Sunday, August 9, 2009

Queen Isabella by Alison Weir

Writing biographies of medieval queens has to be tricky. We know these women led interesting lives, sometimes hideously so. Yet if the author dutifully chronicles only the lady's life, he ends up telling us how she traveled from this manor to that, or gave that gift or this to some monastery, poor man, or relative. If, instead, he chronicles the grand events of the day, he ends up telling us of the activities of the lady's male family members, who were the ones most deeply involved in the action.

And how does the biographer handle the question of female authority, circa 1300? Were women monarchs uniquely incapable, or did all the talent in the world fail to protect them from the trouble caused by men who could not stomach female authority? Modern authors are anxious to cope with this question, with general questions of responsibility and guilt, but they are also anxious to obey our modern world's self-understanding that we are uniquely enlightened compared to all previous generations. We understand sex, sexism, class, classism, (good) judgment and (bad) judgmentalism. The biographer's woman subject must be held accountable for her deeds; but if she happens to be a queen vilified in previous histories, then the modern author is anxious also to be different and fresh, and find ways in which she is not guilty.

All of this is a tribute to Alison Weir, and the mammoth amount of work she has put into this biography of Isabella, "the She-wolf of France." Very much in the style of Tudor historian David Starkey, she has assembled every primary source in the universe and gone through them in chronological order, explaining month by month and sometimes day by day, for a lifetime lasting from 1295 to 1358, where the queen was and what she did, or what the people around her did. It's a brilliant approach -- are they taught to do this, in Oxford perhaps? -- but one trouble with it is that it doesn't tell a story. Another trouble with it is that, for long stretches while a queen didn't do much, we have to hear about the decor of her palaces and who built them and when. And when she arrived at what gate, and who greeted her. The one life event which modern biographers of queens tend to ignore is their experience of childbirth, which I for one would like to know more about. Of course the mechanics of that don't change much, but I'd like to know how anybody survived it then and how exactly the midwives and physicians cared for their patients.

Queen Isabella's story can be briefly summarized, which Weir does in a preliminary chapter. A daughter of the King of France, she was married off at the age of twelve (1308) to King Edward II, the son of England's mighty King Edward I. Edward made a habit of falling in love with, raising up and then toying with and essentially destroying male lovers, first Piers Gaveston and then Hugh Despenser. Edward not only fawned shockingly and physically over these favorites -- he gave Gaveston the little queen Isabella's wedding jewels, for a start -- he allotted them such power that they strutted as demi kings through exchequer, government, and other people's private property, dangerously outraging powerful barons and the commons alike. Piers Gaveston survived two exiles and two recalls to his master's side, but did not survive a third; Hugh Despenser might have taken heed and given the king a wide berth, however handsome and rich he was. He did not.

Youth, virtuous obedience, and childbearing kept Isabella too busy to raise any kind of standard of revolt until the 1320s. By this time, though Gaveston was long dead, the Despensers (there was a father and son) had become such tyrants that she feared for her own life at their hands. They had already stripped her of much of her income and separated her from her children, with the king's acquiescence if not worse. She fled to her homeland, France, formed an open liaison with the dashing exiled English traitor Roger Mortimer, and with him sailed back to England at the head of an army determined to overthrow the king and his minions.

They succeeded in this, the first more or less constitutional deposition of an English king. The Despensers suffered hanging, drawing, and quartering, as befitted traitors, with castration while bound to a fifty-foot high ladder thrown in for the younger man. (Isabella watched.) Edward II abdicated in favor of his son, was imprisoned and then he was either murdered grotesquely or he escaped to become a hermit in Italy. Alison Weir works hard to convince us of this latter possibility, but, amateur though I am, I doubt it. It all hinges on feckless Edward, who liked nothing better than to dig ditches and pitch hay with common men, quietly murdering a poor porter one night and then fleeing in the porter's clothes. That is the action of a hero, not an Edward II.

Isabella and Mortimer then spent a few, a very few years enjoying power as regents for the heir, Isabella's firstborn prince Edward. The lovers turned out to be just as rapacious and tyrannical as any previous favorites of the previous, useless king. As the young prince's eighteenth birthday and therefore his majority approached, he became so alarmed at what his mother and her lover might do to maintain their authority that he launched a coup on his own behalf. It was an actual one-night, one-chance cloak and dagger affair, complete with underground passageways into a castle and then -- the breaking up of a sinister meeting, and the seventeen year old boy standing with sword drawn outside his mother's rooms, ignoring her shrieks for mercy as Mortimer was dragged away. That's the action of a hero.

