30 April, 2017

Top Ten Myths About Edward II and Isabella of France

In no particular order, here are the top ten fake stories still often repeated about Edward II and Isabella of France. Thanks to my good friend Sami Parkkonen for the suggestion!

1) Edward II gave Isabella's wedding gifts and/or jewels to Piers Gaveston in 1308

I'm bored to tears with this stupid fake story, which I see repeated everywhere. This particular piece of unhistorical idiocy was invented by Agnes Strickland in the mid-nineteenth century and is based on a misreading of one line in the Annales Paulini, which says that King Philip IV of France gave some gifts (war-horses, a bed, rings) to his new son-in-law Edward II at the time of the royal wedding in early 1308 and that Edward sent them to Piers Gaveston in England. Firstly, the gifts were given to Edward, not to Isabella, not even to Edward and Isabella jointly (unless we think that Isabella's father gave her war-horses for, y'know, all the wars she was personally going to fight in. Doesn't seem terribly likely, does it?). Secondly, there is no indication at all that Piers was meant to keep the gifts permanently; he was Edward II's regent of England during the king's absence in France, and was the person Edward trusted most. He was sent the items so that he could store them safely, not keep them. Isabella is not even mentioned in the Annales Paulini at this point. See here and here for my posts about this spectacularly annoying fake story, and for the line in the Annales which has (deliberately?) so often been misinterpreted. There's also an even sillier continuation of this fake story, wherein it is said that poor Isabella had to watch Piers Gaveston parading round in her own jewels and was helpless to do anything about it. For the record, there's no hint of any animosity on Isabella's part towards Gaveston; the notion that she and Piers were somehow rivals for Edward II's affections and that as Piers 'won' Isabella somehow 'lost' is merely an assumption.

2) Edward cruelly removed Isabella's children from her in 1324

Invented by Paul Doherty in his doctoral thesis about Isabella in 1977. Look at any book or article or thesis or even novel about Edward II and Isabella written before the late 1970s, and search for any notion or even a hint that 'Edward removed Isabella's children from her custody in 1324'. I assure you that you won't find it. Since then, however, it's been repeated everywhere, even by usually careful and excellent historians who should know better and yet seem, bizarrely, to believe that Paul Doherty is a reliable source. Bear in mind, this is the man who doesn't even know which of Isabella's brothers was king of France in 1320 or what year their mother the queen of Navarre died, who calls Edward II's niece Margaret de Clare 'Joan of Gloucester', who can't even figure out that a woman he says was born in 1296 cannot have been nine in 1303 and twenty-three in 1321, who makes up irrational nonsense that the queen of England was asked to take an oath of loyalty to a nobleman, and who cheerfully misquotes primary sources so that they say what he wants them to say. For his claim that Edward II inflicted even more hardship on his wife in September 1324 by cruelly removing her children from her custody, Doherty cites a document which actually dates to Edward II's regnal year from July 1322 to July 1323. Awesome. See here for a rebuttal of the whole absurd notion. And frankly, if Paul Doherty tells you that the pope is Catholic and that the Atlantic Ocean is wet, double check.

3) Edward abandoned Isabella when she was pregnant in 1312 to save Gaveston instead

Another main plank in the trendy Victim!Isabella school of history, which says that Edward II was so horrid to his poor young newly pregnant teenage wife that he abandoned her weeping at Tynemouth in early May 1312 in order to take Piers Gaveston to safety in Scarborough instead. The story is based solely on a misunderstanding by the St Albans chronicler, writing decades later and nearly 300 miles away, who mixed up events of 1312 with those of the autumn of 1322 when Isabella really did get trapped at Tynemouth with Robert Bruce's army nearby. See here. No doubt, if Edward had taken Isabella on a boat on the bleak, rough and cold North Sea for five days in the first trimester of pregnancy, his modern 'Edward II could never do anything right' detractors would be wailing about that too. No real historian takes the idea that Edward 'abandoned' his pregnant wife in May 1312 remotely seriously, because it's so obvious that the St Albans chronicler was mixing up events which took place ten years apart; the story only appears in books written with a preconceived and wildly inaccurate notion that Isabella was the tragic neglected victim of her nasty cruel gay perverted husband for many years.

