23 September, 2020

A Sneer of Disdain: Isabella of France, the Victim

My friend, the historian and Francis Lovell biographer Michèle Schindler, came up with a fab idea recently. She and I were discussing our astonishment that some medieval women (mostly Isabella of France and Anne Neville) appear to have been sanctified and anointed as Official Victims, whereby every single thing that ever befell them is endlessly wept over, and writers fall over themselves trying to find new ways in which the women suffered more than anyone else, ever. Michèle and I, therefore, have written a Meeting of the Applicants Rejected by the Official Victimhood Group, which I'll post in a day or two; firstly, I just wanted to demonstrate what I mean about Isabella being endlessly portrayed as a victim, with examples.

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll know the drill. Isabella is a victim because Edward II didn't fawn all over her when she was twelve; she's a victim because there was a perfectly standard delay of a few weeks after her arrival in England before she received her dower lands; because Edward supposedly treated her like a 'brood-mare' or 'begat children on her and not with her'; because having an arranged marriage to one of the most powerful and highly-born men in Europe means she was a helpless, tragic pawn; because Edward failed to show any interest in her in the years between their betrothal and their wedding; because a modern writer invented a nonsense story that her husband stole their children from her; because Edward talked more to a dear friend he'd known for half his life at a banquet than he did to a twelve-year-old he'd only recently met; because Edward didn't love her or didn't love her enough or didn't love her uniquely and she was so so so so so special that she should have instantly become his one true love the nano-second he set eyes on her; and so on, ad bloody nauseam.

Pic 1, non-fiction published in the twenty-first century: A fifteen-year-old 'betrays no interest' in a four-year-old. A four-year-old who, because his previous three betrothals have all fallen through, is his fourth fiancée. A four-year-old whom he might, possibly, one day in the distant future, end up marrying, or then again he might be betrothed to someone else in a couple of years when the political situation and his father's foreign policy change. And where and how exactly would this interest manifest itself? Was the male partner in an arranged royal marriage generally expected to show an interest in his fiancée before their wedding? Did Lord Edward of England send excited letters to Doña Leonor of Castile in 1253/54, telling her 'Gosh, I'm so interested in the minutiae of your daily life, complete stranger'? Did Edward III send letters to Philippa of Hainault between their betrothal in August 1326 and their wedding in January 1328 that demonstrated a deep fascination with court life in Valenciennes? Did Richard II contact Anne of Bohemia saying 'Hey, Annie, what are you up to over there in Prague?' before their wedding in January 1382? If they did, I'm not aware of it. And another thing that occurs to me, given the age difference between Edward and Isabella, would it not be creepy if he did show an interest in her and in their future marriage? A twenty-year-old addressing a letter to a nine-year-old as his future wife? Yikes. But none of this is taken into consideration because those other queens of England aren't super important and super tragic like Isabella is, and the notion that an adolescent should show interest in the child he's been betrothed to as a means of ending a war between their fathers is taken for granted when the child is Isabella, because she's Just. That. Special. The fact that Edward, normally and unexceptionally, doesn't, means that OMG SHE'S SUCH A VICTIM!!!!

Pic 2, same non-fiction as before: The queen's dower lands were held by Edward II's stepmother Queen Marguerite from 1307 to 1318, so alternative arrangements had to be made for Isabella. These took a good few weeks to sort out, and she received her lands in May (not July) 1308 about three months after her arrival in England. (By way of comparison, Gilbert de Clare's widow Maud received her share of his estate six months after his death at Bannockburn, and it took officials another six months to divide up the de Clare inheritance for Gilbert's sisters.) Edward gave Isabella a household of close to 200 people, the largest any queen of England had ever had, and paid all the costs of it himself, but none of this is mentioned, because OMG SHE'S SUCH A VICTIM!!!! And she 'had to accompany Edward'? She had to spend time with her husband in royal palaces?! OMG SHE'S SUCH A VICTIM!!!! You just know that if Edward hadn't taken Isabella travelling with him, the narrative would be that she was abandoned, neglected, alone and unhappy, because the agenda is to portray Isabella as a long-suffering victim at every possible juncture. 

On 14 May 1308, Edward gave Isabella his French county of Ponthieu and its capital of Montreuil-sur-Mer, which he'd inherited from his Spanish mother the queen of England and his French grandmother the queen of Castile and Leon, but we're supposed to believe that 'there is no record of her receiving even petty sums' until July 1308, because OMG SHE'S SUCH A VICTIM!!!!

