30 November, 2012

Demolishing Myths About Edward II, Part 2: Tynemouth, 1312

This is the second part (part one) of my series demolishing myths about Edward II, otherwise known as the Why Almost Everything You Think You Know About Edward II Is Wrong series.

2) Myth: Edward II abandoned Queen Isabella at Tynemouth in May 1312 when she was pregnant, in order to save Piers Gaveston.

I've dealt with this rather unpleasant myth on the blog before, but want to examine it again as it is still often repeated as fact.  The St Albans chronicler 'Trokelowe', writing several decades later and 270 miles away, says that Edward II abandoned a weeping, pregnant Isabella at Tynemouth in May 1312 in order to take Piers Gaveston to safety away from their rapidly-approaching enemy Thomas of Lancaster, and left her there to her fate, even though she begged him not to.  Fans of the Victim!Isabella school of thought simply adore this story, and it's a central plank in the 'Edward II was the nastiest, cruellest husband ever' notion that's become so popular these days, but in fact, it's pure nonsense and based on the St Albans chronicler confusing events of 1322, when Isabella was once again at Tynemouth, with events that happened a decade earlier.

Isabella's household accounts fortuitously survive for 1311/12 and, with an account of the king's movements in a memorandum on the Close Roll, demonstrate the total inaccuracy of the abandonment story: in fact, Edward and Isabella (and Piers) left Tynemouth together on the same day, 5 May.  Edward and Piers went to Scarborough, where they arrived on the 10th; Piers was left in the castle there while Edward went to Knaresborough, which castle belonged to Piers, and then to York, where he arrived on 14 May.  Isabella may have travelled to York by land while Edward and Piers went by sea to Scarborough - spending five days in a small boat on the bitterly cold North Sea was perhaps not the most sensible course of action, given that Isabella was in the first trimester of pregnancy - and from her accounts it appears that she travelled via Darlington and Ripon to York to be reunited with her husband on or before 16 May (she was in Darlington on the 11th and in Ripon, only 25 miles from York, on the 12th), on which date the controller of her household received expenses for the journey.  On the other hand, it may be that it was only some of her household who made this overland journey, and that Isabella herself accompanied Edward with a few attendants and that the royal couple spent the entire time in each other's company - meaning that Isabella did sail in a small boat from Tynemouth to Scarborough for five days with her husband and Piers Gaveston.  Edward himself evidently also took only a few attendants with him, and other members of his household seem to have travelled via land with the queen's.  Frustratingly, Isabella's accounts don't make it clear where she herself was at this time, only (most of) her household.  At any rate, it is clear that Edward and Isabella left Tynemouth on the same day and either spent the next few days travelling together or were reunited in York eleven days later at most.  It is absolutely clear that Isabella was not left behind weeping in Tynemouth in danger from anyone, to shift for herself as best she might, and her accounts state that some of her possessions had to be left behind at 'Les Sheles' (South Shields) near Tynemouth, which indicates that she left there in a hurry.  Edward also left many of his own possessions behind, which were seized by Thomas of Lancaster shortly afterwards.

The St Albans chronicle is the only source (except for a later St Albans chronicler who copied it) for the story that Edward callously 'abandoned' his pregnant queen to save Piers Gaveston; no other chronicler so much as hints at it, not the well-informed royal clerks Adam Murimuth or the author of the Vita Edwardi Secundi who knew Edward II well, not the northern chroniclers who were in a much better position to know what was happening than a chronicler far away in distance and time.  Edward's biographer Seymour Phillips (Edward II, 2010, pp. 187, 203) points out that "Contrary to the report in Trokelowe's chronicle, written at St Albans, the pregnant Isabella was not abandoned at Tynemouth; instead she left there with her husband on 5 May and accompanied him to Scarborough before returning to York on 17 May."  Some imaginative modern novelists and so-called non-fiction writers even have it, however, that Isabella was not only cruelly deserted by her husband and left in danger from Thomas of Lancaster (conveniently forgetting to point out that Thomas was her own uncle), but also from Robert Bruce.  'Trokelowe' evidently confused events of May 1312 with those of October 1322, when Isabella was indeed caught behind Robert's army at Tynemouth, but Robert was nowhere near the town in May 1312, even if the queen had been left there alone: he was busy that year besieging and capturing English-held castles in Scotland. 

Alison Weir, unsurprisingly, chooses to perpetuate the myth of Edward II callously abandoning his pregnant wife in her biography of the queen, as it does fit so nicely into the Victim!Isabella theme she's pushing so hard.  She repeats the St Albans story as though it's gospel truth and states "She had begged her husband in tears not to leave her, but he insisted that she remain behind in Tynemouth...Isabella could not have felt very kindly disposed towards her husband, who had twice* fled and left her behind, all in order to keep his favourite safe, and with little thought for her own safety, even though she was carrying his child."  (Weir, 2005, pp. 63-4.)  This is slanted, overwrought commentary with a blatant agenda and extremely unfair to Edward, and Weir must surely have known it was untrue when she wrote it as she cites Isabella's accounts and other chronicles of this period frequently and therefore must have realised that they do not corroborate the St Albans chronicle on any point.  The extremely important fact that the St Albans account is a decades-later tale written at the other end of the country which confuses events of spring 1312 with those of autumn 1322 is not mentioned anywhere; the story is repeated as though it is certain truth and as though there is no other possible account of what happened in Tynemouth in May 1312.  If you have to withhold vital information from your readers like this to make a point, you don't have a point.  Even Paul Doherty, who in his Isabella and the Strange and Biased Book About Edward II (as its title should be) goes out of his way to criticise Edward for absolutely everything he ever did or didn't do, doesn't repeat this myth, pointing out instead that in May 1312 Isabella "was forced to flee with her husband...[and] adhered to her husband."  Annoyingly, however, Doherty does repeat the myth in his 2009 novel The Darkening Glass - Doherty has a habit of including myths about Edward II and Isabella in his novels which he doesn't include in his non-fiction as he knows perfectly well they're not true, such as stating in every one of his novels featuring Isabella that she was buried next to Roger Mortimer - and claims in his author's note that "Isabella was trapped at Tynemouth and had to fight her way out.  Some chroniclers place this in 1312, other [typo in book] 1323 [sic, should be 1322], and a few claim that such an escape happened twice."  Errrrm, no, they really don't.  'Trokelowe', the only chronicler who wrongly claims that Isabella was 'trapped' at Tynemouth in May 1312 (unless, and I don't, you count Thomas Walsingham, a later chronicler also of St Albans who died in 1422 and copied the story), does not say that Isabella had to 'fight her way out', but says that her uncle the earl of Lancaster, entering the town, assured her that he would not rest until he had separated Piers from the king.  For events at Tynemouth in October 1322, see my post here.

[* By this, Weir means that Edward left Isabella at Windsor just after New Year 1312 and travelled north, with his heavily pregnant niece Margaretto meet a newly-returned Piers Gaveston in Yorkshire.  Claiming that Edward 'abandoned' Isabella at this time, or that he 'fled' (from whom?), or that Isabella was not safe because of his journey north, is putting an excessively, ludicrously negative spin on the way Edward acted at this time.  (Colour me wholly unsurprised.)  Isabella joined her husband in the north a few weeks later, keeping in frequent contact with him via messengers before and during the journey.  They must have conceived Edward III shortly after her arrival, during Lent, tsk.]

