28 February, 2017

An Inaccurate Article about Isabella of France in History of Royals

I've just had an article about Isabella of France published in a special edition of BBC History Magazine, and coincidentally there's also an article about Isabella in the latest edition of History of Royals magazine (which was founded a few months ago and is published monthly). I don't recognise the name of the author and have no idea who she is, and unfortunately the article repeats many of the tired old myths and inventions about Edward II and Isabella I've been trying to demolish for years. *sigh* I suppose that at least we don't get the statement that Edward abandoned a pregnant Isabella at Tynemouth in 1312 or any hints that he wasn't the father of her children, so it's not quite the full deck of Isabella myths.

We're told early on that Isabella endured years of humiliation as her husband promoted his then-favourite, Piers Gaveston, ahead of her. Isabella saw lands and jewels meant for her given to Gaveston.

The notion that Edward gave Isabella's jewels and/or wedding gifts to Piers Gaveston was invented by Agnes Strickland in the nineteenth century. I've debunked it here and here. The Annales Paulini only say that "The king of France gave to his son-in-law the king of England a ring of his kingdom, the most beautiful bed (or couch) ever seen, select war-horses, and many other extravagant gifts. All of which the king of England straight away sent to Piers." See Isabella and her possessions mentioned there? Nope, me neither, yet somehow Strickland contrived to misunderstand this passage and claimed that it was Isabella's gifts that were given to Piers. The passage says that Philip IV dedit, 'gave', the wedding gifts to Edward - just to Edward, regi Angliae (the king of England), not to him and Isabella jointly. The next sentence says that Edward misit, 'sent', all the gifts to Piers. I don't see how that implies that Piers was necessarily meant to keep the gifts; he was, after all, Edward's guardian of England during the king's absence in Boulogne, so it makes perfect sense that the wedding gifts would have been sent to him to have stored safely. Agnes Strickland was also hopelessly confused about the timeline of events and thought that Piers was exiled to his native Gascony in 1308, whereupon Edward gave him items belonging to Isabella, when in fact he was made lieutenant of Ireland. It's such a pity that so many writers continue to perpetuate Strickland's invention.

This notion that Piers and Isabella were rivals for Edward's affections and that Isabella was 'humiliated' by Piers' presence is pure fiction and assumption and should not be presented as 'fact' as it is here. I genuinely have no idea what 'promoted his favourite ahead of her' even means. Isabella was Edward's wife and the crowned queen of England. How could anyone be promoted ahead of her? Let's not forget that she was only recently turned twelve when she married Edward; do people really expect him to have been all over her? Yuck. The bit about Edward giving her lands to Piers is a new invention as well. Which lands? Of course he didn't. No-one has ever said he did.

In or after 1322, Isabella refused to swear loyalty to the Despensers.

I've dealt with this silly idea before as well. It's an invention of Paul Doherty in his badly-written and error-strewn 2003 work Isabella and the Strange Book about Edward II (not its real title). Doherty misread a chronicle - how, I have no idea, as it's been translated into English - which says that Henry, Lord Beaumont, a cousin of both the king and queen, was imprisoned in 1326 "because he would not swear to the king and Sir Hugh de Spencer to be of their part to live and die." Isabella is, needless to say, not mentioned in the chronicle's account of Beaumont's arrest. Why and how the queen of England, who outranked everyone in the country except her husband, would have been expected to swear an oath of loyalty to mere barons is not explained, and she was in France in 1326 when this happened anyway. I cannot begin to imagine how Doherty thought that it was Queen Isabella who was refusing to take an oath, and I do wish that people who copy his story would check the chronicle before repeating it.

The Despensers moved against her, taking her lands, her household and her children from her.

