31 August, 2017

The Tale That Edward II Removed Isabella's Children From Her

I've written before about the deeply unpleasant tale invented in the late 1970s that Edward II cruelly removed his wife Isabella's three younger children John of Eltham, Eleanor of Woodstock and Joan of the Tower from her care in September 1324 when he confiscated her lands. See here and here. Search for this notion in vain in any primary source from the fourteenth century or any work whatsoever written before 1977; you won't find it, because it was made up by Paul Doherty in his doctoral thesis about Isabella that year. Since then, numerous other historians and novelists have repeated the tale as though it's certain fact: a prime example of how what we might call 'fake news' can spread and spread and be seen as 'truth' even though there is no evidence whatsoever in support of it.

Here's Doherty's claim repeated in his 2003 book Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II (he insists on spelling the name Despenser as 'de Spencer' for some reason):

Here's the footnote, number 26, near the bottom of the page. See how Doherty cites 'E 403/201, mem[brane]s 14-15'.

I have gone to the National Archives and looked at this document (the E stands for Exchequer, incidentally). Here it is - that number looks a bit like an 8 but is actually a 3. The documents in series E 403 are Issue Rolls from the Exchequer of Receipt; see here and here.

Firstly, notice the date on the document: '16 Edw II, Michaelmas'. Michaelmas is 29 September and the period of the year following it; '16 Edw II' means Edward II's sixteenth regnal year, which ran from 8 July 1322 to 7 July 1323 (his father Edward I died on 7 July 1307, so Edward II's first regnal year ran from 8 July 1307 to 7 July 1308). So already we see that Doherty's claim must be wrong; this document belongs to September 1322, not September 1324. Therefore it cannot possibly relate to Edward II taking his children away from the custody of their mother at the time he confiscated her lands when he was at war with her brother Charles IV of France, which occurred on 18 September 1324. The Issue Rolls dating to the relevant time period, Michaelmas/September 1324, are E 403/210, 211 and 212, not E 403/201.

Secondly, there are no 'membranes 14-15' in this document; there are eight membranes in total, written in Latin, much of it in double columns, stitched together to make one longish roll. Here's a pic of what it looks like.

Below is the end of the document. It's clear from the photo that this is the end of the document. It has the number 8 written on it in pencil at the bottom (next to my fingers), because it's the eighth and last membrane. So where are the 'membranes 14-15' Doherty cited in his endnote?

As I pointed out recently, Edward II's niece Eleanor Despenser née de Clare was looking after Edward and Isabella's second son John of Eltham (b. 15 August 1316) by 3 July 1322 at the latest and perhaps earlier. This alone proves that John at least was not 'removed' from his mother in September 1324. This information is in plain sight in the Calendar of Memoranda Rolls, which have been translated into English and printed into a nice easy-to-read book. As far as I've seen up to now, E 403/201 doesn't even mention the king and queen's children, or the women (Eleanor Despenser and her sister-in-law Isabella Hastings) into whose custody the children were given supposedly against Queen Isabella's wishes. Seeing as the cited membranes do not actually exist, I don't know where this alleged evidence of 'the king cruelly removed Isabella children from her!' is supposed to be, or what the evidence itself is meant to consist of. Even if there is a payment somewhere to Isabella Hastings for looking after Eleanor of Woodstock and Joan of the Tower, I'm not sure how that would prove the children were 'removed' from the queen anyway. Or should we think there's some entry that records a payment to soldiers for 'going to the queen's household and cruelly ripping her children out of her arms'? I really don't think so. And the issue that the document dates to September 1322, not September 1324, remains.

It's entirely typical of Paul Doherty's work that he doesn't even appear to realise that Isabella Hastings, who had the care of Edward II and Isabella's daughters at some point, was not merely 'another court favourite' as he calls her, but Hugh Despenser the Younger's sister. This would have strengthened his argument. Isabella Hastings also had the care of at least one of Hugh the Younger's and Eleanor née de Clare's daughters in 1325, and their fourth daughter Margaret was raised in the household of one Thomas Houk. Are we supposed to believe that Hugh was also being 'cruel' to his wife by giving the custody of two or more of their daughters to his sister and someone else? Or do we think that maybe royal and noble women of the early fourteenth century weren't full-time primary carers of their children and that handing over their care to others was entirely normal and usual? And does giving custody of young royal or noble children to others only count as 'cruel' when the children are Queen Isabella's and we're desperate to peddle the false narrative of her endless tragic suffering victimhood at the hands of her nasty gay husband? Isabella herself never claimed, or even hinted, that her children had ever been 'removed' from her and given into the care of others against her will. She was in a good position to be clear on this point, no?

I am actually kind of appalled that a historian could think or pretend that a document of September 1322 dates to September 1324 in order to make up a fake story. I am appalled that someone was prepared to make up a tale that Edward II was so lacking in any humanity or decency that he would remove young children - his own children! - from their mother and primary carer solely to hurt and punish her. I am shocked that other, vastly better historians have repeated this tale and not even bothered to check the document being cited as 'proof' to make sure it really does say what Doherty claims it says, or even to check that the part of the document being cited actually exists in the first place. Or to question and think 'hang on, are we sure that the queen of England in 1324 was looking after her children? How could her children be 'removed' from her in the first place?' This is the same writer who gets Margaret de Clare's name wrong and calls her 'Joan of Gloucester', who gives Isabella three different ages in one short book, and who claims that Isabella refused to take an oath of loyalty to Hugh Despenser when the chronicle cited clearly states that it was Henry, Lord Beaumont who was imprisoned for refusing to take this oath. How incompetent do you actually have to be to mix up the queen of England and Lord Beaumont? You can't, is the answer; you can't be that incompetent. That must have been done deliberately, because no-one could possibly read a chronicle which has been translated into modern English and think that 'Henry Beaumont' means 'Queen Isabella'. There seems to be an astonishingly cavalier disregard for any kind of historical truth or accuracy and a wish to make up silly stories as melodramatic and salacious as possible. If this was being done in fiction, that's one thing, but the claim has been made in a university thesis and in a popular book published as non-fiction. The notion that Edward II was cruel to his own wife and his own children has been repeated as 'fact' for nearly forty years, and it is grossly unjust.


