21 September, 2014

Was There A Far-Reaching Plot To Deprive Edward II Of His Throne In The 1320s?

There is a great conspiracy theory sometimes advanced in modern times about Edward II's downfall, that it was planned as much as four years in advance by a large group of people across several countries, comprising Queen Isabella, several English bishops and magnates, Roger Mortimer and other English enemies of Edward and the Despensers in exile on the continent, Isabella's brother King Charles IV of France, Count William III of Hainault, and even Pope John XXII.

An important first step in this plot against the king, so the tale goes, was the escape of Roger Mortimer from the Tower of London on 1 August 1323, which was, supposedly, aided by Queen Isabella and (according to the Meaux chronicle of the 1390s) her uncle Charles de Valois in France.  In this reading of events, this was far more than an intelligent and resourceful man engineering his own escape with the help of a small group of sympathisers, but was devised and organised by royalty in two countries with the ultimate aim of using Roger to bring down the king of England.  A second vital step in the plot was persuading Edward II to send Isabella to France in March 1325: the idea goes that the queen was desperate to leave England and her husband's influence so that she could work against him in cahoots with her brother the king of France and Edward's enemies there and in the Low Countries, and to this end, manipulated him so that he let her go, under the illusion that it was his own idea.  Next, Edward also had to be persuaded to send his son the future Edward III to France six months later to pay homage to Charles IV for the lands held there by the English crown, so that Isabella, Roger Mortimer and their other allies could gain control of the boy and use him as a weapon to bring down his father with the knowledge and connivance of Charles IV, much of the French nobility, William III of Hainault and goodness knows who else.  It is assumed that Edward II (as well as everybody not involved in it) was totally oblivious to this conspiracy against him across much of Northern Europe, and that Queen Isabella was betraying her husband and secretly working against him as early as 1322/23 but that he was too blind or stupid to notice.  It also requires a belief that at every point - sending Isabella to France, sending his son there later, refusing to concede to Isabella's demand in late 1325 that he send Hugh Despenser the Younger away from him because if he did, she'd have no excuse to remain in France and work against him - Edward fell into the cunning traps set for him by his wife and her secret allies and unknowingly did exactly what they wanted him to do.  This notion of a vast plot against him makes Edward II a puppet, dancing to the tune of his wife and the others; it makes his enemies look terribly clever and cunning, as absolutely everything fell the way they had wanted and planned for years.  Gosh, how fortunate.

There is no evidence for any of this, and although it's a marvellous story, highly imaginative, to my mind that's all it is.  It's looking at what happened to Edward II in 1327 with centuries of hindsight and assuming that his deposition must have been carefully planned by many people conspiring together for a long time, despite the lack of proof for this assertion.  It's assuming that Isabella hated her husband and had been in love with Roger Mortimer, or at the very least sympathetic to him, for many years, despite the lack of proof.  This whole Grand Conspiracy Against Edward II notion reminds me of the popular recent idea that Henry VII's mother Margaret Beaufort schemed for many years to make her son king, which in my opinion is also based on nothing more than hindsight and looking at events backwards.  It takes the fact that Henry became king in 1485 - which seems, and must have seemed at the time, so unlikely when so many people had been ahead of him in the succession and he was merely an impoverished exile abroad - and assuming that this had always been intended, that because an improbable event happened, it must have been planned for a long time, rather than being something which developed organically and hadn't necessarily been plotted and schemed for.  The postulated grand conspiracy against Edward II requires us to believe that numerous people plotted together in at least three different countries for years, were treasonably scheming against the king of England but managed to keep it all entirely secret from him and everyone else, and that no evidence of any of it has survived except the fact that Edward actually was deposed and did have enemies.  Hmmmm.  I don't think most people are that Machiavellian.  Grand conspiracy theories are usually invented long after the events in question, with bucket-loads of hindsight.  It's so attractive to think that Isabella, Roger Mortimer and their allies in 1325/27 weren't just bumbling along and reacting to events, taking spontaneous advantage of situations which arose, making decisions which seemed correct to them at the time, sometimes changing their minds, and so on, but were being terribly clever, showing amazing foresight, amazing skill at manipulating people, and cunningly moving chess pieces across a board which Edward II didn't even know existed.  It's a human trait to want to impose order on chaos, to discern patterns where really there are none, and I think that's the case here.  Edward II's deposition was the first in English history and an incredibly important event, and I do understand the temptation to see it and the events leading up to it as something planned and inevitable, not random and even haphazard, decided late in the game and something which could have happened in many other ways.  I understand it, but I don't think it's true.

