07 February, 2013

Mythbuster 6: Isabella saw her husband kissing Piers Gaveston

On 7 February 1301, sixteen-year-old Edward of Caernarfon was created prince of Wales.  On 7 February 1308, 705 years ago today, Edward II and his new queen Isabella of France arrived in England after marrying in Boulogne, and Isabella got her first look at the country that would be her home for the next half a century.  They landed in Dover, where Piers Gaveston, as regent, had summoned a number of noble men and women to greet them, including the king's sister Elizabeth, countess of Hereford and his first cousin (and Isabella's uncle) Henry, younger brother of Thomas, earl of Lancaster.

Pretty well every novel ever written about Edward and Isabella, and a few works of non-fiction too, features a Compulsory Scene wherein the young queen is horrified, shocked and distressed to see her new husband embracing and kissing Piers Gaveston, who is, she now realises, her husband's lover.  According to the St Albans and Bridlington chroniclers, Edward did indeed "run to Piers among them, giving him kisses and repeated embraces; he was adored with a singular familiarity. Which special familiarity, already known to the magnates, furnished fuel to their jealousy."  [1]  Whether Isabella saw this happen, however, is highly debatable, as she and Edward came ashore from their ship in separate barges, or perhaps had travelled all the way across the Channel separately, as this entry on the Fine Roll [2] makes clear:

"Be it remembered that on Wednesday after the Purification, 1 Edward II, the king, returning from beyond seas, to wit, from Boulogne-sur-Mer, where he took to wife Isabel, daughter of the king of France, touched at Dover in his barge about the ninth hour*, Hugh le Despenser [the Elder] and the lord of Castellione in Gascony being in his company, and the queen a little afterward touched there with certain ladies accompanying her."
*i.e. around 3pm.

Most likely, by the time Isabella arrived 'a little afterward' the embracing and kissing had already finished. Regarding Edward II's behaviour on seeing Piers Gaveston again for the first time in, ooooh, ages (actually it was only sixteen days), it is not automatically the case that he was greeting his lover and everyone knew it. It was not the kissing and embracing themselves that were the problem or that caused shocked, offended comment – the early fourteenth century was a tactile age and kissing on the lips was a common way even for two men to greet each other, with no necessary implications of sexual desire – but that Edward singled Piers out for special attention and kissed and embraced his friend more than he kissed and embraced the other barons. [3]

What Isabella thought of Piers Gaveston, then or ever, is impossible to say for sure as we have no words of her own on the subject. There is a widespread assumption nowadays that Isabella must have hated and resented Piers, and seen him as her rival for her husband's affections and as somehow 'taking her rightful place', but this is merely speculation with no evidence behind it, however often the notion is given spurious credence by being repeated in books and on television *cough Helen Castor cough*. It is of course entirely possible that Isabella did dislike and resent Piers, but it is emphatically not a certain fact. On 29 October 1311, a few days before Piers was forced into his third exile, Isabella sent a letter to the receiver of Ponthieu, the revenues of which county which Edward had granted her a few weeks after their wedding in 1308, "concerning the affairs of the earl of Cornwall." [4] Apparently she had agreed to help Piers in his exile, at least financially, and perhaps in the naming of him as 'earl of Cornwall', which title had been stripped from him, we may see some sympathy on Isabella's part to her husband's 'favourite'. Or possibly Isabella was thrilled that Piers was being sent into exile yet again and considered naming him 'earl of Cornwall' and giving him some money a small price to pay to be rid of him. I have no idea how Isabella felt about Piers, and neither does anyone else, whatever they might claim and state as fact.


1) Johannis de Trokelowe et Henrici de Blaneforde Chronica et Annales, ed. H. T. Riley (1866), p. 65; J.S. Hamilton, Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall 1307-1312: Politics and Patronage in the Reign of Edward II (1988), p. 47; Gesta Edwardi de Carnarvon Auctore Canonico Bridlingtoniensi, in W. Stubbs, ed., Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II, volume 2 (1883), p. 210.

2) Calendar of Fine Rolls 1307-1319, p. 14.

3) See Jochen Burgtorf, 'With my Life, his Joyes Began and Ended: Piers Gaveston and King Edward II of England Revisited', in Fourteenth Century England V, ed. Nigel Saul (2008), pp. 46-47.

4) The Household Book of Queen Isabella of England, ed. F. D. Blackley and G. Hermansen (1971), p. 208.


Sami Parkkonen said...

You go, K, you go!! Show 'em!

Anonymous said...

I think the myths are not so much in what she may have seen, but in the ideas that (a) she would think the two men were lovers (at age 12?) or (b) she was upset. When Isabella was upset at one of Edward's favorites, everyone knew about it (just ask Hugh Despenser)


Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Sami! :)

Esther, it's a story told in pretty well every novel that features Isabella, that she sees them kissing and gets upset as she assumes they're lovers. In the post, I move from this to a more general discussion that we don't know how she felt about Piers (as you so rightfully say, when she hated someone, we know about it!)

Anerje said...

That scene is almost in every novel about Isabella - and she's always shocked and uneasy - and then comes the Coronation banquet and at last she sees what her husband is really like - so predictable! and always highly dramatised! I don't believe that Isabella, even at 12, didn't know about Piers in any sense! Whether she saw them kiss or not, I tend to think of Piers (obviously), who had to witness the arrival of Edward's wife and consort. I'm sure Ed just wanted to re-assure him. And ironically, it's the other nobles who are jealous!

