I was watching Helen Castor's BBC4 documentary She-Wolves on Youtube recently (again), the episode about Isabella of France and Henry VI's queen Margaret of Anjou. The title of the documentary and book irritates me. This absurd nickname was first given to Margaret of Anjou by Shakespeare, and first applied to Isabella in a poem by Thomas Gray in 1757, almost exactly 400 years after her death. Why do writers (or publishers) keep perpetuating it? That's three books I can think of published in the twenty-first century about or partly about Isabella with 'she-wolf' in the title, the others by Alison Weir and Elizabeth Norton.
I'm not a big fan of Castor's Isabella episode and the chapters about Isabella in her book, which present the queen, in usual modern fashion, as a victim who miraculously becomes strong and empowered with the help of a properly manly man and Twu Wuv 4Ever, but then is attacked as a SHE-WOLF!!11!!!1 because people, or rather men, just can't deal with strong empowered women, apparently. Here are a few statements she made, and my reactions.
- Isabella was "little more than a pawn in the power-play between England and France." I am sick of seeing royal women of the Middle Ages, but not men, described as 'pawns' because their marriages were arranged. It's such a tired cliché. Edward II had no more choice in the marriage than Isabella did, and before he was betrothed to her had been betrothed to three other girls (Margaret of Norway, queen of Scotland; Blanche of France; Philippa of Flanders) in furtherance of his father's foreign policy and according to what best suited England at the time. He was first betrothed when he was five. If Isabella was a 'pawn', how was Edward not as well? And besides, Isabella was royal to her fingertips, the proud daughter of two crowned monarchs in their own right, the king of France and the queen of Navarre. Of course she would only have wanted to marry and have children with a man as royal as she herself was. Edward of Caernarfon, future king of England, son of a king, grandson of two more kings, fitted the bill perfectly. Given the choice, do people really think Isabella would have said to her father "Oh no, I don't want to marry the king of England, but there's this yummy latrine-cleaner I've got my eye on"? Who on earth else was she going to marry, seriously? It makes me shake my head, this turning Isabella into some kind of helpless victim of uncaring male machinations when in reality there was no-one else in Europe, except perhaps a king of another powerful country, she would have wanted to marry and sleep with. Everyone else in the world was beneath her as a potential husband. Why impose our attitudes on her, as though she was a time traveller to the fourteenth century with our modern western ideas of choosing your own spouse and marrying for love? Why pity Isabella for something which was entirely normal in her world and something which she herself would certainly have wanted?
- At the coronation of 25 February 1308, "Isabella should have taken centre stage, but her place was taken by a handsome young man," i.e. Piers Gaveston, and "her rightful place had already been taken," and again, after Piers' murder in 1312: "Isabella thought that Gaveston's removal would allow her to take her rightful place at her husband's side." That makes it sound to me as though Piers was actually crowned as Edward's consort while Isabella was shoved aside and forgotten. I've looked at Edward's discourteous behaviour at the coronation banquet (not, let it be noted, at the coronation itself) before, but let's not get too carried away; Isabella was, indeed, crowned as queen of England at Edward's side, and was still centre stage, with her husband, as one half of the royal couple. Edward talked to Piers more at the banquet afterwards than he did to her, yes, but I hardly see how that can be described as Piers 'taking Isabella's place'. Her place was queen of England as Edward's wife, and no-one, certainly not a man, could take that from her. It wasn't part of the arrangement that Edward wasn't allowed to talk to other people in public or to be in love with someone else, and Isabella was a very long way from being the only queen or noblewoman in history whose husband had a lover or lovers - yet she does seem to be one of a vanishingly small number on whose behalf great offence is taken 700 years later on this account. This argument about her 'rightful place' seems to be mere indignation that Isabella wasn't, at least at this point in 1308, the most important person in Edward II's emotional life. She did have her rightful place as his wife and queen, but it's not the place her modern fans think she should have had, Number One Person in Edward's heart. I pick up this kind of aggrieved tone quite often in modern writing about Isabella, as though Edward is to be condemned for not recognising Isabella's amazing specialness, even when she was twelve, and dropping all contact with Piers immediately. As though the presence of a pre-pubescent, even as one as bright and attractive as Isabella, generally causes adults to fall out of love with their partner. You could argue rather more convincingly that Philippa of Hainault, for the first two years and nine months that she was married to Edward III, had her 'rightful place' as queen taken by her mother-in-law, Isabella, but I've yet to see anyone moan about that.
