14 February, 2019

Edward II and Isabella of France, 1322-1326

After the Tynemouth incident in the autumn of 1322, when Isabella of France rather unfairly accused Hugh Despenser the Younger of deliberately leaving her at the priory there in danger from a Scottish army - Isabella conveniently forgot that Hugh's wife Eleanor was at Tynemouth with her and he was hardly likely to arrange for his own wife to be captured by the Scots or to abandon her to her fate - it seems that there might have been a temporary rift in the royal marriage. On 23 December 1322, Edward II announced that the queen was going on a pilgrimage to various sites around the country, something she seems not actually to have done, so this might have been a politic excuse to explain her absence from court. The king also declared on 26 December that Isabella's clerk William Boudon was to travel to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain "to fufil a vow made by Queen Isabella", and to my mind this vow to leave her husband's realm seems likely to have been something Isabella shouted in the middle of a quarrel with Edward. [CPR 1321-4, pp. 227, 229] It might not have been, of course, but the timing of Isabella's declaration that she wanted to go on pilgrimage to Santiago seems a little suspicious to me. ("So you're taking Hugh's side over mine, huh? I'm going to leave England and go to Santiago and THEN you'll be sorry!")

The royal couple seem not to have spent Christmas 1322 together in York, though they did keep in touch via letter: Edward paid the queen's messenger Jack Stillego ten shillings for bringing her letters to him on 19 December. It is entirely possible that there was a temporary rift in Edward and Isabella's marriage, probably caused, at least in part, by the queen's blaming Hugh Despenser for abandoning her at Tynemouth and the king's refusal to accept that Hugh had done anything wrong. It was at Christmas 1322 that Edward shouted threats at his own niece Elizabeth de Burgh and tried to force her to give up some of her lands to Hugh Despenser, something which is hardly likely to have endeared Isabella to her husband. As for Eleanor Despenser, however, she and Hugh conceived a child shortly after Eleanor and the queen had supposedly been 'abandoned' at Tynemouth by their respective husbands, and the couple seem to have been getting on perfectly well - even, apparently, after Eleanor must have witnessed her husband and uncle bullying her sister Elizabeth.

For the first few weeks of 1323, until early March or thereabouts, Isabella was in London, and Eleanor Despenser (pregnant for at least the ninth time) was there with her. There's really no reason to think that Eleanor was the queen's jailer or a spy, as two fourteenth-century chronicles claim and has been repeated as though it's certain fact ever since. Isabella was not a helpless passive victim who could be forced to spend time - over many years - with an attendant she loathed, and it does her a disservice to paint her as such. One of the chronicles who makes this claim, Lanercost, was written decades later, and although it's an excellent source for events in the north of England and in Scotland, there's no particular reason why a monk cloistered at Lanercost Priory in the far north of England would have been privy to what was happening at Edward II's court in the 1320s. The other chronicle is the Flores Historiarum of Westminster, far closer both in time and place to Edward II's court, but written after his deposition perhaps with the aim of justifying it and of blackwashing Edward as much as possible, and therefore not entirely to be trusted. Eleanor Despenser is first recorded as attending Isabella in the autumn of 1310, and had probably done so since the young queen arrived in England in February 1308. In 1311/12, a year when Isabella's accounts fortuitously survive, Eleanor spent many weeks in her company and they travelled around the north of England together. The two women had been on excellent terms for many years, and to me it does not seem that the queen held Eleanor responsible for her husband's misdeeds or held a grudge against Eleanor because of Hugh's behaviour. On the contrary, it seems that she enjoyed Eleanor's company.

Isabella of France and Eleanor Despenser wrote virtually identical letters in support of Joan Mortimer on 17 February 1323, when they asked the chancellor to ensure that the money promised to Joan and her attendants during her husband Roger Mortimer of Wigmore's incarceration was paid promptly. [SC 1/37/4 and 1/37/45] On 5 March 1323, Edward II, in Knaresborough in Yorkshire, sent Eleanor's horses down to London, so apparently she was still with the queen then. Isabella's letter on behalf of Joan Mortimer is sometimes used as evidence that she was in cahoots with Roger Mortimer, imprisoned in the Tower of London, but Eleanor Despenser sent the exact same letter on the exact same date from the exact same place, so it hardly seems reasonable to use the queen's letter as evidence of her collusion with Roger while ignoring Eleanor's. The two women were staying at the Tower of London when they dictated their letters in support of Joan, which does not automatically imply that Roger had any contact with Isabella, or with Eleanor, for that matter. The prison cells of the Tower were far away from the royal apartments, and besides, Joan Mortimer was perfectly capable of petitioning the queen and the queen's niece-in-law herself, and Eleanor and Isabella were both perfectly capable of deciding to help an imprisoned noblewoman off their own bat without requiring any male involvement. Roger Mortimer escaped from the Tower on 1 August 1323, and Eleanor Despenser, at Cowick in Yorkshire with her husband, her uncle the king and perhaps with the queen, gave birth to a child on almost the same day. Isabella's itinerary is difficult to establish for most of the rest of 1323 and for a large part of 1324, but that in itself doesn't mean a great deal, or necessarily prove anything; her itinerary is also almost entirely unknown for a few other years of her husband's reign and even during her own period of power early in her son's reign. Same with Edward III's queen Philippa for much of her forty-year marriage.

