21 February, 2021

Edward II's Secret (Female) Lover, October 1324

I've talked before about a house in Southwark, more or less opposite the Tower of London and more or less where City Hall now stands in central London, called La Rosere. Edward II acquired La Rosere in October 1324 from Agnes Dunley (Anneys de Doneleye as her name appears in Edward's accounts) and another house called La Cage, next to it, from William Latimer in February 1325. Edward's accounts from October 1324 until the summer of 1326 are full of references to both houses, and La Rosere in particular: he spent a lot of money restoring the property, having the kitchen plastered and tiled, planting shrubs around it, building a jetty, and so on, and spent quite a bit of time there.

Edward, who was now forty years old, held a parliament in London from 20 October to 10 November 1324. An entry in his chamber account, dated 26 October 1324 during this parliament, states that the king crossed the River Thames from the Tower of London to La Rosere, and fist p[ri]uement son deduyt a cele place encont[re] la Tour, "secretly took his pleasure in that place opposite the Tower" or "privately made love in that place opposite the Tower". Another entry a couple of days later states that a man named Robin Carter was given two shillings because he "came promptly to the Tower with his boat to bring the king across the Thames to the place which the king bought there". [The National Archives E 101/380/4, fos. 19r, 20r] The intriguing statement about lovemaking appears at the end of what I thought at first was a rather tedious entry about buying fish. It turns out that two of Edward's clerks, William Langley and Piers Pulford, who compiled this account which is now held in the National Archives, recorded the purchase of eels, lampreys, stockfish, unsmoked herring, oysters, roach and smelt, plus butter and onions, for the king and the other person to share after they made love. The fishermen who sold the fish and seafood were called, for the record, Wille Swayncherche, Robyn Sharp, Wille Cros and Cock Swete (I kid you not). Oooooh, this was an exciting find.

Pic below: large eels, 10d for four large stockfish, herring, 5d for oysters, smelt, onions, OK, yeah yeah, this isn't very exciting, just a typical purchase of fish and seafood, le Roy fist p'uement son deduyt...wait, WHAT?!

Faire son deduit, or deduyt or dedoit, is translated in the online Anglo-Norman Dictionary - which, incidentally, is a terrific resource for which I'm very grateful - as "to have one's pleasure (of a woman)". Edward's crossing of the Thames to La Rosere was dated several months before Queen Isabella departed for her homeland in early March 1325, but as the king made love 'secretly' or 'privately' or 'discreetly' (priuement), Isabella surely cannot be the person in question. Whether the royal couple had much of a sex life after 1322, when their marriage began to go wrong, is a question we will never be able to answer. Their youngest child, Joan of the Tower, was born in July 1321; that they had no more children after this year, when Edward was thirty-seven and Isabella was twenty-six, might mean that the fertility of one or both of them had declined, or it might mean that their intimate relations had become sporadic or non-existent. As for Hugh Despenser the Younger, as royal chamberlain he was the boss of the two clerks of the royal chamber who wrote this account, and he would have been mentioned if it had been he who crossed the Thames to La Rosere with the king. And, as the Anglo-Norman Dictionary states, the phrasing used almost certainly means that Edward II's lover was a woman.

Edward had a household of something like 500 people; he had a bodyguard of eight or more archers around him all the time; he had numerous valets, pages, clerks, knights, ushers, squires, sergeants-at-arms, marshals and so on; he must have been surrounded by people at just about every moment. There's evidence that six of Edward's chamber valets slept inside his chamber, or at the very least just outside: in 1326, they were paid for waking up at night every time that the king himself awoke. Another six men, four of the king's sergeants-at-arms and two ushers, were meant to sleep just outside the door of his bedchamber, according to Edward's Household Ordinance of December 1318. Many of Edward's servants must, therefore, have known exactly when, where and with whom the king had intimate relations. Privacy was all but impossible for him, and of course for other medieval royals for the same reason.

