21 June, 2015

Isabella of France was not asked to take an oath to the Despensers

One very curious claim in Paul Doherty's Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II (2003), p. 79, is that in the 1320s Isabella of France was asked to take an oath of loyalty to Edward II's chamberlain and 'favourite' Hugh Despenser the Younger and his father Hugh the Elder, earl of Winchester.  Doherty claims:

"De Spencer [sic], meanwhile, was strengthening his control over the King.  Nobles like Henry Beaumont were being forced to take great oaths on the Gospels, 'to live and die with the de Spencers'.  [Queen] Isabella was offered such an oath but refused to take it."

For the astonishing statement that the queen of England was asked to take an oath to two noblemen, her social inferiors - which really made me think 'Heh??' when I first saw it - Doherty cites the Livere de Reis de Britannie e Le Livere de Reis de Engletere, ed. John Glover, p. 354.  This is a continuation of the annals of Sempringham Priory; p. 354 is the original French text, with an English translation on p. 355, and what it actually says is (I've read it in French and the translation is correct):

"The same year [1326], in the month of February, Sir Henry de Beaumont was arrested by the king, and sent under guard to Kenilworth Castle, because he would not swear to the king and Sir Hugh de Spencer to be of their part to live and die.  Wherefore the king caused possession to be taken of all his lands and possessions, which he had previously given to his sister, the lady Isabel de Beaumont."  (Usually called nowadays by her married name, Isabella Vescy.)  

Hmmmm.  As we see, Isabella of France is nowhere mentioned in this passage, and in February 1326 she was in France anyway and had been since March 1325, and therefore could not possibly have been asked to take an oath to Hugh Despenser the Younger (and notice the passage says that Beaumont was asked to take an oath to Edward II and the younger Despenser; his father the elder Despenser is not mentioned, so it's not an oath to 'the de Spencers' as Doherty claims).  I really don't understand how Doherty got Queen Isabella being asked to take an oath out of that passage.  Assuming that he's not deliberately lying to his readers, and genuinely thinks it says that the queen refused to take an oath - even though she wasn't even in England at the time - it has to be the most careless and sloppy misreading of a chronicle ever.  And the Livere is translated into English so there's not even the excuse of misunderstanding the French.  Maybe he saw the name of Isabella Beaumont/Vescy, didn't read it properly, and assumed it meant Queen Isabella, even though it doesn't say that Isabella Beaumont was asked to take an oath but that she was given her brother's lands and goods temporarily.

Henry Beaumont accompanied Edward II and Queen Isabella's son Edward of Windsor to France on 12 September 1325, and was present when the boy performed homage for Gascony and Ponthieu to his uncle Charles IV at Vincennes on 24 September.  A few weeks later Isabella refused to return to England, but Beaumont did, and had been imprisoned at Warwick Castle (not Kenilworth as the Livere de Reis says) sometime before early August 1326 when he was moved from there to Wallingford Castle, according to various entries in the chancery rolls.  On 30 September of that year he was still imprisoned at Wallingford.  [Close Rolls 1323-7, p. 593; Fine Rolls 1319-27, p. 418]  I assume he was released shortly afterwards, as Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer's invasion force had already arrived in England by then.

The French Chronicle of London says that Henry Beaumont and other magnates, not named, were imprisoned "because they would not agree to do the bidding of Hugh Despenser [the Younger]."  [Croniques de London depuis l’an 44 Hen III jusqu'à l'an 17 Edw. III, ed. G. J. Aungier, p.  49]  One of the charges against Despenser the Younger at his trial in Hereford on 24 November 1326 states "By your royal power you had them ["great and small people"] put in arduous prison, such as Sir Henry Beaumont, who did not want to swear that they would assent to your wickedness."  So the idea that Beaumont and unnamed others were imprisoned for refusing to swear some kind of oath to Hugh Despenser in 1326 seems to have been fairly widely known, and Beaumont certainly was in prison that year, though the reason for his imprisonment is not stated in the chancery rolls.

I'm still baffled how this bizarre claim of the queen of England refusing to swear an oath to the Despensers appeared in print, and how any historian could have misread and misinterpreted a chronicle as much as Doherty did.  I simply cannot make sense of it at all.  Doherty provides an endnote citing a primary source, and his readers have absolutely no reason to doubt that the source says what he claims he does.  Even though it doesn't in any way whatsoever.  Hmph.  But this is far from being the only time when Doherty misrepresents a primary source or just plain makes something up.  Particularly egregious examples include his claims that (p. 109) Isabella prompted her counsellors to call for her husband's execution at the meeting in Wallingford at Christmas 1326 which met to discuss Edward II's fate (the queen of England calling for her husband's death in front of half the bishops and magnates of England?  What the hell?), and that Pope John XXII was unhappy about Edward II's executions of twenty or twenty-two Contrariants in 1322, which Doherty emotively describes as 'a reign of terror,' 'blood-letting,' 'these horrors' and 'dreadful events,' and "begged the King to show some restraint." Actually John XXII advised Edward to ascribe his victory to God, and, far from showing any sympathy to those whom Edward had executed and imprisoned, excommunicated "those nobles and magnates who attack the king and his realm."  [Calendar of Papal Letters 1305-41, p. 448; The National Archives SC 7/25/14]  Making stuff up might be fun, but it sure as heck ain't history.


Sami Parkkonen said...

Once again one more example of history fogery, intentional or not. I just wonder why these guys bother because they will be caught sooner or later. I mean: if you want to invent stuff, why not write fiction then????

Kathryn Warner said...

Some of Doherty's fiction is pretty good. He should have stuck to it rather than pretending to write non-fiction.

chris y said...

From what you say, he did indeed stick to fiction.

The problem is that most of his casual readers won't have the time or inclination to look at the sources, and so these assertions will enter the public consciousness.

Kathryn Warner said...

Exactly, Chris, that's the problem. It was Doherty who invented the silly idea that Edward removed Isabella's children from her in 1324, which is also pure fiction (for the theory, he cites part of a manuscript that doesn't even exist).

Anonymous said...

I must confess that I have enjoyed a number of Dr Doherty's historical whodunnits as good light reads. I hope you won't make me go and sit on the naughty step. It's a little troublesome to think that Dr Doherty would write something mistakenly when his credentials as a historian seem to be sound. I believe his other job (besides being a writer) is as a headmaster of a large school - which I suppose must be fairly demanding - maybe he rushed a little (or is it possible he factored the research out to a third party?). I don't think he would lie because if the lie was "outed" he could lose credibility.

Patricia O

Anonymous said...

Great post. I'm not sure, however, that it would much of a difference if Dr Doherty did label the book properly (i.e, as fiction). How many people take their view of Richard III from Shakespeare's play, or of Anne Boleyn from Gregory's "Other Boleyn Girl" -- and your opinions of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell are probably based more on some fiction -- Bolt's "Man for All Seasons" is as much historical fiction as Mantel's "Wolf Hall". IMO, to correct the errors about them, Edward and Isabella need a good movie made about their lives ... not merely Marlowe's play.


Anerje said...

Thanks again Kathryn for exposing yet another of Doherty's 'mistakes'. It's such an incredible claim to make - and outrageous! Hmm, how could such a mistake occur???? ;)

Katarzyna Ogrodnik-Fujcik said...

Was it possible for a queen to take such an oath? I have never heard about similar cases. Sounds improbable to me, not to say ridiculous.