After the Tynemouth incident in the autumn of 1322, when Isabella of France rather unfairly accused Hugh Despenser the Younger of deliberately leaving her at the priory there in danger from a Scottish army - Isabella conveniently forgot that Hugh's wife Eleanor was at Tynemouth
with her and he was hardly likely to arrange for his own wife to be captured by the Scots or to abandon her to her fate - it seems that there might have been a temporary rift in the royal marriage. On 23 December 1322, Edward II announced that the queen was going on a pilgrimage to various sites around the country, something she seems not actually to have done, so this might have been a politic excuse to explain her absence from court. The king also declared on 26 December that Isabella's clerk William Boudon was to travel to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain "to fufil a vow made by Queen Isabella", and to my mind this vow to leave her husband's realm seems likely to have been something Isabella shouted in the middle of a quarrel with Edward. [CPR 1321-4
, pp. 227, 229] It might not have been, of course, but the timing of Isabella's declaration that she wanted to go on pilgrimage to Santiago seems a little suspicious to me. ("So you're taking Hugh's side over mine, huh? I'm going to leave England and go to Santiago and THEN you'll be sorry!")
The royal couple seem not to have spent Christmas 1322 together in York, though they did keep in touch via letter: Edward paid the queen's messenger Jack Stillego ten shillings for bringing her letters to him on 19 December. It is entirely possible that there was a temporary rift in Edward and Isabella's marriage, probably caused, at least in part, by the queen's blaming Hugh Despenser for abandoning her at Tynemouth and the king's refusal to accept that Hugh had done anything wrong. It was at Christmas 1322 that Edward shouted threats
at his own niece Elizabeth de Burgh and tried to force her to give up some of her lands to Hugh Despenser, something which is hardly likely to have endeared Isabella to her husband. As for Eleanor Despenser, however, she and Hugh conceived a child shortly after Eleanor and the queen had supposedly been 'abandoned' at Tynemouth by their respective husbands, and the couple seem to have been getting on perfectly well - even, apparently, after Eleanor must have witnessed her husband and uncle bullying her sister Elizabeth.
For the first few weeks of 1323, until early March or thereabouts, Isabella was in London, and Eleanor Despenser (pregnant for at least the ninth time) was there with her. There's really no reason to think that Eleanor was the queen's jailer or a spy, as two fourteenth-century chronicles claim and has been repeated as though it's certain fact ever since. Isabella was not a helpless passive victim who could be forced to spend time - over many years - with an attendant she loathed, and it does her a disservice to paint her as such. One of the chronicles who makes this claim, Lanercost
, was written decades later, and although it's an excellent source for events in the north of England and in Scotland, there's no particular reason why a monk cloistered at Lanercost Priory in the far north of England would have been privy to what was happening at Edward II's court in the 1320s. The other chronicle is the Flores Historiarum of
Westminster, far closer both in time and place to Edward II's court, but written after his deposition perhaps with the aim of justifying it and of blackwashing Edward as much as possible, and therefore not entirely to be trusted. Eleanor Despenser is first recorded as attending Isabella in the autumn of 1310, and had probably done so since the young queen arrived in England in February 1308. In 1311/12, a year when Isabella's accounts fortuitously survive, Eleanor spent many weeks in her company and they travelled around the north of England together. The two women had been on excellent terms for many years, and to me it does not seem that the queen held Eleanor responsible for her husband's misdeeds or held a grudge against Eleanor because of Hugh's behaviour. On the contrary, it seems that she enjoyed Eleanor's company.