It's really interesting therefore to note that during the parliament held in the autumn of 1324, Edward II left his entire enormous household behind in the Tower where he stayed from 16 to 28 October, and crossed the river to a house he'd only very recently acquired, in order to make love with someone secretly or privately or discreetly. Evidently, he didn't want anyone, besides his two clerks, to know who he was having sex with. Who the heck was it? Alas, William Langley and Piers Pulford were too discreet to say, or perhaps didn't even know.

In her Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others (third edition, 2017, pp. 4-5), Ruth Mazo Karras points out the gendered nature of intimate language in the Middle Ages. In modern English, the words 'make love', 'have sex' and 'f*ck' are words we can use about both men and women; we can say 'she f*cked him' or 'she had sex with her' or whatever. The words imply something we do with someone, not to them. In contrast, the Middle English word swive(n), i.e. to have intercourse, meant something a man did to a woman. Karras also gives the example of the modern French word foutre, which means 'to f*ck' and like in English can refer to both men and women, but in medieval French, meant 'to penetrate' and was also only used to talk about what a man did to a woman. This is the reason, Karras says, that the subtitle of her book is Doing Unto Others; medieval people generally understood sexual acts as an active subject, inevitably a man, doing something to a passive object, almost inevitably a woman. The Anglo-Norman Dictionary translates faire lur deduit, literally 'make their pleasure', as 'to make love', i.e. this was something that two people did together, taking their pleasure, together. By contrast, the phrase used in Edward II's account of October 1324 is faire son deduyt, which literally means 'make his (sexual) pleasure' and is an example of a gendered phrase: something that Edward, as a man, is doing to someone, a woman.

The Westminster Abbey chronicle Flores Historiarum thundered in its account of events in 1324 that Edward II enjoyed "illicit intercourse [or copulations], full of sin" (concubitus illicitos peccatis plenos). It goes on to say that for this reason, Edward removed Queen Isabella and her "sweet conjugal embraces" (dulces amplexus conjugales) from his side. [Flores Historiarum, ed. H.R. Luard, vol. 3, p. 229] Although this may simply be a coincidence, Westminster Abbey is only a couple of miles from the Tower of London, from where Edward sneaked off to meet a lover secretly; perhaps the author of the Flores heard rumours.

The nature of Edward II's sexuality is something that can be endlessly debated, and it's impossible ever to know for certain. We have no way of knowing what Edward thought of his own sexuality, and there is no way of proving who he had sex with and when, unless the sexual act was procreative: we know he must have had intercourse with Queen Isabella approximately nine months before the births of their children, and we know he must have had intercourse with the unidentified woman who was the mother of his illegitimate son Adam. That's all that we can ever know for sure, however likely we think it might be that he had sex with Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser the Younger, and perhaps with Roger Damory and Hugh Audley. One assumes that Edward, born as the son of a reigning king and heir to his father's throne from the age of four months, was entirely accustomed to the lack of privacy in his life, and accustomed to the reality that many people would have known when he took a person to bed. He was, however, keen to keep the identity of the woman with whom he made love at La Rosere in October 1324 hidden, and we can only speculate as to the reasons for that.

Although Edward II is sometimes depicted in modern writing as a gay man who would have shunned sexual intercourse with women - and who therefore cannot possibly have been the father of Queen Isabella's children - we know that he had a sexual relationship with a woman sometime around 1305/10 which resulted in their son Adam (d. 1322). That Edward acknowledged Adam as his child indicates that this relationship was one of some duration and seriousness: after all, if a man has a one-night stand with a woman he's never met before, and a few weeks later she seeks him out and says "I'm pregnant and it's yours", if he doesn't know her, how can he be sure that the child really is his? And here in October 1324 is an example of the forty-year-old king having sex with another woman, a woman he didn't have to have sex with (i.e. unlike the queen, she was never going to be the mother of his heirs) but did have sex with, because he wanted to. Another fact to slot into the life of this complex man, and a reminder that the simplistic narratives about him created by many modern writers are just that: simplistic narratives that don't come anywhere close to the reality of who Edward II was.

22 comments:

Antoine said...