This absurd and offensive notion that Isabella's children were cruelly removed from her in September 1324 is another invention of Paul Doherty, this time in his doctoral thesis about her in the late 1970s. I've debunked it at length here. The source he cites for his claim is a wardrobe account of Edward II that dates from July 1322 to July 1323, not September 1324 as he says, and the membranes he cites don't even exist in the document. It's infuriating how many writers - even eminent historians who should know better - have copied Doherty's fiction ever since without bothering to check, and the story has become part of the official narrative of Isabella's life, endlessly repeated as though it's certainly true. It's emphatically not. The French members of Isabella's household were removed from her in 1324 because England and France were at war, not her entire household, as stated. Edward II was pretty vile to his wife, though, as he exempted some other French people in his realm from his general order to be arrested, but not Isabella's servants, with only one exception (her chaplain Pierre). And however powerful they were, the Despensers couldn't have confiscated the queen's lands; that was Edward II's own doing, and although he did give her a smaller income from the exchequer in compensation, it was pretty low to treat his own wife as an enemy alien.

Isabella played the part of the desperate queen, risking all to rescue her people from tyranny

Gag. If Isabella cared that much about 'rescuing her people from tyranny' - and they weren't 'her people', they were Edward's - it's odd that for the next few years she and Roger Mortimer behaved as badly in that respect as Edward and the Despensers had. This 'rescuing the suffering people from tyranny' has become another part of the Isabella narrative in the last few years, and it makes her look like such a noble heroine, doesn't it, but it's really not very likely.

Though she was known to history as the 'She-Devil of France'..Born a Princess of France in 1295...

She-Wolf, not She-Devil, and the name was only given to Isabella in a poem of 1757. She wasn't born a princess as the title didn't exist yet. Like all daughters of kings at this time, she was addressed as ma dame, my lady.

The attraction between Isabella and Mortimer was obvious and their affair became notorious. There are few references to it in the chronicles of the time

Contradictory statement - if the alleged 'affair' was barely referred to by contemporary chroniclers, which is true, then how did it become 'notorious'? Where else, in 1326, could it have become notorious? It's not like they had tabloid newspapers. The article goes on to refer to a letter of Edward II (dated March 1326) in which he complained about his wife making Roger Mortimer her main adviser and keeping him and others in her company, but Edward being angry at his wife's alliance with his worst enemy and other English exiles on the continent is hardly evidence of a notorious and passionate affair. 'The attraction was obvious' - to novelists maybe, but where are the sources that say Isabella and Mortimer were obviously attracted to each other? Are we writing history or romantic fiction? Their alliance from late 1325 until Mortimer's sudden arrest in October 1330 do suggest an understanding and a closeness, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they were passionately attracted to each other in late 1325. This is so often repeated as fact, and it simply isn't.

The Lanercost chronicle said in the 1340s that at the time of their downfall in 1330, there were "rumours of a liaison" between Roger Mortimer and the queen mother, "according to common report." Adam Murimuth said the two had an '"undue familiarity," but he said exactly the same thing about Edward II and Piers Gaveston, and that's never been taken as definitive proof that the two men had a passionately sexual and romantic relationship. Other chronicles refer to Roger as Isabella's "chief counsellor" or even just "of her faction," or he's merely named in a list of those who accompanied her to England in September 1326 and who were involved in government thereafter. In November 1330 he was accused of "falsely and maliciously putting discord" between the king and queen, which can easily be explained by Roger's threat (below) that Isabella would be killed if she returned to Edward. Jean Froissart claimed a few decades later that Isabella was pregnant by Roger at their downfall in 1330, but Froissart wasn't even born until c. 1337, and even if this is true, which it almost certainly isn't, it had taken Isabella almost five years after the start of their supposedly passionately sexual affair to become pregnant and is still not evidence for their huge mutual attraction in late 1325. None of this is incontrovertible evidence of a notorious, flagrant, adoring affair. I have to admit to being really annoyed at the use of language in so many modern books and articles, where Roger Mortimer is inevitably called Isabella's 'lover' whereas Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser are Edward II's 'favourites'. There's as much, or as little, evidence that Roger and Isabella's relationship was sexual as there is for Edward's with Piers and later Hugh, so why the obvious difference in language? There's also no mention in all this happy romanticising of the rather inconvenient fact that Mortimer was married to Joan Geneville throughout his entire association with Isabella, and that they had twelve children together; no mention of any 'years of humiliation' Joan might have 'endured'.

