14 January, 2013

Edward II Mythbusters Parts 3 And 4

(Part one here, and part two here.)

3) Myth: Edward II allowed Hugh Despenser the Younger to rape Queen Isabella

I wrote an entire blog post (please do read it!) about this not long ago, but it's such a biggie that I want to mention it again here to ensure that I really get the message out there.  The notion that Edward II's chamberlain and 'favourite' Hugh Despenser the Younger raped or otherwise sexually assaulted Queen Isabella in the 1320s, with Edward's permission or connivance, is entirely an invention of two modern writers, Paul Doherty and Alison Weir, in their books about Isabella published in 2003 and 2005 (though a fictional depiction of it also appeared in a novel published in 1974 which was a re-telling of Edward II's life, though set in nineteenth-century Ireland).  Frankly, I think it's appalling and completely unacceptable to accuse a man - whoever he is and whatever you think of him - of such a serious and terrible crime on absolutely no evidence in a work you're claiming is factual, apparently just because you think it makes your beloved subject look like more of a victim and to make her more sympathetic and tragic in your readers' eyes (and does it also play into an attitude that in order to be 'strong', women have to be survivors of sexual assault?).  There. Is. Literally. No. Evidence. Whatsoever that Hugh Despenser raped Isabella, or that he sexually assaulted her in any way or even that he lusted after her, or that Edward II would ever in a million years have been willing to allow anyone else (even a man he was so close to for so long) access to the royal person of his queen, and I sincerely hope that I never have to see anyone else claiming that any of this actually happened in reality ever again.  (If you haven't already seen it, please also take a look at my Ten Commandments for Writing about History post, especially number 2.)

4) Myth: Edward II was a foppish weakling

Purely an invention of twentieth- and twenty-first-century books and crappy Hollywood films purporting to be about Scottish history though actually set in some weird parallel universe where some of the characters happen to share names with people who really lived 700 years ago, I'm sure you know the kind of thing I mean: Edward II prancing around, fluttering his hands, throwing petulant tantrums, stamping his feet, shrieking, flouncing, sulking, snivelling, whining, pouting and generally behaving like a teenage girl in a full-on melodramatic self-pitying strop. (I was going to cite some examples here of the many that exist, but after all these years I simply don't have the patience or tolerance to subject myself to it any more or pick up any book which portrays him like this just in order to cite it here.  It gives me THE RAGE, and that's not good for anyone.)

 I think it's perfectly obvious that offensive modern stereotypes of gay men are the inspiration for this lame, one-dimensional, grotesquely caricatured nonsense, some of which even appears in a novel which has been praised in certain quarters for its sympathetic depictions of gay and bi people in history, for pity's sake.  This rubbish also appears in some works of non-fiction, which weirdly seem to believe that Edward was not 'virile' or 'strong' or 'manly' because of his 'perverted' and 'unnatural' sexuality, in stark contrast to the 'unequivocally heterosexual' hero, comments which say a lot more about the writer's beliefs and attitude than they do about Edward II himself.  It's important to realise that none of this crap is based on any contemporary evidence whatsoever and derives solely from modern stereotypes.  Here's what fourteenth-century commentators actually said about Edward II's appearance:

"Tall and strong, a fine figure of a handsome man"; "God had endowed him with every gift"; on the birth of the future Edward III in 1312, a wish was expressed that the boy would grow up to remind people of "the physical strength and comeliness of his father" (Vita Edwardi Secundi, a contemporary chronicle written by a royal clerk who must have known Edward well and seen him often).

"One of the strongest men of his realm"; the Scalacronica, written decades after Edward's death, but by a man (Sir Thomas Gray) whose father of the same name had been captured while fighting for Edward at Bannockburn and who later served in the retinue of the Despensers, who must therefore have known Edward very well.

"Of a well-formed and handsome person" (the Roll of Arms of Caerlaverock, a poem written in 1300 when Edward was sixteen).

