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)?
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.
Thanks for that great post, Kathryn.
I hope that all those stereotype-repeaters will read it well.
Thanks, Rowan, glad you liked the post! I hope so too.
Great post! I'm curious though ... according to Alison Weir (not the most accurate biographer, I know) Isabella begged Edward to send Piers into exile (granting her request would let him save face while averting a civil war with his nobility) ... but otherwise, relations were rather harmonious, and she backed Edward in his fight with Lancaster and Co. Is this true? Also, is there anything between Piers and Isabella something similar to the incidents with Despenser (IIRC, there was an incident where Isabella was in danger from the Scots, but refused anything from Despenser -- indicating to me that she was more scared of him than of the Scots, since she usually took very good care to keep herself safe)
No. Isabella did not beg Edward to send Piers into exile. That's sheer invention. Seems to be a confusion with what happened in August 1321, when Isabella went down on her knees before Edward to beg him to exile the Despensers and prevent civil war.
If there'd been anything at all like that between Isabella and Piers, I would have included it in the post as it would be vital to an understanding of how Isabella saw Piers. The Tynemouth issue which Isabella blamed Despenser for took place in 1322.
I LOVE this post! Thanks for all the detail on the chronicles - and challenging what they report. I didn't realise the letter from Isabella had not survived, even if she wrote it, and that the chronicle was hopelessly out of time when he reported it - therefore there was probably no letter! It makes sense confusing Piers and Despencer as well. Phillip IV must have been well aware of the relationship between Edward and Piers, whatever form it took, and I'm sure Isabella would have been put in the picture. At 12 years old, I daresay Phillip forbade consummation of the marriage - Isabella would have been too young. Isabella was probably relieved her husband spent more time with Piers than her:> Wonderful research!
oh, and I loved the reference to the National Enquirer! Puts it all in context!
Good one once again.
I think that Isabella who was very young at the time, might have even see her role as the queen to support her husband the king in everything he did. And if she did think that Piers was important for her king husband, then her reactions might have been more positive than today so many assume. She was, after all, trained to be the queen all her life and part of that role was to support the king in every which way one can.
Now, in 1320's she was a grown woman, a mother with a princely son, and by now she had her own will too. Seeing Hugh acting up, she propably felt decent fury towards this man. But even then she had no hatred towards her husband as the letters show.
Very very interesting woman indeed and nothing like the one we read from these silly "historic novels" today.
The "letter" of 1422 is a good demonstration that even in the fifteenth century people wanted to know more about the past, and if they couldn't find the information they needed they'd invent it -- early novelists, or at least fanficcers :). (I think you could make an interesting comparison with Anne Boleyn's supposed "from the Lady in the Tower" letter -- probably born of someone's wishful thinking about what they would have said if they had been Anne).
As for what Isabella thought of Piers, absent some miraculous discovery we'll obviously never knew. Whatever she thought of Gaveston at the time, I'm betting that by the early 1320s she thought of him quite fondly by comparison with Despenser!
Trying to sort out Isabella's feelings towards Piers seems a bit like mission impossible. But as she was aged between 12 and 16 during the last years of Piers' life, she was presumably open to inluence from those closest to her like her ladies in waiting (or whatever they were called in those days). Do we know anything of who might have influenced her thinking?
What I can imagine is her feeling some antipathy towards those lords who opposed her husband, and particularly those most closely involved in drawing up the Ordinances, because I think she would have seen this as a direct attack on Edward. That may have left her feeling closer to Piers. The help she arranged for him in Ponthieu suggests a certain amount of friendship.
At that age she may also have been ignorant of, or naive about some of Edward's failings as a king, and which she came to recognise more as she grew older. As the daughter of Philip the Fair, she must have compared the state of France and England, probably to Edward's detriment.
I sometimes wonder if the distrust between herself and Hugh Despenser was as much about the way England should be ruled as about a clash of personalities. By the end of 1322, after the disaster at Byland and her own harrowing flight from Tynemouth, she must have been in despair at Edward's rule, particularly when she looked back to the reigns of her brothers in France.
What an awesome post this is. Sensible, measured and fair. I wish other writers were as reasonable!
Thanks so much, Kate - I'm so glad you think so! I do try hard to be fair, as although I'm very keen to demolish the myths about Edward, I don't want to whitewash him either.
Jerry, it's difficult to get much sense of Isabella or what she was thinking in the first few years of her marriage. She may have been influenced by her aunt, the dowager queen, but that's only my best guess. She may also have been close to her husband's niece Eleanor (de Clare) Despenser, about three years her senior, who was one of her ladies in waiting.
