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BOOK: A Great and Glorious Adventure
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If Edward I has been subject to historical revisionism, then none is necessary for his son. Edward II was every bit as unpleasant and incompetent as the chroniclers claim. Although he inherited
his father’s commanding height and good looks and was a competent horseman, he had little interest in the other knightly virtues and corrupted the system of royal patronage. This latter
depended for its success on the wide and reasonably fair distribution of land, offices and titles, thus retaining the loyalty of those who mattered, but Edward neglected the magnates who expected
to be preferred and instead lavished favours and lands on his successive catamites.

Homosexuality was then a sin in the eyes of the church – it was equated with heresy – and generally regarded with horror by the laity. Still, Edward’s proclivities might have
been tolerated if he had kept them as
private as it was possible to be in a medieval court, but this he was unable to do. Some modern scholarship has suggested that
Edward’s relationships were not sexual but actually a form of blood brotherhood, and it points to the fact that accusations of homosexuality against Edward were only hinted at during his
lifetime and not made openly until after his death. Edward and both his favourites were married and produced children, but all three had to produce heirs and anyway it is not uncommon for
homosexuals to engage in occasional heterosexual relationships. While at the time it was not unusual for men to share a bed without any impropriety (indeed, soldiers in British army barrack rooms
were required to sleep two or three to a bed until well into the nineteenth century), it was certainly unusual that Edward chose to sleep with a man rather than his wife on the night of his
coronation. That the magnates had their doubts about Edward from a very early stage is evidenced by their insertion of a new clause in the coronation oath, whereby he swore to uphold ‘the
laws and customs of the realm’.

Edward’s first favourite, who had been part of his household since he was Prince of Wales, was Piers Gaveston, a Gascon knight and son of a loyal servant and soldier of Edward I. Knighted
by Edward I and then advanced by Edward II to the earldom of Cornwall (a title normally reserved for princes of the blood royal), Gaveston was intelligent, good-looking, a competent administrator
and excelled at the knightly pastimes of hunting and jousting. All might have been well if he could only have restrained his wit and avoided poking fun at the great men of the kingdom. Had he
deferred to the nobility and worked at showing them that he was no threat (and he appears to have had no political ambitions), he might well occupy no more than a brief footnote in history, but, as
it was, he could not resist teasing the magnates, to whom he gave offensive and often apt nicknames of which he made no secret. Thus, the amply proportioned earl of Lincoln was ‘burst
belly’; the earl of Pembroke ‘Joseph the Jew’; the earl of Lancaster, the king’s cousin, the richest man in the kingdom and the proprietor of a large private army,
‘the fiddler’; and the earl of Warwick, who would ultimately be responsible for Gaveston’s premature demise, ‘the black dog of Arden’.

Not only did Gaveston make no secret of his deriding the great men, but he also publicly humiliated them by beating them in jousts and took
a prominent role in the
coronation that should have been filled by men of far higher status. Gaveston married the king’s niece, a union to which his birth did not entitle him, and, when Edward went to France to
collect his own bride, he left Gaveston as regent. By his behaviour and by his position as the king’s principal adviser, Gaveston was bound to make dangerous enemies: he was exiled once by
Edward I and twice by Edward II under pressure from the magnates, who threatened civil war if the favourite did not go. Then, in 1312, Gaveston’s return from exile for the third time did
spark baronial revolt. He eventually fell into the hands of his enemies, principally the earl of Warwick, and, after a trial which was probably illegal, he was condemned to death and beheaded near
Kennilworth on land belonging to the earl of Lancaster. As was the norm at the time, no one actually blamed the king for all the injustices and inefficiencies of his reign, but rather his evil
counsellor – Gaveston – and Edward was then in no position to do anything about what he saw as the murder of his beloved Pierrot. Revenge was to come later.