Pic 3, same non-fiction as before: Between Philippa of Hainault's arrival in England in December 1327 and the downfall of her mother-in-law Isabella in October 1330, only five acts of intercession by the young queen are recorded, so if Isabella managed three in her first few months in England, she was doing pretty well. In the seventeen years from February 1308 to March 1325, from her arrival in England until her departure for France, Isabella managed a total of seventy-nine acts of intercession with Edward II at an average of over four and a half per year. During the forty-one and a half years of Queen Philippa's marriage to Edward III, from her wedding in January 1328 until her death in August 1369, she made a total of seventy-six acts of intercession with her husband at an average of under two per year. On several occasions, Edward II let Isabella promote her clerks to bishoprics in opposition to his own choices, and on at least one occasion changed his mind and promoted her candidate instead. But none of this is mentioned because OMG SHE'S SUCH A VICTIM!!!! 

Pic 4, novel: "I was twelve, 12, as in twelve years old, as in the age that comes between eleven and thirteen, T W E L V E, and the people who were paid to pander to the every whim of the pampered pubescent daughter of the most powerful man in Europe assured me with complete sincerity and truthfulness that I was The Fairest Woman In All France
. Unaccountably, however, they failed to explain to me that 1) a girl of twelve is not a woman, and 2) men in their twenties don't fancy young girls with developing bodies unless there's something seriously wrong with them, and even if they didn't understand that, you'd hope that a writer in the twenty-first century might." 

Incredible though it may seem, this tediously one-dimensional novel published in 2010 invites us to share Isabella's disbelief that a grown man isn't 'struck dumb' at the beauty and desirability of a child, and encourages us in these opening scenes to begin to view her as the tragic victim of cruel neglect and disregard that the novel is desperate to paint her as. Even if Isabella herself as the first-person narrator doesn't understand it, there are plenty of ways to construct a narrative that would make it apparent that a modern reader isn't supposed to share her bewilderment and horror that an adult doesn't find a twelve-year-old desirable. And I'm 99.9% sure that the real Isabella didn't expect Edward to sleep with her, because, contrary to what a lot of people nowadays seem to think, it was not normal and usual in the fourteenth century for men in their twenties to have sex with twelve-year-olds. But the opportunity to write Isabella and Edward with depth and nuance is passed up in favour of the predictable OMG SHE'S SUCH A VICTIM!!!! routine, and in doing so, the novel presents a man as abnormal for feeling no sexual attraction towards a child. The obsession some writers have with turning Isabella into a victim in every possible way they can leads them down pretty dark and disturbing paths sometimes. 

Pic 5, two novels: Fans of the Victim!Isabella school of thought have a creepy tendency to use the word 'ripe' for her, as though she's a piece of fruit rather than a human being, and she's 'matured rich and fertile' too, like a field of crops. I don't think I've ever read a description quite so dehumanising and leering while obviously trying to be highly complimentary. And oh look, there's Edward giving a 'sneer of disdain' like the sneering pantomime villain he is. Because an unwillingness to have sex with a child of twelve can only possibly be the result of disdain or repulsion, and cannot under any circumstances be interpreted as a humane gesture intended to spare an extremely young girl the trauma of experiencing intercourse, pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood before she is physically, mentally and emotionally ready for it. Because that might make Edward sympathetic to readers rather than a cruel disdainful unnatural monster (who, several pages later, starts to 'snivel', because of course he does), and there might be one page of the novel where Isabella isn't a tragic heartbroken neglected victim, and that would never do.

Pic 6, non-fiction published in the twenty-first century: Isabella of France, one of the most awesome and powerful women in medieval English history, is written as a panting heroine from a bad 1950s bodice-ripper who 'surrenders herself' to Our Manly Hero's healing embraces. This is so, so bad it makes me want to bleach my brain. Make it stop make it stop make it stop.

There are of course far more examples of Isabella's super-tragic victimhood both from fiction and non-fiction, but I don't quite have the heart to get into any more now, because picking up books about Isabella of France involves having to read stuff like Edward II was 'too cowardly to become violent' with a woman and 'could not even beat his wife properly', and that raping a human being to death with a burning metal implement is 'ingenious', and I'm afraid I can't, I simply can't.


Anonymous said...

Great post. The "non-fiction" books you cited wouldn't be those by Doherty and Weir would they? Seriously ... your "victims group" sounds fun ... is it limited to queens, or, is Amy Robsart Dudley eligible? (Seriously, I think Amy and Anne are properly considered victims -- both had major health issues, and, medieval medicine was pretty awful.


Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Esther! Yes, they are, mostly the former. The victim group will be coming soon, and everyone is eligible, though I don't think either of us has enough knowledge of the 16th century to write Amy's part, unfortunately!

sami parkkonen said...