"Fair of body and great of strength" (Polychronicon)

"A handsome man, strong in body and limb" (Anonimalle)

"Elegant, of outstanding strength" (Gesta Edwardi de Carnarvon)

What else do we know about Edward II's appearance?  Well, from manuscript illustrations and other evidence (e.g. his effigy, sculptures) it appears that he had fair hair, curly or wavy and falling almost to his shoulders, and wore a bushy beard.  Given that several chroniclers describe him as tall, and given that his father's embalmed body when measured in 1774 was found to be six feet two inches, I think it's a reasonable assumption that Edward also stood at least six feet tall.  His good looks appear to have been widely known among his subjects, as do his enormous physical strength, love of the outdoors and fondness for physical exercise, and we know that he took part in hobbies such as swimming, rowing, digging, playing ball games and thatching roofs.  "From his youth he devoted himself in private to the art of rowing and driving carts, of digging ditches and thatching houses, as was commonly said, and also with his companions at night to various works of ingenuity and skill, and to other pointless trivial occupations unsuitable for the son of a king," says the chronicle of Lanercost; "If only he had given to arms the labour that he expended on rustic pursuits, he would have raised England aloft," says the Vita; Edward's extant household accounts bear out his love of physical exercise and 'rustic pursuits'.

Does any of this, these descriptions of a man who was known across his kingdom for his enormous physical strength and love of the outdoors and exacting physical exercise (there are numerous other examples of this that I could cite), sound even remotely like the feeble snivelling pathetic effete foppish creature beloved of Hollywood and certain writers who are so supremely untalented they can't write Edward with any depth or detail at all, but just have to resort to offensive stereotyping based on his (presumed) sexuality?  Edward II's character is rich in dramatic potential, conflict and complexity, and all they can do is have him 'snivel' and stamp his foot and shriek and generally carry on as though he's appearing in a bad 1970s sitcom.  Such paucity of imagination.  It's similar with Piers Gaveston; some modern novelists assume that he was bisexual and therefore have him hitting on and having sex with pretty well every person he encounters.  That's all there ever was to Piers Gaveston, apparently, all he ever did.  Hit on every male and female in sight and have constant sex with them all.  Precisely when he found time to be an excellent soldier and jouster and lord lieutenant of Ireland, I cannot imagine.

The only comfort and consolation I have is to be in contact with various lovely people who are writing or have written novels featuring Edward II where the king is a far more complex and less stereotyped character, authors who have the skill and imagination to write Edward as a real person and who certainly don't believe or assume that his being a lover of men makes him in any way less of a man than men who love women.  Funny how no-one's ever written the 'unequivocally heterosexual' Roger Mortimer as 'snivelling' whenever something goes wrong for him, or fluttering his hands when arguing with Isabella, or pouting and shrieking at her, isn't it?  I'm so bored with these lazy stereotypes and people who choose to perpetuate them, ignoring all the evidence of what the physically impressive Edward II was really like.


Katarzyna Ogrodnik-Fujcik said...

Kathryn, I do hope you find some comfort in this: there are still people who have never heard about 'Edward II allowed Hugh Despenser the Younger to rape Queen Isabella' nonsense, me among them :-) It never ceases to amaze me how people can take nonsense like this at face value and don't even bother to take a closer look at an existing evidence. Although in case of Hugh raping Isabella one does not need to be an expert to see it must have been all made up.

Kathryn Warner said...

Kasia, that's some consolation to me, thank you :). I agree, it's a shame what some people believe...:/

Sami Parkkonen said...

I have always wondered that people portray this man in such a way when they fully know that he fought at Bannockburn on the front line, had horses killed from underneath of him, was almost captured by scotts by hand (which means he was in the thick of it), when all around him several knights and other men of excellent skills in combat were slaughtered. Granted, king should not be in the middle of chaotic battle for life and death, he should be leading from his position way back, BUT does that sound like a sniveling weakling with his pinky finger upwards dressed in feathers and silk? Noup. It sounds just like he must have been: a man of real physical strenght who dove straight in to one of the most fierce battles of medieval history. A simple test would be sufficent for all these writers who portray Edward as a weakling: pick up a baseball bat, dress into full riot police armor and walk in to the closest soccer hooligan bar or pub and call those guys cowards and cry babies and THEN fight them off for couple of hours. This gives you some indication what this man did at Bannockburn, except in that fight everyone was actually trying to either kill him or take him down one way or the other. Weak prancing cry baby? Not so. He may have been bad general, but as a man no one can say that he was anything the movies or bad novels claim.

