26 May, 2006

Congratulations to Eleanor de Clare and Hugh le Despenser...

...who married exactly 700 years ago, on 26 May 1306. Minstrels were paid by King Edward I to play at the wedding at Westminster, as seen here:

£37.4.0d to Richard de Whiteacre, Richard de Leyland, harpers, and various other minstrels making their minstrelsy before the king and other nobles on the 25 May, on which day Joan, daughter of the Count of Baar, was married to Earl Warrenne, and on the 26 May, on which day Eleanor, daughter of the Earl of Gloucester, was married to the younger lord Hugo le Despenser in the king’s Chapel at Westminster: London, May.

The reference comes from '34 Ed I: E101.369.11. Keeper’s Book', which can be seen on page 40, here.

The marriage was arranged by Edward I, Eleanor's grandfather, and not her uncle Edward II, as many people think even today. Eleanor's sisters Margaret and Elizabeth were later married to three of Edward's other favourites - Piers Gaveston and Hugh Audley for Margaret, and Roger Damory for Elizabeth, so I suppose it seems logical to assume that Edward II aranged this marriage too. However, I'm sick of reading novels where Hugh and Eleanor don't marry until about 1321, thanks to Edward's infatuation with Hugh and his desire to make him rich and powerful. In fact, Edward seems to have disliked Hugh until at least 1318 and to have been keen to keep the lands Eleanor inherited from her brother out of Hugh's hands for as long as possible.

Marriage to the king's eldest granddaughter was a splendid match for Hugh. Although his maternal grandparents William and Maud Beauchamp were earl and countess of Warwick, and his paternal grandmother Aline Basset was countess of Norfolk, in 1306 Hugh was nothing more than a landless knight, albeit a very well-connected one. The king owed his father 2000 marks (1333 pounds) and the marriage was arranged in lieu of the debt.

Eleanor's mother Joan of Acre was presumably present at the wedding - she had another eleven months to live. I don't know if Hugh's mother Isabel Beauchamp was there - she died just four days later. The future Edward II was probably there too, with his friend Piers Gaveston - later evidence shows that Edward was very fond of his eldest niece, who was only eight and a half years younger than he was. Even when her husband was nothing more than an obscure nobleman who played little role in the first few years of Edward's reign, Eleanor was a favourite at court. Edward II paid many of her expenses early on in his reign, even when she was out of court - a privilege not extended to her two sisters.

Eleanor was thirteen and a half at the time of the wedding (born October 1292) - a perfectly normal age for a girl of her rank to marry then. Hugh's date of birth is unknown, but he was several years older, most likely seventeen, eighteen or nineteen.

The twenty years of their marriage seem to have been reasonably successful; they must have spent a good bit of time together, as they had many children:

Hugh, Lord Despenser, born 1308/09 when Eleanor was fifteen or sixteen. He was besieged at Caerphilly Castle during Isabella and Mortimer's rebellion in 1326, when he was seventeen or eighteen. The Calendar of Patent Rolls records this on February 17, 1327: 'Pardon to all who were in Kaerfilly Castle when it was held against Queen Isabella, except Hugh son of Hugh le Despenser the younger', but the garrison remained loyal to him, and he was pardoned on March 20, though all the lands he had inherited were forfeit to the Crown. He was imprisoned till July 1331, when Edward III released him. After this, he worked hard at restoring his family name and fought bravely in the early years of the Hundred Years War, gaining Edward III's favour. Before April 1341 he married Elizabeth Montacute, daughter of the earl of Salisbury. He died February 1349 at the age of about forty, childless. Hugh and Elizabeth's effigy at Tewkesbury Abbey still exists, and can be seen here and here.

Edward, born before November 1315 when his father bought a reversion of land from John and Idonea Cromwell for him. He duly inherited the land in 1334, and married his second cousin Anne Ferrers in 1335. They had four sons; the eldest, Edward, succeeded his uncle Hugh as Lord Despenser, and the youngest, Henry, born 1341/2, became Bishop of Norwich in 1370. Edward was killed at the Battle of Morlaix in 1342, in his late twenties.

Gilbert, named after Eleanor’s father and brother, born before July 1321 when Edward II granted him (through his mother) lands forfeited by John Mowbray. He married and had a son called John, who pre-deceased him (1361-1375). He died in 1381.

John, date of birth unknown, but probably in the 1320s. A very obscure son about whom little is known. He is mentioned in a document of 1351, and was murdered in London in June 1366. The murderers were afterwards hanged by a group of Londoners.

An unnamed son, born and died 1321. He is mentioned in Edward II's Wardrobe account for that year: 'for the son of Hugh le Despenser junior, one piece of gold and silk tissue'. The context makes clear that the cloth was intended to be laid over a dead body. Probably, the boy died before he could be baptised.

Isabel(la), presumably named after Hugh’s mother Isabel Beauchamp, and born in 1312. She married the earl of Arundel’s son Richard in February 1321, when she was eight and he was seven. They had one son, Edmund, born about 1328, when they were both teenagers. Richard was restored to his executed father’s earldom in late 1330. They divorced in 1344 and Edmund was bastardised, though he later married Sibyl Montacute (another daughter of the earl of Salisbury) and had three daughters. Isabella’s date of death is unknown, but she was still alive in 1356, when she was involved in a court case.

