23 March, 2021

Eleanor Despenser, Edward II and Queen Isabella (2)

The first part of the post is here

Eleanor Despenser appears in Queen Isabella's extant accounts of 1311/12, when she attended the queen in the north of England for a while, and Isabella, rather hilariously, paid 12d for ale for Eleanor's breakfast on 31 July 1311. Twelve pence is a lot to spend on ale at a time when a gallon of it cost 1d, so I assume the drink was intended for some of Eleanor's retinue as well. She had her own damsels, chamberlain, John of Berkhamsted, carters, palfreymen, and other attendants while she was with the queen. [1] Isabella's accounts don't survive for most of her husband's reign so it's hard to know how much time Eleanor spent with her, and when, but it seems likely that Eleanor began attending the queen, at least on occasion, soon after Isabella's arrival in England in early February 1308. 

From Edward II's accounts and other sources, we know that the two women spent much time in each other's company in the 1320s: they were together at Tynemouth Priory in the autumn of 1322, in the Tower of London in February 1323, and at Nottingham Castle with Edward II for Christmas 1324. Shortly after Christmas, the two women left court and travelled together to Kenilworth Castle, where they spent New Year 1324/25 a couple of months before Isabella departed for France. There is no reason to think that Edward II imposed Eleanor on the queen against Isabella's will in c. 1324 as a couple of chroniclers claimed, evidently unaware that the two women had been companions for at least thirteen years by then, although the story has often been repeated uncritically by modern writers. As the king's eldest niece, Eleanor Despenser was one of the highest-ranking ladies in the realm and an entirely suitable person to attend the queen, and had done so for many years. Besides, the notion that the king forced his wife to accept a woman she disliked and didn't want anywhere near her as her chief companion paints Isabella as helpless and passive, which is the last thing she was. I mean, do people really think that a woman who brought down a king was incapable of ordering another woman out of her presence if she wanted to? How on earth does anyone imagine that the powerful and awesome Queen Isabella was that much of a feeble wet blanket?

There's also the idiotic idea, invented in the 1970s, that Edward II removed Isabella's children from her in September 1324 and gave custody of their second son, John of Eltham (b. August 1316), to Eleanor Despenser, intending to be cruel to the queen. No-one has ever explained how Eleanor managed to be in two places at once: constantly in Isabella's presence so that the queen had no privacy from her, reading her correspondence, and reporting on her movements to the king and Despenser; and at the same time, looking after Isabella's son somewhere away from the court so that Isabella could never see him. It should be obvious that these stories cannot both be true, and I believe they're both untrue. In fact, Eleanor had been looking after John of Eltham, her decades-younger first cousin, at least on occasion, since July 1322 or earlier (when she received 100 marks for the household expenses of herself and John), and he wasn't, as claimed, cruelly removed from his mother's custody in September 1324. [2] Why does anyone think the queen would have been the full-time sole carer of her children anyway? 

John of Eltham was the same age as some of Eleanor Despenser's own children, and her third daughter Eleanor Despenser the younger (b. c. late 1310s or early 1320s) was raised with Edward II and Isabella's daughters Eleanor of Woodstock (b. 1318) and Joan of the Tower (b. 1321). Her eldest son Hugh 'Huchon' Despenser, born in 1308 or 1309, spent time with Edward of Windsor, the heir to the throne, in July 1324 - when the king sent them both letters in Shoreham - and likely on other occasions as well. [3] Eleanor and Hugh the Younger's children were companions of the royal children, their first cousins once removed, when they were all growing up. This seems perfectly normal and natural to me; the Despenser children were great-grandchildren of Edward I and grandchildren of the earls of Gloucester and Winchester, so were perfectly suited to be the royal children's companions. And again, why do people think that Queen Isabella, of all people, was so utterly helpless and passive that she couldn't demand a say in how her own children were raised, and where, and by whom, and which noble offspring were raised with them? Why is there an assumption that her children were taken from her against her will and given into the care of people she disliked? Where's the evidence? The long list of charges against Hugh Despenser the Younger at his trial in November 1326 gives a good indication as to what Isabella blamed him for, and persuading the king to remove her children from her was not mentioned.