Undine said...

Every time you mention Doherty, I am puzzled by how he got away with this sort of thing. I suppose "popular" history books aren't "vetted" much, but a doctoral thesis?! I am no academic, and I have only the vaguest idea of how the thesis process works, but shouldn't someone at his university have done some fact-checking on his work? Errors in names and dates, or faulty interpretation of sources is one thing, but creating bad Edward II fan-fiction is another.

And how many other Dohertys are out there, masquerading as trustworthy sources?

Unknown said...

Nice catch!

Kathryn Warner said...

I wrote a post here a few years ago about another doctoral thesis, which, among countless other errors, wrote that the earl of Gloucester was still alive after the battle of Bannockburn, that the earl of Hereford killed at the battle of Boroughbridge in 1322 was still alive in 1330, and which mixed up the brothers Roger and Richard Damory no fewer than three times. Literally an incredibly basic error on every page, yet it was rewarded with a PhD. It's enough to make you weep.

Anerje said...

Doherty should stick to writing fiction - even if that is abysmal!

Peter said...

Thanks for this Kathryn - a really interesting read. In my own discipline - a completely different one - I never cease to be amazed by the basic errors and, worse, assertions that are completely unsupported by (or even contrary to) the actual evidence that I see in publications. Many of these are academic too. I don't think there is enough critical analysis in some peer review processes - certainly I have been asked to review some work about subjects on which I have only a general knowledge.

I have one question - from a position of vast ignorance - and probably something that you've already looked at and discounted but it struck me as a loose end. You mentioned that the relevant documents for the period are E 403/210, 211 and 212, not the E 403/201 that Mr Doherty quotes. Is there anything even remotely relevant in E 403/210 ? Does it even have the right number of membranes ?

sami parkkonen said...

Here is what you should or could do: present the evidence to the university which has created these doctorates based on false/fictional/invented imaginary evidence and politely ask them why they have not corrected their evaluation of the said thesis.

If and when, in science, something is proven to be not true, that must be corrected along the factual scientific evidence. Otherwise it is not science at all. After all, history is science as much as physics or geology, and should be measured with the same accuracy and documentation as are all the other sciences.

You have shown an error, or possible forgery, in these instances and thus the universities should correct those if they are serious about the science of history at their establishments.

If for being too busy you have no time or energy to ask the corrections yourself, I think there might be someone else who could begin the process of correcting this scientific falsehood academically and most of all: because history really is a science.

Anonymous said...

Well, all I can say is thank goodness that there is someone like you to identify and prove these 'statements' are false. I have read Mr Doherty's book and to be frank didn't like his style of writing or the content, but that's my opinion. Keep up the good work with revealing inaccuracies by anyone as it is very important. Amanda

Jerry Bennett said...

I have seen this claim in other history books as well as Paul Doherty's, so thank goodness for someone like you who has taken the trouble to double-check. When I first started to take an interest in the reign of Edward II, Doherty's book was one of my earlier sources. I have since read any other books I could easily find on that era, so I had come to doubt the truth of his claim before I read your articles. It was not the only event in that reign where I have read contradictory accounts of events. I have several text books either on my bookshelf or available online, and tend to look up what each one says when checking on a specific incident.

As I understand it, both Isabella and Eleanor Despenser were at Tynemouth priory in September 1322, and I have yet to find any account of where Isabella's children were at that time. If Eleanor had charge of John of Eltham in June 1322, she had presumably left him in the safety of one of her manors. I can only assume that Doherty cooked up that story to add extra spice to the way Isabella suffered from the dismissal of most of her French household as a result of the Saint Sardos war.

Just out of interest, I bought Doherty's book at Manchester airport, just before flying to Slovakia to do some consultancy on rural tourism along the border with Hungary (a fabulous place if you're into mountains, forests and wildlife). I found it interesting at the time as it was one of the first texts I read on the possible survival of Edward after 1327. That was in April 2004, just before Slovakia joined the EU. The celebrations of that event lasted all night, and I remember trying to read some of it the following afternoon to take my mind off a horrendous hangover. No, it wasn't much of a hangover cure either!

Teresa said...

I too want to know how Doherty got away with such blatant dishonesty. Who signed off on his dissertation? Did no one check his work at the time? Certainly his degree should be revoked.

Having merely glanced Doherty's novels set in ancient Egypt--novels so bad they make others look good by comparison (there are almost no novels with an Egyptian setting worth the paper they're printed on)--I am not surprised. Doherty likes to brag about how much research he does, and he has many fans who believe him. But silk hangings (embroidered with "hieroglyphics") in the temple of Karnak ca. 1480 BCE? And names no Egyptian would have had, although it would be quite easy to visit a library or museum and find a few? Gilded nipples? That's even more egregious than Pauline Gedge's female characters painting themselves yellow all over.

And thanks for the photos and explanation of those medieval documents--most interesting.