08 August, 2014

Isabella, the She-Wo...no, I refuse to use that damn word again

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.


Monte Watson said...

"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..."

Exactly! I think that this is one (of three) main reasons the young Edward III was compelled to stage his coup at Nottingham Castle. Poor Philippa was six months pregnant before Isabella/Mortimer allowed her coronation as Queen to take place! Mortimer was acting as king in all but name, and clearly Isabella would have preferred to be the only Queen residing in England.

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

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.

Re. the Annales! Minor details, and not undermining your main point at all, just amending a little since I've been poking at the manuscripts lately - and yes, manuscripts plural! There is another witness to this section of the ms, and I need to work out whom at the BL I ought to notify of the fact that those couple of folios of the Murimuth copy in Add. 54184 are, in fact, the Annales Paulini, but...

Partly on the strength of that extra copy - which goes up to 1308 - and partly on the strength of the change of hands in the Westminster manuscript at the same point, and partly because of internal literary qualities, it's fairly certain that that first section of it was actually written well before the next continuation, and probably fairly soon after 1308. :)

I can give you citations for the couple of people who've determined that on the internal evidence (or just refer you to the Encyclopedia of the Medieval Chronicle, which does all the citations), and the manuscript evidence certainly also seems to point that way.

That said, part of the reason it's clearly a discrete section is because it IS such a clearly defined story with a strong internal narrative which is made to serve a very particular purpose - and while it's strong on the detail and local colour, and therefore probably reasonably accurate in that regard, that isn't the same as being trustworthy when it comes to bias, of which it is very very full. :) I could narrate the happenings of a football game in great detail in such a way as to show the players of either team as being nasty violent vindictive louts if I chose.

And another minor detail, which is more of a question mark than anything - the word used for 'couch' ('triclinium') is one I've never heard in medieval Latin before, and I'm not actually quite sure how it ought to be translated in that cultural context. In classical Latin it would be 'dining couch', but of course you don't have a dining couch in a medieval banquet hall. Does it mean couch as in bed? Or should the emphasis be on dining and, since this occurs in the description of the banquet, should we assume that he's sitting at Piers' bench at the table? In either case, in the context of the passage (and the author's concerns elsewhere), I think the emphasis is probably on Piers' inappropriate proximity to the king's body - not necessarily in a sexual way, but in terms of controlling access to it (yes, yes, minds in the gutter, I know). But I can't say for certain that he isn't using innuendo to convey that concern.

Basically, my point here is only "couch? bed? table? shared trencher? thingie? where is Piers? where is Edward?"

(Also, the adjective used by the author throughout to describe the reactions of barons to Things Edward Does Badly - and also to those of Isabella's relatives - is 'indignatus'. Which is very easy to translate nowadays as the rather weak 'indignant', and indeed it could mean that, but I'm pretty sure given the way he uses it that this author wants it to be read far more literally, as '[feeling that they are] reduced in dignity [by the king's actions]'. So Edward is to be read as degrading the honour of everybody around him. Not a fan, this author. Again, trust the detail, not the angle! :)

Kathryn Warner said...

I'd also translate it as bed, with any innuendo that may or may not have been intended.

Anonymous said...

I still don't understand where the idea came from that Isabella hated or resented Gaveston. As Doherty notes, she backed Edward to the hilt in his quarrels with the nobility over Piers. Her hatred of Despenser seems to be well documented ... if she hated or resented Piers, I would think there would be a record of it.

Also, what evidence is there of a sexual relationship between Isabella and Roger Mortimer? I would think they spent a lot of time together working on the invasion, and IMO, contemporary onlookers wouldn't think Isabella was involved in a political plot, since such activities were not attributed to women. Isabella's letters to Edward (and Joan Mortimer's interest in giving Roger a decent burial is not what I would expect if there was such an affair (especially if Joan thought her husband was having an affair with Isabella while Joan herself as imprisoned).


Kathryn Warner said...

I've never thought that Isabella and Roger had a sexual relationship, and there's no evidence that they did, except for Froissart saying many decades later that she was pregnant in Oct 1330, which isn't even hinted at in any other source. Oh, and the Lanercost chronicle saying later that 'a liaison was suspected' between them. That's it, and from that, modern writers have made up this story of an 'all-consuming bond' and 'certain physical attraction' and so on. It's mad.

Monte Watson said...

