07 November, 2015

October/November 1325: Isabella Refuses to Return to Edward (1)

On 9 March 1325, Isabella of France, queen of England, left her husband's kingdom and travelled to her homeland of France, in order to negotiate a peace settlement between her brother Charles IV and her husband Edward II.  The two kings had gone to war the previous year, the little known War of St-Sardos.  The much later chronicler Jean Froissart, who is often cited as a source for Edward II's reign though he wasn't even born until about 1337 and first set foot in England in about 1361/2, claims that Isabella and her twelve-year-old son Edward of Windsor (the future Edward III), persecuted victims of the king and his malevolence, pretended to make a pilgrimage to Canterbury then fled in secret from Winchelsea to the safety of France. Needless to say, this is absolute nonsense. Isabella departed from Dover with Edward II's full consent and knowledge, with a large amount of money for her expenses and a retinue. Her son remained in England for another six months, departing for France - in order to pay homage to his uncle Charles IV for Gascony and Ponthieu - on 12 September 1325.

Isabella remained in France for eighteen months, and when she finally returned to England in September 1326, it was at the head of an invasion force, with her husband's greatest enemy - Roger Mortimer, lord of Wigmore - at her side.  Isabella and Roger's relationship has been excessively romanticised in much modern writing, and we don't actually know for sure that they were in love or even that they were necessarily sleeping together. (I'm not saying they certainly weren't, just that we should bear in mind how little we know or can possibly ever know about people's state of mind, personal feelings and personal  relationships.) They had begun some kind of association by 8 February 1326, when Edward II complained that his queen was 'adopting the counsel' of Roger Mortimer and his allies on the Continent, meaning other English noblemen and knights who had joined the 1321/22 Contrariant rebellion against the king and the Despensers and who fled the country after the Contrariant defeat at the battle of Boroughbridge on 16 March 1322.

At some point before her association with Mortimer began, probably in late October 1325 or thereabouts, Queen Isabella announced in public at the French court that she was refusing to return to her husband. The Vita Edwardi Secundi, which was written by one of Edward II's clerks and which abruptly ends shortly after this, records Isabella's speech:

"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, ed. N. Denholm-Young, pp. 142-3)

The 'Pharisee' of course meant Hugh Despenser the Younger, Edward II's chamberlain and 'favourite' who dominated his life - politically or emotionally or more likely both - in the 1320s. Isabella's speech has often been interpreted, weirdly, to mean that she was defying Edward and openly declaring her rebellion against him. But of course that is not even close to what her words say. What her words actually say is that she believed a third party, Hugh, had come between herself and her husband to such an extent that she felt like a widow (and the French Chronicle of London confirms that the queen took to wearing clothes "as a lady in mourning who had lost her lord"). She felt that Hugh was intruding into her marriage. She spoke of what marriage meant to her. She stated that she would not return to Edward unless he removed Hugh from his side, and swore that she would avenge herself on Hugh for destroying her marriage. What she did not say was that she was rebelling against Edward. She stated that she would return to him when 'this intruder is removed'. Now, we could debate and discuss what was really going on in Isabella's mind, whether she meant this or not, but we cannot know for sure. And perhaps for a change we should do her the courtesy of actually listening to her instead of blithely reinterpreting her speech as 'Well actually, what she really meant was that she loathed and despised and was repelled by her husband and had no intention of ever going back to him, that she was in love with Roger Mortimer and was planning Edward's downfall with him, and that she was openly declaring her rebellion against Edward'. Hmmmmm.

The often-repeated assumption that Isabella was in love with Roger Mortimer in 1325, that she had helped him escape from the Tower of London on 1 August 1323 and that she had been secretly conspiring with him and others for years to bring down her husband makes a nice story, but there is not a shred of evidence for any of it. As I've written before, and also here, it is incredibly unlikely that Edward II stupidly fell into her and Roger Mortimer's and Charles IV's cunning 'trap', or that there was ever a 'trap' in the first place, by sending his son to France in September 1325. I think it's quite likely that when Isabella left England in March 1325, she had some notion of asking Edward to send the hated Hugh Despenser away from him as a condition of her return. I think it's incredibly unlikely that Isabella had an inkling that she would eventually return to England at the head of an invasion force eighteen months later. To me, Isabella's behaviour in late 1325 and 1326 indicate a woman deeply distressed at the breakdown of her marriage and furious at the man she held responsible for it, not a woman who loathed her husband and was deeply in love with someone else. She set Edward an ultimatum, and must have been deeply hurt by his utter refusal to consider her feelings; in long rambling letters to herself, her brother Charles IV and French bishops and noblemen, and in a speech to parliament in London in November 1325, Edward II showed that his greatest priority was to defend Hugh Despenser against all accusations. And of course he completely refused to send Hugh away from him. Left with no other choice but to act on her threat, Isabella duly did so, and began a political alliance with Roger Mortimer and the other Contrariants on the Continent such as John Maltravers, Thomas Roscelyn and William Trussell which resulted, whether she and they had originally intended it or not, in Edward II's forced deposition.

