14 February, 2021

The Relationship of Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer (3)

First part; second part. In the last post, I looked at what chroniclers said about Isabella of France and Roger Mortimer's relationship, and also what lots of them didn't say about it. Evidence that their association was flagrant and scandalous, as so often claimed by later writers, is decidedly lacking, and if the two were lovers, it seems vastly more likely that they were very discreet.

Also on the subject of what people didn't say about their relationship, if Isabella and Roger's adultery was so notorious and blatant while they were in France in 1325/26 and it was widely known that they were involved sexually and romantically by Christmas 1325, as is often stated, it's hard to understand why Isabella's cousin Philip VI never used her adulterous affair as a weapon against her son Edward III. After all, Philip was there while Isabella was at her brother Charles IV's court supposedly flaunting her affair with Roger Mortimer in front of everyone, and Edward III claimed Philip's throne in 1337. The French cooked up some pretty desperate propaganda to discredit Edward III, most notably a claim that he'd raped the countess of Salisbury. [1] Wouldn't his mother's adultery have been a really obvious weapon to use? Wouldn't Philip have tried to embarrass Edward with his mother's scandalous behaviour, and furthermore, suggested that Edward might not be Edward II's son and therefore not even the rightful king of England, never mind king of France? But Philip VI never said a word about Isabella's alleged adultery.

Isabella's uncle Henry of Lancaster, earl of Lancaster and Leicester, led a brief and unsuccessful revolt in late 1328 and early 1329, and cited his points of dissatisfaction with the governance of Isabella and Roger Mortimer during Edward III's minority. Henry's complaints appear in the Plea and Memoranda Rolls of London, and he said a great deal about the bad advice to which the underage Edward III was being subjected, his (Henry's) quarrel with Roger Mortimer, the question of Philippa of Hainault's dower and much else, but not a word about Isabella's reliance on Roger or about their private relationship. [2] No-one ever claimed that Edward III was not Edward II's son until the late twentieth century, and it seems odd, if Isabella was known to have committed adultery, that rumours didn't spread in their own lifetimes. After all, if Isabella was known to have had sexual relations with Roger Mortimer in and after 1325/26, some people might have thought that she slept with him, or with another man, a few years earlier as well. Even the contemporary chroniclers who said they'd heard rumours of Isabella and Roger's 'liaison' never cast the slightest doubt on Edward III's paternity, which perhaps leads one to wonder if they truly believed the rumours. Another question that occurs to me: would Isabella have had as much support from the English bishops in and after 1326 as she did if she'd been parading her adulterous affair with Roger? It's all very well saying they knew about the affair but just ignored it, but would they really have done that? Would chronicler Jean le Bel have said that Roger Mortimer "more than anyone was suspected of being the father" of Isabella's alleged unborn child in 1330 if their sexual relationship was known to everyone? If their affair was so notorious, who else was going to be the father? I don't really think that "Oh, but people didn't dare to talk about the queen's adultery and therefore they kept silent" as an explanation of chroniclers' reticence on the subject is much of an argument. We could argue till the cows come home what chroniclers and others might have said about anything, but the evidence we have is the evidence we have.

Pic below: one writer a few years ago, stating that "Queen Isabella was an acknowledged adulteress." Oh really? Acknowledged by whom? Herself? Nope, never. Or is there some kind of committee that officially acknowledges adulteresses? And Edward II "may have been the father of his supposed offspring." Oh, such generosity. This is really insulting to Isabella too, to suggest that a woman with her profound and even sacred sense of her own royalty might have been willing to foist a child she had conceived with a non-royal man on the throne. This is yet another example of what I talked about in the last post, where the idea that Isabella was an "adulteress" is elevated to the status of a certain fact and treated with the reverence often accorded to Holy Writ. There's a constant assumption that because Isabella was a woman and Roger was a man, their relationship must have been romantic and sexual. The idea that they might have been close political allies and not lovers at all, at least in the early stages of their association, is almost never considered.

Thomas Costain's perenially popular The Three Edwards states that it is all but certain that Isabella and Mortimer first met in the Tower of London in 1321. Hahaha, no. Roger attended Isabella's wedding to Edward II in Boulogne on 25 January 1308, and at their coronation a month later, he played an important role in the ceremonial procession into Westminster Abbey: he and three other men carried the royal robes. Roger spent much of his career in the 1310s in Ireland, so he and the queen probably didn't come face to face that often, but charter witness lists show that he visited court on occasion, and obviously Isabella would have known exactly who the lord of Wigmore was long before 1321. A lot of novels, weirdly, follow Costain's idea and have Isabella and Roger first being introduced in the Tower when he's a prisoner there.

