Monday, January 29, 2007

Ask Isabella

It’s well known that following Edward III’s execution of Queen Isabella’s lover, Roger Mortimer, Queen Isabella spent the next twenty-eight years living mostly on her own estates, occasionally visiting court and going on pilgrimages within England. What is less known is that she often found herself being applied to by other women for advice, which she seems to have dispensed freely and with a remarkable, characteristic frankness. What follows is a sampling:

Dear Isabella,

My husband is a good man, and a very handsome one at that! More and more lately, though, he has become obsessed with gaining the crown of France. From morning to night, that’s all I hear—France, France, France! Sometimes, I swear, I even hear him going through the French coronation ceremony in his sleep! What can I do to rid him of this all-consuming ambition?

P. in Windsor

Dear P.,

France is a far richer and more prestigious country than England, so it is of little surprise that your husband should wish to take its crown—assuming, of course, that he has a reasonable claim to it. If he does, you should stand back as a good wife should and let him give his ambition free rein, while thanking the Lord that he is concerned with kingly pursuits such as taking over other countries and not with ignoble activities such as hedging, ditching, and rowing.

Incidentally, I wonder if you properly appreciate your husband and the trouble your elders took to procure the marriage between the two of you. I suggest you speak to your confessor about this obvious shortcoming.



Dear Isabella,

Years ago, my late father made a great lady very, very angry, and as a result, I was forced to take the veil even though I was but a child at the time. I have no intention of renouncing my vows, as to do so would be wicked, not to mention difficult, but I sometimes feel very angry at this lady who punished me for another’s deeds in which I took no part. Do you have advice for me?

E. in Sempringham

Dear E.,

Stop feeling pity for yourself and be realistic. As a nun, you’ll never die of childbed fever. You’ll never know the disappointment of having a husband who turns out to be something very different than you expected. And you’ll never know the heartache of doing all you could for your son, only to have him turn against you in the end and take away your dearest friend and all of your best lands.

You need to concentrate more on your prayers, especially for your scoundrel of a father, who could use all of them he can get.



Dear Isabella,

I am a young married lady with a big problem. You see, I am beautiful. Not just pretty, but stunningly beautiful—much like they say you were as a girl. So I think you can identify with my dilemma.

My beauty landed me in an awkward situation when I was but a child of twelve, for that year I married not one, but two men. Ultimately, the Pope decreed that I was to stay with my first husband, which suited me well.

I just can’t seem to stay out of the public eye, though. When I lost my garter at a feast recently, it caused a great deal of fuss, and just when that was beginning to die down, a man of very high estate began casting his eyes in my direction. Though I shall remain faithful to my husband, I cannot help thinking of the future should I suddenly be left free. (With the constant war in France, this is something I must consider, after all.) You see, though I have long been friendly with this man’s parents, I doubt they have ever envisioned me as their daughter-in-law. I believe that they consider me rather flighty, and of course they would probably prefer that their son marry a lady from a foreign court. But I think that if I flutter my eyelashes in the proper way, dear Ned (an assumed name, of course) would happily forget all about marrying someone else and wait for me, however long it takes.

Do you think I am doing the right thing?


Dear F.M.K.,

It is quite wicked to be concerned with the possibility of marrying a third husband when you are still married to the second. You sound completely unworthy of this man to whom you refer, which means, of course, that everything will turn out just as you hope and that you and he will soon be free to marry. But don’t expect his parents to give you a warm welcome.

And do secure your garter more tightly in the future.



Dear Isabella,

Many, many years ago I was a happily married woman, who had given my husband a dozen children, including several sons. Life was perfect until my husband rebelled against the king and was put into the Tower, after which he escaped to France. You may be able to guess what happened after that. He took up with another woman and left me alone at his great castles, all by myself.

Unfortunately, this woman was the cause of my husband’s downfall, and he was executed. The woman, however, was never punished at all for her and his misdeeds, and lives in great comfort and splendor today.

I have been avoiding going off my estates for fear that I might see this woman someday and give her a piece of my mind. What advice do you have for me?

J. in Wigmore

Dear J.,

Instead of blaming this woman for your husband’s straying, you should remember that when a man is unfaithful, it is because his wife is not satisfying his needs. Children, loyalty, and faithfulness are not enough. Were you giving this man power, wealth, and more land than he could keep track of?

Of course you weren’t. So quit whinging and stay on your estates where you belong.



Dear Isabella,

As a mere child, I was forced to go far from my home and marry as part of a peace treaty. Though I expected such a match, for such was my rank in life, I cannot help but be dissatisfied with my husband. Mind you, I have given no cause for complaint, but he has never shown me the respect due a wife, and flaunts his many mistresses in front of my face.

Not only is my lord a poor husband, he is also lacking as a leader. Though his father was a great soldier, he is nothing of the kind, and indeed has spent much of his life as a prisoner because of his military blunders.

All might be different if we had children, but alas, this appears not to be God’s will.

J. in Scotland

Dear J.,

I am sorry that marriage did not work out (believe me, I know whereof I speak), but it was all meant for the best by your loving mother, I am sure.

I suggest that you come to your mother’s residence for a nice long visit. That will make both of you feel better.