Joan, named after Eleanor’s mother. Probably the second daughter, born about 1316. Betrothed in 1323 to John FitzThomas, son of the earl of Kildare, who died a couple of years later. She became a nun at Shaftesbury a few weeks after her father’s execution in late 1326. Unlike her sisters, the order for her veiling is missing, so it *may* have been voluntary. She died in 1384, probably in her late sixties.

Eleanor, probably the third daughter and born about 1318/20. She was betrothed in 1325 to Laurence Hastings, the future earl of Pembroke, but was forcibly veiled by Queen Isabella in early 1327. (Laurence later married Roger Mortimer’s daughter Agnes.) Eleanor lived at Sempringham Priory until her death, sometime after 1351.

Margaret, named after her aunts Margaret de Clare and Margaret Despenser, the fourth daughter, born sometime between 1319 and 1325. The Calendar of Close Rolls records that a man named Thomas de Houk 'by the late king's [Edward II] orders, kept Margaret, daughter of Hugh le Despenser, the younger, in his house with a nurse and a great household for more than three years at his cost'. She was forcibly veiled by Isabella in early 1327, and died in Watton Priory in 1337.

Elizabeth, named after her mother’s sister, the youngest daughter. She may have been the child born in December 1325 when Eleanor de Clare is known to have given birth, or she may have been Hugh’s posthumous child, born in late 1326 or 1327. She married Maurice Berkeley in 1338; born in 1330, he was the grandson of Roger Mortimer and the eldest son of Thomas Berkeley, Edward II’s jailer. (Oh, to be a fly on the wall at Berkeley family mealtimes.) They had 4 sons and 3 daughters before Maurice died in 1368 of old wounds received at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. Elizabeth married again to Sir Maurice Wyth, outlived him too, and died in July 1389.

Clearly, a few of their children were conceived after Hugh became the 'favourite' of Eleanor's uncle in the period 1318-1320, a position he held till his execution in 1326.

22 May, 2006

The Feast of the Swan, 22 May 1306

700 years ago today, one of the great events of the Middle Ages took place in Westminster Abbey: the knighting of 267 men, the largest mass knighting in medieval England, described by one contemporary chronicler as the 'most splendid event since King Arthur was crowned at Caerleon'.

Foremost among the new knights was the man who would become King Edward II just over a year later, but at the time was 'merely' Edward of Caernarvon, Prince of Wales, Duke of Aquitaine, Earl of Chester and Count of Ponthieu. Now a month past his 22nd birthday, it was high time that he was knighted, and his father Edward I - who was almost 67 but had just become a father again, for about the 19th time - sent out a writ that "all who are not knights but wish to be" should come to London to be knighted.

267 men were accepted, and accordingly arrived in London with their retinues. The logistics of housing all these men were difficult, and required a great deal of preparation: wheat, oats, sheep, oxen and swine were purveyed in five counties, many new utensils were bought for the king's kitchen, and fifty carpenters were hired to build temporary structures at Westminster and elsewhere. Most of the men were housed at the church of the Knights Templar, the 'New Temple', where walls were levelled and fruit trees cut down to make space for all the tents and pavilions which were required, some as robing-rooms.

As was customary in knighting ceremonies, the men spent the night before the ceremony in vigil, in church - most of them at the New Temple, but a few in the Abbey church with Prince Edward. The vigil was supposed to be spent in silent prayer and meditation, but in the Temple there was a great deal of talking, shouting and trumpet calls. Tsk, young men, eh?

The following morning, Whitsunday, 22 May 1306, Prince Edward was knighted by his father in a private ceremony in the chapel of Westminster Palace. The king touched his sword to his son's shoulders, girded him with the belt and sword of knighthood, and the earls of Lincoln and Hereford - the latter Prince Edward's brother-in-law - fastened on his golden spurs. The royal party then made their way into Westminster Abbey.

In the meantime, all the other knights-to-be had processed through a huge, excited crowd from New Temple to the Abbey. More noise and chaos reigned, to the extent that great war-horses were brought in to clear a path and restore order. Finally, in front of the high altar, the men were called forward in pairs, made their vows of knighthood, and Prince Edward touched the sword to their shoulders and fastened on the belt, sword and spurs.

The banquet held afterwards in the Great Hall of Westminster Palace was equally splendid. 80 minstrels had been hired for the occasion, which cost Edward I £130, a huge sum (more than three times the minimum annual income for knighthood). The highlight of the feast came when some musicians brought in a huge platter bearing two swans (I'm not sure if they were real or not) and those present took vows on the swans. The king's was to avenge the injuries done by Robert Bruce, after which he would never take up his sword again except in the cause of the Holy Land. The Prince of Wales' vow was to never sleep in the same place twice till he reached Scotland, in his attempt to help his father keep his vow.

Many of the men who would play a vital role in Edward II's reign were present on that day, though apparently Piers Gaveston was knighted a few days later, not during this great ceremony.

