Friday, August 7, 2009

Monday Monarch Moment on Friday

Isabella of France

OK guys, this one is really long, but I think it's worth it.

Isabella has long been one of English history's great villains. Now, I've only read one book about Isabella (Alison Weir's Queen Isabella), and it's one that is explicitly trying to rehabilitate Izzy's reputation. So maybe I'm a little biased, but Weir did seem to put forth convincing evidence on all her major points. (Except one, but I'll get to that.)

There's no denying that Isabella didn't have it easy. She got sent to England at age twelve to marry Edward II--the marriage of the English king to the French king's daughter was meant to establish a lasting peace between the two countries (which, as it turns out, backfired hilariously! Details to follow in an upcoming post). When one is Queen of England, one expects attention, respect, etc. One does not necessarily expect that one's husband will shower all his affection on some dude named Piers.

Piers' brutal execution worked wonders for Isabella and Edward's marriage. It seems that Edward came to trust and depend on Isabella, and he granted her lots of property and such so that she could be a major landowner (and be very rich) in her own right. But then Boyfriend #2, Hugh le Despenser, came along and things got much much worse. (For Isabella, that is. Times were good for Hugh.)

Hugh was smarter and meaner than Piers had been, and he used tension with France to turn Edward against his French queen. The King eventually took all her stuff away--her lands, her independent income, her French servants, and even her kids: the youngest three had been living with her but got put in somebody else's custody. Isabella had no freedom and practically no hope until Edward, as was his wont . . . did something really stupid.

Back in their marital heyday, Edward had employed Isabella as a peacemaker, sending her to France to negotiate with her own daddy. In 1324, during the bad times, the Pope was nervous about the looming war between France (now ruled by one of Isabella's brothers) and England; he was also not super happy about Edward's virtual imprisonment and literal humiliation of Isabella. So the Pope was like, "Hey, Ed, why not send her over there again?" Edward and Hugh didn't want Edward to go himself, leaving Hugh unprotected from the angry, angry English people, so Ed was finally like, "Sure, why not." Isabella put on her happy face and was in turn like, "Bye sweetie! I'll miss you! Tell Hugh XOXO!"

Once she was in France (where her bro the King was pretty willing to back her up), she took her sweet time doing diplomatic stuff. Her masterstroke was when she convinced Edward that everything would go better if he sent over their boy, li'l Eddie (he was in his mid-teens, but I enjoy typing "li'l"). That's when Isabella revealed her real feelings (which, honestly, should have been pretty obvious all along, Edward):

Amongst other things, when the king sent his son to France, he ordered his wife to return to England without delay. When this command had been laid by the messengers before the King of France and the queen herself, she replied, "I feel that marriage is a joining together of man and woman, maintaining the undivided habit of life, and that someone has come between my husband and myself trying to break this bond; I protest that I will not return until this intruder is removed, but, discarding my marriage garment, shall assume the robes of widowhood and mourning until I am avenged of this Pharisee."
Vita Edwardi, via The Oxford Book of Royal Anecdotes

So Isabella had her freedom, foreign support, and the heir to the throne in her clutches. All she needed was a man to tell her what to do.

This is Weir's theory, anyway--Isabella just kind of dawdled and pondered, until Roger Mortimer (an English baron in revolt against Edward) came along and was all, "I'll take it from here, baby." And this being the 14th Century, and Isabella having been long saddled with a weak/ineffectual husband, her reaction was "FINALLY."

To cut to the chase, Isabella and Roger married li'l Eddie to Phillippa of Hainault, whose father paid her dowry not in boring old gold or china, but with motherflippin' soldiers. Then they all invaded England. They didn't have that many men, but the tyranny of Edward and Hugh was such that the English people's response to the Queen's invasion was "Where do we sign up?!?!" They marched through the country more or less unchallenged, captured Edward, executed/mutilated Hugh (read the story if you dare), and crowned li'l Eddie.