On 1 January 1324, Queen Isabella was with King Edward at Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, and they exchanged gifts on that date, as they always had (each gave the other a cup - don't you hate it when that happens?). Eleanor Despenser was also at Kenilworth and exchanged gifts with her uncle. (For the record, also cups.) If Edward and Eleanor's husband Hugh the Younger also gave each other presents, it's not recorded in Edward's surviving accounts that I've ever seen - but then, I suppose Edward's gift to Hugh of "Here you go, rule my kingdom and dictate my foreign policy and do whatever the heck you like to anyone" was a bit tricky for the royal clerks to record. Around this time, the queen sent letters to the royal justice John Stonor on behalf of Eleanor Despenser's chaplain John Sadington. Eleanor herself wrote to Stonor about her chaplain on 6 February 1324, and mentioned the letters sent to him on the subject by 'our very dear lady the queen'. [SC 1/46/4] This is one example of Isabella and Eleanor's closeness, and another is that Eleanor 'talked great good' of one of the queen's household squires to the king in 1325 and Edward gave him a cash bonus. Isabella sent another letter from Westminster on 27 February 1324, and Edward II was at Westminster on that day as well. [SC 1/36/38]

At Christmas 1324, Edward and Isabella were together at Nottingham, and again exchanged gifts on 1 January 1325, though this year the royal clerks didn't record what the gifts were. Edward gave a total of 100 shillings to three of his wife's female attendants on Christmas Day. The king and Hugh Despenser went to Derbyshire just before the New Year, while Isabella and Eleanor Despenser went to Kenilworth together, and the two women sent Edward his New Year gifts via two servants called Adam and Robynet (q' mena au Roi son nouel don de ma dame la Roigne, 'who brought the king his new gift from my lady the queen'). Isabella sent Edward at least three letters, on 6, 11 and 18 January 1325, during the period they were apart. Whether he reciprocated, I don't know, as the queen's own accounts don't survive and therefore there are no records of payments she might have made to the king's messengers. I'm not sure when the two were reunited, but they were together at the Tower of London in late February and early March 1325, before Isabella set off for France on 9 March. Unfortunately her letters to her husband don't survive either, only records of the payments Edward made to her messengers for bringing them to him, though a long extent letter from Isabella to Edward dated 31 March 1325 when she was in France reveals that she addressed him five times as "my very sweet heart" (mon tresdouz cuer).

Of course it's impossible to know from the extant records how Edward and Isabella were getting on, though they do seem to have spent a lot of time together after their apparent spat in late 1322; where Isabella's location is known between 1323 and 1325, she was in the same place as her husband, except for the first few weeks of 1323 and for part of January 1325. Being in the same place doesn't automatically mean that all was well between the two, of course, though the exchanging of gifts at New Year 1324 and again in 1325 might at least imply that they were trying. Edward, unkindly and unjustly, confiscated his wife's lands in September 1324 during his war against her brother Charles IV of France, which Isabella was clearly (and understandably) incandescent about, and, unlike earlier in his reign, she doesn't appear in the chancery rolls between 1322 and 1325 interceding with him on behalf of others, as she had often done before. It does seem that something had gone badly wrong between them, even though Edward didn't 'steal' their children from her custody in 1324 (that's one of those wretched myths that refuses to die). Judging by Isabella's speech to the French court in late 1325 as recorded in the Vita Edwardi Secundi, the queen believed a third party to have come between her husband and herself, and spoke on several occasions of her fear of Hugh Despenser the Younger to the point where she believed her life to be in danger from him. She threatened to destroy him, and when Edward II ignored her ultimatum to send Hugh away from him, she allied with Despenser's baronial enemies on the continent to bring him down. 

