16 March, 2018

Did Edward II and Isabella of France Meet in November 1326?

As far as the evidence from English sources goes, Edward II and Isabella of France never saw each other again after early March 1325. The couple were together at the Tower of London at that time, then the queen set off for Dover and sailed to her native France on 9 March 1325 to negotiate a peace settlement between her husband and her brother Charles IV. Isabella remained overseas for eighteen months, and her invasion force arrived in England on 24 September 1326. Edward II, the two Hugh Despensers and a handful of other allies set off from London to South Wales on 3 October, pursued at some distance by the invasion force. There is no possibility that the royal couple could have met until after 16 November 1326, when Edward and the younger Despenser were captured in South Wales. Officially, Edward II was placed in the custody of his cousin Henry of Lancaster and taken, via Henry's castle of  Monmouth, to Kenilworth in Warwickshire, where he arrived on or before 5 December.

Hugh Despenser the Younger, meanwhile, was taken to Hereford and executed on 24 November, and one of his judges was Henry of Lancaster. It seems possible, therefore, though no source places him there, that Edward II was also in Hereford in Henry's custody when his chamberlain and 'favourite' was grotesquely executed. Given that no chronicle mentions his presence during Hugh's trial (or rather, 'trial' in inverted commas) and execution, if the king was indeed there, presumably he was kept hidden away and was not seen in public. Edward's last chamber account ends on 31 October 1326 at Caerphilly Castle when his clerks gave up writing it (or fled from Caerphilly and abandoned Edward, perhaps), and after that date it becomes much trickier to ascertain his whereabouts. If he was not in Hereford in Henry of Lancaster's custody, then the question arises as to who was deputed to take care of him while Henry went to take part in Hugh's trial. It must have been someone important, as you wouldn't give custody of the king of England himself to just anybody, but assuming this was done, there is no known record of it.

Last year, I read a chronicle from Flanders*, written in French, which gives an intriguingly different take on events in England in 1326 after the queen's invasion. The chronicle states that Isabella went to see Edward in his chamber after his capture, and fell to her knees in front of him. She begged him to "cool his anger" with her, but, obviously in an unforgiving and furious mood, Edward refused to talk or even to look at her. The chronology in the chronicle is not clear, and it is not stated where or when this alleged meeting took place. Presumably, it was before Hugh Despenser the Younger's execution on 24 November 1326; Isabella was hardly likely - in my opinion - to ask her husband to "cool his anger" with her after she had had his beloved chamberlain, companion and perhaps lover torn apart in public. The chronicle gives an otherwise correct and quite full account of what happened in England in the autumn of 1326.

Whether this meeting ever actually happened cannot be conclusively proved; no English chronicler states that the king and queen met in November 1326, and as noted above, Edward II's itinerary after the end of October 1326 is difficult to piece together accurately. Did he remain in Henry of Lancaster's custody the whole time from the time of his capture on 16 November 1326 onwards, or not? If the royal couple did meet, Isabella's falling to her knees in front of her husband and begging him not to be angry with her puts quite a different complexion on events of that momentous year than we usually read (i.e. the story of the poor tragic neglected queen falling desperately in love with Roger Mortimer and dying for revenge on the nasty hateful gay husband she loathed and despised). The Anonimalle chronicle (ed. Childs and Taylor, pp. 124-7, 129-30) says that in the autumn of 1326 "the king would not leave the company of his enemies," and that Isabella pursued him to make him leave the Despensers and because she wanted "to re-join her lord [husband] if she could." This implies that Isabella pursued her husband not out of any hatred or desire for vengeance or a wish to capture him and make him give up his throne to their son, but because she wished to capture Hugh Despenser and his father. In this reading, Edward refuses to abandon the two Hugh Despensers, and it is the Despensers rather than the king whom Isabella and her allies are pursuing. It does make me wonder what would have happened if Edward had left the Despensers and gone to meet Isabella without them.

Isabella had been stating for months that her argument was with Hugh Despenser the Younger, not with her husband, and that she wished above all else to return to Edward but dared not because she felt in physical danger from Hugh. Her famous speech to the French court in c. late October 1325 recorded by the author of the Vita Edwardi Secundi states outright that a third party had come between her husband and herself and that she would not return to Edward until this 'intruder' was removed, nor allow their young son Edward of Windsor to do so. Basically, assuming the Vita is reporting Isabella's speech accurately (and unfortunately there's no other record of it), Isabella was giving Edward II an ultimatum: choose between me and Hugh Despenser. Edward refused to send Hugh away from him, and so chose Hugh over his wife. Isabella wrote a letter to the archbishop of Canterbury on 5 February 1326 in which she repeated that she wished very much to return to her husband but dared not because Hugh Despenser might harm her physically if she did so, and stated that the whole situation was causing her great distress. 