I wonder what kind of women Edward was attracted to... It's actually quite sad that the royal mistresses have become famous only since the 16th century (with the exceptions of Alice Perrers and the mistresses of the - apparently - womanizer Edward IV)!

Kathryn Warner said...

Antoine, I'd give a great deal to know who these women were, and what they looked like!

Undine said...

Indeed, that's a heck of an addendum to a seafood order. What a find!

Even more so than the question of this woman's identity, I'd love to know *why* Edward felt the need for such secrecy. Kings may not always want to flaunt their extramarital affairs, but they usually don't care if people know about them. Indeed, sleeping with anyone they pleased was generally considered to be one of the perks of being the KING OF FREAKING ENGLAND. There must have been one heck of a backstory here.

Karen Hill said...

Many people want to squash Edward into a convenient box of he was gay/homosexual, I have always looked at him as a bisexual person....but of course there are no words in the medieval world of Edward to describe this. The only way to describe this is that he found others attractive, beautiful, whether in looks or their nature be they man or woman.
Could this have been one of the meetings with his 'favourite' niece, Eleanor. The word 'favourite', again this is a word that is applied to both men and women that had close relationships with him.
My brain always likes to set off alarm bells of suspicion and for a while now I have wondered whether one (or even two) of the Despenser children were or maybe were not Hugh's. Especially the last one, as Edward seemed to take great interest in some of the pregnancies of Eleanor and none in others....rowing up the Thames to see your fav niece the day before or few days after she gives birth!
See full of conspiracies ��..I really love Edward and the way he turns what we think medieval life and kingship should be completely on its head.
Great blog post once again. X

Kathryn Warner said...

Undine, as Karen suggests, I do wonder if - bizarrely - he was beginning a relationship with his niece Eleanor de Clare Despenser. I talk about that possibility quite extensively in my book about Eleanor and her sisters; there is, strange as it seems, quite a bit of evidence for it. If it wasn't Eleanor, I'd imagine it must have been another highborn lady, because as you say, there must have been some darn good reason for the king of England to be so secretive about it.

Karen, thank you! xx I strongly suspect for various reasons that Edward might have been the father of Eleanor's child born in December 1325, or at least thought he might be. As well as visiting her just before she gave birth, as you mention, he gave her a gift of 100 marks earlier in the year when she was a few weeks pregnant.

Undine said...

That theory about Eleanor would certainly make Edward's close relationship with the Despenser menfolk suddenly seem much more explicable...

Kathryn Warner said...

True! The way Edward had never previously shown any liking for or trust in Hugh the Younger, then seemingly became infatuated with him in 1319, is so odd.

sami parkkonen said...

Well, there it is as plainly as can be in medieval terms: Edward was sleeping with a woman and was Bisexual. Period.

Now, one reason which came to my mind why he could have been keeping this thing secret is this: the south bank of Thames was were the brothels were situated. The bishop of London ran one very profitable establishment over there at one time etc.

Perhaps, being older man and perhaps tired of all kinds of hassle of Love affairs, he just wanted to have sex with a professional who would do the deed, professionally, take the money and have some dinner after wards. No attachment, no tiring conversations about where our relationship is going from here etc. Just the business, some food and perhaps small talk and goodnight. This could explain why he wanted to keep it secret and private. If and when the relationship with Isabella was not too good at this time, this could explain the whole thing: no matter what the royal couple had a dry spell and he was not going to solve it. To hell with that!

If so this professional must have been top of the profession. I mean, the king would not hop into a bed with anybody. Plus she must have been attractive and very finely dressed up since Edward liked fashion and such.

Which brings me to another idea: would this be a darn good story for a movie??

Kathryn Warner said...

I don't really see why the king of England would need to keep it secret if he was having sex with a prostitute. I'd imagine it was pretty common for royal men and noblemen to do that and it wasn't something that had to be kept hidden. And the fish and seafood cost over eleven shillings, which seems a lot.

sami parkkonen said...

