25 September, 2013

A lot of what you think you know about Edward II and Isabella is wrong

A hotch-potch of a post which in some ways continues from my recent one about Edward II and Isabella of France's relationship, and an older one.

Apropos of nothing much in particular, things that break my irony meter:

Moaning that Isabella of France has been the victim of 'sexual prejudices' while castigating Edward II and talking about him in drippingly contemptuous terms because of his non-heterosexuality, to the point where you call him 'perverted' and 'unnatural' because of his sexuality.

Moaning that Isabella of France was a tragic neglected victim of her nasty cruel husband because of his outside love interests, while at the same time finding Isabella's relationship with the married Roger Mortimer wildly romantic, wonderful and amazingly speshul, and conveniently ignoring his wife.

Things often said to be fact which are not:

1) Edward II only had sex with his queen reluctantly.

To quote from two self-described Facebook 'historians' who in fact are nothing of the sort, but people who've maybe read a novel or two about Edward II and seen Braveheart and Helen Castor's She-Wolves programme (sorry to any fans of it, but I thought the part about Isabella was dire), and now fancy themselves as experts on Edward and Isabella:

"It was a fact and well documented than Edward the 2nd had many "favorites" who were males. It was also a well documented fact that he preferred boys and men over women and his own Queen. The only reason he succumbed to his duty to his wife was for the sanctity of the royal heir and in that alone is the only reason they had one child."

"Edward II was "a fastidiously gay guy who begat children on her [Isabella] - note not with her - as a painful duty...Edward was the very reverse of uxorious at a time when it was important to demonstrate respect for women. His own parents were very well-married so he didn't lack example..Regarding respect for women: one thing publicly noticed was the contrast between that which he had for his relatives and Eleanor [Despenser], and incidentally his other niece Margaret who was married to Gaveston, and the frosty and dismissive tone he used to his wife."

Wow, I've been studying Edward II and his life and reign for the best part of a decade now and I've never come across anything which tells us in which tone of voice he spoke to his wife.  I've certainly never seen anything which tells us that he didn't enjoy having sex with his queen.  Seriously, where on earth do people think something like this would be recorded in the early fourteenth century?  Did they travel back in time and set up a webcam in Edward and Isabella's bedchamber?  Do they think Isabella kept a diary in which she wrote stuff like "3 February, Edward with Piers, not me...so sad...will cry myself to sleep?  5 February, Edward came to my bed but only had sex with me reluctantly...he treats me like a brood mare!  Not fair!"

(Notice also the assumptions apparent in that second quote: that Edward II being a lover of men meant that he failed to 'demonstrate respect for women'; that men who love men should take the 'example' of their 'well married', opposite-sex heterosexual parents.  I have no words.)

Edward II did not like 'boys'.  Let's kick that particular myth in the teeth before it takes hold.  Piers Gaveston was some years his senior, Roger Damory probably about the same age as Edward or older, Hugh Despenser no more than five or so years younger and around thirty when he became the king's 'favourite' in 1318.  Point being, all the royal 'favourites' were grown men.  Stating that Edward II liked 'boys', as though he was some kind of perverted paedophile, is frankly unpleasant.  Also, I take issue with the notion that he 'preferred men over his own queen', as though Isabella was automatically in competition for Edward's affections with Piers and the others.  Isabella was royal, Edward's queen, the mother of his children.  He had to marry her for political reasons.  His relationship with her no doubt was very different from his relationship with Piers.  Not necessarily inferior, just different.  People nowadays act as though because Edward loved Piers, he can't have loved Isabella as well, or even felt anything at all for her beyond indifference and perhaps contempt.  It doesn't work like that.  Godefroy of Paris, who saw Edward and Isabella in France in 1313, states directly and without equivocation that Edward loved Isabella: cele amoit-il.  The c. 1327 poem 'The Lament of Edward II', written by a supporter of the deposed king, also states at various points throughout that the royal couple had once loved each other as courtly lovers.  I would say it's beyond doubt that Piers Gaveston, not Isabella, was the great love of Edward II's life, but it's a long way from that to concluding that Edward felt no positive, affectionate emotions for her at all ever.  That seems astonishingly unlikely.

