27 June, 2009

Edward II and Eleanor Despenser

This is a continuation of my last post - entries from Edward II's chamber account of 1325/26 relating to the king's eldest niece Eleanor, née de Clare, wife since 1306 of his chamberlain and favourite Hugh Despenser the Younger. The account is a fascinating illustration of the significant position the couple held in the king's life in the 1320s, and in fact two contemporary Flemish chronicles even claimed that Edward was having an incestuous affair with his niece. Whatever the truth of that, it's obvious that Eleanor was extremely important to Edward in the last years of his reign, and here are a few examples of his great affection for her.

Hugh Despenser is usually just called 'Sir Hugh', mons' Hughe, with no surname necessary - which in itself is evidence of his dominant position at court - or sometimes 'my lord Sir Hugh' or 'my lord Despenser', mon seign' le Despenser. Eleanor is usually referred to as 'my lady, Lady Eleanor Despenser', ma dame dame Alianore la Despensere. Isabella, always called 'my lady the queen', is the only other woman acknowledged with the honorific 'my lady' - other noblewomen, even Edward's niece the countess of Surrey and sister-in-law the countess of Norfolk, are not. Hugh and Eleanor's eldest son Hugh (born c. 1308) also appears in the account on occasion, called by the nickname 'Huchon'.

- I'd known for ages that Edward II had a ship called La Alianore, The Eleanor - 'Eleanor' was always spelt Alianore, Alianor, Alienora etc in the fourteenth century - and had assumed it was named in honour of his mother Eleanor of Castile or his grandmother Eleanor of Provence or even his daughter Eleanor of Woodstock. As it turns out, the ship's full name, as revealed by an entry in a chamber journal of 1323, was La Alianore la Despensere.

- Edward visited Eleanor at Sheen on the night of 2 December 1325, sailing along the Thames from Westminster and taking along only eight attendants. It appears that Edward rowed himself and that his attendants followed behind in another boat, which would hardly be surprising, given what we know of him. (This being the king who bought his own fish, invited sailors and carpenters to dine with him and went swimming in the Fens with "a great concourse of common people.") He gave his niece a whopping hundred marks or sixty-six pounds, and the chamber account says the money was "paid to my lady, Lady Eleanor Despenser, as a gift, by the hands of the king himself, when he went from Westminster to Sheen to my said lady and returned that same night to Westminster."

- Eleanor must have been heavily pregnant at the time, as on 14 December, Edward made an offering of thirty shillings to the Virgin Mary to give thanks for the fact that "God granted her a prompt delivery of her child." (As this was probably her ninth or tenth baby, I suppose it's hardly surprising that her labour didn't last long.) To the annoyance of Susan Higginbotham and myself, who would love to know when and in what order the Despenser children were born, the clerk didn't give the child's name or even specify if it was a boy or girl. Honestly, you'd think these people didn't care at all about the needs of historians 700 years later!

- On 1 January 1326, as her New Year gift, Edward gave Eleanor a palfrey with saddle and all other necessary equipment, and paid Wat Somer for looking after the horse and Richard de la Grene, Eleanor's 'chief carter', for taking it to her at Sheen (Edward was a hundred miles away at Haughley near Stowmarket, Suffolk). If the king gave Hugh something for New Year, too, it isn't recorded here - in fact, the palfrey is the only New Year gift to anyone recorded in the chamber journal.

- Edward gave Jack the Trumpeter ten shillings on 9 October 1325 for bringing him forty-seven goldfinches in a cage from Dover. The reason for this is clarified in the next entry, where Edward paid Will of Dunstable to look after the birds "until the arrival of my lady Despenser," for whom Edward had bought them as a present. In early December, however, Jack the Trumpeter was paid a pound for bringing Edward thirty goldfinches in a cage. Were these different goldfinches, and if so, who did the king intend them as a gift for? Or had Will failed in his allotted duty and allowed seventeen of the birds to die? And why, as Susan Higginbotham reasonably asks, only forty-seven and not fifty goldfinches in the first place? I can only speculate. What is especially interesting is that the word 'goldfinches' appears in English in the middle of the French text: q’ porta au Roi vne cage od xxx Goldfynches.

- Edward and Eleanor dined alone together in Windsor park on 11 July 1326. The entry about this one is fascinating: a cook named Will was given a present of two pounds - a lot of money for a cook, a year's wages or almost - and a hackney "on which he followed the king to my lady Despenser when they ate privately in the said park." Does Edward taking a cook with him mean that Will prepared their meal in the park, i.e. that they had some kind of picnic? 11 July, during a summer when the Pauline annalist says there was a drought in England, is likely to have been a hot sunny day.

- In July 1326, a couple of weeks after the picnic with Eleanor, Edward gave Hugh a manuscript of the doomed love story of Tristan and Isolde. For some reason this gift was not recorded in the chamber account at the time but a few months later, and is one of the last entries before the account abruptly ended on 31 October 1326, sixteen days before Edward's and Hugh's capture.

