29 June, 2014

Isabella of France and Piers Gaveston

It is often assumed and stated as fact that Edward II's queen Isabella of France hated and resented his 'favourite' Piers Gaveston and desperately wanted him out of her life.  In this post, I take a look at the evidence and give my thoughts.

A central plank of the 'Isabella loathed and resented Piers' notion is a letter she allegedly sent to her father Philip IV shortly after her wedding in 1308 - when she was only twelve - complaining that Piers was the cause of all her troubles and was alienating Edward's affections from her and leading him into improper company.  She called herself "the most wretched of wives."  This letter, however, is only recorded by the much later chronicler Thomas Walsingham, who died in about 1422 (not 1322).  Isabella's correspondence from 1308 does not survive, and Walsingham, a monk of St Albans, had no possible access to the private letters sent from the queen of England to the king of France many decades previously.  He began writing in about 1377, the year Edward II and Isabella's great-grandson Richard II acceded to the throne, seventy years after Isabella supposedly wrote this letter to her father.  Although the letter is often cited in modern books as though Isabella certainly wrote it and as though we still have a copy of it somewhere, there is no reason to take it seriously as evidence or to think that it's anything but a total invention.  Thomas Walsingham was a medieval gossip; taking his 'most wretched of wives' story as gospel truth is like taking a 2014 edition of the National Enquirer seriously as a source for events of the 1930s or 40s.  The Annales Paulini do say, however, that Isabella's uncles the counts of Valois and Evreux returned to France after Edward and Isabella's coronation of 25 February 1308 and complained to Philip IV that the king frequented Piers Gaveston's couch (or bed) more than the queen's.  Given that Isabella was only twelve, one might think that Edward's shunning her bed really wasn't a bad idea anyway, and it may even be that Philip IV had demanded that consummation be delayed until Isabella was older.

There does exist, though, a certainly contemporary letter, written by a monk of Westminster sometime between late February and late June 1308, relating to Piers Gaveston's meddling in the abbey's business.*  I won't go into it all in detail - it involved Piers' siding with the abbot against the prior - as that would require another blog post, but the monk, Roger de Aldenham, suggested that Isabella and the earl of Lincoln might be persuaded to write to the pope, the cardinals and Philip IV re: the whole situation, on the grounds of their hatred of Piers (quod propter odium illius Petri).  So someone in Westminster in 1308, within a few weeks of Edward and Isabella's wedding and coronation also at Westminster, thought that Isabella hated Piers, and he may well have been correct.  It's interesting to note Aldenham's suggestion in the letter that the whole story of Piers' interference should be related to the countess of Hereford and other confidantes of the queen, who would then inform Isabella.  The countess of Hereford was, of course, Edward II's sister Elizabeth.  It's also interesting to note that, in a letter written the following year, Aldenham had completely changed his mind about Piers, whom in 1308 he had detested: he described him as a man of good conscience who was willing and able to correct any errors he had made when confronted with the truth.  Did Aldenham genuinely have a sound basis in 1308 for stating that Isabella hated Piers, or was he projecting his own feelings onto her and assuming that she shared them, given Piers' and Edward's antics at the coronation (see below)?