There's also a common idea that Isabella began her affair with Roger Mortimer in the Tower of London, shortly after she supposedly first met him there. This idea comes from a misreading of dates: Isabella gave birth to her youngest child, Joan, later queen of Scotland, in the Tower on 5 July 1321, and Roger and his uncle Roger Mortimer of Chirk were imprisoned in the Tower on 13 February 1322. An earlier generation of historians misdated either the birth or the onset of the imprisonment and thought that Isabella and Roger were in the Tower at the same time, and that somehow this was evidence for the beginning of their passionate sexual relationship. Because as we all know, women who have just given birth are famous for being really keen to begin a passionate sexual relationship with a new lover, and any two people who are in the same place at the same time are bound to have sex together. And you know, the Tower of London is a pretty darn big place, a massive sprawling fortification with lots of towers; I think there were twenty-one in the 1300s, or something like that. The royal apartments were absolutely nowhere near the prison cells, and there were workshops within the Tower grounds, where carpenters, masons, armourers, etc were at work, so there were always lots of people coming and going. One novel, hilariously, has the queen of England sneaking off to have sex with Roger in his prison cell, and no-one ever notices, because - get this - she wears a cloak with a hood. Obviously, she stole Harry Potter's invisibility cloak.

Other than one medieval French chronicle, the playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564-93), in his c. 1592 play about Edward II, was the first person to suggest that Isabella was involved in Roger Mortimer's escape from the Tower on 1 August 1323. [3] There's no evidence whatsoever that she helped him escape or that he was important to her in any way back then, and to my mind the notion that they were plotting against Edward II together as early as 1322/23 is merely hindsight, projecting knowledge of their relationship back several years, coupled with a romantic wish that Isabella had always loved Roger and helped him escape to fight another day. On 17 February 1323, while staying in the Tower, Isabella sent a letter to the treasurer of England, Walter de Norwich, about Roger's wife Joan Geneville. Since Roger's own arrest in early 1322, Joan had been held under house arrest with eight servants, and the queen asked the treasurer to ensure that she received the money allocated for her own and her servants' sustenance as promptly as possible. This has often been taken as proof of Isabella's collusion with Roger Mortimer, but the rather inconvenient fact is that she was staying in the Tower with Eleanor Despenser, niece of Edward II and wife of Hugh the Younger, and Eleanor sent the same letter about Joan's money, almost exactly word for word, also on 17 February 1323. [4] So if we take the queen's letter as evidence of her plotting against her husband with Roger, presumably Eleanor was also plotting with him against her husband and uncle. This doesn't seem terribly likely.

Edward III's arrest of Roger Mortimer in Nottingham Castle on 19 October 1330 is also very often misunderstood. Not long ago, someone snapped at me on social media that it's absurd to think that Roger and Isabella might not have been lovers when the king and his friends caught them together in Isabella's bedchamber. Um. No. They weren't alone in Isabella's bed, being intimate, but were having a meeting with their few remaining allies, including Roger's son Geoffrey Mortimer and the bishop of Lincoln, Henry Burghersh.

I think a lot of people nowadays assume that Edward II and Isabella of France's relationship was nothing but tragically awful and disastrous from start to finish, which is wildly inaccurate anyway. Then they assume that Isabella and Roger's relationship must necessarily have been the exact opposite of that, and write Isabella as though she's a fictional character escaping an unsatisfactory marriage into a wonderfully fulfilling affair. It's become an extremely popular interpretation, but that doesn't make it true. Isabella, Roger and Edward were real people, not fictional characters, and certainly not archetypes marked 'Abusive Gay Husband', 'Adoring Straight Lover' and 'Sad Lonely Heroine In Need Of A Real Man's Love'. Their lives were their own and were messy and complicated, not the plot of a romance novel where Edward makes Isabella endlessly unhappy until Roger emerges stage left to show her what true love and sexual satisfaction are. 

The complex politics of the 1320s, the aftershocks of the Contrariant rebellion, Edward II's incompetence, his complicity in Hugh Despenser the Younger's tyranny and extortion, all the rest of it, are reduced to a fairy-tale about a neglected woman and her adoring lover. Roger here also appears not as a person in his own right, but simply as The Hetero Lover, the anti-Edward II who is claimed to have been "everything that Edward II was not" and who later becomes the unscrupulous villain who makes Isabella do bad things and thus becomes The Scapegoat. Where is Isabella's agency? Where is the powerful, awesome politician who brings down a king? Nowhere; Isabella is treated as little more than the simpering heroine of a 1950s Mills and Boon romance who "succumbs to the strong and lusty adventurer" and "surrenders herself to the embraces" of her strong, manly, virile lover. This panting Victorian nonsense was published in the twenty-first century. Give me strength.