4) Edward II was not the father of Edward III

We mostly have Braveheart to thank for this one. Thanks, Mel Gibson! It was the above-mentioned Paul Doherty who first invented the notion, however, in a 1985 novel in which he changed Edward III's date of birth by eight months in order to accommodate the fiction that his real father was Roger Mortimer. Yes, that would be the Roger Mortimer who was in Ireland at the time that Edward III and all of Isabella's three younger children were conceived. There is no doubt whatsoever that Edward II and Isabella were together at the right times to conceive all their children, and the idea that Edward II was not the father of Isabella's offspring is based solely on the notion that human sexuality only ever exists as a binary and that because Edward loved men, he must necessarily have been incapable of intercourse with women. Daft. He fathered an illegitimate son as well as his children with Isabella. The 'Edward II hurted poor ickle twagic Issy howwibly, de howwid meanie' crowd also get a lot of mileage out of the fact that Edward and Isabella only conceived their first child in February 1312 when they'd been married for just over four years, apparently because they think that a man in his twenties should have been having lots of enthusiastic sex with a pre-pubescent or barely pubescent twelve-year-old. Because yes, that would be just great, wouldn't it? See here.

5) Edward II was weak and feeble

Because he loved men, and men who love men are automatically girly and camp and pathetic and feeble, as opposed to strong manly virile heterosexual men who only love women and are thus terribly strong and manly, dontcha know? That's not homophobic at all. For the absolute nadir of this school of thought, check out the novel about Piers Gaveston by Brandy Purdy, if you can stomach it (I can't), and if the idea of a gay man stamping his ickle foot and screeching and shaking his ickle fists impotently and throwing girly tantrums and wailing appeals to you. As for the real Edward II, as opposed to the feeble girly caricature so beloved of some modern writers who cannot write actual people but only offensive stereotypes, he was "one of the strongest men of his realm." "Fair of body and great of strength." "Tall and strong, a fine figure of a handsome man." "A handsome man, strong in body and limb." "Elegant, of outstanding strength." And so on and so on and so on.

6) Hugh Despenser the Younger raped Isabella with Edward's connivance

An invention of Paul Doherty and Alison Weir in the early twenty-first century in the service of their Victim!Isabella agenda, and a particularly nasty one based on no evidence whatsoever except a pile of silly rhetorical questions. I think it's appalling to accuse a person of a serious and devastating crime with evidence that's not merely absurdly flimsy but actually non-existent. See here.

7) Edward was trying to annul his marriage to Isabella in c. 1324/25

A rumour reported by two chroniclers, disproved by actual evidence from the chancery rolls and the Vatican archives, which shows that Edward II sent Friar Thomas Dunheved to John XXII to complain about the archbishop of Dublin, not to try to annul his marriage. He would have had to be spectacularly stupid to try to annul his marriage to Isabella at the same time that he was sending her as a peace envoy to her brother Charles IV, and of course he had no grounds whatsoever for an annulment and knew it. But who cares about evidence and logic when your main aim is to portray Isabella as the helpless tragic victim of her cruel husband? See here.

8) Isabella was aiding Roger Mortimer in and before 1323; Isabella and Roger fell passionately in love in late 1325

The idea that Isabella was helping Roger in the Tower during his imprisonment there in 1322/23 is based entirely on hindsight and knowledge of their later association, and has not a single shred of evidence to support it. It wasn't even suggested until the 1590s, by the playwright Christopher Marlowe. The idea that they fell madly in love and had a passionately and blatantly sexual affair is also an assumption based on little or no evidence.

9) Isabella hated Edward II

No, she didn't. This is based firstly on the idea that because their marriage ended with Isabella rebelling against her husband and playing a huge role in his downfall, their relationship must always have been an unhappy disaster, which doesn't follow at all. I think we've all been in relationships that didn't work out, right? Sometimes relationships that have ended with a great deal of animosity and emotional pain. That doesn't mean that we hated our partner for years or that the relationship was doomed from the start and always unhappy, does it? Yet somehow, some people seem to forget that human beings and human relationships are complex and change and evolve over time, and act as though Edward and Isabella could only ever have felt one thing for each other in nearly twenty years. (Him for her: indifference. Her for him: loathing.) It's based secondly on the assumption that Isabella fell madly in love with Roger Mortimer in late 1325, and that he was very different to Edward II and his antithesis, therefore if she loved Roger she must have hated Edward. And been happy to have a 'real man' in her life after so many years of the inadequate and inadequately heterosexual Edward, blah blah blah, you've read all this crap before. It's my strong belief that in fact Edward and Isabella loved each other for many years and had a mutually supportive and affectionate partnership, and that when it all started to go wrong in and after 1322, Isabella was devastated. Far from hating Edward and wanting to destroy him, she wanted her old happy marriage back. And only when that didn't work, and Edward refused to send Hugh Despenser away from him, did Isabella decide to remove Despenser herself.

