Friday, 1 November 2013

Was Piers Gaveston's mother a witch?

OK, so this post tie-in is a day late - but being as it is a myth, perhaps that is no bad thing.  It is a myth often repeated in historical fiction.   Piers' mother was Claramonde de Marsan, and we know very little about her.  Claramonde was the daughter of the great landowner Arnaud-Guillaume de Marsan, and it seems that Piers' father, Arnaud de Gabaston, was her second husband.  Claramonde died in 1287, when Piers was still a child.  We don't know the circumstances of her death, which is significant - because if she had been burned as a witch, undoubtedly her family would have been tarnished by association, and surely Edward Ist would not have found a place in his son's household for Piers?

 Other than her family, there is nothing else available about Claramonde.  So why then repeatedly in historical fiction - and, I've even seen it in 'factual' accounts about Piers, - does the myth about Claramonde being burnt at the stake for witchcraft  originate? It may be something to do with one of the chroniclers of Edward II saying that 'the King loved an evil male sorcerer more than he did his wife.'   It seems the chronicler thought Edward and Piers were lovers, and the only way to explain the king's love for Piers was that he had been induced by witchcraft.  Accusing enemies, and usually powerful enemies, of witchcraft was a useful tool in getting rid of them.  Accusations depended on interpretation.  However, it seems that none of the enemies of Piers considered this a serious allegation against him. Neither was he ever accused of heresy or holding beliefs from pagan times.  His excommunication was purely politically motivated.  So it seems in his own lifetime, Piers' mother was never accused of being a witch.

For historical novelists, however, the accusation is a powerful tool, and we get instances of Piers bragging about his mother being a witch, and even having scarred hands as he tried to save her from the flames!  Piers himself is accused of following the 'old pagan' religions, and there are scenes in novels where he takes Prince Edward to ancient ceremonies. 

I guess it all makes for drama and excitement in novels!  Why let the truth get in the way?!


Kathryn Warner said...

Great post setting the record straight! Claramonde most certainly was not a witch - when I looked into this years ago, the story of her alleged 'burning' as such wasn't recorded until the late 1500s, or even early 1600s, over 300 years later. I agree it was most likely the 'male sorcerer' type comments that inspired the invention of this myth, and that's a great point about Piers never being accused of heresy even when the Ordainers were throwing everything in the book at him in 1311.

Kasia Ogrodnik said...

Thank you, Anerje, for this post. I knew nothing about Piers's mother. Had she been burnt the fact would have been recorded, I'm sure about it.

P.S. I couldn't help chuckling at Piers's scarred hands. It never ceased to amaze me what writers could do to increase the high drama of their works :-)

Anerje said...

Hi Kathryn - yes I remember you telling me the first mention of Claramonde being a witch was a long time after Piers had been killed. If there were any truth in the story, his enemies would have seized on it to destroy him.

Kasia, the novel where Piers' has scarred hands is hilarious - when it's not being offensive. Can you imagine a 4/5 year old child trying to save his mother from the stake ? And only burning his hands? Which of course don't inhibit his life one bit, except it makes his identity known amongst a mob who are baying for his blood - so he has to wear gloves to avoid detection! Certainly doesn't put Edward off him:).

Gabriele C. said...

Now we only need Melusine in Claramonde's family tree, and she can be elevated to Woodville fame. *grin*