Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England by Alison Weir


  On 29 January, Isabella joined Mortimer at Windsor, where they stayed until at least 3 February.135 On 1 February, the Mayor came there for further talks with the King, who the next day appointed justices to sit in the Guildhall to deal with offenders. Among them were Ingham and Maltravers, who could be relied upon to act in Mortimer’s favor, in case the Londoners could not be trusted. These justices wasted no time, for the first miscreants were tried in London on 6 February; on the thirteenth, Hamo de Chigwell was indicted and sent to the Tower.136

  A few of Lancaster’s followers, among them Henry de Beaumont, had fled to France. The rest were punished with forfeitures or stiff recognizances, whereby they were bound to keep the peace on penalty of a large fine.137 Isabella and Mortimer were surprisingly merciful, and most of these forfeitures were later reversed and the fines—even Lancaster’s—pardoned.138

  On the day before the trials began, Edward III and Queen Isabella had arrived in London and taken up residence at the Tower;139 Isabella perhaps intended their presence there to be a warning to any justice inclined to leniency toward the Lancastrians.

  Parliament met at Westminster on 9 February, and during this session, new French envoys arrived with Philip VI’s final demand for Edward III to pay homage. The realization that she was in no position to risk the consequences of a further refusal prompted Isabella to swallow her pride and change her policy toward France, and the envoys were informed that the King would come to France after all and then sent home with rich gifts.140 It was decided, however, that in order not to commit himself to performing military service for Philip, Edward would perform only conditional homage, not liege homage, and he would do so without prejudice to any future claim he might make to the Crown of France.141 Baker later strongly criticized Isabella for betraying her son’s rights to the French throne, but it is difficult to see what else she could have done under the circumstances.

  When Parliament adjourned on 22 February,142 the court left Westminster for Eltham. While Isabella was there, she appointed Maltravers as Steward of the Household to Edward III, a post he would hold until 9 July 1330.143

  The court arrived at Guildford on 7 March and lodged in Isabella’s castle and nearby palace. Here, the King hosted a two-day tournament, at which Mortimer, at the Queen’s instance, was presented with rich gifts as a reward for his defeat of Lancaster.144 Throughout the spring, the court perambulated at its leisure through Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, and Berkshire, staying at High Wycombe around 15 March; Woodstock Palace, from at least 19 to 22 March; Thame Abbey; Islip, where Edward the Confessor had been born in 1004, although little can have remained of the Saxon palace in Isabella’s day; Abingdon Abbey; Wallingford Castle, from at least 12 to 16 April; and Reading Abbey.145

  Isabella was exercising all her considerable diplomatic skills. On 14 April, Edward III wrote to Philip VI explaining that the delay in his paying homage had been caused by the recent rebellion and promising that he would be setting out from England very soon.146

  We might detect at this time a certain restiveness in the young King’s attitude toward his mother and Mortimer, for on 16 April, at Wallingford, Queen Philippa was granted 1,000 marks per annum for her chamber expenses, “till some better provision be made for her estate”;147 this may have been a ploy to mollify Edward. Another possible sop to the King was the retaining of his friend Sir William de Montagu “to stay with the King with twenty men-at-arms for life,”148 an appointment that Isabella and Mortimer would have cause in time to regret.

  William de Montagu, an intelligent and chivalrous man of twenty-eight, was from a noble Anglo-Norman family that had settled in Somerset soon after the Conquest. His late father had served Edward II faithfully and well as Steward of the Household and Marshal of Gascony, and in 1325, young William had been in the retinue that accompanied Prince Edward to France. Thereafter, he quickly rose in Edward’s favor and in 1328 became a Knight Banneret. Despite William’s eleven years’ seniority, he and the young King were the closest of friends and would remain so until death.149

  On 28 April, the court was at Windsor but had moved to Eltham before 11 May,150 when Edward’s envoys returned from France to inform him of the arrangements that had been made for the ceremony of homage. The evil moment could be put off no longer: on or after 15 May, the royal entourage left Eltham and traveled down through Kent, staying at Canterbury from 20 to 22 May, and reaching Dover by the twenty-fifth.151