Sadly, this awesomeness could not be sustained. Li'l Eddie, being li'l, couldn't actually rule; a regency council was set up and consisted of many Very Important Persons. However, Isabella and her boyfriend Roger (neither of whom among the official VIPs) held the read power. And in a regrettable emulation of her discarded husband, Isabella left all the decisions to her boyfriend, who used them all to empower and enrich himself.

A return of awesomeness was declared when Eddie decided his li'lness was no more. He and his buddies kidnapped Roger and tried him for treason, allowing Eddie to sieze his own power for his own self. Isabella was kept under close watch for a while, but with good behavior was slowly allowed to have sweet lands and money again. In the last years of her life, despite her having lived in semi-brazen adultery with Roger and despite her onetime overthrow of an anointed monarch, she was seen as a respectable elder statewoman. (Later people would focus more on the adultery/overthrow angle, though.)

Oh, so what happened to Edward II?

Well, he was imprisoned for a while, but after one too many attempts to spring him, it was decided (probably by Rog) to have him taken care of. This is the most famous story of what happened, and I will warn you right now that it is graphic and gruesome. Some of you may want to skip the following quote.
Firstly he was shut up in a secure chamber, where he was tortured for many days until he was almost suffocated by the stench of corpses buried in a cellar hollowed out beneath. Carpenters, who one day were working near the window of his chamber, heard him, God's servant, as he lamented that this was the most extreme suffering that had ever befallen him.
But when his tyrannous warders perceived that the stench alone was not sufficient to kill him, they seized him on the night of 22 September as he lay sleeping in his room.
There with cushions heavier than fifteen strong men could carry, they held him down suffocating him.
Then they thrust a plumber's soldering iron, heated red hot, guided by a tube inserted into his bowels, and thus they burnt his innards and vital organs. They feared lest, if he were to receive a wound in those parts of the body where men generally are wouned, it might be discovered by some man who honoured justice, and his torturers might be found guilty of manifest treason.
. . . As this brave knight was overcome, he shouted aloud so that many heard his cry both within and without the castle and knew it for a man who suffered a violent death.
The Chronicle of Geoffrey le Baker, via the Oxford Book of Royal Anecdotes

As Weir points out, the account is riddled with implausibilities. They really thought he would die in a couple of days from bad smell? How could four guys carry cushions heavier than 15 men could carry? And of course, the guy who wrote it is otherwise unreliable and was in no position to know what had really happened. She says it is more likely that Edward was simply smothered. (I mean, come on. That's the way to not leave a mark.)


Though Weir thinks suffocation is more likely than, you know, the gross murder, what she thinks is likelier still is that Edward . . . got away.

There's this document, see, called the Fieschi Letter. It's a communication from an Italian priest to Edward III, containing a detailed story about how Edward II evaded his would-be murderers, escaped from England, and tooled around Europe for a while before settling in a monastery in Italy. Weir makes a lot of good points--for instance, the writer of the letter was a trustworthy fellow, and he knew many details (like those of Edward's attempted evasion of Isabella's invasion forces) that very few people knew at the time. Much of it is clearly not impossible. (She also adds an account from later that Edward III once mysteriously met with a mysterious stranger in France--was it a father and child reunion?!?)

But I just can't get convinced. For one thing, I find it hard to believe that a deposed king could be out and about without getting noticed by a lot more people. Sure, information was not easy to disseminate in those days, and maybe there are other letters by other priests that simply haven't survived, but still. Wouldn't Edward's survival have been a bigger deal? Secondly, many of Edward's supposed adventures hinge on him being competent. In his escape from prison, he was said to have overpowered and killed the guard at the exit, stealing the guard's clothes. Which is so cool that I have a bit of a hard time believing Edward could pull it off. And then a guy who spent all his life surrounded by servants and retainers, and who did not show a knack for doing stuff well, managed to get along well and quietly all by himself, all over Europe? I dunno. (Although then again, maybe he could earn his keep bricklaying and fixing rooves?)

So I guess it's possible, but I remain unconvinced. It would be awfully cool if it were true, though.

No comments: