27 June, 2023

The Problem of Hindsight

There's an old joke that goes something like "Dear Diary, the Hundred Years War started today." Or imagine a novel written in the twenty-first century - and I'm pretty sure there actually is one where something like this happens - with a character whose husband is one of the American sailors stationed at Pearl Harbor, and on 6 December 1941 she clings to him and cries out "Oh honey, I have a strong feeling that something terrible is about to happen. Don't go to work tomorrow." We'd scoff that an author writing decades later, in the full knowledge of what happened at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, gives such implausible foresight to a character who's living through the events of the 1940s as they happen. It's cheap and a bit silly. 

It's obvious that human beings cannot foretell the future. We all know that. Yet in some modern nonfiction writing about history, it sometimes seems that they can. Too many writers seem to forget that people living through events didn't know how those events were going to end; they didn't know that something momentous was just around the corner; they didn't know years in advance that they were going to be involved in a particular event. Just because we, decades or centuries later, can construct a narrative where this happened, then that happened as a result, then something else happened as a result of that second thing, doesn't mean that the people experiencing those events were aware of a narrative unfolding. Some writing on Edward II's reign is problematic to me because it looks at where people ended up and assumed that they had always intended to end up there, and had planned it all as though they had some way of knowing how things were going to turn out. I'll give some examples.

The first example concerns the possibility that when Edward II's queen Isabella was visiting the French court in 1314, she revealed to her father Philip IV that two of her sisters-in-law, Marguerite and Blanche of Burgundy, were committing adultery. I've seen it argued that Isabella did this deliberately to increase her English son's chances of inheriting the French throne one day, by making her brothers' children illegitimate. This is, of course, written with the knowledge that Edward III did claim the French throne nearly a quarter of a century later in 1337 (and thus began the Hundred Years War, not that he could possibly have known that).

In April 1314, Isabella's father was forty-five and healthy, and her brothers Louis of Navarre, Philip of Poitiers and Charles of La Marche were twenty-four, about twenty-two, and nineteen going on twenty. All three young men were married, all were perfectly healthy as far we know, and all had children. How could Isabella have anticipated that barely fourteen years later, all four of these men would be dead without any male heirs? How could she have anticipated that her brothers would all die in their twenties and early thirties? How could she anticipated that their sons - and her three brothers fathered at least four sons between them - would all die in early childhood? Not to mention that her dynasty, the Capetians, had managed an unbroken male line of succession to the French throne since as far back as 987, more than 300 years before Isabella was born. 

This is a classic example of history written with hindsight, of knowing that Edward III of England claimed the French throne in 1337, and assuming that his mother somehow had foreknowledge of this, or had planned for it to happen and thus manipulated events so that it might come to pass, as early as 1314 when Edward was a toddler. For all three of Isabella's brothers to die comparatively young, and for all four or more of their sons to die in childhood, was a series of relatively improbable events which she could not have anticipated. For all Isabella knew in 1314, her brothers might all live into their fifties or sixties and father six or ten or twelve healthy sons between them, and the Capetians might manage another 300 years of male succession to the throne of France.

Another example is the way that Roger Mortimer's escape from the Tower of London in August 1323 was, with hindsight, an important early step that would ultimately lead to the downfall of Edward II in late 1326 and early 1327. We can see that. That doesn't mean that anyone in 1323 knew it. Even if Roger himself, and the people who helped him to flee, had an idea that his being at liberty might cause Edward II and Hugh Despenser the Younger problems in some way, this doesn't mean that he and his allies had the specific ultimate goal that his escape would end up forcing Edward to abdicate. It doesn't mean that Roger knew for years that he was the man fated to bring down a king, and that every action he took, every conversation he had, and every journey he made, was intended to take a step towards that objective. Yet this is the way his escape and his life on the Continent between 1323 and 1326 are sometimes written.

