02 February, 2019

Queen Isabella and Edward II's Male 'Favourites'

One thing I noticed - yet again - while watching Danny Dyer's BBC1 programme Right Royal Family recently, and reading the responses to it on Twitter, is the way Roger Mortimer is always, always, always called Isabella of France's 'lover', while Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser are virtually never called Edward II's 'lovers' but his 'favourites' or 'companions' or 'friends'. There's really no more evidence that Roger and Isabella had a sexual relationship than there is for Edward, Piers and Hugh. Even Right Royal Family, where Dyer rather touchingly displayed his sympathy for Edward's sexuality and called Hugh Despenser the Younger the love of Edward's life, shied away from using the word 'lover' to describe Despenser and Gaveston, while happily using the word for Roger Mortimer. In the year 2019, are people still really so squeamish about the idea that some men have sex with other men?

Anyway, this is a post about Queen Isabella's possible attitude to her husband Edward II's male 'favourites', or lovers - as they most likely were, even though we can't conclusively prove it - Piers Gaveston, Roger Damory and Hugh Audley. (I'll come to Hugh Despenser the Younger later in the post.) It's often assumed that Isabella of France must necessarily have been hostile to these men, that she must have considered them, or at least Piers, to be her rivals for Edward's affections, that she must have been delighted when Piers was killed in 1312, and that if Edward II loved Piers Gaveston, as he so obviously did, that there must have been less room in his heart for Isabella and that she came a distant second.

Human relationships are complex, and tend not to lend themselves to simplistic assumptions. People's hearts are not cakes, whereby if Piers Gaveston had a large 'slice' of Edward's, that automatically means that Edward had less love left for Isabella. Some, or many, people are polyamorous and are perfectly capable of deeply loving more than one person at the same time, and I'm convinced that Edward loved Isabella, not in the same way that he loved Piers, to be sure, but nonetheless. I'm a member of various history groups on Facebook, including several about Edward II and Isabella's grandson John of Gaunt (1340-99) and Katherine Swynford, John's long-term lover and later his third wife. I find it rather astonishing to see how many people see John's relationships through a kind of lens of competitiveness, and feel the need to 'prove' somehow that John loved Katherine best of all. It's as though John's undoubted love for his first wife Blanche of Lancaster and his wish to be buried with her somehow detracts from his love for Katherine and makes it less 'special'. I wonder if Isabella of France's 'fans' feel the same way, that Edward II's love for various men means that he didn't love her alone and uniquely as she deserved to be loved, or something.

As I've pointed out before, there's really no reason to suppose that Isabella was particularly hostile to Piers Gaveston. A letter often quoted by modern writers that she supposedly sent to her father Philip IV complaining that Edward was 'an entire stranger to her bed' and that Gaveston was alienating her husband from her was invented many decades later by chronicler Thomas Walsingham. After Piers was exiled from England for the third time in late 1311, Isabella wrote to her receiver in the French county of Ponthieu (which Edward II gave to her in 1308) "concerning the affairs of the earl of Cornwall." Her naming Piers as earl of Cornwall, when the title had been stripped from him, demonstrates respect, and she may well have agreed to aid him financially during the exile. I can't imagine that Isabella was overwhelmingly thrilled after Gaveston's return to England in early 1312 that her husband the king skulked in the north with him while his furious barons plotted Gaveston's capture, but she was certainly there with them, and the story that Edward abandoned her weeping at Tynemouth in early May 1312 is certainly not true. Neither is the very silly tale that Edward gave all of Isabella's wedding gifts and jewels to Piers Gaveston, an invention of the nineteenth century. Isabella may have found Gaveston as irritating as a lot of other people did; she may have been hugely fond of him, and mourned for him and missed him when he was gone. We just don't know, and we can't automatically assume that she saw Piers as her rival in love.

Sir Roger Damory was high in Edward's favour between 1315 and 1319 or thereabouts, and Edward arranged Damory's wedding to his twice-widowed niece Elizabeth de Burgh in 1317. Was he Edward's lover? Who knows; quite possibly. Isabella certainly tolerated Damory, and at an uncertain date gave him splendid gifts for his chapel: a chasuble of red cloth of Tarsus "sprinkled with diverse flowers of Indian colour, together with alb and amesse, stole and maniple, and two frontals of the same sort." [CPR 1327-30, pp. 439-40] The queen's itinerary, where it is known, reveals that in the 1310s Isabella was in the same location as the king far, far more often than not, and on the rare occasions when the couple were apart, they exchanged letters (Isabella sent Edward no fewer than three letters when they were apart for four days in early March 1312, for example). Edward and Isabella conceived their second son John of Eltham and first daughter Eleanor of Woodstock in 1315 and 1317, while Edward was in some way involved with Roger Damory. Sir Hugh Audley was also high in Edward's favour at the same time as Damory, and was the only one of Edward's male lovers (assuming he was) who survived the reign. In 1327 during her period of power early in her son Edward III's reign, Isabella appointed Audley as an envoy to her brother Charles IV of France, and granted requests that he made of her, such as approving the second marriage of his widowed sister Alice Greystoke to Lord Neville. This all implies that if the queen knew or believed that Hugh Audley had been her husband's lover a decade previously, she didn't bear him a grudge for it, and she appears to have liked and trusted him.