To claim that Edward II of all people, the man who was called "one of the strongest men in his realm" by chroniclers, was not strong makes clear that this narrative has little to do with reality. And now could anyone 700 years later possibly know whether Roger Mortimer was "unequivocally heterosexual" or not? There are people I know really well and talk to a lot, and I wouldn't have the faintest clue if they're "unequivocally heterosexual" or not.  

Another assumption is that Isabella, now madly in love and lust with the wonderful strong manly virile audacious superlatively heterosexual lover who gives her great orgasms or whatever, automatically now despises Edward II ("it is easy to understand that Isabella could feel nothing but profound revulsion for her husband"). This appears to be a classic case of projection, and is a simplistic way of understanding human relationships, as though Isabella was capable of feeling only one emotion for the man who was her husband for almost two decades and was the father of her children. And who was as royal as she herself was. Let's not forget that Isabella of France was a woman with a strong and sacred sense of her own royalty. Although of course she was a human being too, with needs and desires, her profound sense of her royalty is often dismissed or underestimated. And yes, I know perfectly well that a century later Katherine de Valois, daughter of the king of France and widow and mother of kings of England, had a long-term sexual and romantic relationship with Owen Tudor, a squire. I'm not talking about Katherine de Valois; I'm not claiming that no queen who has ever lived on this planet could possibly commit adultery or fall in love with a man well beneath her in rank. I'm talking about Isabella of France, specifically, as an individual. I'm not quite sure that "Oh, you see, this person did something, so a completely different person a century earlier might have done it too" is much of an argument, even though people have often made that argument to me.

For what it's worth, my feeling is that at first, in 1325/26, Isabella and Roger were political allies whose goals coincided; they, Roger's Contrariant allies such as John Maltravers and William Trussell, and untold numbers of people in England, desperately wanted to bring Hugh Despenser the Younger down. This achieved, it became obvious that Edward II's support had collapsed and that he could no longer continue to be king, and Isabella kept Roger as her adviser through the unprecedented times that followed. I  personally doubt that Isabella slept with Roger while Edward II was alive or at least still officially alive, i.e. until September 1327. Once she was a widow, or at least officially a widow, she might have been more open to a sexual or romantic relationship of some kind with Roger. If they did, they must have been reasonably discreet, and maybe their intimacy was only occasional. I have no doubt that Isabella had feelings for Roger, feelings of trust and affection, and perhaps more, though whether she was ever in love with him is impossible to know for certain. Roger's own feelings are also impossible to assess with any degree of certainty. Given how much he got out of his relationship with the queen, e.g. granting himself a grandiose earldom, arranging marriages for his daughters with the most eligible heirs in the kingdom, becoming involved with politics at the highest level, and so on, it would seem a mighty coincidence if he just happened to fall madly in love with Isabella in late 1325, just as one would reasonably doubt that Hugh Despenser just happened to fall madly in love with Edward II in c. late 1318. I'm sure that Isabella of France trusted Roger Mortimer and had genuine feelings for him. Whether those feelings included passionate lust and passionate love, I'm not at all convinced, and the notion that Roger loved Isabella passionately doesn't convince me either. To me, Roger Mortimer's marriage of almost three decades to Joan Geneville, the often forgotten woman who bore him a dozen children and supported him loyally through thick and thin, is a far more appealing love story than fantasies about an "unequivocally heterosexual" baron seducing a cruelly neglected queen.


1) Antonia Gransden, 'The Alleged Rape by Edward III of the Countess of Salisbury', English Historical Review, 87 (1972), pp. 341, 344.

2) Calendar of Select Plea and Memoranda Rolls of the City of London, ed. A.H. Thomas, vol. 1, pp. 77-83.

3) Seymour Phillips, Edward II, p. 490.

4) The National Archives SC 1/37/45 is Isabella's letter; SC 1/37/4 is Eleanor's.


sami parkkonen said...

Once again; great stuff!

Yes, Roger was happily married for decades. Doesn't that ring any bells? Of course he could have had lovers and relationships outside the marriage BUT his wife was there all the way and gave him children by the bushel. And he stayed with her. So they were not in love, did not trust each other? The silence about Mortimer's marriage is very revealing. Those who advocate Isabella romance have to make this disappear because a marriage this long and with so many children was more than likely a happy and strong one. And it would make the Isabella romance even more stupid than what it is.