You really think Isabella and Mortimer had a platonic relationship? Wow. That had never occurred to me, really. Wasn't their presence and behavior in the French court controversial enough to where they had to eventually leave (on their way through the Low Countries back to England)? What kept Mortimer in the presence of Isabella after their victory over Edward? Just his need to be near the seat of government? His presence in the Queen's chambers - he was only there to conduct 'royal' business? I don't think I am being overly cynical when I say I really don't see things being that way.

Kathryn Warner said...

I see no evidence at all for it being a passionate, sexual affair - and believe me, I've examined plenty of evidence. It's unclear why they had to leave France and there's certainly no contemporary evidence that says they were 'flaunting' an affair there which embarrassed Charles IV. It's more likely that they saw greater opportunities to find allies and mercenaries in Hainault. What kept Roger near Isabella? The same thing that kept Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser near Edward, I suppose. Power. Influence. Patronage. Receiving lands. If Roger and Isabella's relationship must have been sexual and romantic on the grounds that he stayed with her after Edward's downfall, then by the same logic Edward must have sexual and romantic relationships with Piers and Hugh, but that's not what people usually say nowadays.

Not sure what you mean about Roger's 'presence in the queen's chambers'? If you mean at Nottingham Castle at the time of his arrest in 1330, he and Isabella were meeting their other allies there, including the bishop of Lincoln and various knights. Roger's son Geoffrey was also there. Nothing whatsoever to do with sexual intimacy. And there's no other evidence about his 'presence in the queen's chambers'.

Peter Binkley said...

The question of how to translate "triclinium" is interesting. Du Cange quotes John of Genoa: "Tricorium, domus trina sessione convivantium ordinata. Solebant enim antiqui in clinis comedere, et tres lectos, vel tres ordines lectorum disponere : in unoquoque comedebant dominus et domina : in secundo familia : in tertio hospites, et talis domus dicebatur Triclinium." So the triclinium is the building (domus) arranged with three orders of couches for dining. http://ducange.enc.sorbonne.fr/TRICHORUS This would fit with 1 Sam. 9:22: "adsumens itaque Samuhel Saulem et puerum eius introduxit eos in triclinium et dedit eis locum in capite eorum qui fuerant invitati erant enim quasi triginta viri". Samuel brought Saul and his son into the triclinium and gave them a place at the head of the guests. Those examples both suggest that "banquet-hall" would be a better translation than "couch"; but it would be good to come up with more medieval examples.

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

Hm, good points! Thanks, Peter! The other thing is that even if it does mean 'bed' the connotations aren't quite the same as they would be nowadays, because the dining overtones suggest it's the more public 'bed of state' idea, which of course is in itself not a private sexualised retreat but a place where political business is often conducted, so in that case again it would be about Piers controlling who gets to see and speak with the king... but it's hard to know just what emphases the author wants to put in there without knowing other more contemporary uses of that word. Again, it doesn't affect Kathryn's point at all, so it's pretty well irrelevant to this discussion, but still. :)

Kathryn Warner said...

Yes, I'd prefer this discussion to be taken elsewhere and comments kept on topic, please.

Sami Parkkonen said...

Brilliant! People shoul check their heads when they invent history, or simply stick with fiction.

As for the children, I wonder if the ladies knew something which could prevent pregnancy?

The lower class people had many times as many children as the women could survive, but seems to me that the more better off ladies had three to five most commonly, perhaps six, seven. Maybe they had financial means to pay for "medicines" or had better midwives who knew thing or two about not having babies.

Bear in mind, that in the Great Witch hunt of the 1600's one of the accusations against the women killed as witches was that they could prevent people from having children, meaning they knew how not become pregnant.

It is also know that among some native people, such as in Amazonas, it is the women who posses the knowledge of the methods and drugs which prevent pregnancy.

Just a thought.

Sonetka said...

Sami, I'm curious about the statistics on that. Did commoners really have that many more children? Or is it possible that a difference would be accounted for by children who didn't survive (since nobility and peasantry were both susceptible to disease, but noble children were less likely to do things like starve to death) or separation of spouses? A nobleman who was constantly traveling around to check up on his properties/attend at court might not have the same opportunities for engendering children as John atte Mille who never traveled further than the nearest market.

The "pawn" metaphor has really run its course, hasn't it? Anne Boleyn is another one who's always supposedly realizing that Women Are But Pawns In Affairs Of State (often the elder Mary Tudor is the one who tells her that) -- as if their husbands had total freedom to marry where they liked, though it is true that a man could keep a mistress a lot more conveniently than a woman could have a kept man, so that outlet wasn't available to them.

As for "she-wolf of France", I think it's hung on for so long just because it's a fantastic little turn of phrase. People may argue about its accuracy, but nobody could say it isn't vivid.