- Piers was "Isabella's rival." Ah yes, the usual statement that somehow Piers and Isabella were rivals for the king's affections. Not sure I see that, actually. In fact, no, I don't see it at all. I've written about this before: Edward II's heart was not a cake that he portioned out, and Piers' large slice meant that Isabella therefore only had the crumbs which fell from Piers' table. This is not how human beings and human relationships work. Edward adored Piers, this is beyond all doubt, but in many ways Piers could not possibly rival Isabella: her royal birth, her status as Edward's wife and queen, and future mother of his royal children and his heir. There's really nothing to suggest beyond a letter faked many decades later by Thomas Walsingham that Isabella ever disliked Piers or thought of him as her 'rival' or believed that he had deprived her of her 'rightful place'. The notion that she did is merely an assumption, stated frequently in novels and lately, sadly, increasingly also in non-fiction. I find it a rather simplistic notion, one which doesn't allow for the complexity of love and human emotion. And I am truly convinced that Edward loved Isabella. Less than he loved Piers? Perhaps. In a different way, certainly. But that doesn't mean he didn't love her or care about her, as though it was a black and white case of he either loved and cared about Piers or he loved and cared about her, but it couldn't possibly be both. I suppose to some writers, Isabella hating Piers and being determined to see him dead just makes a better and more melodramatic story, however feeble the foundation of this idea is, than the notion that she might not have disliked him even a tiny little bit and might even - le gasp! - have been fond of him. It's really nothing more than imposing our own feelings (or what we think we might feel in the situation) on people of the remote past and declaring that they must have felt this way.
- Isabella's uncles the counts of Valois and Evreux "went home in a rage, insulted that Edward had given some of their wedding presents to Gaveston." Siiiigh, that old chestnut yet again. Actually the Annales Paulini say (about a quarter of a century later) that Valois and Evreux went back to France and complained to Philip IV that Edward frequented Piers' couch more than the queen's. Although it is likely that Valois and Evreux did give wedding gifts to Edward and Isabella, no record of them survives, let alone that Edward gave any of them to Piers, so I assume this is a reference to the aforementioned old chestnut which writers who haven't actually looked at the Annales Paulini repeat over and over.
- (from the book, p. 237) "Concern for her youth might well have kept Edward away from her bed for some time after their wedding, whatever the circumstances, but his attentions were so ostentatiously engaged elsewhere that he could claim little credit for such consideration." Oh, absolutely. Edward II must never be given credit for anything. My goodness, a lot of modern writers really are terribly determined to find fault with Edward II whatever he did or didn't do, aren't they? Other kings don't get the same criticism. The future Edward I seems to have consummated his 1254 marriage to Eleanor of Castile immediately, so that she miscarried a child at seven months' gestation when she was still only thirteen. Does that somehow make Edward I a better husband than his son, because he didn't delay consummation? Is making a girl pregnant at twelve or thirteen considered better now than waiting until she's fifteen or sixteen? Do people complain that Henry III was a neglectful husband because Eleanor of Provence only gave birth for the first time three and a half years after their wedding? Is there some kind of 'correct' amount of time which should have passed between marriage and consummation which would make Isabella not a victim of Edward's marital neglect or cruelty? Then again, the existence of the child born to Edward I and Eleanor of Castile in 1255 is not entirely certain, and their first child whose existence is undisputed wasn't born until at least 1261, perhaps 1264. That's at least seven years and perhaps even an entire decade after their wedding. Gosh! Let's all join hands to condemn Edward I for neglecting his young wife so horribly for so long.