Roger Mortimer of Wigmore was there, just turned 19 but already long married and a father, probably several times over.
His uncle Roger Mortimer of Chirk, about 50 but never knighted. He was imprisoned with his nephew in the Tower in 1322, and died there.
Hugh le Despenser the Younger, aged between 16 and 19 and due to marry the king's eldest granddaughter, 13-year-old Eleanor de Clare, 4 days later. Late May 1306 was a big month for Hugh: knighted on the 22nd, married on the 26th, and his mother Isabel Beauchamp died on the 30th.
As far as I know, Roger Damory, Edward II's favourite between 1315 and 1318 (he was described as a knight in a document of 1306)
John de Warenne, earl of Surrey, aged almost 20. Surrey would marry another granddaughter of the king, Joan of Bar, 3 days later.
Edmund Fitzalan, earl of Arundel, aged just 21. One of Gaveston's killers, but executed by Mortimer and Isabella in 1326.
John Maltravers, later notorious as one of Edward II's jailers at Berkeley Castle.
Bartholomew Badlesmere, who was Steward of Edward's household between 1318 and 1321, turned against him, and was hideously executed in 1322.
John Mowbray, one of the many of Edward's enemies (or rather, Hugh le Despenser's enemies) executed in 1322.
And well over 200 others! :)

19 May, 2006

Edward II Novel of the Week (3): 'The Cup of Ghosts' by Paul Doherty

(Published in paperback 2006)

This is the first in a new series of murder mysteries, featuring Mathilde of Westminster, the finest physician in London during the reign of Edward II. Mathilde, escaping the carnage of Philip IV's persecution of the Templars, joins the retinue of Philip's daughter Isabella shortly before Isabella's wedding to Edward II in January 1308. The negotiations over the wedding form an important part of the novel; Mathilde investigates the murder of several of the English envoys. This is fiction, but the novel is firmly based on historical fact.

The novel is narrated by Mathilde, in the first person. It moves much more slowly than other novels I've read by Doherty, and some readers might get impatient, especially as it seems that everything worn or eaten by Isabella and the French court is described in great detail. However, Doherty is skilled at conveying atmosphere, of the dangerous streets of Paris, the corruption of the French court, the menace that surrounds the main characters.

The novel opens with a prologue, where Mathilde, in extreme old age, looks back over her eventful life as friend and confidante of Queen Isabella. I'm afraid the prologue almost made me put the book down, thanks mainly to two lines. One, where Edward is described as "great of body and small of brain". Also, Isabella "tore her husband from his throne. She locked him in Berkeley Castle, sealing him up like some rabid animal".
Doherty, in the prologue, repeats the usual myth that Mortimer was buried at Greyfriars in London and that Isabella asked to be buried there so she could lie next to him: "Bury me...next to Mortimer, like a bride beside her lover". This is simply not true. Mortimer was either buried at Greyfriars in Shrewsbury (according to the Wigmore Chronicle) or, more likely, at the Franciscans in Coventry. They were licensed on 7 November 1331 to deliver the body to Wigmore for burial, after a petition by Joan de Geneville, Mortimer's widow.

When reading the Prologue, I thought the novel would be more of the same old stuff about Edward II, but in fact the Prologue is very different in tone from the rest of the novel, and hardly seems to belong - in the novel proper, both Isabella and Edward are sympathetic and vividly drawn characters. Edward - who only appears on page 199 - is energetic, clever and devious, handsome and strong, about as far from the feeble creature of the Druon novel as you can get. Isabella is a knowing young woman, also cunning and clever, who has been forced to grow up fast at a corrupt and vicious court. She is superb at playing a role, at mimicry, at hiding her true feelings. She is extremely loyal to those whom she loves and has a sense of humour. Piers Gaveston, though only a minor character, is also sympathetic: he is a 'truly beautiful man' who treats Isabella with great respect.

Edward and Isabella get on very well, despite her extreme youth (she's thirteen). This is such a refreshing take on the whole thing that I almost wept with gratitude (yes, I'm a sad tragic person, I know). There's a lovely scene between the couple, where Edward tells her "let me assure you, on my solemn oath, that you are my princess and wife, the only woman in my life, never to be supplanted." Isabella blushes with pleasure. Edward goes on to ask her if she accepts Piers Gaveston, and she says she does. He asks her to pretend to be Gaveston's enemy in public, then explains the game he and Piers are playing: they are deliberately antagonising Philip IV and the French court in order to force Edward's opposition among the English nobility into the open.
He tells her that he will not publicly give her lands, estates and income as is her right, but that in private he will ensure she lacks for nothing. Isabella willingly goes along with the plan, and it is her own idea to let Piers wear her jewellery, to increase her father's anger. Edward and Gaveston deiberately ignore the queen, "though both men sent her secret messages and tokens of their love on an almost daily basis."
This is a really interesting idea, as Edward's behaviour early on in his marriage - insulting Isabella and by extension her family, and openly favouring Gaveston - was pretty bizarre. I'm delighted that Doherty made Edward such a sympathetic, appealing character.

I have some problems with Doherty's Author's Note at the end of the novel. He states that Isabella had a very unhappy relationship with her father and her brothers, never attended any of their funerals, and did terrible damage to her own family.
I can't think what he means here. It's possible that Isabella broke the scandal of the adultery of her sisters-in-law in 1314, but that's hardly terrible damage, as she may have thought she was acting for the best, and it was the adultery itself that did the damage, not her revelation of it.