Bryan Dunleavy said...

I agree; there is no reason to assume that Isabella had anything against Gaveston at all. It is just as plausible to assert that she liked him as a good friend of her husband. Most commentators have assumed that because Gaveston had a relationship with edward that Isabella must have hated it. But we don't know; she may not have minded at all. The Despenser situation some years later was completely different and no parallels should be drawn.

Kathryn Warner said...

It's also in Weir's book about Isabella, surprise surprise: "Gaveston was waiting to greet them at the dockside, and with no thought for his bride or his dignity, Edward impulsively ran to him and greeted him with an embarrassing display of affection, falling into his arms, 'giving him kisses and repeated embraces', while Isabella and her uncles looked on, visibly dismayed and displeased."

This last part is pure invention for which Weir, bafflingly, cites Foedera, a collection of documents relating to English relations with foreign powers which says nothing whatsoever about Isabella and her uncles watching Edward and Piers embrace, 'dismayed' or otherwise. Talk about just making stuff up.

Bryan, I totally agree! There's a widespread tendency among modern commentators to assume that because Isabella hated Hugh Despenser, she must necessarily have hated Piers too. It really doesn't follow. There's no evidence at all of any hostility on her part to Roger Damory, her husband's main 'favourite' (for want of a better word) between about 1315 and 1318, either.

Bryan Dunleavy said...

Unfortunately most commentary on edward's homosexuality is informed by a homophobic position on both sides. Either, he was a raging queer - viz Gaveston etc, or, he couldn't possibly be because he has children by Isabella.Both positions skate around the possibility that Edward was likely a much more complex man than they want to admit.
I can't claim to understand or relate to homosexuality but I have certainly come to a more broad-minded and tolerant position over a long life. Im much more accepting now -not my choice of lifestyle, but it is obviously the choice of many, and there it is. I have also noticed in my life that women are, as a rule, more accepting of homosexuality than men, and I would go so far as to say that some women don't mind too much if their husbands have an affair with another man, at least nowhere near as much as if the affair was with another woman. i offer that observation in the contest of Isabella and Edward.
On a more general point perhaps we have now reached a stage in the 21st century where we can put aside our prejudices and reassess our former kings without the homosexual baggage. For example, historians are almost mute on the homosexuality of Richard I. And that's fine because you could accept the argument that it is irrelevant to any assessment of Richard as a warrior king. And if we do accept that position the it can be applied with equal validity to Edward II. In other words Edward's homosexuality, other than unwisely showering Gaveston with gifts, is not the central part of his kingship.

Kathryn Warner said...

Yes, the debate about Edward's sexuality becomes ridiculously polarised, as though absolutely everyone who has ever lived has been either 100% straight or 100% gay. As you say, Bryan, it tends to go 'Edward was gay, as we can see from his relationship with Piers, therefore he can't have fathered Isabella's children', or at the other extreme, 'Edward fathered Isabella's children, so he must have been straight and not Piers' lover'.

I think it's an excellent point, that Isabella may have preferred her husband to take male lovers who couldn't usurp her position in the same way that mistresses could. Or, assuming Edward's 'favourites' were indeed his lovers, she may have been disgusted by it, or worried about the fate of his soul in committing what she might have seen as a dire sin. We just don't know, but it's certainly not necessarily the case than she found it worse than Edward's taking female lovers (which he must have done at some point as well, given that he fathered an illegitimate son). There are many ways she might have felt about the situation, and commentators who claim that she *must* have been angry and disgusted are only betraying what they themselves think they would feel in such a situation. Alison Weir in her biog of Isabella writes that "after surrendering herself to [Roger Mortimer's] embraces, she could feel nothing but profound revulsion for her husband." I think it's pretty clear that the 'profound revulsion' for Edward II is Weir's, not Isabella's, given the many negative comments she makes throughout the book about Edward's sexuality. (And 'surrendering herself to his embraces', oh, puh-leeeeeze! Gag me!)

I do think that a lot of the negativity towards Edward II, a lot of the irritatingly childish and unpleasant sniggering over the supposed manner of his death, has its roots in homophobia. I certainly don't mean, of course, that anyone who criticises Edward does so out of homophobia; he does deserve harsh criticism in many ways and I won't hesitate to point out his many mistakes and flaws here - only that the seething hostility and even anger towards him I so often see in books and especially online seems disproportionate to his actual faults, and is almost never aimed at men who took female lovers to anything like the same extent, it seems to me.

Katarzyna Ogrodnik-Fujcik said...

IMHO,what makes the very scene compulsory in Edward and Isabella novels is the fact that it creates unlimited possibilities for the writers. High drama and sensationalism, I would say. No more no less.

Sami Parkkonen said...

About this hugging and kissing between men. Today the russians and some others do it quite often and one circle of men where it is common is Cosa Nostra, that is the Mafia. They embrace and kiss each other when ever they meet but I guess no one has thought of them as being bunch of gay men showing their love to one another. Actually, the mafiosi are well known of their anti gay stance and being very macho in a straight sense of the word. So if Edward was hugging and kissing men, that does not automatically mean that he was inviting them into his bed chamber on the spot. Just a thought...