Isabella and her alleged allies gaining control of her and Edward II's twelve/thirteen-year-old son Edward of Windsor (the future Edward III) in 1325 was absolutely essential to this presumed long-standing plot against Edward II.  Without the future king of England in their grasp, they could never hope to bring down his father.  I've written before at length about Edward II's decision to send his son to France in September 1325, and how he had backed himself into a corner where every option available to him was fraught with terrible risk and how he took the option which clearly seemed the least worst to him at the time, after much soul-searching and changing his mind.  Edward II came very close to sailing to France himself in September 1325; he granted safe-conducts to the retinue going with him, selected the ship in which he would travel (La Jonete of Winchelsea), had arrangements made for his arrival in Le Crotoy, appointed his son regent of England in his absence, informed Pope John XXII and the English magnates and bishops of his impending departure, and so on.  As late as 4 September 1325, eight days before Edward of Windsor sailed from Dover and two days after the king had made his son count of Ponthieu, Edward II was still issuing letters of safe-conduct for his own retinue accompanying him to France, and evidently was still anguishing over the correct and least dangerous course of action.  Without Edward of Windsor under the control of the queen and her supposed allies, the whole plan would have collapsed.  All of it, all this clever and highly secret conspiring and plotting against Edward II for years, hinged on them being able to separate the king and his heir and take the latter hostage while he was in France.  There is no possible way, however, that either Isabella or the king's enemies on the continent could have known whether Edward II or Edward of Windsor would travel to France when the king didn't even know this himself until almost the last moment.  Edward II's travelling to France rather than sending his son would have thwarted their plans, and of course the king's deposition and the accession of Edward III would have played out very differently in that scenario, though I suppose in that case we'd hear nowadays that Edward II's going to France himself was exactly what the conspirators had always wanted and that he was cleverly manipulated into this decision, because they had always planned to seize control of his son in England while Edward was abroad and/or take Edward II himself prisoner at the French court or while travelling to or from it.  Whatever happened in 1325/26 would surely be made to fit into some conspiracy theory.

Sometime in the late autumn or early winter of 1325, Isabella, at the French court, declared "I feel that marriage is a joining together of man and woman, maintaining the undivided habit of life, and that someone has come between my husband and myself trying to break this bond; I protest that I will not return until this intruder is removed, but discarding my marriage garment, shall assume the robes of widowhood and mourning until I am avenged of this Pharisee."  (Vita Edwardi Secundi).  This has generally been interpreted as Isabella defying and rebelling against her husband, hoping that he actually won't send Hugh away from him so that she has a continued excuse for rebellion.  But we could also take Isabella's words at face value and assume she meant what she said: that she was genuinely mourning the breakdown of her marriage, that she wanted her husband back and Hugh Despenser out of their lives, and that she would return to Edward if this happened.  Edward refused to send Hugh away from him and demonstrated, by defending Hugh before parliament and by sending long letters to the king of France and others, that Hugh, rather than Isabella, was his first priority.  This left the queen with no choice but to stay in France feeling like a widow and to act on her threat, as she duly did.  I'm not quite sure really why Isabella's speech is usually taken to mean the opposite of what it actually says (Isabella: "I won't go back to my husband until he gets rid of the third person in our marriage"; modern writers: "Obviously this means that Isabella hated Edward and was rebelling against him, and hoping that he wouldn't send Hugh away").  It's probably because of the popular but unsupported assumptions that really she loathed her husband (and perhaps always had) and had secretly been in love with Roger Mortimer for years and conspired with him against Edward, ensuring that Roger escaped from the Tower and was safely received at her brother's court, and that she wanted nothing more than the downfall of her husband so that she and Roger could triumphantly rule England in her son's name instead.  And that ever since at least 1322 or 1323 and perhaps even earlier, she had connived and schemed for this, and with the help of others tricked Edward into sending both her and their son to France beyond his reach.

