This was inspired by Hannah's excellent recent blog post Balderdash and Piffle: A Mythical History of England, a top ten list of myths about history that are still often repeated today. There are so many myths about Edward II that I'm selecting the ones I think are most worthwhile demolishing, and will be examining them, in no particular order, in a series of posts. (Strap yourselves in; it's going to be a long ride.) In the first part, I discuss the popular story that Edward gave Isabella's jewels to Piers Gaveston.
1) Myth: Edward II gave Queen Isabella's jewels to Piers Gaveston
A favourite tale in the popular modern narrative which depicts Edward II as a callous, heartless husband who favoured Piers Gaveston over his poor long-suffering little queen to the extent that he humiliated her by giving all their wedding gifts and even her own jewels to his lover, who, being the vain and insolent peacock he supposedly was, deliberately flaunted himself in front of the queen wearing the jewels. This story is parroted as certain truth everywhere nowadays, in novels, non-fiction and on TV programmes. It isn't.
Although for sure it goes back over 150 years at least, I'm not sure where the story that Edward gave Isabella's jewels to Piers originally comes from; sometime, when I have time, I must try to track the origin and development of this peculiar and weirdly popular story. An inventory of the jewels, clothes and other goods which formed the trousseau of madame Yzabel Royne d'Angleterre in 1308 still exists, and was printed in the English Historical Review back in 1897. The author, Walter E. Rhodes, states "It is the jewels mentioned that Edward is said to have handed over to Gaveston, thereby causing the first quarrel between himself and Isabella." Rhodes, however, does not state a source for Edward handing over these jewels to Piers - he seems to assume that it's a well-known story and thus needs no corroboration - nor for Edward and Isabella having a 'quarrel' shortly after their marriage, about her jewels or anything else. The story also appears in Agnes Strickland's 1848 Lives of the Queens of England (vol. 2, p. 125), and I wouldn't be at all surprised, actually, if she's the one who invented it, as she did other myths which are still repeated as fact today. Strickland says that Edward gave the gifts to Piers because "his passion for finery was insatiable," and that Isabella "naturally resented this improper transfer of her father's munificent gifts, which she regarded as part of her dower, and as heir-looms to her descendants." No source is cited in support of this statement.
The contemporary writer of the Annales Paulini, the annals of St Paul's, states (ed. Stubbs, p. 258) that in January 1308 Edward II's father-in-law Philippe IV of France gave him splendid wedding gifts: a 'ring of his realm', the most beautiful bed (or couch) ever seen, war-horses and many other, unspecified gifts. Although the passage in the Annales about the gifts is often cited as evidence that Edward gave his queen's jewels to Piers, neither she nor the jewels she took with her to England in her trousseau are mentioned at all. The passage says that Philippe dedit, 'gave', the wedding gifts to Edward - just to Edward, regi Angliae (the king of England), not to him and Isabella jointly. The next sentence says that Edward misit, 'sent', all the gifts to Piers. The word 'sent' does not necessarily imply that Piers was intended to keep the gifts permanently, but might simply mean that the king sent the precious items he had received to the man who was, after all, his regent in England during his absence and his closest friend and confidant, the man he trusted and loved above all others, to store safely for him.
And even if Edward did intend Piers to keep the gifts? Well, they were gifts given to him, Edward and Edward alone, after all, and tactless and likely to cause hostility though it certainly was to hand them all over to Piers, Edward had the right to do what he wanted with them; they were his property now, not Philippe's, and not in fact Isabella's either. The Annales Paulini does not say anywhere that the gifts given to Edward by Philippe were intended for Isabella as well, or formed part of her dowry, or were meant to be passed on to Edward and Isabella's children, or otherwise belonged to her in any way, so I really don't know where this popular notion of Edward giving 'Isabella's' jewels to Piers comes from. The key point is that the wedding gifts given to Edward by his father-in-law and sent (not necessarily 'given') by Edward to Piers, cannot in any way be described as 'Isabella's jewels'. The gifts included war-horses, destriers, which were of no possible use to Isabella. Where does the notion that Edward's wedding gifts were solely jewels and 'Isabella's jewels' at that even come from? Her father gave her a large number of her own jewels, plate, clothes and furnishings to take to England with her, as mentioned above. There is absolutely no indication that any of these jewels were taken by Edward to give or send to Piers, as Walter E. Rhodes claimed in 1897, and several novelists have written since. That is not what the Annales Paulini says.* It says that Edward II sent the gifts given to him at his wedding by the king of France to Piers Gaveston. No more, no less. To claim that the writer meant Isabella's trousseau is stretching the evidence beyond what it actually says.
