04 November, 2007

Did Edward II Abandon Queen Isabella in 1312?

There's one scene which appears to be obligatory in Edward II novels (Susan Higginbotham's The Traitor's Wife thankfully being an exception), and in most non-fiction works too. The scene takes place at Tynemouth in early May 1312. Piers Gaveston has returned to England illegally, and his and Edward's baronial enemies are pursuing him. Taken by surprise at the imminent arrival of the earl of Lancaster, Piers and Edward flee Newcastle and meet Isabella at Tynemouth Priory. They then depart by boat to Scarborough, abandoning Queen Isabella, pregnant with Edward's heir. The scene must contain one of the following: 1) a distraught Isabella pleading with Edward not to leave her, or 2) a distraught Isabella watching her husband depart with Piers without so much as a goodbye to her. The narrative and/or the other characters will make many disparaging comments about the 'fact' that Edward is far more concerned with his favourite than with his pregnant wife, and is negligent towards her to the point of callousness.

Is there any truth to this often-reported, tragic story of a weeping, abandoned Isabella? Is it accurate to say, as Alison Weir does, that Edward had "twice fled and left her behind, all in order to keep his favourite safe, and with little thought for her own safety, even though she was carrying his child"? The statement that he 'left her behind' twice is presumably a reference to the fact that Edward sent Isabella from Newcastle to Tynemouth on 23 April, probably fearing that the earl of Lancaster (her uncle) might seize her and use her as a hostage. Weir states here that Edward sent Isabella to Tynemouth for her "safety" and so that she "could escape by sea if necessary". However, on the very next page, this changes to 'leaving her behind' with "little thought for her safety".

Admittedly, there are two chroniclers which mention that Isabella begged Edward in tears not to leave her (which Weir of course presents as a certain fact): Thomas Walsingham and John Trokelowe. But Walsingham died in 1422, which means that he can't have been born much before 1360 or 1370 - half a century later. Hardly a reliable source! Trokelowe, although writing not too long after these events (though after 1330, as he refers to Mortimer's execution) was a monk of St Albans. St Albans is 270 miles from Tynemouth, so Trokelowe is hardly likely to be a reliable witness of these events. The many northern chronicles - Lanercost, Gesta Edwardi de Carnarvon, Meaux, Walter of Guisborough, Thomas Grey, Ranulph Higden - do not mention the incident. Neither does the very well-informed author of the Vita Edwardi Secundi, who was probably a royal clerk and who wrote about Edward II's reign with great detail and accuracy.

In my view, Edward was, in fact, doing his best to protect Isabella, and was deeply concerned about her welfare. After leaving Tynemouth to head for Scarborough, he and Piers spent a full five days bobbing about in a small boat on the North Sea - a bleak, cold, uncomfortable prospect, even in May - and was surely anxious to spare Isabella such a horrible journey, especially as she was about three or three and a half months pregnant. The risk of miscarriage, which is at its highest in the first three months or so, may have factored into his decision. (Tynemouth is about ninety miles from Scarborough, by road anyway.)

Another, rarely-mentioned fact is that Piers Gaveston was ill at this time. On 26 April, a doctor named William de Burntoft and a monk named Robert de Birmingham were each paid £6, 13 shillings and 4 pence for treating him. Isn't it possible that Edward II was keen to keep Isabella and Piers apart, to ensure that she wasn't infected? That his hurried departure from Tynemouth, the day after he and Piers arrived, might have sprung from anxiety over Isabella's welfare, and - naturally - concern for their unborn child?

Edward II's biographer Roy Martin Haines has stated that the story that Isabella was abandoned, and contacted by the earl of Lancaster to promise her that he would remove Piers from the king's side, "has the appearance of a fictitious tale." He and Paul Doherty have speculated that Trokelowe, the St Albans chronicler, confused the incident with another time when Isabella was at Tynemouth Priory, in 1322 (next post).

Edward II left Piers at Scarborough Castle, and hurriedly travelled the forty miles to York. In the meantime, Isabella and her household travelled via Darlington and Ripon...to York, where she met her husband a mere nine, or eleven at the most, days after he had so cruelly 'abandoned' her. Obviously, this was a prior arrangement. The day she arrived, Edward reimbursed her controller for the expenses - twenty pounds - she and her household had incurred. Isabella, when leaving Tynemouth, was so keen to be reunited with her husband that she left many of her possessions behind. She remained utterly loyal to Edward and clearly felt safer when she was with him. If not, there were a thousand other places where she could have travelled instead, if she'd been angry with Edward and his 'callousness' towards her.  Edward and Isabella stayed together in York, Beverley, Kingston and Burstwick for the rest of May and almost all of June.

