Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II by Paul Doherty (London: Constable and Robinson, 2003), 266 pages. See also here for my review of one of Doherty's novels featuring Edward II and Isabella.
Paul Doherty is a very popular and prolific writer of historical mystery novels who gained a doctorate from the University of Oxford for his thesis on Isabella of France in 1977. His 2003 Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II purports to be a work of non-fiction. Yet after the prologue, the very first paragraph of the book is this:
"Isabella was a fairy-tale princess. The chroniclers attest to her loveliness, to her beautiful blonde hair, which she inherited from her father, Philip le Bel, and her slightly arabic [sic] features from her mother Johanna of Navarre. We have no accurate pictorial representation of Isabella; however, her face and striking features are faithfully represented by a carved statue which decorates John of Eltham's tomb, her second son, in Westminster Abbey."
Oh dear, this is pure fiction. 1) Isabella was not a 'princess', as the daughters of kings were not called such until centuries later, and seriously, Dr Doherty, 'fairy-tale princess'? 2) Although some chroniclers of the fourteenth century do call Isabella beautiful, most of them do not 'attest to her loveliness' (!!) or indeed mention it in any way. 3) The colour of Isabella's hair is not stated anywhere; neither are her 'slightly arabic', written with a small 'a' for some weird reason, features, whatever 'slightly Arabic features' may be and how they came to exist in a woman, Joan of Navarre, who was of mostly French and northern European, partly Spanish, origin. Surely Doherty can't be assuming that Isabella's father Philip IV's nickname in English, 'the Fair' in the sense of 'handsome', necessarily meant that he had fair hair? It's extremely unusual for anyone's hair colour in the Middle Ages to be mentioned in a primary source, and Isabella's is no exception. For all we know, her hair was black or red or chestnut brown, and by whose evaluation was it 'beautiful'? 4) I'm not sure why Doherty chose to spell the name of Isabella's mother Queen Joan (or Jeanne or Juana) in such a German or Nordic-looking way, 'Johanna'. 5) The tomb of John of Eltham (1316-1336) in Westminster Abbey is indeed decorated with statues of crowned people as 'weepers' and one of the female figures is certainly meant to be Isabella, but there is no way of knowing which one as the carved figures are not identified, and given that Doherty himself states correctly that we have no accurate pictorial representation of Isabella, how on earth can he know that any of the statues 'faithfully' depict what she really looked like? Which statue does he think must be hers, and why? What is he comparing it to? Was sculpture of the mid-fourteenth century really capable of 'faithfully' depicting what a person looked like? 6) Lastly, the awkward writing evident in this passage, which makes it appear as though Isabella's second son was 'John of Eltham's tomb', sets the tone for the whole book.
At least this first paragraph makes it evident what the reader is getting in Strange Death: pure inventions stated as though they're certain fact, awkward writing, a cavalier disregard for historical accuracy. It is apparent from the very first sentence that this is not a book anyone who knows anything about the early fourteenth century can take seriously. I find it odd that Paul Doherty got his doctorate from Oxford about Isabella, yet makes the most remarkably basic errors about her family and Edward II's throughout the book: Louis IX was the grandfather of Isabella's father Philip IV, not his great-grandfather (p. 12); her brother Charles IV succeeded to the throne in January 1322, and the king of France in the summer of 1320 was their elder brother Philip V, not Charles (p. 64); her mother Queen Joan died in 1305, not 1302 (p. 16); Edward II's sister Elizabeth did not marry Count Floris I of Holland (who died in 1061!) but John I, son of Floris V; Edward's sister Eleanor married Count Henri III of Bar, not 'the duke of Bar', a title which did not yet exist (pp. 13-14). Probably the worst mistake is Doherty correctly calling Edward II's niece and Piers Gaveston's wife Margaret de Clare on p. 39, then inexplicably changing her name to 'Joan of Gloucester' on p. 50. Aaaggghhh! I really don't understand how anyone with a doctorate on Queen Isabella doesn't know which of her brothers was king of France in 1320, or which year her mother the queen of France and Navarre died, or the correct name of her niece by marriage, one of the greatest English noblewomen of the era. True, anyone, no matter how knowledgeable, can slip up on names, titles or dates now and then. But this book is full of such mistakes.