These are the only two letters I'm aware of which shed any light on the situation.  Turning now to chronicle evidence, it's important to be aware that most of the chronicles of Edward II's reign were written with hindsight, in the knowledge that Isabella rebelled against Edward in 1326 and led an invasion of his kingdom, and that Edward lost his throne.  It's hardly surprising therefore that they tend to exaggerate his failings, and assume that the royal marriage had been a disaster from start to finish.  The Annales Paulini, for example, were written in the 1330s, 25 or 30 years after 1308, when the annalist claims that Philip IV's brothers complained to him about Edward favouring Piers Gaveston over Isabella.  The story may be true, though I do wonder how the annalist of St Paul's knew what the king of France's brothers had said to him in France a quarter of a century previously.  The annals also claim that Edward "loved an evil male sorcerer more than he did his wife, a most handsome lady and a very beautiful woman."  (Isabella was hardly a woman yet in 1308.)  I strongly suspect that some chroniclers, writing decades later, confused Piers in some ways with Edward's later 'favourite' Hugh Despenser the Younger, whom Isabella most certainly did despise with every fibre of her being and whom she held responsible for the breakdown of her marriage. The Vita Edwardi Secundi, which ends abruptly in late 1325 before Edward II's downfall, does say that Edward was "incapable of moderate favour, and on account of Piers was said to forget himself" and that Piers "was accounted a sorcerer," but doesn't claim that Edward and Isabella's marriage suffered because of it or that Edward favoured Piers over his queen.  The Flores Historiarum, the Westminster chronicle whose author utterly loathed Edward II - he often writes of the king's "insane stupidity" and "wicked fury" - says Edward had "removed from his side his noble consort and her sweet conjugal embraces," but this is referring to his relationship with Hugh Despenser, not Piers Gaveston, and the former's success at limiting Isabella's access to her husband.  Lanercost says that Philip IV hated Piers, "because, as was commonly said, the king of England, having married his daughter, loved her indifferently because of the aforesaid Piers," and the Polychronicon also says that Edward neglected Isabella for Piers.  Both these chronicles were written many years later, however - Lanercost in the 1340s and Polychronicon in the early 1350s - so are not contemporary sources, but were written with decades of hindsight.  Lanercost was composed near the Scottish border (at Lanercost Priory) and is an excellent source for events in Scotland and the north of England but definitely not for events at court, and Ranulph Higden, author of the Polychronicon, was a monk in Chester.  Neither writer can have had any personal contact with Edward or Isabella or Piers or any particular insight into their relationships, except for rumours they had heard.  We must also remember that Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser the Younger were very different men, and their relationships with Edward II correspondingly also very different.  What applies to one does not necessarily apply to the other, although in much fiction and even non-fiction they are basically interchangeable as hateful annoyances to the queen.  There is really nothing to indicate that Piers, unlike Hugh, humiliated Isabella in any way or ever intended to.

A story you often see in Edward and Isabella novels is Isabella expressing shock, horror and disgust when she arrives in England in February 1308 and sees her new husband kissing and hugging Piers Gaveston.  Edward really did do that, yes, but it is extremely doubtful that Isabella witnessed it, as she and Edward came ashore at Dover separately and she arrived later than he did, as an entry on the Fine Roll makes clear.  It's also important to understand that Edward's kissing Piers does not automatically mean that the two men were lovers (though of course they might have been) or that the king's actions were necessarily sexual; this was an age when physical affection between men was far more common than it is now, and kissing on the lips was a normal form of greeting.  The problem was not so much that Edward kissed Piers, it was that he ignored and didn't kiss the other barons present.  Edward did behave badly at his and Isabella's coronation banquet at Westminster Abbey on 25 February 1308, when he is said to have ignored everyone and talked only to Piers, whose arms he had had put up on the walls of Westminster Hall with his own, rather than the French royal arms (ouch!).  Edward's discourteous conduct was certainly insulting to the French and probably to Isabella personally, and it can't have been easy for the young queen, to arrive in a new country and have to build a relationship with the fiercely emotional and erratic Edward while knowing that her husband was already involved in an intense relationship with someone else.  It may well have been Edward's blatant favouritism towards Piers at the coronation which prompted the monk Roger de Aldenham's statement that Isabella (and the earl of Lincoln) hated Piers, at least in part.

Other stories central to the idea that Isabella must have hated Piers Gaveston are that Edward gave her jewels to Piers in 1308, and that he abandoned her while she was pregnant in order to save Piers in 1312.  These two stories are complete myths (see here for the jewels story and here for the alleged abandonment).  The jewels story is a spectacularly silly one often repeated in modern books, which does at least usefully demonstrate which writers actually bothered to look at the source and which ones just mindlessly repeated the story from other modern writers without checking.  So, Isabella almost certainly did not write a letter to her father in 1308 complaining about Piers Gaveston; she did not have her jewels removed from her to be given to him; she was not abandoned when pregnant in order for Edward to protect Piers instead.  This leaves Roger de Aldenham of Westminster's statement as the only real evidence I can think of for Isabella's supposed hatred and resentment of Piers.