Sami Parkkonen said...


I have no statistics nor I do they exist that conclusevly but in general I belive the situation among the poor folks, or lesser folks, was pretty much as it is now in third world countries.

Having a large family was the only assurance system available for the people and that meant lots of children. Naturally many of them diead at very young age, but so did the women.

The same kind of phenomena was visible still in the 1800's even among some fo the better off families: men marrying two, three times was not un-heard of since many women dies relatively young age. The deaths among the women during and right after the child birth were alarming. Which lead eventually into the development of the general hygiene in hospitals etc.

But from what I have read and heard, I think the poorer would have had more children, if for nothing else then because so many of the childred died very early and you had to have more of them.

Anerje said...

I re-watched 'She-wolves' last week and was puzzled by Castor's portrayal of Isabella as a victim and then a she-wolf. Castor seemed to want it both ways. Isabella, I think, suits Castor's title of she-wolf because she deposed her husband and then seemingly had a hand in his murder (if he was). She was seen as unnatural in her behaviour as a queen. I feel much more sympathy for Margaret of Anjou.

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

Not at the time, Anerje: only retrospectively, during her and Mortimer's tyranny, and that really had nothing to do with her behaviour to her husband, whatever it was. Later than that, people extended the interpretation to try to save Edward II's reputation by laying the blame elsewhere, including onto her. Contemporary chronicles don't say much about her at all, let alone making her a villain - and the term 'she-wolf', as Kathryn says, comes along much later, mostly by confusion with Margaret of Anjou.

Whether or not she actually had a hand in EII's murder is not my business (I deal in the stories people told about events, not the events themselves), but I can say that it's definitely far from certain that she did. Kathryn's opinion's worth more than mine in that regard.

In either case, the term 'she-wolf' is inaccurate (really? Not behaviour characteristic of wolves) and dangerously gendered, similar to 'bitch': given it wasn't a contemporary epithet, it's all us projecting backwards onto the Middle Ages, and we run the risk of projecting our own nasty gendered slurs and archetypes backwards onto other times and excusing them as 'well, everybody thought like that then so it's okay to say/think/believe that'.

Isabella had more power than most women, but did no worse than many, and a good deal better than most men. She has definitely not earned our villainisation.

Brad Verity said...
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Brad Verity said...

It's interesting to try and put oneself in Isabella's shoes at the time of her wedding. She was betrothed to Edward before she was age three, so her entire childhood would have been spent preparing her to be the queen of England. In May 1303, when she was age seven, she participated in a formal betrothal ceremony at her father's court in Paris, telling Edward's proxies the Count of Savoy and the Earl of Lincoln (longtime and trusted ambassadors of Edward I) that she was accepting Edward's hand. So from the time she could talk, she would have known this was her fate. She also would have known that this marriage was bringing peace between the kingdoms of France and England. She likely would have been tutored in not only English custom, but also that of Gascony, since it was the bone of contention that caused the war between the kingdoms in the first place.

The count of Savoy and earl of Lincoln would have given the 7-year-old Isabella glowing descriptions of Edward, then 18. And over the next five years, the young princess would no doubt continue to receive positive reports of him from the English envoys to the French court. Her father Philip IV would want his own reports of his future son-in-law. It would seem his brother Louis, count of Evreux, served as the French royal family's liaison to the English royals - there is a letter from Edward to Louis of Evreux that survives which shows they were on familiar terms. It would be interesting to confirm from English household accounts whether Louis of Evreux visited the English court in person while his sister Marguerite was queen.

Marguerite herself travelled to the French court ahead of Edward and Isabella's wedding. If Philip iV had chalked up what he'd heard about Edward and Gaveston as idle court gossip, Marguerite was an eyewitness to that relationship, who could easily fill her brother in on the details. Philip IV and Isabella did not meet Edward in person until the wedding at Boulogne. Edward very wisely kept Gaveston behind in England and far away from this first impression. He was a new, young king, facing a formidable and seasoned French monarch for the first time. It's interesting to wonder what kind of impression Edward made on the French royals, especially his new young bride. We know he specifically dined Isabella's uncles the counts of Valois and Evreux a few nights after the ceremony. Did he try and explain the Gaveston situation to them then? Convince them he was right, and his nobles (such as the earl of Lincoln, very familiar to the French court) were wrong in opposing the Gascon?