On the other hand, there is no doubt whatsoever that Isabella absolutely loathed Hugh Despenser the Younger, her husband's chamberlain and last and most powerful lover (?). Given that she accepted Gaveston, Damory and Audley and did them favours on occasion, clearly she did not hate them or refuse to tolerate their presence anywhere near her, simply because all three men had very close and probably sexual relations with her husband. It is obvious, however, that Isabella feared and despised Despenser and claimed on several occasions that her life was in danger from him, and in c. late October 1325 she threatened to destroy him. The Vita Edwardi Secundi records an ultimatum she made to Edward while at her brother's court in Paris: either Edward must send Despenser away, or she would not return to him. Edward refused the ultimatum, and left Isabella with no choice but to stay in France and ally with the remnant of the Contrariant faction, who also wished nothing more than to destroy Hugh Despenser. On 24 November 1326, they did.

Edward II's relations with various men from the time of his marriage to Isabella in early 1308 until the beginning of the 1320s did not impede Isabella's access to her husband. She was in Edward's company almost all of the time for the first fourteen years or so of their marriage, and until 1322 often interceded with him on behalf of others, mediated for him with his barons, and even had the confidence to promote her own candidates to bishoprics in preference to Edward's choices. This all ended abruptly after Hugh Despenser's return to England in March 1322, whereupon Isabella disappears almost entirely from the chancery rolls. (She does appear in Edward's chamber and wardrobe accounts of the 1320s, and the couple did continue to spend much time together and to send each other letters when apart, and to exchange gifts on 1 January as they always had.) It was not Hugh Despenser's existence as her husband's lover that bothered Isabella, but that Hugh seems to have gone out of his way to limit her political influence and her role as an intercessor and even did his best to destroy her and Edward's marriage, something his previous male companions had not done.

It seems to me that, far from hating Edward II, Isabella accepted him the way he was for many years, and did her utmost to support him. I don't see any particular reason to believe that Isabella jumped into bed with Roger Mortimer in late 1325 or fell in love with him - it's certainly not impossible that they had an intimate relationship later, but I think in 1325/26 they simply needed each other to bring down Hugh Despenser - or that she ever hated Edward or wished him ill. I think Isabella loathed the hold Hugh Despenser had over her husband. I think Edward II was deeply in thrall to Despenser and that Edward's queen tried her utmost to break that hold. In doing so, and in destroying Hugh Despenser and his father, she brought her husband down as well, whether she had ever intended to do so or not.


Anerje said...

Excellent post! Isabella must have known about Piers Gaveston before her marriage to Edward. Their marriage was a diplomatic match. Both knew what was expected of them, they knew their duty. And for a long time, the marriage 'worked'. There were no complaints from Isabella- until Hugh Despencer came along.

I have to say I was pleased to see a more realistic portrayal of Edward II in 'Right Royal Family '. Lots of mentions of ditch digging, thatching and being a man of the people. I wonder whose research they had been reading?;)

sami parkkonen said...

Once again brilliant stuff.

I firmly believe that Isabella and some of these guys had some kind of understanding that they together support and back up Edward. As for Piers I bet as an older man who had known Edward for a long time he could have given tips and advice to Isabella how to deal with her husband who had his own weird things like hanging around commoners, laughing at inappropriate jokes and questionable humor etc. I also think Isabella might have liked Piers who by all accounts could be charming and very funny guy. Unfortunately Piers was also capable to mock the barons who did not like him anyway.

I also think that the others were okay with Isabella. And she also showed it by her behavior towards them.

Hugh was obviously different matter. I believe Hugh saw Isabella as a danger to his plans and to his power, which she was. Therefore they hated each other.

Emőke Kovács said...

I've been reading your blog for quite some time now, but I haven't ventured to make a comment yet. I tremendously enjoyed this post as usual.
I've noticed you usually emphasize that "Roger Mortimer is always, always, always called Isabella of France's 'lover', while Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser are virtually never called Edward II's 'lovers'". I might very well be wrong about it, since English is quite far from being my native tongue, but I always had the impression that the kings' lovers are called their "mistresses" and, as such, are automtically considered to be female. Does "mistress" have an appropriate male equivalent? I can hardly imagine the queen's "lover" to be called the queen's "mister" :), so to me the use of "lover" seems to be due to the lack of a term that has an equally historical ring to it.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thank you, everyone!

Emőke, welcome, and delighted that you've been reading the blog for a while and have commented! Please do feel free to comment any time you like! You make a good point. It's just that, Roger Mortimer, being a man, is called a woman's lover, but Gaveston and Despenser, also being men, are not called a man's lovers. I don't think this is necessarily a language issue, it's (IMO) an issue of heteronormativity and tendency to accept and relate to opposite-sex couples far more easily than same-sex ones. Or so it seems to me.

Anonymous said...

First of all,please forgive me if I seem ignorant.I am not an expert in history. From all I have read it's obvious to me that Edward loved Gaveston.Is there any hint anywhere that he may have actually been Edwards illegitimate brother rather than his lover?

Kathryn Warner said...

Hello! That's a very good and very interesting question. I seem to remember an article by Jeff (or J.S.) Hamilton, Piers' biographer, where he mentioned that possibility, though I don't think he meant it entirely seriously. As far as I know there's no real evidence that Edward I had any illegitimate children. I very much doubt that Edward II and Piers were half-brothers, though it's an intriguing idea to reflect on:)