Despite the removal of Gaveston, by 1314, baronial opposition to Edward’s rule, or misrule, was growing. Having ignored his father’s dying wish that he should complete the conquest
of Scotland, Edward II had abandoned that nation to civil war and returned south. Now, hoping to restore the political situation at home by a successful war in Scotland, Edward summoned the earls
to report for military service. The earl of Lancaster and a number of his supporters refused, on the grounds that Parliament had not approved the finance for the expedition, which was therefore
illegal. Edward went ahead anyway and the result was a disaster when, at Bannockburn in June 1314, his army of around 10,000 was decisively defeated by a much smaller Scottish army commanded by
Robert Bruce. Edward fled the field (to be fair, he wanted to stand and fight but his minders would not have it) and his army collapsed with perhaps a third becoming casualties. Disaster though it
undoubtedly was for Edward, the battle was the trigger for a root-and-branch reform of the English military system which, as we shall see, would contribute much to the superiority of English arms
in the Hundred Years War.

As the Scottish war dragged on without any prospect of a successful end, Edward’s position weakened further. Scottish raids into northern England were increasingly ambitious,
Berwick-upon-Tweed was under
siege yet again,
and there was revolt in Wales. To make matters worse, new favourites began
increasingly to engage Edward’s attention and to receive favours from him. The Despensers, father and son, both named Hugh, were rather better bred than Gaveston had been, but were actually
more of a threat, being even more avaricious than the previous royal pet and, in the case of Hugh the Younger, possessing both political ambitions and the ability to pursue them. There is less
evidence for a homosexual relationship between Edward and Hugh the Younger than for one with Gaveston, but there can be little doubt that the friendship was rather more than just the comradeship of
men both in their thirties.

As it was, the Despensers’ methods of increasing their holdings of land varied from blackmail and intimidation of the courts to the threat and sometimes use of force and outright theft. In
this, they particularly upset the Marcher Lords, who found estates in Wales and on the border that should have gone to them being acquired by the Despensers, while early on Hugh the Younger upset
the earl of Lancaster when he was granted a potentially lucrative wardship which Lancaster had attempted to obtain for himself. Antagonism towards the Despensers exploded in 1321 when the Marcher
Lords, aided by Lancaster and including one Roger Mortimer, attacked Despenser lands and properties. In Parliament in London, the lords laid the usual charges: removal of competent officials by the
Despensers and their replacement by corrupt ones; refusing access to the king unless one of them was present; misappropriating properties; and generally giving the king bad advice. Edward, backed
into a corner and faced with the united opposition of so many, had little choice but to agree to Parliament’s demands and the Despensers were duly exiled.

Now began Edward’s only successful military campaign of his entire reign. Lancaster, for all his titles and riches, was not a natural leader, a competent general or politically astute; he
was indecisive and he too had his enemies. Once away from the London parliament, Edward recalled the Despensers, besieged and took Leeds Castle in Kent, executed the commander and his garrison, and
marched north. Lancaster too moved
north, possibly to seek sanctuary with the Scots, and on 16 March 1322 found his way barred by a royalist army at Boroughbridge, which held
the only bridge over the River Ure. Unable to force the bridge, the earl of Hereford being killed in the attempt, and prevented by royalist archers from crossing at a nearby ford – lessons
that would also be relevant to the great war that was to come – Lancaster’s army melted away and the earl himself surrendered the next day. Tried as a traitor at Pontefract, Lancaster
could have expected to have been pardoned with a fine or exiled at worst in deference to his royal blood (he was a grandson of Henry III), but now it was payback time for Gaveston, and the only
concession to Lancaster was that he was beheaded rather than hanged, drawn and quartered.
Despite Lancaster’s unpleasant traits, such was the
unpopularity of the king and the Despensers that a cult rapidly grew up and royal guards had to be posted over Lancaster’s tomb to prevent miracle-seekers approaching it. Now that he had
dealt with Lancaster, Edward’s revenge on the other rebels was bloody: eleven barons and fifteen knights were indeed drawn, hanged and quartered, four Kentish knights were drawn and hanged
but not quartered, in Canterbury, and another in London, while seventy-two knights were imprisoned. From now until 1326, the Despensers’ power, wealth and influence increased: their mistake,
and the cause of their ultimate downfall, was in attracting the opposition of the queen.

