29 September, 2018

Edward of Windsor's Birth in November 1312: Celebrations

Queen Isabella gave birth to her and Edward II's first child Edward III at Windsor Castle on Monday 13 November 1312, and the child became heir to his father's throne from the moment he was born. I've written previously about Edward of Windsor's birth, and here's a post about the celebrations in London which followed it.

Isabella sent a letter to the mayor and aldermen of London, via her tailor John de Falaise, informing them that she had borne a son and that she and he were both well. In fact, news of the birth had already been brought to London by a man called Robert Oliver, who thus rather stole John's thunder. I don't know who Robert was; perhaps he was just a merchant who had the fortune to be passing through Windsor at the right time and who immediately rushed to London to carry the good news. John of Falaise didn't arrive in London until the following day, Tuesday 14 November, whereas Robert Oliver brought the news of Edward of Windsor's birth to the city sometime before sunset on the same day, 13 November. Crowds of people gathered outside the Guildhall at sunset, dancing, singing, cheering and blowing trumpets, and the mayor and aldermen processed through the city that evening with a "great glare of torches."

Very early on the Tuesday morning, it was proclaimed throughout London that the day was a public holiday and that no work would be done. Instead, everyone was to dress in their best clothes and go to the Guildhall at Prime or six a.m. - a reminder that the day started remarkably early in the fourteenth century - and from there to St Paul's Cathedral. Here, they would "make praise and offering" to God who had favoured them so greatly by giving them a royal child who one day would be their king, and would thereby also show respect to the little boy himself. The bishop of London, Ralph Baldock, chanted Mass, and afterwards people sang and trumpets were played, in the cathedral itself. The mayor sent a gift of ten pounds and a cup of silver to John of Falaise, who had brought the queen's letter; rather arrogantly, John sent it back because he thought it was too small. Perhaps his nose had been put out of joint by his failure to be the first man to bring the news of the future king's birth to the city.

The following Monday, 20 November, a week after the birth, the mayor and aldermen and the societies of drapers, vintners and mercers, dressed in their finest, rode to Westminster Abbey and made an offering there to give thanks again for Edward of Windsor's birth. After dining at the Guildhall, they led an all-singing all-dancing procession through the city, and basically the party went on for most of the night. The conduit on Cheapside - the man-made underground channel which brought drinking water to the city centre from the River Tyburn - flowed with wine all that Monday, and next to the church of St Michael a pavilion was set up with yet more wine for anyone to help themselves. Edward II himself was beyond delighted that he had a son and heir, and it's hard to overestimate the joy his subjects felt as well.

On the Sunday after Candlemas, i.e. on 4 February 1313, the fishmongers of London put on a great event for the king and queen, who were then in the city: they "caused a boat to be fitted out in the guise of a great ship...and it sailed through Chepe [Cheapside] as far as Westminster." The ship was presented to Isabella, and then the fishmongers accompanied her through London on the start of her pilgrimage to Canterbury, where she also gave thanks and made offerings to God for giving her a fine, healthy son. And so began the charmed life of King Edward III.

Source: Memorials of London and London Life, ed. H. T. Riley, pp. 105-7.

22 September, 2018

Edward II and Hugh Despenser the Younger

For me, one of the great fascinations of Edward II's reign is his relationship with Hugh Despenser the Younger. Considering this was a relationship which was a major factor in bringing down a king, very little is known about it.

What is often missed in accounts of Edward II's reign is that Edward and Hugh the Younger must have known each other for most of their lives, not necessarily particularly well, but it's hardly as though Hugh was a stranger to Edward when he was appointed his chamberlain in or before October 1318. Hugh's father Hugh the Elder was a consummate courtier whom Edward I often sent on important diplomatic missions abroad, to, for example, the pope, the king of Germany and the archbishop of Cologne, beginning in 1286 when Hugh the Elder was twenty-five and for the rest of his reign. Hugh the Younger's maternal grandfather was William Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, who was almost exactly Edward I's own age, and Warwick's younger brother Sir Walter Beauchamp, Hugh's great-uncle, was steward of Edward I's household from 1289 to 1303. Hugh's older half-sister Maud Chaworth (b. 1282) was one of the young Edward of Caernarfon's noble companions in 1290 and perhaps in other years, and so was their second cousin Eleanor de Burgh, one of the many daughters of the earl of Ulster.