More on this in another post, coming soon.


sami parkkonen said...

As we have no firm evidence of Isabellas alledged romance with Mortimer, or for that matter a romance between Edward and Hugh, could this be indication that before Isabella had been her husbands closest confidant and someone with who he had discussed much more closely than previously believed? Perhaps it was enough that for reason or another Hugh was able to drive a wedge between Isabella and Edward and/or sideline her from the matters of the crown and realm?

To me it always seems somehow suspicious that almost everyone assumes that Isabella was not involved in anything that was going on during Edwards reign, that she was just sitting on a throne lookin pretty. And yet, her actions later, during the crisis, reveal that she was a real player. Mortimer might have had illusions of the crown of England but I have my suspicions.

Who was the mysterious person who helped young Edward III to size Mortimer and his closest friends in Nottingham castle? Who was the mysterious insider who let the prince to know that Mortimer was planning his disposal as well? Who could have orchestrated the very entry into the Nottingham castel that night? Well, Isabella could have done those things too, and very well.

I have always been very suspicious about the romance between Isabella and Mortimer. It is simply too cheesy. Specially when we remember how she reacted when similar romance took place in her own family. Her actions at that time shows, to me, what she thoughed about relationships between royal women and common knights.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the alleged "romance" between Isabella and Mortimer is suspect at best. I find it odd that nothing in Isabella's behavior shows a romance and the only behavior of Mortimer is that he was very angry when the clergy were discussing how Isabella should return to Edward and spoke out that she could not do so safely because Edward would kill her. Of course, this could equally fit with the idea that there was no affair; that if Isabella rejoined her husband, the two might reconcile; and if so, he will be left as the sole scapegoat. I think the "romance" was created by people trying to explain why Isabella and Mortimer spent a lot of time together in France ... because no one of that era would have thought that a woman could be a serious part of a serious conspiracy.


Anerje said...

If Isabella and Mortimer were openly lovers, this would have outraged public decency. They would not have got the support they did. The idea of romance feeds historical romance authors, with Isabella enjoying a 'real' man at last! Zzzzzzz. I wonder whose hand was behind the plot? No doubt it started as a way to remove Despencer but evolved into something different. I wonder if Isabella was exploited by her brother the French king? He had nothing to lose but would gain a pliable nephew on the throne, with his sister as an 'adored queen mother'. If only we knew, eh?

chris y said...

Or, as another estranged royal wife famously put it twenty years ago, " Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded."

The character who always seems to get left out of the popular accounts of all this is Charles IV. Isabella was a Princess of France as well as Queen of England, and if Edward was effectively rejecting her proposals for reconciliation, her brother would be the obvious person to look to for support. They would have discussed politics.

Now as I understand it, the War of St Sardos is generally understood to have been a provocation by Charles to test the likely English reaction should he launch a full scale invasion of Gascony. He was probably quite happy with the outcome. But if he could create a major diversion in England itself he would have a free hand in Gascony. His intelligence networks would have told him that the King of England was unpopular in the military class, so the most likely upshot of an invasion led by his sister (and confidante?) would be either a prolonged civil war or the establishment of Isabella as regent in a minority. Either would suit Charles. In this scenario he would regard the contrariant exiles as "useful idiots", and quite possibly so would the Queen.

It's true that Charles didn't try to annex Gascony in 1327, but given events in England, he may have felt that there was no hurry and that he could finish his business with the Byzantines first; he didn't know he was going to die the next spring.

All the above is pure speculation of course, but then so is much of what gets written about these events. I get irritated though by the way they are always discussed from a purely English perspective, as though that was the only one possible.

sami parkkonen said...

I bet the french king wasa directly involved on this one.

Melissa said...

In doing research on an ancestral grandfather of mine, Thomas de Bradeston, I find that he was governor of Berkeley Castle and "taking part with the queen consort, Isabella. He was made one of the gentlemen of the privy chamber at the accession of the young Edward III, and through the influence of the Queen, obtained a grant of three considerable wardship." [A General & Heraldic Dictionary of Peerages if England, Ireland, & Scotland by John Burke, Esq].