Isabella of France and Eleanor Despenser wrote virtually identical letters in support of Joan Mortimer on 17 February 1323, when they asked the chancellor to ensure that the money promised to Joan and her attendants during her husband Roger Mortimer of Wigmore's incarceration was paid promptly. [SC 1/37/4 and 1/37/45] On 5 March 1323, Edward II, in Knaresborough in Yorkshire, sent Eleanor's horses down to London, so apparently she was still with the queen then. Isabella's letter on behalf of Joan Mortimer is sometimes used as evidence that she was in cahoots with Roger Mortimer, imprisoned in the Tower of London, but Eleanor Despenser sent the exact same letter on the exact same date from the exact same place, so it hardly seems reasonable to use the queen's letter as evidence of her collusion with Roger while ignoring Eleanor's. The two women were staying at the Tower of London when they dictated their letters in support of Joan, which does not automatically imply that Roger had any contact with Isabella, or with Eleanor, for that matter. The prison cells of the Tower were far away from the royal apartments, and besides, Joan Mortimer was perfectly capable of petitioning the queen and the queen's niece-in-law herself, and Eleanor and Isabella were both perfectly capable of deciding to help an imprisoned noblewoman off their own bat without requiring any male involvement
. Roger Mortimer escaped from the Tower on 1 August 1323, and Eleanor Despenser, at Cowick in Yorkshire with her husband, her uncle the king and perhaps with the queen, gave birth to a child on almost the same day. Isabella's itinerary is difficult to establish for most of the rest of 1323 and for a large part of 1324, but that in itself doesn't mean a great deal, or necessarily prove anything; her itinerary is also almost entirely unknown for a few other years of her husband's reign and even during her own period of power early in her son's reign. Same with Edward III's queen Philippa for much of her forty-year marriage.
On 1 January 1324, Queen Isabella was with King Edward at Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, and they exchanged gifts on that date, as they always had (each gave the other a cup - don't you hate it when that happens?). Eleanor Despenser was also at Kenilworth and exchanged gifts with her uncle. (For the record, also cups.) If Edward and Eleanor's husband Hugh the Younger also gave each other presents, it's not recorded in Edward's surviving accounts that I've ever seen - but then, I suppose Edward's gift to Hugh of "Here you go, rule my kingdom and dictate my foreign policy and do whatever the heck you like to anyone" was a bit tricky for the royal clerks to record. Around this time, the queen sent letters to the royal justice John Stonor on behalf of Eleanor Despenser's chaplain John Sadington. Eleanor herself wrote to Stonor about her chaplain on 6 February 1324, and mentioned the letters sent to him on the subject by 'our very dear lady the queen'. [SC 1/46/4] This is one example of Isabella and Eleanor's closeness, and another is that Eleanor 'talked great good' of one of the queen's household squires to the king in 1325 and Edward gave him a cash bonus. Isabella sent another letter from Westminster on 27 February 1324, and Edward II was at Westminster on that day as well. [SC 1/36/38]
At Christmas 1324, Edward and Isabella were together at Nottingham, and again exchanged gifts on 1 January 1325, though this year the royal clerks didn't record what the gifts were. Edward gave a total of 100 shillings to three of his wife's female attendants on Christmas Day. The king and Hugh Despenser went to Derbyshire just before the New Year, while Isabella and Eleanor Despenser went to Kenilworth together, and the two women sent Edward his New Year gifts via two servants called Adam and Robynet (q' mena au Roi son nouel don de ma dame la Roigne
, 'who brought the king his new gift from my lady the queen'). Isabella sent Edward at least three letters, on 6, 11 and 18 January 1325, during the period they were apart. Whether he reciprocated, I don't know, as the queen's own accounts don't survive and therefore there are no records of payments she might have made to the king's messengers. I'm not sure when the two were reunited, but they were together at the Tower of London in late February and early March 1325, before Isabella set off for France on 9 March. Unfortunately her letters to her husband don't survive either, only records of the payments Edward made to her messengers for bringing them to him, though a long extent letter from Isabella to Edward dated 31 March 1325 when she was in France reveals that she addressed him five times as "my very sweet heart" (mon tresdouz cuer).