Philip IV of France, known as ‘the Fair’ for his good looks, had three sons out of his wife Joan of Champagne before she gave birth to a daughter, Isabella, in 1295. As part of
Edward I’s search for a solution to the vexed question of Aquitaine, he married the French king’s sister, Margaret, in 1299, his first wife having died in 1290, and had his eldest
surviving son, the future Edward II, betrothed to Isabella. Their wedding took place in Boulogne in 1308, the year after Edward II became king, when he was twenty-four and his bride not yet
thirteen. The earliest age permitted by the church for a girl to have sex in marriage was twelve, but practicalities ruled that she must have passed puberty. We do not know whether Isabella had
passed that point at the time of their marriage – and if she had not, then there might be a charitable explanation for the non-consummation
of the marriage – but
contemporary chronicles all describe her as being beautiful, so, if she was not yet physically capable of sexual intercourse, we may assume that she was within the next year or so. In any event,
she did not conceive until 1312, when she was rising seventeen, which would indicate that Edward visited her bed but rarely. He did fulfil his dynastic duty, however, perhaps without much
enthusiasm, and Isabella gave birth to the future Edward III in 1312, a second son, John, in 1316, and daughters Eleanor in 1318 and Joan in 1321.

Isabella must have felt humiliated and embarrassed by her husband’s obvious preference for Gaveston over herself, particularly when she found Gaveston wearing the jewels given to Edward by
her father, the French king, as wedding presents, and, worse, some of her own jewellery that had come over to England as part of her train. In spite of this, she seems to have done her best to
support and help the king, albeit complaining to her father that she was kept short of money and that Gaveston was preferred over her.

Since the eighteenth century, Queen Isabella has been described as the ‘she-wolf of France’. Reviled as a notorious adulteress, a rebel against her husband and an accomplice in his
murder, only recently has she been reassessed, at least by some, as a tragic queen. Isabella certainly had much to contend with, and for most of her marriage to Edward II she was a loyal and
supportive wife. She accompanied her husband on military campaigns (campaigns which almost always had disastrous results), and on several occasions she was entrusted with the Great Seal of England;
she was literate and, with maturity, certainly capable of understanding the political nuances, both domestic and international, of her time. As the daughter of the king of France, and after the
death of Philip in 1314, the sister of his successor Louis X, she was well aware of her status and determined to maintain it in the face of her husband’s frequent neglect and casual

Isabella’s discovery of adulterous relationships involving the wives of two of her brothers with the connivance of the wife of a third and her eventual reporting of it to her father,
Philip, in full knowledge of what the result might be, have been cited as evidence of a hard-heartedness in her character, but it is far more likely that she knew what the punishment for her might
be if she concealed such knowledge. Margarite of Burgundy was the wife of Louis, later Louis X, and Blanche of Hungary was married to
Charles, later Charles IV. Both young
ladies, aided and abetted by Jeanne of Burgundy, wife of Philip, later Philip V, were carrying on with two knights of the French court, the brothers Philip and Gautier d’Aulnay. All five were
arrested and the brothers tortured until they admitted adultery – a particularly serious offence as it could call the whole royal succession into question. The wretched knights were publicly
castrated with their organs thrown to the hounds, then flayed until almost dead, and finally decapitated. Margarite and Blanche were sentenced to life imprisonment in Château Gaillard, while
Jeanne was put under house arrest.

Isabella’s importance in British history lies not in whether or not her eventual conduct was justified, but in who she was and her place as a catalyst of the Hundred Years War.
Gaveston’s relations with the king, while shaming to the queen, did not seriously affect her property or her safety, while those of the Despensers certainly did. Until the rise of the
Despensers, Isabella had supported her husband against his barons and in disagreements with her own father and brothers, kings of France. When the Despensers began to move against her, however,
suspecting that she was in contact with their enemies, as she probably was, and when they persuaded the king to take back her property on the grounds that they should not, as an independent source
of funds, be left in her hands as Anglo-French relations worsened, Isabella’s attitudes began to change. She did retain the confidence of the king in political matters, for when war over
Aquitaine broke out again in 1324, it was Isabella, with the approval of the overconfident Despensers, who was sent to France to mediate with her brother, Charles IV. Charles had succeeded his
brother Philip V in 1322, when the latter had died of dysentery without a legitimate male offspring, and, while he was undoubtedly supportive of Isabella as his sister, he also saw her as a
possible pawn that could be manipulated to discommode the English king.

BOOK: A Great and Glorious Adventure
4.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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