Dear Isabella,

I am a woman of rather humble origins who has been offered a chance to come to court. I am writing to ask, how can I make the best of my opportunities? I see that the queen is growing rather too fat and dull after years of childbearing, and it occurs to me that the king might want some more lively (not to mention considerably more slender) company. Do you think I would be aiming too high if I were to try flirting with him a bit, to see if that led to more?

Alice P.

Dear Alice P.,

You are a shameless hussy and a deeply immoral woman, and you ought to be ashamed of yourself. The king has been a faithful husband for years upon years, and you would wreck that? When he is married to such a nice, sweet woman, who every time she turns around is begging mercy for someone, being the perfect wife and mother, and basking in the love of the English people?

Well—nothing ventured, nothing gained, I always say. Give it a try, dearie.


Saturday, January 27, 2007

What's Up with Henry Tilney?

If you scroll down a little on the sidebar, you'll note that I have a poll for your favorite Jane Austen hero.

Strangely, Henry Tilney is winning by a landslide. I find this a little suspect, frankly, given the strength of the competition, particularly Mr. Knightley ("If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more") and Captain Wentworth ("I must learn to brook being happier than I deserve"). Not to mention Mr. Darcy, whose cinematic bare-chest scene brought so many women so much joy. So if you haven't voted already, please make your voice heard!

Friday, January 26, 2007

A Letter From Philippa of Hainault to Her Sister

Once again, a search of long-neglected archives has turned up a fascinating document: a letter from Philippa of Hainault to her sister Margaret, Duchess of Bavaria. Philippa seems to have written a number of such letters, which are in such a poor handwriting and in such an informal style that it seems almost certain that they were written by the queen herself instead of dictated to a clerk. Philippa seldom dated her letters, but the contents of this one suggest that it was written in January 1328, shortly after her marriage to fifteen-year-old Edward III. Philippa’s age is uncertain, but she was probably a little younger than her new husband.

My dearest Margaret,

At last I can write and tell you that I am a wife! Ned and I were married in York on the 24th, or thereabouts—I always did have a poor head for dates, as you well know. Anyway, it was a very nice wedding, presided over by Archbishop William Melton. It was snowing and cold in York, but the new robes Papa bought me before I came here kept me very warm. Queen Isabella said that it helped too that I had some meat on my bones. (She’s such a witch, Meg.) I just pretended I didn’t hear her. Stupid cow.

I was hoping that I would be able to tell you that I had been crowned, but Queen Isabella told me that I had to wait! When I asked why, she would only say, “We need to find a more suitable time.” Ned was furious when she said that—he’s so handsome when he’s angry, though, I really didn’t mind. But I am rather upset that I can’t get crowned until God knows when, especially since Uncle Edmund—that’s the old king’s brother, the Earl of Kent—said that the queen was crowned when she was twelve years old, so why should I have to wait when I’m older than that now? The queen was not happy when he said that, and neither was Uncle Roger. But they didn’t say anything, just gave him a look. (The Queen and Uncle Roger are really good at giving people looks.)

Oh, I should mention that Uncle Roger is Roger Mortimer, whom they call the queen’s “close advisor.” They must think we’re really stupid in Hainault, not to know what they really are to each other. Once I get to know Ned a little better, I’m sure he’ll tell me all I want to know about that story. In the meantime, I just put on my I’m-just-a-naive-little-girl-from-Hainault face whenever they ogle each other in public. (It’s so disgusting.)

Speaking of my new in-laws, had you heard that my father-in-law, the late Edward the Second, was buried just last month? I got to England just after the funeral. I’ve learned that talking about the late king is a definite no-no around the Queen and Uncle Roger, though. When I asked what he had died of in Berkeley Castle they started to give me looks, but then they told me to run along and play with Ned. (I think that’s their code for begetting an heir. So I didn’t mind doing that at all.)

I don’t have a household of my own yet, like a king’s wife should. When I asked the queen about that very nicely (I’m always very polite to her, Meg, don’t worry), she got the usual expression on her face and snapped, “Well, at least your husband didn’t give all of your wedding jewels to his lover,” and Uncle Roger laughed. I really didn’t understand the humor in that, but I suppose when you’re the queen’s “close advisor” (wink), you can laugh at just about anything.

Ned is very sweet, though, and even more handsome than he was when he came to Hainault. Uncle Edmund told me that he looks a lot like his father, and that certainly got the looks from Queen Isabella and Uncle Roger! (Poor man, he's always getting looks from them. I think if I were him I'd go on pilgrimage for a while.) But unlike his father, Ned really enjoys tournaments, and we’ve been having a lot of them to celebrate. Ned and Uncle Roger both joust, and you know whose favor Uncle Roger gets to wear! (So very subtle.)

Well, I must go now; the queen has sent one of her ladies to tell me we’ll be late for the tournament if I don’t quit fussing with my hair (that’s what I tell her I’m doing when I’m writing to you). Sigh. But I suppose mothers-in-law are what we married women have to put up with, aren't they?