Unfortunately she ruled England just as badly, or worse, as Edward and the Despensers when she got the chance.
'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'
This seems quite likely to me. As well as the prosaic aspect that it's easy to mix up people and events from several decades previously, and the medieval chroniclers wouldn't have had access to search engines and vast indexed libraries for fact-checking, even if they wanted to, there's also the habit of referring to important people by their role ('earl of X') etc rather than by name, which could have made it even easier for later chroniclers to confuse Piers and Hugh if they were both thought of as the king's favourite.
Speaking of Isabella, Edward, and Piers...I think here's another Tumblr post chock-full of myths, stereotypes, misconceptions, and exaggerations about the 3 (and others) and the fact that this post even made it to 29,404 notes makes me wonder how many people believe the crap littering and surrounding the truths in this post... >_<
Aghhhhh nooooo, that's hideous! :/ JUST SHOOT ME NOW! :(
Exactly, it's so awful that if only it were printed on paper, it would be good to throw it into a bonfire. That's how bad it is *shudders*
Well, while not completely false, it's still largely inaccurate and presumes many stereotypes and perpetuates myths, including the whole 'red hot poker' thing which really should be concluded and told to the world once and for all that it is utterly false (well, it didn't state it was certain truth, I'll give it that, but still...) But ugh, Isabella is once again portrayed as the tragic woobie victim constantly either abused/neglected by Edward, Piers, and Hugh and who grows into a mature, empowered ass-kicking feminist -- it's really a great disservice to her memory! >_<
And near the end, it doesn't even state that Isabella and Roger governing the kingdom turned out to be just as bad or maybe even a tad worse than Edward's and so makes it seem as if her son Edward III is some sly, ungrateful, power-hungry, misogynistic son who greatly resented his mother and her lover's having the power that was his by right. :/ Wow...just wow.
It's just...oh God, my eyes! Just enough truth and accuracy in the mix to make it seem plausible, which is even worse. What the heck is with all these people who think they know what Isabella was thinking and planning? I hate it with a passion, this whole TragicVictim!Isabella thing, so tragically spurned and neglected by her husband, it's all just so horribly tragic when all she ever wanted and deserved was Twu Wuv 4Eva. But look! The tragic victim miraculously transforms into KickAss EmpoweredHeroine!Isabella! Saving the country from tyranny and non-heterosexual men, and let's just draw a veil over her own appalling behaviour and favouritism because that doesn't make a good end to the story! It has so little to do with Isabella's actual story, it's just some bonkers modern narrative being forced on it.
But of course I'm preaching to the converted here ;) Thank you for the great comment.
You're welcome and no problem! :)
But really, I guess I could be called 'converted' considering my feelings towards Edward were ambivalent at beast initially but I grew more sympathetic towards and even liked him as I learned more about his (real) side to the story, especially through your blog, so I really have to thank you for that now that I know that Edward definitely was not at all a complete failure as a human being or king :D
Well, about the rubbish way this supposed 'mini-biography' was written, one can hardly be surprised considering the book's title 'Princesses Behaving Badly' and you know how a lot (but definitely not all) of modern authors feel towards such 'badly behaving' princesses, queens, and noblewomen as some weird badass, awesome, empowered, and mature feminist whose values and beliefs seem to have been copied straight from the 21st century. *sighs*
BTW, have you heard of the books "She-Wolves" with one written by Elizabeth Norton and the other by Helen Castor? Though I was very interested and wished to get my hands on a copy when I first found out about these books since I love learning about famous, remarkable historical women, I'm not so eager anymore considering that the very first thing I read and was written about Isabella of France in the first book was about Edward II constantly humiliating and treating her badly throughout their marriage and his being like a weak, cowardly, tyrannical, and easily manipulated king along with all his adulterous ~homosexual~ affairs and the author even seemed to imply that she thought Isabella's actions were quite justified. Like seriously? >_<
Ahhhh, that's great, I'm so glad to hear it! :) I have a biography of him coming out on 28 October, and I'd be delighted if I could change a few more opinions ;) He was a deeply flawed man but a fascinating one, and in my opinion, very likeable. I'm absolutely convinced that Edward and Isabella loved each other, for a long time at least.
In the biog, chapter 3, I briefly talk about this popular modern opinion of Isabella (and of other women) that you describe so well. Often when reading accounts of Isabella by her 'fans', I get the weird feeling that she was a time traveller to the 14th century from our own. I'm sure she wouldn't recognise herself in the way she's usually written nowadays.