Anonymous said...

Playing devil's advocate ... would there have been a social stigma for rape victims in medieval times, making rape rarely if ever reported -- the way it was in the US for many years? (Given everything I've read about Isabella, I can't imagine her keeping silent about such a thing, but since much of that is from Doherty and Weir, I can't tell how reliable it is)


Kathryn Warner said...

There is no evidence whatsoever for rape, Esther. Doherty made up 'sexual assault' and Weir changed it to 'perhaps even raped her?'. It's all detailed in the post I linked to. Both Doherty and Weir's books about Isabella are utterly hopeless and absolutely should not be relied on unless anything they say is corroborated elsewhere. I'm the last person who would ever defend anyone against a charge of rape if I thought there was even the smallest chance he did it or if there was even the slightest hint of it in any 14th-century record, but there isn't.

Sami, so well said! I'm thinking of doing a mythbusting post sometime about Edward as a 'coward'.

Anerje said...

I am glad to say I have never believed either of those myths. The first is truly shocking - to claim Despencer ever did that. Why would he even want to? And can you imagine that Edward II would ever permit it?

The image of Edward/Piers as weak and foppish is repetative and boring! It shows lazy authorship, if you ask me.

Kathryn Warner said...

I agree, Anerje! Lazy is exactly what it is, just reaching for lame stereotypes in place of characterisation.

karacherith said...

Kathryn, I don't understand the rape parts at all--I mean, can you imagine a king allowing someone to rape his Queen?!! Let alone the daughter of the King of France! I can't help but think that if Despenser had tried it (and why would he?), Isabella would've killed him at once--or gotten one of her retainers to kill him at once. It seems like this rape narrative assumes that Isabella was helpless, which hardly sounds like the Isa I know.

As for Ed: gosh, the Plantagenets were good-looking, weren't they? Do you know if Ed III was also handsome?

Deirdre said...

Myth Number 4 is a big reason why I can never bring myself to watch even a minute of Braveheart. Even before I came across this blog and learned more about Edward II the depiction of him in the film screamed "homophobia" at me and it still makes my stomach turn to think of it.

Kathryn Warner said...

Karacherith, I so agree! It's one of the most ridiculous things I've ever read about Edward II's reign (which is really saying something), a pure invention in a salacious, sensationalist book (Doherty's) that's also bizarrely inaccurate in so many places. Yuck.

Hmm, actually I'm not sure what Ed III looked like - not sure if there are any physical descriptions of him. With two such good-looking parents, though, I imagine he was pretty easy on the eye. ;) :)

Deirdre, that's so exactly how I feel too. There are novels that are even worse than Braveheart in the disgustingly bigoted way they portray him. Reading them literally made me feel ill. :/

Anerje said...

Kathryn, the DVD arrived today - how quick was that?:>

Kathryn Warner said...

Oh, that's great! I'm so relieved it's safely back with you! Especially given how long it took your card to arrive here, and there are two things from friends posted well before Christmas that I'm still waiting for :/.

Carla said...

Cashelmara has a lot to answer for, it seems.... You'd think the fact that it was set on a fictional estate in 19th-century Ireland and populated entirely by fictional characters would be, you know, a clue?

Kathryn Warner said...

You'd think so, Carla. :/ Shame that a couple of writers seem to take it as a primary source...

Anonymous said...

Yes I quite agree with all of U...to create a misrepresentation just to make a sellable book, is cowardly! As for Isabella, that woman was quite a handful....I now have a ques. to ask, has anyone heard of this note supposebly sent to Isa for her to mark with a coma....."EDWARD KILL NOT TO FEAR THE DEED IS GOOD" She was to put the coma where she wished, either after KILL or after NOT. This was sent to her after Edward was imprisoned while she was at prayers, fact or fiction.

Please comment, I read this from a 14th century chronicle over 40 yrs ago................Paris


Kathryn Warner said...

Anon, the story about the comma is pure fiction. No such letter was ever sent, and given that documents of the time were hardly punctuated at all - even full stops were often not used - it's a laughable notion.