Philip IV had seen firsthand the havoc a royal favourite could wreak (his father Philip III had had one), whether the favourite's relationship was of a sexual nature or not. How much was Isabella prepared beforehand? I can't imagine, even though she was only age 12, that she was sent into the lion's den without an understanding of what a favourite was. Gaveston was a completely polarizing personality, and Boulogne would be where Philip IV and the French royals took account of the English - which were pro-Gaveston, and which were against.

Brad Verity said...

If Isabella was somehow sheltered from all this politicking occurring at her wedding, she got to see Gaveston firsthand (finally) when she arrived in England. Any way you look at it, the coronation was a disaster. Edward and Gaveston basically gave the finger to the opposition party, and the French royals. Isabella would very much take her cues on what to think about Gaveston from her royal uncles, not from her new husband whom she barely knew, and record survives on what her royal uncles thought of the favourite.

It's great to learn that the story of Edward giving Isabella's wedding presents to Gaveston is a later invention, but there is enough contemporary evidence of Gaveston's arrogance at the coronation, and at the court before and after it, to conclude that Isabella would not have viewed the favourite in a positive light. Luckily, Gaveston was exiled mere weeks after the coronation, so Isabella did not have to deal with his presence for very long (We know Edward made all of his barons while at court meet with both him and Gaveston at this time - did he make Isabella do the same?). And even though she was only twelve, Isabella would have had to register that Edward lost the first major political battle of his reign when Gaveston was exiled. Any girlish notions of a strong young king in the mould of her father would have been dashed at that point, if they hadn't been already.

Sami Parkkonen said...

One thing which I think Kathryn has tried to bring up and which we all should keep in mind:


What ever she did, was or how she behaved etc. stems from that fact. She was not some random child thrown in the middle of the english court nor she was some non enitity before she got "empowered". She was a royal, of royal blood and she was The Queen, no matter who said what to whom.

I am certain she knew this all the time. I am certain she never doubted her position as The Queen or her status compared to anyone, to Piers or to Roger Mortimer. The only men in her life who had higher status than her were Edward II her husband and Edward III her son, and the kings of France. Everybody else was beneath her, period.

When we speculate about her and her life, this is the one thing we should always keep in mind: she was groomed from the minute she was born to be a queen or high ranking wife of in one of the royal families of Europe. She knew this and knew who she was.

Kathryn Warner said...

"there is enough contemporary evidence of Gaveston's arrogance at the coronation, and at the court before and after it, to conclude that Isabella would not have viewed the favourite in a positive light."

Possibly, but Piers wasn't just a 'favourite', he was a human being with a personality which Isabella could respond to. Isabella was a human being with a personality which Piers could respond to. Maybe she loathed him and maybe she was fond of him. When we're talking about human beings and their relationships, it makes little sense to me to pretend that we have any idea how people felt unless we have very good evidence (such as Edward loving Piers, for example).

Piers was ordered to leave England on 25 June, exactly four months after the coronation. Evreux visited England after Piers' murder in 1312 to negotiate between Edward and the barons and was at Windsor with the royal couple for a few weeks in autumn.

Anerje said...

Hannah - I was commenting on Castor's use of the term 'she-wolf', not on chroniclers of the time. The whole series focuses on female monarchs - the title most likely was chosen to catch the eye of the viewer ie, not to be taken literally. I am fully aware of when the phrase came into use, thank you.

Anerje said...

Thanks Kathryn for reminding us that Piers was a human being, not just a 'favourite'. It begs the question - what did he think of Isabella? was she a threat to him? because of her youth, was she of no consequence? yet? Undoubtedly she would be expected to advance her father's views whenever possible. Perhaps Piers' arrogance at the Coronation was a signal to Philip - and Isabella - that Piers would not stay in the background? Organised by Piers, Edward or both? His role in the coronation was clearly to show all those present - English nobles, French nobles - that Piers would be a central player in the reign.

Kathryn Warner said...

"...dangerously gendered, similar to 'bitch': given it wasn't a contemporary epithet, it's all us projecting backwards onto the Middle Ages, and we run the risk of projecting our own nasty gendered slurs and archetypes backwards onto other times and excusing them as 'well, everybody thought like that then so it's okay to say/think/believe that'."

I see an awful lot of this in the way Edward II is often written nowadays - yay heteronormativity! Amazing, really, the way people seem to think it's totally fine to make astonishingly bigoted remarks about Edward II and/or Piers Gaveston.

And on the point about Isabella's jewels/gifts being given to Piers - it's not just a 'later' invention, it's an invention of a whopping 600 years later! Like so much of what is written about Edward and Isabella, such as Edward 'removing' Isabella's children from her in 1324, which was made up by Paul Doherty in the late 1970s.