An argument was recorded between Mortimer and Isabella in which he threatened to kill her after she suggested she should return to Edward. That this dispute took place in the presence of Isabella's son shows the depth of emotional attachment between the two.

Does it? Why? There's sometimes an assumption (not only in this article but elsewhere) that Roger threatening to kill Isabella if she went back to her husband must have been a result of sexual jealousy. That's not impossible, but it's only an assumption. My reading is very different. Roger was imprisoned by Edward II in February 1322 and lived as a fugitive on the continent after his escape from the Tower in August 1323; by the summer of 1326 when he made this threat to Isabella, he'd been living a precarious existence for four and a half years. In all that time, he had no access to his family (his wife, his mother, all but one of his twelve children), his homes, his income, his lands, his power and influence, his goods, even his clothes; all his entire comfortable life as a well-connected and wealthy English nobleman had vanished. He was an impoverished exile, albeit a highly-born and respected one, entirely dependent on the goodwill of the king of France, the count of Hainault and other continental noblemen who took pity on his plight. Of course Roger wanted his old life back, and he needed Isabella to achieve that. Without the support of the queen of England, and her control of her thirteen-year-old son, the heir to Edward II's throne, Roger had no chance whatsoever of being able to strike against his detested enemies the Despensers, and either to persuade Edward II to restore him to his lost position or even to overthrow the king and rule himself with Isabella. If he had been able to strike against the Despensers with an army, he and his allies (such as John Maltravers and Thomas Roscelyn) would have done it long before the summer of 1326, but without the queen he had only previously been able to send assassins into England to take out the Despensers and their ally the earl of Arundel, and this failed. His plans depended completely on Isabella. If she went back to England and Edward, he would never again have another chance to act against his enemies and get his old life back. Of course Roger raged at the prospect of losing his one chance of going home, and having to live out the remaining decades of his life as an impoverished exile permanently deprived of his home, family and income, dependent on the charity of others and always looking over his shoulder in case Edward II did to him what he had done to Edward's friends and sent assassins after him. Raged enough to lose control of himself and threaten Isabella even in the presence of her son (who, highly unimpressed, remembered it for more than four years and raised it against Roger at his trial before parliament in November 1330). It's not even clear from the rolls of parliament, where Roger's threat was recorded, that the 'he' who would kill Isabella means Roger himself. He might have been saying that it was Edward who would kill her. I find it incredibly unlikely that this threat was the doing of a man deeply in love with Isabella who could not bear to think of his lover resuming her place in her husband's bed. It's far more likely to have been the act of a desperate exile seeing his last chance to return home slipping through his fingers.

There's also, of course, the underlying assumption (not only in this article but elsewhere) that Isabella had been unhappy with Edward for many years and was, ahem, dissatisfied in bed and delighted to have a Real Man at last. My own reading of the events of 1325/26 tends rather to the view that what Isabella wanted was to have Hugh Despenser removed from court so that she could resume her marriage with Edward, a marriage in which she had been happy and content until Despenser intruded into it. Roger Mortimer, a baron with the ability, energy and charisma to raise an army and to rid her of the hated Despenser and his father, was a useful, indeed vital, ally, but not necessarily a lover or someone she had romantic feelings for. At least, not at this point. And call me hopelessly cynical, but given that Roger Mortimer made himself the most powerful man in England and an earl as a result of his association with Isabella, I find it hard to believe that his feelings for her were genuine. In the same way, I doubt very much that Hugh Despenser just happened to fall in love with Edward II in about 1318. Despenser used the king for wealth and power; Mortimer used the queen for the same purpose. I really don't see any difference between them. That one of these situations is often viewed these days as achingly romantic and the other as 'perverted' (as I've seen it described) is solely, in my view, a result of the genders of the people involved.