As for her failure to attend her brothers' funerals: although I haven't checked exactly when their funerals took place, Louis X died in June 1316 when Isabella was pregnant with her son John of Eltham. Philip V died in January 1322, during Edward II's campaign against the Marchers and the earl of Lancaster, which Isabella was involved in. Charles IV died in February 1328, when she and Mortimer were acting as regents and perhaps didn't dare leave the country. As for her father Philip IV - perhaps she didn't go because she'd visited France once that year, 1314, and a Channel crossing was not to be undertaken lightly - it could take days. I really can't see that she was on bad terms with her family and tried to hurt them. There seem to be pretty good reasons why she didn't return to France for their funerals.

Again in the Author's Note: "She was one of the few monarchs before 1603 who realised that any war against Scotland was destructive for both countries and of profit to no one."
I've stated before that I think it's far more likely that Isabella and Mortimer didn't have enough money for a full-length Scottish campaign and made peace for purely pragmatic reasons. It's only from our modern viewpoint that deciding not to fight a long, pointless, unwinnable war seems like a good idea - their negotiation of peace with Robert Bruce lost them a lot of sympathy and was called the 'Shameful Peace'. And how does Doherty know that it was Isabella's realisation that war with Scotland was pointless, and not Roger Mortimer's?

I've reviewed this as an Edward II novel, not as a murder mystery, which is not my favourite genre. However, I would recommend this novel to anyone interested in the early days of Edward and Isabella's marriage, long before it went so tragically wrong, and for anyone who'd like to see a depiction of Edward that's a million miles from the feeble, feckless sybarite he usually is in fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing both Isabella and Edward portrayed as strong, sympathetic characters, and look forward to reading more of the series. Bravo Paul Doherty.

15 May, 2006

Edward II's brothers and sisters (2)

Second and final part of my post on Edward II's numerous siblings! :) The first part is here.

Margaret (March 1275 - c. 1333)

Nine years older than her brother, Margaret was married to John II, Duke of Brabant, at Westminster Abbey in the summer of 1290. She was fifteen, and John a few months younger, born in September 1275. John lived in the same household as Margaret's cousins Thomas and Henry of Lancaster - sons of Edward I's brother Edmund - at least in the years 1292-93. A roll of John's expenses still exists for this year, full of items about horses, falcons, minstrels and games.
Margaret and John lived in England until 1297, when they were 22. Only one child was born of the marriage: Duke John III, born 1300, who married Marie of Evreux, niece of Philip IV of France. John II died in 1312. Margaret lived until about 1333, in her late fifties (it used to be said that she died in 1318, but this seems to be incorrect). Although she attended her brother Edward II's wedding to Isabella in Boulogne in January 1308, she doesn't seem to have ever visited England again. She's the most obscure of Edward's sisters, and I'm afraid I don't know anything else about her!

Mary (March 1279 - May 1332)

Five years older than Edward II. Mary was veiled as a nun at Amesbury at the very young age of six in 1285. Amesbury was extremely fashionable for royal women at this time, thanks to Mary's grandmother Eleanor of Provence, widow of Henry III, who took the veil there and apparently wished Mary to accompany her. Unfortunately for Mary, she had no vocation whatsoever, and seems to have spent almost as much time travelling and at her brother's court as she did at the priory.

Edward II's Wardrobe accounts are full of presents that he had sent to Mary, indicating perhaps that they had a close relationship. For example, "To the Lady Maria the king's sister, and nun at Amesbury, of the king's gift, being the price of fifteen pieces of tapestry, with divers coats of arms.....given to the Lady Mary on her departure from the court home, 26l 13s 4d."

Edward also paid Mary's many gambling debts. At Amesbury, she had her own pantry and many servants, slept in an enormous bed with satin hangings, and often went hunting with her own hunting dogs and horses! In the spring of 1317, Edward II paid the enormous expenses of Mary's pilgrimage to Canterbury in the company of her niece Elizabeth de Clare, newly married to Edward's favourite Roger Damory, and Isabel, daughter of Henry of Lancaster and niece of the earl of Lancaster and the younger Despenser. Isabel would later be Prioress of Amesbury, though her vocation was as about as strong as Mary's, and she also enjoyed hunting.

Mary was the only one of Edward's sisters still alive and in England at the time of his deposition in 1327. Her opinions are, sadly, urecorded. She died in 1332 at the age of fifty-three.

Elizabeth (August 1282 - May 1316)

Only twenty months older than her brother, and therefore no doubt the closest to him in their childhood. Elizabeth was married in February 1297, at the age of fourteen and a half, to John, Count of Holland, who was born in 1284 and who grew up at Edward I's court. I've seen a letter (online) from him to Edward I in 1298 or 1299, begging him to allow Elizabeth to leave England and live in Holland as her people were keen to see her, but I've been unable to find it again. I don't know if Elizabeth ever left England, as John died in 1299 at the age of fifteen.

Elizabeth - childless from her first marriage, understandably - was married again in November 1302 to Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford, born 1276. They had six children who survived into adulthood:
1) Eleanor, countess of Ormond, born 1304
2) John, earl of Hereford, born 1306
3) Humphrey, earl of Hereford, born about 1309
4) Margaret, countess of Devon, born 1311
5) William, earl of Northampton, born about 1312
6) Edward, born about 1312 and died 1334 (William's twin)

They also had a son with the very unusual name of Eneas, who died unmarried sometime after 1322, and several other children. Elizabeth died in 1316 at the age of thirty-three, giving birth to her 10th or 11th child Isabel, who did not survive.