Your loving sister,


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

My Ten Favorite Fictional Endings

As I'm a bit slow in the reading department right now, I thought I'd post some of my favorite endings of novels. Sad to say, historical fiction is underrepresented, though there's surely a novel that I've missed that has an ending that can match the ones below. And Dickens and Anne Tyler are overrepresented, but it's hardly my fault that they write great endings, is it? But everyone has different tastes, so I'd love to hear your choices. Here are mine:

Anne Tyler, Saint Maybe:

And she tipped her head and smiled. After all, she might have said, this was an ordinary occurrence. People changed other people's lives every day of the year. There was no call to make such a fuss about it.

Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

When the company disperse--by which time Mr. and Mrs. Veneering have had quite as much as they want of the honor, and the guests have had quite as much as they want of the other honor--Mortimer sees Twemlow home, shakes hands with him cordially at parting, and fares to the Temple, gaily.

Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit

They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted and chafed, and made their usual uproar.

John Updike, Rabbit Is Rich

Through all this she has pushed to be here, in his lap, his hands, a real presence hardly weighing anything but alive. Fortune's hostage, heart's desire, a granddaughter. His. Another nail in his coffin. His.

Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth

The first time, for years, that he had entered Mr Benson's house, he came leading and comforting [Ruth's] son--and, for a moment, he could not speak to his old friend, for the sympathy which choked up his voice, and filled his eyes with tears.

Barbara Pym, A Glass of Blessings

We were to have dinner with Sybil and Arnold that evening. It seemed a happy and suitable ending for a good day.

William Styron, Sophie's Choice

This was not judgment day--only morning. Morning: excellent and fair.

Charles Dickens, Bleak House

"And don't you know that you are prettier than you ever were?"

I did not know that; I am not certain that I know it now. But I know that my dearest little pets are very pretty, and that my darling is very beautiful, and that my husband is very handsome, and that my guardian has the brighest and most benevolent face that ever was seen; and that they can very well do without much beauty in me--even supposing--.

Anne Tyler, Breathing Lessons

Then she slipped free and moved to her side of the bed, because tomorrow they had a long car trip to make and she knew she would need a good night's sleep before they started.

George Eliot, Middlemarch

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you or me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.

(OK, I admit it, this one brings tears to my eyes. Every time.)

Friday, January 19, 2007

Hugh le Despenser's Ten Management Tips

I’ve picked on Queen Isabella too much lately, haven’t I? So let’s have some equal time for her archenemy, Hugh le Despenser the younger.

Reading Alianore’s post about Hugh’s correspondence made me wonder, what would Hugh be doing today? Well, in between stints at minimum-security prisons for white-collar criminals, he’d probably be a CEO in the great tradition of Kenneth Lay or doing a bit of consulting work, I think, because he clearly had a gift for corporate management that was, alas, wasted on his peers in medieval England. Just look at how nicely quotes from his letters (courtesy of Alianore’s post) fit in with modern-day management technique tips:

Management Technique Tip # 1: Invest in a State-of-the-Art Communications System

We order you not to spare expense in sending us frequently information which concerns us.

Management Technique Tip # 2: Encourage Networking and Teamwork

We order you to put good spies on the borders of Breghenok.

Management Technique Tip # 3: Embrace Change

The times change from one day to another. Envy is growing, and especially among the magnates against us, because the king treats us better than any other; wherefore it is necessary for us, while times are good, that our affairs go well.

Management Technique Tip # 4: Give Your Employees the Resources They Need

And if you think it necessary that we send men-at-arms for the garrisons of our castles, if you will inform us speedily, we will send some of the king’s men and our own, as many as shall be necessary.

Management Technique Tip # 5: Impose Clear Expectations upon Staff

You are to act so that we are without damage and you without blame.

Management Technique Tip # 6: Give Employees Feedback

We reprove you sharply for not sending more frequent reports of news.

Management Technique Tip # 7: Document Employee Deficiencies for Personnel Files

We have kept a copy of our letter word for word, to bring it up against you at another time if there is any default.

Management Technique Tip # 8: Don’t Get Bogged Down in Needless Paperwork

We have already so often sent letters on this subject in the past that we are quite tired of it, and we inform you that we will send no further instructions about it until we have need to write in answer to your letters, and therefore the instructions we have given before this must suffice.

Management Technique Tip # 9: Think Outside of the Box

It seems to us that it would be a very good thing if you would in the most subtle manner possible obtain from each commote of our lordship certain hostages.

Management Technique Tip # 10: Have a Well-Defined and Concise Mission Statement

That we may be rich and may attain our ends.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Queen Isabella, Live on Geraldus

I’ve been doing some in-depth research, and deep in the stacks of the university library, I found the following hitherto untranslated transcript of an encounter between a Geraldus de Springerus and the dowager queen Isabella some time in the late 1340’s.

As background to this exciting discovery, it appears that in the decadent years between the Battle of Crécy and the advent of the Black Death, Geraldus de Springerus was an itinerant entertainer who traveled throughout England. His “shows,” as they were called in the common parlance, were widely attended by the lower elements of the populace, and featured “guests,” sometimes from the same rank as the audience, sometimes of a much higher social standing. Oddly, the latter sort of guests do not seem to have regarded their appearance alongside Springerus as demeaning. This suggests a hitherto unrealized fluidity among social relations at the time and, I hope, will provide a fruitful ground of study for researchers in decades to come.

