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. 


Bill said...

Good post. It is too easy to look back and say aha I saw that coming, they should have known better, etc.

On your advice I ordered and read "Invicibilis" by Michael Harmon. Good book, I look forward to the sequel.

And on his recommendation I bought your "admirably balanced" "Long Live the King: The Mysterious Fate of Edward II." It is in my pile of books to be read, may be my beach book later this summer.

Of course I had no idea when I first read about "Incicibilis" where it would lead. Thanks for starting me down this path.

Enjoyed many of your books, enjoy your posts, keep up the good work.

Bill Ticknor

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Bill, thanks so much! Glad to hear you're enjoying your reading, and hope you like 'Long Live the King' too! I have no idea where you're based, but if you're anywhere near Ludlow in Shropshire, I'm giving a talk to the Mortimer History Society in early October about Edward's possible survival past 1327.

Bill said...

I live in Virginia just outside of Washington DC. I would like to attend your lecture but doubt it will happen.

Kathryn Warner said...

Ah, I wasn't sure if you were based in the UK or US.

Anerje said...

Enjoyed your Post Kathryn. Hindsight is a great gift, and it does influence certain ‘historians’ and the way we think. One of the comments on my blog, which dealt with the fate of Piers, was that Edward II didn’t do enough to save Piers, and he was to blame. But of course Piers was kidnapped, and neither he nor Edward could have foreseen it. He surrendered to Pembroke on favourable terms, and no doubt Edward was working on finding a way to get out of this scrape. He’d saved Piers before, why not this time? Warwick was deceitful and merciless in his actions, and got rid of Piers as soon as he could because he knew Edward would find a way to save him.

Loved the mention of Boris Johnson! He’s apparently writing a biography of Shakespeare. How many howlers will he make in that?

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Anerje! That's a really good example. Edward somehow 'should have known' that Warwick would kidnap and execute Piers. Because obviously.

Jacob W A Peatey said...

Thank you for such an interesting and thought-provoking post. I’d no idea (but am no less surprised) that Boris did this – though what’s perhaps more interesting is the fact that the consequences of this somewhat innocuous lie seem to have been much greater than any he’s suffered for his subsequent tall tales.

You’ve highlighted nicely what is one of my biggest frustrations with so much historical fiction. What I would do with the kind of foresight that these authors give their characters! It’s one of the reasons Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is my favourite novel. Despite being about a period in history that everyone learns to death at school, it feels astoundingly new and immediate. The characters genuinely feel like they have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone in the next few years. It’s one of the few books that makes Henry VIII as terrifying as I’m sure he must have been – he’s completely unpredictable and everyone around him is on a knife’s edge.

It would be great to have a novel that manages the same with Edward’s reign – particularly concerning Isabella. I think the whole ‘she-wolf’ reputation only really makes sense if Isabella could somehow see into the future. If we (safely, I’d say) assume she couldn’t, and that she had no idea what was going to happen, she comes across far less as the manipulative schemer and more as someone reacting to, coping with, and sometimes being overcome by, events as and when they happen. And I think that makes for a far more compelling character.

Anyway, as always, a great read!

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Jacob, thanks so much! I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. I agree that Wolf Hall and its sequels are terrifically good at conveying just how terrifying it must have been at Henry VIII's court, and for me, C. J. Sansom's Shardlake novels, or at least some of them, are also very good at depicting that. My favourite is Lamentation, set near the end of the reign, where frightened people constantly parrot 'I worship as the king commands' because it's the only safe thing to say in an attempt to avoid being interrogated and tortured for heresy.

I don't think that Isabella was manipulative or scheming at all, and I loathe the way she's been depicted like that, mostly by Paul Doherty and by other writers following his take (Doherty in particular seems to revel in Isabella being manipulative, evil, murderous and a 'bitch', a word he often uses for her). There's not a shred of evidence that she was in any way involved in Roger Mortimer's escape from the Tower in 1323, but it's often assumed that she must have been, because she must somehow have known how important he was to the way the end of Edward II's reign was going to pan out. The idea that before late 1325 or early 1326, Roger was just another baron and rebel to Isabella, no more important or interesting than any of the others who were imprisoned or who fled abroad after the Contrariants lost the battle of Boroughbridge, never seems to be considered. But because there's this persistent idea that Roger must always have been supremely important to Isabella, some people come up with daft theories about him sneaking back over the Irish Sea in 1312 in order to father Edward III.

