28 February, 2011

Book Review: The Darkening Glass by Paul Doherty

The Darkening Glass by Paul Doherty, published in 2009 by Headline Publishing.  This is the third novel in Doherty's murder mystery series featuring Mathilde ('of Westminster'), a French physician who joins the retinue of Isabella of France and travels to England with her when Isabella marries Edward II.  All the novels are narrated in the first person by Mathilde herself in old age, sometime after 1358 (as she mentions that Isabella is dead and - GAH - buried next to Roger Mortimer at the Greyfriars in London.  No, she wasn't!).  The first novel is set at the time of Isabella's marriage and arrival in England in 1308, the second a few months after this as Edward's barons try to get Piers Gaveston exiled, and Darkening Glass in 1312, covering the period of Piers' return from his third exile and his murder.

Darkening Glass is typical Doherty, and no doubt will please his legions of fans with its vivid depictions of fourteenth-century life, glimpses into power politics and a juicy whodunit.  For me, there's too much description in Darkening Glass and in Doherty's novels in general; this is a matter of personal taste, but I find the pace of the novel too slow and I get a strong sense of déjà vu from his previous novels - Doherty seems to recycle a lot of his descriptions of street scenes, clothes, feasts and so on.  I don't want to give away the novel's plot, but much of it hangs on Doherty's theory that Edward II has lost interest in Piers Gaveston, who is bitterly jealous of Isabella's pregnancy and her influence over her husband, aware that he is losing the king's favour, and blackmailing Edward in desperation.  Unfortunately I don't come anywhere close to believing this, so much of the novel didn't ring true to me and therefore I found it very hard to enjoy it.

Doherty's author's note at the end of the novel says that Edward II's reaction to Piers Gaveston's murder was "strangely muted.  He called Gaveston a fool, and only much later did he kindle his angry hatred against the earls....".  That made me blink rapidly.  Edward very nearly went to war against Piers' killers the earls of Lancaster, Warwick and Hereford in the summer of 1312, and the Vita Edwardi Secundi says "having summoned his counsellors, he enquired from them what should be done about these things, although he had already decided to destroy those who had killed Piers."  Other chroniclers comment on Edward's desire for revenge and on the utter rage he felt towards Piers' killers.  Yes, what Edward said in public, as recorded by the Vita, might sound callous - but (assuming the words are accurately recorded) to me they're a sign not of indifference but of deep shock and horror - focusing on how a terrible event can have happened before the trauma of losing a loved one has had time to sink in.  Anyway, actions speak louder than words, and it's perfectly obvious that Edward II adored Piers Gaveston, felt deep grief and rage at his death, yearned for revenge, and cherished Piers' memory for the rest of his reign.  Although Doherty's take on events of 1312 is original and fresh, and his portrayal of Piers' death is moving, it's too far removed from reality for me.

Doherty also claims in his author's note that "Isabella's separation from her husband during the crisis was also very curious, bearing in mind that she was pregnant."  I'm really not sure what he means here.  The queen wasn't separated from her husband for most of the period from mid-February to late June 1312, and was with him at York when he heard of Piers' death on or before 26 June (Alison Weir in her biography of Isabella also misses the fact that the king and queen were together when news came of Piers' murder).  Edward left York for London on 28 June leaving Isabella behind, which strikes me as an entirely sensible, understandable and thoughtful precaution to keep her out of harm's way in the north if he went to war against Piers' killers, not least because she was pregnant.  He summoned her south a few weeks later when the situation had calmed somewhat.  Doherty also claims in the author's note that "Isabella was trapped at Tynemouth and had to fight her way out.  Some chroniclers place this in 1312, others 1323, and others claim that such an escape happened twice."  I don't know of any chroniclers who place this event in 1312 or say that it happened twice; one French chronicle says that she had to escape from Tynemouth in 1322 (not 1323) when Robert Bruce's army was nearby, but the story is not mentioned by any English chronicler that I've seen.  Isabella's own household book proves that she didn't have to 'fight her way out' of Tynemouth in May 1312 and was not 'trapped' there: she travelled uneventfully to York by land and was reunited there a few days later with her husband, who had gone by sea via Scarborough with Piers Gaveston.  (See here and here.)  Paul Doherty's author's notes and lists of historical characters almost invariably contain errors, such as calling Piers Gaveston the 'duke' of Cornwall, calling Edward II's brother-in-law the earl of Hereford 'Henry Bohun' instead of Humphrey, saying that Eleanor of Castile died in 1296 (recte 1290) and that Edward I and Marguerite of France had four children (recte three), claiming that the 'duke' (recte earl) of Warwick himself stabbed Piers Gaveston to death with his dagger when in reality he wasn't even present, and so on and so on.  Most unimpressive.

One of the most problematic aspects of Darkening Glass for me is the way Mathilde, a first-person narrator, describes the queen: she constantly - or at least that's how it feels - tells the reader how incredibly beautiful and desirable Isabella is.  Mathilde is, throughout the series, in love with a former Knight Templar called Demontaigu, and there is no indication that she is sexually attracted to women.  Yet she describes Isabella like this:

"Queen Isabella was on the verge of full ripeness.  Sixteen summers old, she had matured rich and fertile, a fairy-tale Queen from the romances she so ardently read.  A beautiful woman, tall, willowy and slender, her face as perfect as an angel, with lustrous blonde hair, rose-kissed lips and eyes that could dazzle with life." 