The 9th of March 1325 when the queen sailed to France - or rather, several days before this, as Edward did not travel to Dover with his wife but remained in London - may well have been the last time Edward and Isabella ever saw each other in person. Edward heard of Isabella's refusal to return to him from France by mid-November 1325 when he cut off her funding, and had it proclaimed throughout his kingdom on 8 February 1326 that she had made an alliance with the English rebels who had fled to the continent, led by Roger Mortimer of Wigmore. Throughout 1326, Edward's fury with Isabella is apparent from the way he called her simply 'the king's wife' or 'his [Charles IV of France's] sister, our wife'. In his last known letter to her, dated at the beginning of December 1325, he addressed her abruptly as Dame or 'Lady', as in "And you know for truth, Lady, that..."). The royal couple were furious with each other in 1325/6, Isabella because Edward confiscated her lands and treated her like an enemy alien despite all her years of loyal support, and because of his excessive favouritism to a man she loathed; and Edward because Isabella actually decided to do something about the whole unpleasant situation and didn't just accept it, and because she allied with men he deemed his enemies.

One Flemish chronicle says that Edward II and Isabella of France met in person several weeks after the queen's invasion of her husband's kingdom on 24 September 1326. Supposedly Isabella fell to her knees in front of Edward and begged for his forgiveness, but he refused to talk to her or even to look at her. We don't know for sure that the two ever met after the queen's invasion and no other chronicle states that they did, though it certainly isn't impossible. Edward's chamber account was only kept until 31 October, and he definitely hadn't met the queen in person before that, though did pay spies on a few occasions for keeping him informed of her movements. In this reading, the unwillingness to reconcile and to try to rebuild their broken relationship came from Edward's side, not Isabella's. In the conventional interpretation of the dramatic events of 1325/26, Isabella is now no longer the helpless victim of her cruel neglectful husband and his nasty lover. It's Edward II who is now presented as a passive victim of his wife, who refuses to see him and who despises him and his sexuality and is deeply in love and lust with Roger Mortimer. It's always assumed that it was Isabella who was calling the shots and who made the decision not to return to Edward, Isabella who was in charge and who decided that their marriage was dead and that she'd prefer to live with her manly virile heterosexual lover Mortimer, thankyouverymuch. The Flemish chronicle cited above puts an entirely different spin on the matter. Whether you believe the evidence of this chronicle or not, it's a reminder that we don't really, truly know even things that we think we know; a reminder that a lot of Edward II and Isabella of France's story is a narrative that's been constructed with a considerable amount of hindsight and that has had a particular spin put on it. It's so easy and so tempting to repeat a story whereby a woman is the long-suffering victim of a cruel husband and his male lovers and comes to hate him and who falls in love with a manly heterosexual lover who heals her pain by giving her lots of awesome sex and helps her get revenge on her husband and his minion, but that doesn't necessarily make it true. Isabella of France was surely absolutely furious and exasperated with her husband in and after the autumn of 1322 and especially after he confiscated her lands in September 1324, and she had very good reasons to be, but it's a pretty big step from being angry with your husband and the father of your children to actually ordering his murder.


Undine said...

What seems particularly puzzling to me about this whole sad business is how Hugh obtained such a powerful hold over Edward--to the point where the king was willing to take his part no matter what, even over a wife he seems to have had at least some affection for. Piers Gaveston, from what we know, was a charming fellow who may have had a smart mouth, but from what I've seen, did little real harm to anyone. One can understand Edward's love for him. Hugh, on the other hand, comes off as a deeply unpleasant, even dangerous man. What on earth did Edward see in him?

Kathryn Warner said...

Undine, to me that's one of the most intriguing puzzles of the era, and I'd give a great deal to know. It strikes me that Hugh might have been exceedingly manipulative, and he was certainly ambitious and ruthless beyond the telling of it. In my bio of Hugh and in an academic article I had published recently, I talk about how Edward was deeply involved in at least a few of Hugh's felonies - numerous instances of extortion and false imprisonment. I also wonder what on earth Edward thought he was doing and how the heck he got himself caught up in all this, to the point where he was causing harm to his own subjects to benefit Hugh. The more I think about it, actually, the more I think there was something pretty sinister going on, and I examine it more in my forthcoming bio of the de Clare sisters, Edward's nieces, including Hugh's wife Eleanor. Stephen Spinks, who published a bio of Edward in 2017, has some very interesting thoughts on this too in his book.

Anonymous said...