The translation presented a challenge, as the shows were conducted in a peculiar mix of Norman French and Middle English, depending upon the status of the guest. Furthermore, there are lacunae where the transcriber appears to have simply given up the attempt to record the goings-on, instead simply writing, “Fisticuffs.” This implies that quite often, the passions of the audience may have become extremely heightened.

Many more transcripts await translation. In the meantime, I hope this modest contribution to medieval studies will be met with interest.

Geraldus: Welcome, ladies and gentlemen. Today the theme of our show is “Misunderstood Women.” I’m very pleased to have with me today our dowager queen, Isabella, over from Castle Rising, where she spends most of her time these days.

Isabella: But only because I want to.

Geraldus: Yes, your grace. We had another guest lined up, one Mistress Margery, who wanted to address accusations that she had been making people’s sheep die, but she had—er—a conflict and could not make it after all.

Audience Member: Because we burned the witch!

(Cheers and claps from audience. There is a single boo toward the back, followed by fisticuffs.)

Geraldus: (To Isabella) They’re a tough crowd today, your grace.

Isabella: (To Geraldus) Tough crowds? You’re looking at a woman who escaped the Scots single-handedly. Well, with some help from my knights, of course. (To the crowd). You’ve heard the stories about me. I took a lover. I had my husband murdered. I had my brother-in-law the Earl of Kent executed on trumped-up charges. I kept my son the king and his wife poor while my lover and I got richer and richer. I did everything possible to keep my lover in power and my son from being king on his own.

Geraldus: And those stories aren’t true, your grace?

Isabella: Of course they’re true. Do I look like a weakling to you? But no one understands why I did them. And that’s why I’m here, to set the record straight.

Geraldus: And that’s why I’ve brought you here, your grace. To—

Isabella: Oh, just keep quiet. (To the crowd) I put up with my no-good husband for years. I kept quiet when he gave all of my jewels to Gaveston. I listened while he talked about digging ditches. I never said “I told you so” when he lost to the Scots. I put up with the two Hugh le Despensers for as long as anyone possibly could. I was the best wife in the world. I was.

Woman in Audience: I hear you, girl!

Isabella: So what was I to do when a man like Roger Mortimer came along? Say no, thank you, I’d rather stay with my sodomite of a husband?

More Women in Audience: No way, girl!

Isabella: And the money. I couldn’t have Mortimer see me in rags, now could I? Or let him look shabby, could I? And the land—I needed places to entertain him in properly, didn’t I?

Even More Women in Audience: Damn straight!

Isabella: And my son. You think having a boy that age glaring daggers every time I so much as smiled at Roger Mortimer was pleasant? I couldn’t do anything to please the little wretch. (Dabs eyes.) I did try so hard to be a good mother to him. I got him on the throne, didn’t I?

Women in Audience: Awwww!

Isabella: And that stupid brother-in-law of mine was a meddler, pure and simple. If he’d minded his own business—

Man in Audience: So why’d you kill that poor bloke your husband?

(Fisticuffs between man and surrounding women.)

Geraldus: (after a long interval of fisticuffs) Well, that is a perfectly valid question, your grace.

Isabella: I— Well, because he was a bloody nuisance!

(Cheers from women in audience)

Geraldus: Well. We’ve got a very special surprise for you now, your grace.

(A curtain at the back of the platform is pushed aside and a man wearing a monk’s habit steps out and pulls his hood back. Isabella stares in horror at him.)

Isabella: You’re—you’re—

Edward II: Your husband, my dear.

Isabella: You’re not dead.

Edward II: Still smart as a whip after all of these years.

Isabella: But I went to your funeral!

Edward II: You went to a porter’s funeral. I killed him and escaped. I’ve been wandering all around Europe ever since, dressed like this.

Isabella: I held a splendid funeral for a damned porter? I’ve been paying to have masses said for a damned porter?

Edward II: That’s it.

Isabella: Well, this is just outrageous and in extremely poor taste.

Edward II: And you call the red-hot poker business good taste? I thought you would have been more subtle, frankly.

Isabella: That was Mortimer’s idea.

Edward II: (in a high voice) Oh, that was Mortimer’s idea. That’s right, blame it on your boyfriend. Oh look now, she’s sulking. She always was good at sulking.

Isabella: Well, I hope you don’t think you’re going to take your throne back.

Edward II: And deal with the Scots and your French relations again? Lord no, Ned’s welcome to it. I can do all of the rowing and thatching and ditch digging that I please now.

Isabella: Well, if that just isn’t absolutely delightful.

Geraldus: Folks? Why don’t you show there are no hard feelings? An embrace for the audience?

Isabella: [Editor’s note: This passage contains obscure words that appear to be strikingly scatological and obscene. Further analysis by specialists is needed here.]

(Isabella stalks off the platform.)

Edward II: Good riddance. Now that she’s gone, can you find a slot for me sometime? How about “Men Who Lost Their Thrones and Don’t Really Mind”? I hear that David Bruce is available.