Brad Verity said...

Apologies for the double posting of the first half of my earlier post. Is there a way to remove the duplicate one?

I agree we can't ever be certain how the individuals in this period (or any period in history actually) felt about each other without good evidence, and few firsthand letters from these early 14th century figures survive.

But we do know the sequence of events, and sometimes that can provide an indication. We know that Isabella had five months between her wedding and Gaveston's exile (thank you for the exact date!) to form an impression of both her husband and Piers. Even if the two men were as charming and respectful to the 12-year-old queen as possible, she could not have remained unaware that there was a strong opposition to Piers.

This opposition contained figures of authority - her royal uncles, her aunt Queen Marguerite (I believe Maddicott in his bio of Thomas of Lancaster mentions it was believed at this period between the wedding and Gaveston's exile that Marguerite was giving financial aid to the opposition, plus Edward confiscated her dower castles when the possibility of civil war loomed), the earl of Lincoln - to Isabella, older in years than she, Edward and Piers.

If the twelve-year-old formed a positive personal opinion of Piers in these five months, it would be opposite of the opinion those older and wiser than her had of him. That in itself could cause her some conflict. Even if Edward poured out his heart to his new bride and was able to make her understand why he was so supportive of Piers in this time of strong opposition to the favourite, she would then suffer along with her husband as he lost this battle and the opposition succeeded in getting Piers exiled.

I agree that writers who set Piers and Isabella up as rivals for Edward's affections at this period are stretching beyond the surviving evidence. But I feel that the sequence of events does show that whatever way Isabella viewed Piers, he could not have brought her much happiness in these first five months of her marriage.

Kathryn Warner said...

It's interesting to me how very much people seem to care whether Isabella was happy or not. No other queen, or king, attracts anything like the same amount of concern. I've never seen anyone fretting, for example, what it must have been like for Joan of the Tower to move to Scotland and marry when she was only seven, what it must have been like for her to see her father deposed and to not be allowed to see him again, and whether she was 'happy'. (I really doubt it, all things considered.) I doubt Philippa of Hainault was content for the first nearly three years of her tenure as queen, being shoved out of the way by Isabella, who can't have brought her much happiness.

Chris Klein said...

Hi Kathryn -

Once again, a completely engrossing and well-reasoned post that I believe gives life to Isabella more than the (non)-fiction you quoted, and once more show that real life was probably far more complex and interesting than the suppositions or various authors. We have to view her life in the context of her time, not as projections upon her from our time. She was born a princess, raised to be a queen, and educated in the highest echelon of her time. I don't profess to possess the video tape of her life, but I am sure she was a complex, intelligent lady who embraced her place in history as she was raised to know only that - to be a queen.

I also find it equally entertaining to read your readers' posts as I develop questions as I read you writing, only to find you have a very learned following who has more than answered my questions.

Perhaps there is an Isabella book in you future - after all, you've posted some pretty intelligent rules to writing about her. I would be especially fascinated to know more of her life during Ed III's reign. I also subscribe to the notion that her relationship with Roger was more of a political decision rather than the twu wuv given all you have presented, again, complex individuals living in a complex time.

As a total Ed II newbie, I think I enjoy the comments as much as the posts. Keep it up, all!


Anonymous said...

Somewhere ages ago I read that Edward II had not been stated to be homosexual during his lifetime. Unfortunately as my reading was (a) long ago and (b) the reading equivalent of "pottering about" I cannot recall the reference. In those days if a book or article was written by somebody with seemingly worthwhile historical qualifications I tended to take it as gospel. When I was at school my teachers did give the pupils to understand that Shakespeare's "history" plays were not histories in the modern sense.

Unfortunately Jo or Jane Public(at least if he/she is like me; I know it is dangerous to make blanket statements) is not equipped to study the primary sources. I just about scraped an O level pass in Latin and an A level pass in French (though I did improve my French later). Alas, I have quite forgotten what I learned of medieval French by studying [parts of] "Yvain" and "Aucassin et Nicolette" so I am not knowledgeable enough to study the primary sources unless I can find a translation into English. For someone like me it can be hard to know what is fact and what is the medieval equivalent of an urban myth. Regarding a different historical period, I was disappointed to read on Wikipedia that the story of King Alfred the Great being admonished by a housewife for letting her cakes burn (when he was incognito) had not been recorded until a goodly time after the said Kinh's death. So I guess the story was probably apocryphal.

Patricia O