- In 1312, when the queen became pregnant: "Isabella had clearly spent at least one night with her husband." An important part of the modern Victim!Isabella narrative is to make out in any way you can that she and Edward had an unsatisfactory and sporadic sex life, and that Isabella suffered as a result of this because she was, according to Alison Weir, "highly sexed." Good grief, I still boggle that anyone could write a sentence like that about a person nearly 700 years dead who never wrote or spoke a single word in public about her sexuality or her desires. Weir's biography of Isabella includes this kind of stuff too, including the astonishing rhetorical question asking if Edward II had "at last played the man" when he consummated the marriage. Jaw-dropping. We know nothing at all about Edward and Isabella's sex life, of course, except that they obviously had intercourse on four occasions which resulted in their children, or five times if Isabella had a miscarriage in or just before November 1313 (when pennyroyal was bought for her). For all we know, they thoroughly enjoyed having sex together and did it regularly. I don't see writers making these kind of judgemental remarks about other men, not even, say, John of Gaunt, who had only one child with his second wife Constanza of Castile but produced four with his mistress Katherine Swynford during the marriage. No-one seems to care how many nights John spent with Constanza or that he was merrily producing children with another woman.
- When Edward and Isabella were visiting Paris in 1313, the rhyming chronicler Geoffrey of Paris says that they overslept one morning, and smilingly relates that their, ahem, night-time activities were the likely cause. But according to Castor (p. 254), "Isabella's failure to wake her notoriously tardy husband may, in fact, have been the result of circumspection rather than the previous night's excesses," with reference to her and Edward's vow to go on crusade, which apparently she didn't really want to do. So, on this reading, Isabella deliberately didn't wake Edward up or get out of bed so as to avoid having to take a pledge to go on crusade. Even though she took it only a day or two later anyway. Huh. We know Edward and Isabella were having sex in the 1310s and early 1320s because children resulted from it. Why is it so strange to think that they might have been having sex in Paris, and contradict a primary source who saw them during the visit? (Though Geoffrey didn't actually see the couple having sex, obviously.) I wonder if this had been any other couple, whether a writer would still feel the need to jump in and say, oh no no, they can't really have been tired because they'd been awake half the night making love, we simply must find another explanation.
Castor doesn't mention that at Pontoise soon afterwards, Edward and Isabella were 'totally naked' - toute nue, says Geoffrey - in bed together when a fire broke out in their pavilion and Edward saved Isabella's life by scooping her up in his arms and rushing outside with her. No doubt being naked in bed together had nothing whatsoever to do with intimate marital relations, though. Nooooo, of course not. This is all another part of the 'Edward was rubbish at fulfilling Isabella's sexual needs' notion, which as far as I can tell is based on setting up Isabella's sex life to be hopelessly unsatisfactory as possible to make it all the more fabulous and amazing and dramatic later when she begins her passionately sexual love affair with Roger Mortimer. And never mind that there isn't a shred of evidence that she and Roger ever had a passionately sexual love affair. Maybe Isabella enjoyed sex with Edward II more than she did with Roger. Now there's a thought to conjure with. We sure as heck can't prove that she didn't.
Edward and Isabella had four children together. OK, not a terribly high number in comparison with Edward I and Eleanor of Castile or Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. Maybe Isabella had more miscarriages (she may have had one in November 1313), or maybe one or both of them wasn't particularly fertile. Edward II's grandparents Henry III and Eleanor of Provence had five children too, the first born three and a half years after their wedding, but you don't see writers making sneery comments about Henry 'at last playing the man' or speculating that they'd only spent one night together. Using the number of children to gauge the success or otherwise of a marriage strikes me as rather odd, anyway. Edward II's niece Eleanor de Clare and his chamberlain and favourite Hugh Despenser had at least ten children together, but for seven or eight years of their marriage he was her uncle's 'favourite' and may have had a sexual relationship with him.
