally agree.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Kathryn.

bluffkinghal said...

Weir does that so often. She seems to have a thing with propounding all kinds of sex-based theories for historical characters. Ah well, whatever floats her boat.

Kathryn Warner said...

Yuck :-( :-(

Bryan Dunleavy said...

While nothing is "beyond the bounds of possibility" the bounds of probability often bring us to more prosaic conclusions. The latter are usually the right ones as you post amply illustrates. Weir and Doherty have books to sell but as neither of them are going to have any lasting influence I don't get too exercised about it. Seymour Phillips will be referenced in 30 years time; nobody, I suggest, will look to Alison Weir for insight.Weir is a fluent and entertaining writer and she does her research but she rarely has any insight into character. After I read her account of Ketherine Swynford, for example, I was left with the picture of a Surrey housewife who had brought up her bright children to get good A levels and a first at Cambridge.
There is little doubt that Hugh Despenser was very ambitious, but he was not a fool either and raping the queen would ensure a swift passage to his downfall. Someone would find out and use it to his advantage. The source of Isabella's resentment against Despenser was most likely his growing power and her loss of influence. She was born to power and no one who has enjoyed power likes to lose it. (Which, on another topic, is why the tale of Ed II living out the rest of his life quietly as a hermit is equally implausible,) Unfortunately, people who have never themselves experienced the highly competitive and unforgiving struggle for power tend to describe it in terms they think they understand.

Kathryn Warner said...

Bryan, many thanks for that terrific insightful comment! Much appreciated.