It's perfectly legitimate and reasonable to criticise Edward II for his behaviour in the first few months of 1312, skulking in the north and risking civil war again with his barons because of Piers Gaveston, but there is no reason to suppose that Isabella suffered as a result of it or that she was angry with her husband for treating her badly in any way, or that Edward was so callously neglectful of his queen that he was willing to abandon her, pregnant and weeping, to possible danger.  It is a frequent assumption with no contemporary evidence whatsoever that Isabella hated and despised her husband from the very beginning of their marriage, and hated Piers Gaveston as her rival for Edward's affections and wished him ill.  Once the main planks of the popular 'Edward and Isabella's marriage was an utter disaster from the start and he neglected the poor girl shamefully' notion - that Isabella was acting as leader of the opposition to Piers in 1308, that he and Edward deliberately humiliated her by taking and wearing her jewels, that Edward abandoned her when she was pregnant - are exposed as the myths that they are, any easy assumptions that Isabella hated her husband (her 'husband' in inverted commas, as I've seen some people online call him) and thought he'd done her wrong melt away, and a far more complex, interesting and realistic picture of their relationship appears.  Here's a radical notion: maybe Isabella was happy to be with Edward, and maybe they were fond of each other and enjoyed each other's company, and it is virtually certain that they were both thrilled about Isabella's pregnancy.  Entries from Edward's surviving accounts in 1316 during Isabella's pregnancy with their second son John - buying cushions for her carriage and so on - indicate that he took an interest and concern in her comfort and well-being while she was pregnant, and there is no reason to suppose that he felt any differently in 1312.  An entry on the Close Roll of 6 June 1312 demonstrates that Edward had borrowed and was now repaying forty pounds from the Genoese merchant Antonio di Pessagno to buy "pearls for the queen," which were probably the "large white pearls" Edward paid his minstrel 'King' Robert two pounds to bring to him on 25 April that year.  Given the timing, around two months after the future Edward III must have been conceived, the pearls are very likely to have been Edward's gift to Isabella on hearing the news of her pregnancy.  He must have been delighted.  It seems very improbable that he would have deliberately and thoughtlessly abandoned her to danger only ten days later.

And maybe, just maybe, Edward II's strong desire to protect Piers Gaveston at almost any cost (he even offered to recognise Robert Bruce as king of Scotland and leave him to rule in peace if Robert would protect Piers at this time) does not necessarily mean that he didn't care about Isabella and their child, and there is no reason to suppose that he was capable of feeling affection and concern for one person alone or felt that he had to 'choose' between the two.  Edward and Isabella's relationship is something I'll be returning to in future posts, and for now let's just say that it was complex and developed and changed over time, of course, as any intimate relationship that lasted nearly two decades is bound to do, and that modern assumptions that all they ever felt for each other was loathing, contempt or indifference are frankly one-dimensional and silly, and based on hindsight.

Calendar of Close Rolls 1307-1313, pp. 426, 459-60; F.D. Blackley and G. Hermansen, eds., The Household Book of Queen Isabella of England for the Fifth Regnal Year of Edward II, pp. xxv-xxvi, 15, 55, 131; Elizabeth Hallam, The Itinerary of Edward II and His Household, 1307-1327, p. 85; H.T. Riley, ed., Johannis de Trokelowe et Henrici de Blaneforde Chronica et Annales, pp. 75-76.

16 comments:

Anerje said...

Excellent post! Alison Weir and Paul Doherty have one agenda and that is to portray Isabella as a victim - why let truth get in the way of that?

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Anerje, and exactly!

Gabriele C. said...

With all that nonsense around, one may be glad that they at least all agree on the fact that Isabella was already pregnant when Edward so cruelly abandoned her, and didn't have sex with Bruce or her uncle to, again, question the parentage of Edward's children. ;-)

Kathryn Warner said...

Haha, that's a great point, Gabriele! Thank goodness for small mercies! :) There is a 2006 novel which strongly hints that an unidentified Scottish man fathered Edward III when Isabella was 'abandoned' by her husband in Scotland. Never mind that Tynemouth is 60 or 70 miles south of the border. *rolls eyes*

Kasia Ogrodnik said...

Kathryn, I like the idea, whether true or not, about Edward, Isabella and Piers spending five days in the small boat on the North Sea. Can't help wondering what they were talking about:-)
The whole episode gives further food for thought (at least when I- being a novice- am concerned). It does not sound as if Isabella hated Piers. At least at this stage of their acquaintance. For, IMHO, if she did she wouldn't have agreed to spend so much time in his presence.