There are other sloppy little errors which should have been picked up by Doherty himself or an editor: e.g., Isabella is said to have been born in 1296 (pp. 11, 13, 16, 100), yet is "the nine-year-old Princess [sic]" in 1303 (p. 18) and said to have been twenty-three in 1321 (p. 66). So was she was born in 1294, 1296 or 1298? I suppose this doesn't matter greatly, or affect the narrative, but such irritating mistakes don't give the book the feel of a quality product which the reader can trust. The whole thing feels rushed, and in fact the book often reads like a first draft, with awkward sentence constructions such as "New favourites might emerge?" (in which universe is that an English sentence?) and "During those first few months at Paris" - months at Paris, really? Contradictions abound: Doherty claims several times that Edward II "was in no hurry to...enter into connubial bliss", but then we are told that "Edward was seemingly captivated when he eventually met his young bride" and it is alleged that he "neglected the war in Scotland because of his desire to marry the beautiful Princess [sic] as soon as possible" (p. 44). On the next two pages, we get the story of Edward and Isabella's coronation banquet and the statement that Edward "chose the occasion to publicly insult both his bride and his guests by sitting with the Gascon [Piers Gaveston] rather than his Queen." So Edward was unwilling to marry Isabella, then suddenly desperate to marry her and captivated by her, but then belittled her in public by behaving as though Piers Gaveston was his consort instead? The 'source' cited for Edward's supposed desire to marry Isabella as soon as possible is Agnes Strickland's nineteenth-century Lives of the Queens of England. Hmmm. Edward II was a complex and often contradictory man, but I think I'm on pretty safe ground by saying that he is most unlikely to have been 'captivated' by a pre-pubescent girl. (Even if she did have 'beautiful blonde hair'. Allegedly.)
There are some good parts in Strange Death which remind me that Paul Doherty really is a fourteenth-century scholar when he puts his mind to it: there is a long and excellent discussion of Edward II's possible fate in and after 1327 and of the men who temporarily freed him from Berkeley that year, and Doherty has discovered a link between an associate of the Dunheved gang and Edward II's cousin Henry of Lancaster, which opens up some fascinating possibilities into who may have been secretly aiding and financing the gang in 1327. I'm also glad to see that he recognises the tall tale that 'Edward abandoned Isabella in May 1312 when she was pregnant' for the nonsense it is, and that unlike in his 'factual novel' Death of a King acknowledges that Edward II was indeed the father of Edward III and Isabella's other children. But overall, Strange Death is a disappointing, error-strewn work from a man whose doctoral thesis on Isabella is (for the most part) superb scholarship. I think it's a shame that such an excellent historian chose to go down the route of wild inaccuracy and sexing up of a story which is already fascinating and dramatic enough. For instance, Doherty devotes three pages to a salacious discussion of Edward, Isabella, Hugh Despenser the Younger and Eleanor de Clare's sex lives, in which we are informed that "[w]ife-swapping is not a phenomenon solely reserved for the twentieth or twenty-first centuries" and are asked the pointless rhetorical question "Did de Spencer [i.e. Hugh Despenser], who, after Boroughbridge, was given virtually everything else, demand Isabella as well?" (No. He didn't. See here for my take on this.)
As is often the case with biographers, Doherty overstates his subject's importance and involvement in events, so that Edward II and Hugh Despenser the Younger's plotting against the Marcher lords who had attacked Despenser and his father's lands in 1321 becomes "Edward and Isabella's strategy" (p. 70), and when Isabella remains in Paris in 1325/26 at her brother Charles IV's court and refuses to return to Edward, this somehow becomes "Isabella set up an alternative government in Paris" (p. 83). Doherty claims (p. 79) that after Edward and the Despensers' victory over the Marchers/Contrariants in 1322, "[n]obles like Henry de Beaumont were being forced to take great oaths on the gospels, 'To live and die with the de Spencers'. Isabella was offered such an oath but refused to take it." For this extraordinary statement that the queen of England was asked to take an oath of loyalty to a nobleman, Doherty cites Le Livere de Reis de Brittanie, ed. John Glover, p. 354. What the Livere actually says is "The same year , in the month of February, Sir Henry de Beaumont was arrested by the king, and sent under guard to Kenilworth Castle, because he would not swear to the king and Sir Hugh Despenser the son, to be of their part to live and die. Wherefore the king caused possession to be taken of all his lands and possessions, which he had previously given to his sister, the lady Isabel de Beaumont." (Usually known nowadays as Isabella Vescy, her married name; Henry Beaumont's imprisonment at Kenilworth is confirmed by an entry on the Close Roll of August 1326.) I'm utterly baffled as to how Doherty can possibly have interpreted this passage as Queen Isabella being asked to take a vow to the Despensers and refusing, when clearly she is not mentioned at all, and in any case she was in France, not England, in February 1326, when Beaumont was arrested. As the Livere has been translated into English, it can't be a case of Doherty misunderstanding the French original. Just bizarre.