  The next day, Edward III sailed for France, leaving John of Eltham as nominal Guardian of the Realm in his absence.152 Isabella and Mortimer returned to Canterbury, where they remained at least until 16 June.153

  On 6 June, Edward, wearing robes of crimson velvet embroidered with leopards and a gold crown atop his long fair hair, and supported on either side by his uncles of Norfolk and Kent, paid homage to Philip in Amiens Cathedral.154 All was cordiality between the two Kings, but Knighton says they were “friends only according to the outside of their faces.” It is said that, while in France, Edward heard salacious gossip about his mother and Mortimer that both shocked and embarrassed him.155

  Bishop Burghersh had accompanied the King to Amiens and was alarmed to hear whispers that Philip was plotting to kidnap Edward. Realizing that any delay might expose his charge to danger, he insisted that they all return home immediately.156 Their departure was so precipitate that Edward had no time to say a proper farewell to Philip. He returned home on 11 June and rejoined Isabella and Mortimer at Canterbury,157 to be met with the news that Robert the Bruce had died and that David II had succeeded at the age of five to the throne of Scotland—which meant that Isabella’s daughter Joan, now eight, was its Queen.

  Edward III left the court behind at Canterbury shortly after 14 June and hastened off to Windsor to rejoin his beloved Philippa, who conceived her first child three months later.

  Mortimer had left for Windsor by 18 June,158 but Isabella stayed on at Canterbury until 20 June, when she, too, departed for Windsor. There, in a lavish ceremony on 20 July, the King—doubtless at the instance of Isabella—presented Mortimer with valuable jewels.

  Eight days later, the court rode off to the west country to attend the weddings of Mortimer’s daughters, Beatrice and Agnes, to the heirs of Norfolk and Pembroke. After Lancaster’s disgrace, Norfolk had been reconciled to Isabella and Mortimer, doubtless fearful of losing the forfeited Despenser estates that they had granted him. This marriage of his ten-year-old heir, Edward, to Beatrice Mortimer, and his presence at the coming wedding, probably demonstrate his eagerness to ingratiate himself with Isabella and Mortimer rather than any genuine desire to be identified with their regime.159 For Mortimer, the marriage represented the pinnacle of his success, for it would ally him with the royal House and forever enhance his status and that of his family.

  On 2 September, Isabella did an unusual thing: she appointed Mortimer heir to several of her properties and gave her executors control over her revenues from Ponthieu for three years after her death.160 She had drawn up similar documents only once before, prior to the birth of her first child, so, since she is not known to have been ill, it is possible that she was now pregnant by Mortimer and making provision for the future in case she did not survive the birth. The wonder is that she had not conceived earlier than this, for she had borne Edward four healthy children, while Mortimer and his wife had a dozen.

  Because the birth of an illegitimate child to the Queen would cause a scandal throughout Christendom, secrecy would have had to be maintained, for Isabella and Mortimer were not so popular that their enemies would have refrained from making political capital out of such an event. Moreover, there was the reputation of the Crown to be considered and the effect on the young King.

  The court reached Leominster on 3 September. The next day, the King and the Queen Mother led their retinues to Wigmore Castle,161 where, over the next three days, Mortimer held a spectacular Round Table and tournament as a preliminary celebration of his daughters’ nuptials, he himself entering the
lists as King Arthur. The theme of this celebration was highly significant, since Mortimer was stressing his descent from the mythical King Brutus the Trojan, the hero who, according to twelfth-century chroniclers, gave his name to Britain, founded London as a second Troy, and was the first king to hold a Round Table in the Arthurian tradition. Mortimer was also re-creating a Round Table held by his grandfather in 1279 at Kenilworth, in the presence of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile. Isabella must have enjoyed this event immensely, as she had a particular fondness for the legends of King Arthur, and since she is known to have presided with Mortimer over these proceedings, it is not impossible that she assumed the role of Guinevere.162

  But was there a subtext? Was Mortimer cunningly emphasizing his royal blood and his right to rule? Certainly, from now on, he was to seize every opportunity to assert his supremacy in the realm.