One more point, something I can't prove but which occurs to me: Isabella of France was a woman with a profound and almost sacred sense of her own royalty, the daughter of the king of France and the queen of Navarre and herself crowned queen of England at twelve, who in 1314 revealed the adultery of her sisters-in-law to prevent them foisting a child not of royal blood on her father's throne, and who in 1328 declared passionately that "my son, who is the son of a king, will never do homage to the son of a count," i.e. her cousin Philip VI. Her husband, whatever he had done, was a king, the son of a king, the grandson of two kings, and the father of Isabella's son the future king. Roger Mortimer was merely a baron. Is such a woman, daughter of two sovereigns and the wife of a king, likely to have permitted a man not of royal blood to touch her royal person? I don't and can't know, but it's a point that has rarely if ever been considered. I think there's a tendency for modern writers to look at Isabella too much through modern eyes, and to forget that she was a fourteenth-century woman of the highest royal birth, whose attitudes were not ours.

I realise that "the scorned and abused queen secretly yearned for revenge for many years on her husband and his nasty lovers, and having been neglected by her husband, fell passionately in love with a manly baron who helped her overthrow the nasty lover and get her stolen children back" is a compelling narrative, but that's all it is, a narrative. It's fiction. It bears little resemblance to the real story of a woman called Isabella of France. One of the four books recommended as 'further reading' at the end of the History of Royals article is my own biography of Isabella. It's a pity the author doesn't seem to have picked it up, nor read this blog.

16 comments:

Jules Frusher said...

Very well dissected and argued. I still find it difficult to fathom how PD managed to do the research necessary for his PhD but not on later writings. His book has informed far too many 'historians' who then haven't bothered to check the facts. Such repetition of 'myths' does no good for the furtherance of understanding either history or the historical characters involved.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Jules! Yes, it's such a shame that these silly inventions are perpetuated, and writers really need to check the original sources before repeating them.

sami parkkonen said...

Well done once again. Looks like you have to keep on doing this again and again and again for god knows how many years.

Now this is my take on Piers and Isabella, based on my own pure speculation: I think they got along just fine and I would even argue that they backed up Edward as a double team.

People forget couple things: Piers was originally a Gascon knight, meaning France and french were more than familiar to him. And yes, he was a knight, which in those days was very holy thing with holy ideas, specially in France. Now, regardless of the nature of his previous association with Edward, he would not have gotten in between the king and his queen. That would have been against everything he was as a knight and as a kings favorite. That would have been devilish, against his knightly ethos to the core. So I believe he was not in between the king and the queen at any time. If he also loved Edward, he would have given up everything he had for His benefit and happiness, not only because his personal affection but also because that is what a knight was supposed to do for his love and honor. A good knight was willing to die for his love and for his king.

Now, Isabella was a queen. The kings were anointed, they received their regal rights directly from the God, and as a wife of the king, Isabella was part of that deal. She was from a royal family, royal stock and a queen, married to a king. No way she would have even thought about of having a sexual relationship with a man of a lower status. She was "divine" on her own right. Roger Mortimer was not. She tried to use Mortimer against Despensers and he used her to climb up and get revenge of his own. Now, she was very much in a trap once she joined forces with Mortimer but to have a love affair with him, I doubt it very much.

People also forget that she had seen the treachery of the barons when his husband had been dealing with them and she had also seen what they had done to Piers. I wonder how much she was a prisoner of Mortimer, a captive of the situation as it was, and once the Despensers were done with, she tried forget about the reality by getting on a shopping/spending spree in a medieval royal way. I very much doubt she was ever in love or ever slept with Roger Mortimer even once.

Isabella was not a Paris Hilton. She was a Royal, part of the almost demigod elite who ruled with the right directly from the God. She knew this, was born into this, and believed in it. When she complained about Edward and Despensers, it was the latter she expressed her hatred and venom against. Not her husband whom she knew was loose as a goose when it came to the politics and running a tight realm. Basically she had no problem with his husband other than Hugh Despenser who somehow took over the rule of the land while her husband was perhaps thatching roofs or ice swimming, I don't know.

But like I said, this entirely my personal speculation. Feel free to disagree.

Anerje said...

I KNEW that article would infuriate you! :)

nick wrightson said...

When I took my degree statements had to be referenced and proven. Sadly today the ides that if you repeat a falsehood often enough it becomes the truth has taken hold in all areas of life. Keep plugging away for the truth.

Paula Lofting said...