This is the sum total of what we know about Edward II's sex life:

- He had intercourse with Queen Isabella on four occasions which resulted in the births of their four children.
- He had intercourse with an unknown woman which resulted in their illegitimate son Adam.

That is IT.  That is literally all we know, all we can know and all we ever will know.  Anything else is pure speculation.  We don't know how regularly or irregularly, how enthusiastically or unenthusiastically he had sex with Isabella.  We don't know (unfortunately) the true nature of his relationships with Piers Gaveston, Roger Damory and Hugh Despenser, and whether they were sexual or not.  We don't know whether he had sex with other women besides the one who gave birth to his son Adam.  It's fine to speculate, of course, but be clear that that's what you're doing.  Don't pretend that you have some way of knowing that Edward only slept with Isabella reluctantly as a 'painful duty'.  And I'm also sick of seeing it claimed that Edward only used Isabella as a 'brood mare'.  As opposed to all those other kings, I suppose, who didn't care at all if their wives bore children and especially sons.

2) Common modern misconception, as seen above: Edward II and Isabella of France only had one child together.

Nope, they had four:

- Edward III, king of England (13 November 1312 - 21 June 1377)
- John of Eltham, earl of Cornwall ( 15 August 1316 - 13 September 1336)
- Eleanor of Woodstock, duchess of Gueldres (18 June 1318 - 22 April 1355)
- Joan of the Tower, queen of Scotland (5 July 1321 - 7 September 1362).

Additionally, it's possible that Isabella had a miscarriage in or shortly before November 1313, when a purchase of pennyroyal for her is recorded.

3) Isabella told her father Philip IV in 1308 that her husband was 'an entire stranger to her bed' and that she was 'the most wretched of wives'.

This story appears, as far as I can tell (it's difficult to be entirely sure as real fourteenth-century historians never mention it and it only appears in the work of popular writers, who never source it properly), in the Historia Anglicana of Thomas Walsingham who died c. 1422, which was written between about 1377 and 1392 (and has continuations by another writer down to 1422).  It's hard to take a story about Edward II and Isabella seriously when it was first written by a man who died around the year their great-great-grandson Henry V died and their great-great-great-grandson Henry VI became king.  Walsingham had no possible access to the private letters sent by Isabella to her father, and his story has no reliable provenance whatsoever.  It's pure invention, something a man writing at least seventy or eighty years later thinks she might have told her father.  Shame that it's so often repeated as 'fact'.

Pearls of online wisdom; read them and weep:

"Isabella is married off to Edward II at the age of thirteen - and soon discovers that as far as her husband is concerned, she is simply a brood mare for his children. He'd rather spend his time with his lover, Piers Gaveston."

"I hate how people call Isabella of France homophobic for deposing her husband Edward II. Imagine being used as a broodmare by a gay dude."  There we go with the brood mare thing!  Woo-hoo!

"Following Isabella' s marriage to Edward II, a marriage that he had no intention of being a part of other than to produce heirs and either ignore Isabella or abuse her...".  Edward and Isabella were together far, far more often than not, as a comparison of their itineraries demonstrates.  He 'ignored' her?  Nah.

"You can [sic] help but feel for Isabella, married to a fop who is interested only in his favourites."  Hmmmm yes, Edward II, "one of the strongest men of his realm," "fair of body and great of strength," the man who loved digging ditches, rowing and outdoor exercise in general, was, of course, a 'fop'.  I'm sure his sexuality has nothing at all to do with that judgement.  Of course not.

"My father [name redacted] often told me that my ancestor Sir Roger Mortimer seduced the Queen of England. Now I know how it happened. I was pleased to learn that my father and I have inherited Sir Roger's sense of right and wrong."  *snort*

"The innocent little heroine wins our immediate sympathy when, at fourteen [sic], she is married to handsome, homosexual Edward the Second of England. We pity her more and more as she is shamed and neglected in favour of his male lovers."  Is it just me, or is the word 'male' the most important one here, in the writer's eyes?  Have you ever read anything bewailing Constanza of Castile's arrival in England in the early 1370s to marry John of Gaunt as 'she is shamed and neglected in favour of his female lover'?  Bet you haven't.  And I often see Isabella being called 'little'.  Yuck.  You condemn Edward for 'neglecting' her, but would you rather he'd fawned all over a 'little' girl?  Ah, the lack of joined-up thinking and cognitive dissonance.