Jacob W A Peatey said...

I couldn’t agree more. I think the dynamic of Isabella and Mortimer’s partnership is far more interesting if you think of it being borne out of necessity, desperation, happenstance, self-preservation, and self-interest – rather than a weird love story that doesn’t really make any sense. And how much more exciting to imagine the conversations and negotiations that led to their alliance, risky for them both, than a completely bland, ‘yes, against all probability, we planned this from the start!’

Kathryn Warner said...

I also think the usual take on Isabella we see nowadays belittles and diminishes her, as though she acted solely or mostly out of dissatisfaction with her sex life with Edward and the awesomeness of her presumed sex life with Roger. It's also, in my view, decidedly heteronormative and homophobic, and perpetuates binary gender roles, but that's probably a point best left for another blog post. :-) I think a lot of people get carried away with what they think is the 'romance' of Isabella and Roger's association and don't stop to question if that story makes sense (which it doesn't particularly, as you point out), or if we have any actual evidence that they fell in love in c. 1325 (which we don't). I completely agree with your take on it, and also that it is far more interesting than depicting the queen of England, who was a sharp politician, intercessor, and power-broker, as little more than a discontented housewife with the hots for a fugitive.

Stephanie said...

This post really resonates! I'm currently reading a book about the Merovignians and I keep coming across this phenomenon a lot. It's great at detailing what happened and when and why, as well as giving a sense of the feel for the cultural/political forces at play. However there are so, so many moments where the author interjects with things like "Surely [Historical Figure A] must have felt intrigued by [Historical Figure B]." Even though based on what they've said about the (lack of) sources they have to draw on.... how can you really say "surely" about anyone's emotional state? Then I read on and a lightbulb goes off a few chapters later where I go "oh, she 'surely' must have felt that way because these two tried to marry decades later."

It's much more egregious to do this in nonfiction, since people will take it as the uncontested truth. This sort of thing bothers me almost as much in historical fiction because it's so damn boring, narratively speaking. The fictionalized version of these people act like they know where they are on a timeline outlined on Wikipedia and act accordingly. Often with lots of doom and gloom if their lives overall end in tragedy. I've seen retellings of the Trojan War where Cassandra of Troy fights harder for her own destiny than some of these takes. And she knows it's fruitless! No one sets out in life to be a villain or a failure, even if their actions are read by the majority as villainous or foolish. The tension between what a person wants to do and what they're capable of doing as they strive for a happy life... that's the interesting part to me. Not foreordained doom and gloom forever.

(I might also be nearly as annoyed by this in fiction as I am in nonfiction because I'm working on a mystery set in the early years of Edward III's reign and I'm trying so hard to avoid this trope.)

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Stephanie, thanks for the comment! Sorry for the long delay in replying, but I was away. Really interesting to hear about your mystery, yay, how exciting! Hope it's going well, and I'd love to read it one day. The hindsight thing annoys me in fiction too.

April Taylor said...

I have just found your blog and this post; a really good one, btw. I didn’t know that bit about Boris but I am not surprised.

Edward II has long perplexed me in one respect. Edward had initially sidelined Isabella during his friendship with Gaveston, and forced her to form an alliance with Gaveston, in order to get any kind of recognition from either of them for her position as queen. Gaveston enraged the nobility with his arrogance and ended up dead.

So why, when he began his friendship with Despenser, did he not look back at what had happened with Gaveston, but proceed to do more or less the same thing again, this time alienating his queen? Did nobody say to him ‘you’re doing it again and you know how it turned out last time?’ It is almost as if, having been burned so badly once, he put his hand back in the fire to see if it still hurt. What is your take on this?

Kathryn Warner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kathryn Warner said...