This passage, especially the 'ripeness' bit, made me squirm, as did Mathilde/Doherty's reference in the prologue (which is set a few decades after the events of the rest of the novel) to Isabella's tomb at Greyfriars which contains "her beautiful body" (Isabella was in her sixties when she died in 1358).  We also get "She looked radiant...Never had she looked so glorious," "though beautiful and graceful, [she] was sturdy as an oak.  Sixteen she was, of full height...Pregnancy had brought a fresh bloom to those blue eyes and that golden face," "Her face, framed in a white wimple, looked truly beautiful, her skin translucent, those eyes a deeper blue, sensuous red lips slightly parted," and "Isabella was that rare flower, elegantly beautiful and lissom but in fact hard and tough as the finest armour in the land."  In the first Mathilde novel, Cup of Ghosts, she is said to have "a body even a friar would lust after."  OK, OK, Isabella has an incredibly beautiful, desirable body and an incredibly beautiful face.  I get it.

By contrast, the only physical description of Edward II I can remember in the entire novel is "Edward's face grew soft, smiling, full of that lazy charm that could so easily disarm you."  Shouldn't a woman who is supposed to be attracted to men notice and comment on the fact that Edward is tall, muscular and good-looking a wee bit more often?  Shouldn't Mathilde be noticing his 'beautiful body' rather than Isabella's, and why on earth would she be constantly thinking about Isabella's 'ripeness' and sensuous, 'rose-kissed lips' (whatever they are)?  I'm afraid the frequent and tedious talk of Isabella's amazing gorgeousness and 'beautiful [dead] body' struck me as the author leering over her.  There's a huge disconnect between what Doherty wants to describe and the way his chosen narrator would think and feel and react to those around her; he seems unable or unwilling to write from the perspective of a person who desires men, not women.  This has been a problem throughout the Mathilde of Westminster series, but it's particularly acute in the third one.  It seems to me too that no other woman in the novels is allowed to be either physically attractive or a sympathetic well-rounded character, and thus risk overshadowing Isabella.

Piers Gaveston, meanwhile, is "pretty-faced" and "a spoilt pampered fop," and has "woman-like features."  Well, of course he does.  He's Edward's lover.  We've got to get those stereotypes in there somewhere, and never mind the fact that the real Piers was a great soldier and jouster and - like Edward II himself - about a million miles away from being a pampered fop.  Piers' supporters, the so-called Aquilae Petri or 'Eagles of Piers' (an invention of Doherty's), have "foppish ways, curled coiffed hair, painted eyes...".  But of course.  They are supporters and allies of a man who is in love with and has sex with another man.  Obviously, despite being "deadly" and expert soldiers, they have to wear make-up and be as girly as possible.

Turning to characterisation in Darkening Glass, it's rather one-dimensional.  Stephen Dunheved, who temporarily rescued Edward from Berkeley in 1327 and joined the earl of Kent's plot in 1330, and is a Dominican friar here, is "a wolf disguised as a lamb," a fanatic, devious and evil; even in his author's note, Doherty calls him a "real and very sinister figure."  Err, why was Dunheved 'sinister'?  No idea.  Edward II is a feeble brainless idiot; Piers Gaveston has "a heart full of murderous deceit"; the Beaumont siblings Henry, Louis and Isabella, relatives of both Edward II and his queen, are an "unholy trinity, those imps of Satan, falseness incarnate..."; the earl of Warwick is "violent and malicious...the devil at the feast"; the earl of Hereford is fat and stupid; Isabella's father Philippe IV of France and her three brothers are evil and nasty and sex abusers to boot.  Edward III is mentioned briefly in the prologue, and has been depicted in previous Doherty novels as - bizarrely - some kind of raving psychopath.  (From Cup of Ghosts: "The king ordered me here screaming, his foam-flecked lips curling like those of a snarling dog.")  The Mathilde novels are plot-driven rather than character-driven, but still, I'd hoped for more subtle characterisation than this.  Pretty well all the characters in the series except Isabella, Mathilde herself and her lover Demontaigu are horrible and/or evil and/or stupid (with the exception of Margaret de Clare, who's a bland "little mouse"), and Isabella is, completely implausibly, perfect and wonderful with no character flaws whatsoever.  (As well as being incredibly amazingly beautiful and and having a gorgeous desirable beautiful body, in case you hadn't noticed.)

In Death Of A King, Doherty changed Edward III's date of birth by eight months in order to make Roger Mortimer his real father. (AGH!!!!)  In Darkening Glass he graciously allows Edward II to be the father of his own son, but we do get a passage that made me snort with laughter:

"In the February of 1312, the favourite's wife, that little mouse, the sanctimonious and ever pious Margaret de Clare, gave birth to a girl child.  Six weeks later, Isabella announced to a delighted court that she too was expecting a child.  I had known this since the Feast of the Epiphany [6 January].  I advised the queen that she was to be a mother: her courses had stopped for at least three months…"

Edward III was born on 13 November 1312, yet Mathilde knows at the beginning of January that Isabella is expecting - and it appears that Isabella's menstruation had ceased at least three months prior to that, so in September 1311.  Blimey, that's a long pregnancy, isn't it? 

Paul Doherty claims in his author's note that "The events of this novel are closely based on fact...".  Unfortunately, I'd have to disagree with that.  It's a slow-moving and rather implausible murder mystery based extremely loosely on real historical people and events.  I often feel with Doherty that the speed with which he writes his books - several a year - has a negative impact on their quality, and I don't think The Darkening Glass is one of his better ones.  Probably a good idea to go back to one of his Hugh Corbett novels instead.

23 February, 2011

Hugh Despenser Builds A Cattle Shed And Edward II Grants The Carmelites A Tunnel

A somewhat hotch-potchy post today mostly from Calendar of Inquisitions Miscellaneous 1308-1348, which might be titled 'random stuff about buildings I found interesting'.