I also, find that Thomas de Bradeston was given the manor of Winterbourne in Gloucester a year later (1328). He would become very close to King Edward III as he led armies in the King's name into battles. He would be made a Baron as well. Thomas de Bradeston was equally close with Maurice and Thomas de Berkely. I've often wondered about these connections, and Thomas's role in the death of King Edward II.

Thomas de Bradeston's daughter Elizabeth married my ancestor Peter le Veel. The le Veel's were in the Berkeley affinity and were closely associated with the de Clare family in earlier times (later 1200s). I've come across the Betkeleys & de Clares fighting over wardship of Peter le Veel (mainly due to property reasons I'm sure as both families had granted important land & manors to the le Veels). This Peter le Veel would marry Cecily de Meisy. They would have the second Peter le Veel that married Elizabeth de Bradeston. NOW... Hugh Despenser was responsible for taking over Cecily de Massey/Meysey's father's property (Marston Meysey in Wiltshire). Hugh literally kicked John de Meysey right out of his home and Hugh even imprisoned John until he signed over the property. Meysey then sought a writ against Despenser, which he pursued without success and that angered Despenser immensely that Hugh named Meysey as one of the 1322 Rebels. Meysey fled, but returned after the fall of Despenser. He was granted his manor back by King Edward III. The manor was in the hands of Peter le Veel & Cecily de Meysey and returned back to the King Edward III 1331.

I hope you might find this information useful.
Please forgive me of spelling errors as I am using my phone to reply.

sami parkkonen said...

I don't think Edward II ever died in Berkeley castle. Actually, I am pretty sure he did not because we have more documents which point to the direction that he did not than that he did. All the way up untill 1340's.

Jerry Bennett said...

Thank you for another interesting article on the complex relationships around Isabella and Edward. I find the hardest thing to understand in this episode is the relationship between Isabella and Hugh Despenser. By 1325 it had become so bad Isabella felt she needed to stay with her brother in Paris, but what was it like in 1321, at the time of the siege of Leeds castle? That particular affair seems to have been instigated by Isabella, possibly at the behest of her husband and Hugh Despenser, so presumably she was fairly amenable to Hugh around that time. One year later, when she was trapped at Tynemouth, she apparently distrusted any rescue attempt which included soldiers sent by Hugh Despenser. What had happened in the intervening 12 months, or was there a gradual souring of relations between her and Hugh? Melissa's fascinating comment shows Hugh Despenser acting in a pretty high-handed manner, again something that appears pretty typical of the man. Did this sort of action help sour relations between Isabella and Hugh over a period of time? Did a particular friend of Isabella run foul of Hugh Despenser, exacerbating the split?

With respect to any possible relationship between Isabella and Roger Mortimer, I think there was something between them otherwise how was Mortimer able to act the way he did after 1328? Exactly when that affair might have begun is open to speculation, but Mortimer's actions, particularly after the signing of the treaty of Northampton, appear to me to be those of a nobleman very sure of his ground because the effective legal ruler of England - Isabella - was prepared to indulge him. I don't think she would have done had there not been a lot of affection in there somewhere.

Sami, there is an excellent account of the Nottingham castle coup given in Ian Mortimer's book, "The Greatest Traitor".

Anonymous said...

Thank you for another interesting post.
I look forward to Part 2!

I don’ t want to elicit spoilers, but I wondered if getting custody of Prince Edward in autumn 1325 was a something of a watershed moment (not sure if “getting custody” is the right expression, but I can’t think how else to put it)? At what point do you think Edward II (or other observers) started to expect an invasion might come? Would it have been clear from late 1325, or only in the following year?

Best wishes,


sami parkkonen said...

Jerry, yep I have that book too.

One thing gets always forgotten. Edward III. Now, Mortimer had him under his blade too. What would Isabella do? Now, if we look at her action after his son took the crown and accused Mortimer for the death of his father? Yeap. Nothing too dramatic. Had she been madly, absolutely, devoutly, romantically in love with Roger, she would have done everything in her power to save him. Instead she let his son, the king, kill him off. That speaks volumes too. At least in my eyes.

Moira. ford@ hotmail.co.uk said...

Watch Medieval murders about Edward, on the Yesterday channel 17th November 9pm

sami parkkonen said...

It is the assumption that Isabella and Mortimer were great lovers that set us up when we look at these events. The starting point to any explanation is that they were in love. This leads into all sorts of conclusions, based on that and not to the original records.

Has anyone thoughed that what Isabella did was protect his son from Mortimer during these years and, quiet possibly, assisted him once he took over? I mean, after his son regained the throne and wiped out Mortimer, he treated her quite well, not like the stories say but like any young king would have treated the former queen.

If Isabella and Mortimer were in cahoots, killed his father and hated him and pushed him around, would h done so?