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.


Anonymous said...

A couple of things to note by an amateur sleuth: perhaps at the age of 15 when Edward I remarried, Edward II was either a shy youth (difficult age for young men) or rather terrified of his father (possible) and again, being a 'minor' just decided that Marguerite was his stepmother whether he approved or not and had to accept it. Perhaps not much love or feeling there but they just got along for appearances' sake. He must have felt his own mother's death deeply and in any case wasn't probably interested in cultivating a strong union with his stepmother: all speculation on my part. It can't have been an easy situation for Marguerite either; a formidable husband and king, domineering and 'know your place' situation. However, Marguerite and Edward II didn't appear to have had any major upsets even though she died only a year into Edward II's reign. On a happier note - in my opinion, the good that came out of Edward I's re-marriage was one of the two sons, 'Kent', who believed (and I think knew) his half-brother was alive and attempted to rescue him. Marguerite had a part that was possibly a life-line to Edward II and of course at the time didn't realise it because events had not unfolded yet and she wouldn't live to see the role her son played. Amanda

Anerje said...

It has been put forward that Margaurite was angry that Edward had given Piers the title of Earl of Cornwall and that she had wanted it for her own first born son. We can't know, but maybe supporting the barons was designed to hurt Edward.

Caroline Newark said...

As a historian you make your points beautifully and over the years I feel I have come to know Edward well though as you point out we can never really know what he thought and felt. Although actions speak louder than words, a few words would have been immensely helpful. When I first sat down to research Marguerite for my novel "The Pearl of France" I found she merited just one sentence in this book which purported to be about Edward I - and a very short sentence at that! Luckily I discovered your blog which has been my lifeline ever since and has saved me from making innumerable historical blunders. But whereas a historian's job is to present the evidence and to say if conclusions can or, more often, can not be drawn from the evidence, the novelist has a different task. We novelists have to come down on one side of the argument or the other. I often say Kathryn provides the bones and my job is to clothe them to my readers' satisfaction. It would be a very dull book indeed if I said "she threw herself into his arms .... or perhaps she didn't."

Speculation is very pleasurable and provides the novelist with both plot and insight into their characters' minds but in the end it is only speculation. It would be pleasant to think Marguerite had a good relationship with her stepson but whatever it was while her husband was alive, I agree with you that his death either changed their relationship or else revealed itself for what it had been all along. If she cared for him, which she may well have done, it would have been immensely difficult to see him taking decisions which she believed would ruin his life. This is something all mothers (and stepmothers can attest to)

Once more, thank you Kathryn and keep up the good work. I'm sure there are plenty more little nuggets of information just waiting to be dug up.

sami parkkonen said...

Good stuff once again!

One thing historians and people in general seem to forget: relationships change as the time passes by. When we are little kids, our parents are almost divine creatures, good or bad, and when we grow up we began to see them more as normal people. And when they become old, we began to understand them and their lives, their personal histories and how they became what they were.

When we look at the kings and queens of old we very often see them as characters in a play or a movie, set in one well defined form against the tapestry of their surroundings, and often we forget that Edward at the age of fifteen was not the same guy as Edward at the age of twenty etc. The same goes with the queen in this case.

Very often we also project our own experiences and relationships to those we read about or study.