Edward II spent a lot of time in the spring of 1317 at his palace of Clarendon in Wiltshire, of which very little remains today, sadly.  An inquisition of June 1315 found numerous defects which needed repair, and gives a lovely insight into the palace rooms ('l' means pounds, a pentice was a covered walkway and a garderobe was a toilet):

"The repairs required in the king's manor of Claryndone would cost 1830l besides timber, viz.
the king's chapel near the king's chamber 40l
the king's chamber 20l
the hall with pantry and buttery 100l
two kitchens with a passage and pentice between the hall and kitchens 120l, including the larder and saucery
the chamber with garderobe on the east side of the hall 40l
the chamber called 'Antioche' with garderobe 40l
the queen's chambers, with passage and pentice towards the hall and the queen's chapel 60l
the great cellar for the king's wine with the chamber above 400l
two chambers called the 'brethren's chambers' 140l
the chamber for the chancellor and the clerks of the chancery 20l
the chamber of the chaplains and clerks of the king and queen 20l
the east gate with the chamber above 20l
two chambers for the clerks 20l
the steward's chamber with the passage and pentice to the hall 50l
the chamber of the king's children with passage and pentice and staircase to the king's chamber 40l
the building for the chandlery 40l
the treasurer's chamber 40l
the chapel for the king's household 60l
the king's almoner's chamber 10l
the buildings for the marshalsea 100l
the chamber near the west gate with garderobe 60l
4 chambers of office 60l
the west gate with the chamber above 40l
walls, ditches, hedges and fences about the manor 300l.

All the defects...were caused by long neglect of roofing."

I love the fact that the 'chamber of the king's children' (though Edward II only had one legitimate child in June 1315) was connected to Edward's chamber.

Fulfilling his vow "when in danger" after the battle of Bannockburn to found a friary in Oxford, Edward II granted the Carmelites his palace of Beaumont in February 1318, and by 1324 had also granted them plots of land covering seven and a half acres, including "a plot of vacant land in the suburb of Oxford, adjacent to their new dwelling place, containing 100 feet in length, and 1 foot at either end, and 30 feet in width in the middle, to hold to them and their successors for the enlargement of their dwelling place: licence also for them to make a subterraneous way, 50 feet in length and 10 feet in width from their old dwelling place in the same suburb passing under the king's highway to their new house."  The Carmelites promised in return to celebrate divine service daily "for the good estate of the king and queen Isabella and their children so long as they shall live, and for their souls after death."

An inquisition taken at Winchester Castle in May 1314:

"The hall of Winchester castle needs repair to the value of 100l; the king's hall to the value of 100s; the buildings covered with Cornwall stone called 'Esclate' have been much damaged by storms, and need repair to the value of 20l; buildings adjoining the wall of the castle need repair to the value of 100l; buildings covered with lead and lead gutters need repair to the value of 10 marks; the king's chamber and several other chambers adjoining there too were burned in the time of the late king, while he was at the castle, and the jurors cannot estimate at what cost they might be repaired; the bridge without the great gate needs repair to the value of 10l."

I like that bit "the jurors cannot estimate at what cost they might be repaired."  It gives me a mental image of a group of men wandering around going "Hmm, that bridge needs a fair bit of work, doesn't it?  Five pounds' worth, do you think, John?"  "Nah, I reckon closer to ten, Will."  "Right you are, John; I'll stick ten down.  What about all those burned chambers, Robert?  How much do you reckon to rebuild them?"  "Bloody hell, they're a right mess!  Haven't a clue, mate, sorry."

Inquisition taken in Lincolnshire, July 1331:

"A house at Est Hanyngefeld, which was called the Nurse's house [domus Nutricis], was so ruinous at the time that the king committed the wardship of the said manors to Roger de Mortuo Mari [Mortimer] that it could not stand longer without being rebuilt, and suddenly fell down in the year 1 Edward III [1327].  Hugh Despenser [the Younger], who held the said manors by commission of King Edward II, caused to be raised a house at West Hanyngefeld for a cattle shed, placing there only the timber of the house, which is not roofed or walled, but it has in no way deteriorated."

Inquisition taken at Scarborough in September 1312 by, among others, the excellently-named Tallifer de Tillio or Tilliolo, constable of the castle:

"From the port of Le Sandyat towards the east there is a staith made on the king's soil towards the sea upon which is a common road for men to walk upon and cross, especially at high tide, over which staith and road hangs a solar of Sir Thomas de la Ryver too low, so that men cannot cross directly, 18 feet long and 3 feet wide.
Other similar solars are described, also a pigsty on the same staith and road; refuse heaps obstructing the harbour; solars and stalls in and over the harbour, and encroachments upon the castle moat and the town wall.  Thomas son of Robert Uttred has a house near the wall 100 feet long, and the king's wall was destroyed by Thomas Uttred the elder for the length of the said house; William Nessigwyke has a similar house 30 feet long, and the king's wall was destroyed by John Codelyng for the length thereof."

Inquisition in Northampton, May 1323:

"The buildings of Northampton Castle need repairs estimated to cost 1097l 6s 8d.  An old tower called 'Faukestour', begun in the time of King Henry the elder, is mentioned."  I assume that means Henry II.

Inquisition on the manor and castle of Oakham, which belonged to Hugh Audley and Margaret de Clare, in April 1340:

"The castle is well walled and within are a hall, four chambers, a chapel, a kitchen, two stables, a grange for hay, a house for a prison, a chamber for the gatekeeper, and a drawbridge with iron chains; within the walls are two acres of land by estimation; within the castle is a garden of the yearly value of 8s and a preserve with a dyke of the yearly value of 3s 4d."

Inq. taken on the castle and manor of Fotheringhay, which belonged to the dowager countess of Pembroke, also in April 1340:

"The castle is well built, walled, and crenellated, and has a stone tower and a moat; there are therein a great hall, two chambers, two chapels, a kitchen and a bakery of stone, a gatehouse with a chamber, underneath which is a drawbridge; within the castle there is another plot within the walls built over with houses and called the manor, where are a grange, a granary, a great stable, a longhouse used as a stable, cowhouse, dairy and larder, a forge, and a house for the outer gate with a chamber above."