There often seems to be a kind of unspoken assumption that Isabella and Piers were somehow rivals for Edward's affections, as though Edward's heart was a cake and the large slice of it that belonged to Piers meant that there was little left for Isabella, as though because he loved Piers this necessarily means that he didn't love Isabella or even that he didn't care about her very much.  This is an assumption we definitely need to question.  Human beings are capable of loving different people in different ways at the same time.  This assumption of emotional rivalry between the queen and the earl of Cornwall, the idea that they consciously or otherwise were competing for the king's affections, leads to the further assumption that Isabella must have been sexually jealous of Piers and his important place in her husband's life (and bed?).  Maybe she was.  I can't read her mind, so I don't know.  But it is an assumption, a theory, not a certain fact, and based to a large extent - as far as I can tell - on what modern writers think they themselves might feel in this situation.  I'm convinced that Edward genuinely loved Isabella.  For sure, in a different way to the way he loved Piers and less intensely, perhaps.  But the fact that he loved Piers does not in any way prove that he did not love Isabella, and the important position Piers held in his heart does not mean that Edward did not honour, respect and cherish Isabella as his wife and queen.

Just before Piers Gaveston was sent into exile for the third time, on 29 October 1311, Isabella sent a letter to the receiver of Ponthieu "concerning the affairs of the earl of Cornwall."  Apparently she had agreed to help Piers in his exile, at least financially, and perhaps in the naming of him as 'earl of Cornwall', which title had been stripped from him, we may see some sympathy on Isabella’s part towards him.  Her reaction to his death is unrecorded, though she was with Edward in York when the king received the news on or just before 26 June 1312 and would have seen his terrible grief and rage first-hand.  Edward left York on the 28th and headed south; Isabella sent a letter after him on the 29th.  The letter doesn't survive, only the payment to a messenger for carrying it, but sending a letter after her husband only a day after his departure doesn't sound unsupportive and uncaring to me.

Having said all this, it is of course possible that Isabella did despise Piers Gaveston, his influence over her husband, and Edward's intense feelings for him.  I'm not attempting to state that she definitely didn't, just querying the frequent assumption that she certainly did.  Isabella didn't write any letters telling anyone how she felt about Piers and his relationship with her husband (as we can safely discount the one recorded many decades later by Walsingham as pure invention), and in the absence of her own words telling us what she thought, modern writers have rushed to fill the gap.  I've so often seen declarations that 'Isabella must have felt XYZ' when there's no 'must' about it at all and off the top of my head I can think of a dozen other emotions she might equally plausibly have felt.  No-one can know for sure what Piers' wife and Edward II's niece Margaret de Clare felt about the two men's relationship, either.  It would be great to know, but of course we can only speculate, and we shouldn't pretend that we do know, by saying (as at least two modern writers have) that Margaret was 'tragically married' to Piers when she might have adored him for all we know, or assuming that Isabella hated Piers.  Human feelings and relationships are complex and of course change, develop, deepen, over time.  A lot of modern commentators seem to forget this or ignore it, and paint relationships of many years' duration in simplistic, one-dimensional terms: Isabella loathed Piers! Isabella loathed Edward! Edward neglected Isabella!  Yaaaawwwwn, it's like painting by numbers, no insight, no empathy, no attempts to understand complexity and nuance.  Anyway, to sum up, it's possible that Isabella hated and resented Piers, and possible that she didn't.  Or perhaps she did at the beginning, then changed her mind.  Or perhaps she was actually quite fond of him, at least sometimes.  Or perhaps she had days when she didn't like him being around, and other days when she didn't much care.  Perhaps she appreciated his wit and intelligence but found him annoyingly arrogant.  Perhaps she felt a hundred other things for this man who loomed large in her life for four and a half years.  It strikes me that many of Isabella's modern so-called defenders actually do her a great disservice a lot of the time, by stripping her of her humanity and complexity and depicting her as little more than a one-dimensional, one-note automaton with the emotional depth of a shallow puddle.

I'm going to end the post with a quotation from Christopher Marlowe's c. 1592 play about Edward II, Act 1 Scene 4:

Isabella: Villain! 'tis thou that robb'st me of my lord.
Gaveston: Madam, 'tis you who rob me of my lord.

* Pierre Chaplais, Piers Gaveston, Edward II's Adoptive Brother (1994), pp. 61ff, 115ff; J. R. Maddicott, Thomas of Lancaster 1307-1322: A Study in the Reign of Edward II (1970), pp. 85-6.