But then, Doherty isn't averse to misquoting or exaggerating primary sources to make them say what he wants them to say. He claims (p. 80) that in 1324 "[e]ven greater cruelty was to come: the Queen's young children were removed from her and entrusted to Eleanor de Spencer, Hugh the Younger's wife [and Edward II's niece], and another court favourite, Isabella Hastings." It is entirely typical of the book that Doherty doesn't appear to realise that Isabella Hastings was not merely 'another court favourite' but Hugh the Younger's sister, which would have strengthened his argument. I've dealt with the erroneous notion that Edward II cruelly 'removed' Isabella's children from her in September 1324 at length in a recent post, and will just point out here that the source Doherty cites for the story - which he himself invented in his 1977 thesis - is Edward II's Wardrobe account for his sixteenth regnal year, 8 July 1322 to 7 July 1323, and thus cannot possibly refer to the king's 'removing' his children to punish the queen in or shortly after September 1324, despite the notion being repeated as 'fact' by just about every writer on the subject since Doherty invented the story several decades ago. Quack quack oops.
On p. 74 we get the statement, for which no source is cited in the endnotes, that after Edward II's executions of twenty or twenty-two of the baronial rebels in March/April 1322 and the imprisonment of a few dozen other rebels, and their wives and children in some cases (this period is emotively described by Doherty as a "reign of terror," "blood-letting," "these horrors" and "dreadful events"), "[e]ven the Pope intervened and begged the King to show some restraint." I have scoured the Calendar of Papal Letters 1305-1341, Foedera 1307-1327 and the National Archives for 1322 and 1323, and cannot find any letter where John XXII says anything even remotely along these lines. The pope, in fact, wrote to the archbishop of Canterbury in April 1322 "[c]ongratulating him on the news contained in his letters of the king's success [over the Contrariants], and the return of peace to the realm, and exhorting him to watch over the good estate of the realm, and to persuade the king to ascribe the victory to God." Shortly afterwards, far from showing any sympathy to the men whom Edward had executed and imprisoned, John XXII asked the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishops of Winchester and Ely to "publish the sentence of excommunication promulgated by the pope against those nobles and magnates who attack the king and his realm." The bishop of Lincoln was sent a "[m]andate to desist from and correct his offences in encouraging and assisting the rebels, and to endeavour to appease the king." [Calendar of Papal Letters 1305-1341, p. 448; The National Archives SC 7/25/14.] You can't just make up a statement claiming that John XXII was opposed to and horrified by Edward II's actions in 1322 when his letters demonstrate the opposite to be true. How many people besides me are ever going to dig through John XXII's letters of 1322 and find out what he really said to Edward? Pretty well no-one; readers will simply take Doherty's statement at face value, even though it doesn't bear even a passing acquaintance with actual historical fact.
Doherty says (p. 81) that "[t]he Pope also wrote to de Spencer complaining at the harsh treatment of Edward's Queen and sharply upbraided him for his lack of good government." For this statement, he cites five pages (pp. 461, 468, 469, 475, 477) in the Calendar of Papal Letters 1305-1341. The first three of these pages merely ask Hugh Despenser the Younger to intercede with Edward II on behalf of two English bishops (Adam Orleton of Hereford and Willian Airmyn of Norwich), and urge him to continue to promote peace between France and England to the king. In March 1326, John XXII told Despenser that "his participation in the king's government is given by the queen as a reason for her being unable, without personal danger, to return to the king. The pope suggests that Hugh should retire, and should devise methods by which the queen may no longer fear to return to her husband. The pope has sent the above-named nuncios [the archbishop of Vienne and bishop of Orange], and begs Hugh to listen to their advice." The pope also wrote to Hugh "Persuading him, instead of causing grievances to prelates and princes, to abstain from provoking enmities, and to study to promote friendships." A few weeks later, however, John XXII wrote to commend Despenser's "good offices" in "the promotion of concord between the king and queen." Describing the pope's letters as his "complaining at the harsh treatment of Edward's Queen" is not really accurate. John XXII states Isabella's reason for her reluctance to return to Edward, her fear of Hugh Despenser, neutrally; although he suggests that Despenser should retire from court, he doesn't actually say whether he believes the queen has good reason to fear him or not, let alone 'complain' about her alleged 'harsh treatment'. John XXII sent dozens of letters to Edward II and Hugh Despenser between September 1324 and the king's downfall two years later, none of which complain about their treatment of the queen, or even mention it. Doherty is, however, determined to see harsh treatment of Isabella everywhere, such as in 1308 when she was newly married (pp. 47-8). She arrived in England on 7 February 1308 and was granted the revenues of Edward's northern French county of Ponthieu (not, as Doherty states, merely "certain estates" there) on 14 May, which hardly seems an undue or unusual delay by fourteenth-century standards, especially as the lands normally held by the queen of England were still in the hands of the dowager queen Marguerite (Isabella's aunt and Edward's stepmother) and alternative arrangements had to be made. But of course, Doherty has to interpret this slight delay as a deliberate insult to the twelve-year-old Isabella and Edward treating her 'harshly', and ties it in to Edward's relationship with Piers Gaveston by stating, wrongly, that Isabella only received lands and income after Gaveston's departure into exile in late June 1308.