It's often assumed nowadays that Isabella was lying, or, in stating her distress about the destruction of her marriage and her inability to be in her husband's company because the person who had intruded into her marriage would do her harm, was defying her husband and declaring her love for Roger Mortimer. (No, that interpretation doesn't make any sense to me either.) Here's a hot take: what if Isabella wasn't lying, and wasn't using any old excuse she could think of not to go back to her husband so that she could stay in the arms of her manly virile lover, but meant every word? After all, she didn't have to write that letter to the archbishop of Canterbury explaining herself, and it was for the archbishop's eyes, not for public consumption so that she could present herself to her husband's subjects as a loyal but wronged wife while sneakily having an affair with Roger. Perhaps the speech to the French court means exactly what it says: Edward, send Hugh Despenser away from you, because he frightens me and he has damaged our relationship, and I want to come back to you and resume the happy marriage we used to have till he stuck his oar in. Perhaps her letter of February 1326 means exactly what it says: Hugh Despenser frightens me, but now I know that my husband has refused my ultimatum and I can't go back to him even though I want to more than anything, and it's causing me great distress. Maybe we should do Isabella the respect of listening to what she actually said?

Logistically at least, it seems plausible that Edward II and Isabella of France met in Hereford in mid-November 1326. Hereford is only twenty miles more or less directly north of Monmouth where Henry of Lancaster took Edward on their way to Kenilworth. Edward was captured probably near Llantrisant on 16 November, and was at Kenilworth by 5 December, maybe a little before. Llantrisant to Kenilworth is about 115 miles, and we know that Henry of Lancaster detoured to Hereford to be present at Hugh Despenser's trial, so it's not impossible that he took Edward with him. Nor does the timing make it impossible that Edward was in Hereford for a day or several, and had the chance to see his wife there. Llantrisant is only fifty-five or so miles away from Hereford. Hugh Despenser the Younger was taken on that journey deliberately slowly - it took as much as a week or even eight days - to show off the hated royal favourite to as many people as possible. Henry of Lancaster could have taken Edward to Hereford a few days before Hugh himself arrived there, tied on a shabby little nag and refusing all food and drink, and pelted with rubbish by the populace. Chronicler Jean le Bel, who was there, says that Hugh was executed in the main town square of Hereford - he was dragged there through the streets by four horses and presumably his trial had taken place outside the castle - and does not mention that the king was present. It's a little curious that neither le Bel nor any English chronicler mentions that Edward II was in Hereford at this time, but perhaps if he was there, his presence was deliberately concealed and kept secret.

Ultimately, I don't know whether Edward II met his wife Isabella after his capture in November 1326, and I don't imagine that we ever will know for sure, but it doesn't seem impossible. One chronicler certainly thought it was plausible that Isabella knelt before her husband and begged his forgiveness. At the very least, the chronicler's story is a reminder that events of 1326 were complex as well as momentous, and the people involved were complex, and we shouldn't reduce them and their actions to overly simplistic narratives or assume we understand all their emotions and thoughts and motivations.

Extraits d'une Chronique Anonyme intitulée Ancienne Chroniques de Flandre; full details in my book Long Live the King: The Mysterious Fate of Edward II. It says la royne...entra dans la chambre ou il estoit et s'agenoulla devant lui, et lui request que pour Dieu il voulaist reffroidier son yre; main oncques le roy ne lui vault faire responce ne regarder sur elle.


Anonymous said...

Isn't it odd that modern historians think they know more about what Isabella was thinking and feeling than Isabella herself does?. (I really don't believe that Isabella had an affair with Mortimer -- I think the reports are just sexism because no one would believe that Mortimer was seriously conspiring with a woman) Seriously, I doubt that Edward would have been at Hugh's trial even if he was with Lancaster ... he was so unusually tall, I think he would have been noticed.


Anerje said...

It's fascinating to think of such a meeting taking place. And maybe Edward was at Hereford - he was tantalisingly close. It may well have been possible to keep him hidden from public view. Maybe Isabella wanted Edward as a puppet King, with her and Mortimer controlling him, and Mortimer was the over-mighty subject. It would have been a very risky strategy, but it could be that this was Isabella's original intent.

sami parkkonen said...