- Talking of Hugh Despenser, it's claimed that he "doesn't seem to have been the king's lover." This has been stated before: see Jonathan Sumption claiming that "Edward's relationship with his next favourite, Hugh Despenser the Younger, was certainly not sexual, and on a personal level may not even have been particularly close." Clearly, Sumption has full 24/7 video footage of the entire eight years or so of Edward and Hugh's relationship to be able to make this statement with such confidence. The annals of Newnham Abbey wrote in 1326 of "the king and his husband" (rex et maritus eius), and Hugh was later said to have been a "sodomite, even with the king," so I wouldn't be too sure that their relationship wasn't sexual. Certainly Edward seems to have been infatuated with Hugh, their relationship lasted a long time, and Edward refused to send Hugh away from him even when the future of his kingdom depended on it. I can't say for sure that they were lovers, of course, but I think it's astonishing to claim as a certain fact that they weren't.
In 1312, "Isabella was dragged around the country as Edward tried to keep his lover safe." There's no reason to suppose that Isabella travelled to the north of England against her will in February 1312, when she left Westminster to be reunited Edward - who had gone north to meet the newly-returned Piers Gaveston - in York. In early May 1312, Edward, Isabella and Piers left Tynemouth and travelled to York, then the royal couple went on to the royal manor of Burstwick, where they were staying on the day Piers was killed, then went back to York. Edward left her there when he travelled south at the end of June 1312, to keep her out of the way of danger. I'm not seeing a lot of 'dragging' here. Even Paul Doherty, who normally goes out of his way to find fault with Edward II, points out that in 1312 "Isabella adhered to her husband." I suppose a far more accurate account such as "Isabella met her husband in York, stayed there with him and conceived their child, then travelled with him to a couple of other places, mostly the royal manor of Burstwick," doesn't make such a melodramatic story as being 'dragged around', or make her look like such a pitiable victim.
"As a young bride, she'd been little more than a decorative accessory to a diplomatic alliance." Hmmm yes, Isabella and just about every other royal and noble bride, and of course groom, who ever lived. This is the kind of thing that I get impatient about in discussions of Isabella; as though somehow she was different from every other royal of the Middle Ages (the 'Isabella Exception', as I've been known to call it). Modern writers applaud her courage and cleverness when arranging her son's marriage to Philippa of Hainault in 1326 and never seem to dream of calling the young Edward III or his fiancée a 'pawn' of Isabella's need to find an ally in order to invade England, but when her own marriage was arranged, somehow Isabella is a victim, an 'accessory'. I've never seen anyone call Eleanor of Castile a 'pawn' or a mere 'decorative accessory' either. Eleanor, who may not yet have reached her thirteenth birthday at the time of her 1254 marriage, had never previously set eyes on Lord Edward (the future Edward I), and her marriage was arranged between her brother Alfonso X and Edward's father Henry III to settle the dispute between England and Castile over Gascony, which was ruled by Henry III and to which Alfonso was laying claim. Eleanor had no choice but to marry Edward. Edward had no choice but to marry Eleanor. The young Marguerite of France had no choice but to marry a widower three times her age (Edward I) in 1299, in the same treaty that arranged the future marriage of Edward and Isabella. Philippa of Hainault was only about twelve in August 1326 when Isabella negotiated with her father about a marriage to Edward of Windsor. But you never see anyone complaining that Marguerite or Eleanor or Philippa were 'pawns' or 'decorative accessories' in political alliances beyond their control. What makes Isabella so different? I simply don't understand why people who profess to like and admire her are so determined to make her into a victim when she herself would never have thought in such a way.
- Isabella was a peace-making queen, but "almost immediately her husband undermined her efforts" by losing at Bannockburn. Yeah, obviously he totally did that on purpose, just to annoy her.
- "Edward and Isabella [were] alone for once" in York in May 1312 when Piers was left at Scarborough Castle. Actually the royal couple were together almost all of the time. For example, they spent the entire winter of 1310/11 at Berwick, while Piers Gaveston was in and around Roxburgh, Perth and Dundee. The idea that Piers was permanently with them, or that Edward was always with Piers and ignoring Isabella, is simply a myth.