Writers who claim to like and admire Isabella of France do her a massive disservice in the way they write her as a helpless, feeble, endlessly put-upon victim. Poor Eleanor Despenser has also been really hard done by in fiction and even in non-fiction; she's usually depicted either as a wet, wimpy dishcloth of a person drifting helplessly around the court and totally under her husband's thumb, or as a sinister, malicious and physically unattractive figure doing her utmost to inflict as much cruelty as possible on Isabella. That both the king and queen enjoyed Eleanor's company for many years, which probably reveals that she was an appealing, fun and charming person, never seems to be considered. The idea that Eleanor and Hugh had at least ten children together and continued producing children long after the obligatory 'heir and the spare', right up to the mid-1320s - their last child was born in December 1325, though it's possible that Eleanor was pregnant again when Hugh was executed in November 1326 - which means that they spent a lot of time in each other's company and maintained an active sex life, never seems to be considered. In the 1320s during her husband's period of power, her itinerary, where I can establish it, shows that Eleanor was almost always at court, or at the very least she was just a few miles away and both Edward II and Hugh Despenser sent her frequent letters. If her husband and her uncle were lovers, it's hard to see how she could have been unaware of it. 

It seems that Queen Isabella and Eleanor Despenser remained close even after Hugh the Younger became Edward's favourite and perhaps lover, and did his best to come between the royal couple. Both Isabella and Eleanor gave Edward II gifts at Christmas 1324, though unfortunately, Edward's clerks didn't record what the gifts were. His chamber account of 1324/25 also shows that he gave generous gifts of cash to the two women's female attendants, making sure, as he always did, that Isabella and her servants received more money or more items than Eleanor and hers did. In June 1325, a while after Isabella had departed for her native France, Edward II gave 20 shillings to her household squire Matthew Berenal because Eleanor Despenser "talked great good of him to the king". [4] One of Isabella's attendants at Christmas 1324 was Cecile Chaucomb, who was married to a man named John Chaucomb. Possibly Cecile's husband was the man of this name whom Eleanor Despenser sent to Edward II with news of herself in October 1310. If so, this is another link between Isabella and Eleanor.

As I pointed out in the last post, the later chronicler Henry Knighton stated that while Isabella was away from England between March 1325 and September 1326, Eleanor Despenser was treated as though she was Edward II's queen, a rather cryptic statement which could be interpreted in several different ways. There is, bizarrely, some evidence that Edward and Eleanor might have had a relationship that went far beyond the usual uncle-niece connection, though there's no way of proving it conclusively. Eleanor was imprisoned in the Tower of London from November 1326 to February 1328, and given that she was her husband's loyal ally and seems to have been implicated in a good few of Hugh's acts of extortion and false imprisonment, this isn't too surprising. What is perhaps more surprising is that Isabella treated her with what appears to be a measure of spite and vindictiveness in and after 1326. A few months after Eleanor was freed from the Tower and restored to her own lands (the lordship of Glamorgan and many manors in southern England), she was accused of stealing high-value items from the Tower and was imprisoned again. Although this second imprisonment was, as far as I can make out, not a long one, her lands were taken from her, and most of them were used to dower Edward III's young queen Philippa of Hainault. Isabella kept the remainder of Eleanor's lands herself, and Eleanor only regained them after Isabella's downfall in October 1330.

At the beginning of 1327, the queen had Eleanor's third and fourth daughters Eleanor the younger and Margaret Despenser forcibly veiled as nuns at, respectively, Sempringham Priory in Lincolnshire and Watton Priory in Yorkshire. (Eleanor's eldest daughter Isabella was already married to the earl of Arundel's son; her youngest daughter Elizabeth was only a baby; her second daughter Joan became a nun at Shaftesbury Abbey in Dorset, but this is likely to have been Eleanor and Hugh's own decision after Joan's fiancé the earl of Kildare's son died in 1323, as 1) an order for her veiling in 1327 doesn't exist, and 2) Shaftesbury Abbey, founded by Alfred the Great in c. 888, was a very wealthy and prestigious house.) Eleanor the younger was somewhere between about five and eight years old and Margaret was only three when they were forced to take binding, lifelong vows as nuns. In addition, the queen had Eleanor's eldest son Hugh 'Huchon' Despenser, aged seventeen or eighteen, besieged for months inside Caerphilly Castle in 1326/27 with the aim of capturing and executing him. Luckily for the young man, the garrison held out and refused to surrender him to Isabella, and she eventually gave up and imprisoned him instead.

