In my last post, I looked at an occasion when Edward II is often slammed for supposedly abandoning his pregnant and distraught queen because he was more concerned with Piers Gaveston's welfare. Here's another occasion where he's also often said to have deserted her, and left her in danger from the Scots.
The autumn of 1322 saw yet another disastrous campaign against the Scots. (It was disastrous for Edward II on a personal level, too; it's almost certain that his illegitimate son Adam died on the campaign.) Although Edward - "chicken-hearted and luckless in war", as the Lanercost Chronicle not unreasonably called him - wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury on 18 September that he had high hopes for the success of the campaign, Robert Bruce and his troops poured down into Yorkshire and defeated an English force at Byland on 14 October. Queen Isabella, at Tynemouth Abbey, was in danger from a possible attack by the Scots, and perhaps even capture. Some of her household squires did their best to repair the Abbey's fortifications, and commandeered a ship to take the queen to safety -itself dangerous, as the North Sea was rife with Flemish pirates. One of Isabella's ladies in waiting died during the escape, and another went into premature labour and also died later.
Isabella herself blamed Hugh Despenser the Younger for her plight: it was one of the charges against him during his trial in November 1326. Paul Doherty agrees; he states "The de Spencers [sic] decided once again to place the Queen in danger." Other historians blame Edward II for his cowardice and callousness (again!) in fleeing, and allowing Isabella to come close to capture by his enemies.
But what really happened? Is it fair to blame Edward II or Despenser? In my view, no. Edward, as so often, showed concern for his wife's plight, and, despite the danger he himself was in, did his best to help her. Edward was staying at Rievaulx Abbey, east of Thirsk in Yorkshire, when he received the news that Scots forces were advancing towards him. Understandably keen to avoid capture, he fled - leaving his baggage and state papers behind - to Bridlington, on the Yorkshire coast, south of Scarborough.
Edward is often criticised for leaving Isabella behind. But he and Isabella were not together. He and Despenser didn't sneak out of the castle or abbey where they were staying and leave her there. Tynemouth, where Isabella was, is eighty miles north of Rievaulx where Edward was, and 108 miles from Bridlington, where he fled to. Edward could hardly make his way north, through Scots lines, to rescue her himself - and eighty miles meant several days' riding. But he didn't 'forget' about her or ignore her existence or leave her to her fate. Unable to fetch her himself, he did the next best thing: he ordered men he trusted to help her.
Firstly, he commanded Thomas Grey, constable of Norham Castle, to take Isabella under his protection; should Scots troops approach Tynemouth, Grey was to enlist the assistance of the constables of all the castles in the northeast. Secondly, he ordered the earls of Richmond (his first cousin and a later ally of Isabella and Mortimer) and Atholl (Scots, but loyal to Edward) and his household steward, to raise troops, including some of the younger Despenser's men, and go to her aid. However, Isabella would not accept the aid of Despenser's men, even though they would be commanded not by Despenser himself, but by three men she had no reason to distrust. So, thirdly, Edward II sent Sir Henri de Sully, a well-known French knight and Isabella's countryman, to travel to Tynemouth with troops, to protect her. Unfortunately Sully was caught up in the chaos, and captured at the battle of Byland.
I really don't understand why Doherty says that Despenser and his father deliberately put Isabella in danger, as his own ensuing account of the events makes clear that Isabella's plight came about as a result of an unfortunate combination of unplanned and unpredictable circumstances. Unless he believes that a) Despenser dragged Isabella to the north of England kicking and screaming, b) ordered Robert Bruce to invade Yorkshire, and c) arranged for Scots troops to seize Henri de Sully, it's hard to see how he could have arranged Isabella's capture.
Doherty also fails to notice that Despenser's wife Eleanor de Clare was with Isabella at Tynemouth Abbey. This is certain: Edward II sent a letter to Eleanor, his niece, on 13 September, and later sent her thirteen pieces of sturgeon. He sent Isabella twenty pieces. It seems improbable in the extreme that Despenser would want his own wife to be captured by the Scots.
If Isabella had been captured by the Scots, Edward II would have had no choice but to pay a vast ransom to get her back. Even if we assume that both he and Despenser were desperate to "get rid of her" (Doherty), which I don't believe for a second, his barons and public opinion would have demanded that he pay the ransom, or lead another expedition into Scotland to free her. Either of these options would have cost an insanely large amount of money - something that the acquisitive Despenser, and the only marginally less acquisitive Edward II, would have wanted to avoid at all costs.
It is the case that Isabella herself blamed Despenser for the situation. However, and this may come as a great shock to some historians, who seem to think that everything Isabella said or thought or believed is automatically the gospel truth, this doesn't necessarily make it true. Isabella, no doubt, was badly shaken and probably very angry about what had happened. Far easier to lash out and blame another, than accept her own - partial, at least - responsibility for her own predicament and the deaths of two of her ladies. Even Isabella's apologist Alison Weir says that "the accusation [against Despenser] was hardly justified."
If Isabella refused to allow Despenser's men to come to her rescue, even though Despenser himself wasn't present and she had no reason at all to fear the men who actually commanded the troops, then she only had herself to blame. And in 1326, all the evils of the past few years were heaped on Despenser's head. Many, perhaps most, of the charges against him are completely fair and justified. But some are not. Despenser was used as a scapegoat by people who, in November 1326, didn't yet dare put the blame on Edward II himself. Blaming him for failing to rescue Isabella at Tynemouth is pretty cheap.
It's fair to criticise Edward II for his military ineptitude in 1322 (and not only in 1322!) But it's not fair to criticise him for fleeing from Robert Bruce at Rievaulx - what was he supposed to do, stay there and allow himself to be captured? How would that help Isabella? Yes, perhaps another man would have tried to fight his way north to rescue Isabella himself. But that was a very high-risk strategy with a tiny chance of working, and if he had been captured, no doubt historians now would slam him for going to Tynemouth himself when he had hundreds of men who could go instead.
And it's not fair to criticise him for 'callousness' or indifference to Isabella. The letters ordering men to protect her that he dictated at great speed - they're almost illegible - are still extant, and show that she was on his mind and that he was doing the best he could. Why was Isabella in the north of England anyway, during a military campaign? Why didn't she stay in the south? And it's worth noting that no English chroniclers found the situation significant enough to mention. It's only known from the charge against Despenser in 1326, and a French chronicle, the Receuil des Historiens des Gaules.
But of course, some historians and novelists are desperate to portray Queen Isabella as the Helpless and Long-Suffering Great Victim of her cruel and negligent husband...