- About Isabella and Roger Mortimer (p. 288): "Isabella and Mortimer had begun not only a political partnership but a passionate affair...Physical attraction there clearly was...it is clear that this was no idle dalliance but an all-consuming personal bond." Hmmmmm. There's no evidence at all for any of this, and it should be stated as the speculation and assumption that it is. The "emotional logic" of the relationship is said to have been "instantly recognisable." Perhaps, but that doesn't make it necessarily true. You could say exactly the same thing about Edward II's relationships with Piers Gaveston or Hugh Despenser if you wanted to romanticise them as much as Isabella and Roger's affair has been exaggerated and romanticised, but this isn't a novel, it's non-fiction. It made me laugh out loud, much as Eleanor Herman's breathless scene in Sex with the Queen depicting Marie Antoinette and Fersen in bed together did, and is about as accurate. The fact that Mortimer was married is barely mentioned, but as I've commented here plenty of times before, apparently some men's adultery is far more acceptable than others'. No comment is made on Isabella usurping Joan Geneville's 'rightful place' at her husband's side.
Needless to say, it's stated as fact that Edward and Hugh Despenser "separated Isabella from her children" in 1324. This is an invention of Paul Doherty in his 1977 thesis about Isabella. Read any book at all about or even partly about Edward II and Isabella written before the late 1970s; it won't mention this tall tale. If Castor or any other modern writer had researched it before they repeat it as 'fact', they'd have seen that Doherty bases the idea on an issue roll of Edward II's household dating from July 1322 to July 1323. Castor doesn't repeat the red-hot poker story as though it's certain fact, but doesn't mention any other explanation of what may have happened to Edward in 1327.
To me, this kind of narrative is only looking at how Edward II and Isabella of France's marriage ended and what happened in 1326/27, and extrapolating backwards that their relationship must always have been a tragic unhappy disaster. It's interpreting everything that happened between them, everything that Edward did or didn't do, in the most negative and critical way possible. Let's remember: in 1308 Edward and Isabella didn't have the slightest notion what would happen to them nearly twenty years in the future. As far as they knew, they would be married for decades and it was in their own interests to make their relationship work as best they could. You'd think Edward II was the only king in history not madly in love with his wife at first glance, the only king or nobleman who ever had an outside love interest. And yes, maybe in 1308 Edward wasn't exactly doing all he could to make his marriage successful. But his wife was twelve, for heaven's sake. I really can't believe that modern writers would prefer if it if Edward had made Isabella pregnant when she was twelve or thirteen. This popular view of events ignores all the quieter points of Edward and Isabella's marriage, that they spent most of their time together, that they became parents together four times, that they sent each other letters and gifts on the rare occasions that they were apart, that Isabella addressed Edward even in 1325 and 1326 as her "very sweet heart" and her "very dear and very sweet lord and friend." I'm not entirely sensing her hatred and "profound revulsion" (Weir) for him there, to be honest. And I'm pretty sick of reading the same old, same old stuff about their relationship. Even when an eyewitness says Edward and Isabella were getting on really well during their visit to France in 1313, this is dismissed, oh no, they weren't being intimate and enjoying each other's company, no no, that can't be. When Isabella talks of Edward in extremely affectionate terms, somehow people just 'know' that she didn't really mean it, she was only pretending, she hated him really. They were never happy, not once, not ever, not even when they were enjoying a seemingly rather relaxing and pleasant trip and had recently become parents together. They only ever felt contempt, hatred and disgust for each other for nearly twenty years. Yup. Isabella is only ever a tragic victim, Edward only a cruel oppressor, until Isabella finds a Real Man and takes her revenge.
I'll end this post by linking to my Rules For Writing A Novel About Edward II And Isabella, which I wrote on 31 March 2010, before Castor's She-Wolves was published on 7 October 2010 and nine months before I read the book that Christmas. Time and time again as I wrote this post, I was reminded of this one. It's rather sad to see a non-fiction book following the rules.