Probably at least some of this was a consequence of Queen Isabella's loathing for Hugh Despenser the Younger even after he was dead, though I do wonder if some of Isabella's actions against the Despenser family after Hugh's execution represent her lashing out at Eleanor Despenser rather than at Hugh. It seems to me that Isabella was angry with Eleanor for some reason, not only because Eleanor had been married to Hugh - I'm not sure the queen would have blamed Eleanor just for that - but because of something Eleanor herself had done. What that was, I don't know. Eleanor was surely relieved when her cousin Edward III overthrew his mother in October 1330, and for the remaining seven years of her life, it seems that the two women ignored each other and there is no sign at all that they ever regained their former closeness.


1) The Household Book of Queen Isabella of England for the Fifth Regnal Year of Edward II, ed. F.D. Blackley and G. Hermansen, pp. xiv, xv, xxvi, 19, 31, 157, 203.

2) Calendar of Memoranda Rolls, Michaelmas 1326 to Michaelmas 1327, no. 2133.

3) The National Archives E 101/380/4, fos. 10v, 16r.

4) Society of Antiquaries of London Manuscript 122, p. 8.


Anonymous said...

Great post ... although the "lashing out" makes sense if you believe that Edward and Eleanor's relationship wasn't limited to uncle-niece. Also, I recall reading somewhere that the religion of the time teach that the sins of the parents were visited on kids (and/or that virtuous kids could atone for sins of the parents) -- but I am not sure if this is accurate. If it is accurate, though, then it might explain the forcible veiling of the two kids.


Chris Klein said...

Hi Kathryn -

Very compelling. Is there a chance that Isabella was referring to a third in her marriage as Eleanor rather than Hugh? And that her anger was directed to him as it would have been more acceptable that he was unable to control his wife? Misogyny is obviously a concept we have now, but not necessarily then - the strong woman was the exception, not the rule as women were perceived to be the property of the husband. Just ask poor Alice of Norfolk.

The Edward II/Isabella story is so wrapped up in the conjecture that she (Isabella) and Roger were 'hawt lovers' when the evidence is more slanted that they were political partners. Isabella was born and raised as a noble woman - as Queen, her focus was on her son. And when the partnership between her and Roger soured, she was fine to turn her back on him and let her son, the King of England, clean up the mess.

She was never (as far as we can tell) implicated in Edward II's supposed death in 1327 despite her involvement in his removal from the throne. Edward III took care of his mother, and I don't believe (warning: conjecture not based on fact) he blamed her in any way. The 1341 offerings are very interesting.

But, the Edward II and Eleanor relationship is far more compelling. The "Ma Dame" entries would lead me to believe there was something more between Edward II and Eleanor than what historians promote happened between Isabella and Roger.


Kathryn Warner said...

Esther, I've never heard that, though perhaps it's true, and forcing a three-year-old to atone for the sins of her father strikes me as appalling, whatever the motivation.

Chris, oddly enough I speculate about that in my book about the de Clare sisters! It's interesting that Isabella didn't name the person, and I'm not sure that calling Hugh 'Pharisee' quite fits him and I did wonder if it might be Eleanor instead. I agree that arguably there's at least much evidence for Edward having some kind of relationship with Eleanor as there is for Isabella having a sexual/romantic relationship with Mortimer. I'm not sure I've ever seen such paucity of evidence so wildly exaggerated in my whole life.

eimeara said...

I don't think there's any evidence of Isabella's relationship with Mortimer souring is there? It seems that they were working together until the end. Yes her focus was on her son to get him safely on the throne and protect him but that doesn't mean she didn't have an affair with Roger. He seems to have spent a lot of Christmas holidays with her and his wife elsewhere but either way we will probably never know.

Chris Klein said...

Hi Elmeara -

Yes, I admit the "souring" term was mine, and there is no evidence the relationship between Isabella and Roger soured. The evidence is, when Edward III took control, Roger was soon executed and Isabella retired to a life of comfort.

Roger and his wife of many years had plenty of children indicating a marriage of continuance. That's not to say he didn't have affairs or other lovers, but given Isabella's lineage and the situation back in France with her sisters in law, I don't believe she engaged in a sexual affair with Roger. The key of continuing a lineage was making sure the maternal line was pure. Her focus was removing her husband and replacing him with their son.

Again, JMHO