13 October, 2015

Elizabeth de Clare, Isabella de Verdon, the Auramala Project and Mitochondrial DNA

While in Pavia recently, I had the pleasure of meeting the geneticists Enza Battaglia, Anna Olivieri and Antonio Torroni, who are an important part of the Auramala Project.  The Project is investigating the Fieschi Letter, which was addressed to Edward III and informed him how his father Edward II had escaped from Berkeley Castle in 1327 and ended up in Italy.  They're also searching through Italian archives to find possible documentation supporting Edward II's survival in Italy in the 1330s, and ultimately attempting to find descendants who share Edward's mitochondrial DNA, in case the possibility arises some day to test Edward's remains (see here for their posts about this).  I'm helping with the genealogy part, and have found a line from one of Edward's sisters in the female line down to the 1700s (so far).

I've also looked at Edward's maternal ancestry, his mother Eleanor of Castile, grandmother Joan of Ponthieu, great-grandmother Marie of Ponthieu, great-great-grandmother Alais of France, and so on.  I got the maternal line back to the mid-900s to Edward's ten greats grandmother.  Unfortunately, tracing the female descendants of Edward's female ancestors hasn't proved fruitful yet and I haven't been able to find any lines of descent past the fifteenth century, though it has thrown up some interesting people with whom Edward shared mitochondrial DNA: Henry the Young King's wife Marguerite of France (Edward's great-great-great-aunt; her husband was Edward's great-great-uncle); Richard Lionheart's queen Berengaria of Navarre (granddaughter of Edward's great-great-great-grandmother Berenguela of Barcelona) and her nephew Thibault the 'Troubadour King' of Navarre; Jeanne de Penthièvre, duchess of Brittany in her own right (c. 1319-1384), great-great-granddaughter of Agatha of Ponthieu, younger sister of Edward's grandmother Joan of Ponthieu, queen of Castile; Constance of Béarn, viscountess of Marsan (d. 1310), who married Edward I's first cousin Henry of Almain, and who was, like Edward II, descended in the female line from Gerberga of Provence, countess of Provence and Arles (d. 1115).

Edward II had numerous sisters, but only five lived into adulthood: Eleanor, Joan of Acre, Margaret, Mary and Elizabeth.  Mary became a nun, so is out.  Margaret had only one son, Duke John III of Brabant, so is out.  Eleanor had one daughter, Joan of Bar, countess of Surrey, who had no children, so is out.  That leaves Joan of Acre, countess of Gloucester and Hertford (1272-1307) and Elizabeth, countess of Holland, Hereford and Essex (1282-1316).  Elizabeth had two daughters: Eleanor le Boteler or Butler née de Bohun, countess of Ormond (c. 1310-1363) and Margaret Courtenay née de Bohun, countess of Devon (1311-1391, the last survivor of Eleanor of Castile's grandchildren), both of whom had daughters.  Joan of Acre had five daughters: Eleanor de Clare who married Hugh Despenser the Younger and William la Zouche; Margaret de Clare who married Piers Gaveston and Hugh Audley; Elizabeth de Clare who married John de Burgh, Theobald de Verdon and Roger Damory; Mary de Monthermer who married Duncan MacDuff, earl of Fife; and Joan de Monthermer, who became a nun.  I can't find any female descendants for Eleanor de Clare; although she had five daughters (Isabella, Joan, Eleanor, Margaret and Elizabeth Despenser), none of them had any daughters of their own.  Isabella Despenser had one son, Edmund Fitzalan, and Elizabeth Despenser four sons including Thomas, Lord Berkeley.  The other three Despenser daughters were forcibly veiled as nuns by Edward II's queen Isabella of France a few weeks after she had their father executed on 24 November 1326, even though they were only children at the time.  Mary de Monthermer had one daughter Isabella MacDuff, who had one daughter Elizabeth Ramsay, who died childless.  So of Joan of Acre's five daughters, that leaves two, Margaret and Elizabeth de Clare, who had daughters, granddaughters, great-granddaughters and so on, as well as their cousins Eleanor and Margaret de Bohun, the two daughters of Joan of Acre's sister Elizabeth.  Thus, there are four nieces of Edward II who are relevant to this research.

I still need to do more research into the female descendants of Eleanor de Bohun, who had two daughters, Margaret de Bohun, who had seven or eight daughters, and their cousin Margaret de Clare's daughter Margaret Audley, who had four daughters.  (Margaret de Clare's other daughter Joan Gaveston died young in 1325.)  Elizabeth de Clare, Joan of Acre's third daughter, had two daughters: Isabella de Verdon (21 March 1317 - 25 July 1349) and Elizabeth Damory (shortly before 23 May 1318 - c. 1361/62).  Elizabeth Damory herself had two daughters, Agnes and Isabel Bardolf, who are named in their grandmother Elizabeth de Clare's 1355 will when she left them bequests in aid of their marriages, but they disappear from history after that.  If they did marry and have children, there's no record of it, and it seems likely that they either died before they could marry or that they became nuns.  So that's the end of that line, unfortunately (the line of Elizabeth Damory's son William Bardolf continued, but that's irrelevant for our purposes).

Isabella de Verdon, Edward II's great-niece, to my joy, turned out to be a key figure.  Here's the story of how she came to be born.  Elizabeth de Clare (16 September 1295 - 4 November 1360) was widowed from her first husband, the earl of Ulster's son and heir John de Burgh, on 18 June 1313.  She was not yet eighteen years old and had a baby son William Donn ('the Brown') de Burgh, later earl of Ulster, born on 17 September 1312 (William's daughter and heir Elizabeth de Burgh, born in 1332 and named after his mother, married Edward III's second son Lionel of Antwerp).  Elizabeth de Clare remained in Ireland for some time after John de Burgh's death.  On 24 June 1314, her elder brother Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester, was killed at the battle of Bannockburn, leaving Elizabeth and their other sisters Eleanor and Margaret as his heirs.  In late 1315, Elizabeth's uncle Edward II ordered her back from Ireland, where she had (I imagine) been living under the protection of her father-in-law Richard de Burgh, earl of Ulster.  Edward presumably wished to marry Elizabeth off to a man of his choosing, as he did later when he more or less forced her to marry his current court favourite Sir Roger Damory.

Unfortunately for Edward II but more especially for Elizabeth, Theobald de Verdon had other ideas.  Theobald was the justiciar of Ireland, seventeen years older than Elizabeth (born on 8 September 1278), and the widower of Roger Mortimer of Wigmore's sister Maud, with whom he had daughters Joan, Margery and Elizabeth de Verdon.  On 4 February 1316, Theobald abducted the twenty-year-old Elizabeth de Clare from Bristol Castle where she was then staying, and married her.  As Elizabeth was an adult, a widow and a mother, this may not have been as traumatic as the later abduction of her teenaged niece Margaret Audley must have been, but still.  Theobald claimed to Elizabeth's enraged uncle Edward II shortly afterwards when he visited the Lincoln parliament that Elizabeth had come to him willingly, but then he would say that, wouldn't he?

After less than six months of married life with his probably reluctant bride, Theobald de Verdon died on 27 July 1316, only in his late thirties.  Elizabeth's feelings on the matter are unknown, but fortunately for us, Theobald left her about a month pregnant at the time of his death.  Sometime during her pregnancy, Elizabeth retired to Amesbury Priory in Wiltshire, where her aunt Mary, Edward II's sister, was a nun (the two women evidently were extremely fond of each other).  At Amesbury on 21 March 1317, eight months after the death of Theobald, Elizabeth gave birth to their daughter Isabella de Verdon.  Edward II, staying at the nearby royal palace of Clarendon, sent a silver cup with stand and cover as a christening gift for his latest great-niece, having received news of the birth from a messenger sent by his sister Mary.  Queen Isabella was chosen as godmother and travelled from Clarendon to Amesbury to attend the christening; the baby was named after her.  Roger Martival, bishop of Salisbury, performed the ceremony.  Isabella de Verdon was one of the four co-heiresses of her father, with her three older half-sisters (nieces of Roger Mortimer); primogeniture did not apply to women, and daughters inherited equally.  Elizabeth de Clare was still recovering from the birth when Edward II came to Amesbury and put pressure on her to marry his current 'favourite', Roger Damory.  Elizabeth, who really had no choice, married Damory a few weeks later, and their only child Elizabeth Damory was born shortly before 23 May 1318, only fourteen months after her half-sister Isabella de Verdon.

