23 April, 2017

But They Were In A Chamber Together!

Edward III, not quite eighteen years old, arrested his mother's 'favourite' Roger Mortimer, earl of March and lord of Wigmore, at Nottingham Castle on 19 October 1330. The story is well known: the young king and about twenty of his loyal household knights entered the castle via a secret tunnel and burst into the queen's chamber. Isabella herself supposedly shouted out to her son "Fair son, fair son, have pity on gentle Mortimer," according to the later chronicler Geoffrey le Baker (who tends to be massively unreliable); in the French original, Beal filz, beal filz, eiez pitie de gentil Mortymer. 'Gentle' 700 years ago did not of course mean the same thing it means today, but rather meant someone of noble birth, as in 'gentleman'.

As Isabella and Roger Mortimer were in a chamber in Nottingham Castle at the time of their arrest late at night, it's often assumed nowadays that they were, if not necessarily in the act of making love, sharing a bed when the young king burst in, or at the very least alone, private and in an intimate space. This is emphatically not the case. Isabella and Roger were by no means alone: their remaining close allies were present in the chamber with them, including the bishop of Lincoln Henry Burghersh, Roger's son Geoffrey Mortimer, Sir Oliver Ingham, Sir Simon Bereford, Hugh Turplington, who was the steward of the king's household but loyal to Roger Mortimer, a household squire called Richard de Munimuth, an usher called Richard de Crombek, and probably others. The pair were having a meeting with the few men who were still loyal to them after almost four years of their unpopular misrule, not in bed together. When Edward III and his knights suddenly, shockingly, burst in, the bishop of Lincoln tried to escape down a latrine shaft and had to be rescued. Oh dear, how humiliating. During the ensuing scuffle, Hugh Turplington was killed by Sir John Neville of Hornby while trying to protect Roger Mortimer and shouting "You shall all die an evil death here!", and Richard de Monmouth was also killed, though at whose hands is unclear. Monmouth had been an attendant of Mortimer during the latter's imprisonment in the Tower of London, and fled to the continent with him.

Next year, I have a long article coming out in an academic journal, which includes the words 'Edward II and his Chamber' in its title. Much more information on this at a later date, but I assure you that the article only very briefly deals with Edward II's sex life, and not in relation to his chamber, which was a department of his household with the chamberlain, Hugh Despenser the Younger, at its head. The word 'chamber' in the Middle Ages really does not have the intimate meaning we tend to assign to it nowadays.

17 April, 2017

Edward II And His Stepmother

I so often see it stated that Edward II and his stepmother Marguerite of France had a close, loving relationship, and I just want to examine that idea here. My primary aim with this blog has long been to examine stories about Edward II, both negative and positive, and see if they stand up to scrutiny.  They frequently don't. It's fascinating and frankly alarming how much we think we know about Edward is not based on any contemporary evidence whatsoever, or at the very least is exaggerated. Because of the paucity of evidence for inter-personal relationships in the early fourteenth century, what little information we do have tends to be exaggerated by modern writers and made into something far more than it actually is. After all, no-one kept diaries and vanishingly few private letters are extant, so modern writers tend to take whatever they can find. This is fair enough, of course, but we should always bear in mind how little we can really know about people's personal relationships, and try not to make more of scanty evidence than we should. And it's also often stated that Marguerite had a close relationship with her husband Edward I and that after his death she stated 'When he died, all men died for me', but I'm also not really convinced that their marriage was a particularly happy one. Edward I never had Marguerite crowned as queen of England, which is probably quite revealing. And it's understandable that she never wanted to remarry after Edward I's death, because of course he was a king, and marrying any other man would have been a real comedown. Isabella of France never remarried in all the years of her widowhood either, and no-one has ever taken that to mean that she adored and had been madly happy to be married to Edward II. Anyway, just putting it out there as a possibility.

Edward of Caernarfon's mother Eleanor of Castile, queen of England, died on 28 November 1290 when she was in her late forties and Edward, her youngest child, was only six. Edward I, after nine years as a widower, married Philip IV's half-sister Marguerite of France on 8 September 1299, when he was sixty and she twenty (she was born sometime between September 1278 and September 1279).  Edward of Caernarfon was fifteen at the time of his father's wedding, only about five years younger than his new stepmother. Marguerite was younger than some of her other stepchildren, such as Joan of Acre, countess of Gloucester (born 1272) and Margaret, duchess of Brabant (born 1275). Edward II was the first king of England since before the Norman Conquest to have a stepmother, and of course after Edward II married Isabella of France in January 1308, Marguerite was also the new queen's aunt, as half-sister of Isabella's father Philip IV.