Surely it's more plausible that Roger escaped from the Tower without any clear idea of what he was going to do in the future, and fled to the Continent because he had relatives (his mother's family, the Fiennes) and friends there beyond Edward II's reach who would help him and shelter him. He was, after all, a fugitive, with no income and no home. Roger Mortimer did not know in 1323 that some years later he would return to his homeland and would, thanks to his association with Queen Isabella, become hugely wealthy and influential. He didn't know that he would become the co-ruler of England and Wales during Edward III's minority after playing a vital role in Edward II's downfall, that he would end his life on the Tyburn gallows, that a dramatist (Christopher Marlowe) born 234 years after his death would feature him as an important character in one of his plays, and that he would be famous down the centuries as an example of an over-mighty royal favourite. For all Roger knew in 1323, Edward II - who wasn't even forty then and was a fit, strong, healthy man - was going to live for another twenty-five or thirty years, and he, Roger, might die of old age or ill health without ever seeing his homeland and his family again, dependent on the goodwill and support of others.

We, with the benefit of hindsight, can create a narrative of historical events that was absolutely not apparent to people who were living through the events in question and had no way of knowing how things were going to turn out. Event W happened, and a result, Event X happened, and a result of that, Event Y happened, and a result of that, Event Z happened. Just because we know that Event W set a series of dominoes in motion that ultimately, years later, resulted in Event Z, does not necessarily mean that the people involved in Event W intended to bring about Event Z. It's like claiming that when Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, which triggered the start of the First World War, he did so with the intention of bringing about the horror of the trenches, the deaths of millions of people, the collapse of various European monarchies, and everything else that happened as a result of WW1. This seems astonishingly unlikely, to say the least.

Boris Johnson was once sacked from the Times for writing a story about Edward II cavorting at his Thames-side house of La Rosere (which he acquired in October 1324) with Piers Gaveston (who was killed in June 1312), and fabricating a quote about it from his historian godfather. (Seriously, this is true.) Johnson went to work at the Telegraph instead, and later became editor of the Spectator. He parlayed his years of experience as a political journalist into a career in politics, ultimately becoming Prime Minister. Imagine if a biography of him in the future claimed that he deliberately got himself sacked from the Times as an important first step in his aim of becoming PM one day, as though he knew many years in advance that he was destined to be PM. Edward II's reign and downfall have sometimes been written a bit like this, as though certain special people who lived through it had knowledge of the future and their own important role in it.

It makes Isabella of France and Roger Mortimer seem cunningly Machiavellian to an extent that seems wildly improbable and implausible. They don't make short-term or fairly random decisions, like normal people; everything they do is planned years in advance and ten steps ahead of everyone else. They have a global overview of everything that's going on and are able to manoeuvre everyone into position, and Edward II and Hugh Depenser unwittingly fall into their cleverly-laid traps at every turn and, without knowing it, do exactly what Isabella and Roger want them to do. Isabella and Roger can't just react to events as they occur and make decisions based on the limited information they have at the time; they are key players in a years-long, Europe-wide conspiracy to bring down the king of England, and manage to communicate with their fellow conspirators across borders without leaving a trace on written record. Isabella can't just - assuming she ever did this in the first place - tell her father that her sisters-in-law have taken other men as lovers because she's worried that a non-royal child might be foisted onto the French throne or because she's concerned about her brothers' dignity and about her family's royal bloodline, she has to be plotting her English son's possible accession to her French father's throne many years in the future. 