Hi April, so glad you enjoyed the post! I'm not at all sure that Edward did sideline Isabella, or that she formed an alliance with Gaveston. She was, after all, only 12 when she married Edward, and still only 16, going on 17, when Gaveston was killed. I think that for fairly obvious reasons, Edward wasn't interested in Isabella when she was still a child, but came to appreciate her more and to be vastly more interested in her when she grew older. I think it's as simple and as prosaic, and as understandable, as that. The idea that Isabella was necessarily sidelined and ignored because of Gaveston has been grossly exaggerated by some modern historians, and though it's also true that several chroniclers commented on it, they were writing decades later with hindsight, knowing what happened with Despenser and what Edward's fate was. The Vita Edwardi Secundi, written during Edward's reign, says nothing at all about Edward ignoring Isabella for Piers. Isabella seems to have been on good terms with the 'favourites' of the middle years of Edward's reign, Damory and Audley. So I don't really see in this instance that Edward was repeating the same behaviour with Despenser in the knowledge that it would hurt and alienate his wife.

Isabella exercised considerable influence over Edward during Gaveston's lifetime (and afterwards) by performing the typically queenly duty of interceding with the king on behalf of others. She was far more influential with Edward, at least until Despenser's dominance began in 1322, than her daughter-in-law Philippa of Hainault was with Edward III. Between her arrival in England in 1308 until her fall from grace because of Despenser in 1322, i.e. in 14 years, Isabella successfully interceded with Edward II 76 times. In the 40+ years of her marriage to Edward III, Philippa of Hainault interceded with him a total of 79 times. The common modern idea that Isabella had little access to Edward II because of Gaveston or because of his sexuality simply doesn't hold.

I also think a very interesting question is, why Isabella, knowing what happened to Gaveston and Despenser, allowed her own favourite Roger Mortimer to behave in the same arrogant, entitled, overbearing, alienating way.

April Taylor said...

Thank you so much, Kathryn. I sometimes find it difficult not to get drawn in, but some subjects and Edward is one of them, is so fascinating, it is difficult. But what I must thank you for is the mention of Damory and Audley. I am writing my second book for P&S on Royal Favourites from 1066-1485, and I didn’t want to use either Gaveston or Despenser for Edward II.

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi April, oh wow, what a fascinating topic! Looking forward to reading it! There's quite a lot about Roger Damory and Hugh Audley here on the blog, or in my book about Edward's nieces the Clare sisters (Margaret de Clare was married off by her uncle to Gaveston then to Hugh Audley...you couldn't make it up!). Both men, and Sir William Montacute (d. 1319) were massively influential at Edward's court in the middle years of the reign, but are usually overlooked by writers.

David Skidmore said...

I am writing an essay on how history can be misused and this post contains useful arguments about how people can write bad history by, as you say, conferring powers of prediction on historical figures.

Naturally I will use appropriate referencing because I know you and I and the University of New England (Armidale) frown on plagiarism.

Amanda said...

Hi, just a quick question re the comment by various writers that Edward II took Isabella’s children around 1324. I think maybe they mean he took over control of their households and gave it to her enemies, the Despensers, rather than physically removing them in the modern sense. This gave the Despensers direct control over not just the King but also his heirs. I imagine it would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, for her to visit her children in those circumstances, as all their guards, servants, companions and tutors would no doubt have been chosen by the Despensers too. Maybe this was Hugh thinking ahead, an attempt to hold onto his family’s power if and when Edward II died? Obviously he didn’t know what was going to happen either!

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Amanda! No, that's not what they mean. Edward II, as the king and as the children's father, already had control of his children's households and sure as heck didn't hand that over to anyone else!

Anonymous said...

Ok, is it not correct that Edward have day to day control of the children’s household to Despenser’s wife and sister, effectively cutting Isabella out of the picture? I accept that Edward probably wasn’t deferring quite as much to Hugh as some books suggest, that he was just as culpable for the ‘tyranny’ as the Despensers themselves, but it seems to me that he often neglected his duties and just let his favourites get on with the day to day job of ruling and thus effectively ceded more power to them than maybe even he realised.

Kathryn Warner said...