Geraldus: It’s going to be hard, but—let’s see. I’ve got your niece Joan of Kent coming up on “Women Who Just Can’t Say No to Marriage,” and your son’s scheduled too, on “Men Who Want to Be King of France.” And there’s “People Who Worry About That Pestilence Thing Coming to England.” But I’ll think of something. I’ll have my people send a messenger to your people.

(All of you people who commented on my previous Isabella post are to blame for this one.)

Monday, January 15, 2007

Five Funny Things About Me

Since this meme has been making the rounds, I thought I'd give it a whirl:

1. When I was around 14 or 15, I decided that my white-bread non-ethnicity was boring. Therefore, I determined, I would convert to Judaism. I never did, but I kept up an interest in Jewish history until well into my early twenties and once accompanied a family on some sort of pro-Israeli march in Washington (I think it was there; my memory is growing fuzzy). My hosts, a very nice couple, asked me whether my parents were observant Jews. I could of course answer, with perfect truthfulness, that they were not.

2. My apartment in college was notoriously messy, so much so that a friend of mine made a film of it, including a shot of its most famous attraction, a spider plant that had been left unwatered so long that it had desiccated ("dried up" does not adequately express the sheer deadness of this plant). The film was accompanied by me singing, "I Can't Get No Clean Apartment" to the tune of "I Can't Get No Satisfaction."

(My daughter thinks I am a bad housekeeper today. The kid has no idea what depths I can sink to if I really work at it.)

3. I am a spectacularly picky eater who did not try pizza until I was fifteen. Today, if given my druthers, I could eat almost nothing but pizza. (Provided, of course, that it's sausage.)

4. I once put a New York City bus out of commission by dropping a dollar bill into the change hopper instead of change, which resulted in a busload of grumpy commuters from Brooklyn to Manhattan having to wait while a new, dollar-less bus was brought into commission. When a late arrival standing nearby me as we were waiting for the second bus asked, "What idiot would have done that?" I managed a look of total innocence.

5. When I was 18, I worked in a theme park outside of Richmond, Virginia, selling refreshments of various sorts. I wore a purple checked, ruffled costume that was in theory supposed to resemble a 19th-century bathing outfit, but in fact made me look like Little Bo Peep without the shepherd's crook. I moved from stand to stand, but my longest stint (or at least it felt that way) was on a stand stationed opposite a group of plastic frogs that sang barbershop quartet songs every fifteen minutes. Yes, this experience has scarred me for life. Yes, it probably shows.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

A Rose for Virtue by Norah Lofts

Over the New Year's weekend, I went into a used bookstore on the coast and spotted A Rose for Virtue, a 1971 historical novel by Norah Lofts, waiting patiently on the shelf. I hadn't heard of this novel before, so I was delighted to pick it up and find that it was about Hortense, daughter of Josephine Bonaparte and stepdaughter (and sister-in-law) to Napoleon. I've been rather interested in Josephine and her circle ever since I read Sandra Gulland's Josephine B. trilogy.

A Rose for Virtue (named for a school prize that gets destroyed inadvertently when Hortense wears it) follows Hortense from the time of her mother and stepfather's marriage to Hortense's departure from Paris following Napoleon's final downfall. It has one of the most jaw-breaking subtitles I've seen in modern fiction: "The Very Private Life of Hortense, Stepdaughter of Napoleon I, mother of Napoleon III."

Hortense is an appealing heroine, resilient, un-self-pitying, and resourceful without ever becoming that dreaded creature of historical fiction, the Mary Sue. As the narrator, she frankly admits that she lacks her mother's easy charm, and she can be stubborn, especially when her estranged husband, Louis, is concerned. She can laugh at herself, and she has a rare gift for facing facts.

Lofts does a good job with the other characters as well. Josephine is particularly well done, and there are some nice sketches of life among the Bonapartes, one of the highlights being a particularly fractious family dinner that ends with Hortense's baby son peeing on the tablecloth.

This isn't an action-packed novel; the big events, of course, occur mostly out of Hortense's range of vision. Nonetheless, Lofts is good at evoking the emotions caused by these events, as when Hortense, urging Napoleon to flee following his return from Waterloo, gets this succinct reply: "My dear, it no longer matters."

My only real disappointment with the book was its ending. Artistically, it works, but it would have been good to see what Hortense made of her later life. As the book doesn't have an afterword--I suppose they weren't in style at the time--the reader wanting more information has to go elsewhere. And the reader will likely want this information, for Lofts makes our stay in Hortense's company a congenial one.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

In Which I Ponder the Subject of Queen Isabella

I do my best pondering in the shower, and today in the shower I was pondering two things: what I should blog about next, and why historians and novelists—particularly female ones—have taken such a rosy view of Edward II’s queen, Isabella, lately. Thus a blog post was born and my hair made squeaky clean, all in the course of a few minutes. You just can’t beat the shower, can you?

So why has Isabella become a feminist heroine of sorts? It’s true that she did put up with a lot during Edward II’s reign, and it’s true that she acted with courage in amassing troops and sailing to England to overthrow her husband’s despised favorites, the Despensers, without knowing how successful her enterprise would be. It’s also true that there was moral justification for her actions, given the threat the Despensers, especially Hugh the younger, posed to anyone who possessed property they coveted. So far, so good.