Sami Parkkonen said...

Oh my Lord, how some jerks do not understand how their words reveal their own prejudices and perversions while they think they are talking about Edward II and Isabella.

Also, it seems to me that some of these intelluctual bozos seem to think that being gay means pedophile. It does not. In Edwards case it is also proven that he did not like boys but grown men.

As for Isabella, haven't these people heard about bi-sexuals? If Piers was Edwards love, as it seems, how that means that he did not love Isabella. Sexualitywise Edward was not at all exceptional. It is very likely that Richard Lionheart was also a bi-sexual. As a matter of fact, quite many great men of history have been bi-sexuals. Among the samurais of Japan it was almost as common as heterosexuality. Spartans were well known for their love for their warrior companions and yet they concieved children with theír wives.

Also, what about the letters from Isabella to Edward in which she calls him "very dear husband" and "love of her heart" etc.? All these expressions are very exceptional for any queen of any age! They show without a doubt that Isabella loved her husband for real, she expressed that in her letters. And that was highly exceptional for a royal.

I think some people simply re-write history based on their own fears and limited ideas of humanity, romantic horror stories, homophobia and other crap like that.

Fiction is not history and the stories about Isabella as the teen lolita despised by his terrible gay rapist husband is a fantasy, a perverted sexual fantasy of certain people. Nothing else.

In reality Isabella was much more than she-wolf or teen lolita, or Roger Mortimers biatch. Edward was much more than a gay terrorist.

And yes, I am a stone cold hetero myself. Father of a child and lover of women. And still I can see Edward and Isabella as humanbeings. As humans. Not as some very bad characters in a very bad movie, or a novel.

Brian Wainwright said...

Great post!

One might be forgiven for thinking that Isabella posted her feelings regularly on Facebook to go off some of this stuff.

Medieval queens (and great ladies) were often shoved into 2nd 3rd or lower places by their husbands. OK, usually by other women, but I scarcely think it would be some massive shock or surprise to a princess. Not every arranged marriage became a passionate love match - fancy that!

Yep - you are right, I've never read a word of sympathy for poor old Constanza of Castile. Not one, not anywhere. But she, of course, was usurped by the right sort of person, the saintly Katherine Swynford, from whom half the UK and USA is descended. So it's OK - just suck on it Constanza, serves you right for being Spanish - and probably devout and dark-haired.

On the point of Walsingham - don't trust a line that guy wrote. 14th Century England's answer to the Sun.

Brian Wainwright said...
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Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks for the great comments, Sami and Brian!

Brian Wainwright said...
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Anonymous said...

Another great post! Can't help but wonder how many of the comments on Edward's & Isabella's respective relationships (with third parties as well as with each other) are affected by the comment-maker's own experiences and/or attitudes. Using an example that goes in the opposite direction from the posters ... the arguments in Phillips's biography (Edward loved Piers as a brother; Roger Mortimer was not the love of Isabella's life) could reflect his own attitude to marriage.


MRats said...

Wonderful post, Kathryn!

Thank you so much for telling the world where Thomas Costain found his alleged "quotes" from Isabella in "The Three Edwards". That book has been popular in America since before I was born. It's been published in book club editions and paperback, spreading the "wretched" tale far and wide, even though it's "an entire stranger to" the truth. I'm grateful to you for revealing its highly questionable source. And while we're on the subject, Costain also wrote that Edward and Isabella, a month and a half before they even met, attended Wallingford tournament together. See, Edward WAS there :-) (Just joking.) If you haven't read "The Three Edwards" yet, you might want to do it just for grins.