Sometime in the late 1320s when she was still only a child, Isabella was married to Henry, Lord Ferrers of Groby in Leicestershire, who was much her senior. born by 1304 at the latest and perhaps in the 1290s.  Henry, unfortunately, claimed his conjugal rights early: Isabella gave birth to her eldest child probably in February 1331 (her mother sent her gifts for her purification ceremony that March, around the time of her fourteenth birthday).  The child, not surprisingly, did not survive.  Luckily. this early experience of childbirth did not damage Isabella's body, and she gave birth to four more children, two sons and two daughters including Elizabeth Ferrers, who was born probably sometime in the mid or late 1330s.  Elizabeth Ferrers married David de Strathbogie, titular earl of Atholl, who was born in the early 1330s as the son of David de Strathbogie the elder and Katherine Beaumont, one of the daughters of Henry, Lord Beaumont.  Katherine's sister Isabella Beaumont married Henry of Grosmont, first duke of Lancaster, and David the younger was thus the first cousin of Blanche of Lancaster, who married Edward III's third son John of Gaunt, and his paternal grandmother was Joan Comyn (actually both of his grandmothers were Comyns).  Elizabeth Ferrers and David de Strathbogie had a daughter Elizabeth de Strathbogie, who had a daughter Elizabeth Scrope, who had a daughter Elizabeth Clarell, and so on down the centuries until the 1700s at least.  More work is still to be done, tracing this line further.

If you've done any genealogical research and are aware of any female lines from Edward II's sisters or their maternal ancestors, please contact either me or the Auramala Project!

08 October, 2015

I Am In Italian Newspapers

Edited to add: I'd also like to thank Kathleen Guler for this fab review of my book Edward II: The Unconventional King!

It's rather exciting to be in Italian newspapers! :) The first one here is from Pavia, and is an interview kindly translated for me by Ivan Fowler of the Auramala Project, about Edward II's survival in Italy (the headline says 'Edward, the king who escaped to Oltrepo', Oltrepo being an area of the province of Pavia and where the hermitage of Sant'Alberto di Butrio is situated).  On 22 September, I spoke at the Salle Teresiano at the university of Pavia, a gorgeous old library, about Edward and his afterlife in Italy.  

The others are from Vercelli.  There are some lovely pics at the end of the article (here), including of His Excellency the archbishop of Vercelli who introduced my talk, and of me signing autographs.  My talk was called (in Italian) 'Edward II, the king who died twice, and the bishop of Vercelli Manuele Fieschi', which you can see in the headline.

This was the article in a Vercelli paper announcing my forthcoming presentation, also headlined 'The mystery of the king who died twice':

And another one from Vercelli!

Last but most definitely not least, in the national paper La Stampa! :)

03 October, 2015

How To Avoid Maligning Historical Persons (Guest Post)

Today, a brilliant guest post by my friend Ulrik Kristiansen! Thank you, Ulrik!
How To Avoid Maligning Historical Persons

Some thoughts for historical non-fiction authors and biographers ... and thank you very much to Kathryn for allowing me to share them!
This post is based on a discussion that grew out of a brilliant interview I did with Kathryn about what life lessons we might learn from Edward's tumultuous reign - today.
Among other things, Kathryn and I talked in the interview about the countless fiction books and - more disturbingly - the non-fiction books - that portray Edward as a 'bad gay man', or effeminate, incompetent, cruel, etc. - the whole unsavory package.
Some of these books which then describe Edward like this to show him as the total opposite of the valorous, virile, heterosexual Mortimer.
In other words: The worse you portray Edward the better Mortimer looks. And vice versa. Oldest trick in the book - you see it in Hollywood movies all the time. The villain has to do something terrible to the heroine's family, for example. Then we can 'forget' that it is equally terrible that the 'heroine' murders 200 of the villain's henchmen or whoever else gets in her way, to get at the villain.
I won't comment on the homophobia and worse that might permeate some of the abovementioned descriptions of Edward, based on more or less flimsy 'facts' from 700 years ago. (I haven't read all the books but I take Kathryn's word for it. The stuff I have read is quite enough.)
But after I had written the entire article about everything we talked about I felt could add more value to Kathryn's blog than to my own if I took the parts of the discussion that had to do with WHY we so often want to write (and read) these 'black and white' stories about historical people ... and made that into a whole new article.
I hope you will think the same, for here it is:

The power of black and white
What are the consequences of writing about people as being mostly 'good' or mostly 'bad'?
Well, nothing really - in the short term. You might even end up selling more books. But I can give at least three good reasons why you should not. They will be up in a moment but they will be there with a catch. They are not easy to deliver on. In fact, they can come off as down-right nasty challenges if you deal with historical material that is often incomplete and, more importantly, you have the urge to see people who lived long ago as a mirror image of yourself or people of today.
I would like to confess that I am not entirely innocent here. It's so deep in us, this way of telling stories about people - painting them as either heroes or villains, or other archetypes (or stereotypes if you will). If in doubt, just take a moment and listen to what you and others talk about at the kitchen table - how easily you slip into: 'He totally nails it at marketing' - 'She's a total failure as a politician' - 'Moslems are violent, it's in their religion' - 'People who believe in God are childish' - 'People who don't believe in God are materialistic and selfish' - etc. - etc.. The black and white-characterization is also a storytelling model reinforced by 90 per cent of all fiction in film, literature, etc. No wonder it is so difficult to get around when we try to write good historical non-fiction. If you are a long-time reader of Kathryn's blog, you will know, what I am talking about. Even serious academics fall into this trap. I do myself all the time.

I'm guilty, too
Just recently I worked on an illustration for a website about the Incas my girlfriend and I have wanted to make for a long time. I drew Cura Occlo, an Inca coya - or queen/empress, as she would be in Europa. She was one of the last Inca 'queens' and she suffered a grim fate, being captured and killed by the Spanish conquistadors while her husband led a rebellion against them.
When I drew the picture I could only think of drawing her as some sympathetic victim-like figure, robbed unfairly of her life and youth by what we would see as a criminal act today, and that's also what I felt compelled to use as an angle for the article that was to accompany the picture. Horrible as Cura Occlo's death was 500 years ago, I got ... second thoughts about my first angle in writing about her fate - after having put the drawing aside for awhile.
For example, she wasn't necessarily as innocent as I felt compelled to portray her as, on the first hunch. Her husband, Manco Inca, brutally killed and executed his enemies just like the Spaniards did. It was war. It was a different time. Did I really believe this Inca queen went along in her own little world, not knowing about or condoning at least some of all this brutality around her?
I doubt it, but I can never know for sure, of course ... The sources we have about this particular woman are scarce and to a large extent contradictory and biased, just like most other material from the Conquest of the Americas (written by Spaniards to justify it or by indigenous people later on to decry it).
Anyway, I'm sure you can see some similarities here ...
... if not, how about writing about a very spe-shul beautiful queen of 14th century England as if she is an innocent pure-hearted and largely passive victim of a cruel fop-gay husband and his chamberlain-lover?
Hypothetical example, of course ... :-)
The point is that all of the aforementioned are stories based on stereotype humans who are mostly either good or bad, victims or victimizers. No real humans. Story-humans.
And I find myself being drawn to these archetypical stories, too - all the time! Even if I know they are not really true.
I don't believe you can entirely escape this attraction to storytelling. Everyone certainly has an agenda. (Kathryn's agenda, fortunately, is primarily about destroying myths in order to give a more balanced picture of Edward.)
But I'm not even talking agenda here - I'm talking more about this deep, deep structure in our minds that's almost magnetic. The grooves in our minds that affect how we see the world.
We want so often to fit people into little boxes in certain shapes, don't we? It's how we make sense of the world, I will argue. A natural thing.
There's a lot of fancy psychology terms behind these observations, but suffice to say you will just have to follow me in this or go read a tabloid instead (or something equally substantial). If you are here, you are probably a fan of Kathryn's work, as I am, and so I think you will stay. I hope so.

