12 September, 2014

'Being promiscuous with low-born men': erm no

I've mentioned this in a previous post, but have decided to write an entire post about it.

Alison Weir's Isabella, She-Wolf of France, Queen of England (2005), p. 150, contains the following passage:

"Was Isabella also angry because she had learned that her husband was being promiscuous with low-born men?  In one of Edward's chamber books of 1322, there is a record of substantial payments made by the King to Robin and Simon Hod, Wat Cowherd, Robin Dyer and others for spending fourteen days in his company.  Of course, they may have joined him in innocent pastimes such as digging ditches, but this is not mentioned, and the words 'in his company' sound euphemistic, while the substantial sums paid to these men was perhaps hush money.  And as they stayed for two weeks, the Queen would surely have got to hear of it."

Oh dear.  The men she names were in fact members of Edward II's household throughout the 1320s and perhaps before (none of the king's chamber accounts before 1322 survive, then exist only in fragments until the last one of July 1325 to October 1326) and are named as such dozens of times.  They were portours, also called valletz, of Edward's chamber, words perhaps best translated as 'grooms', and there were around thirty of them at any given time, hired to make beds, carry torches and generally look after the king in his chamber.  (See T. F. Tout, The Place of the Reign of Edward II in English History (2nd ed., 1936), p. 253, which cites the entirety of Edward II's Household Ordinance of December 1318 in the original French, including the chamber staff's duties.)

Weir claims twice in the above passage that the money paid to the men by the king was 'substantial' without saying how much it was.  Edward II's thirty or so chamber grooms - who in 1326 included two women named Joan Traghs and Anneis May, wives of other chamber grooms - were paid three pence a day, and received backdated wages two or three times monthly.  On 16 August 1325, for example, thirty-one men received a total of 108 shillings and six pence in wages for the last ten days, and on 21 June 1326 thirty-three portours received a total of 115 shillings and six pence in wages for the previous thirteen days.  Here's a typical entry from Edward's chamber account, from September 1325, transcribed and translated by myself:

Item illoeqes paie a [...] p' lour gages de ses xxx vadletz auantzditz p' chescun iijd le iour del viijme iour de sept' tantq' samadi le xxj iour de mesme le mois p' xiiij iours Cvs

"Item, paid there [the location mentioned in a previous entry] to [list of names], for the wages of his thirty grooms named above, three pence a day to each, from the 8th day of September until Saturday the 21st day of the same month, for fourteen days, 105 shillings."

That's all it meant in 1322, this 'being paid lots of money for spending fourteen days in the king's company' stuff.  Wages given to some of Edward II's chamber staff.  Not 'hush money'.  Would three pence a day per person really suffice as 'hush money', one wonders?  It was a decent salary at the time for men of their rank, especially as all food, drink, clothes and shoes were provided for free in the royal household on top of that, but wouldn't seem enough to bribe a large group of men not to tell anyone that they'd had sex with the king, and three pence a day hardly counts as 'substantial payments' either, surely.  The phrase "remaining in the the king's company," demoerant en la compaignie le Roi, is used over and over in Edward's chamber accounts and merely refers to people who - gosh, you'll never guess! - accompanied him as he travelled around the country.  It most certainly is not 'euphemistic', unless we assume that Edward was having sex with dozens of people daily and bribing them to keep quiet.  Maybe it sounds 'euphemistic', though, if you're determined to make the most salacious and critical interpretation of Edward II's actions possible.  It illustrates the perils of doing some research but not enough, so that you find one piece of evidence but don't realise that it occurs frequently in Edward's chamber accounts, think you've found something out of the ordinary, put two and two together to make 6427, and thus take something entirely everyday and normal absurdly out of context.  It also illustrates the perils of writing history with an agenda, looking for something, anything, you can use to blacken Edward II's name and to turn Isabella into even more of a victim than you've already made her.  Who wouldn't feel sympathy for a woman in such a situation, being humiliated by the knowledge that her royal husband is having sex with a large crowd of low-born men and paying them off?

Many of Edward II's staff remained loyal to him until the end: the last entry in his last chamber account, on 31 October 1326 when he was in South Wales desperately trying and failing to raise an army and to save his kingship, is a payment to twenty-four grooms of the chamber as their wages for the twenty days since 12 October.  One of them is Walter 'Wat' Cowherd.  Another is Simon Hod.  Another is Robin Dyer.  Three of the men whom Edward II had supposedly brought to court for two weeks in 1322 and paid hush money to because he'd been 'promiscuous' with them to the great distress of his wife.  Wat Cowherd was one of the men named at Caerphilly Castle in March 1327, granted a pardon for holding the castle against the queen for the last few months.  (Calendar of Patent Rolls 1327-30, pp. 37-8.)  Among the Caerphilly garrison was Hugh Despenser the Younger's eldest son, seventeen- or eighteen-year-old Hugh or Huchon, and also among them were men who joined the Dunheved brothers in their attempt to free Edward of Caernarfon from Berkeley Castle in 1327 and men who joined the earl of Kent's attempt to free him from Corfe Castle in 1330.  The men at Caerphilly Castle, including Wat Cowherd, were some of the most devoted and loyal supporters of Edward II there ever was.  Wat certainly wasn't some random nobody the king brought to court to have sex with.