17 February, 2011

Book Review: The Ruling Passion by David Pownall

Published in September 2008 by Herbert Adler Publishing.  Somehow I thought I'd written about the novel on the blog ages ago, and have just realised I didn't!

I was so thrilled when I heard that The Ruling Passion, a novel about Edward II and Piers Gaveston, was coming out.  Featured on BBC Radio Four as a Book At Bedtime, it promises to tell the story of "a passionate and defiant relationship that was to bring England to the brink of civil war" and "a story of infatuation and a relationship pursued to destruction".  Amen to that, I thought; I'm always in the market for a novel about the relationship between Edward and Piers, and there's precious little fiction worth reading about them.  I read two excellent reviews of the novel on Amazon UK calling it "deeply engaging" and "really gripping," and various websites repeated that it's a "superbly crafted historical novel," and so I ordered Ruling Passion with great anticipation, expecting a passionate, compelling story about my favourite couple in history.

Well.  For a novel with the word 'passion' in the title, how utterly disappointing and passionless it proved. A large part of the book, and I do mean a large part, involves Edward II's father King Edward I discussing his son's relationship with Piers with his adviser, William Wild.  Who is always, always referred to either by his full name or as 'the Irishman', which made me grit my teeth with irritation; the first four words of the novel are in fact 'William Wild, the Irishman', and he is referred to as 'the Irishman' four times on the first page alone.  (I had a similar problem with Liz Jensen's novel The Rapture, where one of the main characters is always referred to as 'Frazer Melville' and never, ever as just 'Frazer'.)  In point of fact, Ruling Passion is not really 'about' Edward II and Piers Gaveston at all; the dull and made-up William Wild The Irishman and his wife Valmai are, contrary to what the blurb says, the main characters.  It reminds me of Edith Felber's Queen of Shadows, which claims to be a novel about Isabella of France but is just as much the story of her dull, invented attendant Gwenith.

There's far too much telling in Ruling Passion and not nearly enough showing; why do we need to read endless pages where two men discuss the relationship of two other men when we could be reading about the relationship itself?  (The novel opens in 1303, when the future Edward II is nineteen and four years before Edward I dies, and ends shortly after Piers' murder in June 1312.)  And when we do get to see Edward and Piers, it's impossible to see why this is a "relationship pursued to destruction" as the blurb says, or threatens the English throne as the blurb says, or why Edward is so infatuated with his lover.  We're told, constantly, that Edward adores Piers but not *shown* it.  We're told that their relationship will bring England to civil war, but not why.  Piers' characterisation is utterly minimal, and even at the end of the novel I had no idea what kind of man he's meant to be, except that he's bisexual and...ummm, well, that's about it.  It's never made clear why this man is so sexy, so seductive and so powerful that he can topple thrones.  A boring Piers Gaveston??  I would have thought that was impossible, but there's nothing at all here of the historical Piers' famous wit and charisma.  Likewise, Queen Isabella remains a one-dimensional enigma throughout the novel.  We're told what she's like ("Strong within outlandish contradictions [huh?], austere, sensual, pious and violent"), but she seldom does anything to demonstrate that she is any of these things, and appears to be much older than her stated age of thirteen.  There is very little description and action and a lot, a lot, of talking in the novel; the first thing anyone says is Edward I telling William Wild to "Sit down, you old whore".  Lovely.  Usually I enjoy 'talky' novels, but the dialogue in Ruling Passion for the most part reveals very little about the characters and too often, in my humble opinion anyway, comes across as excessively modern and/or anachronistic (such as William Wild The Irishman Who Is Irish asking his wife "How do you know I'm not a former homosexual?").

There are few sex scenes in Ruling Passion, rather oddly in my opinion, in view of the subject matter (unless I blinked and missed them).  One of the very, very few has Edward "being noisily buggered" by Piers in front of a group of actors, one of whom later brains himself "rather than live with such poisonous shame."  Yes, that's the exact quotation; yes, that's the entire description of the sex; yes, it's as incredibly unerotic as it sounds.  Oh, and there's another bit where Piers "fondles" Edward in front of the archbishop of York, not out of sexual desire but from a wish to embarrass and shock the archbishop, which just seemed childish to me.  There is no passion in The Ruling Passion at all.  NONE AT ALL.  A strange inconsistency: Edward tells Piers at one point "I can't possibly get a woman with child" but half a dozen lines later tells him that he has, in fact, made a woman pregnant, and has an illegitimate son called Adam.  Regarding his impending marriage to Isabella of France, Edward tells his lover that he will never be able to have intercourse with women as "their bodies appal me" and the thought revolts him, and that "It doesn't matter how beautiful she [Isabella] is, I won't be able to do it."  But a few chapters later he consummates his marriage with Isabella with no problems or hesitation at all and with no awareness that women's bodies are meant to 'appal' him, despite the fact that - bizarrely - her father's pet dwarf is spying on them from the bed hangings.  (Seriously.)  And a few chapters after that, Isabella is pregnant with Edward III.  Equally bizarrely in the consummation scene, the pubescent Isabella tells her new husband that she has previously enjoyed sex on her knees "like the animals," and Edward shows not the slightest shock or horror that his young royal bride is not a virgin, saying merely "God's Mother, what have I got here?".  There is not enough 'What the hell???' in my vocabulary.  This is some alternate reality, not Europe in the fourteenth century.  There are other contradictions: William Wild at one point says about Edward "It's not that he doesn't like women...In fact he likes them as people more than most men," yet later in the novel the narrative says "Almost incidentally, Ned revealed his attitude to women - which was not entirely hostile..." being one example.