3 suggestions for telling stories about real people
So ... are you planning on doing a historical bio yourself?
Do you have some past history person - Medieval or otherwise - you really fancy? (Or love to hate?).
Maybe you are already an accomplished author and follow Kathryn's blog just out of interest for the period or because you dig it when Kathryn slams some less-fortunate-author's work about Edward II (and well-deserved, too - I've seen no examples to the contrary)?
In that case, I'd like to give you a recipe on how you might avoid the worst story-traps in your bio about King X or Queen Y.
And the best of it all is, you don't even need to be afraid that this is going to cost you. You are going to be able to write an exciting non-fiction bio - even if you hold yourself to  standard that doesn't allow for black villainous kings or white-hearted queens.
In fact, I don't think you will have anything but benefits from this approach. But with each benefit also comes a challenge - some hard work. Sorry - but nothing is for free, especially not integrity.
And with that said, here are my suggestions for a good approach to writing historical bios:

1) Do it to make peace - not to pick a fight
Yes, this may sound a little new age psycho-babble-ish, but my assertion here is that you will realize it gives more peace inside to try to diminish how many 'enemies' or 'failures' you see amongst other people. In other words, the less you look for things that can piss you off about others and the more you try to understand why people act 'like idiots', the less frustrated you will be. It is easier to forgive, ignore or bear with someone you understand, although you don't agree with him or her.
You must then strive to push your biographical storytelling - in fiction and non-fiction - in the same direction of understanding, otherwise there will be a disconnect between the way you treat people you write about and the way you treat people in the real world. It's a bit like being a troll on Facebook - it's hard to maintain that attitude and rant against some people and then go out and have a harmonic relation with your family or your spouse.
Sooner or later that urge to kick whoever annoys you will shine through into the real world. You might as well deal with it and try to cultivate a harmonic view of everyone - past or present. You can't really separate these people. I know it's another cliché but if you, say, really have a problem with Edward being a homo (or whatever he was) then you're not going to do well in the real world when you meet people who are just that and who you might need to relate to more peacefully: A boss, a family member, a friend who comes out, whatever.

Okay, enough psycho-babble - but I hope you get my drift: Your choice of biographical subject and how you treat it to a large extent a reflection of how you feel about yourself and other people - who you love and who you loathe. You might as well try to iron these feelings out, both in your bio, and in real life - instead of choosing to magnify them through writing a book about someone you paint as a real idiot/villain/schlock/etc. Trust me, when you get as old as I sometimes feel, you don't want to waste too much time delving in negativity. Not even in what you write.

2) Do it to get new insights
High quality non-fiction is about discussing the complexity of reality in an exciting way (with notes so people can see how you put your argument together). It is NOT about reducing complexity of reality in the mistaken belief that that will always be more exciting.
You are never finished with upping your writing quality in this department. You can always go back and do more. Yes, of course there is a deadline now and then, but it's an ideal, okay? What it means in practice is that you treat biographical writing as a science, so you are open to someone down the line proving you wrong about something - with arguments. You don't struggle forever to maintain a viewpoint you spend so many hours arguing into a text 3 years ago, if it is no longer tenable.
Yes, I know there isn't an absolute yardstick for when something is true or not. But there is a warning light: When you find yourself continually defending the status quo of your view points. That means you are probably not doing a good enough job trying to unveil the reality about a person. You are becoming stuck in your own reality.

3) Do it to educate people for real
- and not just trying to force your viewpoint on them. If you are in doubt about whether or not you have given people a choice in deciding what to believe in your biography ... you probably haven't.

And that's my advice really. Short and sweet.
Then inevitably comes the question ... "how"?
What should you do then if you are writing a book about your favorite historical period and its participants, and there are just long periods when you don't know what happened in people's lives for sure, or why they did something for sure? Well, in the case of Edward it is seems tempting to tell a  very particular story, although you don't have the evidence to back it up. So what do you do to fill in the blanks? For that will inevitably veer your story in a certain direction. You will have to decide what your character did and why and if you want your audience to like him or not.
Alternatively, do you hold back and instead write a lot of times: "we don't really know" - ?
In other words: How do you avoid that your narrative becomes ... dull?
How about ...

Treating your bio-story as a mystery
If you treat the possible options of what has happened and why as a mystery - and as regards interpreting actions of your characters especially - then that can, I will argue, be just as gratifying as anything else. It can be just as exciting as choosing a straight-forward narrative.
Like choosing:
Option 1: "Why did Edward really neglect Isabella - if at all?"
Option 2: "Edward neglected Isabella because he was an egoistic, gay man."
Your reader is with option 1 presented with different possibilities and can make her own narrative - but no attempt from your side is made to force your own story on the material! You argue your case - you don't shove it down someone's throat!
Yes, make an argument into the story in your non-fiction book. That's what he wrote.
Don't make a badly disguised fiction story that you wish for - or hope will be more entertaining, because you can't think of alternatives.
There are always alternatives.
Why should the 'mystery story' be less exciting to your audience - unless you don't care about them but only about feeding them your own truth?
So try to tell the captivating story effectively - and maintain high degree of honesty - by discussing multiple options for what the protagonists and antagonists may have thought. Or what they may have felt. Or how they may have related to each other.

If you can't really back your speculations up - discuss them!
Then you can make an argument for your case but allow the reader to choose his or her favored conclusion based on the options you have lead forth.
Note: The basic neutrality of this kind of (very challenging) storytelling is not the same as giving equal treatment to all facts, trying to balance them out so to speak.
If, for example, Edward dabbled in modern pastimes such as rowing and sports and outdoor life, mingled with commoners, took a genuine interest in furthering knowledge and had a more or less open bisexuality that doesn't mean it was just as important as him going to war (and losing it). It also makes for a stiff and boring narrative, should you try to give equal room in pages to both, or anything in line with that model.  (Luckily, Kathryn hasn't done that and hers is an example to be emulated!)
But each case is different. Each topic is different. Your knowledge is different. The available data. You will have to weigh how much space to give each aspect of a story. As you do so you inevitably call attention to what can be interpreted as moral qualities (or lack thereof) in your main characters. As we have already discussed, modern audiences are hungry to fit people into certain preconceived frames - stories with clear cut heroes and villains. Most people like those better than ambiguity.

Walking the talk
I will end this guest post by giving a personal example of how I try to do exactly what I have been describing above, when I tell stories about historical persons. I'm not saying I am doing it perfectly, only that I am trying to be very much aware of what I am doing and of living up to this ideal.
So ... I recently finalized my latest live-talk about fascinating historical persons and this time I chose to talk about Christopher Columbus. It is a 1.5 hour talk for a broad audience. I gave it recently for school children. Next month I will be giving a slightly adjusted version for seniors.
In my last two talks - about Joan of Arc and Eleanor of Aquitaine respectively - I've struggled to find a compromise between the short time, keeping an exciting straightforward narrative free of too much ambiguity and still giving a balanced picture of who these persons really were (as far as we can ever know - both ladies lived a very long time ago!).
Anyway, did I give myself a challenge with Christopher Columbus! Up until about World War II that man was a hero to many, regular folks and scholars - but as we closed in on the end of the last millennium he has become quite the opposite to many: Accused of everything from starting slavery, to genocide to being a religious nut to just being a plain idiot for not being able to find India. Bottom line: It's very easy to fall into either the 'no, he was really a hero-story or the 'he was definitely a villain'-story.
I don't want to see Columbus as a 'villain', but he was hardly a 'hero' either - in modern terms. He was a man of his time who thought slavery and subjugation of 'lesser (non-Christian) peoples' was all right - at least to a degree.
Oh, Columbus tried to fiddle a little bit with the criteria, such as at one point entertaining the notion that only cannibals should be enslaved. In the end, though, Columbus' inner urge to become rich and famous - a 'someone' - coupled with his need to placate the local colonists and deliver on the promises made to the Spanish crown for bringing SOME value home from the new islands ... all of that made it extremely difficult to maintain any ideals, he may have had about treating at least some Indians with benevolence. And heads rolled. In the end, it was almost Columbus' own when he was 'fired' as administrator of Hispaniola and sent home in chains.
I thought I could try to draw attention away from Columbus' violent actions by :
- talking about how much worse every other colonist had been
- talking down the extent of the violence
- or trying to divert the discussion to his religiousness and avowed goal to get gold enough to finance a new crusade (a motivation both dubious in its 'purity' and not particularly sympathetic in our part of the world today anyway)
But then I thought ... why not just admit it?
Like: Columbus wasn't as bad as they came in 1492, but compared to 2015 he wasn't particularly likable either.
I hesitated, though - for how could I then make an audience of children with their parents - and later seniors - see something likable about Columbus? So they would want to listen to a story about him for 2 hours?
Yup, first task for any storyteller: Create a person people can like, even if just a little bit. Or the audience won't care what happens to him or her. And that goes for biographers, too, no matter how 'objective' they say they strive to be.
So (deep breath) ... I did it by connecting Columbus' quest to get rich and famous and the gradual slipping of ideals to the modern quest to become ... rich and famous.
Sure, the means were different and perhaps also the definition of 'rich and famous'. But isn't there something here we can recognize today - something very human that we can see in our own lives ... say, in our interest in 'the stars' (especially when their fall 'from grace' in the tabloids)?
Isn't there something here that we may not particularly like but we can at least recognize enough from our own lives? Something that can help us to understand Columbus a little bit for being a seeker of fame and fortune himself - in his own time?
So far - and judging from the response of my audiences - the answer is 'yes'.
And by approaching it this way, we are over the idiotic discussion about whether or not Columbus deserves to be a called a 'hero' still for his admittedly courageous exploration expeditions, or if he was somehow singlehandedly responsible for the genocide on the American Indians. It's not longer about black or white but about people - in all their colors and shades.
The people of the past may be distant mirrors of ourselves, like historian Barbara Tuchman wrote, also the title of her book about - guess what - the 14th century. The mirror image may be distorted because of the distance in time and living conditions and social values - but we can still recognize a part of ourselves in it.
Perhaps one day someone will write a history book about a certain failed English king called Edward of Caernarfon in which he is not just shown as an effeminate wife-hating politically tone-deaf ruler, but as a man with both vices and virtues that perhaps aren't so foreign to us today.
Wait ... someone already did! :-)