Once Isabella achieved her objective of overthrowing the Despensers, though, and put her son Edward III on the throne in place of his father, she is notable mainly for the greed, short-sightedness, maliciousness, and sheer stupidity she displayed. She granted herself an enormous dower and went through the considerable amount Edward II had left in his treasury with remarkable speed. She and her lover, Roger Mortimer, quickly alienated their allies, especially Henry of Lancaster, by excluding them from decision-making despite their status as members of the young king’s regency council. She entered into a hugely unpopular treaty with Scotland and wrecked any chances she might have had of reconciling the northern landholders to it by appropriating most of the reparation money from the Scots for herself. She tolerated the increasing disrespect with which Roger Mortimer treated the maturing king and seems to have done nothing to protect her own son’s interests against those of her lover. She and Mortimer duped her own brother-in-law, the Earl of Kent, into believing that Edward II was still alive, then had him executed for attempting to rescue his brother from prison. This act of tyranny was probably the last straw for Edward III and his friends, who brought Mortimer and Isabella down only months thereafter.

I’ve left out the most damning of Isabella’s actions, the murder of her husband. Even if it was directed by Mortimer without Isabella’s involvement, she nonetheless continued her relationship with him, suggesting that she felt little if any revulsion at his deed. She might have felt guilt at the end of her life, when she elected to be buried in her wedding cloak and with Edward II’s heart in her tomb. (This, of course, does not take into account the theory that Edward II was not murdered at Berkeley Castle. That’s another blog post, another day.)

Isabella also comes out rather poorly when one looks at her dealings with other females. I’ve already blogged about her forced veiling of the Despenser girls, children who had done her no harm and posed no threat to her or to the crown. Other women and girls were treated shabbily as well. About the same time the Earl of Kent was executed, Isabella and Mortimer ordered that his widow—who was nine months pregnant—be arrested, along with the couple’s children, all of whom were very young. (Among them was the two-year-old Joan of Kent, later mother to Richard II.) The order for the arrest of the Countess of Kent shows great concern for the countess’s jewels, which were to be tracked down and delivered to royal officials, and very little for the countess herself, who was to be accompanied to her new quarters only by her children and two damsels.

Alice de Lacy, the widow of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, had been treated badly by the Despensers; thus, one would expect the victorious Isabella, who had publicly decried the Despensers’ treatment of orphans and widows, to restore her to the lands out of which she had been bullied. Instead, Roger Mortimer, undoubtedly with Isabella’s acquiescence, took over the more valuable of Alice’s Welsh estates, notably Denbigh.

Isabella’s adultery with Roger Mortimer has often been treated as a justified response to the presumed unfaithfulness of her husband the king. Even if one accepts this dubious morality—which was quite dubious in medieval England, where women were expected to be faithful wives even if their husbands strayed—Isabella’s apologists have seldom addressed the fact that Mortimer himself was married, to a woman against whom Isabella had no cause to bear a grudge. Joan de Geneville had borne Mortimer a dozen children and had suffered imprisonment for his sake by Edward II. Her reward was the destruction of her marriage at the hands of Isabella and her husband, though it could be argued that the estrangement of the Mortimers at least gave Joan a break from child-bearing, if age hadn’t done that already.

Finally, Isabella had obtained money and ships for her invasion of England by agreeing to marry the future Edward III to Philippa of Hainault. Isabella thus owed a considerable debt of gratitude toward her new daughter-in-law when she and Edward III married in 1328. Instead, Isabella delayed Philippa’s coronation until 1330, when Philippa was visibly pregnant with her first child and the matter could not be decently postponed for much longer. Philippa was also deprived of dower lands and prevented from having her own household until that time, and does not seem to have gotten her full dower until 1331, after the fall of Isabella and Mortimer.

Isabella’s defenders have largely blamed Roger Mortimer for the shortcomings of Isabella’s rule. They fail to recognize that one can’t have it both ways. If Isabella was truly dominated by Mortimer and subject to his will, her subservient role as Mortimer’s tool is hardly the stuff of which feminist icons are made. If she was his equal or his superior in power, she has to assume her share of blame for the couple’s actions.

I don’t mean by this to suggest that Isabella was devoid of all redeeming characteristics or that it’s unreasonable for a biographer or a historical novelist to take a sympathetic stance toward her. To the contrary, I think that like most people, she was a mixed bag of qualities and that circumstances worked to put her in a situation where her worst ones came to the forefront. After all, before and after the events of 1325 to 1330, she mostly conducted herself in a manner that was free from reproach. She was certainly kind to some people, like the Scottish orphan boy she provided for early in her reign; she retained some loyal friends, like Joan of Bar, to the end of her days; and she seems to have had an affectionate relationship with her younger daughter in her old age (Isabella’s old age, that is). Perhaps like so many who have found themselves suddenly in a position of power, she found it too heady a brew. And one can’t tell from the records whether she struggled with guilt and remorse, during or after the events in question.

So that brings me back to my original question: why such a blinkered view of Isabella? I don’t really have an answer (gee, thanks!), except that I think that some writers are so taken by the idea of Isabella as a strong woman avenging the wrongs done to her that they blind themselves to the more unpleasant aspects of her character.