10) Edward II was a coward

This one comes from the fact that Edward had to flee the field of Bannockburn on 24 June 1314 in order to evade capture, though proponents of this idea never seem to stop and wonder why a physical coward would have been fighting right in the thick of the battle in the first place (and one chronicler pointed out that Edward fought "like a lioness deprived of her cubs"). Edward wasn't much of a commander, and having lost the battle, there was really little else he could do but ensure that he wasn't killed or captured by the Scots - and it seems that he was dragged protesting from the field by his kinsman the earl of Pembroke, and certainly didn't turn tail and run the minute things got difficult. Being killed in June 1314 would have brought Edward's nineteen-month-old son to the throne, with all the perils of a regency of many years standing that would have entailed - and who would have ruled England for all those years anyway? Who was more competent than Edward II? His cousin Lancaster? His queen Isabella? Yeah, no. Edward being captured would have meant a ransom massive almost beyond imagining being imposed on the English for his release. Neither situation was much of an improvement on what actually did happen; quite the opposite. 


sami parkkonen said...

Some blogs are stone, some are silver or diamonds, this one is all of them. Hard as a rock on facts, silver and gold entwined into one.

Excellent and hilarious stuff at the same time. One of my all time favorites about this Edward Silly Gay King mythology is the one that Roger the Super Hetero conceived children with Isabella while her being in England and him being in Ireland. Now there is a super human straight guy for ya!! :-D

Jerry Bennett said...

I agree with every one of those points, but what this post stresses is just how much we still have to make assumptions about why certain events happened in the way they did. What was happening elsewhere that might have distracted Edward or Isabella, or any other major character in Edward's reign for that matter, that caused them to act the way they did? Neither the official records nor the writings of the chroniclers can tell us all we need to know and that can lead us into the realms of speculation which may or may not be accurate.

Isabella's flight from Tynemouth in 1322 is a case in point. It happened in the days that followed the English defeat at Byland, but by that time that Scots had already been in England for almost two weeks, albeit close to Carlisle which is 70 miles from Tynemouth. So both Isabella and Edward must have recognised the potential danger. Why didn't she leave then, travel by road through Darlington and reach the safety of York. Were there other Scottish raiders in Northumberland, which would have made such a journey much more hazardous. It is possible, although I have seen no record of such. Did she try to leave earlier by ship, but the winds were against her? Even today the mouth of the river Tyne is quite hazardous to navigate so any wind out of the east would have made sailing impossible. After Byland, she probably had no choice but to leave by ship as only the strongest of castles between Berwick and the Humber would have been safe havens, and I include Scarborough castle in that list. Was she deliberately staying at Tynemouth to keep out of the way of Hugh Despenser?

And that is just the start of the speculation. I could probably find another half-dozen equally viable possibilities if I really tried. But the decision for Isabella to remain at Tynemouth - whoever made it - just seems to defy logic. It asks that unanswerable question, just why did he/she do this? And I would not be surprised if at some point someone comes up with a new suggestion which gets taken up elsewhere and evolves into an accepted fact.

Keep up the myth de-bunking Kathryn. It's a service that is badly needed.

Michael Long said...

Did Isabella ever learn English? Obviously fluent in her native tongue and I assume literate also. I'm intrigued to know whether she, unlike say, Eleanor of Castile ever learned to communicate in English.

Kathryn Warner said...

I've often wondered that myself, Michael, but sadly there's no evidence either way. I find it hard to imagine her becoming fluent, though she may have picked up some words.

Aidan said...

Hi ! Very interesting read, although I need to further my research by myself when it comes to Edward II I find your blog to be a very good starting point. I do have a problem with your notion that Edward II couldn't have been attracted to Isabella just because she was 12 years old. She was considered an adult at that point, but more importantly her own great-grandfather, Saint Louis, instantly fell in love with his wife the day of their marriage (it was mutual) and they were respectively 20 and 12/13 years old. So no it's not impossible for Edward II to be attracted to Isabella regardless of her age (no matter how weird we think it is).

I intend to do a series dedicated to the history of France so I will definitely have to destroy some awful and misguided beliefs about the middle ages and the people who lived in it. By the way, have you seen Knightfall? The show where they make Isabella's father kill her mother although it well attested that he cherished her and that they were in love? It makes me so angry just to think about that fucking mess.

Anyway, keep up the good work and smash those annoying clichés, it will do all of us some good :)