Hugh Despenser the Younger himself was probably born in 1288 or 1289 so was about four or five years younger than Edward II, a little too young to be his companion in childhood, but he and his close family were part of the court, which I feel is a point too often missed. There seems to be an assumption on occasion that the Despensers were little more than nobodies and an unimportant or even non-baronial family, or that Hugh and his father were merely humble country knights. Hugh the Elder was in fact the stepson of the earl of Norfolk and the son-in-law of the earl of Warwick, and as I've pointed out before, it was Edward I who arranged Hugh the Younger's marriage to his eldest granddaughter Eleanor de Clare in 1306, the year before his death. Edward I was not a man to marry his granddaughter off to a mere nobody. Edward of Caernarfon attended Hugh and Eleanor's wedding on 26 May 1306 - Eleanor, his eldest niece, was thirteen at the time and Hugh about seventeen - but he certainly didn't arrange it after Hugh became his favourite many years later, as often assumed.

Growing up in the 1290s and early 1300s, Edward of Caernarfon would have known exactly who Hugh Despenser the Younger was. The later chronicler Geoffrey le Baker claims that Edward II hated Hugh before he was made his chamberlain 1318. This may well be an exaggeration, but it seems to me that Edward, at the very least, did not like or trust Hugh at all before Hugh inherited his wife Eleanor's third of the de Clare lands in late 1317 and before Hugh was made his chamberlain a few months later, and he was forced to work with him. It's remarkable, given Hugh's dominance of the government and foreign policy and of Edward himself, especially after his return to England from piracy in 1322, how little Hugh appears on record in the first ten years of Edward II's reign. His father Hugh the Elder was often at court and was one of the godfathers of Edward's son Edward of Windsor in 1312; his wife Eleanor née de Clare was Edward's oldest niece and often visited the king and received generous gifts from him; Hugh, by contrast, was almost entirely ignored by the king for many years. A large part of that was because Hugh had no lands of his own and no political influence whatsoever - he was only summoned to parliament for the first time after the death of his brother-in-law the earl of Gloucester in 1314 - but some of it was surely personal. For example, when Edward II gave Hugh's wife Eleanor gifts of money in 1313 and 1314, he had to give the money to Hugh as he was Eleanor's husband and that was how it worked, but he pointedly declared that the money was a gift to Eleanor only. The Lords Ordainer complained in late 1311 that two knights and unnamed others of the royal household had left court with the specific intention of assaulting Hugh Despenser the Younger, and while it's not clear whether Edward told them to do it or not, he certainly knew about it.

Hugh the Younger was chosen as Edward II's chamberlain in or before October 1318, "at the request of the magnates," as the records of the parliament held that month indicate. The chamberlain was the man responsible for controlling access to the king, and after Hugh and Edward began spending a lot of time together, Edward's feelings changed dramatically. How this happened, I don't know; it's not visible in the extant records. It is clear, though, that by the following year, 1319, Hugh had worked his way into the king's favour, and from then until the end of the reign was to remain there. Having written this post, I'm still not entirely sure what my point is or how to end the post, except to emphasise that Edward II and Hugh Despenser had known each other for a realllllly long time before Hugh became Edward's chamberlain in 1318, that Edward might well have disliked Hugh before the two men began spending lots of time together (or at the very least was indifferent to him), and that however Hugh managed to work his way into Edward's favour, he did it so brilliantly that Edward refused to give him up in 1325/6 even when faced with an invasion of his kingdom.

15 September, 2018


I haven't done a photo post for absolutely ages, so here are some pics from my recent holiday to Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. (For the benefit of non-British readers, these places are pronounced: herrafudshuh; wustershuh; glostershuh. Tewkesbury is pronounced chooksburee or chooksbree. Ledbury is - hurrah! - pronounced as spelt.) Also, a couple from my recent visit to Nottinghamshire. Click on the pics to enlarge them.

Gloucester Cathedral, formerly St Peter's Abbey (until the Dissolution). Burial place of Edward II...or is it? :-)

Edward II's gorgeous tomb and effigy (two pics).

The effigy of Edward II's great-grandfather King John (d. 1216) in Worcester Cathedral. Not a great photo, but there were a few people walking around looking at it and I snapped a couple of pics hastily before they wandered into shot.