It’s quite possible, I might add, for a novelist to make Isabella a sympathetic character without sanitizing her. Brenda Honeyman did it brilliantly in The King’s Minions and The Queen and Mortimer, and Margaret Campbell Barnes in Isabel the Fair and Hilda Lewis in Harlot Queen managed it well also. (Harlot Queen, by the way, has been reissued by Tempus Publishing, evidently through the influence of biographer/novelist Alison Weir, an admirer of Lewis’s novels.) Show us the strong, sensitive Isabella by all means—but not at the cost of pretending that the she-wolf didn’t exist.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

More on Emily Sarah Holt

In a couple of recent posts, I've mentioned the Victorian historical novelist Emily Sarah Holt. Curious, I looked on the online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography today to see if there was an entry for her, and sure enough, there was, by Barbara Brandon Schnorrenberg. I can't link to it because it's a subscription publication, but I found several things in the entry that were interesting.

First, Schnorrenberg stated that Holt was born in 1836, but that her date of death was uncertain; her last known published work was in 1904. It surprised me that the death of such a prolific writer should have apparently gone unnoticed. Perhaps that has to do with the disdain with which the intelligentsia of the early 1900's regarded popular Victorian novelists.

Second, Schnorrenberg, describing Holt's early biographical work called Memoirs of Royal Ladies, wrote, "For an introduction to such women as Ela de Rosman, Alicia de Lacy, Joan of Kent, or Constance, second wife of John of Gaunt, this work is still probably a useful starting place. The essays are documented and show a wide knowledge of the sources." That confirmed what I've thought of the few historical novels of Holt's I've read; in spite of Holt's biases and some of the decidedly peculiar conclusions she draws, her research was thorough, relying heavily on primary sources, and would put that of many a modern historical novelist to shame.

Third, Schnorrenberg, turning to Holt's many historical novels (45 by her count), describes them as intended for girls from ages ten to sixteen. If so, these nineteenth-century girls were a sophisticated lot. In the novels of hers that I've read, Holt assumes the reader has a certain grasp of history; she provides detailed historical appendices, complete with genealogies; and she's not at all adverse to footnotes. Nor would her books have met with the approval of Dickens's Mr. Podsnap, who deplored anything that might bring a blush to the cheek of the Young Person. Holt has her limits, of course. In her novel on Piers Gaveston and Edward II, In All Time of Our Tribulation, she never even hints at homosexuality, and in her account of the king's death, she allows the killers to use a table, but stops short of bringing out the red-hot poker, presumably with the idea that if the young ladies really had to know the specifics, they could ask their brothers. The Young Person would surely blush, however, at the scene where Edward II is presented with the executed Gaveston's head:

And then Edward saw before him the face that he had so dearly loved, calm with the stillness of death. . . . He flung himself on his knees by the severed head, clasped it to his bosom, poured kisses on the cold lips, and conducted himself almost like a man demented.

Even if the novels were intended for young girls, I suspect that they did find their way into the hands of adults, in part for the cattiness which the author often indulges in, as in this scene where Eleanor de Clare and Margaret de Clare meet at an inn: "Lastly, the sisters bade each other good night, with a kiss in which there was not much affection, except of that kind which Rouchefoucauld says is the strongest of all--that which is built upon mutual dislikes."

Finally, there's this thought by Schnorrenberg:

While there is certainly a didactic religious tone to her books, she was also telling a good and, so far as she could, historically accurate story. It is probable that she influenced at least as many girls as did Charlotte Yonge, and she may also have inspired in many girls an interest in history.

As the best historical novels should do. Here's to Miss Holt.

(By the way, if you're interested, here's a link to a few e-text versions of Emily Sarah Holt's works. And here's a link to a blog by the Little Professor, who's done academic work on Holt.)

Monday, January 01, 2007

Two (Maybe Three) Little Nuns

On January 1, 1327, Queen Isabella, having executed her enemies and imprisoned her husband, King Edward II, turned her attention to much smaller matters: Hugh le Despenser the younger’s little daughters. On that day, the queen issued an order that Eleanor le Despenser be packed off to Sempringham, a Gilbertine priory in Lincolnshire, and veiled as a nun “without delay.” A similar order sent Margaret to Watton, another Gilbertine priory in Yorkshire. Coming just a few weeks after the brutal execution of the girls’ father and the imprisonment of their mother, the queen’s orders completed the unraveling of the privileged existence these girls had enjoyed.

Hugh le Despenser had left four sons and five daughters behind him. Isabel, the oldest of the girls, was about fourteen. She had been married as a child to Richard Fitzalan and thereby escaped her younger sisters’ fate.

Joan had been intended to marry the Earl of Kildaire’s son, John, but he had died in 1323 or 1324, age nine. Joan herself also was veiled as a nun at Shaftesbury Abbey, but no order from Isabella appears to be extant in her case, so whether she was caught up in Isabella’s net too or was veiled for some other reason is uncertain. (It seems unlikely, though, that her parents, having arranged for her marriage, would later decide to veil her, unless some physical or mental problem had appeared after John’s death that made them consider her unsuitable for marriage. And it seems highly unlikely that Isabella would have veiled her younger sisters but left Joan alone.)