  The court left Wigmore on or after 6 September, then went to Hereford on 9 September for the Mortimer weddings.163

  The King granted Mortimer £1,000 toward the cost of his cousin of Norfolk’s nuptial celebrations,164 but he himself cannot have greatly enjoyed the festivities. By now, and with good reason, Edward III had become disturbed by Mortimer’s rampant self-aggrandizement and was evidently concerned that the decisions taken by his mother and her lover in his name did not reflect his own views and, in some cases, were in direct opposition to them. Because he was still a minor, there was little he could do about it, but he was determined to circumvent Mortimer’s power. He decided to enlist the assistance of the Pope. On 12 September, he sent William de Montagu to Avignon to speak to John XXII on his behalf. The fact that Bishop Burghersh’s brother Bartholemew went with him suggests that Mortimer had his suspicions about this mission.

  Montagu, however, managed to secure a private audience with the Pope, and between them, they devised a coded signal that the Pontiff would recognize on genuine communications from the King: Edward was to write “Peter Sancte” in his own hand at the bottom of his letters. Anything else would be from Isabella or Mortimer and could be dealt with accordingly.165

  In the autumn of 1329, Kent, who was supposed to be “on the King’s business,”166 was also at Avignon, informing a startled Pope John of his conviction that Edward II was still alive and that he intended to liberate him.167 According to a statement he made later, he told the Pontiff that a Dominican friar of London had come to him at Kennington Palace and informed him that he had “conjured up a spirit” (Murimuth says it was a devil) who assured him that the former King yet lived. Lanercost states that this friar was none other than Stephen Dunheved, the Dominican who had twice tried to free Edward in 1327. It is likely that Kent had been one of the great magnates who had backed Dunheved then, and it would therefore have been natural for Dunheved to have approached Kent now. Of all people, Dunheved was the one most likely to have learned of Edward II’s survival. The warder who, according to Fieschi, helped Edward to escape, was possibly a member of Dunheved’s group or had helped them gain entry on the day they ransacked Berkeley Castle and spirited the King away. After his recapture, Dunheved had gone to ground, but it is possible that either he or his remaining coconspirators had helped Edward after his escape or had at least heard about it.

  Whoever the friar was, Kent had soon become convinced that his story was genuine. It lent credence to the rumors, which were now rampant throughout the realm, that Edward II had survived, rumors that Kent apparently believed.168 His conscience had never ceased to trouble him with regard to his betrayal of Edward, and one suspects that he wanted to believe that his brother was alive; he certainly leaped at this chance to redress the wrongs he had done him. The Pope, he later claimed, gave this scheme his blessing, “charged him that he should use his pains and diligence to deliver Edward,” and promised his moral and financial support; but John XXII was later to deny this.169

  On his way back through Paris, Kent had a meeting with Henry de Beaumont and Thomas Rosselin, another Lancastrian exile, and discussed with them the restoration of Edward II. They promised him they would make contact with Donald, Earl of Mar, another conspirator from 1327, and endeavor to invade England from the northeast coast.170

  Kent then returned to England to enlist support for his plans.

  On 16 September, the court was at Gloucester, and Edward again asserted himself, appointing his own man as Treasurer in place of Mortimer’s; he also promoted Thomas Garton, who had been recommended by Montagu, to be Controller of the Household. Then, on 24 September, he made his former tutor and loyal secretary, Richard de Bury, Keeper of the Privy Seal. Since Bury was still being referred to as Isabella’s “dear clerk” in June 1330,171 she must have been happy about this appointment and had perhaps suggested it. At the end of September, Sir John Maltravers was appointed custodian of Corfe Castle,172 although he remained Steward of the Household until 29 July 1330 and probably divided his time between his different responsibilities.