Earl Humphrey was one of the men who had Edward's beloved Piers Gaveston killed in 1312, and although he was reconciled to the king in 1313, this must have been a tense period in Elizabeth's life.
The most famous fact about her concerns her father, who must once have ripped her coronet off her head during an argument and thrown it into the fire - an entry in his Wardrobe account states that he had to pay to replace the stones!

As for the relationship between Edward II and his five older sisters, they seem mostly to have been very good. Joan, Elizabeth and Mary were all very supportive of him when his father cut off his income after a huge row between them in 1305. (Eleanor was dead by then and Margaret was in Brabant). Joan lent him her seal to order goods, and all three invited their brother to stay with them. Elizabeth pleaded with their stepmother Marguerite to intercede with her husband on Edward's behalf.

Then there were Edward I's three children by his second wife Marguerite of France, half-sister of Philip IV. I've covered Thomas of Brotherton (born 1300) and Edmund of Woodstock (born 1301) in my post on the earls, but it's a little-known fact that there was also a daughter of this marriage: Eleanor, born in May 1306, a month before Edward I's 67th birthday. The little girl died in Amesbury Priory in 1311.

These children of Edward I's old age led to some interesting relationships:
his eldest grandchild Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester (born 1291) was fifteen years older than his aunt, little Eleanor.
His eldest great-grandchild Hugh le Despenser 'the Even Younger' (son of Eleanor de Clare and guess who) was born in 1308 or 1309. Only two or three years between the births of a child and a great-grandchild! :)

10 May, 2006

Edward II Novel of the Week (2): 'The She-Wolf of France' by Maurice Druon

Published as La Louve de France in 1959, English translation 1960.

This is the fifth in Maurice Druon's acclaimed Les Rois Maudits/The Accursed Kings series. The four preceding volumes are: Le Roi de fer/The Iron King, La Reine étranglée/The Strangled Queen, Les Poisons de la couronne/The Poisoned Crown and La Loi des mâles/The Royal Succession. The last two novels in the series are Le Lis et le Lion/The Lily and the Lion and Quand un Roi perd la France/When a King Loses France. The English translations are fairly rare these days, and sell for between about 20 and 40 pounds on Amazon UK, and on Amazon US for between about 25 and 50 dollars. The French originals can be picked up for a euro or less.

I'm afraid I really dislike this novel. Really, really dislike it, so Druon fans might wish to stop reading now....

I'll begin with a few things that I did like. The list of characters at the beginning is very helpful, and I like the system of 'Historical Notes' at the end of the novel, even if they're not always totally accurate (I don't know why the younger Despenser's claim to the earldom of Gloucester was 'fantastic'). As for the characters, I liked seeing the earl of Kent in Gascony in 1324 - normally Kent never appears in Edward II novels until his attempt to rescue his brother the king in 1330, so it's refreshing to see another side of him here. Also, Roger Mortimer is pretty sympathetic here, which he rarely is in novels. His relationship with Isabella in Paris in 1325 is very nicely portrayed as a genuine love affair. His escape from the Tower proves that he's resourceful and courageous, and unlike the rest of the English characters, he's 'so handsome and so great a lord' with a 'strong, confident body'. Mortimer at least has genuine grievances against Edward and Despenser.

The rest of the characterisation, at least of the English characters, is just horrible. Edward II himself is so utterly feeble you can only feel contempt. Mortimer is the only remotely sympathetic English character. And the biggest problem I have with the novel is that, despite the title, it's really not about Isabella at all. It's a novel about France which happens to include some scenes set in England. OK, it's a series about French history - but then why call this one 'The She-Wolf of France' when Isabella and Edward only appear in a handful of scenes? There are pages and pages on Lombard bankers in Paris. This may be interesting to readers of the whole series - I presume they're regular characters - but I wanted to read about Isabella and Edward II, not Lombard bankers! Most of the novel is set in France. The death scene of Charles of Valois, Isabella's uncle, goes on interminably.

The only time Edward and Isabella appear together (and one of only four scenes where Edward appears at all) is in the second scene of the novel, after the Prologue and Mortimer's escape from the Tower. Isabella is sitting on her throne whinging to the French ambassador about her awful life when Edward, the Despensers and some of the English nobles enter the room. Isabella then proceeds to insult Edward, over and over, in front of the whole court. Neither Edward nor Hugh Despenser respond to her insults - they blush, pretend not to hear, change the subject. This is a really bad way of writing fiction: the scene should have crackled with tension, as Edward and Isabella exchange (spoken) blows and witty repartee. As it is, Edward and Despenser seem totally pathetic, no match at all for Isabella. Another bad way of writing fiction - it would make for a much better novel to equalise their opposition, to make us see why Isabella hates them and wants to destroy them. Also, giving Edward the ability to hit back would have given the reader a glimpse into their awful marriage, and possibly lots of other interesting information like the impending war with France. But there's no insight at all. As it is, the scene just makes Edward even more pathetic, if that's possible. The French ambassador Bouville thinks that Isabella is 'brave' to stand up to the king, but it doesn't seem so to me - in fact, it seems cruel, like kicking a man who can't kick back. The narrative claims that Isabella is 'surrounded by so much hatred', but we never see this. We only see that all the hatred is coming from her.