I was going to say that your counter arguments are ace. But look on the bright side, at least you are there to challenge all these myths that come out. If I was a maligned monarch I'd certainly want you on my side!

Kathryn Warner said...

Sami, thanks a lot for that! I think the notion that Isabella would not have allowed a non-royal man to touch her is an idea that deserves wider consideration - of course we can't prove it, but I do think a lot of people nowadays forget who Isabella really was and how she thought of herself.

Anerje, thanks for sending me the article - I meant to thank you in the post!

Nick, that's so true, sadly.

Thank you, Paula!

Anonymous said...

Just to chip in - my thoughts - Isabella was no fool; she was royal by birth and knew her 'duty' i.e. get heirs and keep the kingdom safe. Now, once queen, she would not have tolerated any nonsense by anyone never mind a Gascon knight getting a bit close to her husband so I think there wasn't a threat to her from Piers presence (she would have demanded he was never in her sight). For the same reason, I really am unsure that she developed a love affair with Mortimer (a passionate friendship and alliance with him for mutual benefit maybe) but her status would not allow her to go any further.

On a lighter note, are there any entries in French chronicles saying Isabella was complaining of Piers being at court:

Dear brother
Another dreadful day, Edward and Piers have gone hunting and fishing together without me, again. I really do feel quite left out, here in this strange land they mention 'gooseberry' but I don't know what they mean.
Write soon.
Isabella

Yes, I realise 'gooseberries' were probably unheard of in this era but you understand my meaning.

Amanda

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Amanda! It's always great to get different perspectives.

The only 'source' that has Isabella complaining about Piers is a letter she supposedly wrote to her father, which proponents of the Victim!Isabella school of thought often cite as though they have the original letter in front of them, but it was invented many decades later by the chronicler Thomas Walsingham, who died in c. 1422. (Not 1322!)

Anonymous said...

I've often wondered if Isabella's alleged "affair" with Mortimer had its roots in the sexism of the times. After all, planning an invasion would have required them to spend a great deal of time with each other -- but few people at the time would have suspected that Isabella (or any other woman) would be involved in such a serious matter, or, would act as an independent political agent, with an agenda of her own.

Esther

Kathryn Warner said...

The point is really that very few people at the time did suggest that Isabella had an affair with Mortimer. It's far more of a modern notion, to build up their association into a grand passionate love affair and to claim this mutual attraction. So if there's sexism, I don't think it's the fourteenth century's. It's modern, not medieval, writers who have come up with nonsense like Isabella 'surrendered to the embraces of a strong and lusty adventurer'.

sami parkkonen said...

And another thing: what is also often forgotten is that medieval women and queens specially could and sometimes did wield power themselves. We see them usually as a side show or whining spouses or as in Isabellas case, helpless horny girly / poor victim who falls for the ultra masculine Mortimer etc.

And when she acts, she is the horrible SHE WOLF bu huu!

In reality many queens and ladies wielded a lot of power during the medieval times. Eleanor of Aquitaine was not a shrinking violet, nor was Eleanor of Castile later on. Saint Adelaide ruled as a regent the Saxony and some parts of Italy in 900's. Margaret of Anjou lead for sometime the Lancastrians during the War of Roses, Queen Isabella I of Spain was co-ruler to her husband and very powerful indeed, and there were several ladies who wielded power in Byzanthine Empire for real, regardless if they were officially in power and despite the misogynist culture in there.

For what ever reason it is assumed that Isabella was an exception or that she could not act as her own agent, as an independent political force, and yet: she did. She got rid of Despensers and did it by raising an army and invading England. I don't remember too many french doing that in history. Not that everything went as planned since her husband was ousted and thrown into the jail, but still: the invading army and the coup was done in her name under her political power. Period.

So why some still believe that she was just a feather in the wind and a shivering flower on Roger huge masculine super strong hands?

Anonymous said...

Kathryn, thank you for the reply re 'letter and Thomas Walsingham'; so that's made that point clear. In other words, surely if Isabella had real concerns about Edward and Piers she would have voiced it and somewhere, but somewhere, there would have been even a tiny inkling in a chronicle or document etc of rumours that she was feeling threatened by his association with her husband. She would have had support from her French royal relations if her situation was humiliating and intolerable surely. I really cannot see that Isabella had any grudge or sinister thoughts towards Piers.