Mortimer was only beheaded. King Edward III claimed his crown (1330), and after a short spell out of the public eye, which she spent either recovering from a stillbirth or nervous collapse or both, Isabella lived the rest of her life in comfort, in this manor and that, as Queen Mother and grande dame. She entertained visitors. She enjoyed her grandchildren. She gossiped with other formidable ladies, visiting queens and duchesses, daughters and cousins and aunts who all could have told life stories almost as gamy as her own. Who says women are ignored by history? Oh, and yes -- the Black Death came, in 1348, when she was in her fifties. She survived.

What the reader gets from this book, I think, amid all the details of chronology and the speculation that ventures toward the Hollywoodesque (Edward II as Italian hermit secretly visiting his son in England in the 1330s -- really?) is finally a broad appreciation for a few medieval things. These people lived life at breakneck speed. They traveled perpetually, really pounded out the miles on horseback or in tubby little ships, and trusted everywhere to who knows what lodging and food. And fate. Weir says that Edward II visited four thousand places in England in his lifetime, partly of course because big, messy royal courts had to move about in the search for cleaner houses to live in for a while. Isabella crossed and recrossed the Channel nine times, once as the head of an invading army. A granddaughter died of the Black Death on the way to her own wedding. What did this do to a human being's memories, sense of home, perception of time? They married at thirteen or fourteen, which meant, for women like Isabella, abruptly assuming and relinquishing glamorous adult titles, wealth, and prestige. She was queen of England at twelve, supplanting all other women; when her son's beautiful teen wife Philippa in turn supplanted her, she was instantly a dowager at thirty-two. In another blink of an eye thirty years had passed, lover Mortimer was long gone, and she was enjoying the company of her last grandchild, the now forty-year-old Philippa's thirteenth.

And at every turn lay violent death. The modern world may shrug correctly at royal biographies, because they say nothing of the People, but it seems to me that the privileges medieval aristocracy enjoyed may have been more than counterbalanced by the daily risks they ran. Without law, which English society at this time was still struggling to create, people born into the lawmaking strata -- and none of them chose it -- learned quickly that the choice in life personally was often either to remain royal or die by evisceration. "Random aristocratic violence" sums up the middle ages, according to the historian Norman F. Cantor in Inventing the Middle Ages, and he praises, of all things, the Japanese movie Ran (Chaos) as clearly illustrating this.

One final medieval thing we can try to appreciate from a biography like this is the presence of religion in these people's lives, but that's a difficult mental leap to make. The modern world's ignorance of religion is the biggest handicap we have to either writing, reading, or thinking accurately about how human beings really lived in Europe seven hundred years ago. Daily worship, excited and happy plans to go on pilgrimage to shrines rather than "on vacation," the existence of the Catholic church as a governing body in daily life, the custom of leaving orders that one's body was to be buried apart from one's heart, so that two places of rest would allow for two places of eternal prayers commissioned for the soul -- all these and a hundred other commonplaces of medieval living stand so far outside our experience that in looking back at them we are really looking back at an alien planet. We do our best to understand them; Alison Weir consulted seven and a half pages (closely printed) full of primary source documents for us, into which I suppose we could also plunge if we chose. But it's not the same thing as understanding a world in which sun and moon and wind were the same, but all attitudes, every thought and every sentence, began with in the name of our Lord, amen.

Castle Rising, Norfolk, Isabella's main home after the accession of her son (1330); photo from

For those who like trivia: Isabella makes an appearance in the Mel Gibson movie Braveheart, but the liberties taken with history are very extravagant. She is a gorgeous adult, and sleeps with the Scottish rebel William Wallace (Gibson) so that she can taunt her dying and paralyzed father in law, Edward I, that "a child ... not of your line ... grows in my womb." In a previous scene, the old king has already thrown Piers Gaveston out of a window to his death, to young Edward II's helpless horror. Great fun, but Wallace was executed -- drawing and quartering, of course -- in 1305, when Isabella was, by Alison Weir's reckoning, a child of nine in Paris. That's just for a start.

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