Druon tells far more than he shows, and what he shows is different from what he tells us. It's pointless to state in the narrative that Isabella 'suffers' when the reader never sees it. All that she seems to 'suffer' in this scene is having to put her feet on a threadbare footstool. Well, boo-hoo. It's also stated that she believes her life to be in danger from the Despensers. When we see the Despensers, however, it's hard to imagine that they could even find their way to the privy by themselves, never mind plot to have the queen of England murdered.

Druon tells us that Edward II is 'handsome', a 'fine-looking man, muscular, lithe and alert' with an 'athlete's constitution'. Yet the details used to describe him make him grotesque. He has pouches beneath his eyes, an 'uncertain line of the curve of the nostril', an overly large (but weak, naturally) chin and a spine that 'curved unpleasantly from the neck to the waist, as if the spine lacked substance'. A deformed back in an athlete? Really? Oh, and his hands are 'flaccid' and 'flutter aimlessly', he pirouettes, he stamps his foot. Lovely.

His friends fare no better. His niece Eleanor (Hugh Despenser's wife) has 'that quality of ugliness imprinted by a wicked nature'. Hugh Despenser (the younger) is 'too curled, scented and over-dressed for a man of thirty-three'. He is narrow-chested and has a 'bad, spotty skin'; later in the novel he is 'wide-hipped and pigeon-breasted' though Druon does allow him a 'well-shaped mouth'. Despenser's father, called 'the weasel', apparently, is described thus: 'cupidity, envy, meanness, self-seeking, deceit, and all the gratifications these vices can procure for their possessor were manifest in the lines of his face and beaneath his red eyelids'.
It is predominantly, though not exclusively, the English characters who are described in such terms; Jeanne the Lame, wife of Philip of Valois, has a face 'made hideous by the avarice of her thoughts'. Even Isabella is constantly said to have 'little carnivore's teeth' though she does have 'beautiful blue eyes' and her 'beauty was unrivalled by that of any young girl.'

The younger Despenser's 'expression seemed to imply: "This time things have really gone too far; we shall have to take stern measures!"' I have tried, and failed, to imagine what this expression would look like. Like most of this scene with Edward, Isabella and the Despensers, it makes no sense. And if he's really the kind of man who would plot to have the queen murdered, shouldn't his expression be more sinister?

I found it utterly impossible to summon up a shred of sympathy or liking for these despicable people. They are ugly and repulsive to the point of being grotesque, yet are not villainous enough to be interesting. My reaction was to recoil from them. At least the elder Despenser dies well. That's the best thing you can say about any of them.

A lot of the dialogue is pitiful - almost entirely the dialogue spoken by the English characters. When the French characters speak, they make sense. Edward's last line before he is murdered (with the usual red-hot poker) is "Oh you brutes, you brutes, you shan't kill me!" Dignified and moving, no? No? Unfortunately, it makes me giggle every time I think about it. At the time of the arrest, 'Hugh the Younger, emaciated, trembling, threw himself on the king's breast. His teeth chattered, he seemed about to swoon and he groaned: "You see, it's your wife who has ordered all this. It is she, that French she-wolf, who is the cause of it all. Oh, Edward, Edward, why did you marry her?"'
Umm, because he was the king of England and she was the daughter of the king of France, and their marriage was part of an arrangement between the two countries - as Despenser well knew? As Susan Higginbotham points out, Despenser was a pirate. Not to mention a clever, ruthless extortionist who had been ruling England for a few years. Would he really talk and behave like that??

The only line the future Edward III gets in the whole novel is "Oh no, you wicked woman, you shan't have everything!" (spoken to his cousin Eleanor Despenser about a book she wants). But we do get some stunning insight into his thoughts while watching the younger Despenser's execution: "Is that really the man my father loved so much?" Superb, really.

A lot of the novel is psychologically unconvincing. For example, Mortimer's wife Joan de Geneville ('Lady Jeanne Mortimer') is dealt with in a single paragraph: 'Lady Jeanne suffered terribly from this betrayal by the two people in the world she had loved and served best. Did fifteen years of attendance on Queen Isabella, of devotion, intimacy and shared risks, deserve such a reward?.....Lady Jeanne, who had always been so loyal, found herself among the vanquished. And yet she could forgive, she could retire with dignity, precisely because the two people she most admired were concerned and because she understood that these two people were bound inevitably to fall in love as soon as Fate had brought them together."

How convenient. That gets rid of her, doesn't it? Saves Isabella and Mortimer from having to feel guilty, and Druon from having to deal with the thorny problem of Mortimer's adultery. This often happens in novels - Joan de Geneville is either ignored, or made so dull and sexless that nobody could ever blame Mortimer for preferring the beautiful, exciting Isabella. Strangely, nobody ever uses this excuse for Edward II. Maybe he found Despenser a lot more exciting than his wife.

I don't mean to tread on anyone's toes here, and I know Druon has many fans. However, this is a really poor effort, and I haven't even mentioned the numerous historical inaccuracies (Henry of Lancaster was not called Crouchback - that was his father; Despenser became Edward's favourite in the years 1318-20, not 1312). I finished the novel, because I can't imagine ever not finishing a novel which includes Edward II and Isabella, but everyone here is so despicable I felt like taking a bath after I'd read it. No - make that several baths.

07 May, 2006

Hugh le Despenser (Jr) does 'Me, Too' (and he's Very Annoyed)

That supremely irritating Frenchwoman, 'Queen' Isabella, has had the nerve to write this, as though I wouldn't see it. She should have realised by now that I know everything and I have my spies everywhere. I'll have to devise a suitable punishment for her. Let's see, what else can I deprive her of?