Some people have very serious issues flaunting sex with children as a great thing and at the same time they seem to have not a speck of dust worth of understanding of human nature and psychology. Yes, fiction gves one certain freedoms and more room to invent stuff but even that should be somehow credible, particularly if one is writing non-fantasy.

I have no idea how these people do not understand who Isabella was. They all seem to think she was just a girl from local school or someone who just happened to be thrown to England somehow. They seem to forget that she had been educated from the moment she could get any education for her future role as a queen or noble woman of the highest order. She knew that she was a royal, she lived that, it was her. And in medieval times being a royal was one step below God, just slightly lesser that the Pope, and in many times even the Pope was lower in the rankings.

These Victimizers somehow forget that it was Isabella, not Mortimer, who put together the invading force, who turned the barons of England against Hugh Despenser and her husband the King, it was her who kept it all together when Edward was put aside and even after his escape and disappearance, the official death, when everything could have fallen into pieces.

These people do not understand that for Isabella her son was Number One par nobody. She prepared the way for her son to become The King after his father. And she made sure that happaned when she organized the coup in which very young Edward III captured Mortimer and his closest men in the Nottingham castle. I firmly believe that is what happened after studying that event quite a bit. And that shows you what kind of a woman she really was.

She was very clever politician, very shrewd strategist, capable to think quickly and act so too if need be, she was able to move men and armies around, and all this time she was able to keep up some kind of peace. That is not a victim. That is THE QUEEN.

And as for Edward her husband? Was she afraid of him? Did she hated her? No. No. No. She used very exceptional names and terms when she wrote to him. One can see they were very intimate They had very close relationship, even when thing went down the drain. And her own funerals are testament of her thoughts towards her husband and the love that was there till the end. She hated Hugh, she was afraid of Hugh, and perhaps for a good reason. Not her husband.

What about their marriage? When it was going well, it was going exceptionally well for a royal marriage. In many many cases around Europe a royal couple really did not spent too much time together, barely going trough the Must: getting children, showing up in ceremonies etc. and most of time they might have lived apart for months and months and seeing each other only when need be. What about Edward and Isabella, then?

Well, they had their own posses yes, but when they were on an official visit to France they had sex so noisily that some hosts took note of that and when one house they were staying caught fire, it Edward who carried Isabella out from the burning building. That was quite exceptional in itself BUT they were both naked. Nude. in their birthday suits, as it was.

Now, why would they be naked like that at night? Why would he be the one carrying naked Isabella out from the burning house? They had servants, men at arms, all kinds of folks who could have done that. But no, it was The King himself carrying The Queen herself out from the inferno. Just think about that for a second. Does that look like she hated him and he loathed her and they were misarble all the time and all that BS?

Kathryn Warner said...

It's typical of the two non-fiction books I cite here that they entirely fail to mention Edward's role in rescuing Isabella from the fire and the fact that they were naked in bed together, because that's unhelpful to the 'Isabella as tragic unloved victim' narrative they're carefully constructing. One says 'Edward and Isabella escaped' and the other says 'Edward escaped unscathed' while Isabella's arm was burnt, giving the impression he fled and left her behind.

sami parkkonen said...

You are right. That incident alone would wreck the whole Isabella the Incredible Victim narrative and burn it down in one go. It would prove they had exceptionally close relationship and that they surely had fun in bed in a 21st century way at the time when in many other royal marriages the relationships could be almost icy. But like you said, that is not these writers want to tell. They do not want people to know how close Edward and Isabella were when things were going fine.

Piratejenny20 said...

EXCELLENT article! Oh,and if we need victims, there are 2 very obvious ones - Gaveston and Edward II himself, of course.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thank you ;-)

Fiz said...

Don’t forget the remarriage of Richard II to Isabella of Valois. She was a little girl and he treated her kindly but like a little girl because that’s what she was. Much later Louis XV was betrothed to a much younger Spanish princess. I think she was four or five. He was fifteen and furious to have this tiny little girl tagging along after him. Given the proclivities of Louis XV it was thought advisable to marry him to a more age appropriate princess and cute Spanish princess was sent back to Madrid. Men then knew how to behave appropriately with younger girls and Louis XV didn’t liked younger women until much later. Miaow!

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Fiz! There's also Henry III, aged 28, marrying Eleanor of Provence, probably aged 12 and certainly no more than 13, in January 1236. I wonder if he's a cruel unnatural monster if he didn't fawn all over her.

eimeara said...

You are right Kathryn, just because these older guys didn't fawn over their child brides did not make them cruel.
In my book they were gentlemen

They were waiting till the girls bodies matured and also wanted to gain their trust.
It was only King John who seemed to be different. He couldn't wait to get his hands on Isabella of Angouleme could he??