The article that came out of it for my Life Story Lessons site - StoryMover.Academy:
My own ultra-short kind of bio: My name is Ulrik Kristiansen and I am a blogger, speaker and coach who is very much in love with all things Medieval - including anything as regards 14th century England. If you are in Denmark you might want to invite me to tell you about Joan of Arc, Eleanor of Aquitaine or Christopher Columbus all of whom I have made some pretty nifty live-talks about - see astrea.dk.  And if you just want to read some of all my other stuff, there's always the personal blog: TheStorm Lamp
That's it - thanks for reading and thanks for having me, Kathryn. Drop a comment below and tell us what you think!

26 September, 2015

Sant'Alberto di Butrio, Oramala, Vercelli and Pavia

I had the most amazing time in Vercelli and Pavia! Thank you so, so much to everyone I met there, especially to Gianna Baucero, Claudia Bergamini, Ivan Fowler and Mariarosa Gatti, though there are numerous others who helped to make my stay some of the most special and memorable days of my life.

On Saturday 19 September, I gave a talk about Edward II to about eighty or ninety people at the seminary in the town of Vercelli, and was honoured by the presence of His Excellency the Archbishop of Vercelli, Father Marco Arnolfo, who was kind enough to attend and to say a few opening words.  It was his predecessor Manuele Fieschi, bishop of Vercelli from 1343 to 1348, who told Edward III in the late 1330s that his father had escaped from Berkeley Castle and ultimately made his way to Italy.

The seminary in Vercelli where I gave my talk. With many thanks to His Excellency the Archbishop for his hospitality.

On Tuesday 22 September, I gave another talk about Edward in an amazing old library called the Salle Teresiano at the University of Pavia, with another sixty or so people in attendance.  On both occasions, I spoke in English and was translated into Italian, by Gianna Baucero of the Chesterton Association the first time and Ivan Fowler the second.  Needless to say, it was the possibility of Edward's survival and death in northern Italy which caught people's attention the most.  Both talks went down really well with the audience, if I do say so myself!  With any luck I'll be going back next year. :-)  I really felt like a VIP in Italy!  People asked for my autograph after the Vercelli talk, lots of people took my pic all over the place - wow!  And one of the most precious moments of my stay was being invited as a special guest to a concert of the Camerata Ducale orchestra in the San Cristoforo church in Vercelli, having my name read out to the entire audience beforehand by the priest Monsignor Salvini and being applauded by everyone there including the conductor Guido Rimonda, and being presented with a lovely gift by Monsignor Salvini.  Actually I received quite a lot of delightful and unexpected gifts, including a collection of books from the mayor of Vercelli, Maura Forte, and from the staff of the university of Pavia.  Everyone was so amazingly kind and hospitable.

I also visited the hermitage of Sant'Alberto di Butrio, or as the Fieschi Letter calls it, 'he [Edward of Caernarfon] changed himself to the castle of Cecime in another hermitage of the diocese of Pavia in Lombardy'.  An empty tomb there is claimed to have been Edward's first tomb; lots more on all this coming up in future blog posts.  Please do also visit the website of the Auramala Project; they're doing amazing work on the Fieschi Letter and are scouring archives for proof of Edward II's presence in Italy in the 1330s.

There's an article here in the local paper about my visit and my Edward II talk in Vercelli, in Italian, but there are lots of pics at the bottom you can click to enlarge.  The pics of people milling round a desk were taken after my talk, and they were waiting to get my autograph and to talk to me. :)  There's also a short video on Youtube of a dinner held in my honour at the Ca'San Sebastiano high in the hills of Montferrat, an amazing place.

The hermitage of Sant'Alberto di Butrio.

The hills around Sant'Alberto, taken on the way there; it's remote (and very pretty).

An empty tomb at Sant'Alberto said to have been Edward II's, with a helpful info board provided by the Auramala Project.

The view from Sant'Alberto (apparently you can see Milan, 60 or so miles away, on a clear day)

Google map showing the location of Sant'Alberto, between Milan, Turin and Genoa. Vercelli, where Manuele Fieschi was bishop in the 1340s, and Tortona, where his first cousin Percivalle Fieschi was bishop from 1325, are underlined.
Manuele's first cousin Percivalle Fieschi was bishop of Tortona twenty miles from Sant'Alberto from 1325 onwards, and accompanied their kinsman Cardinal Luca Fieschi, who was also a kinsman of Edward II, to England in 1317.  Luca spent time with Edward in York in September that year, and therefore Percivalle must also have seen and perhaps talked to the king.  This is one of the many reasons why it is absurd to imagine that Manuele could have been taken in by an impostor when it was so easily within his power to check the identity of the man presenting himself to him as Edward of Caernarfon.

In the middle of this pic you can just see the castle of Oramala, across the valley from Sant'Alberto (not visible away to the right). In the 1330s Oramala and the valley were controlled by the nephew of Cardinal Luca Fieschi.

The Salle Teresiano, the gorgeous old library at the university of Pavia where I gave a talk about Edward II.

My view of the room.

Beaming with joy at Edward's tomb :-)

Ivan Fowler and I at an archive in Genoa, searching for the testament of Manuele Fieschi's nephew.

16 September, 2015

Off To Italy!

Tomorrow I'm flying to Milan, and will stay in northern Italy for a week.  On Saturday 19 September at 4pm, I'm giving a talk about Edward II in general and his survival after 1327 in particular in the arch-episcopal seminary in the town of Vercelli.  (If you're anywhere in the vicinity, come along!)  And on Tuesday the 22nd, I'm giving another talk about him at the university of Pavia, and taking part beforehand in a round-table discussion on Edward's survival with, among others, Ivan Fowler, author of Auramala: The King Lives.  Ivan and his fellow researchers at the Auramala Project are doing some excellent work on the Fieschi Letter and on Edward II's survival in Italy.

It's going to be so exciting to be in Vercelli, as it was the bishop of Vercelli, Manuele Fieschi, who wrote the Fieschi Letter telling Edward III how his father escaped from Berkeley Castle in 1327 and ended up in an Italian hermitage identifiable as Sant'Alberto di Butrio.  This hermitage still exists and has a website in Italian and English, which talks a lot about Edward.  (I looked at it last year when writing the relevant chapter in my Edward II bio, and nearly fell off my chair when I saw my own name.)  I'll be visiting on Sunday, and taking lots of pics which I'll post here!  On the other side of the valley from Sant'Alberto and visible from it is the castle of Oramala (formerly Auramala, as in the title of Ivan's novel), which in the relevant time period was owned by the Fieschi family.

I've been dying to visit this part of Italy for absolutely ages as it's so relevant to Edward II's story, and I'm so excited that I'm finally going!  Reports and pics to come :-)

13 September, 2015

Edward II's Relationship with Hugh Despenser the Younger

One of the most fascinating aspects of Edward II's life, for me, is the way he became infatuated in the late 1310s with a man he had never shown the slightest interest in before, despite having known him for many years: Hugh Despenser the Younger.  Here's a post about it.

Edward II and Hugh Despenser must have known each other for most of their lives.  Hugh was rather younger than Edward, born probably in the late 1280s, though his date of birth is not known (his father was born on 1 March 1261 and his older half-sister Maud Chaworth on 2 February 1282).  His father Hugh Despenser the Elder was high in Edward I's favour and trusted by him and was also a friend and ally of Edward of Caernarfon before and after he became king, and Hugh the Younger's maternal grandfather William Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, was about the same age as Edward I and also close to the king.  Hugh the Younger married Edward of Caernarfon's eldest niece Eleanor de Clare on 26 May 1306 in the presence of her grandfather Edward I, who had arranged the match, and almost certainly of Edward of Caernarfon too.  The later chronicler Jean Froissart says that Hugh was one of Edward's companions in his household before he became king, which is very likely: Hugh's older half-sister Maud Chaworth, who married Edward's first cousin Henry of Lancaster in or before 1297, was one of the future king's noble companions in his youth, and so was Gilbert de Clare, lord of Thomond, who later married Hugh's sister Isabel.