And all these romancers seem to forget one thing; being a royal, born as a royal and being married to a king and becoming a queen was not like getting a job from McDonalds or even from the City bank. Once you were a royal you were a part of sacred bloodline which was traced back to Adam and Eve ad countless of great names of history. Once you became The Queen you were anointed just like Christ because now you ruled the earth on behalf of God with the permission from the God. You were literally a Holy one, semi-divine person, whose presence was such that most people simply took a bow or kneeled down without any one asking them to do so.

The divinity and holiness of the royal position and it's power carried for a long time after Isabella. Queen Elizabeth I was in many situations where she had nothing else but her position as the Queen. No money, no army, no powerful protectors, but when she showed up as The Queen, most of her opponents simply reeled back and ran or hid. Just because she was The Queen. Isabella was also The Queen and of the royal French stock which made her even more mysterious and powerful because of her mystical bloodline. She knew all this, she had been educated for her role as the queen and she surely was intelligent enough to use all her powers. Would she have put all that in danger just because she needed some sexual healing? I doubt it very much.

I am also annoyed how most romancers diminish her abilities as a politician and strategist. When you look at how she survived trough all of the troubles along her way and died in peace decades later after putting her son to the throne, that shows how smart, clever and skillful politician she really was. Hugh was gone, Mortimer was gone, Edward had disappeared and her son ruled the kingdom. She had survived trough wars, rebellions, intrigues, coup and much more. I don't think it was because she had sex with Mortimer.

sami parkkonen said...

And here we continue, so sorry about this.

The romancers also seem to forget that from Mortimer's side a steamy hot sex with the Queen would have been very risky move. If it would come out that he was in his position simply because Isabella allows it he would have easily removed by almost anyone. Yes he needed her backing him up and he needed her name while doing his business deals but getting into the bed with the Queen? Very dangerous indeed. What if he could not satisfy the Queen every time? She would kick him out of the bed and take another one instead. Mortimer needed Isabella and her powers but it was also in his own personal interests not to mess around with her or let anyone do so. Just think about it: here we have a Queen who was ready to kill her husbands "favorite" and throw her husband the King to a cell. What she would do to a lover once she would get bored or tired or just would like to get a new one?

Plus, being the Queens lover would limit his possibilities to operate for his own benefit. Mortimer would have been tied up with Isabella as her lover. He would have been under her command 24// and obviously Roger Mortimer was none of that. He wanted as much power for himself as possible and being just a lover boy would have hindered his negotiating powers among the barons. They would have known that Mortimer is just a lover. But if he was not, like I believe, the barons and others knew he was a close ally of the Queen and that gave him more room to make his moves and made him also more powerful in the eyes of the barons and others.

And finally: the Church would have never allowed this assumed romance to go on. And the French would have had a field day if they had known anything about this romance between Isabella and Mortimer. They would have used it for max effect when Edward III crossed the channel, from the very first day and beyond. It would have been a propaganda galore for them. But... They said nothing. Why? Because there was nothing to say bout it.

Chris Klein said...

Hi Kathryn -

Great information and analysis again - thank you! The truth is always more complex and deep than the one-dimensional love/hate/affair relationships assumed by more contemporary historians which is why your thoughtful, well-reasoned analysis and discussion is such a breath of fresh air. I've thoroughly enjoyed your series on the relationship of Isabella and Roger.

I think your (and sami's) point is very well-taken, Isabella was an intelligent, educated woman who was forced to sail though some pretty treacherous political seas that were not of her own making, and the fact she did so with a pretty high degree of success is a credit to her intelligence and political savvy. Her son was King of England for 50 years, and her great-grandson was King for 22 years, so that speaks to a high degree of political competence.

Most importantly, your passion for the subject and your ability to relay that through your writing is infectious - it's so easy to get drawn into this subject and it's facinating.

Thank you!


Kathryn Warner said...

Sami and Chris, thank you both so much for the great comments!

Anonymous said...

Great post, as usual. Another example of the "one queen did this ... so another one centuries earlier might have done something similar" is that the romance between Elizabeth Tudor and Robert Dudley is also supposed to have started when they both were imprisoned at the Tower, so why not Isabella and Mortimer? When (G-d willing) COVID restrictions are lifted, I expect someone trying to promote tourism to connect the Tower to romance ...

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Esther!