Several pics of the wonderful effigy of Blanche née Mortimer, Lady Grandison (d. 1347), one of the eight daughters of Roger Mortimer, first earl of March (1287-1330) and Joan Geneville (1286-1356), in St Bartholomew's Church, Much Marcle, Herefordshire. She's so stunningly beautiful. She's wearing a head-dress and wimple, a cloak tied across the front and long buttoned sleeves, she's clutching a rosary, her head rests on a cushion, and her feet rest on a dog whose head has broken off. Words cannot express how much I love this effigy and how absolutely thrilled I was to see it at last.

Malvern Priory, Great Malvern, Worcestershire, in the sunshine. A Benedictine monastery, it was founded c. 1075 and dissolved in 1540/41.

View from Great Malvern, in the Malvern Hills - the town is on a remarkably steep hill - with the priory in the foreground. This area was a hunting chase in the Middle Ages, and passed from the de Clares to the Despensers via Eleanor de Clare's marriage to Hugh Despenser the Younger. Probably in 1324, Hugh the Younger imprisoned a man for taking venison from his chase at Malvern.

Another view from a village near Great Malvern.

The Olde Trip to Jerusalem pub in Nottingham, supposedly the oldest inn in England (though this claim is disputed).

Mortimer's Hole, Nottingham Castle, supposedly used by Edward III and his band of young knights to arrest Roger Mortimer on 19 October 1330.

Hereford Cathedral, originally founded c. 670s; rebuilt in the late 1070s onwards; home of the Mappa Mundi.

View of Hereford Cathedral and the bishop's palace from the River Wye.

The site of Hereford's vanished castle, probably either the location of Hugh Despenser the Younger's trial on 24 November 1326, or his execution.

Church Lane, Ledbury, Herefordshire, a little street of Tudor buildings, with the church at the end.

The Painted Room, Ledbury, with wall paintings and Biblical quotations dating to very early in Elizabeth I's reign (1558-1603).

Building on Church Lane, Ledbury, dating to c. 1490.

The Olde Black Bear pub in Tewkesbury, the oldest pub in Gloucestershire, dating back to 1308, i.e. the beginning of Edward II's reign (it's currently closed for business). I had a drink here a few years ago; it still amazes me that I sat in a pub that Edward II might have known when he visited Tewkesbury.

Tewkesbury Abbey, founded 1092 as a Benedictine house, mausoleum of the de Clares and Despensers. Gilbert 'the Red' de Clare, earl of Gloucester (d. 1295) is buried here, as are his son Gilbert, killed at Bannockburn in 1314, his father Richard (d. 1262), his grandfather Gilbert (d. 1230) and his daughter Eleanor Despenser (d. 1337). Both of Eleanor's husbands, Hugh Despenser the Younger (d. 1326) and William la Zouche (d. 1337) are here, as are her eldest son Hugh 'Huchon' Despenser (d. 1349), his wife Elizabeth Montacute (d. 1359) and her third husband Guy Bryan (d. 1390), Eleanor and Hugh the Younger's grandson Edward Despenser (1336-75), great-grandson Thomas Despenser (1373-1400) and great-great-granddaughter Isabelle, countess of Worcester and Warwick (1400-39) and Isabelle's elder brother Richard Despenser (1396-1413). Henry VI and Marguerite of Anjou's son Edward of Lancaster, prince of Wales was buried here after the battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, and in 1478 so was Edward IV's brother George, duke of Clarence.

On the far right of the pic you can just see the effigy of Hugh 'Huchon' Despenser (1308/9-1349), lord of Glamorgan, eldest great-grandchild of Edward I. The chantry on the left is Isabelle Despenser, countess of Worcester and Warwick (1400-39), the Despenser heir, grandmother of Richard III's queen Anne Neville. Isabelle was the great-granddaughter of Huchon's younger brother Edward (c. 1310-1342).

The tomb of Hugh Despenser the Younger. Edward III gave Hugh's 'friends' and widow Eleanor permission to collect his remains from London, Dover, Bristol, York and Carlisle and bury him on 15 December 1330, just over four years after his execution in Hereford. For a condemned traitor who suffered the appalling fate of death by hanging, drawing and quartering, Hugh did pretty well to end up with a final resting place that still exists nearly 700 years later. (The fire extinguisher that used to sit right next to Hugh's tomb has now been moved.)