I don't think Isabella wanted Mortimer rule anything but to protect her son and make it possible for her to make certain that son is going to be a king one day. But as we know now, Mortimer had different ideas and it is very likely he was planning to remove the son from the picture one way or the other.

Considering how easily young Edward III and his companions gained the secret entry into the Nottingham castle and surprised Mortimer and his men completely, is not strange how no one, not one historian, has ever sat down to think about Isabella and her part in that plot?

It is stated that Edward III had an inside man, some are even named, but no one has ever wondered about the possibility that the main ally inside the walls was Isabella. She, after all, had most to lose if Mortimer was going after her son. And if Mortimer, as it seems when one looks at his last actions, was going to do something against the young king, would Isabella had been watching the events folding from the side lines? I doubt.

No one has ever considered this possibility because everybody wants to believe that 1. Isabella was completely utterly in love with super hot Mortimer and could not resist his masculine powers. 2. Isabella was weak woman under the mercy of super man Mortimer or 3. she wanted to keep on looting the land with Mortimer. And yet: it was she who made the whole invasion and overthrowing her husband possible.

It makes more sense than any other option. Isabella was able to invade England and most of all get the support of the most powerful men of the realm. She managed to wipe out the Despensers as she wanted. And when her ally Mortimer was showing signs of grand ideas for the land and over ambition concerning his position in the kingdom, her son the king took the matters into his own hands and captured the mighty super warrior Mortimer with handful of supporters. How he managed to do this so easily? Who was in the position to warn young king, arrange his absence from Nottingham and reveal the secret entry and clear route straight to the chambers?

Queen Isabella, who was able to over throw the previous king, invade the realm, win over the barons, gather an army which grew from day to day and win the realm into her hands. Granted,. she could have not done it without Mortimer, but she was the one around whom the barons gathered. She had been trained to the role of the queen. She was not just any maid waiting to be picked up by some knight.

Anonymous said...

IMO, sami parkkonen's idea makes a lot of sense. After removing her from power, Edward III treated his mother quite well, giving her a large income and keeping her involved with his growing brood of children. This sounds reasonable if Isabella helped her son get rid of Mortimer. This does not strike me as consistent with the idea that Edward III thought she had his father (whom Edward III was rather fond of, IIRC) murdered in a peculiarly horrific manner.


Anonymous said...

Its been a couple of years since I read the sources on the abdication of Edward II, but I seemed to remember, somewhat imperfectly, that Edward was taken to Ledbury from Wales and the Bishop's Palace, held by Adam Orleton at the time. Ledbury is a mere 8-9 miles from Hereford. Could be wrong though!

Kathryn Warner said...

Many thanks for your thoughtful comments, everyone! Much appreciated, and there's much to ponder! At the absolute least, even if Edward wasn't in Hereford in November 1326 and even if Isabella didn't aid her son to overthrow Mortimer in 1330 - and I love the suggestion that she did - I think it's brilliant that we're thinking along these lines. Too often, it seems to me, the narrative of Edward II's reign is believed to be 'fixed' and we think we know exactly what everyone was doing and thinking. We don't, in the slightest. It is not in any way a given that Isabella was passionately in love with Mortimer. It is not in any way a given that she loathed her husband and had been plotting against him for years.

Jerry Bennett said...

I have just re-read Seymour Phillips's account of the capture of Edward II, and he states that Isabella and Prince Edward sent a message to Edward at Monmouth on 20th November to request he surrender the Great Seal (which he did, releasing it to Sir William Blount). He in turn passed it to Isabella four days later. That suggests to me at least that Isabella did not visit Monmouth.

However, Seymour Phillips also states that Edward was then taken to Kenilworth via Ledbury, and, like Anonymous, I wonder if that was where any meeting might have taken place. It may not have been at the bishop's palace, as I suspect Adam Orleton would not have approved of such a meeting, but I believe Ledbury is also the site if a 13th century hospital complex, some of which has recently been restored. Could the meeting have taken place there? I know nothing of its history, or who ran it, but as much of the treatment of sickness lay with the church, a friendly order of monks or friars could have tried to arrange it.

But the time window is pretty tight. Again if I have read Seymour Phillips correctly, Isabella met the bishop of Norwich, the new chancellor, at Cirencester on the 28th November, so perhaps it never happened after all. But it is nice to speculate.