My own feeling is that when Isabella left England for France in March 1325 she may well have intended to impose a condition on her husband for her return, as she stated a few months later: that he must send Hugh Despenser, who she felt had insulted her and her position and was a physical threat to her, away from him.  I simply cannot imagine, however, that Isabella knew or suspected as early as March 1325 that she would ultimately return from her journey at the head of an invasion force with her husband's deposition in mind.  Her own speech in late 1325 indicates her distress at the breakdown of her marriage and that she wished things to go back to the way they had been before Hugh Despenser's intrusion.  It may even be that in the summer and autumn of 1325 she was hoping that her husband rather than her son would come to France to pay homage to her brother for Gascony and Ponthieu, so that she could meet him without the constant irritation of Hugh Despenser's presence, and talk him round to her point of view and thus try to save her marriage.  We don't know that she'd been conspiring against Edward for years, which is pure speculation based on hindsight.  Perhaps Isabella, and even some of her allies - and here I mean the people who joined her in France in 1325/26 and in England after the invasion, not the Super Sekrit allies who managed to conduct a vast conspiracy of treason without leaving a trace of evidence in the records - did not wish for or intend Edward II to lose his throne until very late in the game.  No-one, not even the invaders themselves, could have predicted that Edward's downfall would be so swift and overwhelming, and that hardly anyone would be willing to fight for him against a party comprising his elder son and heir and his wife.  What happened in 1326/27 seems inevitable to us, as though it couldn't possibly have happened in any other way, but of course no-one living through it could have known for sure what was going to happen.  They didn't know that the king's support would collapse almost entirely and that parliament would demand that he give up his throne to his elder son.  No king had ever been deposed before in England and there is no way that his enemies could have been sure beforehand that it would work, or how exactly it would work.

There is nothing whatsoever to confirm that Isabella, before her speech to the French court announcing that she would not return to England unless Edward removed Hugh Despenser from his side, had ever been in touch with Roger Mortimer, other English exiles on the continent, or disaffected bishops and magnates in England.  There is nothing whatsoever to confirm that Isabella and Roger Mortimer had had any kind of relationship - beyond the usual one of a magnate and his queen - before their alliance began at the French court in late 1325 or early 1326.  There is nothing to confirm that Isabella hated her husband or wished him physical harm, though for sure she must have been exasperated beyond endurance by his ineptitude and deeply concerned for her son's inheritance (though she did plenty herself to harm it during the regency of 1327/30, but that's another story), as well as deeply hurt at her husband's favouring Hugh Despenser over her and allowing him to treat her with disrespect.  It can't be proved conclusively, of course, that Isabella had nothing to do with Roger Mortimer's escape in 1323, but there's no real reason to think that she did except hindsight knowledge that they later had a relationship.  The first people to suggest that Isabella was involved in the escape, or even had prior knowledge of it, were the dramatists Christopher Marlowe and Michael Drayton in the 1590s.

It has been stated that Charles IV would not have received Roger Mortimer at his court after his escape from the Tower without Isabella's asking him to, which supposedly demonstrates that she knew about the escape beforehand and approved of it or even actively took part.  However, noblemen and experienced soldiers and administrators like Roger were welcome anywhere, and besides, Roger was not the only English exile at the French court - other 'Contrariants' such as John Maltravers and William Trussell also fled there after the battle of Boroughbridge in March 1322.  So if Isabella asked her brother to welcome Roger, presumably she also asked him to receive her husband's other enemies as well.  This doesn't seem terribly likely.