There is apparently one other source: both Paul Doherty in his thesis and book about Isabella and Elizabeth A.R. Brown in a 1989 article cite a manuscript in the British Library - Cotton Nero D x, folio 108v - as a source for the jewels/gifts story without indicating what it says or even what the manuscript is. It appears to be a chronicle of England from 1287 to 1346, based on the works of chroniclers Nicholas Trevet and Adam Murimuth. I haven't seen what this chronicle says about Edward sending his wedding gifts to Piers Gaveston, but when all's said and done, it's another chronicle, not compelling evidence such as (for instance) a letter from Edward declaring that he is giving Piers his gifts to keep or from Isabella complaining about the taking of her jewels would be. Basically, it's hearsay, telling a story which was most probably based on people's general horror at this time that the king of England was treating a Gascon knight as an equal and a brother, and made him regent of his kingdom and sent him precious gifts from no less a person than the king of France. I really don't know where the story about Piers wearing Isabella's jewels in front of her first came from, but it sounds very much like a fictional invention which over time has taken on the status of 'historical fact' and has grown in the telling, so that Philippe IV's wedding gifts to his son-in-law Edward which included horses, a ring and a bed have somehow become jewels and only jewels which rightfully belonged to Isabella alone, and with the additional and entirely unsupported detail that Edward and Piers deliberately set out to humiliate Isabella as much as possible, both by removing her possessions and by forcing her to watch her husband's lover wearing them. Again, it's perfectly reasonable to criticise Edward for much of his behaviour in 1308; his putting up tapestries of Piers' arms at his coronation banquet in place of the royal French arms was astonishingly rude, tactless and insulting to the French royal family; sending the king of France's gifts to Piers, whether the latter was meant to keep them or not, was also tactless; and by far the worst, Edward's excessive favouritism towards Piers risked civil war with many of his magnates, and the desolation of his kingdom. There is really no genuine reason to suppose, however, that Edward gave away Isabella's own possessions, or that Piers Gaveston intended any deliberate provocative insult to the queen, at this time or ever.
* The passage reads Rex Franciae dedit regi Angliae genero suo annulum regni sui, cubile suum quam pulcrum oculis non vidit aliud, destrarios electos et alia donaria multa nimis. Quae omnia rex Angliae concito Petro misit.
I love the sound of exploding myths! Great post Kathryn, and thank you for the link :)
Didn't Isabella end up backing Edward (and Piers) against the Ordainers? Considering what she did when she resented the Despensers, her behavior should resolve the issue. She certainly would have resented it if her jewels in fact were given to Piers.
Isn't it remarkable how some statements acquire the status of facts? I suppose because they make a good story.
If you're going to work your way through all the myths - or even just the major ones - examining the evidence (if any) for them and trying to trace them back to source, you've got quite a task ahead (!). More power to your elbow :-)
Thanks for the inspiration, Hannah! :) Loved your post.
That's a great point, Esther - apart from perhaps a short period when Isabella first arrived in England (and even this isn't certain), she seems to have supported Edward unstintingly, and even Piers, which doesn't argue that she thought they'd humiliated her in any way.
Absolutely, Carla! This one is repeated everywhere. Yes, I'm intending to work my way through the major myths and some of the lesser-known ones, which is going to be really hard work, but great fun. :) :)
'Edward II gave Piers Gaveston Isabella's warhorses' doesn't quite have the same ring, does it? :> Maybe the myth grew because of the inventory of Piers' possessions when he was taken by Warwick/Lancaster? Even then, it doesn't mean that a) all the items actually belonged to Piers and b) Warwick/Lancaster embellished the list. Looking forward to even more myth-busting!
Haha, no, not at all :) :) I imagine that most of the possessions seized at Tynemouth actually belonged to Edward rather than Piers - it took a long time and a lot of paperwork and effort to get them back to him - if the item had been thought to have been Piers', I'm not sure Lancaster would have bothered to inventory them. Quite a lot of the jewellery in the list is specified to have been given to Edward by his sisters, the queen of Germany, etc.
Kathryn, I wish you luck with demolishing the myths. I'm not an expert in Edward's matters, barely beginner, but I'm fully aware of the difficulties looming ahead in the course of your "journey". I wish there were more myths concerning the Young King so that I could try to demolish them all :-)
And thank you for providing the link to Hannah's brilliant article.
Thanks, Kasia! It's going to be a long haul, but so much fun, and necessary, I think. :)
Thanks for this post, which I found very interesting. I have come across a lot of contradictions between historians on many matters in Edward's reign, but almost all of them have agreed on the "theft" of Isabella's jewels. It's really good to see some in depth analysis that counters this. Good luck with any future myth debunking. I look forward to the posts.
I liked Esther's comment as well, because it makes so much sense. Without a lot of hard historical evidence, sometimes you have to try to get inside the mind of the individual. Isabella's future actions over the next few years hardly suggest someone carrying a deep grudge against her husband or Piers Gaveston.
Hi Jerry, and thanks for the comment! Really glad you liked the post, and yes, it is a frequently-repeated story, isn't it? Grrrr. And yes, Esther was spot-on about Isabella's behaviour, I think. I've just putting the finishing touches to my post about the next myth, and again, Isabella's actions definitely seem to confirm that it isn't true.
Thanks for beautiful blog and this post .
Thank you, Kayserili! Really glad you like the blog!
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