- In early June 1326, Edward sent his sergeant John de Mildenhale with twenty marks as a gift for Eleanor, called 'my lady, Lady Eleanor Despenser, consort of Sir Hugh'.

- the day after Edward visited Eleanor at Sheen at night in December 1325, there's an entry recording that she gave him vne robe de iiij garnamenz, 'a robe of four...?' I'm not sure how to translate the last word in this context - it usually means garments or clothing in general, or riding gear or some kind of armour.

- Edward stayed at Sheen, where Eleanor was also staying, from 12 to 18 October 1325. Meanwhile, Hugh Despenser was in Wales: an entry of 9 October says that he was at Caerphilly, and he was still "in the parts of Wales" on 18 November, when Edward wrote to him there. The two men kept in frequent touch while apart, although, frustratingly, their letters don't survive or at least have never been discovered.

- Edward paid Eleanor's expenses while she was staying at Sheen that October, and ordered forty bundles of firewood for her chamber. He also paid her expenses at Leeds Castle in Kent when she was staying there on another occasion.

- Eleanor wrote to Edward shortly before 30 December 1325, when the king paid her valet John a pound for bringing her letters to him. She was still at Sheen (or was at Sheen again) in February 1326, when Edward gave ten shillings to his valet Syme Lawe, sent there with the king's letters to his niece.

- In March 1326, Edward gave Eleanor a silver hanap worth twenty pounds, and Hugh a silver cup worth twenty-two pounds.

- And finally for now...in July 1325, Edward paid three shillings for two gallon jars of honey to make sucre de plate for Eleanor, which I assume means some kind of sweet (sucre means sugar). But I've only gone through part of the manuscript, so no doubt there will be more interesting discoveries about Edward, Hugh and Eleanor in the future!


Susan Higginbotham said...

Great information! Loved the picnic bit. And I always wanted to know when Edward II gave Hugh Tristan and Isolde!

Kate Plantagenet said...

Great info Alianore! So Edward liked the company of his niece...? How wonderful....and people accused him of something untoward with Eleanor? Harsh.

Please forgive my ignorance...what is a hanap? I could google it I suppose...*grins*

Kathryn Warner said...

Susan: the picnic one is my favourite, too. Wonder if Eleanor rode her new palfrey there and used her expensive new hanap?

Kate: the story appeared only in the Low Countries - English chroniclers didn't mention it. It's all pretty weird. Oh, and a hanap is a kind of goblet. ;)

Anerje said...

Fascinating post. I take the view that Edward was very fond of his niece - and there was nothing untoward in the relationship. Although Edward, Hugh and Eleanor would make a fascinating '3 people in this marriage' scenario :>

Jules Frusher said...

You've been doing some great transcribing/translating lately and bringing much interesting stuff to light and for that I want to say thank you!

Edward was certainly very fond of Eleanor and, whatever the true nature of their relationship, he certainly treated her as a mistress would have been treated. At the very least they must have been best of friends, which must have been a great comfort to both of them with Hugh (mysteriously) away so much!

Kathryn Warner said...

Anerje: now I have an image of Eleanor sorrowfully batting her heavily eye-linered eyes and whispering 'there were 3 of us in the marriage'. :-)

Lady D: you're more than welcome, and anyway, it's a quid pro quo for all your hard work on setting up the website!

I wouldn't want to accuse Ed of incest without more convincing evidence, but I can certainly understand why some people might have thought there was more than a close familial relationship going on.

Kate Plantagenet said...

Perhaps Ed wanted to BE Eleanor (ie married to Hugh!) and he went out of his way to make her feel special. What a sweetie.

Carla said...

Edward does seem to have been very close to Eleanor indeed, doesn't he? Perhaps she could make him feel loved (not necessarily in an untoward sort of way), though if contemporary rumour thought there was something dodgy going on they had plenty of material. I wonder if Edward meant something by that gift of Tristan and Isolde? One could read all sorts of Freudian messages into that.
(Let's see if Blogger lets me comment for the first time in weeks! At least it didn't crash as soon as I tried to read the post, which is a good start!)

STAG said...

just checking to see if this ancient windows ninety eight will actually allow me to comment. Yup, seems okay to me.

Now please allow me to state how wonderful your blog is. Very fascinating.

Kathryn Warner said...

Kate: he really was a sweetie, wasn't he?? Bless him...

Carla: great to see you back, and touch wood, changing the comments template and removing the followers widget seems to be doing the trick, comment-wise.

I wonder if Eleanor was Ed's confidante, someone he felt he could trust absolutely, and that's why he spent so much time with her during the crises of 1326. Then again, I can see why some of their 'encounters' might have led some people to conclude that there was a lot more going on.

STAG: thank you for the lovely compliment, and great to see you here!