The idea that two English bishops - Adam Orleton of Hereford and Henry Burghersh of Lincoln, who were both persecuted by Edward II in the 1320s and who entirely understandably formed an important part of the opposition to him in 1326/27 - worked on Queen Isabella and persuaded her in and before 1325 to bring down her husband was invented by the chronicler Geoffrey le Baker around 1350.  It was also he who invented the false notion that Edward of Caernarfon was tortured and tormented at Berkeley Castle, and helped promulgate the false notion of the red-hot poker murder.  Geoffrey, though a vivid and fluent writer, is really not a reliable source for Edward II's reign, and was writing hagiography, not history.  The rest of the conspiracy theory is a modern invention.

Charles IV of France was at war with Edward II in 1324/25 and again at the end of Edward's reign in 1326, but there is no reason to suppose that he was particularly interested in depriving Edward of his throne; Charles was a king too, and for one king to conspire at the fall of another set a dangerous precedent.  No doubt Charles was willing to benefit in any way he could from events in England, in his own and his kingdom's self-interest, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he desired to play an active role in his brother-in-law's downfall.  Exactly how his and Isabella's uncle Charles, count of Valois (father of the first Valois king of France, Philip VI) was meant to have aided Roger Mortimer in his escape from the Tower in August 1323 as claimed by the Meaux chronicle, or why Valois would have wanted to when he was seeking marriage alliances between his children and Edward II's, is unclear, and this is probably a misunderstanding in light of the alliance between Roger and Valois's son-in-law the count of Hainault.  As for Edward being manipulated into sending Isabella to France, it had been suggested as early as April 1324 that she might intercede with her brother on Edward's behalf.  Charles IV's counsellors also suggested at the beginning of 1325 that Isabella and her elder son Edward of Windsor should travel to France, the queen to negotiate for peace and the boy to pay homage for Gascony and Ponthieu on his father's behalf.  Although happy enough for Isabella to travel to her homeland, Edward II's own counsellors "with one voice" refused to allow young Edward to go, understandably unwilling to send the twelve-year-old heir to the throne to an enemy country until peace had been established.  The suggestion to send the young Edward of Windsor to France has sometimes been seen as evidence that Charles IV was planning a trap for Edward at the instigation of Isabella and Roger Mortimer, who were hoping to get her son out of the country to use him as a hostage.  Again, this is an imaginative reading unsupported by any evidence.  Pope John XXII, who called Isabella an "angel of peace," wrote to her several times between April 1324 and January 1325 begging her to use her influence with her husband and her brother to bring about their reconciliation and declared that the hope of peace would be "greatly promoted" if she went to France, is in fact by far the most likely person to have suggested her journey.  Edward II wrote in May 1325 that he had sent Isabella to France at the pope's urging, and as this was six months before she refused to return to him, he was almost certainly telling the truth.  There is simply no reason to think that John XXII was favouring Isabella over Edward (as one modern writer has claimed) or that he promoted or desired her rebellion, and in letters to Isabella in 1326/27 he urged her to reconcile with her husband and also wrote to Charles IV asking him to use his influence to bring the couple back together.  Isabella had visited her father Philip IV a few months before his death in 1314 to present petitions to him on Edward II's behalf, so her travelling to France alone and mediating between her husband and her natal family was not without precedent.  By the early or mid-1320s, she had gained a reputation as a peacemaker in the endless quarrels between Edward and his magnates, and was an obvious person to send to negotiate a peace settlement between her native country and her adopted one.

It will be clear that I don't believe the theory that there was some over-arching plot against Edward II stretching across northern Europe for a few years before his enforced abdication.  I don't believe, despite the difficulties in their marriage in and after 1322, that Isabella was her husband's enemy until he forced her to be by choosing his 'favourite' Hugh Despenser over her in late 1325.  I don't believe that Roger Mortimer could have known as early as 1323 that one day he would play a vital role in the downfall of the king.  I don't believe that he just happened to fall genuinely in love with Isabella, any more than I believe that Hugh Despenser just happened to fall genuinely in love with Edward II.  I believe that Roger was a very intelligent and capable man who made the best of the opportunities which fell his way, but not that he conspired with the queen of England, the king of France and others to create those opportunities.  I think Edward II's turbulent reign is fascinating and dramatic enough without inventing stories that half of Europe was trying to bring him down.


