Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Siege at Scarborough Castle, 1312 – in fiction.

In 1312, Piers Gaveston had returned from his third exile, probably for the birth of his daughter Joan by his wife Margaret.   He certainly returned with the full permission, if not an out and out demand from Edward II.   His return was surely planned, and Edward immediately restored his lands and titles, including Earl of Cornwall.  Both Edward and Piers must have realised the response of the barons, who were infuriated.  Edward and Piers remained in the North, awaiting the actions of the nobles, and even trying to bargain with the Scots to protect Piers.

Against this background, writer Paul Doherty sets the third of his novels involving the character of Mathilde in the novel ‘The Darkening Glass.’  Doherty has written several novels and works of non-fiction, most notably, ‘Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II’.    In his author’s note, Doherty claims to have based his novel on facts, particularly from the chronicle Vita Edwardi Secundi.  These are his exact words –

‘ Gaveston’s fall is accurately described.  Something hideous occurred at Scarborough that forced him to surrender……Gaveston was seized and executed by Warwick and his allies, as described by Mathilde.  Edward’s re-action to his favourite’s death was strangely muted.  He called Gaveston a fool, and only much later did he kindle his angry hatred against the earls……Isabella’s separation from her husband during the crisis was also very curious, bearing in mind she was pregnant’.

‘The Darkening Glass’ in a nutshell, details the fall and death of Piers Gaveston.   One thing it is vital to know of the author is that he adores Queen Isabella, and is at a loss as to how Edward cannot be madly in love with her – even when she was 12.  Mathilde is clearly in love with her.  We are frequently told how beautiful Isabella is, with plenty of physical descriptions of her beauty.  And of course, how clever she is – for the fall of Piers is down to her!  As the story unfolds, many of Gaveston’s personal guard fall to their death, and a cryptic note is found upon the bodies –

‘Aquilae Petri, fly not so bold, for Gaveston your master has been both bought and sold’.

The note is obviously a play on the message sent to the Duke of Norfolk for his support for Richard III.  ‘Jockey of Norfolk be not so bold, for Dickon they master is bought and sold’.  Hardly original.

Throughout the pursuit of the King and Piers, there are mentions of doom, and fate taking its course.  Eventually, Edward persuades Piers to withdraw to Scarborough Castle and prepare for a siege, whilst the King would head to York to rally support.  During this time, there’s the incident where Queen Isabella is left at Tynemouth.   Murders take place within Scarborough Castle, the well is poisoned – someone is clearly determined to destroy Piers from within, following Isabella’s orders.  Eventually, Piers accepts his fate and surrenders.

What I find particularly difficult to understand here is that Edward has abandoned Piers to his fate, persuaded by Isabella!  Doherty claims that Edward is heartily sick of Piers, having known no peace for 4 years, and now that his young Queen is pregnant, his realises where his priorities lie.  So Doherty wants us to believe that Edward let Piers set off for Scarborough, and that his fate was in his own hands – and what happened to him was his own fault.  Hence his calling Piers ‘a fool’ on hearing of his murder.  It seems Piers was planning a deal with the Scots to kidnap the Queen and harm her and her unborn child, and when Isabella told Edward, he realised how jealous Piers was of the Queen.   Isabella also threatened to humiliate Edward by fleeing to France and wearing widow’s weeds until he banished Piers.  (This is exactly what Isabella does in her dispute with Edward and Hugh Despencer many years later).  As a result, Edward is only too glad to abandon Piers and justify his actions by saying Piers brought it all on himself. 