Another example of how basically everything Edward II and Piers Gaveston did is wrong in Paul Doherty's eyes - apart from Alison Weir's 2005 biography of Isabella, I've never seen a book so determined to put a negative spin on absolutely everything Edward II ever did or didn't do - comes on pp. 44-45, talking about the noblemen and women who greeted the king and queen on their arrival in Dover on 7 February 1308 after marrying in Boulogne: "Gaveston must have taken great pleasure in issuing the summons himself, deliberately bringing them to Dover at least four days before the new bride arrived, an uncomfortable sojourn in a bleak channel port in the dead of winter." But of course this was done deliberately and maliciously! There's no other logical explanation! As we all know, international travel in the middle of winter 700 years ago was not even remotely dependent on the weather or how rough the sea was on a given day and could be reliably planned down to the hour, nay, minute. Edward II no doubt texted Piers with all his travel details from his spiffy new iPhone, and Piers cackled to himself and thought "Haha, it would be great fun to bring a bunch of nobles to Dover a few days too early on purpose and watch them getting colder and angrier when the king and queen don't appear! What jolly japes!". And clearly they all had to hang around uncomfortably at the docks of the 'bleak channel port' for days on end, because, yanno, it's not like there was a big splendid royal castle in Dover where they could have stayed or anything. Good grief.
Doherty too often infers evidence of absence from absence of evidence: he complains that Edward of Caernarfon never sent letters or gifts to Isabella before their wedding and thus can't have been interested in her (p. 17). Maybe he did and they just don't survive, like the overwhelming majority of letters Edward sent before his accession to the throne. Then again, theirs was a marriage arranged at the highest level to make peace between two nations; were letters and gifts usually exchanged in such situations? Before Isabella, Edward was betrothed to Philippa of Flanders, and no letters from him to her survive either. It means precisely nothing. With regard to Edward's confinement in 1327 after his deposition, Doherty follows the later story by the chronicler Geoffrey le Baker that Edward was tormented and abused, and claims (p. 120) that "no real evidence exists that Edward was not ill-treated." Evidence to prove a negative? Doherty also claims that for the last twenty-eight years of Isabella's life after 1330, apart from donations to charity on the anniversary of Edward II's supposed death on 21 September 1327, "the record is silent on any memory of or regret for Edward of Caernarvon" and "there is little sign that [Isabella] felt any compassion for [Edward's] remains or for his soul."
Isabella mostly disappears into obscurity after 1330 and only her household accounts for the last few months of her life in 1357/58 happen to survive, which do mention Edward II's death on 21 September and the charitable donations made on that day, which were also made on the anniversaries of the deaths of Isabella's son John of Eltham (d. 1336) and her parents (though not, however, on the anniversary of her other dead child, Eleanor of Woodstock, who died in 1355). For goodness' sake, it's not as though we have a full record of the last twenty-eight years of Isabella's life, complete with thousands of letters and diaries and who knows what else, in which Edward II is entirely ignored. Doherty misses or ignores the fact that Isabella set up and endowed a chantry for her husband's soul in Coventry in 1342. He also ignores the fact that her extant accounts of 1357/58 don't mention Roger Mortimer at all, except that his daughter Agnes, countess of Pembroke and namesake grandson the second earl of March visited her. One might as well argue that Isabella never gave Roger Mortimer a second thought after 1330, which makes as much sense and is backed up by as much (or as little) evidence as Doherty's claim that Isabella felt nothing for her husband and never thought of him again. I'm not arguing that is indeed the case, of course, merely pointing out that we're on dangerous ground declaring what people must have felt and thought when the evidence is simply not there.
