09 September, 2018

The Victimisation of Isabella of France

I've been baffled for years at the way some modern writers seem determined to turn Isabella of France into a long-suffering tragic victim, and to invent misery and humiliation Isabella supposedly endured at the hands of her husband Edward II and his male 'favourites'. The narrative begins with Edward and Isabella's arrival in Dover in early 1308 a few days after their wedding in Boulogne, when Edward supposedly 'ignores' his new wife and humiliates her by kissing Gaveston in front of her. Then he fails to give her any income for an inordinately long time until he's forced to. He doesn't give her the attention which is her due. He gives her jewels or wedding gifts to Gaveston and allows his lover to parade himself in front of the queen wearing her own jewellery. He ignores her again at their coronation banquet, leaving her to 'fend for herself' (an actual quotation, as though the banquet was a deeply dangerous event). As the years go on, he fails to show her the slightest respect and affection and prefers his male favourites to her. He only makes love with her reluctantly in order to produce children. He treats her like a 'brood mare'. He abandons her weeping and pregnant to save Gaveston. He abandons her at Tynemouth again a few years later and permits his lover to conspire with the Scots to seize her and take her captive. He cruelly removes her children from her. He allows his lover to rape her. He allows his lover into their marital bed and demeans Isabella by talking of the 'stink of French mare' within earshot. He takes her lands from her and gives her an income that's only a 'fraction' of her previous income. (The confiscation of her lands is certainly true, but Isabella received an income that was almost half of what she had received before. This whole thing was unpleasant and deeply unfair on Edward's part, but I don't think almost fifty percent is a 'fraction' which instantly reduced her to rag-wearing penury.) There's even a series of novels, published some years ago, by the same writer who's invented much of the above in his non-fiction, that depict Isabella as the victim of sexual assault and rape at the hands of her father and three older brothers in childhood.

Almost all of this is absolute nonsense. The tale about Edward giving Isabella's jewels to Gaveston was invented by Agnes Strickland in the nineteenth century. The idea that Isabella was forced to endure an excessively long wait for any income is not borne out by comparison with other grants of dower in the early fourteenth century (it took about three months, and the situation was complicated by the fact that Edward II's stepmother Marguerite, Isabella's aunt, was alive. Compare this to the more than two years Isabella forced her daughter-in-law Philippa of Hainault to wait for her own rightful lands). The tale that Edward abandoned Isabella weeping in May 1312 was based on one chronicler's confusion of events of 1312 and those of 1322, and is disproved by their own household accounts of that year which show that the royal couple left Tynemouth at the same time and that Isabella travelled by land to meet her husband a few days later, being in the first trimester of pregnancy and therefore deciding to avoid the North Sea. The most egregious invention is the idea that Edward deliberately and cruelly removed Isabella's children from her, and since the late 1970s when this daft notion was first dreamed up, we've had novels where Isabella's young children are ripped, screaming, from their mother's arms, after Isabella has spent much of the novel telegraphing this cruelty by stating over and over how dreadful it would be if she lost her children. For pity's sake. The whole absurd melodrama of it all; it's less subtle than a sledgehammer.

A lot of the modern inventions about Edward II and Isabella of France's marriage make me deeply uncomfortable. According to several writers, Isabella did not only endure the Worst Marriage Ever, she was raped, sexually assaulted, demeaned and humiliated. I posted about a French comic last week, published as recently as 2012, which has Edward bringing Hugh Despenser into Isabella's bed to, ahem, get him ready to make love with his wife (this results in their son John of Eltham). After a dejected Isabella climbs out of bed afterwards, Edward and Hugh prepare to have some proper fun now that the horrible chore is over, and Edward says loudly that he has to give himself a good wash to get rid of "the stink of French mare." This is not only grossly homophobic, it's grossly sexist. Piling utter humiliation on a woman, turning her husband into a nasty gay caricature who loathes women and who gets a kick out of demeaning his royal wife and queen in the coarsest, crudest way possible, is simply revolting.

Two books published as non-fiction in the twenty-first century enthusiastically push the notion that Isabella was a victim of rape and sexual assault at the hands of Hugh Despenser the Younger, based on nothing more than rhetorical questions and, so it seems to me, perhaps based on a belief that to be considered 'strong' to a modern audience, a woman has to be the survivor of sexual assault. And not only are we told that Isabella's husband permitted his own lover to assault her sexually or even to rape her, her own father and three older brothers do too in a series of popular recent novels, before Isabella marries Edward and when she is still only a child. Seriously, what the hell is this? Why does this happen? Why do people do this? Why do Isabella's fans feel this need to pile ever more abuse and humiliation on her? And why do people complain on the one hand about the 'sexual prejudices' suffered by Isabella but think it's a mighty fine idea to pile homophobic abuse on Edward II? Why is it OK to accuse people of deeply serious, violent crimes without the slightest evidence? Why is it seen as a good idea to rescue Isabella from the opprobrium heaped on her for so long by heaping it on her husband instead? The whole thing is so childishly simplistic, no nuance, no depth, just idiotically one-dimensional Good People and Bad People. Even stuff like Isabella being forced to endure the company of Eleanor Despenser née de Clare, supposedly foisted on her by Edward and Hugh against her wishes, paints the queen as a helpless, passive victim who couldn't even choose who she wanted to spend time with. I just don't get why people do this. The absolute last thing Isabella of France was, was a helpless, passive victim.

After suffering so so so so so so so much at the hands of her nasty cruel perverted gay husband, the story goes, Isabella finally finds love and fulfilment and great sex in the arms of a strong manly virile heterosexual lover who is, conveniently enough, the exact opposite of Horrid Gay Edward. This is a narrative that's been created in fairly recent times and has had the names of real people added to it. It's not true. There's not one part of it that's even remotely close to being historically accurate. Actually it's about as accurate as Braveheart.