As a work of fiction, it’s barely believable.  But for Doherty to use his position as a ‘historian’ to try to prove that Edward abandoned Piers because of his newfound love for his pregnant wife is unforgivable.  He’s trying to persuade the reader that this is fact, and it is clearly not.  Gaveston’s fall is not ‘accurately described’.  The sequence of events is there; - although Isabella’s presence is sometimes confused with a much later incident at Tynemouth, but the interpretation is not.  ‘Something hideous occurred that forced him to surrender’.  No, it didn’t.  According to the Vita, which Doherty says is his main source; it was a lack of provisions –perfectly believable.  Plus, Piers surrendered on the most generous of terms.  If no solution was to be reached with the barons, he was to return to Scarborough castle in August with full provisions and continue the siege.   One chronicler thought the King had bribed the Earl of Pembroke to ensure Piers safety, and another describes the event as a triumph for Piers over the barons.  Doherty states that as soon as Edward and Piers parted, no word reached Piers from the King.  Wrong – Edward and Piers were able to stay in touch.  Doherty also criticises the choice of Scarborough – Mathilde is shocked Edward would tell him to hold up there.  But from my last post, why not?  It was a superb fortress – plus, it was near Scotland, should Edward strike a deal with the Scots to shelter Piers – which he was working for.  Also, as the castle was bordered by the sea on one side, if needed, Piers could put to sea and flee.

The most frustrating part of the novel is Edward abandoning Piers as he has grown tired of him and realises he is a nasty man with nasty plans for Isabella.  Erm, no.  Isabella was perfectly safe from Thomas of Lancaster and the nobles – she was in no danger.  Lancaster was her relative, and she was pregnant with an heir – great news for the kingdom.   Lancaster even promised Isabella he would rid her of Piers, but Isabella returned to her husband’s side. Why would Piers be jealous of Isabella?  He had his own wife and child – he knew Edward’s duty, as did Edward.  Plus, he’d just had all his titles and land restored.  At 16, Isabella was still very young compared to Edward and Piers – what threat could she be?

As for Edward abandoning Piers – well, why plan his return from his third exile?  He worked tirelessly for Piers’ return from his second exile, even getting the Pope onside.  His actions on the return of Piers from his third exile also show that he was anxious and would go to any lengths to protect Piers.  When sending Piers to Scarborough, he made Piers promise never to surrender the castle to anyone except himself, and if he, Edward, should arrive as a prisoner, Piers was not to surrender – even if the king were to be put to death.  Clearly, Edward is putting Piers’ safety above his own. 

Of course I realise ‘The Darkening Glass’ is a novel, fiction based around historical fact.  But what I object to is Doherty asserting his novel is based on absolute fact because he is a historian, and his interpretation is correct.  Compare his statement with that of Alison Weir’s works of fiction.  In ‘The Lady Elizabeth’, Princess Elizabeth is made pregnant by Thomas Seymour, a well-known rumour, but Weir makes it clear she does not believe this; she has just used it as the basis of her novel.  Likewise with ‘A dangerous Inheritance’, she makes it clear there is very little information on the character Katherine Plantagenet, and most of what she has written is entirely fictional.  So when Doherty says ‘Something hideous occurred that forced him to surrender’ – I can only assume the something hideous was Doherty’s dreadful plot.
* Doherty also makes several other mistakes in his novel - for example stating Isabella was buried in the same Grey Friars Church as Roger Mortimer.

Sources: ‘Edward II, the Unconventional King’, by Kathryn Warner, ‘Edward II’, by Seymour Phillips.


Sunday, 3 May 2015

Scarborough Castle

May 1312 marks the beginning of the end of Piers Gaveston's life.   After returning from his third exile to be with his wife Margaret for the birth of his daughter Joan, for whatever reasons, Piers decided to stay.  Along with Edward II, he spent his time in the North of England, until finally preparing for a siege Scarborough Castle.

I've never been to Scarborough Castle - but it's on my castles-to-visit list - right at the top!  The castle has a massive, stone keep, built by Henry II between 1159 - 1169.  His grandson Henry III built the barbican gate tower.  The castle was surrounded by cliffs and the sea on three sides, and on the fourth, was a massive double ditch which could only have been reached by a great bridge.  Scarborough Castle was indeed an impressive fortified castle.  Here are some photos of what is left of the castle today.

The impressive stone keep

The Gate House

Scarborough Castle seemed ideal to withstand a siege.  In my next post, I'll look at what went wrong.