Fifteen-year-old Edward of Caernarfon spent time with his new stepmother  - who was already pregnant with his half-brother Thomas of Brotherton, born on 1 June 1300 a little under nine months after the royal wedding, whether she knew it or not - at Langley in Hertfordshire from 2 to 20 November 1299.  Edward's twenty-year-old sister Mary, the reluctant nun, was also present. The three were entertained by Henry, a fool sent by the count of Savoy. Edward of Caernarfon as was his wont, played dice, and they ate nuts, apples, pears and other fruit. Edward and Marguerite were also together from Christmas until February 1300, and as her New Year gift, Edward gave his stepmother a gold ring with a ruby. [Seymour Phillips, Edward II, pp. 81-82 and note 26, citing The National Archives E 101/355/17, E 101/355/30; Hilda Johnstone, Edward of Carnarvon 1284-1307, pp. 44-46]

This is just one example of Edward of Caernarfon spending a considerable amount of time in the company of his stepmother in his father's lifetime. The last four words are, in my opinion, key here. Edward was still only fifteen in early 1300, and not operating under his own agency but following his father's orders. There were other times when he was in Marguerite's company, or in touch with her. In the summer of 1305, Edward quarrelled badly with his father, who sent his household away and cut off his income. The prince of Wales thanked Marguerite for intervening for him with his father so that Piers Gaveston and Gilbert de Clare of Thomond would be restored to him, yet it was his sisters who really came to his rescue; Joan for example sent him her seal so that he could order goods, and Mary the nun invited her to stay with him. The tone of Edward of Caernarfon's letter to Marguerite is almost obsequious. He wrote to her on seven further occasions in 1304/05, a year his correspondence happens to survive, and we may fairly assume that this was not unusual and that Edward sent letters to his stepmother in other years as well. Jeffrey Hamilton believes that Edward's asking his stepmother to intercede with his father on his behalf shows the 'tangible sense of the deep trust and faith' he had in Marguerite. ['The Character of Edward II', in Reign of Edward II: New Perspectives, ed. Dodd and Musson, pp. 16-17] It might well mean that, of course, or it might just be that Edward assumed Marguerite was the obvious person to ask her husband for a favour. Isabella of France often interceded with Edward II on behalf of petitioners, and I'm not sure anyone would take that as evidence of 'deep trust and faith' between them. I sometimes think historians see what they expect to see, and interpret evidence in a way that fits something they already believe, whether correctly or not.

Official documents of the era almost inevitably refer to Marguerite of France as Edward II's 'mother', but as there was no word for 'stepmother', this means very little. Edward II and his father-in-law Philip IV of France (Marguerite's older half-brother) always addressed each other as 'very beloved father' and 'very beloved son' in their correspondence; such forms were purely conventional and say nothing at all about their personal relationship. Edward and Philip quite probably disliked each other, but courtesy and addressing fellow royals in the correct ways were more important than personal feelings. Alice Leygrave, Edward's wet-nurse who much later joined the household of Queen Isabella, was in 1312 referred to as "the king's mother, who suckled him in his youth." I've also seen people claiming that Edward II's great-grandson Henry IV (reigned 1399 to 1413) was also very fond of his stepmother Katherine Swynford on the grounds that after he became king, he referred to her as his 'mother.' But of course he did; she was his father John of Gaunt's widow. There was no other way for him to refer to her. It says nothing about their personal relationship and does not necessarily mean that he was fond of her, let alone that he saw her as his mother (his own mother Blanche of Lancaster died when he was under eighteen months old). Henry might well have been enormously fond of Katherine, of course; I'm not saying that he wasn't, merely that conventionally addressing her as his mother means nothing much one way or the other. In an extant letter of 1305, twenty-one-year-old Edward of Caernarfon addressed his much older kinswoman Agnes de Valence (daughter and sister of earls of Pembroke) as his 'good mother' and promised to do whatever he could for her as a loving son should do, which doesn't suggest that he'd found a maternal figure in Marguerite and was in need of one. This is probably not terribly surprising as she was only about five years his senior. I find this letter poignant.