I haven't been able to bring myself to read the Elizabeth Norton book, and not sure I ever will :/ I have read the Isabella chapters of the Castor one (and why oh why did she have to use that wretched 'she-wolves' title as well?), and, well, didn't have a very high opinion of them, let's say. Just the same old, same old, really. I'd been expecting more from the excellent reviews, so was very disappointed. The Norton sounds...agh! :/
Oh yeah, that was the first thing I saw when I checked out your blog yesterday, and it looks really promising! Someday, I'll probably get a copy of it, though not for a long time because the only way I can get such books that are usually not available in bookstores where I live in the Philippines (all the more since it's a biography of an 'obscure' English king that people here probably have very little interest in) is by downloading them for free on the Internet, even if some might consider that illegal :3
And I'll definitely be sure not to skip that part in your book since that would be such a slap in the face for certain modern 'historians' and novelists. Crossing my hands that the same people will read your book so that some of them may finally realize how wrong they've been about their beliefs and assumptions about Edward, Isabella, and the rest, but I think I'm rather being too optimistic -- most of them will probably continue to be stubborn about it all and still cling to the delusions and myths they've believed in for so long, but oh well, one can only hope. :)
It might shed some light on the other figures being discussed in those books like Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Margaret of Anjou, Mary I, and Elizabeth I, sure, but I always have low hopes when it comes to discussing Isabella as I pretty much dread how she'll be portrayed, which is often the usual modernized role of tragic, neglected/abused victim who, by some 'twist of fate' or through her own ~power, agency, bravery, and feminist ideals~, transforms into a courageous, righteous modernistic feminist who is a voice in the wilderness speaking out for all the women everywhere in the world who are suffering from marital oppression and whose actions as 'regent' for her son Edward III are of course, perfectly justified, dismissed as some minor thing people really had no cause to complain about, or blamed on her love for Roger Mortimer or her supposedly unstable mental state or some other bizarre thing like that. *rolls eyes*
Honestly, the things some people come up with just to make Isabella seem more sympathetic and stand out from other people, especially her fellow women in 13th century France and England, as the only one who dares to become a 'proto-feminist' or who fights for what she believes in! o.O Such blatant disrespect for many other women who were equally tenacious and as much of a fighter (or even more) than Isabella but who are often dismissed or ignored because they're not like picture-perfect, infamous, 'maligned' Queen Isabella.
Ah, you're in the Philippines, great! Yes, I can't imagine there's much demand there for a book about Edward II, hehehe :) If you're interested in reading it, I'm sure we can sort something out...
I really hope so too, though have often observed that many people simply *want* to believe something, in the face of evidence to the contrary, especially when it's a very popular tale, such as Edward II being feeble or not really being the father of his son *sigh*
It drives me mad in books when Isabella is portrayed as a strong, empowered, capable woman when doing something the author approves of, then on the next page is suddenly the helpless victim of unscrupulous men (Roger Mortimer, Henry of Lancaster) when something happens that the author doesn't like. I hate it when women are denied agency in this manner; so patronising and paternalistic, and frankly so hypocritical when the same authors decry the 'sexual prejudices' she's been subjected to (and also make sneeringly unpleasant comments about Edward's sexuality, hmmm). No-one seems to notice or care that both of Edward and Isabella's daughters had unhappy marriages and probably suffered far more than Isabella ever did. Sometimes on the blog, I've referred to The Isabella Exception.
Speaking of "Princesses Behaving Badly"...I was able to download it on my Kindle as I wondered, both eagerly and nervously, what it would say about the women which are the book's subjects. To my surprise, the author did make some efforts to be accurate and stay pretty objective (but even then still came off as glorifying some of their deeds and behavior even when not necessarily nice) and did acknowledge the problem of forcing modern narratives and viewing historical figures and events with modern feminist eyes, but even then I don't think the author was able to stick to her word as I found this 'accuracy' and 'objectivity' inconsistent and still had elements of sensationalism to it even as she claimed she did her best to clear away the myths and legends surrounding her subjects.
I haven't finished the book yet, but I happened to see that it had a 'selected bibliography' at the end and so I skipped over to it, where to my surprise (or maybe not), she only used *one* source when writing about Isabella (in comparison to some others for which she used more than five or ten) -- and a secondary source at that which I (and you also) believe to be quite unreliable and biased -- "She-Wolves" by Helen Castor! -_- Why, oh, why, did the author have to choose that as a source for her mini-biography on Isabella out of all other sources she could have used?! >_<
Thank you, this portrays isabella in a far more interesting light. So, Edward did not give her jewels or other wedding gifts to Gaveston? I have heard this in many writings
Hello! No, he didn't; the story was invented in the 19th century, and unfortunately far too many history writers are prone to repeating tales they read without checking for themselves.
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