  Between 8 and 16 October, the court was at Dunstable173 for a tournament that lasted for four days, before traveling to Northampton. It then moved to Kenilworth on 29 October and stayed for more than three months, until 3 January 1330, an unusually long sojourn.174

  Kenilworth Castle, which was built of red sandstone and lay four miles north of Warwick, had until recently belonged to Lancaster. It was one of the greatest and strongest fortresses in England. It had originally been built in 1112 but soon afterward had been taken over by the Crown because of its strategic importance. King John had strengthened its defenses and added the vast artificial lake that surrounded the castle on three sides, but in 1244, Henry III had granted it to Simon de Montfort. Later, it had become part of the earldom of Lancaster. Edward II had been held prisoner there in 1327, but there is no evidence that the castle held unhappy associations for his consort. In Isabella’s time, Kenilworth consisted of a massive keep surrounded by a curtain wall intersected by towers.175

  Ian Mortimer has suggested that Isabella secretly gave birth to Mortimer’s child during their prolonged stay at Kenilworth,176 but although it is possible that she conceived in the early spring, it is unlikely that she carried the infant to term. She was in the public eye for most of the year and could not possibly have concealed her condition. Women’s costume of the period skimmed the body or fell in soft folds, and any pregnancy would have been noticeable. According to the calculations below, Isabella would have been eight months pregnant when she arrived at Kenilworth, which would not have escaped the notice of a great household full of lords, ladies, and servants.

  Kent arrived at Kenilworth around 3 December, on which date Mortimer left to visit his Marcher estates. He went to Ludlow on 5 December and Clun on the eighth, and was back at Kenilworth on the twelfth.177 It has been suggested that Mortimer took the child with him and left it with a wet nurse at Montgomery Castle, which is not far from Clun. This theory rests on two pieces of possible evidence: first, Isabella made over her interests in Montgomery Castle to Mortimer the following April; and second, there is an effigy of a knight in Montgomery parish church about which there is some mystery. The tomb is supposed to be that of Sir Edmund Mortimer, Mortimer’s great-grandson, who supported the Welsh rebel Owen Glendower and died during the siege of Harlech between 1409 and 1411. Yet although Edmund was born in lawful wedlock, the Mortimer shield on this tomb bears a bend (or baton) sinister, which denotes bastardy and in the Middle Ages was often used for royal bastards. The inference is that this knight was a royal bastard and that he was perhaps Isabella’s son by Mortimer, who had spent much of his life at Montgomery. Yet he could also have been the natural son of any one of a number of Mortimer males who lived in the fourteenth century; furthermore, it should be pointed out that, by 1400, the Mortimers had long been linked by marriage and blood to the royal House and were considered to have a good claim to the throne. Any Mortimer bastard would have been considered blue-blooded enough to merit the bend sinister.178

  Furthermore, had Mortimer left Kenilworth with Isabella’s child
on 3 December, it must have been born at the end of November at the latest and conceived around the beginning of March. That meant that, when she was presiding over the Round Table at Wigmore, the Queen would have been six months pregnant, and seven months when she attended the tournament at Dunstable. Again, people would surely have noticed and her condition been remarked upon.

  Ian Mortimer has pointed out that, in February 1330, Mortimer added the name of the “Earl of Lincoln” to the list of benfactors at Leintwardine Church179 and has implied that this could have referred to the newborn son of Isabella and Mortimer. Yet at that time, there was no Earl of Lincoln. The title had come to Thomas of Lancaster through his marriage to Alice de Lacy, who was still alive, and it should have passed to Henry of Lancaster, but the lands had been divided among Isabella, Mortimer, and the latter’s son Geoffrey. It is possible that Mortimer was anticipating that Geoffrey might get the earldom. A bastard could not inherit, and any new creation would automatically have attracted publicity, which, if Isabella and Mortimer had had a child, they had already gone out of their way to avoid.

  If Isabella had become pregnant in 1329, which is quite likely, she had probably lost the baby early in the pregnancy. After all, it was eight years since she had last borne a child, and she was now thirty-four, middle-aged by medieval standards. The reason for the extended stay at Kenilworth was probably Queen Philippa’s pregnancy, not Isabella’s. Philippa had conceived around September, so by the end of October, when she arrived at Kenilworth, she could have been experiencing the nausea, sickness, and tiredness that are so typical of the first trimester of pregnancy. By the thirteenth week, such symptoms usually abate, so by the end of December, Philippa was probably well enough to move on, which would account for the court’s leaving Kenilworth on 3 January 1330.

 
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