Another example is Isabella's journey to France in March 1325, when she negotiated a peace settlement between her husband and her brother Charles IV, who had gone to war in 1324. It's entirely possible that she had some idea of using her sojourn in her homeland to improve the intolerable situation in which she found herself, with Hugh Despenser the Younger dominating Edward II's government and determined to sideline the queen as much as possible. Yet even here, in the story as it's now often told, Isabella has to scheme and plot, and manipulate everyone including Pope John XXII, to ensure that she does indeed get sent to France. Because, in this narrative, she's already in cahoots with Roger Mortimer, and helped him escape from the Tower because she's in love with him and conspiring with him to bring down her husband. Long before March 1325, she's secretly in touch with Roger on the Continent (at least indirectly, via intermediaries), and is dying to join him there so they can continue to scheme against Edward together, get rid of him, and subsequently enjoy the wonderful romantic relationship together that they know is their destiny while ruling England in her son's name. And lo and behold! Edward duly falls into Isabella's cunning trap and sends her to France, without the faintest idea that his wife is plotting his downfall behind his back with her lover and has manipulated him into doing what she wants, and that he's essentially digging his own grave. Gosh. Imagine. Six months later in September 1325, he unwittingly does the exact thing that Isabella wants him to do yet again, and sends his son to France as well to pay homage to Charles IV, because this is the vital next stage in the vast conspiracy between Isabella, Roger Mortimer, the king of France, the count of Hainault, the king of Bohemia and who knows who else, half of Europe apparently, who have nothing else to do but plot with an escaped English prisoner how to bring the king of England down for years on end. 

At every turn in this narrative, Edward II unknowingly acts against his own interests by doing exactly what his enemies, who include his own wife though he has no idea of that either, want him to do and are hoping that he will do. A few years ago, I wrote a post debunking the common idea that in September 1325 Edward fell into a trap set for him by Isabella, who was hoping to get her son under her control to use him as a weapon against his father. Every option available to Edward II by that time was fraught with possible risk, and whatever he did might ultimately have led to his deposition in one way or another. If he had, in fact, gone to France instead of sending his son, perhaps he would have been kidnapped or assassinated, and historians would now be asking how he could have been so stupid as to travel to France himself, when making his son duke of Aquitaine and sending him instead would have been so much more sensible and would not have brought about his downfall or death. They'd probably be declaring that Edward II going to France in person was exactly what Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer wanted him to do and that by doing so he fell into the trap they had laid for him, and that they had intended for years to have him assassinated, or kidnap him and force him to abdicate his throne once he made the stupid mistake of leaving England. If only he had sent his son to France in his place, he could have foiled their dastardly plans! 

Isabella of France and Roger Mortimer were both highly able and intelligent people, certainly, but it's as though they're omniscient narrators writing a story that no-one else even knows they're part of, and while all the other characters in the story wrongly think they have agency and are making their own choices, they are in fact being controlled and manipulated at every stage. It reminds me a bit of the way Mahaut, countess of Artois, the mother-in-law of Isabella's brother Philip V of France, is written in Maurice Druon's Accursed Kings series of novels. Druon's fictional Mahaut is a murderous über-schemer, bumping off Philip's brother Louis X and Louis's days-old posthumous son John I so that Philip will become king of France and Mahaut's daughter Jeanne will be queen consort. It's not that a baby who was only days old sadly though not terribly unsurprisingly died of natural causes in an age of horrifically high infant mortality; no, it's that Mahaut poisoned him so his uncle would become king of France. This take on things is essentially pointing to some random or fairly improbable event and claiming "this particular person totally meant for that to happen and was responsible for it." Edward II spent weeks changing his mind about who should travel to France to pay homage to Charles IV, himself or his son, and no-one could possibly have known beforehand who would turn up in Paris because even Edward himself didn't know until pretty well the last minute, but Isabella and Roger totally planned the whole thing and had always known that Edward of Windsor, not Edward II, would be the one who stepped off the boat. Honest, guv, they did.

Maybe all this scheming stuff makes a great fictional tale, full of drama, intrigue and murder, but does it really bear much resemblance to the overwhelming majority of real human beings and how they behave? Modern writers often describe Isabella of France as highly manipulative, and sure, the way she's been depicted in recent decades, as someone who could foretell the future and was able to plot things nearly twenty-five years in advance, does make her look pretty darn manipulative. But is that the real Isabella, though, or a fictional character who's been given her name? Most people just muddle through, they react to situations as they occur, they make whatever decisions seem best at the time but which they might come to regret later or which might well prove to be disastrous decisions. Oh, and another thing this whole hindsight issue somewhat reminds me of is the death of Diana, princess of Wales, and the endless conspiracy theories it spawned. Tragic accidents and bad things including car crashes sometimes also happen to celebrities, but it's as though some people are special and should therefore be immune to random events, and we must create some shadowy, nefarious plot to explain their deaths.