Basically, Edward and Isabella's relationship was a royal marriage that was actually, all things considered, pretty successful for a number of years, until Hugh Despenser the Younger returned from exile in March 1322, began to dominate Edward and the government, and decided to sideline Isabella. That Edward let him do it, when Isabella had always been such a supportive and affectionate partner, is one of the fascinations of the reign. Relationships are complex, and the reality is far more interesting than the usual 'horrid gay man torments his tragic neglected wife for years on end' narrative. What did happen between Isabella, Edward II and Hugh Despenser - and even, for that matter, with Hugh's wife Eleanor, who seems to have been more than usually close to her uncle Edward - in and after 1322? I don't know, but I do know that an awful lot of what has been written about them has been sheer nonsense.

Isabella's two daughters Eleanor of Woodstock, duchess of Guelders, and Joan of the Tower, queen of Scotland, both did endure unhappy marriages. Eleanor's husband rejected her and pretended she had leprosy, Joan's husband took a parade of mistresses, one of whom was killed by David II's disgruntled barons as a result of her excessive influence over the king (shades of Piers Gaveston). In stark contrast to Isabella, I don't think I've ever seen a single person complaining about what Eleanor and Joan endured, and I'm afraid I find it hard to accept that homophobia doesn't play a part in the endless weeping and wailing over Isabella's supposed suffering at the hands of her husband. Compare the usual treatment of Edward II's extra-marital liaisons to the endless romanticising of the relationship between the very married Roger Mortimer and Isabella, and the endless romanticising of the long-term adulterous relationship between Edward and Isabella's grandson John of Gaunt and his mistress, later his third wife, Katherine Swynford. I don't recall ever seeing anyone taking the slightest interest in the feelings of Gaunt's second wife Constanza of Castile, or Roger Mortimer's wife Joan Geneville. Oh, but John of Gaunt and Roger Mortimer took female lovers, so that's all right then.

Isabella of France would not recognise herself in the popular modern narrative of her life. She was a royal autocrat, a fourteenth-century woman, not a modern woman plonked down 700 years ago with modern ideas of equality or finding fulfilment in the arms of a manly lover. She wouldn't recognise her immensely physical powerful husband - remember, Edward II was called 'one of the strongest men in his realm' - in the absurdly caricatured modern depictions of him as a weak, feeble, camp court fop, which say far more than about the people who write them than they do about Edward II. 


sami parkkonen said...

Well, since we are inventing the story if Isabella, here is my take on it:

Well educated and trained since her birth Isabella is married to the king of England as it was custom among the royal houses to use marriages as policy tools. She still in her early teens but lucky for her husband Edward is a considered man and does not force himself to her before she is physically ready and willing emotionally.

His husband has a friend whom he loves very much but this friend lets her take the role of the queen and together they do what they can to support the king in mutual understanding. She is there when her husband the king loses this friend and she is there when he has problems with his subjects, namely his barons who plot against him almost all the time, murdering his loved friend.

They live rather happily for years and have hot sex even when visiting France, her home country, and have several children. But then things go haywire when another knight steps in and slowly edges her out of the inner ring of the king. As the time goes by she realizes that this knight is on a power grab mode and is ready to go so far as to make her husband think that she might be working with France against him.

She goes to visit her relatives in France and gets the idea that she could throw the knight out by orchestrating an invasion of sorts. She manipulates a dumb knight in exile to lead the mercenaries and once her son, the future king, is safe she launches her expedition.

To her great surprise most of the barons side with her and the invasion is successful, actually too successful as her husband the king is thrown out of the office too. To make her sorrow go away she goes on a spending frenzy and tries to forget the pain and then it is claimed that her imprisoned husband has been murdered.

She realizes that the knight she brought with her had gotten ideas too big for his head and as the noose tighten around her and her son, she makes a preemptive strike. She lets one of her men to tell her son how to attack Nottingham castle in secrecy and what time the power grabbing knight and his ilk are at one place alone.

The operation is successful and she gets rid of the knight and her son takes the throne. By now they have heard that her husband is not dead but alive so her son takes care only of those who were the ones directly guilty of his fathers overthrow. He puts his mother on nice castle, gives her enough money and she enters the life of the former queen and lives her days in relative peace, still loving her husband the king to the very end.

Now that would be slightly different version. But as truthful as any of those victim Isabella fables full of garbage.

Amanda said...

Kathryn, it does get awfully tiresome reading about Isabella's horrendous life with Edward.
There is no evidence that Edward was an overbearing monster towards her. When the marriage did break down Isabella was a woman, having borne Edward 4 children, and again, no concrete evidence that Mortimer and herself were actually lovers.

Edward was a decent and thoughtful man, being a good few years older than his wife and when they were first married he rightly did not force a conception. In contrast, he showed her respect and friendship (possibly love) until she was of an age to begin motherhood. Nice and caring man, I say.

In comparison, let us just think of Margaret Beaufort (Henry VIIs mother) who was sent off to Wales to marry Owen Tudor at aged 13 (I believe) and had her son; the event nearly killing her being so young and body immature. Edward did not subject Isabella to that ordeal.

The records show that Edward was extremely kind and considerate to Isabella and she wrote the most endearing letters to him - hardly a woman feeling violated and used. As we know, years went on and the marriage collapsed but Edward was a thoughtful and sensitive man for most of the marriage.

Kathryn Warner said...

Well said, both! I find it genuinely astonishing that so many people whine about Edward 'neglecting' Isabella in the first years of their marriage. Would they prefer it if he'd made her pregnant at 12 or 13? Of course not; then they could whine even more about his abuse of her and lack of consideration. Edward II really is damned if he did, damned if he didn't as far as a lot of people are concerned.