Of course it's impossible to know from the extant records how Edward and Isabella were getting on, though they do seem to have spent a lot of time together after their apparent spat in late 1322; where Isabella's location is known between 1323 and 1325, she was in the same place as her husband, except for the first few weeks of 1323 and for part of January 1325. Being in the same place doesn't automatically mean that all was well between the two, of course, though the exchanging of gifts at New Year 1324 and again in 1325 might at least imply that they were trying. Edward, unkindly and unjustly, confiscated his wife's lands in September 1324 during his war against her brother Charles IV of France, which Isabella was clearly (and understandably) incandescent about, and, unlike earlier in his reign, she doesn't appear in the chancery rolls between 1322 and 1325 interceding with him on behalf of others, as she had often done before. It does seem that something had gone badly wrong between them, even though Edward didn't 'steal' their children from her custody in 1324 (that's one of those wretched myths that refuses to die). Judging by Isabella's speech to the French court in late 1325 as recorded in the Vita Edwardi Secundi, the queen believed a third party to have come between her husband and herself, and spoke on several occasions of her fear of Hugh Despenser the Younger to the point where she believed her life to be in danger from him. She threatened to destroy him, and when Edward II ignored her ultimatum to send Hugh away from him, she allied with Despenser's baronial enemies on the continent to bring him down.
The 9th of March 1325 when the queen sailed to France - or rather, several days before this, as Edward did not travel to Dover with his wife but remained in London - may well have been the last time Edward and Isabella ever saw each other in person. Edward heard of Isabella's refusal to return to him from France by mid-November 1325 when he cut off her funding, and had it proclaimed throughout his kingdom on 8 February 1326 that she had made an alliance with the English rebels who had fled to the continent, led by Roger Mortimer of Wigmore. Throughout 1326, Edward's fury with Isabella is apparent from the way he called her simply 'the king's wife' or 'his [Charles IV of France's] sister, our wife'. In his last known letter to her, dated at the beginning of December 1325, he addressed her abruptly as Dame
or 'Lady', as in "And you know for truth, Lady, that..."). The royal couple were furious with each other in 1325/6, Isabella because Edward confiscated her lands and treated her like an enemy alien despite all her years of loyal support, and because of his excessive favouritism to a man she loathed; and Edward because Isabella actually decided to do something about the whole unpleasant situation and didn't just accept it, and because she allied with men he deemed his enemies.
One Flemish chronicle says that Edward II and Isabella of France met in person several weeks after the queen's invasion of her husband's kingdom on 24 September 1326. Supposedly Isabella fell to her knees in front of Edward and begged for his forgiveness, but he refused to talk to her or even to look at her. We don't know for sure that the two ever met after the queen's invasion and no other chronicle states that they did, though it certainly isn't impossible. Edward's chamber account was only kept until 31 October, and he definitely hadn't met the queen in person before that, though did pay spies on a few occasions for keeping him informed of her movements. In this reading, the unwillingness to reconcile and to try to rebuild their broken relationship came from Edward's side, not Isabella's.
In the conventional interpretation of the dramatic events of 1325/26, Isabella is now no longer the helpless victim of her cruel neglectful husband and his nasty lover. It's Edward II who is now presented as a passive victim of his wife, who refuses to see him and who despises him and his sexuality and is deeply in love and lust with Roger Mortimer. It's always assumed that it was Isabella who was calling the shots and who made the decision not to return to Edward, Isabella who was in charge and who decided that their marriage was dead and that she'd prefer to live with her manly virile heterosexual lover Mortimer, thankyouverymuch. The Flemish chronicle cited above puts an entirely different spin on the matter. Whether you believe the evidence of this chronicle or not, it's a reminder that we don't really, truly know
even things that we think we know; a reminder that a lot of Edward II and Isabella of France's story is a narrative that's been constructed with a considerable amount of hindsight and that has had a particular spin put on it. It's so easy and so tempting to repeat a story whereby a woman is the long-suffering victim of a cruel husband and his male lovers and comes to hate him and who falls in love with a manly heterosexual lover who heals her pain by giving her lots of awesome sex and helps her get revenge on her husband and his minion, but that doesn't necessarily make it true. Isabella of France was surely absolutely furious and exasperated with her husband in and after the autumn of 1322 and especially after he confiscated her lands in September 1324, and she had very good reasons to be, but it's a pretty big step from being angry with your husband and the father of your children to actually ordering his murder.