I've read some shockingly inaccurate history books in my time (I'm just an interested person without qualifications) but really, some authors do need to support their arguments and statements with proper proof - I won't name anyone (not you suffice to say!). Amanda

Anonymous said...

I must be honest and admit that I have enjoyed some of Paul Doherty's historical whodunnits as light reads (don't worry I do put my serious hat on sometimes for reading and avail myself of some non-fiction). I guess the main thing is to take the light reads with a liberal grain of salt.

Attributing modern day thoughts and aspirations to people from earlier centuries is a pet peeve of mine. Sami has mentioned a number of powerful women - I had a lurk over on Res Historica earlier and a thread has been opened there on Theodora (from Byzantium). I remember she featured in a novel by Robert Graves "Count Belisarius" which I read many, many years ago. It's well written (in my opinion at least - these things are always subjective), doesn't have a conventionally happy ending, but it's based on the writings of Procopius (sp?) which may not be entirely accurate.

So very likely Isabella was a "daughter of duty". Part of me would not have begrudged her enjoying a happy relationship with a man (by the way I'm not forgetting that in the earlier parts of her marriage to Edward the two of them did at least seem to jog along okay even if they didn't fulfil the criteria of "passionate shepherd to his love") but Kathryn makes valid points which indicate that Isabella's and Mortimer's alliance was very likely one of convenience and not necessarily having a sexual component. Like Amanda, I am not a "historian" - just Josephine Public with an interest in former times - well I did History up to A level but we concentrated on the period from the Stewarts (well Charles II's restoration and James II getting the boot from the throne really) to the Reform Act of 1832 (the rotten boroughs, that sort of thing) which was much later than Edward II's reign.

Patricia O

sami parkkonen said...

I don't know if its the history written by men in the past or what, but seems to me that down playing women as independent agents of their own lives seems to be some kind of a blind spot in history in general as well in fiction. We know that already in Rome, the most patriarchal society imaginable, there were many powerful women on their own right and not just among the emperors household. One lady was the biggest bread maker in Rome for a while.

Granted, my ideas stem from the fact that up here in north women have had strong positions trough the centuries and still do. During the iron age there were women chieftains in Finland (they have found graves of women with swords and others which belonged to the local rulers) and during the so called viking age women often ruled the whole household.

While the men folk might have been away for years on some journey to the west or to the east (all the way down to Byzantium or Baghdad) the lady of the house "had the keys", meaning she was the boss at home. She literally commanded the house and it's people while the man of the house was away. She could also take a "bed warmer" for the time her husband was away, naturally that guy was better to disappear when the husband returned from abroad, and she could sit on local meetings as a substitute for his man. I think that is also the root for the gender equality in Nordic countries, despite the church doing it's best to put the womenfolk to their "place".

So when I read how Isabella, the born royal, was just a whining helpless snowflake between evil gay men and testosterone puffed warriors, I always think something is missing here. She, just like many other women in medieval times, had courage and guts, and most of all political power, to literally move mountains. And she did so, too.

Unknown said...

This is a really excellent analysis and critique. It doesn't even matter if one 'agrees' with everything. It's just clear and good thinking.

There is endless yabber about bloodlines and being anointed and so forth as being somewhat important. It wasn't. This was ever ceremonial bilge by the ruling class to justify their always oppressive rule. An empty drum makes the loudest noise. Like the U.S. claiming it stands for 'democracy'. Truth is lords and whomever, everywhere pitched this twaddle overboard whenever it suited their advantage. They were liars and hypocrites of the highest order. To find the deeper motives one has to dig a lot. Oh, we are chosen people, the elect, the elite, entitled by right, of a higher class, God's minions etc. Translation: All you other people have to bow down and give over to us. History is the record of those regular folks figuring this is twaddle and pitching the lot overboard. The Big Dudes in Edward's day didn't really believe any of this and continually proved it by their behaviour. It is seductive to indulge these fantasies but discipline has to kick in at some point.