12 January, 2010

Your Parliamentary Report Today: Punches In The Face, An Illegal Marriage, A Twenty-Month Pregnancy And The Price Of Fat Shorn Sheep

Whoever said political history was dull, eh? It's almost the 694th anniversary of Edward II's eventful parliament at Lincoln, which took place between 27 January and 20 February 1316. The author of the Westminster chronicle Flores Historiarum, who loathed Edward II ("Oh, the insane stupidity of the king of the English!" being fairly typical of how he wrote about him) writes amusingly of Edward's trip to Lincoln in early 1316: he "set off with all speed, he and his silly company of swimmers, for the parliament which he had ridiculously caused to be summoned to Lincoln," misdating Edward's swimming and rowing holiday in the Fens of September/October 1315 to December/January. [1] Edward and Queen Isabella, who had in fact spent Christmas and most of January together at Clipstone in Nottinghamshire, arrived in Lincoln on 27 January; Isabella, though she may not yet have known it, was a few weeks pregnant with their son John. Parliament sat variously in the chapter house of the cathedral, the house of the Carmelites and the hall of the dean of Lincoln, and the king stayed in the dean's lodgings. In January 1316, England was in the grip of the Great Famine, and Edward announced via his spokesman William Inge (a royal justice who according to one chronicle pronounced the death sentence on Piers Gaveston in June 1312, though given the favour subsequently shown to him by Edward II this is extremely unlikely) on 28 January that he wished proceedings to pass as speedily as possible, to ease the burden placed on the city by the presence of so many people demanding food. Unfortunately, his cousin the earl of Lancaster thwarted the king's wish, arriving in Lincoln on 10 February and finally deigning to attend parliament - which could not begin properly without him - on the 12th, more than two weeks late. To Edward’s great annoyance, parliament appointed Lancaster as his chief counsellor, and the earl thus finally gained an official position in the government he had unofficially dominated since the parliament of September 1314. Parliament requested of the king’s "dear cousin" that "he might be pleased to be chief of his [Edward's] council, in all the great or weighty matters concerning him and his realm," and Lancaster, "for the great love which he bears towards his said lord the king," (ha!) graciously agreed. [2]

Hugh Despenser the Younger, then in his mid to late twenties, who had been Edward II's nephew-in-law for a decade but had not yet reached the lofty heights of The King's Great Favourite, attacked a baron named John Ros in Lincoln Cathedral - oops - in front of the king - ooops - on a Sunday - oooops. Angry that Ros had tried to arrest Ingelram Berenger, one of his father’s knights - and possibly also already angry with Ros for marrying Margaret Goushill, widow of his brother Philip Despenser, within half a year of Philip's death - Despenser repeatedly punched him in the face until he drew blood, and "inflicted other outrages on him in contempt of the lord king," forcing Ros to draw his sword in self-defence. Despenser claimed after his arrest, with amusing implausibility, that he had merely stretched out his hand to defend himself and accidentally hit Ros in the face with his fist, after Ros "heap[ed] outrageous insults on the same Hugh [and] taunted him with insolent words," and rushed at him with a knife. Despenser was fined a whopping £10,000, which he never paid, and Edward II cancelled the fine a few years later after Despenser had become The King's Great Favourite.

Twenty months had passed since the earl of Gloucester fell at Bannockburn, Despenser was desperate to get his hands on his wife Eleanor's third of her brother's vast inheritance, and once more raised the subject of the dowager countess's supposed pregnancy. He had been claiming for a few months – correctly, of course – that it was impossible for Maud de Burgh to be pregnant by her late husband. Two royal justices, Gilbert Touthby and Geoffrey le Scrope, told Despenser that the Countess Maud "at the due time according to the course of nature, felt a living boy, and that this was well-known in the parts where she lived, and that although the time for the birth of that child, which nature allows to be delayed and obstructed for various reasons, is still delayed, this ought not to prejudice the aforesaid pregnancy." The justices reprimanded Despenser and Eleanor for failing to apply to Chancery for a writ "to have the belly of the aforesaid countess inspected by knights and discreet matrons," and as they had not observed due process, their negligence would redound to their own shame and prejudice. Ah, the legal system at its finest. You couldn't make it up.

Also at the Lincoln parliament, Edward received the unwelcome news that Gloucester’s youngest sister, his niece Elizabeth, had taken a second husband without his permission: Theobald de Verdon, former justiciar of Ireland, seventeen years her senior and the widower of Roger Mortimer’s sister Maud. It is unclear whether Elizabeth consented to the marriage or not; Verdon told Edward that the couple had arranged a betrothal while still in Ireland, and that on 4 February 1316, Elizabeth "came at the command of the said Theobald one league outside the said [Bristol] castle," and they married, though there was a suspicion that he had abducted her. No doubt the mouth-watering prospect of Elizabeth's third of the de Clare inheritance – as soon as Edward and the royal justices stopped pretending that her brother’s widow was pregnant – and her jointure and dower lands in Ireland overrode any considerations of possible imprisonment and the £1000 fine Verdon had to pay Edward for marrying without royal consent. Hugh Despenser must have been furious; the marriage gave Edward II an excuse to keep on delaying the partition of the earl of Gloucester's inheritance (which revenues in the meantime were pouring richly into his own coffers), and it took until late 1317, nearly three and a half years after Gloucester's death, until the lands were finally partitioned among Gloucester's three sisters and their husbands.

In March and April 1315, Edward and his council had attempted to fix the price of various basic foodstuffs, in an attempt to alleviate the misery of his starving subjects. These regulations failed completely and were revoked at the Lincoln parliament, which met the approval of the Bridlington chronicler: "How contrary to reason is an ordinance on prices, when the fruitfulness or sterility of all living things are in the power of God alone, from which it follows that the fertility of the soil and not the will of man must determine the price." [3] Here are some of the fixed prices of 1315: a "fat sheep" should cost no more than twenty pence if unshorn and fourteen pence if shorn; an ox not fed with corn a maximum of sixteen shillings, or twenty-four shillings if fed with corn and fattened; a live fat cow, twelve shillings; a fat chicken, one and a half pence; twenty-four eggs, one pence. [4]

Also at the Lincoln parliament, Edward II heard the grim news of Roger Mortimer's defeat at the hands of Robert Bruce's brother Edward in Ireland the previous December and that a rebellion had begun in South Wales - which I'll write a post about soon. One bright spot, at least, appeared on Edward's gloomy horizon: the knowledge that Queen Isabella was expecting another child. On 22 February, the king asked the dean and chapter of the church of St Mary in Lincoln to "celebrate divine service daily for the good estate of the king and Queen Isabella and Edward their first-born son." The reference to ‘their first-born son’ indicates that Edward knew of Isabella’s pregnancy by then. A month later, he gave twenty pounds to John Fleg, horse dealer of London, for a bay horse "to carry the litter of the lady the queen" during her pregnancy, and paid Vannus Ballardi of the Lucca banking firm the Ballardi almost four pounds for pieces of silk and gold tissue, and flame-coloured silk, to make cushions for Isabella's greater comfort while travelling. [5] (Oh, the poor neglected woman and the grotesque travesty of her marriage!)


1) Flores Historiarum, ed. H. R. Luard, vol. iii, p. 173.
2) The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, ed. Chris Given-Wilson et al. Anything not otherwise cited in this post comes from PROME.
3) Gesta Edwardi de Carnarvon Auctore Canonico Bridlingtoniensi, in W. Stubbs, Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II, volume 2 (1883), pp. 47-48.
4) Foedera, Conventiones, Litterae et Cujuscunque Acta Publica, vol. II, part i, pp. 263, 266.
5) Cal Pat Rolls 1313-1317, p. 398; Frederick Devon, Issues of the Exchequer: Being A Collection of Payments Made Out of His Majesty’s Revenue from King Henry III to King Henry VI Inclusive, p. 131; Thomas Stapleton, 'A Brief Summary of the Wardrobe Accounts of the tenth, eleventh, and fourteenth years of King Edward the Second', Archaeologia, 26 (1836), pp. 342-343.


Susan Higginbotham said...

Ah, but Edward was mean to Isabella during her pregnancy--making her ride in that litter with those comfy cushions when all she wanted to do was to ride astride and free, like the wind.

Clement Glen said...

As you say you just couldn't make it up!

"Accidentally hit Ros in the face with his fist!"

"Have the belly of the aforesaid countess inspected by knights and discreet matrons."

Who said history was boring?

Christy K Robinson said...

Inspecting the belly: Is this the 14th-century equivalent of a full-body scanner?

Anerje said...

Great post Alianore - and yes, it was Hugh's response that had me laughing out loud as well. What an excuse, eh? And I can't believe the countess spinning a pregnancy out for 20 months! Talk about overdue!

Hmm - did Edward have official swimmers? J/k!

Kate Plantagenet said...

How wonderful to have you back and posting! YAY!!!

Why did Lancaster hate Edward so much?

Have you done a post on Lancaster himself? (can't remember!)

The author of the Flores Historiarum really disliked Edward and liked Lancaster didn't he? Kind of obvious from his writings.

No wonder the barons hated Hugh if he got away with not paying a £10,000 fine! I would have been a bit miffed if someone got away with that too! Seemed he was above the law - but so many of them seemed to be at that time!

Thanks and sorry about all the questions - maybe it will continue to snow where you are and there will be plenty of time to blog! hehehehehehe

Kathryn Warner said...

Susan: aha, of course! Even when That Horrid Ed was seemingly being kind to Isa, he was being cruel and neglectful, really. :)

Clement: great stuff, isn't it??

Christy: my mind boggles as to how the knights were supposed to inspect the belly of a countess!

Anerje: thanks! I can understand Ed's motives in pretending to believe in the pregnancy (keeping the revenues in his own hands as long as poss) but what Maud was playing at, I can't imagine.

Kate: thank you! It's great to be back and posting. I haven't done a post on Lanc yet but hope to before too long, when I'll look at his relationship with Ed - it's complicated, as they started off as close allies before they were enemies. The author of the Flores loathed Ed, to the point where it really makes me giggle because he's so hysterical about Ed's stupidity and what-not.

No more snow here at the mo, unfortunately, but will try to blog as often as possible!

Carla said...

"Oh, the insane stupidity of the king of the English!"
Just substitute 'PM' for 'king' and the chronicler could earn a living writing current headlines almost anywhere in Fleet Street :-) Plus ca change, and all that.

I always wondered, did anyone ever try to fix the price of a scrawny sheep or a skinny chicken? One imagines there would have been rather more of that kind about :-)

Gabriele Campbell said...

Edward probably was a hardy man, but I doubt even he would swim in open waters in January. :)

And while his attempts may have failed or were thwarted by Lancaster, Edward at least cared for the people, and that's more than most king did. Maybe because he came in closer contact with them than most kings.

But a king dealing with the 'common folk' was not looked upon fondly in the Middle Ages. Fe. Heinrich IV had lots of problems because he picked his advisors for skill and loyalty and not regarding their noble birth. How shocking. :)

Kathryn Warner said...

Carla: good point. ;) And I wonder how many arguments there were about chickens and sheep, with the seller claiming they were 'fat' when in fact they were only skin and bone!

Gabriele: yeah, that seems a bit chilly even by Ed's standards. :)And wow, what shocking behaviour on Heinrich's part. ;)

Gabriele Campbell said...

Oh yes, he was a bad boy. Heinrich was a child when he became king and there was a lot of hassle between the regents and would-like-to-be regents, so the first thing he did when he came of age was to send the lot packing and called in some men he could trust.

Kathryn Warner said...

I've just googled Heinrich, Gabriele, as I didn't know anything much (well, anything at all, if I'm honest) about him and from what you've told me, he sounds fascinating. Aha, so he was the Canossa one!

Gabriele Campbell said...

Yes, he's the one of Canossa fame and I've mentioned him on my blog a few times. He's one of the German characters I want to write more about (together with Otto the Great, Otto IV, Duke Heinrich of Braunschweig, Theophanu), but there's always the problem of so many ideas that require research, so little time. :)

Kathryn Warner said...

Just had a laugh re-reading your meme, and aha, I remember who he is now! Unfortunately, I get a bit confused with the Heinrichs. :)

And yes, I know the problem - so much fascinating research we could be doing, and so little time to do it in. :)

Gabriele Campbell said...

I know, there's too many Heinrichs. :) But it would be worse if I spelled the name Henry - that would only add the English ones to the mix. :)

The name was quite popular in Germany until about WW2, then it pretty much died out. My grandfather was a Heinrich (and the other one Otto. Heh).

Kathryn Warner said...

LOL, yeah, all those Henrys and Edwards must get confusing. :)

Otto, heh! I know a couple of Germans called Henry, the English way - one born in about 1970, the other in the early 2000s, the son of an acquaintance of mine. Think everyone I know is far too young to be called Heinrich, though. :)

willson said...
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炒米粉Ken said...
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Manly Wodge said...

And Herein are the seeds of destruction sown. My Defeat by the Bruce's brother in Ireland, and revolt in Wales (I read that post first) over an Ill informed decision of who to appoint in the Marches. Powerful figures squaring up against each other in front of the king, Then, to cap it All, Lancaster effectively declaring himself more important than the King by making Parliament wait until he decides to attend, then for his audacity, getting appointed to such a powerful position.All with a famine in the background. Was Edward actually weak as a person, or was it more that that he was unable to satisfy the personal ambition of the powerful lords without upsetting other ones. Were the seeds for his own destruction sown during his fathers reign?

S said...

I had never read so many historical anecdotes before i found this blog.
It's great.

Hugh seems to me so brave. I like him.

Thank you!

Kathryn Warner said...

Thank you, S, really glad you enjoyed it!