Worcester Cathedral again: the magnificent chantry of Arthur, prince of Wales (1486-1502), son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, elder brother of Henry VIII.

Inside Arthur's chantry.

09 September, 2018

The Victimisation of Isabella of France

I've been baffled for years at the way some modern writers seem determined to turn Isabella of France into a long-suffering tragic victim, and to invent misery and humiliation Isabella supposedly endured at the hands of her husband Edward II and his male 'favourites'. The narrative begins with Edward and Isabella's arrival in Dover in early 1308 a few days after their wedding in Boulogne, when Edward supposedly 'ignores' his new wife and humiliates her by kissing Gaveston in front of her. Then he fails to give her any income for an inordinately long time until he's forced to. He doesn't give her the attention which is her due. He gives her jewels or wedding gifts to Gaveston and allows his lover to parade himself in front of the queen wearing her own jewellery. He ignores her again at their coronation banquet, leaving her to 'fend for herself' (an actual quotation, as though the banquet was a deeply dangerous event). As the years go on, he fails to show her the slightest respect and affection and prefers his male favourites to her. He only makes love with her reluctantly in order to produce children. He treats her like a 'brood mare'. He abandons her weeping and pregnant to save Gaveston. He abandons her at Tynemouth again a few years later and permits his lover to conspire with the Scots to seize her and take her captive. He cruelly removes her children from her. He allows his lover to rape her. He allows his lover into their marital bed and demeans Isabella by talking of the 'stink of French mare' within earshot. He takes her lands from her and gives her an income that's only a 'fraction' of her previous income. (The confiscation of her lands is certainly true, but Isabella received an income that was almost half of what she had received before. This whole thing was unpleasant and deeply unfair on Edward's part, but I don't think almost fifty percent is a 'fraction' which instantly reduced her to rag-wearing penury.) There's even a series of novels, published some years ago, by the same writer who's invented much of the above in his non-fiction, that depict Isabella as the victim of sexual assault and rape at the hands of her father and three older brothers in childhood.

Almost all of this is absolute nonsense. The tale about Edward giving Isabella's jewels to Gaveston was invented by Agnes Strickland in the nineteenth century. The idea that Isabella was forced to endure an excessively long wait for any income is not borne out by comparison with other grants of dower in the early fourteenth century (it took about three months, and the situation was complicated by the fact that Edward II's stepmother Marguerite, Isabella's aunt, was alive. Compare this to the more than two years Isabella forced her daughter-in-law Philippa of Hainault to wait for her own rightful lands). The tale that Edward abandoned Isabella weeping in May 1312 was based on one chronicler's confusion of events of 1312 and those of 1322, and is disproved by their own household accounts of that year which show that the royal couple left Tynemouth at the same time and that Isabella travelled by land to meet her husband a few days later, being in the first trimester of pregnancy and therefore deciding to avoid the North Sea. The most egregious invention is the idea that Edward deliberately and cruelly removed Isabella's children from her, and since the late 1970s when this daft notion was first dreamed up, we've had novels where Isabella's young children are ripped, screaming, from their mother's arms, after Isabella has spent much of the novel telegraphing this cruelty by stating over and over how dreadful it would be if she lost her children. For pity's sake. The whole absurd melodrama of it all; it's less subtle than a sledgehammer.

A lot of the modern inventions about Edward II and Isabella of France's marriage make me deeply uncomfortable. According to several writers, Isabella did not only endure the Worst Marriage Ever, she was raped, sexually assaulted, demeaned and humiliated. I posted about a French comic last week, published as recently as 2012, which has Edward bringing Hugh Despenser into Isabella's bed to, ahem, get him ready to make love with his wife (this results in their son John of Eltham). After a dejected Isabella climbs out of bed afterwards, Edward and Hugh prepare to have some proper fun now that the horrible chore is over, and Edward says loudly that he has to give himself a good wash to get rid of "the stink of French mare." This is not only grossly homophobic, it's grossly sexist. Piling utter humiliation on a woman, turning her husband into a nasty gay caricature who loathes women and who gets a kick out of demeaning his royal wife and queen in the coarsest, crudest way possible, is simply revolting.