One of Edward II's possessions in 1312 was a brooch specifically said to have been a gift to him from madame la Roine la miere, 'my lady the queen, the mother.' Whether this means Eleanor of Castile or Marguerite of France is not clear. It might even mean Edward II's grandmother Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III and mother of Edward I, who lived until Edward II was seven and did give him other gifts. Again, even if Marguerite did give her stepson a brooch, this is not necessarily evidence that she was hugely fond of him, but was merely expected and normal behaviour. Marguerite of France married a king, but with the knowledge that her sons would never succeed to the throne because her husband already had an heir. Her sons would only ever be the half-brothers and later the half-uncles of kings, but could not expect to be kings themselves unless something happened to Edward of Caernarfon. I wouldn't be surprised if that caused some resentment in Marguerite. I don't mean for a second that she ever wished him harm, but it might have been a barrier between them.

Even if we think that Edward of Caernarfon was close to and fond of his stepmother up to 1307, in early 1308 she opposed his beloved Piers Gaveston and, according to a contemporary newsletter, gave financial support to the English barons trying to force his exile. The newsletter gives the sum of forty thousand pounds, which is obviously an absurd exaggeration and Marguerite cannot possibly have given them anything like as much (or even had a fraction of that sum available to her), but it seems clear that she was hostile to Piers and helping his enemies. If Marguerite and Edward had been so close as is often surmised, I find it hard to see why she would have opposed Piers Gaveston in 1308 and even actively funded the baronial opposition which was determined to banish him abroad. However politically sensible it might have been to detach Piers from the king, there is nothing Marguerite could have done which would hurt Edward II more, or which he would find harder to forgive. She surely knew that.

I'm not saying for certain that Edward II and Marguerite did not have a good relationship, only that the available evidence has, in my opinion, been stretched too far. They may well have enjoyed each other's company enormously and been extremely fond of each other, but what evidence we have doesn't automatically point to such a conclusion. At any rate, however they might have felt about each other before Edward became king, Marguerite's supporting the baronial opposition to Piers Gaveston in 1308 put an abrupt end to any closeness and affection there might have been, and for the remaining ten years of her life, there is little if any evidence of visits or letters or gifts. Edward mostly ignored his stepmother. He attended her funeral in 1318, as did his sister Mary the nun, but again this was most likely simply what convention demanded. If Edward kept the anniversary of Marguerite's death every year with prayers, as he did for his own mother, I'm not aware of it.

13 April, 2017

Contrariant Miracles 1322/23

In March and April 1322, Edward II had between nineteen and twenty-two knights and noblemen executed for taking part in the Contrariant rebellion, including his own first cousin Thomas, earl of Lancaster. Here's a reliable list of the names of the executed men; the numbers have often been inflated in modern literature, generally by including the names of men killed at Boroughbridge, and also by talking about a 'bloodbath' and a 'reign of terror' and 'horror piled upon horror' and other such absurdly over-emotional comments which tip over into the hysterical.

This post is about a rather interesting phenomenon which occurred in the aftermath of the executions: many of Edward II's subjects claimed that miracles had taken place at the execution sites of several of the Contrariants. This was, for the most part, a political protest against Edward II, the Despensers and their greedy and tyrannical regime after their victory over the Contrariants in 1322.

Miracles were being reported at the execution site of Thomas, earl of Lancaster, beheaded just outside his Yorkshire castle of Pontefract on 22 March 1322, within weeks of the earl's death. [1] A campaign to canonise Lancaster – surely one of the unlikeliest saints of all time, nearly as unlikely as Edward II himself – began in 1327, and his cult grew in popularity; as late as the Reformation, his hat and belt preserved at Pontefract were used as remedies in childbirth and for headaches. [2] A Latin song written at the end of Edward II's reign or at the beginning of his son Edward III's laments "the blessed martyr" and "flower of knights" (my response to this can be basically be summed up as: ROFL), and says "the pouring out of prayers to Thomas restores the sick to health; the pious earl comes immediately to the aid of those who are feeble." [3]