24 June, 2014

23/24 June 1314: 700th Anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn

700 years ago yesterday and today, Edward II and his large army lost the battle of Bannockburn near Stirling to Robert Bruce, king of Scotland.  There's really very little, if anything, that I can contribute to a discussion of events of 23 and 24 June 1314, battles and military tactics definitely not being my thing, but here are a few quotations from chroniclers about Edward's role in the battle and others which I find interesting.  In Edward's time, incidentally, the battle was known as 'the discomfiture at Strivelin', the fourteenth-century spelling of Stirling.  If you're interested in learning more about the battle, check out Sami's guest post, Jules' blog posts, and there are numerous books about it available on Amazon (and, I'm sure, countless other articles and posts online to mark the great anniversary).  Incidentally, the first part of The Quest For Bannockburn documentary, already broadcast in Scotland, will be shown in the rest of the UK on BBC2 on Sunday 29 June from 8pm to 9pm.  I'm not sure yet about the second part, which I'm briefly in - presumably the following Sunday.

It's true that Edward left the field after losing the battle and galloped the many miles to Dunbar to take a boat down the coast to Berwick, for which he has - most unfairly, in my opinion - often been condemned for cowardice.  If he'd been a coward, he'd hardly have been fighting in the thick of the battle in the first place, and I'm not sure what people think he should have done: remain on the battlefield to be killed or captured?  His capture would of course have been catastrophic, the ransom demanded for his release immense, and if he'd been killed, it would have brought his nineteen-month-old son to the throne, with all the perils of a long regency that entailed.

Edward attacked ferociously "like a lioness deprived of her cubs."  (Trokelowe)

He "struck out so vigorously behind him with a mace that there was none whom he touched whom he did not fell to the ground."  (Scalacronica, describing Edward's flight from the battle; the author's namesake father Sir Thomas Gray fought for Edward at Bannockburn and was captured)

On Edward's army: "Never up to that time nor later has been seen so much nobility so nobly equipped or swelled with such arrogance."  (Geoffrey le Baker)

On Edward's army: "too showy and pompous."  (A song written in Latin soon afterwards)

"Marching with great pomp and elaborate state, he [Edward II] took goods from the monasteries on his journey, and, as was reported, did and said things to the prejudice and injury of the saints.  In consequence of this and other things it is not surprising that confusion and everlasting shame overtook him and his army, which was foretold at the time by certain religious men of England."  (O rly?  This is from Lanercost; I'm not sure what the monk slash armchair general was on about here, but the account was written with a good 30 years' hindsight)

"All who were present agreed that never in our time has such an army gone forth from England.  The multitude of wagons, if they had been placed end to end, would have taken up a space of twenty leagues.  The king therefore took confidence from so great and so distinguished a multitude and hastened day by day to the appointed place, not as if he was leading an army to battle but as if he was going to St James's [Santiago de Compostela]."  (Vita Edwardi Secundi)

"O day of vengeance and disaster, day of utter loss and shame, evil and accursed day, not to be reckoned in our calendar, that blemished the reputation of the English...".  (Vita)

21 June, 2014

June Anniversaries

1 June 1300: Birth of Edward II's half-brother Thomas of Brotherton, earl of Norfolk and Earl Marshal, sixteen years younger than Edward, eldest child of Edward I and his second queen Marguerite of France.

2 June 1313: Edward and Isabella entered Paris during their long visit to France, to public acclaim.

5 June 1296: Death of Edward II's uncle Edmund, earl of Lancaster, Leicester and Derby, aged fifty-one, the younger brother of Edward I and youngest surviving child of Henry III and Eleanor of Provence.  Edmund married Blanche of Artois, dowager queen of Navarre, and had sons Earl Thomas and Earl Henry (and the obscure John, about whom I know practically nothing).

6 June 1333: Death of Edward II's twenty-year-old great-nephew William Donn de Burgh, earl of Ulster, eldest child of Edward's niece Elizabeth de Clare.  William's heir was his baby daughter Elizabeth, who married Edward III's son Lionel of Antwerp, duke of Clarence.

7 June 1329: Death of Robert Bruce, King Robert I of Scotland, aged not quite fifty-five (born 11 July 1274).  His son and heir David II was only five, and had married Edward II's daughter Joan of the Tower the year before.