I am: the de facto King of England. A very successful pirate. The man who kindly agrees to look after unwanted lands, so all those rich widows don't have to worry their pretty little heads about them. My possession is temporary, of course, only for the rest of my life and all my heirs' lives.
I want: power, power, and power. Oh, and lots of lands and money too.
I wish: that bloody Frenchwoman would just go away and leave Edward and me in peace. She promised she'd go on that year-long pilgrimage. She promised.
I hate: thinking that anyone, anywhere, might have more land and money than me.
I miss: do you think a busy, important man like me has time for such sentimental nonsense?
I fear: losing my power. Not that it could ever happen, of course. Who could oppose me? The 'Queen'? She's only concerned with her head-dresses and her illuminated manuscripts. Those sissy bishops? Never. That fool Mortimer? Couldn't organise an orgy in a brothel.
I hear: the sweet sound of all my enemies whining about me. Tough!
I wonder: if Edward's crown fits me? Hmm, why have I not tried it on yet? What an oversight.
I regret: not scheming my way into power earlier. This is fun.
I am not: going to put up with the whining of that annoying Frenchwoman any longer.
I dance: for joy every time Edward gives me more land (more and more often these days).
I sing: at the thought of 'Queen' Isabella's face when Thomas Dunheved comes back from the Pope with the dispensation for her divorce. Hates the word dispensation', does she? She'll hate it even more soon!
I cry: whenever Edward mentions Piers Gaveston. Shouldn't he have forgotten that useless parasite by now? I'm sooooo much better in every way. Still, Edward always gives me something when he makes me jealous. Edward, where are you? I'm jealous. Yup, Denbigh would make me feel much better. I hear the revenues are lovely at this time of year.
I am not always: as ruthless, greedy and nasty as everyone thinks. I gave my sister-in-law Lady de Burgh compensation for taking Gower and Usk from her. How many men would be so magnanimous? And I only imprisoned Elizabeth Comyn for one poxy year. Come on!
I made: Edward promise to never let me go.
I write: lots of letters about Gascony. There's a war going on there, and I'm directing it. (What do you mean, badly? Is there anyone else who could do it better? The king?)
I confuse: those damn Roger Mortimers. There's the one who - come on, just spit it out through clenched teeth - somehow managed to escape to France, and the one who I <shush> had killed in the Tower. They're both an equal threat, hehe.
I need: the Gower peninsula? Usk? Chepstow? Scribe, fetch me a map. Are there any bits of South Wales I don't own yet?
I should: withdraw some of my countless thousands from my Italian bankers. Because you never know. Doesn't hurt to be too careful. Just in case....no, it's too ridiculous. As if.
I start: to be a little concerned about 'Queen' Isabella and the Mortimer. She wouldn't...would she? Could that meekness and obedience only be an act?
I finish: first. Certainly not on a fifty-foot gallows.

06 May, 2006

The 'Me too' meme - Edward II responds!

Gabriele tagged me for the 'Me, too' meme that's been doing the rounds of blogdom!

I am: the reluctant King of England.
I want: to spend all my time pottering around at Langley, digging ditches and listening to music, while Hugh Despenser rules my country.
I wish: I knew what my wife Isabella was thinking. You know, I'm starting to suspect that she doesn't like Hugh Despenser very much. How can she not?? The man's perfect! And good grief, he doesn't insult her that much. And confiscating all her estates was the obvious thing to do. I don't know what she's whining about.
I hate: Roger Mortimer. The earl of Lancaster. The Marcher lords. Roger Mortimer. My brother-in-law Charles IV of France. <Whispers> My wife Isabella, sometimes. And did I mention Roger Mortimer?
I miss: Piers Gaveston, of course. So beautiful, so witty, so strong, so perfect in every way....Hugh, don't look at me like that! I love you just as much! Hugh, come back!
I fear: my son turning against me.
I hear: rumours that my wife is cuckolding me with Mortimer.
I wonder: what my life would be like if one of my three elder brothers had lived.
I regret: sending my son to France to pay homage on my behalf, without insisting my wife came back to England first. Not executing that git-face Mortimer when I had the chance. Marrying Isabella (not that I had any choice, but still......). Leaving Piers alone at Scarborough. Not...hey, how long have you got?
I am not: meant to be king. The blood-soaked monster my father was. Particularly interested in conquering Scotland.
I dance: not really. I prefer to pay Bernard the Fool and 54 naked ladies to dance for me.
I sing: when joining in one of those hilarious plays that Walter Reynolds organises. (Between you and me, Walter is a much better actor than he is Archbishop of Canterbury. I wonder why he can't act being a good Archbishop?)
I cry: when I visit Piers' tomb.
I am not always: as pathetic as people seem to think I am. That campaign against the Marchers and Lancaster was extremely successful, and don't you forget it.
I made: a fantastic new ditch at Clarendon and a wall and some thatched roofs at Langley. Also, a vat of soup from some cabbages I bought off a peasant while barging along the Thames. Would you like a bowl?
I write: a poem about my misfortunes.
I confuse: all those bloody Hugh Despensers. There are three generations of them, for pity's sake! (Hehe, just kidding. How could I confuse my dearest friends?)
I need: another few gallons of wine, immediately. I'm starting to sober up.
I should: send Hugh away from court and take immediate steps to reconcile my wife and all my enemies congregating in Paris. Ha! No chance. I'm not sending Hugh anywhere.
I start: in a great burst of enthusiasm.
I finish: rarely.
I tag: Ilya. Susan Higginbotham. Carla Nayland (when she gets back)