Yet for many years, Edward II acted as though he was mostly unaware of Hugh's very existence.  Edward was always extremely fond of his eldest niece Eleanor, Hugh's wife, and Hugh's father was one of his closest and staunchest allies for the entirety of his reign and had been a friend and ally before his accession as well, despite an age difference of twenty-three years (possibly Edward of Caernarfon saw Hugh the Elder as some kind of father figure).  Yet none of this translated into any kind of favour shown to Hugh the Younger himself for the first eleven or twelve years of Edward's reign, and it was as though the king simply ignored Hugh's existence, perhaps because Hugh followed the political lead of his maternal uncle Guy Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, who was hostile to the king and to Piers Gaveston, rather than that of his staunchly royalist father.  Indeed, in 1311 the Lords Ordainer demanded the removal from the king's household of a group of men who had physically attacked Hugh, perhaps on the grounds of his opposition to the king.  For the first half of Edward's reign, Hugh had no lands and no power at all, despite being a member of the royal family by marriage.  The later chronicler Geoffrey le Baker even claimed that Edward hated Hugh before 1318, which I suspect is something of an exaggeration, but I think it's absolutely clear that the king neither liked Hugh nor trusted him an inch.

Hugh's relationship with Edward II is often misunderstood by modern writers: firstly, they assume that it was Edward who arranged Hugh's marriage to his niece Eleanor de Clare after Hugh became his 'favourite', and secondly they assume that Hugh moved into the position of favourite not long after Piers Gaveston's murder in 1312 and was already close to the king at the time of the battle of Bannockburn in 1314.  I suppose that as Edward arranged the marriages of his other two de Clare nieces to his 'favourites', it seems logical that he arranged Eleanor and Hugh's marriage as well; but he did not.  There is no doubt whatsoever that Hugh and Eleanor married in May 1306 and that Edward I arranged it, and by the time Edward fell for Hugh in the late 1310s, Hugh and Eleanor already had at least half a dozen children.  And the idea that Hugh was Edward's favourite as early as 1314 ignores the existence of the men who were close to Edward II in the mid-1310s: Roger Damory especially, and Hugh Audley and William Montacute.  Damory and Audley married Elizabeth and Margaret de Clare respectively in 1317.  Edward II proved most reluctant to admit that his nephew the earl of Gloucester's widow Maud de Burgh was not pregnant with his child, and didn't order the division of Gloucester's lands among his three sisters and their husbands until 1317, three years after he fell at Bannockburn.  Had Hugh Despenser been in his favour earlier, Edward would have fallen over himself to grant him and Eleanoe de Clare their lands as soon as possible.  Yet he let Hugh beg over and over for them in 1315 and 1316.

In the autumn of 1318, Hugh Despenser the Younger was appointed as the chamberlain of the king's household, a very powerful position, at the request of the magnates and apparently against Edward II's wishes.  Somehow over the next year or two, and how he did it is not known, Hugh rose ever higher in Edward's affections.  The physical proximity, having to work closely with Hugh whether he wanted to or not, had its effect on Edward, and within two years he had become extremely dependent - politically or emotionally or more likely both - on a man whose existence he had always previously ignored for the most part.  The relationship between the two men, whatever the true nature of it was, continued until Hugh's grotesque execution, ordered by Edward's wife Isabella, on 24 November 1326.  Only death tore them apart.

Whether Edward II and Hugh Despenser the Younger's relationship was sexual and romantic or not, I don't know.  I don't pretend to know.  Unfortunately we will never know.  Jonathan Sumption (who's written an excellent series of books about the Hundred Years War) most peculiarly claimed in a book review that their relationship was "certainly not sexual."  How on earth he can possibly know that, I cannot imagine.  In fact, we cannot say that their relationship was certainly anything, and making such dogmatic statements about a personal relationship of 700 years ago is a gross error, and frankly quite daft.  It appears as though Edward was infatuated with Hugh, and did everything he could in 1321/22 to bring him and his father back to England after they had been exiled by the Marcher lords.  In 1326, the annals of an abbey called the two men rex et maritus eius, 'the king and his husband'.  Unlike Piers Gaveston, Hugh Despenser was an insider, an English nobleman and completely at home with court politics, related by blood or marriage to all the important people in the realm.  In literature, Piers and Hugh are often fairly interchangeable, but in reality, they were very different men and their relationships with Edward were also, presumably, very different.  Queen Isabella tolerated her husband's relationships with his previous favourites, but loathed Hugh (the book review linked above claims that Isabella had a 'mortal hatred' for Piers according to 'recently published documents', whatever they may be.  I really doubt this is true).

The chronicler Geoffrey le Baker wrote a few years later that many people considered Hugh Despenser to be "another king, or more accurately ruler of the king…in the manner of Gaveston, so presumptuous that he frequently kept certain nobles from speaking to the king. Moreover, when the king, out of his magnanimity, was preoccupied with many people addressing him about their affairs, Despenser threw back answers, not those asked for but to the contrary, pretending them to be to the king’s advantage."  The Brut says that Hugh "kept so the king’s chamber, that no man might speak with the king…all men had of him scorn and despite; and the king himself would not be governed by no manner of man, but only by his father and by him."  The Annales Paulini claim that Hugh Despenser, as chamberlain, replaced members of Edward's household without the magnates' consent, and the Anonimalle says that "no man could approach the king without the consent of the said Sir Hugh" and calls him haughty, arrogant, greedy, evil and "more inclined to wrongdoing than any other man."  The Vita Edwardi Secundi says "confident of the royal favour, he did everything at his own discretion, snatched at everything, did not bow to the authority of anyone whomsoever."  Regarding Hugh Despenser's enormous influence over the king, the Flores Historiarum says that he led Edward around as though he were "teasing a cat with a piece of straw," Lanercost that he was the "king of England’s right eye," and the rather later Lancastrian chronicler Henry Knighton that he led Edward around for his own aggrandisement.  The men who had heaved a sigh of relief at the death of Piers Gaveston now realised, to their horror, that Edward had replaced him with a man who was far more dangerous. The Scalacronica says "the great men had ill will against him [Edward] for his cruelty and the debauched life which he led, and on account of the said Hugh, whom at that time he loved and entirely trusted."  (This chronicle was written by Sir Thomas Gray, whose father of the same name served in Hugh the Younger's retinue in the 1320s.)  What the writer meant by 'debauched' is a matter for speculation, and there is even less evidence than with Piers Gaveston to tell us what kind of relationship Edward had with Hugh Despenser.  He never referred to him as his brother, as he did Piers, and we have none of Edward's letters where he describes his feelings for Hugh.

I'll leave the last word to Edward's queen Isabella of France, who in about October 1325 refused to return to England from France, and declared "I feel that marriage is a joining together of man and woman, maintaining the undivided habit of life, and that someone has come between my husband and myself trying to break this bond; I protest that I will not return until this intruder is removed, but discarding my marriage garment, shall assume the robes of widowhood and mourning until I am avenged of this Pharisee."  By this, she meant Hugh Despenser the Younger, and evidently believed that he had come between her husband and herself and had tried to destroy her marriage.  This would seem to mean that Edward and Hugh did have a sexual/romantic relationship, and it lasted for a good long while, from about 1319 until Hugh's execution in 1326.  How Edward II became so infatuated with and dependent on a man he had neither liked nor trusted for many years fascinates me.

04 September, 2015

The Abduction Of Margaret Audley, 1336

Margaret Audley was the only child of Edward II's niece Margaret de Clare (1293/94-1342) and her second husband Sir Hugh Audley (c. 1289/95-1347), and was born sometime between January 1318 (nine months after her parents' wedding on 28 April 1317) and late 1322 (nine months after her father was imprisoned after the battle of Boroughbridge on 16 March 1322).  Margaret de Clare was, with her older sister Eleanor and younger sister Elizabeth, one of the three co-heirs to the huge wealth of their brother Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester, killed at Bannockburn on 24 June 1314.  Margaret had a daughter, Joan, with her first husband Piers Gaveston, who died probably the day after her thirteenth birthday on 13 January 1325.  Joan Gaveston's death left her younger half-sister Margaret Audley as sole heir to their mother's large inheritance.  This made Margaret an extremely tempting marital prospect, but also, as a female, made her vulnerable.  Her aunts Eleanor and Elizabeth de Clare both left sons as their heirs, respectively Hugh or Huchon, Lord Despenser, and William Donn de Burgh, earl of Ulster, whose daughter and heiress Elizabeth de Burgh married Edward III's second son Lionel.