7 June 1337: Death of William III, count of Hainault and Holland, whose daughter Philippa was married to Edward III.

8 June 1368: Death of Maurice, Lord Berkeley, whose father Thomas was the former Edward II's custodian at Berkeley Castle in 1327, and who married Hugh Despenser the Younger's daughter Elizabeth.  Maurice was also the grandson of Roger Mortimer.

13 June 1348: Death of Edward's first cousin Juan Manuel, lord of Peñafiel, Escalona and Villena (like Edward, a grandson of Fernando III), one of the greatest Spanish writers of the Middle Ages.

15 June 1330: Birth of Edward's eldest grandchild Edward of Woodstock, prince of Wales, duke of Cornwall and Aquitaine, father of Richard II.  He was the eldest child of Edward III, then aged seventeen, and Philippa of Hainault, then aged perhaps sixteen.

17 June 1239 (or rather, the night of 17/18 June): Birth of Edward's father Edward I, born at Westminster to Eleanor of Provence, queen of Henry III.

18 June 1318: Birth of Edward and Isabella's third child and first daughter Eleanor of Woodstock.

19 June 1312: Murder of Piers Gaveston, earl of Cornwall.

19 June 1313: Edward spent the first anniversary of Piers' death watching 54 naked dancers perform for him in France.

21 June 1377: Death of King Edward III, aged sixty-four (born 13 November 1312), eldest child of Edward II and Isabella of France.  He left his ten-year-old grandson Richard II as his heir.

23/24 June 1314: Battle of Bannockburn.  Which, though I'm not totally certain, I believe Edward II lost.  :-)  :-)

24 June 1314: Death of Edward II's nephew Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester, at Bannockburn.

23 June 1324: Death of Edward's kinsman and ally Aymer de Valence, earl of Pembroke.

24 or 25 June 1291: Death of Edward's paternal grandmother Eleanor of Provence, widow of Henry III, the only one of his grandparents Edward knew.

25 June 1308: Deadline for Piers Gaveston to leave England for his second exile (he actually left on the 28th).  Edward appointed him lord lieutenant of Ireland.

25 June 1319: Battle of Vega de Granada in Andalusia, at which two of Edward II's Castilian cousins, Don Juan and Don Pedro, were killed.

27 June 1296: Murder of Floris V, count of Holland, whose son and heir John I (born 1284) married Edward of Caernarfon's sister Elizabeth a few months later.

27 June 1309: Return of Piers Gaveston from his second exile.

28 June 1312: Edward left York and began the journey south to London after Piers Gaveston's murder, with the country teetering on the brink of civil war.

29 June 1317: Five years and ten days after Piers Gaveston's death, Edward ordered the abbot and convent of Thame to take on six additional monks "to celebrate divine service daily in the abbey for the souls of the king’s ancestors, and of Piers de Gaveston, earl of Cornwall."

29 June 1320: Edward paid liege homage to his brother-in-law Philip V of France for the lands he held of him, the duchy of Aquitaine and the county of Ponthieu.

30 June 1286: Birth of John de Warenne, earl of Surrey, who married Edward's niece Joan of Bar in 1306.  He died either on his birthday or the day before in 1347.

30 June 19??: My birthday :-)

11 June, 2014

Documentary: The Quest for Bannockburn

I appeared briefly in BBC2 Scotland's The Quest for Bannockburn on Monday 9 June at 9pm, talking about Edward II and Piers Gaveston. :-)  The programme can be seen here on BBC iPlayer for a few more days, if you're in the UK (if not, there are ways and means of getting a UK IP address...).  It'll be shown on BBC2 in the rest of the UK very soon, probably in late June or early July - I'll post here when I know the date.  With any luck it'll be shown in other countries at some point too, though I don't have any information about that.  Here I am with Neil Oliver at Knaresborough Castle. :-)

03 June, 2014

533 posts later...

Today, the Edward II blog has been running for exactly eight and a half years, yippee!  I started it on 3 December 2005, and have posted between three and eight articles every single month since.  This is the 533rd!  (And by far one of the shortest. Most of the others are miles better.)

Yesterday evening, the first part of the documentary The Quest for Bannockburn was shown on BBC2 in Scotland.  It'll be on television in the rest of the UK soon, but can already be seen on BBC iPlayer, here.  Just three weeks to go till the 700th anniversary of the battle.

Here's to the next eight and a half years!  Keep reading!  :-)