Here's 'Symond Hod' and 'Waut Couh[ier]de', i.e. Wat Cowherd, receiving their wages with the other chamber grooms on 4 August 1325 (Society of Antiquaries of London MS 122, p. 18):

And here's Wat Cowherd, 'Watte Couh'de', accompanying Edward II on a boat trip along the Thames on 2 December 1325, with other chamber grooms named Syme Laweman, Will Shene, the brothers Richard and Henry Hustret, Robin Curre, Jack Edriche and Richard Gobet (Ibid., p. 40, and see the names of some of these men pardoned at Caerphilly, linked above):

And finally, Wat Cowherd, Simon Hod and Robin Dyer receiving their wages with nineteen other men and two women on 31 October 1326, the last-ever payment made out of Edward II's chamber (Ibid., p. 90):

 We know pretty well nothing about Edward II's sex life, except that he must have had intercourse with Isabella four times which resulted in their children, and intercourse with an unknown woman which resulted in his illegitimate son Adam.  Obviously I can't prove that he didn't have sex with some of his chamber staff on occasion, or with the carpenters, fishermen, carters and so on with whom he sometimes spent time, but there's no reason at all to think that he did.  Whatever went wrong between Edward and Isabella in 1322, and it certainly seems that something did, Edward's 'being promiscuous with low-born men' was sure as heck not the cause.


Ulrik said...

I don't think there was anything unusual in kings having lovers - mostly women of course - at that time. Some of them undoubtedly had men. There's the 'classic' rumour about Richard L's bi- or homosexuality that won't go away, and I don't even Frank McLynn has disproved that, although he tries very hard. But it's a bit like Eleanor of Aquitaine's supposed affair with her uncle, Raymound of Antiochia - maybe it happened, maybe it didn't. One can't claim that it happened unless there's more - much more - than flimsy indicia like the documents Weir uses to construct her story, and which you so expertly deconstruct.

The second problem is that even if one has rock-hard (excuse the pun, I couldn't resist) evidence of Ed, or someone else, having had sex with men, or other women than his wife, what then? Do you use *that* to construct a story about him as a generally unpleasant man, with all the homophobia that that implies? Or do you try to put it into a larger and more balanced context, perhaps leaving the reader with different options of interpretation? (And if you do the latter, perhaps it is worth arguing that Ed's failings as a politician and general were perhaps more problematic than his failings as a medieval husband, whatever their true extent.)

Weir obviously has a story to tell, each time, about 'powerful women'. Or 'women who defy the chains of male society'. Or some such. Whether or not it has a basis seems to matter less. (And she is not exactly trying to make the foundations for her stories transparent via, say, elaborate footnotes.)

I actually defended her as a historian once, in terms of her ability to convey a narrative that seemed to be generally based on evidence and not her personal agenda. I must say that after having had researched esp. Eleanor of Aquitaine for quite a while for a series of talks I'm giving, to a broad audience, I can't really keep up my defence of Weir. She is a good writer and her books have some merit, but she is more a storyteller than a historian, IMO, and that is not always a good thing (unless you want a good story! :-) I don't think I'm going to buy another of her books unless it comes with a lottery ticket attached or some such.

I am, however, going to buy your bio of Ed2, and I can't wait to see how you are going to handle the whole story about his marriage, politics and so on - based on the historical records such as the ones you share here.

Anyway, I'm a master in communications and social sciences, so I guess I'm excused for having been 'misled' by Weir to begin with, but the more I read from her, the more I think her books belong in the category of Phillipa Gregory (i.e. fiction) and less in any other category.

Undine said...

Oh, God, Alison Weir. Her books about Mary Queen of Scots and Richard III practically sent me into fits.

The woman is an all-around historical menace.

Anonymous said...

I'm beginning to agree that Alison Weir has an agenda, trying to make Edward look bad. First, as you have shown, her insinuation is false. Second, considering how Isabella backed Edward in his quarrel with the nobility over Piers, I doubt that she would have rebelled against him even if what Weir said was true.


Anerje said...

Weir's theory is just too ridiculous for words! Are we're seriously meant to think Edward had a 'thing' for low born men and had to pay for sex with them? I am actually laughing as I type this! All because of the phrase 'in the company of'. How is that a euphemism for sex? Erm, surely Ed could have just put 'digging ditches'? Why would he have to pay? He's the king! It's just too stupid for words. Well done Kathryn for doing the research Weir should have done and finding out who they were. Thankfully I've never taken Weir's work seriously. However, I'm sure there are some who do. She should concentrate on fiction - just imagine a novel on Isabella!

Jan said...

I love your blog! Thanks to Jacqui Reiter for pointing me to it.