Paul Doherty's novels where Isabella is a character always feature a scene where she is buried in the Greyfriars church in London next to Roger Mortimer, a romantic but false notion which Doherty must know is not true, but does his best to hint at it in Strange Death by suggesting that Isabella chose this church for her burial because it "had received the hanged corpse of her beloved Roger Mortimer." Isabella died on 22 August 1358 and her funeral took place on 27 November that year, "almost on the anniversary" of Mortimer's execution on 29 November 1330, which Doherty seems to think is significant. The funeral also took place almost on the anniversary of Hugh Despenser the Younger's execution on 24 November 1326, and almost on the anniversary of the death of Isabella's father Philip IV on 29 November 1314, and almost on the anniversary of the death of Edward II's mother Eleanor of Castile on 28 November 1290, for what it's worth. Anyway, it wasn't Isabella herself but (presumably) her son Edward III who decided when her funeral would take place, so I'm really not sure what the significance of the date is meant to be, unless we're supposed to imagine that Isabella begged the king on her death-bed "Bury me almost but not quite on the anniversary of Roger Mortimer's execution!" for some inexplicable reason. It was entirely usual for royal burials to take place several months after death: Edward I, died 7 July 1307, buried 27 October; Edward II, died (?) 21 September 1327, buried 20 December; Philippa of Hainault, died 15 August 1369, buried 9 January 1370.
Frankly, I'm really not a fan of Paul Doherty's take on Isabella: as in his novels featuring her, he focuses far too much on her 'loveliness' for my liking, but otherwise depicts her as a cruel manipulative bitch, pardon the language, and Doherty seems to think he knows what was going on inside her head with no evidence whatsoever. So, he tells us that "Isabella had murder in her heart" regarding her husband in 1327, and that "[i]n her eyes Edward became a non-person" after his deposition, and that she was "secretly delighted" at the news of his death (pp. 108, 133, 141), as though these statements are certain fact communicated to him nearly 700 years later by mental telepathy. He also makes the truly astonishing claim that at the council meeting held at Wallingford over Christmas 1326 which discussed Edward II's fate "there were calls for the King's execution, prompted by Isabella..." (p. 109). No source is cited for this,which is not surprising, as of course there isn't one. At Christmas 1326, Edward II, though imprisoned and powerless, was still the crowned and anointed king of England, and still Isabella's husband. For her to have called publicly for his death, in front of much of the English episcopate and nobility, would have made her look monstrous. Too often, Doherty states his own assumptions and suppositions as though they're fact: Isabella's near-capture by the Scots during Edward II's disastrous campaign of autumn 1322 is explained as (p. 75) "[t]he de Spencers decided once again to place the Queen in danger." Actually Doherty's subsequent account of events makes it apparent that Isabella "had once again been caught up in the chaos." If she was, by his own admission, 'caught up in the chaos' of the Scottish counter-invasion of the north of England, how had the Despensers deliberately placed her in danger, given that they had no way of knowing in advance that the Scottish army would invade? It's a weird argument, especially as Hugh the Younger's wife Eleanor was with the queen and it's probably reasonable to assume that he wasn't trying to place her in danger, a fact Doherty conveniently fails to mention. Doherty states (p. 64) that in June 1320, Edward II and Isabella went to France "to meet her brother Charles IV...the new French King" because Edward "was now determined to crush the baronial opposition and, once again, was looking for French assistance." Nonsense. Edward went to France in June 1320 to pay homage for his French possessions of Gascony and Ponthieu to Philip V, who had another eighteen months left to live before being succeeded by Charles IV. Secondly, what baronial opposition in 1320 was Edward seeking to 'crush'? That flared up again a few months later with the Despenser War of May 1321. I boggle: does Doherty really not know which of Isabella's brothers was king of France in 1320?
To sum up, despite an interesting and informative discussion of Edward II's possible fate past 1327, this book is a rushed and often badly-written piece of work containing far too many assumptions stated as fact and numerous basic errors which would be bad enough in an undergraduate essay and are simply unforgivable given that Paul Doherty has an Oxford doctorate on the subject. It might just about be worth reading for an absolute beginner who's looking for an easy introduction to Isabella of France, Edward II and their lives, but even then I'm afraid I wouldn't recommend it.