Two books published as non-fiction in the twenty-first century enthusiastically push the notion that Isabella was a victim of rape and sexual assault at the hands of Hugh Despenser the Younger, based on nothing more than rhetorical questions and, so it seems to me, perhaps based on a belief that to be considered 'strong' to a modern audience, a woman has to be the survivor of sexual assault. And not only are we told that Isabella's husband permitted his own lover to assault her sexually or even to rape her, her own father and three older brothers do too in a series of popular recent novels, before Isabella marries Edward and when she is still only a child. Seriously, what the hell is this? Why does this happen? Why do people do this? Why do Isabella's fans feel this need to pile ever more abuse and humiliation on her? And why do people complain on the one hand about the 'sexual prejudices' suffered by Isabella but think it's a mighty fine idea to pile homophobic abuse on Edward II? Why is it OK to accuse people of deeply serious, violent crimes without the slightest evidence? Why is it seen as a good idea to rescue Isabella from the opprobrium heaped on her for so long by heaping it on her husband instead? The whole thing is so childishly simplistic, no nuance, no depth, just idiotically one-dimensional Good People and Bad People. Even stuff like Isabella being forced to endure the company of Eleanor Despenser née de Clare, supposedly foisted on her by Edward and Hugh against her wishes, paints the queen as a helpless, passive victim who couldn't even choose who she wanted to spend time with. I just don't get why people do this. The absolute last thing Isabella of France was, was a helpless, passive victim.

After suffering so so so so so so so much at the hands of her nasty cruel perverted gay husband, the story goes, Isabella finally finds love and fulfilment and great sex in the arms of a strong manly virile heterosexual lover who is, conveniently enough, the exact opposite of Horrid Gay Edward. This is a narrative that's been created in fairly recent times and has had the names of real people added to it. It's not true. There's not one part of it that's even remotely close to being historically accurate. Actually it's about as accurate as Braveheart.

Basically, Edward and Isabella's relationship was a royal marriage that was actually, all things considered, pretty successful for a number of years, until Hugh Despenser the Younger returned from exile in March 1322, began to dominate Edward and the government, and decided to sideline Isabella. That Edward let him do it, when Isabella had always been such a supportive and affectionate partner, is one of the fascinations of the reign. Relationships are complex, and the reality is far more interesting than the usual 'horrid gay man torments his tragic neglected wife for years on end' narrative. What did happen between Isabella, Edward II and Hugh Despenser - and even, for that matter, with Hugh's wife Eleanor, who seems to have been more than usually close to her uncle Edward - in and after 1322? I don't know, but I do know that an awful lot of what has been written about them has been sheer nonsense.

Isabella's two daughters Eleanor of Woodstock, duchess of Guelders, and Joan of the Tower, queen of Scotland, both did endure unhappy marriages. Eleanor's husband rejected her and pretended she had leprosy, Joan's husband took a parade of mistresses, one of whom was killed by David II's disgruntled barons as a result of her excessive influence over the king (shades of Piers Gaveston). In stark contrast to Isabella, I don't think I've ever seen a single person complaining about what Eleanor and Joan endured, and I'm afraid I find it hard to accept that homophobia doesn't play a part in the endless weeping and wailing over Isabella's supposed suffering at the hands of her husband. Compare the usual treatment of Edward II's extra-marital liaisons to the endless romanticising of the relationship between the very married Roger Mortimer and Isabella, and the endless romanticising of the long-term adulterous relationship between Edward and Isabella's grandson John of Gaunt and his mistress, later his third wife, Katherine Swynford. I don't recall ever seeing anyone taking the slightest interest in the feelings of Gaunt's second wife Constanza of Castile, or Roger Mortimer's wife Joan Geneville. Oh, but John of Gaunt and Roger Mortimer took female lovers, so that's all right then.

Isabella of France would not recognise herself in the popular modern narrative of her life. She was a royal autocrat, a fourteenth-century woman, not a modern woman plonked down 700 years ago with modern ideas of equality or finding fulfilment in the arms of a manly lover. She wouldn't recognise her immensely physical powerful husband - remember, Edward II was called 'one of the strongest men in his realm' - in the absurdly caricatured modern depictions of him as a weak, feeble, camp court fop, which say far more than about the people who write them than they do about Edward II.