I did like some parts of the novel.  There are some lovely insights into Edward II's character, which make it obvious how hopelessly unsuited he is to his position as heir to the throne and king, and some nice flashes of humour, such as Edward - or Ned, as he's called throughout - groaning "why couldn't I have been born someone else?" when realising he'll have to consummate his marriage while being spied on by a voyeuristic heavily-breathing dwarf.  There are some great bits showing the king's historically-documented love of physical labour, and a vivid scene on a bridge just after Edward has recalled Piers from exile in 1307, where Edward is unsure whether to continue to stand with his arms open to welcome Piers, who is kneeling a few yards away, or whether he's starting to look ridiculous.  William Wild (The Irishman Who Is Irish, lest we forget) remembers Edward's long-dead mother Eleanor of Castile with great affection and comments several times how much Edward resembles her in character, which I liked - I've often wondered how much, or whether, Edward resembled Queen Eleanor in appearance or personality.  I'm extremely glad that Pownall didn't go the clichéd route of making Piers a Goddess-worshipper - boooooooring and based on a myth about Piers's witchy mother not recorded until three centuries later - and didn't turn Edward into the usual shrieking, foot-stamping, snivelling, tantrum-throwing stereotype so beloved of bad novelists.  The novel is reasonably historically accurate, with a few exceptions (such as portraying Hugh Despenser becoming Edward's 'favourite' just after Piers' death, a good six years too early) and at least it doesn't depict Isabella taking a lover who fathers Edward III, for all Edward II's protestations that he won't be able to make her pregnant.  But overall, Ruling Passion achieved something I always thought was impossible: made me bored with a novel about Edward II.  It took me a few months to finish it, because every time I put it down there was nothing at all compelling to make me want to pick it up again and I turned to other books instead.  I still feel like I've missed plot threads in the novel - there's something going on between William Wild The Irishman Who Is Irish's wife Valmai and Piers Gaveston, but I don't know what and couldn't possibly care less - because I skimmed rather a lot of it in sheer boredom.  A novel about such a passionate, obsessive and destructive relationship should make the reader feel lots of things, but 'bored' is not one of them.  There's an excellent review of the novel by Fiona Glass on Speak Its Name, which identifies much of what is wrong with Ruling Passion: basically, it's incredibly dull.  Brenda Honeyman's The King's Minions, despite being a very short novel, contains far more genuine passion, infatuation and eroticism between Edward II and Piers Gaveston in a handful of pages than Ruling Passion manages in its entirety.

13 February, 2011

Edward II And His Children, And Why Neither William Wallace Nor Roger Mortimer Was Their Father

This (long!) article was inspired by my huge irritation a) that so many people still think the Braveheart story of William Wallace fathering Isabella of France's child is somehow factual - people hit this blog pretty well every day searching for it - and b) that the notion of Edward II not being the father of his own eldest child has so well and truly taken hold in the popular imagination.  For examples, if you can stomach them, see here, herehere, here and here, and the novels cited below.  Read them and weep.  I cannot adequately express my annoyance that a man with an Oxford doctorate on Isabella (Paul Doherty) wrote a novel (Death of a King) in which Edward III's biological father is Roger Mortimer, which Doherty must know is absolute BS but chose to sex up his novel by including it anyway and thereby giving the notion spurious plausibility. Agh.

EDIT: Thanks to Susan Higginbotham for telling me about a very recent post claiming that Edward II may have been 'cuckolded' and not the father of his children, in the Yahoo group of the Richard III Society, no less.  Check out Susan's excellent and elegant rebuttal.

Braveheart features the future King Edward II as a fairly major character, with Edward – in real life, an enormously strong, athletic and handsome man – caricatured as a useless feeble court fop whose lover is thrown out of a window and whose wife cuckolds him with William Wallace.  There are countless historical inaccuracies in Braveheart, which have been well detailed elsewhere, and I won’t go into them here.  I just want to focus on one: the statement at the end of the film that Wallace is the real father of the baby Edward’s wife Isabella is carrying, who is, presumably, intended to be Isabella’s first-born child King Edward III.

Let’s check some basic dates and facts here:

- Sir William Wallace was executed on 23 August 1305.

- Isabella of France arrived in England on 7 February 1308, having married King Edward II at Boulogne on 25 January.  [1]  She had recently turned twelve at the time of her marriage and arrival in her new husband’s kingdom; her biographer* places her date of birth sometime during the winter of 1295/96.  [2]  (Edward II was born on 25 April 1284, so was about eleven and a half years his wife’s senior.)  Isabella never met her husband’s father Edward I (‘Longshanks’), who had died on 7 July 1307 – not, incidentally, on the same day as Wallace, as depicted in Braveheart.  She was never princess of Wales, as she married Edward II after his accession to the throne and became queen of England on marriage.
* Paul Doherty, but this is a properly-researched academic article, not a sensationalist, hopelessly inaccurate novel.

- Isabella’s first child, the future Edward III, was born at Windsor on 13 November 1312, more than seven years after William Wallace’s death.  As noted above, Isabella’s date of birth means that she was nine at the time of Wallace’s execution, and was still in France at the court of her father Philippe IV.  She was seventeen or shortly to turn seventeen at the time of her eldest child’s birth.

- Edward II and Isabella of France had four children together, not one, the others being: John of Eltham, earl of Cornwall (15 August 1316-13 September 1336); Eleanor of Woodstock, duchess of Gelderland (18 June 1318-22 April 1355); Joan of the Tower, queen of Scotland (5 July 1321-7 September 1362).  In addition, Isabella may have suffered a miscarriage in or shortly before November 1313, when pennyroyal was purchased for her (though this is disputed).  [3] 

- Edward and Isabella had been married exactly nineteen years when the king was forced to abdicate in favour of their son, following Isabella and Roger Mortimer’s invasion of his kingdom; the fourteen-year-old’s reign as Edward III began on 25 January 1327.  I make this point because there is a widespread misapprehension that Isabella overthrew her husband and ruled with Mortimer while her son – presumed to be her only child – was still only a toddler. 