In 1323, miracles continued to be reported at the site of Lancaster's execution. 2000 people, some from as far away as Kent, gathered to pray and make oblations at his tomb in Pontefract. [4] The archbishop of York, Edward II's friend and ally William Melton, twice had to remind his archdeacon that Lancaster was not a canonised saint and order him to disperse the throng gathering at the earl's tomb, some of whom were crushed to death. [5] Edward sent his clerk Richard Moseley to investigate, the king's attitude to the situation apparent from his description of the crowd as "malefactors and apostates" and his comment that they were praying "not to God but rather to idols." The crowd made their feelings clear, too: Moseley was assaulted, and two of his servants killed. [6] The very pro-Lancastrian Brut chronicle includes a bizarrely disgusting story in which Hugh Despenser the Younger, troubled and angered by the "great heresy" of the alleged miracles, sent a messenger to Edward to inform him about them. As the messenger passed through Pontefract, he "made his ordure" at the place where Lancaster had been beheaded – and later suffered punishment for this sacrilegious act when he "shed all his bowels at his fundament." [7]

Miracles were also said to have taken place at the execution site of the Contrariants Sir Henry Montfort and Sir Henry Wilington in Bristol: the mayor of the city told the king that Montfort’s brother bribed a poor child with two shillings "to pronounce to the people that he received healing of his sight." Edward II ordered an inquisition into the alleged miracles in October 1323. [8] On 28 June 1323, Edward had ordered Stephen Gravesend, bishop of London, to prevent people praying and making offerings at a tablet in St Paul's "whereon are depicted statues, sculpture or images of diverse persons, and amongst others the effigy of Thomas, late earl of Lancaster...as the king learns with displeasure that many of the people go to the said tablet and worship it as a holy thing without the authority of the church of Rome, asserting that miracles are done there." [9] The French Chronicle of London describes this object instead as a tablet which the earl of Lancaster had had made to celebrate Edward's granting of the Ordinances in 1311. [10]

This whole thing is, I think, most revealing of the contemporary mindset. Edward II was disturbed at the political implications of these alleged miracles performed by his executed enemies, but also, being a very pious man, seems to have been genuinely angry at what he saw as 'apostasy', the worship of false images, and people disobeying the Church.


1) Anonimalle Chronicle, 108: The Brut, 228; J. R. Maddicott, Thomas of Lancaster, 329.
2) Maddicott, Lancaster, p. 329.
3) Thomas Wright, The Political Songs of England, pp. 268-72.
4) Foedera 1307-27, 536-7? 
5) Natalie Fryde, The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II, 153.
6) Cal Inq Misc 1308-48, 528-9.
7) Brut, 230.
8) Cal Chancery Warrants 1244-1326, 543.
9) Cal Close Rolls 1318-23, 723; Flores Historiarum, 213.
10) Croniques de London, 46; Anonimalle, 114.

07 April, 2017

Two New Novels

Today I'm delighted to announce the publication of two great new novels set in the fourteenth century!

Firstly, there's Under the Approaching Dark (isn't that a fab title?) by Anna Belfrage. It's the third part of her The King's Greatest Enemy series about Adam de Guirande, an adherent of Roger Mortimer, lord of Wigmore and first earl of March, and opens in 1327 shortly after the deposition of Edward II. It's released in three weeks, on 28 April, and you can see it here on Amazon. Here is Anna's website. I'm especially delighted to announce that the new novel is dedicated to me! That's a real honour, and I'm so pleased to have been able to help Anna with her research.

Secondly, there's The Fair Maid of Kent by Caroline Newark, which came out on 21 March; see here for Caroline's website. It's a novel about Edward II's (half-)niece Joan of Kent, who married Edward's grandson Edward of Woodstock and was the mother of Richard II. Fair Maid opens in 1338 and ends eleven years in 1349, covering both of Joan's marriages to William Montacute, heir to the earldom of Salisbury, and her secret scandalous one to Sir Thomas Holland.

The good news is that Caroline's next novel, The Pearl of France, will be about Edward II's stepmother Marguerite of France, who married Edward I in 1299 (and who was Joan of Kent's paternal grandmother). Really looking forward to that one too!

Many thanks to both Anna and Caroline for so kindly sending me copies of their novels, and I can't wait to read them. Incidentally, historian Anthony Goodman has a new book about Joan of Kent, coming out in two weeks, on 21 April: see here.

02 April, 2017


Apologies for not updating the blog more regularly; I've been really busy lately, had visitors, and am still going through the long and painful bereavement process.

Just to let you know, I was commissioned to write another piece for BBC History Magazine, this time for their 'historical holiday' series. I chose the fabulous Spanish city of Seville, an ancient, beautiful and fascinating place with strong links to Edward II: his maternal grandfather Fernando III of Castile and Leon is the patron saint of the city. The piece will appear in the May edition of the magazine, and will be out later this month. Here's a short preview!