I'm not sure when Margaret Audley was born, but I would imagine nearer the end of the period given above rather than near the beginning, as she was still unmarried at the start of 1336.  This would make much more sense if she was then fourteen or so than if she was eighteen.  She was a great-niece of Edward II and a first cousin once removed of Edward III.  Shortly before 28 February 1336, Margaret was staying at her parents' manor of Thaxted in Essex, when something terrible happened: she was abducted by a large crowd of several dozen men, nineteen of whom are named and 'others' who are not, and forcibly married to one of them.  He was Sir Ralph Stafford, a widower with two daughters, born in September 1301 and thus twenty or so years her senior.  The wedding took place without her father Hugh Audley's consent and, one assumes, also without Margaret's (though no-one bothered to record this).  Hugh Audley seems to have been present at Thaxted at the time, but could not protect his daughter from the large mob of armed men who had set out to take her from him.  Ralph Stafford's aim was, of course, to force himself into a share of the vast de Clare inheritance by right of his wife.  What happened to Margaret next is best left to the imagination.  Snatched suddenly from from her home and her parents, married against her will, plus what must have come next, must have been a terrifying, traumatic experience.

Hugh Audley complained to Edward III, his wife Margaret de Clare's first cousin, who on 28 February 1336 - presumably shortly after the attack - ordered Robert Bousser and Adam Everyngham to find out what had happened.  At this stage it was still unclear who had attacked Hugh's manor of Thaxted and what had gone on, except that Margaret Audley had been abducted and some of Hugh's goods stolen.  By 6 July 1336, more facts had come out.  Margaret had been married, and the culprit was a friend and ally of the king: Ralph Stafford had taken part in the young king's coup d'état against his mother Isabella and Roger Mortimer at Nottingham on 19 October 1330.  Ralph's chief accomplices are named on the Patent Roll on 6 July 1336 when the king ordered four men to investigate further, not that these investigations were likely to do Margaret any good whatsoever.  She was married now and could not be unmarried; and the king was hardly likely to punish one of his friends.  [Calendar of Patent Rolls 1334-38, pp. 283, 298]  Hugh Audley must have known Ralph Stafford well: on 23 April 1332, both of them received a safe-conduct from Edward III to travel overseas on his business, Ralph accompanying Hugh in his retinue.  [Patent Rolls 1330-34, p. 276]

Ralph Stafford was later made first earl of Stafford and was a founder member of the Knights of the Garter (he was the fifth), and his and Margaret's Stafford descendants became dukes of Buckingham in the fifteenth century.  Just think, Henry Stafford, the duke of Buckingham executed by Richard III in 1483, and his son Edward, the duke of Buckingham executed by Henry VIII in 1521, would never have existed if Ralph Stafford had not abducted - and, let's be frank, raped - a young girl in 1336.  Hugh Audley himself was made earl of Gloucester in 1337, perhaps as a kind of compensation for the abduction, forcible marriage and rape of his daughter.  No-one bothered to compensate Margaret herself, of course.  She and Ralph had six children.  Their elder son Ralph died young and their heir was their second son Hugh, to whom the earldom of Stafford and Margaret's share of the de Clare inheritance passed.  They also had four daughters, Elizabeth, Joan, Beatrice and Katherine (not one of whom was named after their mother or their maternal grandmother Margaret de Clare, which may be revealing, though revealing of what I don't know).  Hugh Stafford, second earl of Stafford, married Philippa Beauchamp, a granddaughter of Guy Beauchamp, earl of Warwick (d. 1315) and Roger Mortimer, first earl of March (d. 1330), and they were the ancestors of the later Staffords.

Margaret Stafford née Audley died on 7 September 1349, aged about thirty at most, though probably still only in her late twenties.  Her widower and abductor Ralph Stafford, rewarded with an earldom and membership of the Knights of the Garter, lived a long life and died on 31 August 1372, shortly before his seventy-first birthday.  So that's nice.

29 August, 2015

The Exile of the Despensers, 29 August 1321

In 1321, Edward II was forced by their baronial enemies, whom Edward shortly afterwards took to calling the Contrariants, to send his 'favourites' Hugh Despenser the Younger, his chamberlain, and Hugh's father Hugh Despenser the Elder into supposedly perpetual exile from England.  The deadline for the two Despensers to leave the country was 29 August 1321, the feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist in the fifteenth year of Edward's reign, exactly 694 years ago.  Here's a look at what happened.

Edward II, who had little if any capacity for learning from the past and from his own mistakes, showed excessive favouritism towards Hugh Despenser the Younger at the beginning of the 1320s.  Hugh was his nephew-in-law, married to Edward's eldest niece Eleanor de Clare since May 1306, but until he was appointed as the chamberlain of Edward's household in 1318 - apparently against Edward's own wishes - the king had never shown the slightest interest in him or indeed, much awareness that he even existed.  That changed completely after Hugh was placed close to him in the key position in the royal household, and the two men spent much time together.  The exact nature of their relationship cannot be known, but after 1318 Edward became intensely dependent on Hugh in some way, either emotionally or politically or both.  The annalist of a Devon abbey rather revealingly referred to them in 1326 as rex et maritus eius, "the king and his husband."

Just after the October 1320 parliament at Westminster, Edward ordered the peninsula of Gower in South Wales to be taken into his own hands.  To cut a very long story short, the owner of Gower, William de Braose, who had no son, promised the reversion of his land to various people: his son-in-law John, Lord Mowbray, Hugh Despenser the Younger, Roger Mortimer, lord of Wigmore, and his uncle Roger Mortimer of Chirk.  John Mowbray took possession of Gower in the autumn of 1320, which prompted the king to take it into his own hands on the grounds that Mowbray had no royal licence to enter the land, presumably with the intention of granting it to his 'favourite' Hugh Despenser instead, or so a lot of people assumed.  Edward's official Richard Foxcote was in fact unable to take possession of Gower thanks to a "great crowd of armed Welshmen" who prevented Foxcote from "executing the mandate, so that he could do nothing therein without danger of death." (The chancery rolls are amusingly deadpan sometimes.) [Patent Rolls 1317-21, 547-8]

The Marcher lords were furious and concerned; the king's behaviour threatened the privileges they had in the March, extra privileges which English lords did not enjoy (which had originally been granted to them in exchange for keeping the Welsh border safe, but since Edward I had conquered North Wales in the early 1280s, the Marchers had extra privileges but no extra responsibilities to justify them; a "dangerous anachronism" as Professor T. F. Tout called them a few decades ago).  A confederation of allies formed against Hugh Despenser the Younger and by extension the king: the two Roger Mortimers; Edward II's brother-in-law Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford; Edward's two former 'favourites' Roger Damory and Hugh Audley; Roger, Lord Clifford; John 'the Rich' Giffard, lord of Brimpsfield; possibly John, Lord Hastings; Sir John Charlton, formerly Edward II's chamberlain; the earl of Lancaster's younger brother Henry, who was Edward's first cousin and Hugh Despenser's brother-in-law; Maurice, Lord Berkeley and his sons Thomas and Maurice; and a whole host of other lords and knights.  It was a formidable coalition (see here for more background and information).

Edward II spent much of the early months of 1321 attempting to reconcile the disgruntled Marchers and calm the situation, but with Hugh Despenser permanently at his side, this was bound to fail.  On 4 May 1321, the Marcher lords began a massive attack on the Welsh lands belonging to the younger Despenser, followed by an attack on his and his father's English lands as well.  For weeks, the Marchers indulged themselves in vandalism and plunder on an almost unimaginable scale, murder (of the constables of Despenser the Younger's castles and fifteen unnamed Welshmen, among others), assault, extortion, false imprisonment and theft.  The Despensers were the intended target of their rage and greed, but it was the innocent who suffered most: the priory of Brecon, the 'poor people' of Swansea and the 'poor people' of Loughborough, chased out of their homes for three months by the terribly valiant Marchers, were among those who petitioned the king for help.  The author of the Vita Edwardi Secundi, though he loathed the Despensers and condemned their brutality, greed and penchant for extortion, thought that the Marchers had gone too far: "Why did they destroy their manors, for what reason did they extort ransoms from their retinues? Though formerly their cause had been just, they now turned right into wrong." (ed. Denholm-Young, p. 115).  The Despensers may well have deserved such treatment, but their tenants and others who had done nothing wrong except live near the areas where the Despensers held lands did not, and although Edward II's foolish favouritism pushed the Marchers into rebellion, they put themselves equally in the wrong by inflicting endless misery and suffering on innocents.  The bishop of Worcester, Thomas Cobham, informed the pope that the Marchers were capturing castles and committing homicides, and admitted that he had no idea why.  The letter of Cobham, who as a bishop was better-informed than most, probably demonstrates that few people understood the Marchers' aims, and it is doubtful that many cared; the loss of their anachronistic privileges, such as the right to enter their lands without royal permit, was of minimal concern or interest to anyone besides the Marchers themselves. The Brut (ed. Brie, p. 213) says "when the king saw that the barons would not cease of their cruelty, the king was sore afraid lest they would destroy him and his realm." This may not be an exaggeration; the Despenser War, although short in duration, was terrifically violent.

On 28 June 1321, Edward II's first cousin and nemesis Thomas, earl of Lancaster met the Marchers, or some of them, at Sherburn near Pontefract in Yorkshire, where an indenture was drawn up approving their actions against the Despensers.  Subsequently, the Marchers headed for London to attend the parliament which was due to begin on 15 July and to demand the Despensers' exile. The Marchers seized victuals from local inhabitants and pillaged the countryside – not only Despenser manors – all the way from Yorkshire to London.  John Mowbray, Stephen Baret, Jocelyn Deyville and Bogo Bayouse stole livestock, goods and chattels from the townspeople of Laughton-en-le-Morthen in Yorkshire and took all the items to the Isle of Axholme in Lincolnshire, which belonged to Mowbray. They even robbed the church. [National Archives SC 8/7/301] Adherents of Roger Mortimer destroyed the houses of John Bloxham in Oxfordshire, stole his goods and assaulted his servants, while the monastery of St Albans, according to its chroniclers, was only saved from the general pillaging because one of the Marcher leaders (unnamed) fell ill at Aylesbury.  The Marchers were not above using coercion and violence to compel men, including their own followers, to join them: Roger Mortimer forced his retainer John Mershton to ride in arms with him to London, but Mershton escaped and went home. Nor was this an isolated example; Mortimer, Hugh Audley, John Giffard, Henry Tyes and John Maltravers broke into Roger Chandos's castle at Snodhill in Herefordshire around Easter 1321, assaulted his servants, and threatened to burn his manors if he didn't join them. They took Chandos with them as a prisoner, but as soon as he could, he escaped. The rebels also forced a local rector to ride to London with them, tried to buy people's allegiance with money, and seized the property of those who refused to join them.  [Scott L. Waugh, 'The Profits of Violence: the Minor Gentry in the Rebellion of 1321-22 in Gloucestershire and Herefordshire', Speculum, 52 (1977), p. 849; Roy Martin Haines, Edward II, p. 149]

The Marchers arrived outside London on 29 July, two weeks late for parliament, perhaps because all the pillaging and terrorising people had delayed them.  The citizens refused to let them into the city.  Edward also refused to meet them or even to listen to their demands that the Despensers be perpetually exiled from England, and they and their heirs disinherited "as false and traitorous criminals and spies."  (Spies?)  The barons therefore placed themselves and their armies outside the city walls, at strategic locations, to prevent the king leaving.  [Annales Paulini, ed. Stubbs, pp. 294-6; Vita, p. 112]  They sent two knights as envoys to Edward, to tell him that they held both Hugh Despensers "enemies and traitors to you and to the kingdom, and for this they wish them to be removed from here."  Edward refused to meet the envoys, offering the rather feeble excuse that they had no letters of credence.  [J.R. Maddicott. Thomas of Lancaster, 283-5]

The Marchers finally entered London on 1 August 1321. The Annales Paulini (pp. 296-7) say that Hugh Despenser the Younger was sailing along the Thames off Gravesend at this time, visiting the king at night and urging him to delay any agreement with the Marchers.  Apparently incapable of reacting to anything except with violence and destruction, the Marchers threatened to burn the city from Charing Cross to Westminster if Despenser didn't desist. Edward's allies the earls of Pembroke, Richmond, Surrey and Arundel finally brought the Marchers' demands to Edward. If he refused to consent to the Despensers' exile, he would be deposed. The events of almost exactly ten years before, when the Ordainers had threatened him with deposition if he did not consent to Piers Gaveston's exile, were repeating themselves. The royalist earl of Pembroke, doing his best to help Edward, told him "Consider, lord king…the power of the barons; take heed of the danger that threatens; neither brother nor sister should be dearer to thee than thyself. Do not therefore for any living soul lose thy kingdom," and, quoting the Bible, "He perishes on the rocks that loves another more than himself." He went on to advise the king "if you will listen to your barons you shall reign in power and glory; but if, on the other hand, you close your ears to their petitions, you may perchance lose the kingdom and all of us."  [Vita. 113]

Even these heartfelt words and the renewed threat of deposition did not move Edward. Anguished at the thought of his friends being sent into exile, he continued to refuse, declaring that it was unjust and contrary to his coronation oath to exile the Despensers without giving them a chance to be heard. He suggested that they go to Ireland until the anger of the Marchers had cooled, and declared that it was deplorable for noblemen to be judged in such a manner and that he knew they were not traitors. He did have a point: nothing Hugh Despenser the Elder and Younger had done up to May 1321, for all that they irritated the Marcher lords and others beyond measure, merited perpetual exile and disinheritance of themselves and their heirs.  Pure spite and envy motivated their enemies. It fell to Queen Isabella, only a few weeks after bearing her youngest child Joan, to break the deadlock: she went down on her knees before her husband and begged him, for the good of his realm, to exile the Despensers. Finally accepting that he had no choice, Edward II entered the great hall of Westminster on 14 August, with his cousins the earls of Pembroke and Richmond on either side of him, met the barons, and agreed to banish his friends. Chroniclers Adam Murimuth and Geoffrey le Baker both make the point that Edward was afraid of civil war if he did not do so, but never consented inwardly to the barons’ demands, while the Rochester chronicler says that he was compelled by force and fear.

In the presence of Edward, but not the Despensers themselves, judgement was given against them.  They were accused, among many other things, of "evil covetousness," accroaching to themselves royal power, guiding and counselling the king evilly, only allowing the magnates to speak to Edward in their presence, "ousting the king from his duty," removing good counsellors from their positions and replacing them "by other false and bad ministers of their conspiracy," and "plotting to distance the affection of our lord the king from the peers of the land, to have sole government of the realm between the two of them."  Hugh Despenser the Younger's illegal killing of the Welsh nobleman Llywelyn Bren in 1318 was one of the charges against him, as were his attempts to disinherit Roger Damory and Hugh Audley.  The judgement decreed that the Despensers "shall be disinherited for ever as disinheritors of the crown and enemies of the king and his people, and that they shall be exiled from the realm of England, without returning at any time," saving only the consent of the king, prelates, earls and barons in parliament. They were convicted by notoriety, with no chance to speak in their own defence.  The date of their departure – to take place from Dover and nowhere else, as with Piers Gaveston in 1311 – was set as the feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, or 29 August 1321.  [Close Rolls 1318-23, pp. 492-494, 541-3; Parliament Rolls of Medieval England]  Hugh the Elder left England immediately; where he went is not certain, but perhaps to one of Edward II's French territories, Gascony or Ponthieu.  Hugh the Younger, meanwhile, famously became a pirate in the English Channel.  (Hugh had a certain...panache.)

Between 20 August and late September 1321, Edward II was forced to grant a pardon to more than 400 men for the murders, abductions, thefts and vandalism they had committed in the Despensers' lands, which crimes the Marchers claimed were "a case of necessity, [and] ought not to be corrected or punished by the rigour of the law, nor could this happen without causing too much trouble." [Patent Rolls 1321-4, pp. 15-21; TNA DL 10/234; PROME] (That's pretty convenient, isn't it? Break the law on an epic scale and cause untold harm to untold people, then say 'Ah, but you see, it was a case of necessity, and besides, prosecuting us would cause too much trouble.')  Edward, not surprisingly, later protested that he had done this unwillingly and that any pardon he had given under coercion was invalid and contravened his coronation oath; the barons tended to use the oath against Edward when it suited them and ignore it when it didn't.  [Vita, 116]  Edward, the following morning at breakfast, talked to his ally Hamo Hethe, bishop of Rochester, "anxious and sad."  He swore that he would "within half a year make such an amend that the whole world would hear of it and tremble," and he was as good as his word. In December 1321, he set off on a military campaign against the Marchers, the Despensers were back in England from their supposedly perpetual exile by early March 1322, and at least twenty of the leading Contrariants were executed, including the church-robbing John Mowbray, Stephen Baret and Jocelyn Deyville.  For all the wrongs that the Despensers committed, it's hard to shed too many tears for their vanquished foes.

26 August, 2015

The Ghost of Edward II: Political use of sexual allegations in the downfall of Richard II (Guest Post)

Today I'm delighted to welcome author Gareth Russell to the blog, as part of his tour for his book A History of the English Monarchy: From Boadicea to Elizabeth I! Gareth has a great post for us about Edward II's great-grandson Richard II, who was very similar to him in some ways and who suffered the same fate, deposition, in 1399. There's also a chance to win a copy of Gareth's book!


Richard II, who reigned from 1377 until 1399, had very little in common with his great-grandfather, Edward II, except their eventual fate – to be deposed. In most other ways, the men were complete opposites. In contrast to the virile and earthy Edward II, with his easygoing repartee with ordinary people and passion for manual labour, Richard II was a slender aesthete with an obsessive passion for the niceties of palace etiquette.

King Richard II.

At Richard’s court, ceremonial was turned into an art form, an elaborate and complicated political dance with the King and his queen, Anne of Bohemia, in the starring roles. Deportment was compulsory, manners strict and pageantry, even when surrounding seemingly trivial everyday moments such as the royal family’s mealtimes, was constant. Bejewelled cutlery was introduced alongside gastronomic delights boasting the latest spices and recipes, as silent courtiers, decked out in ruinously expensive finery, watched their masters eat. Fashion at Richard II’s court was dedicated to showing off the male physique – tights accentuated muscles well-toned from hunting or jousting, high-necked robes complemented broad shoulders, while the arrival of the codpiece obviously drew attention to the most prized attribute. Queen Anne and her European entourage also pioneered riding side-saddle for ladies, as well as modish continental conceits like shoes for men that were so long and pointed they required golden chains buckled to the knees to hold their curls upright. Anne, shimmering from head to toe, was doted upon by her husband, who built her a bathhouse, a painted audience chamber and a new ballroom in her favourite home, along with a private lavatory decorated with two thousand painted tiles. Richard II, fair-haired and softly handsome, and Anne of Bohemia, by no means a great beauty but with a regal presence and a ‘gentle and pretty’ face, gazed down at their courtiers from the remote plinths on which they had installed themselves as icons of absolutism, the venerated custodians of the Plantagenet legacy.

However, as Richard’s feud with his cousin Henry, Duke of Hertford, and other members of the nobility accelerated, he found it difficult to escape the legacy of his great-grandfather. Edward II’s deposition had struck at the sacral notion of kingship and the political legacy of Isabella of France’s quarrel with her husband was to bedevil their descendants for the rest of the Middle Ages. The notion that a king could be deposed rather than simply challenged and openly opposed, as had been the case with King John and King Henry III in the thirteenth century, was one that Richard II seemed to disregard as an aberration rather than a living threat. His push towards absolutism, faintly reminiscent of Edward’s own alleged tyranny in the last years of his reign, helped unite the aristocracy against him, culminating in mass revulsion when he tried to disinherit his cousin Henry after the death of his father John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, in 1399. As the political accusations of similarities with Edward II mounted, so did aspersions about Richard’s sexual activities. Richard’s detested cabal of favourites were likened to Piers Gaveston and allegations that he had gone to bed with some of them, including Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, and Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, helped damage the King’s prestige.

Anne of Bohemia (d. 1394). Richard II's first queen.

I can remember first hearing suggestions that Suffolk was Richard II’s lover at a postgraduate lecture in Belfast, in a tone that depressingly suggested that homosexual activity was somehow still a cause for slight mirth. Unlike Edward II with Piers Gaveston, however, there is in fact very little to support the idea that Richard II had sex with Michael de la Pole, who was thirty-seven years his senior and a trusted adviser whose prominence in Richard’s government helped fuel almost certainly inaccurate rumours that he seduced the King. As with many of the rumours surrounding Edward II, it seems the theory of Suffolk’s affair with Richard is the product of the fertile speculations of subsequent generations.

There is admittedly more contemporary whispers about de Vere than de la Pole, particularly in Thomas Walsingham’s chronicle of Richard’s reign, though it is of course difficult for an historian to known how reliable Walsingham’s sources were – or how active his imagination. De Vere was about five years older than the King and custodian of one of the oldest aristocratic titles in England as 9th Earl of Oxford following his father’s death in 1371. He married and then divorced the King’s cousin Philippa and for his second wife married one of Anne of Bohemia’s ladies-in-waiting. Richard’s affection for de Vere resulted in him being made England’s first marquis as Marquess of Dublin in 1385. The introduction of the rank of marquess, from the French marquis, was problematic. It helped upset the apple cart of the English nobility’s rankings, since the ancient title of ‘earl’ had always been the highest and only eclipsed recently by the rank of duke, usually given to a member of the royal house and introduced by Richard’s predecessor, Edward III. Importing a new title that outranked the earls was bound to play badly and after Richard’s deposition, Henry IV discontinued the practice on the grounds that the title was an alien one to the English nobility. The half-French King Henry VI restored its use in 1442 and Henry VIII’s French-educated wife, Anne Boleyn, enjoyed the rank in her own right after a ceremony at Windsor Castle in September 1532. A year after his marquisate, de Vere was given the royal-sounding title of Duke of Ireland. This not only tied him to a country rather than a county, but it should be borne in mind that before 1542 the English kings were ‘Lords of Ireland’, rather than kings, which meant that de Vere’s Hibernian title potentially suggested a parity of esteem with his monarch.

As aristocratic opposition to de Vere’s prominence and rapid promotion solidified, comparisons to Piers Gaveston proliferated. De Vere lacked Piers’s spirited and ultimately suicidal optimism – when he was forced to flee abroad, he stayed there. He died of natural causes in Louvain at the age of thirty in 1392. When his embalmed body was brought back to England for burial, many nobles stayed away from the funeral because they could not yet hide their hatred for him. King Richard kissed the corpse’s hand and gazed lovingly on the duke-marquess-earl’s face. Whether their relationship was an intense friendship, an unconsummated passion or a sexual affair is something which, I think, is likely to remain unknown. It is difficult to comment on it with the same confidence as one can discuss Edward II’s relationship with Piers Gaveston that, to my mind at least, has most of the evidence supporting the fact that it was romantic.

What is perhaps more revealing is the timing of comparisons between de Vere and Gaveston, and Richard and Edward, in gauging how much “revulsion” towards the King’s sexuality had helped bring down Edward II in 1327. Robert de Vere fled Richard’s court and died seven years before Richard II was overthrown by Henry IV. Insinuations linking him to Piers Gaveston and Richard II to his great-grandfather may have been brought up in the more hostile chronicles after or just before Richard was dragged off his throne, but they were not the immediate cause of it. Richard survived for seven years after his alleged lover’s death in exile, in much the same way as Edward II recovered from Gaveston’s horrible death to rule for fifteen more years, and it was his feud with his cousin Henry and Edward’s favour towards the Despensers that ultimately brought the two men down. If anything, the politico-sexual allegations flung at the Plantagenet kings in the 1310s and 1390s reflect the flexibility of medieval attitudes towards same-sex activity – on the one hand, it could be used as an insult to undermine a king or his favourite, but on the other the revulsion that modern writers seem to imagine it provoked clearly was not strong enough to wrest a crown from God’s anointed. In that way at least, medieval people continue to have more subtleties and nuances than we are often prepared to allow them.

Gareth Russell is an historian and writer from Belfast, Northern Ireland. He studied Modern History at the University of Oxford and completed a postgraduate in medieval history at Queen’s University, Belfast. He is the author of two novels and three non-fiction books, including his most recent book, A History of the English Monarchy: From Boadicea to Elizabeth I. He is currently writing a biography of Queen Catherine Howard.


Thank you for the fascinating post, Gareth! I've linked to The History of the English Monarchy's Amazon page at the top of the post, and I also have a free copy to give away to one lucky reader! To enter, just leave a comment here with your email address (so I know how to get in touch with you) or if you prefer, email me at: edwardofcaernarfon@yahoo.com. The deadline is Wednesday 2 September.  I'll email you back with a quick reply to let you know that you've been successfully entered into the draw. Good luck! :-)