A few writers, both in novels and online, have realised the impossibility of William Wallace’s fathering Edward III, but have unfortunately taken on board the notion that Isabella of France took a lover and have looked around for another possible father for her son.  This desperation to re-assign Edward III’s paternity appears to be based on the assumptions that a) Edward II was gay and therefore incapable of intercourse with women, and b) Isabella began a relationship with Sir Roger Mortimer, lord of Wigmore in late 1325, and therefore may well have committed adultery with him or another man a few years earlier.  The first ever suggestion that Edward III was not Edward II’s biological son is found in Paul Doherty’s novel Death Of A King, published in 1982 – 670 years after Edward III’s birth.  Doherty changes Edward III’s date of birth by eight months, from November 1312 to March that year, in order to put forward the theory that Roger Mortimer was the boy’s real father.  In fact, it is physically impossible for Mortimer to have fathered Edward III, as he was in Ireland, a country Isabella never visited, at the time of the boy’s conception in February/March 1312.  Mortimer was also in Ireland in the summer of 1311 nine months before March 1312, which puts paid to Doherty’s fictional theory, in Ireland in late 1315 and autumn 1317 when Edward and Isabella conceived their next two children, and on his way from Ireland to Herefordshire when their youngest was conceived in autumn 1320 (Isabella was at Westminster).  [4]  The notion that Roger Mortimer was Edward III’s biological father is also advanced in Charles Randolph Bruce and Carolyn Hale Bruce’s 2006 novel Bannok Burn, although Isabella manages to convince Edward that his own lover Piers Gaveston is the father.  There is nothing at all to indicate that Isabella and Roger Mortimer had any kind of relationship – beyond the normal courtly association of a baron and his queen – before late 1325.  Edith Felber’s 2006 novel Queen of Shadows has Edward III being fathered by a Scotsman who is never identified, with whom Isabella has an affair when she is ‘abandoned behind enemy lines’ in Scotland by her husband.  In reality, Isabella never set foot in Scotland, unless you count the port of Berwick-on-Tweed, which was in English hands anyway when she was there in 1311 and 1314.

Let me just repeat the salient point here for absolute clarity: Roger Mortimer was in Ireland and thus several hundred miles away from Isabella at the time of Edward III's conception.

A comparison of Edward II and Isabella of France’s itineraries proves conclusively that they were together approximately nine months before the births of all their offspring.  This will come as no surprise to anyone who does the inhabitants of early fourteenth-century England the credit of assuming that they weren’t so stupid and ignorant they wouldn’t have noticed anything amiss if the queen had become pregnant while she and the king were apart for months on end.  (Which, incidentally, Edward and Isabella very seldom were.)  Let’s take a look at the date of conception of their eldest child, Edward III.  Edward II arrived in York in mid-January 1312 to meet up with Piers Gaveston, who had recently returned from his third exile, presumably to see his new-born child (Piers’ wife, Edward II’s niece Margaret de Clare, gave birth to his daughter Joan on or around 12 January 1312).  In York on 20 February, after Margaret’s churching, Edward and the proud parents celebrated Joan’s birth with music and feasting.  [5]  Meanwhile, Queen Isabella was making her way north from Westminster to join her husband, remaining in frequent contact with him via her messenger John Moigne and sending him a basket of lampreys.  [6]  (The queen was certainly not "fraternising with the rebel barons on her way north to meet her husband" with the result that "Some doubt could be raised as to whether King Edward II was the genetic father of Prince Edward" as this silly page claims.)  Edward III was born on Monday 13 November 1312.  Counting back thirty-eight weeks from 13 November, roughly the length of a full-term pregnancy from the time of conception, brings us to 21 February (1312 was a leap year).  On this date, Isabella’s Household Book shows her to have been at Bishopthorpe, just south of York, and she probably arrived in the city very soon afterwards.  [7] The king and queen remained together in the city until early April.  Easter Sunday fell on 26 March in 1312, so Edward and Isabella must have conceived their son during Lent, when intercourse was forbidden.  This hardly lends credence to the notion that Edward slept with his wife unwillingly; Lent gave him the perfect excuse not to have sex with Isabella, if he didn’t want to.

The same applies to the conception of the couple’s younger three children: in November 1315, they were together at the royal hunting lodge at Clipstone in Nottinghamshire to conceive their second son John, born August 1316.  In September 1317, they were together in York to conceive their daughter Eleanor, born June 1318. In October 1320, they were together at Westminster to conceive their daughter Joan, born July 1321.  No record of the fourteenth century – not a single one – gives even the slightest hint that anyone believed Isabella had taken a lover and that Edward was not the real father of the future Edward III or of any of their other children.  Privacy is a modern invention, and Isabella probably had less of it than anyone else in the country; she spent every minute of every day surrounded by ladies-in-waiting, damsels, chamber and wardrobe staff, and many other servants, and it is basically impossible that she could have conducted an affair and kept it secret (two of her sisters-in-law in France had affairs, but were discovered and imprisoned and their lovers executed).  The purity of royal and noble women and the sacred royal line were considered of vital importance, and it is unlikely that Isabella ever had much, if any, chance to be alone with a man who wasn’t a close relative.  People who believe that she took a lover in early 1312 who fathered her son – and bear in mind that the queen was only sixteen years old then – must explain how she managed this seemingly impossible feat without anyone ever noticing.  Her relationship with Roger Mortimer, whatever the true nature of it was, began in late 1325 and occurred when she was in France and beyond Edward’s influence, after their marriage had broken down and long after she had borne her husband’s children.  This cannot be taken to mean that Mortimer, or anyone else, had been her lover years before.

