It seems likely that Edward II knew of Isabella's pregnancy by 22 February 1316, about twenty-five weeks before the birth, on which date he asked the dean and chapter of the church of St Mary in Lincoln to pray for himself, the queen and "Edward their first-born son." The reference to 'first-born son' seems to indicate that Edward knew there would be a second child. On 27 March, Edward gave twenty pounds to John Fleg, horse dealer of London, for a bay horse "to carry the litter of the lady the queen" during her pregnancy. He also paid the Lucca banking firm the Ballardi almost four pounds for pieces of silk and gold tissue, and flame-coloured silk, to make cushions for Isabella's carriage so that she could travel in greater comfort.
John of Eltham was the only one of Edward II and Isabella's children whose birth Edward missed by not being nearby. In November 1312, the king was at Windsor Castle when Edward III was born there; he was at the palace of Woodstock in June 1318 when their elder daughter Eleanor was born; he was in London in July 1321 when Joan of the Tower was born. Edward, and probably Isabella as well, spent most of June and July 1316 at Westminster. On the 23rd, they travelled to Eltham, which had been given to Edward by his late friend Anthony Bek, bishop of Durham and patriarch of Jerusalem, and which he gave to Isabella in 1311. On the 26th, Edward left the queen there and began to travel north towards York, intending to take part in a campaign in Scotland which he (entirely unsurprisingly) later cancelled. In York, he stayed at the Franciscan convent with his niece Margaret Gaveston, née de Clare, and met and had a furious row with his cousin Thomas, earl of Lancaster.
Isabella, meanwhile, gave birth to their son on 15 August. It would have been conventional to name him after her father, Philip IV of France, but instead she called him John, most probably in my opinion in honour of the new pope, John XXII. John was elected in Lyon on 7 August, and the news reached Edward II in York on 17 August, when he gave a messenger a pound for informing him. Isabella, 230 miles south in Kent, must have heard the news a few days previously.
The queen sent her steward Eubolo Montibus north to inform her husband, and Montibus reached Edward on or just before 24 August, on which date the king asked the Dominicans of York to say prayers for himself, Isabella, their son Edward of Windsor, "and John of Eltham our youngest son, especially on account of John." Edward had a piece of Turkey cloth and a piece of cloth-of-gold delivered to Eltham to cover the font in the chapel during John’s baptism, and ordered Isabella's tailor Stephen of Falaise to make her a robe from five pieces of white velvet for her churching ceremony.
John of Eltham was cared for by his nurse, Matilda Pyrie or Perie, later also the nurse of his sister Joan of the Tower (born 1321). In March 1319, Edward II granted to his son "all lands and tenements" north of the river Trent "which have fallen into the king’s hands by reason of the hostility of the Scots and others who have adhered to them, or which shall henceforth fall in," and in October that year ordered that John and his sister Eleanor of Woodstock (born June 1318) were to remain "in the company" of their older brother Edward of Windsor, earl of Chester, "at his expenses." This implies that the two children lived at Wallingford Castle with the young earl and his household, and that Edward II and Queen Isabella visited them there occasionally. The king granted Queen Isabella the castle and honour of High Peak in Derbyshire and other manors, castles and rents "to hold in aid of the expenses of John, the king’s son, and Eleanor his sister, the king's daughter" on 1 May 1320, which perhaps suggests that the household of the younger royal children was then formally attached to the queen's. It is difficult to be sure where and with whom the younger royal children lived, and it may have varied: sometimes with their parents at court, sometimes with their elder brother the future king, sometimes perhaps in their own independent household.
At some point, John's much older first cousin Eleanor Despenser, née de Clare - twenty-four years his senior - looked after him. Contrary to what is usually asserted nowadays, there is no reason to suppose that this must have happened in September 1324 or that Eleanor's care of the boy was intended by Edward II and Hugh Despenser to hurt and punish Queen Isabella. The only evidence that Eleanor had the care of John is 1) a roll of expenses now held in The National Archives in Kew (see here) which is undated and might belong to any time between John's birth in August 1316 and Edward II's downfall in October 1326, and 2) an entry I myself found in Edward's last chamber account. This is a payment of twelve pounds to Eleanor Despenser on 8 June 1326, reimbursing the expenses of herself and John (then aged not quite ten) for travelling together from the palace of Sheen to Kenilworth Castle and staying at Kenilworth for eighteen days. These two pieces of evidence are a remarkably thin basis for declaring that Edward II cruelly and nastily removed John from Isabella's custody in September 1324, but then, not a few writers have been willing to put two and two together to make 97 in the interests of finding fault with everything Edward did and turning Isabella into a victim. Yet again, I remind these people that Isabella of France was a royal of the fourteenth century, not a modern person whose familial and cultural norms were the same as ours and not a person who expected to be the full-time primary carer of her children.
|Entry in Edward II's chamber account of June 1326, stating that John of Eltham and Eleanor Despenser had travelled from Sheen to Kenilworth together.|