Is the real grievance against Edward (at least from his peers, let alone writers in the rpesent day) that he enjoyed (in a non-prurient way) the company of the lowborn is a way that wasn't conducive to the dignity of his rank and that of said peers? Or, to put it colloquially, "Look, Edward, all the time you spend palling around with ditch diggers, fishermen and your porters...i t *looks* bad. People talk. If we treat these sort of low fellows as friends, they will get expectations above their stations. And then reality will slap them in the face. *smarmy expression* Don't you see, Edward, you're _hurting_ them by treating them like this. Let's just get you bled, and you'll be beating your manservants like the rest of us in no time."

Libby said...

Brilliant Blog, so looking forward to the book Not sure that I can wait until Christmas for it, I might just have to buy it myself ;)

Anonymous said...

First of all, thank you for your great blog! I have been following it for a while now and you have made me quite the Edward II fan.
As for the post ... is it just me or is the phrase "in his company" a completely innocent one, not at all one that lends itself to speculation? As in, Edward II was the King of England. I`m certain he was pretty much always in someone`s company? And even if you wanted to accept Weir`s crazy theory, how does she imagine that worked? He just went into the streets and invited a few random men to have an orgy with? Or what?! None of it makes sense.
However, Weir seems to like such odd theories and sex myths. I have only ever tried to read her historical fiction, namely a novel named "The Captive Queen". I could not finish it, however. The whole thing reduced what was historically a very interesting period only to sex. The protagonist Eleanor of Aquitaine, in real life a highly fascinating character, spent nearly the whole time never thinking about anything but going to bed with Henry II, Thomas Becket -another fascinating character - only turned against Henry out of frustrated lust, and Henry himself was depicted as a rapist. Which offended me so much I nearly threw the book against the wall. There is not a shred of evidence for such an accusation, not the slightest suggestion anything like it ever happened, and even if it`s a work of fiction, it is just not okay to slander someone like that.
All the more sad that she apparently does the same in her non-fiction. Do you know why this is? What`s the point? What has Edward II ever done to her she would try so hard to paint him as the worst man ever?
I`ll never understand that.
Anyway, thanks again for the very interesting blog post, and sorry for any language mistakes; English is not my native language.

Sami Parkkonen said...

Great post! Once again, and I can not say how many times I have said this: IF YOU WRITE FICTION, WRITE FICTION, DO NOT PRESENT IT AS HISTORY.

Why on earth any one, Weir included, wishes to present his/her fiction as history? I can not understand that. What is the point?

And in this case, like Kathryn so nicely proves it, these guys worked for Edward. Them being in his company? Well, I must admit that when I was working in a company I was daily on the company of my boss. I guess that makes me gay in Weirs eyes.

And on that note, so must be the F1 drivers who are almost in daily company of their mechanics, bosses etc. And on that note, the whole military must be gay because there those chaps are all day long in each other company, even sharing bunkbeds etc. Yeap.

Thank you for the HISTORY once again Kathryn.

Katarzyna Ogrodnik-Fujcik said...

You certainly have a point, Kathryn, giving us a word of warning about "shabbily" done research. Some facts taken out of context, not checked and confirmed may do a great deal of harm to the subjects/objects of our writings.

Kristie said...

Great blog, as usual!

Anerje said...

Omg - Elijah - a descendant of Piers Gaveston - how marvellous! I think I may have a slight swoon:)

Gabriele Campbell said...

Why always Edward. *sigh* Heinrich IV, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Germany, was accused of consorting with lowborn men in chronicles left and right, and there's even some thinly veiled hint at sodomy (the chroniclers - usually clerics - hated him because of the issues with the pope), but there are no novels depicting Heinrich as gay loser and his wife Bertha as feminist victim. Maybe because poor Bertha never had a virile manly lover? *wink*

Anerje said...

LOL Gabriele at 'gay loser' - I'm chuckling away here!

Carla said...

'put two and two together to make 6427'
That line sums it up perfectly. I don't mind speculation - sometimes it's necessary to make any kind of sense of events. Although as we mentioned on an earlier thread, the thing about real life is that it doesn't have to make sense. I do wish authors would label the speculation clearly, though.

Sonetka said...

The perils of too little information -- another case is the situation of William Carey, who received grants from Henry VIII in the years his children were born, meaning, according to some, that Carey's putative children were actually Henry's and the payments were hush money or something similar. Except that Carey received grants EVERY YEAR, not just in those!

Alison Weir is ... I don't want to knock her as an amateur because hello pot, meet kettle, but she likes her sexually or rape-based stories far, far too much. I agree with Undine on the frustration factor (I mean, even when I think what she says it true, the reasoning is so wispy that I couldn't honestly cite it as backing for my opinion).

Justin said...

Feminists like Alison Weir seem to be obsessed with rape, except when the perpetrators are Moslems (as is happening right now in Sweden and Germany).... I made the mistake of purchasing her books.... never again! It sickens me how she turns ancestors into her politically-correct feminist heroes.