It was only in the late twentieth century that speculations about Edward III’s paternity arose, presumably on the basis that Edward II was gay and therefore incapable of intercourse with women.  Although it is beyond doubt that Edward II loved men, he had an illegitimate son called Adam, so evidently wasn’t repelled by sex with women and might have enjoyed it enormously for all we know.  Adam, sadly, is very obscure.  The identity of his mother is unknown, his date of birth likewise, though a date of sometime between about 1305 and 1308 (when Edward II was twenty-one to twenty-four) seems likely.  The boy or young man, called ‘Adam, bastard son of the lord king’ (Ade filio domini Regis bastardo) and ‘Adam, son of the king’ (Ade filio Regis) accompanied his father on the disastrous Scottish campaign of September/October 1322 with his tutor Hugh Chastilloun, and was given money totalling thirteen pounds and twenty-two pence to buy himself ‘equipment and other necessaries’.  He is probably, rather than his younger half-brother the future Edward III, the boy called ‘the king’s son’ in a letter sent to Edward II in the summer of 1322, wherein the unidentified writer comments that “all good qualities and honour are increasing in him” (tutes bountes e honours sount en lui cressaunt).  Adam died shortly before 30 September 1322, probably in his mid-teens or thereabouts, and was buried at Tynemouth Priory; his father bought a silk cloth with gold thread to lie over his body.  [8]  For the record, Piers Gaveston fathered an illegitimate daughter called Amie, as well as his legitimate daughter and heiress, Joan.  [9]

Although writers who push the ‘Isabella took a lover who fathered her child’ narrative probably think otherwise, they’re actually doing her a gross insult, not to mention pushing a ludicrously anachronistic notion of sexual freedom for royal women in the Middle Ages.  (Fictional depictions of the queen of England managing to have hot sex with Roger Mortimer without anyone ever noticing by escaping from court wearing a Harry Potter-style invisibility cloak, I mean a hood: I point at you and mock.)  Isabella, daughter of the king of France and the queen of Navarre, sister of three kings of France and herself crowned queen of England at the age of twelve, was a woman with (understandably) a powerful and sacred sense of her own royalty and exalted status.  In 1314, two of her brothers’ wives were found to have committed adultery and imprisoned; according to several chronicles, it was Isabella herself, visiting Paris, who informed her father Philippe IV of the women’s actions.  If true, this was almost certainly not intended vindictively or maliciously, but demonstrates Isabella’s concern that her sisters-in-law might become pregnant by their lovers and thereby endanger the French royal line.  In 1329, when her son Edward III had to pay homage for his lands in France to her cousin Philippe VI (son of Philippe IV’s brother the count of Valois and first of the Valois kings of France), Isabella declared furiously “The son of a king would never do homage to the son of a mere count.”  [10]  In 1318, when the impostor John of Powderham claimed to be the rightful son of Edward I and to have been switched in infancy for a peasant boy, the rumours spreading through the kingdom "annoyed the queen unspeakably."  [11]  (Not that she believed the story, I'm sure, but it must have been deeply humiliating for Isabella to have half the country speculating that her husband was not the descendant of kings but a peasant.)  Does any of this sound even remotely like a woman who would have taken a non-royal lover and foisted his child onto the English throne? 

Whatever the nature of Edward II’s sexuality and whatever his contemporaries thought of it, no-one doubted that he fathered Isabella’s children – let me repeat that there is not the slightest hint in any medieval source or anything written prior to the 1980s to suggest that anyone thought he didn’t – and therefore there is no reason for us to doubt it.  Edward himself certainly never doubted that his children were his; there are numerous indications that he loved them deeply, rejoiced at their births and took great pride in them.  No historian worth his or her salt would ever write that Edward did not father Isabella’s children, so if you see this claim anywhere, be aware that the writer hasn't a clue what s/he is going on about.


1) Elizabeth Hallam, The Itinerary of Edward II and His Household, 1307-1328 (List and Index Society Publications, 211, 1984), pp. 27-28; Calendar of Fine Rolls 1307-1319, p. 14.
2) Paul Doherty, ‘The Date of Birth of Isabella, Queen of England’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 48 (1975), pp. 246-248.
3) G.E. Trease, ‘The Spicers and Apothecaries of the Royal Household in the reigns of Edward I and Edward II’, Nottingham Medieval Studies, 3 (1959), p. 46.
4) Ian Mortimer, The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer (2003), pp. 49-50, 69-70, 87, 100-01, 305-310.
5) Gesta Edwardi de Carnarvon Auctore Canonico Bridlingtoniensi, in W. Stubbs, ed., Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II, volume 2 (1883), p. 42; Pierre Chaplais, Piers Gaveston: Edward II’s Adoptive Brother (1994), pp. 78-79; J.S. Hamilton, Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall 1307-1312: Politics and Patronage in the Reign of Edward II (1988), pp. 93-94; Constance Bullock-Davies, A Register of Royal and Baronial Domestic Minstrels 1272-1327, p. 143.
6) F.D. Blackley and G. Hermansen, eds., The Household Book of Queen Isabella of England 1311-1312 (1971), pp. 25, 27, 137, 143.
7) Ibid., p. 13.
8) F.D. Blackley, ‘Adam, the Bastard Son of Edward II’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 37 (1964), pp. 76-77; Seymour Phillips, Edward II (2010), pp. 428-429.
9) The archives of soc.genealogy.medieval are chock-full of threads about Amie.
10) Cited in Ian Mortimer, The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III (2006), pp. 73-74.
11) Vita Edwardi Secundi, ed. N. Denholm-Young, p. 86.

07 February, 2011

A New Website And A New Drama Production (And Facebook)

Just a quick post with some info about a new website and a new theatre production which should be of interest to a few of my readers...

Claire at The Anne Boleyn Files has had the excellent idea of setting up a website called The History Files.  To quote Claire:

"Calling all history lovers! Are you a student, historian, amateur historian, researcher or someone who just loves history? Would you be interested in having your work published on a history website which aims to be a community of historians and a place to educate the general public? Somewhere where you can also promote yourself by having your own bio page with a link to your website or contact details?"