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Kasia! That's an interesting idea, isn't it - stuck (maybe) in each other's company for five days and having to make conversation...:)

I wish I knew what Isabella felt about Piers - these people and their relationships fascinate me endlessly. :) I really don't see any evidence that she hated him at any time, and it certainly doesn't seem that she did in 1312, as you say.

Kasia Ogrodnik said...

Kathryn, thank you for paying a visit to our Lesser Land. I was a little bit concerned. About the title of the White Ship disaster text. Thought it too.... daring at first :-):-))) But I just couldn't resist temptation :-):-)

"Two men in a boat (To say nothing of the Woman)". What do you think? :-) It could be a title of the second episode of the BBC series "Demolishing Myths about Edward II". Written and directed by Kathryn Warner :-) I would love to watch the series one day.

Kathryn Warner said...

Kasia, I'm so enjoying my visits to your blog! Am really learning a lot. I'm glad you didn't resist the temptation :) :)

Oooh, that series sounds fantastic, yay (and I love that book!). :):)

Kasia Ogrodnik said...


Kathryn, you are so kind and I'm honoured!

As for Edward, you've disarmed me with those cushions he bought for Isabella when she was pregnant with their second son John :-)

Kathryn Warner said...

You are most welcome, Kasia! Thank you too for visiting my blog and leaving such great comments.

That's so lovely, isn't it? Awwww. ;)

Anonymous said...

IMO, the myth that Isabella was "abandoned" by Edward and Piers probably is what spares us from a "Piers is the father of Edward III" theory. Seriously, I don't recall Isabella invading England to get rid of Piers the way she did to get rid of Despenser.

Esther

Kathryn Warner said...

I did read a novel once where Isabella tells Edward that Piers is the father, so he'll accept the child, but in fact Roger Mortimer is. Quite a feat, given that he was in Ireland! Agh.

Exactly, Esther!

Jerry Bennett said...

Hi Kathryn. Great post again, but can I make a suggestion and ask a couple of questions.

If some of Isabella's possessions were captured in South Shields, then they had to be ferried across the Tyne. Were they just there waiting to be moved on due to a shortage of suitable transport, a day or more behind her household? Presumably the ship was too small to take them. Tynemouth priory and castle are set on a rocky promontary, and the bay immediately to the north is called King Edward's Bay. Did Edward and Piers set sail from there rather from the mouth of the Tyne, or does it refer to another King Edward entirely? With any sort of easterly wind, sailing out of the Tyne river mouth would be close to impossible - shades of what happened in 1326!

You give consecutive dates for Isabella's household being in Darlington and Ripon, although the two towns are 35 miles apart, a long day's journey although not impossible. Did Isabella's household travel in separate groups? And did Isabella and Edward meet up at either Knareborough or Ripon? They appeared to be there at about the same time, and there is only 15 miles between the two towns.

Kasia Ogrodnik said...

Kathryn, can you recommend a book dealing with medieval (preferably or including the 12th century) Christmas traditions? I'm planning to write about Henry the young King's Christmas courts and Christmas in general. I would be most grateful. So far I have come across The Medieval Christmas by Linda Jackson. Do you know this one? If yes, is it worth buying?

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Jerry! These are really great points, thank you. I assumed Les Sheles was South Shields, but maybe North Shields was meant, and would make more sense? Sadly, I don't think there are any details of Edward and Piers' (and Isabella's?) journey from Tynemouth :(. I didn't know there was a bay there called King Edward's Bay, so I really appreciate the information!

Isabella's accounts record 12d paid 'for the expenses of the horses of the carts of the queen's great wardrobe' at Darlington on 11 May, and 17d for the same costs at Ripon on the 12th. I agree with you that the distance between the two towns seems quite large (if not impossibly so) for only one day's travel, and it's not entirely clear to me if it was the same clerk receiving the money - so yes, perhaps Isabella's household travelled in separate groups.

Thanks again for the great comment!

Kathryn Warner said...

Kasia, sorry, for some reason your comment has only just appeared! :/ I have that book (Sophie Jackson, I think?), and I like it. I wish I knew of more books about medieval Christmas, though, as I'd love to know more about it too!