Sami Parkkonen said...

Great stuff! What has always intrigued me is this: what do we know of Isabellas relatives around these time, meaning do we know did they have a hand in all of what followed and how much they influenced on Isabella?

I could imagine that the royal house of France must have had a heavy hand in the events which followed 1325 and that they supported it.

Also, when looking at what Edward III did once he took the throne into his own hands, it seems that he either knew or suspected or at least believed that his mother was not the instigator of the invasion or his own "staying" in France in 1325.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I also wonder if any of the conspiracy theorists have managed to reconcile the fact that the conspiracy would have involved great intelligence and self control, but once they got power, they didn't have enough self control -- or enough intelligence -- to restrain their greed so they could keep popular support.


Anerje said...

Lots of interesting points raised here. Fiction writers nearly always include a scene in which Isabella helps Mortimer escape from the Tower - even though she was nowhere near the Tower. And as you say, it's ridiculous that Edward would not have known of a plot to dethrone him that so many others across Europe knew about. The so-called plot would have relied so much on every complicated move being achieved with no problems. It's too fantastical for words. It's all to do with hindsight and what we think we know. And after all that trouble, Edward may have been murdered shortly afterwards - well, why not poison him or arrange an 'accident' in the first place? Just find a scapegoat to take the blame. Edward had enough enemies at home, never mind fleeing abroad.

Anonymous said...

Thank you again for another fascinating interpretation of the facts. If I understand correctly, the road to Edward II’s deposition really started with Prince Edward's arrival in France (but it was road more than a conspiracy at first). Would that be a fair summary?

Actually, I wondered if Isabella had judged that her husband lacked the skill to keep his throne, and that the best way to make sure her son was the next king was to force the succession ASAP. Do you think dynastic survival might have been a part of Isabella’s motivation? It might explain how she could depose her husband and still want to be buried with his heart.

Also, do you know by when formal contacts between Isabella and Roger Mortimer are known to have started; was it around December 1325 (I seem to remember that date from previous blogs and reading other books)? If the answers to my questions on motivation and timing are both yes, then it might make perfect sense to see Isabella linking up with Roger M at exactly that time, as the (male) ally/hired muscle she needed to plant her son on the throne and control the country during the subsequent minority. It is almost the obvious thing for her to do after getting control of her son, so could the Isabelle-Mortimer physical attraction angle be worth downplaying a bit? It may be a bit fanciful, but I wonder if this explanation makes any sense at all, could Roger Mortimer be not so much England’s greatest traitor as the Plantangents’ greatest pawn? Just a bit of speculatory fun!

Best wishes


Anonymous said...

I agree with Anerje's point that ideas can be formed from hindsight. Also, we do seem to live in a time when "conspiracy theories" are popular. I participated (before I learned better) on an internet forum where I stated that I thought the late Princess Diana's fatal accident was just that, a very sad accident. Somebody (easy with aliases and anonymity) posted a very rancid reply that I should prepare to be very alone and people would not like me if I didn't believe the princess was murdered.......That's a little off-topic but I cite it to illustrate that some people prefer the obscure explanation to an event to the more obvious.

In a popular fantasy series "Game of Thrones", which is in part inspired by real historical events, one of the characters, nicknamed Littlefinger is playing a "long con". As the series is so popular (and I must own up to watching it myself) some watchers may be seeing "long cons" all over the place. I used to have a friend who, if she read something or saw something on TV about an illness, would fancy herself to be suffering from such ailment.

Patricia O

Gabriele C. said...

Those conspiracy theories don't involve Templars? Seriously guys, put them in or it won't be a good conspiracy theory. :-)