Another issue is that although it later became reasonably common for unsuccessful English kings to be deposed or forced to abdicate, and subsequently executed or murdered, in 1326/27 it had never been done before. It was revolutionary. The common modern assumption that lots of people, both in England and on the Continent, planned for years in the 1320s to depose Edward II, ignores the fact that there was no precedent for such a thing. It's so easy for us, centuries later, to see what happened to Richard II in 1399 and Henry VI in 1461 and 1471 and Edward V in 1483 and Charles I in 1649 and think, ah yes, it's pretty easy to get rid of a king, look at all the times it's happened throughout English history. Therefore, people during Edward II's era must also have known that it was pretty easy to get rid of a king. But they didn't. How could they? How could Roger Mortimer, in 1323, even conceive of the forced abdication of the king of England? Let alone imagine that he, of all people, might end up ruling the kingdom during the minority of that king's son? Events of 1326/27 tend to give the impression of people groping their way towards a possible solution to the problem of Edward II rather than putting long-standing, cleverly-formulated plans into action. 

And finally, another problem with the hindsight issue is that we know Edward II and Isabella's marriage went badly wrong in the 1320s, and therefore it's often written as though the entirety of it was a disaster and as though Isabella always knew that it was going to end badly and was unhappy for every single minute of her marriage. The ending of something colours people's opinions of the entirety of it, so because their marriage went wrong, this means that it must have been bad from the very beginning. This is strange to me, because surely we've all had relationships that didn't work out? Does it mean that we were constantly unhappy throughout, or that the relationship was doomed from the start? When it comes to Edward and Isabella's marriage, the narrative so often becomes almost childishly simplistic, as though people only ever feel one emotion for their spouse of nearly twenty years, and as though the complex relationship of two complex people can be reduced to "Edward neglected Isabella and she hated him." 

This issue bedevils writing on Edward II and his reign, and has done for a very long time. Fourteenth-century narrative accounts are much the same, because, with the notable exception of the Vita Edwardi Secundi, chroniclers of the era knew what happened to Edward in 1326/27, and this awareness coloured their accounts of the earlier parts of his reign. They knew, and we know, that Edward was forced to abdicate and that his reign was one of the most unsuccessful in English history, therefore, his every action must have been unsuccessful or bad, whereas the same actions carried out by other kings are portrayed much more neutrally.  One example I often talk about is the silly claim that Edward II 'stole' Isabella's three younger children - and they're always referred to like that, as though they weren't Edward's children as well - to punish her and cause her pain. By contrast, when Edward II's father Edward I set up a separate household for his son Thomas in early 1301 when the latter was only a few months old, then Thomas's brother Edmund was sent to join him when he was less than half a year old, this is reported neutrally as just the way things were in the medieval royal family. Writers don't dissolve into histrionics and take to their fainting-couches over Edward I cruelly stealing Queen Marguerite's tiny infants from her. But because it's Edward II, who was a bad king and a bad husband, always, all the time, every moment of his life, that means that everything he ever did was bad and wrong, and he's judged harshly even when he did things that were entirely normal for his era and status. 

08 June, 2023

John of Lancaster (early or mid-1280s - 1317), Edward II's Obscure Cousin

Here's a post about Edward II's cousin John of Lancaster. Although he was a grandson of Henry III, king of England, a great-grandson of Louis VIII, king of France, the younger half-brother of Juana I, queen regnant of Navarre and queen consort of France, and the uncle of Edward II's queen Isabella and her brothers Louis X, Philip V and Charles IV of France, John is rather obscure.

John was the third and youngest son of Edmund of Lancaster (1245-96), who was the younger son of Henry III and the only brother of Edward I, and his second wife Blanche of Artois (c. 1245/48-1302), dowager queen of Navarre. Edmund and Blanche's eldest son and heir Thomas might have been born on 29 December 1277 or shortly afterwards, and their second son Henry, his brother Thomas's heir in 1322 and ancestor of all the later Lancasters, in c. 1280. John of Lancaster was born sometime before May 1286, when his paternal grandmother Eleanor of Provence, Henry III's widow and the dowager queen of England, bequeathed her claim to the county of Provence to her three Lancaster grandsons. [Calendar of Patent Rolls 1281-92, p. 243] 

Edmund of Lancaster, earl of Lancaster and Leicester, arranged the marriage of his second son Henry to Maud Chaworth, older half-sister of Hugh Despenser the Younger and sole heir of her late father, the Marcher lord Patrick Chaworth, in December 1291. [CPR 1281-92, p. 464] In the usual oh so terribly romantic fashion of medieval arranged marriages, John of Lancaster was named as Maud's substitute future husband in case his brother Henry died. (John was the third son, not the second, as stated.)

Edmund died on 5 June 1296. The bulk of his vast estate went to his eldest son Thomas, though in August 1292 Edmund had arranged for his four castles in Wales plus the Gloucestershire manors of Rodley and Minsterworth to pass to his second son Henry. Thomas was named as heir to these estates if Henry died without children, with John as next heir. [Calendar of Charter Rolls 1257-1300, p. 423; The National Archives DL 10/191] 

To my knowledge, John of Lancaster held no lands in England or Wales, though somehow, and I'm not sure how, he acquired the French lordship of Beaufort, now called Montmorency-Beaufort. It's in the region of Champagne, between Troyes and Nancy, and is 115 miles east of Paris. John's mother Blanche of Artois's first husband Enrique I (d. 1274) was count of Champagne as well as king of Navarre, and the county passed to John's half-sister Queen Juana (b. 1273), countess of Champagne in her own right, a fact which presumably had something to do with John's acquisition of a lordship there. John also appears to have held the lordships of Soulaines, 'Bargencourt' (which probably means Boulancourt) and Nogent l'Artaud, or to be precise, in 1329 his brother and heir Henry wrote to King Philip VI of France about goods which he owned in those places. [Documents Parisiens du Règne de Philippe VI de Valois (1328- 1350): Extraits des Registres de la Chancellerie de France, ed. Jules Viard, vol. 1, pp. 84-5]

Considering that when they were growing up, the three Lancaster brothers were nephews of the king of England and brothers-in-law of the king of France, Philip IV (who married their half-sister Juana of Navarre and Champagne in 1284), and thus could hardly have been better connected, their childhoods are almost completely obscure. The household account, in England, of Jan of Brabant survives for a few months in 1292/93; he was the son and heir of Jan I, duke of Brabant, and married the Lancaster brothers' cousin Margaret, one of Edward I's daughters, in 1290. Thomas and Henry of Lancaster appear several times in the account; John of Lancaster does not. ['Account of the Expenses of John of Brabant and Henry and Thomas of Lancaster, 1292-3', Camden Miscellany, 1853, ed. Joseph Burtt] During the same time period, Thomas and Henry are also mentioned several times, as 'Thomas and Henry the sons of Lord Edmund', in the extant account of their cousin Edward of Caernarfon, but John is not.

It strikes me as highly likely that John of Lancaster spent most of his life in his mother Blanche of Artois's native France, and as he held lands there, he might well have been born in France (his brothers Thomas and Henry, who inherited lands in England, must, by English inheritance law of the time, have been born in England itself or in another of the territories ruled by the king of England).

Unlike his two older brothers, John married a French noblewoman. She was Alix de Joinville, youngest child of the chronicler and historian Jean de Joinville, lord of Joinville, and his second wife Alix, daughter of the lord of Reynel. Jean de Joinville lived a remarkably long life. He was born around 1224 or 1225 - he was excused from fighting in the battle of Taillebourg in 1242 as he hadn't been knighted yet - and did not die until December 1317. I have no idea when Alix de Joinville was born, but she likely wasn't too much older than John of Lancaster, and was probably born when her father was in his fifties. Her parents married in 1262, and her own first marriage to Jean, lord of Arcis-sur-Aube - which is just twenty miles from John of Lancaster's lordship of Beaufort - was arranged in 1300. Jean d'Arcis-sur-Aube died childless in 1307, the same year that John of Lancaster's cousin Edward II succeeded John's uncle Edward I as king of England. Alix de Joinville herself died in or after 1336, and her brother Anseau in 1342 or 1343. [Information from the Medieval Lands project on the Foundation for Medieval Genealogy site]

John of Lancaster's half-sister Juana I, queen regnant of Navarre, queen consort of France and countess of Champagne, obviously knew Alix's father Jean de Joinville: she commissioned him to write a history of Louis IX of France (r. 1226-70), who was her husband Philip IV's grandfather and was also the great-uncle of herself and her three Lancaster half-brothers (their mother Blanche of Artois was the daughter of Louis IX's brother Robert, count of Artois). It's possible therefore that John knew the Joinville family via Queen Juana, though Juana can't have arranged his marriage to Alix as she died in 1305, two years before Alix's first husband Jean d'Arcis-sur-Aube.

John and Alix de Joinville were married by July 1312 when a grant made to the abbey of Chapelle-aux-Planches by Jehans de Lancastre, sires de Biaufort [lord of Beaufort], et Aalis de Joinville is recorded. Alix is called John's 'loyal consort and wife' (sa loiaulx compaigne et espouse). To put the date into context, that's the month after Piers Gaveston, beloved of John's cousin Edward II, was killed in Warwickshire, and four months before John's niece Isabella, queen of England, Juana's daughter, gave birth to the future Edward III.

A slightly later grant by John, calling himself Jehan de Lancastre and his wife Aalis de Joinville, is also extant. It's interesting to see that he called Alix by her maiden name, not 'de Lancastre' or 'd'Arcis-sur-Aube' for her first husband. [Mémoires de la Société d’Agriculture, Commerce, Sciences & Arts du Département de la Marne, 1883-84, pp. 151-2] On another occasion, in October 1312, he referred to himself as Jehans de Lancastre and to Alix as 'our beloved and loyal consort Aelips de Joinville'. Alix put her own seal to the document as well, calling herself Aleyps de Joinville and John 'my dearest and loyal lord and companion, Jehans de Lancastre'. [Collection des Principaux Cartulaires du Diocèse de Troyes, vol. 4, pp. 78-80]

John of Lancaster died childless sometime before 13 June 1317, a few months before his father-in-law Jean de Joinville finally passed away in his nineties, in the reign of his nephew Philip V of France, Queen Juana's second son. On that date, his cousin Edward II wrote to Philip V, asking him to postpone the required homage of John's brother and heir Henry until after the next feast of the Purification, i.e. 2 February 1318. Edward's letter indicates that John had owned lands in Chaumpayn & Brye, Champagne and Brie (yummy!). Henry of Lancaster left England for France sometime after 1 June 1318, and on 28 September that year, Edward II stated that he 'is staying in France to obtain the inheritance in that land which by the death of John de Lancastre, his brother, descended to him.' [Foedera 1307-27, p. 334; CPR 1317-21, pp. 145-46, 153, 217] Just as I'm not sure how John obtained his French lands in the first place, I'm also not sure why Henry, and not the eldest Lancaster brother Thomas, earl of Lancaster and Leicester, was John's heir to them. John was in his early or mid-thirties when he died, and his older brothers outlived him; Thomas was executed by Edward II in 1322, and Henry, who was Thomas's heir as well as John's, died in his mid-sixties in 1345.

The lordship of Beaufort thus passed in 1317 to Henry of Lancaster, later earl of Lancaster and Leicester; then on Henry's death in 1345 to his son Henry of Grosmont, first duke of Lancaster; then on Duke Henry's death in 1361 to his daughter Blanche, who married John of Gaunt. In the 1370s, Gaunt had four children with Katherine Swynford who were given the last name Beaufort.