03 May, 2006

Edward II's brothers and sisters (1)

It's difficult to state with any certainty exactly how many children Edward I (born 1239, died 1307) and Eleanor of Castile (born c. 1241, died 1290) had. They had about ten or twelve daughters, of whom only five survived into adulthood, and I'll look at two of them today. The daughters who didn't survive childhood are Katherine, Joan, Berengaria, and two or three daughters whose names are unknown . The ones who did survive are Eleanor, Joan of Acre, Margaret, Mary and Elizabeth.

Not many people realise that Edward II was the fourth son of his parents. His three elder brothers were:

John (July 1266 - August 1271). Very little is known about this boy who died at the age of five, in the lifetime of his grandfather Henry III, and was thus never heir to the throne. He died at the castle of Wallingford in the care of Richard of Cornwall, brother of Henry III.

Henry (May 1268 - October 1274). Henry is a bit less obscure, as some of the records of his household are still extant. He lived together with his sister Eleanor, born 1269 (see below) and their cousin John of Brittany, later earl of Richmond, born 1266. (John's mother Beatrice was the sister of Edward I). Always a sickly boy, it was probably no great surprise when Henry died in Guildford at the age of six.
The household accounts are quite fascinating for the details they reveal about him and medieval life in general. On Pentecost Eve, a gallon of wine was added to his bath, to strengthen him; he and Eleanor were given two partridges for their dinner, for a special treat; and he was bought a dozen gilded buttons for the saddle of his horse.

Alphonso (November 1273 - August 1284). Alphonso (named after his mother's brother, Alfonso X of Castile) was born in Bayonne and became heir to the throne of the death of his brother Henry, when he was eleven months old. Apparently it was a great shock when he died, at Windsor, at the age of ten. I think it's tragic that this death deprived England of its King Alphonso I.

Edward II was born in April 1284, so he was four months old when Alphonso died and he became heir to the throne. In contrast with his brothers, Edward was a healthy, sturdy child, who only once suffered a childhood illness, when he was nine (at least, as far as we know from the records). Edward was six years old when his mother Queen Eleanor died in 1290 (his sisters were twenty-one, eighteen, fifteen, eleven and eight) and he inherited her county of Ponthieu, as her only surviving son. I've often wondered how the knowledge of his three elder brothers affected him.

Today I'll look at the two eldest sisters of Edward II, and write a follow-up post about the other three shortly.

Eleanor (June 1269 - August 1298) was the eldest surviving daughter, a full fifteen years older than her brother Edward. She didn't marry until she was twenty-four, more than three years after the next two sisters in line were married and about ten years later than you'd expect of a noble woman in this period. (Edward I's granddaughters were married at about thirteen).

Eleanor was long betrothed to Alfonso III of Aragon, but for political reasons the marriage didn't take place, and he died in June 1291 in his mid-twenties. Finally, in September 1293, Eleanor married Henri III, count of Bar. They had two children: Edouard, count of Bar, born 1294/5, and Jeanne de Bar (or Joan of Bar), countess of Surrey, born 1295/6.
Eleanor died in August 1298. I don't know what she died of, but childbirth seems fairly likely, given that she was only twenty-nine. Count Henri died in 1302 and was succeeded by Edouard. Edward I brought his orphaned granddaughter Jeanne to live in England, and in May 1306 she was married to John de Warenne, earl of Surrey, although she was only ten or eleven at the time. (The marriage was disastrous.)

Joan of Acre (spring 1272 - April 1307). Twelve years older than her brother. Joan was born while her parents were on Crusade in the Holy Land, and was known as 'Joan of Acre' after her birthplace of Akko (Acre) to distinguish her from an earlier daughter of Edward I and Eleanor, also called Joan. She spent the first few years of her life in France with her maternal grandmother Jeanne de Dammartin, dowager queen of Castile and countess of Ponthieu in her own right. Joan went to England when Jeanne died in 1279.

Joan was betrothed to Hartman, the second son of Rudolph, king of Germany. Unfortunately, he drowned in 1281. She was married in April 1290, around her eighteenth birthday - also quite old for the time - to Gilbert 'the Red' de Clare, earl of Gloucester (1243-1295) an important Marcher lord almost three decades her senior. They had four children in quick succession - I've covered their son Gilbert (1291-1314) in a previous post on the English earls, and I'll write about their three daughters in a future post. Joan's son Gilbert was the eldest grandchild of Edward I.

Gilbert died in December 1295. Some time after this, Joan secretly married Ralph de Monthermer, a knight in her household. Her father, who had hoped to marry her to the count of Savoy, was furious. Ralph was imprisoned for a while, but Edward I had to accept the inevitable and released him, even allowing him to hold the title of earl of Gloucester as long as Joan lived. Joan bore another four children to Ralph, and died in April 1307, I think giving birth to her ninth child. She was Edward II's favourite sister, and given the age difference, might have played a maternal role in his life.

There is a novel about Joan and Ralph, by Vanessa Alexander - a pseudonym of Paul Doherty.