Great article. Is it just my imagination or is there more evidence that Isabella loved Edward than that she loved Mortimer? (and wouldn't this upset some apple carts!) After all, AFAIK, there is nothing between Isabella and Mortimer similar to: her claims in France about interference, and, her burial with her wedding clothes and her husband's heart.


Kathryn Warner said...

There's no evidence that Isabella loved Mortimer, except for the assumption that she 'must have done' because she allowed him to rule alongside her from 1327 to 1330. Apparently you can't have close political allies without necessarily falling in love with them and sleeping with them, or something.

sami parkkonen said...

My firm belief is that there was a power play in the court between Isabella and Hugh. People seem to forget how much Isabella had been involved in the politics of the realm before these events and that she had been raised to rule as a queen from early on. So she really was not a push over.

I also believe that she saw Hugh as her enemy and opponent and vice versa. Unlike Piers Gaveston, with whom Isabella had no problems at all, Hugh was a cool and calculating guy who knew what notes to play with the king. Yes, Edward and Hugh might have been "in love", but more likely Edward really liked him and absolutely trusted him more than her own wife, who happened to be a sister of the king of France. And Edward being Edward acted without too much strategic thinking when he treated her wife as an enemy, no doubt Hugh promoting this agenda as much as he could.

Hugh was in many ways like the ruthless banksters and white collar criminals of our times and acted like a mafioso in many cases. He was able to get Edward involved into his schemes and plots and Edward really did not think everything through at all. Maybe he was playing games with some servants or joking with some mule drivers, I have no idea. But we can see that Edward let the ruling very much into the hands of Hugh as if he just did not care. Big mistake.

As for Mortimer and Isabella. I bet Isabella used him because he was there. She was no fool and with her brother backing her she was able to make Mortimer as a "leader" of the rebels and the invasion force. I bet she knew that Mortimer would take most of the wrath and/or hate projected against the king's enemies. Mortimer was her "shield man" in the modern parlance, meaning a practical figure head. People even today think he was somehow the main man in the whole plot BUT without Isabella he would have had nothing nor any chance to win. It was Isabella around whom the barons and lords gathered and her son they swore alliance. Not Mortimer.

I also believe that Isabella would have never taken Mortimer into her bed. She was a royal. She was The Queen. She was not a damsel in distress nor she was just anybody. Being royal blood of France meant something people today forget: she was part of the holy royal blood line which was anointed by God. The king of France in medieval times saw himself as being appointed in the office by God alone. Thus the popes who were french and served the interests of France in many ways. Being a french royal meant that you were semi-divine.

Plus when Mortimer and Isabella could have been in bed? She was never alone. Chambermaids were right there 24/7. She had other servants and bodyguards too. She was lucky if she was able to have any privacy in the toilet, if even there. He had his own entourage and servants. The idea that they somehow had a secret relationship and acted like lovers today do is ridiculous.

sami parkkonen said...

And there is also her son. Yes, he was very handy at the beginning of the invasion and few years after that but Isabella knew all the time that one day he would be the king. He would sit on the throne and rule and he was not like his father. He was only seventeen when he toppled Mortimer and took care of hated Roger M and made his kingship a reality.

I also happen to believe that it was Isabella who orchestrated this coup. Her son was outside the Nottingham castle while she was in there under the watchful eye of Mortimer. Isabella knew that Mortimer had gotten some ideas of his own, that he should actually be the king, and that her sons life was in danger and perhaps hers too. Someone inside the Nottingham castle sent out the information where Mortimer was located inside the walls and how to get in. And with a handful of men Edward II managed to do something which many older knights and barons had failed: he captured Mortimer and threw him in jail. Nothing happened to his mother, the queen.

Had the young and very tuff king even suspected that her mother had been against him or that she had had a hand in his fathers murder, things would have been very different between those two. Actually nothing exceptional happened. She lived out her days as a dowager queen in very comfortable surroundings and he looked after her in the normal manner. Mortimer was dealt with without any hesitation AND had Isabella been soooooooooo in love with him she would have tried to save him. She did not. And that says a lot.

Paul Brownsey said...

"a manly heterosexual lover "

Homosexual lovers can be very manly, too.

Kathryn Warner said...

Of course. Roger Mortimer being 'strong, manly, virile and heterosexual' is a direct quote about Isabella and Mortimer's relationship from a book published (unfortunately) in the 21st century. I'm taking the piss out of this attitude, in case it wasn't obvious, and have been doing so ever since the book came out in 2005. Edward II was famously 'one of the strongest men of his realm', a quote from a 14th-century chronicler. Anyone who thinks he can't have been strong and 'manly' simply because he wasn't straight is a prejudiced idiot.