And since it was part of a series called "The History of the Plantagenets", that brings to mind a question. You wrote in a post a while back that the royal family did not call itself "Plantagenet" in the fourteenth century. I'm curious to know the surname that Edward, or for that matter, Thomas of Lancaster, would have used back then.

But returning to the subject, I'm pleased to know (and from a direct descendent of the man no less!) that Roger Mortimer had a "sense of right and wrong". You put it best: "I have no words."

Also, you described Piers as "some years older than Edward". Does that mean that you no longer accept the possibility that Piers was, in the strictest sense, Edward's "contemporary"? In your earlier post on Piers' background, you mentioned that he had two older sisters. Did your anonymous source in Gascony say anything about them? Also, Anerje wrote in her blog that during the early years of Arnaud de Gabeston's marriage to Claremunda, Edward I held Arnaud hostage in place of Gaston VII, Viscount of Bearn. If Piers' parents were kept apart for a time, couldn't that also have delayed his arrival?

Is there any hope that Piers and Edward could have been close together in age. . any at all . . . please . . .

Thank you again for valiantly defending the honor of my favorite "gay dude".

Sonetka said...

You never know -- Isabella may actually have appreciated the fact that Edward's objects of extramarital affection (and what king didn't have them?) were unlikely to produce any children who would need titles and an expensive upbringing! Especially when you consider how she managed to burn through the treasury once she was in charge of it :).

Jerry Bennett said...

Hi Kathryn,

Thanks once again for a very informative post.

I gained my initial knowledge of this period from "general" history books, most of which implied the Edward was more fond of men, particularly Piers Gaveston, than he was of Isabella. What I could never reconcile was the fact that he fathered at least four children with Isabella, and possibly more given the high rates of infant mortality in those years. That fact alone did not sit easily with the idea that he was rampantly gay. It took exposure to your blog in particular to start to build some more detail into the lives of both Edward and Isabella.

Your examples of their terms of endearment and regular gifts to each other suggest a great deal of mutual affection, as does the story of Edward rescuing her from a fire when they were both naked. As for oversleeping and being late for a meeting with King Philippe the Fair... what could have caused them to be late for such an important meeting? I shall leave that to the realms of imagination.

As you rightly say, they were complex human beings, and we will never know the full truth of their relationship, or their relationships with others. We can only work on the few facts available, and speculate based on those facts. The more we can discover, the better as that helps all of us to try to understand their thoughts and actions.

Please keep the information flowing.

Anonymous said...

It is possible that Edward was very kind to his rather young bride and that actual affection grew on both parts. No evidence that Edward was a paedophile. Maybe bi-sexual. Does it take only four visits to the marital bed, to bring about four children?

Isabella appears to have demonstrated some immoderate raiding of the wealth of England, during the glory years of the post-deposition of her husband. There seemed little support from her family in France, which would not have contributed a strong sense of security. And her husband was not a STRONG king. In the medieval sense. Did Isabella simply make the best of what her life threw her way? Neither victim nor she-wolf.

Judith Madore

Anerje said...

Ah yes, we keep reading the same thing over and over again. I deplore the use of Edward preferring 'boys', which implies he was some creepy pervert. Edward and Isabella didn't marry for love, and whatever Edward's sexuality, either could have found the other unattractive anyway. They both knew their duty and carried it out, producing 4 children. Edward certainly didn't flaunt his 'favourites' in the way that Henri II flaunted Diane de Poitiers.

Anerje said...

And as for brood mares - well, look no further than the behaviour of a current royal!

chris y said...

Dear Facebook Historian,

Please can you have surgery to carve on your forebrain the following information:

"Using modern gay identities, or any other modern sexual identities in discussing anybody who lived before the middle of the 19th century (and I'm being generous here) is completely anachronistic, misleading and unhelpful."


Unknown said...

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Carla said...

'That is IT. That is literally all we know, all we can know and all we ever will know'

Well said. Speculation is fine, often essential, as a starting point for fiction and can be the basis of many a story (some more interesting and plausible than others, which will vary by reader), but only new evidence (unlikely, unless someone discovers the equivalent of Isabella's Facebook page or Secret Diary) can transmute it into fact.