You are more than likely right. That kind of food bill says a lot, too. It would be more than fit if it was indeed Eleanor. And that would explain many other things in this secret liaison.

Anonymous said...

Great post -- and I agree this gets ignored so people can fit Edward into the "stereotyped gay guy" box. Any idea what words would have been used if the writer thought that Edward was traveling to have sex with another man?

Esther

Unknown said...

Kathryn, you more than any of us should be able to draw on information about the 'networks' surrounding the King (Eddy II). Assuming that the King is supreme, he can have anyone he wishes (in real terms), but I would imagine there would be groups within the London, groups (or more specifically strata within society) that such a liaison would not ever (never) be likely to occur.

It could be kept secret for many reasons (and any reason postulated by us without valid evidence, would be mere speculation) but one I would assume might be the phantom lover may have been wife/sister/aunt/niece of someone close to the throne (close to the lineage) who posed a threat to Ed II. And in order to maintain mystery, Ed II would have had to have paid a number of people in a myriad of ways, maybe even for fish, for silence?

Jo Romero said...

This is fascinating - it must have been a bit of a moment when you read down the fish sales and found that at the end! I developed an interest in Edward II after visiting his tomb at Gloucester cathedral last year, so it was good to read a more balanced view of him here. Thanks for such an interesting post.

Anonymous said...

He was a married man! Maybe, if things had run dry sexually (as is not uncommon between married couples), he wished to satisfy his normal male urges but didn't want to embarrass his wife. A wife might feel insulted by her husband going outside the marriage, no matter how common it was for other noblemen to do the same thing. He's never struck me as uncaring--no reason he shouldn't be discreet, for his wife's sake.

Kathryn Warner said...

We can speculate forever about who the woman might have been and why Edward needed to be so discreet and what he might or might not have done and why, but we'll never know, unfortunately. Another mystery to add to all the mysteries of his reign!

Kathryn Warner said...

Oh, and re: Isabella's feelings, it's very difficult to ascertain her whereabouts from c. late 1322 to early 1325, though she did spend Christmas 1324 with Edward at Nottingham. I don't know whether she was in London at this time. She might have been, of course, but possibly she and her household weren't staying in the Tower.

Elise Fleming/Alys K. said...

The foods that were ordered contained at least two aphrodisiacs: oysters and onions. Don't know if smelt were considered such. It was an appropriate menu in which to insert the dalliance!

Kathryn Warner said...

Good point! :-)

Anerje said...

I find it really odd that Edward 'bought' a house, when he had so many palaces etc at his disposal. It adds to the secrecy. So why all the secrecy? It surely can't have been to hide from Isabella. And the lady concerned must have had an association with the court - how else would Edward get to know her? If the lady was his niece Eleanor than that would explain the secrecy. Although the lady could have been the wife of a senior noble? If only we knew!

Anonymous said...

Just thought of another question ... could Hugh Despenser's power over Edward arise out of blackmail concerning the relationship between Edward and his niece?

Esther

Kathryn Warner said...

Anerje, I also thought Edward buying two houses was odd when there were so many royal residences. He bought a cottage (Burgundy) at Westminster too, somewhat earlier.

Esther: oooooh, I like that idea :o

sami parkkonen said...

@Esther

That would very much explain the weird powerlessness Edward had over Hugh. Granted, he most likely was blinded at first by the master of manipulation but knowing something about Hugh, this would fit right into his way of doing business. He was in the right position for this too: he had direct access to the king, he pretty much controlled who could see Edward etc. Thus, he could have even laid a trap for him: "I can arrange the discreet meeting with Eleanor if you wish, my lord." And once it was done he would have had Edward in his hooks.

Yes, it is just speculation but very good explanation for the relationship with Hugh and Edward and also would explain why Hugh was not too concerned about Edward in his dealings with other nobility etc. Hugh might have felt he had it all set up with this little extortion scheme and he was smart enough and ruthless enough to work this one out. Never under estimate Hugh, he was not a stupid man even though the end was what it was.

And if not true, it would make one heck of plot twist in a movie or tv-series!