The site is now up and running: here it is!  As you can see, I've contributed an article about Edward II, and am looking forward to writing many more for the site.  If you're interested in getting involved - and I think it's a fantastic opportunity to meet like-minded people, read fascinating articles about many different eras, build a great history community online and get your name known - visit this page.  Many thanks to Claire for doing this; it's one of those ideas that's so terrific you wonder why no-one's thought of it before.  

A new production of Christopher Marlowe's c. 1592 play 'Edward II', performed by Em-Lou Productions and directed by Peter Darney, is on at the Rose Theatre, Bankside from 10 February to 5 March.  See Em-Lou's website and the Rose Theatre's website for more details. To quote from their press release, "King Edward comes to the throne, and immediately recalls his banished lover, Piers Gaveston - an order that puts him at odds with most of his court. Edward must battle his sneering subjects, his scorned wife and his own family for not only the right to rule, but for the right to love... This rarely performed classic is a thrillingly crafted bloody tale of love, lust, betrayal and class conflict; of what one man would do for power and what another man would do in the face of love..."  Sounds terrific!  Best of luck to cast and crew, and I hope they'll let me know how it went.

If you're a member of Facebook, please consider joining my Edward II page there - he currently has 498 fans, and I really, really want to get it past 500.  :-)  The page is very interactive and, I hope, informative and a lot of fun.  Even if you're not a member of Facebook, I think you can still read Edward's posts there.  Also, check out The History Police, Susan Higginbotham's Margaret of Anjou page, Claire's Anne Boleyn page, and the Nevill Guide to the Wars of the Roses.  Lots of great history on Facebook these days!

03 February, 2011

Two Letters To The King Of France

A post about two very different letters sent by Edward II to his father-in-law Philippe IV of France in the summer of 1309, only four days apart.  The twenty-five-year-old king was then attending parliament at Stamford, Lincolnshire; Piers Gaveston had recently returned to the country after his year-long exile in Ireland (Edward travelled to Chester to meet him on 27 June) and was restored to his earldom of Cornwall on 5 August.  Edward II was also planning a campaign against Robert Bruce, which in the end was postponed for a year and on which only three of his earls - Piers, Edward's nephew Gloucester and nephew-in-law Surrey - were to accompany him.  In the middle of all this, Edward discovered, to his great annoyance, that his father-in-law's envoy to England had acknowledged Robert Bruce as king of Scotland and had endeavoured to hide this fact from Edward: hence the second letter.

1) This is a letter Edward sent from Stamford on 30 July 1309, excusing himself from travelling to meet Philippe because of his ongoing 'business' or 'affairs' (busoignes) in Scotland.  In both letters, I've tried to keep as close to the original punctuation, choice of word and word order as possible, to give a good flavour of how it reads:

"To the very excellent and very puissant prince, his very dear and very beloved father, Ph' by the grace of GOD noble king of France, Edward by the same grace [king of England] etc, greetings and very dear affection.

Very dear sire, we have well understood the letters of authority which you sent us by Sir Mahen de Varennes, your knight, bearer of these [letters], and what Sir Mahen has told us on your behalf.

And regarding, sire, what he has said to us from you, by this same authority, that you would like to know if we would be willing to accept another day for the meeting between you and us;

You, sire, will know, by our messages, which will come to you later, that our affairs in Scotland are in such condition, that we cannot well proceed towards other parts [nous ne nous porroms bonement treire vers autres parties] until we are advised otherwise.

Regarding that which you have sent us by your letters, that you hold us for excused, we thank you dearly [nous vous mercioms cherement].

And, very dear sire and father, we pray you that it will please you to hold us excused, that the said Sir Mahen has been so delayed in attending to this reply; we will soon make known to you the reason.

Very dear sire and father, may our Lord, of our grace, grant you a good and long life.

Given at Stamford, the 30th day of July."

2) A letter Edward wrote four days later on 3 August, in an entirely different tone:

"To the king of France, the king, greetings [A Roy de France le Roy, saluz].  We are sending to your highness two pairs of letters, enclosed within these, which Sir Mahen de Varennes, your knight, who carried your letters to us, wrote in his own hand to Sir Robert Bruce [sire Robert de Brus]; of which one is addressed to him as earl of Carrick; and the other as king of Scotland [Roi d'Escoce]; in a manner which appears more fully in these same letters;

And this letter, which is addressed to the said Robert as earl of Carrick, the said Mahen sent in a box, openly; and the other he had concealed in the breeches [brael] of the bearer of the aforesaid letters.

This act, sire, we hold suspicious, the manner of delivery as well as the matters contained within one of these letters;

In this, sire, kindly have regard for the honour of yourself and of us.

And, sire, for this reason, the said Sir Mahen has been delayed with our response to the last letters which you sent to us by him.

Given at Stamford, the third day of the month of August."

On the same day that Edward wrote (or dictated, rather) the first letter, he summoned his army to muster at Newcastle-upon-Tyne on 29 September.  On 21 August, however, he appointed his ally Richard de Burgh, earl of Ulster - father-in-law of Edward's nephew the earl of Gloucester and of Robert Bruce himself -"to treat with Robert de Brus for terms of peace."

We have to be cautious when using letters as a source to tell us something about a person's character, attitudes etc, as Edward II simply couldn't have had the time to read or listen to all (or even to many) of the letters sent out in his name and most of them are merely conventional, but it's very difficult to imagine that his clerks would have dared to write in such an abrupt fashion to the king of France unless Edward had told them to.

Foedera 1307-1327, pp. 78-79; Calendar of Documents Relating to Scotland 1308-1348, p. 19; Calendar of Patent Rolls 1307-1313, p. 189; Calendar of Close Rolls 1307-1313, pp. 224-225.