At the time of the queen’s order, Eleanor was contracted to marry Laurence Hastings, the future Earl of Pembroke; he was about seven years old. Isabella ignored this contract, and Hastings ultimately married one of the many daughters of Roger Mortimer, the queen’s lover.

Judging from a record dated March 1, 1327, in which one Thomas de Houk was forgiven a debt for having boarded Margaret for three years, Margaret was probably only about three or four at the time of her forced veiling.

Elizabeth, the youngest Despenser girl, was not veiled. She eventually would marry Maurice de Berkeley, the heir to the man in whose custody Edward II was killed in 1327. We can only speculate as to why Isabella chose not to include her in the forced veiling. Perhaps it might have been her extremely young age; assuming that Elizabeth was fairly close to the age of her future husband, she was probably no more than an infant in January 1327. It is also possible that she was in her mother’s womb at the time of the veiling of her sisters.

That the queen’s orders were carried out quickly, as instructed, is apparent from an entry in the Calendar of Memoranda Rolls dated February 23, 1327. There the prior of Sempringham obtained forgiveness for a debt of nearly forty pounds because of the charges the priory had incurred in veiling Eleanor.

Despite Isabella’s efforts, the girls were not forgotten by their family. Margaret died at Watton some time in 1337; her aunt Elizabeth de Burgh sent items to be used for her burial. Margaret may have lived in some style before her death; in 1332, the prior at Watton, having been hit up for money by Edward III, who was fund-raising for his sister's wedding, pleaded penury, offering as an excuse the large number of nuns at Watton and the necessity to maintain Margaret le Despenser. In 1337, the crown granted Eleanor twenty pounds per year, presumably at the request of her eldest brother, Hugh, who was also the recipient of royal largesse at that time. Hugh granted Joan twenty marks per year in 1343. In 1345, Hugh, aided by Queen Philippa, the Earl of Lancaster, the Earl of Derby, and the Earl of Warwick, presented a petition to the Pope to have certain privileges for Sempringham confirmed. The petition was granted. Eleanor was still living in 1351; Joan lived into the reign of Richard II, dying in 1384.

There were precedents for the queen’s command. As readers of Sharon Penman’s epic historical novel The Reckoning know, after the Welsh prince Llywelyn was slain, Edward I sent his infant daughter, Gwenllian, to Sempringham, where she was veiled and would spend the rest of her life. (Indeed, she lived until 1337, and probably encountered little Eleanor le Despenser when she was sent to Sempringham in 1327.) Following the capture and execution of Llywelyn’s brother Dafydd, Edward I had his young daughters sent to English priories, where they like their cousin Gwenllian were veiled. (Dafydd’s sons suffered a worse fate, imprisonment for life.) Edward II himself sent Roger Mortimer’s daughters and a host of other female relatives of his enemies to priories after the Battle of Boroughbridge, but never forced them to take the veil.

It is unclear what Isabella’s motivations were: expedience, caution, spite, or some combination thereof. Edward I’s decision to “disappear” the daughters of the Welsh royal family by veiling them at least had a cold-blooded logic behind it; by their lineage they would have posed a threat to the king’s dominance over Wales had they been allowed to live free and marry. The Despenser girls, however, posed no similar threat to Isabella and Mortimer. With their father dead and disgraced, they were of no political importance. They were not even potential heiresses; all their parents’ lands were in the hands of the crown at the time, and even if there had been some land in the family, there was a male heir to inherit it, with three spares as backup. In any case, if Isabella had perceived the veiling of the girls to be important as a security measure, she would surely not have let the youngest girl, Elizabeth, escape the habit. Perhaps the queen simply wanted to dispose of the girls cheaply; the expenses of their imprisoned mother, Eleanor de Clare, were being paid by the crown, and dumping her daughters into convents meant that someone else other than the crown was burdened with their care.

Oddly, in her sympathetic biography of Isabella, Alison Weir refers to the girls’ being “placed in convents while their mother was in the Tower” and states that they “later became nuns”—ignoring altogether the coercive role Isabella played in their veiling. (She also cites the pardon of their brother Hugh as an instance of Isabella’s leniency, disregarding the fact that the pardon was one in name only, since Hugh remained in prison until after Isabella and Mortimer’s downfall.) This misinterpretation of the unambiguous orders issued for Eleanor and Margaret is puzzling, to say the least, as other historians, such as Eileen Power and Frances Underwood, have mentioned them.

Long before these modern historians took note of the orders veiling the Despenser girls, however, they were duly noted in the nineteenth century by a prolific historical novelist of the time, Emily Sarah Holt, who made Margaret and Eleanor le Despenser’s confinement the subject of a novel called In Convent Walls. Like the other novels of Holt’s I’ve read, In Convent Walls is a weird mixture of sharp-eyed observation of human foibles, painstaking research, anti-Catholicism, and not-at-all-subtle Protestant evangelism, and it will probably be to few modern readers’ tastes. Still, it’s oddly comforting to see that by one nineteenth-century literary lady at least, two little medieval girls, starting the new year of 1327 by being torn from all that was familiar to them, were remembered with compassion.