He gave the running of his children's households to people of noble birth whom he trusted, as his father did, as his son did, and as did every other medieval king of England. It had nothing to do with cutting the queen out of the picture. Edward II's little half-brothers Thomas and Edmund had their own households by the time they were about six months old; so did Edward III's children; so did Edward II and Edward III themselves. The future Edward II having his own household at Kings Langley from the earliest childhood, being looked after and taught by others, wasn't Edward I cutting Eleanor of Castile out of the picture either. John of Gaunt was placed in a household under the control of Lady de la Mote, not his mother Queen Philippa, in the summer of 1340 when he was about 4 months old. It's only because certain modern historians - chiefly Paul Doherty - are desperate to 'prove' that everything Edward II did was wrong in some way and that everything he did victimised Isabella in some way that this whole nonsense of 'he stole Isabella's children from her reeeeeeee!' ever became an issue. Edward acted in a way that was entirely normal for his era, and it had nothing whatsoever to do with punishing his wife (and Doherty flat out made things up when he claimed that the children's households were set up in 1324 - it happened much earlier than that). Eleanor de Clare wasn't just 'Despenser's wife', she was Edward II's eldest niece and the royal children's cousin, and Isabella Hastings was married to Ralph de Monthermer, whose first wife Joan of Acre was Edward's sister Joan of Acre, and who was therefore the royal children's uncle.

Amanda said...

Hi, I get that, and don’t disagree that this notion of Edward tearing the children from her arms is plain daft. My point is that Despensers, and maybe Edward, were sidelining her politically by ensuring she had no further control or even influence over the potential heirs. Ian Mortimer says that in 1320 Edward granted the honour of the Peak to Isabella for maintenance of the younger children, although of course that doesn’t mean they lived with her. He further states that in 1322 Despenser replaces the key officials in Edward of Windsor’s household with his own adherents. The confiscation of Isabella’s estates in 1324 would mean she no longer had the means to provide for the other children and they were then put into the care of, guess who? If Despenser was becoming more worried about his future if Edward II was no longer there, and his reaction to the idea of the king going to France suggests he was far more aware of the reality of the situation than Edward was, would it not make sense for Despenser to look to gaining a little insurance in the event that the king, say, fell off his horse? I suppose the key question is whether Isabella had access to her children at all after 1324? I’m not a historian, so I don’t know if there’s any evidence showing whether she was able to continue to visit them as she had before?

Kathryn Warner said...

Isabella was granted an income from the Exchequer in place of her lands in 1324, and though it was lower than her previous income, it wasn't like she was suddenly rendered penniless. And it's not as though Edward II forced his own children to go without food or clothes or a roof over their heads! There's virtually no evidence of when and how often Isabella visited her children at any time during her husband's reign or later in her son's, but given that, in her long list of grievances against Despenser as expressed at his trial in 1326, she didn't mention that he kept her from her children or caused them harm in any way, it seems highly likely that her relationship with them went on as normal even while Despenser was doing his utmost to sideline her politically.

I'd have to check which adherents of Despenser's Ian Mortimer says took over in E of Windsor's household in 1322. Allegiances were exceedingly fluid in the 1320s, for very good reasons.

Amanda said...

My point about the High Peak grant is that it suggests Isabella was responsible for the day to day expenses of the younger children’s household, which would’ve given her a great deal of influence over their upbringing. When the grant was confiscated this responsibility was given to the Despenser family to manage, and no doubt they were granted lands for that purpose. Isabella’s loss of the land might have been the reason/excuse given for the change.
Like so many of us I’m trying to figure out what caused Isabella, a previously unremarkable medieval queen, to do something so unexpected and extraordinary. I don’t think Edward or Despenser saw it coming, they both seemed to have a poor attitude towards women (noble women) even by the standards of the day. They seemed to view the queen as just another female to be bullied and trodden on. But I do feel that as a queen and a mother she would’ve found the hated Despenser’s attempts to encircle and extend his influence to her children alarming on both a political and personal level. She had her lands confiscated and now was completely dependent on Edward actually paying her allowance, and he didn’t always keep his promises where money was concerned. If she were a man we probably wouldn’t be looking for any other reason.