Does any of this sound like a woman angry and resentful with her husband for abandoning her and putting the well-being of his favourite over hers? Not to me. The royal couple didn't see each other again until 9 September at Westminster, but this was not because of ill-feeling on Isabella's part. Edward was deeply involved in defending himself and his kingdom against the earls of Lancaster, Warwick, Hereford and Arundel. The country teetered on the brink of war, and no doubt he thought that his pregnant queen was safer in the north, hundreds of miles from where he was engaged in furious discussions with Gaveston's killers.

From early September, Edward and Isabella spent almost all of the remainder of 1312 together (Isabella gave birth on 13 November). They retired to Windsor together in the middle of September. They spent Christmas together at Windsor, with their baby son. They remained at Windsor together until the end of January 1313, then travelled together to Westminster. From the middle of September 1312 to early February 1313, there are no more than a dozen days when king and queen were not together. There's a common theme of 'together' here, isn't there?

[In the next post, I'll be re-examining another occasion when Edward II is frequently said to have callously abandoned Isabella, in 1322.]


Gabriele Campbell said...

I think it was quite normal at the time that kings moved around more than their queens, and particularly when the queens were pregnant. But if you want to make Ed the bad wolf of the fairy tale, everything works, I suppose. :)

Kathryn Warner said...

LOL! Of course, if Ed had taken Isa on the boat and she'd miscarried, or if he'd let Piers stay near her and infect her and she'd miscarried, he'd be slammed even more. Damned if he did, damned if he didn't. And he'd be depicted as an even bigger badder wolf than he is now. ;)

Unknown said...

It's interesting that Isabella wrote to Edward in sympathy after Gaveston's death - I never knew that!

Carla said...

It wasn't unusual for a king and queen to move around separately. I suppose that's why they had separate households and staff. Given that the barons were after Piers Gaveston, Isabella would surely have been in no danger from them in any case, and could simply have said "They went that way!" had Lancaster caught up with her. Presumably she had her staff and an escort with her on the journey to York? It all sounds no big deal, except for those two chronicles you mention.

I didn't know that Isabelle wrote to Edward in sympathy after Piers' death either. Can you tell us more about that in some future post?

Kathryn Warner said...

Liam, Carla: I'd love to write more about the letter, but unfortunately I don't know anything more about it, how it was phrased, etc. Isabella's opposition to Piers is often overstated - apart from the early months of her marriage, when she complained to her father that Piers had "caused all her troubles, by alienating King Edward's affection from her, and leading him into improper company", (!!) there's little evidence that she disliked him. It's possible she was glad that he was out of her life permanently, but she would never have made the mistake of telling Ed that. And with him gone, she could afford to show sympathy to her husband.

Isa had a household of close to 200 people, and you're right, Carla - she and Ed often travelled separately. (Although some people rather bizarrely seem to think that a medieval royal marriage existed on 'nuclear family' lines.)

The whole thing sounds like a storm in a teacup to me, and it irritates me that it's so often used as a stick for beating Ed and stated as fact that he deserted her. And why anyone thinks Isa would have been in any danger from her own uncle, Lancaster, being a) the queen and b) pregnant, is beyond me! :)

Anonymous said...

*intones importantly*

"I find in favour of the defense. Your client is free to go."

Yay, no more EdII bashing. You provide persuasive arguments defense lawyer Mistress Alianore.

Great work, you are slowly changing peoples ideas of certain parts of history. I agree with all you have said!

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Kate! *Edward II's official defence lawyer takes a bow*. ;)

I'd love to think I was changing people's ideas, but there's so much misinformation out there, far more widely read than my little blog...:(

Anonymous said...

Gabrielle C. what a refreshing way you look at my great-grandparents...Edward II, and all the others. I love the way you look at him and his life. He had his faults, I am sure, but you manage to go beneath all that and present a side that deserves another look. THANKS! Lady Shirley

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Lady S! The idea of the blog was to present Ed II in a more favourable light than usually seen - without whitewashing him - and I'm glad you think it succeeds. I'm lucky enough to get some great, insightful comments too.