Monday, 5 October 2015

Reflecting on Helen Castor 's 'She -Wolves'

Helen Castor's TV series 'She Wolves ' has recently been repeated on the history channel 'Yesterday'.   I read the book some years ago, and appreciate that in the TV series Castor has limited time to tell the story of Edward II's Queen, Isabella.   Yet the TV series is heavily biased against Edward II and much in favour of Isabella.

We get the usual starting point.   Isabella was brought up at the sophisticated French court.  Her mother was the ideal role model as to how a Queen consort should behave and influence policy - although no example is given.  Brought up to be a royal bride, Isabella knew her destiny was to cement an Anglo/French with her marriage to Edward II.  Married at the age of 12, Isabella was a child and her husband a grown man - surely she could not expect to be such an influence on her husband at a tender age?  Castor than repeats the infamous tale of the Royal Coronation - with Piers Gaveston dressed in royal purple and carrying the crown.  Let's not forget this was Edward's coronation, not just Isabella's, and whatever his attachment to Piers, as Earl of Cornwall, Edward would want him to play an important part.  Castor focuses on the banquet that followed, and we get the story of Edward 'giving away the wedding presents' to Piers <sigh>. Presents given to Edward, not the couple, and given  to Piers for safe keeping maybe?   Castor says Isabella knew Piers had taken her place - hmmm, was he named 'Queen', carried out her royal duties, given her household and made joint sovereign?   Of course not.   Quite how a 12 year old child hoped to influence and rule as Queen consort is a puzzle to me.

The 2 banishments of Piers are turned into one, and we have Isabella 'dragged' around the North of England so that her husband could protect his lover.   Thing is, Isabella was in absolutely no danger - Piers was.   Castor points out Isabella 'must have spent at least one night' with her husband as she was now pregnant.  As she was now 16, and reached maturity, she was ready to do her duty and produce an heir for her husband - why would it only take 'one night'?   They may have been sleeping together for some months.  Castor also neglects to mention Piers had his own wife and child.   So why shouldn't Edward be sleeping with his wife?  Just imagine - he may even have enjoyed it!

Edward and Piers agreed to separate- Piers preparing for a siege at Scarborough Castle and Edward and Isabella heading to York.   Castor phrases this plan as Edward and Isabella 'being alone for once' - as they must surely have been several times before.  Castor has Piers 'starved' out of Scarborough - no mention of the favourable terms of his surrender.   She does have the good grace to say Piers was murdered by Thomas of Lancaster - and then says we have no idea how Isabella felt about Piers!   That of course is true - but Castor has done her work in portraying Isabella as a neglected wife.

Hugh Le  Despencer is immediately introduced as the king's new predatory favourite making Isabella's life a misery, although she confidently says Hugh was not Edward's lover without saying why.   After fleeing to France, Isabella meets Roger Mortimer, who is described as an astute politician and a courageous man on the battlefield.  The implication being he was all that Edward II was not.  Mortimer becomes Isabella's lover - Castor offers no evidence for this, and together they are welcomed into England to depose Edward II.   Castor is evasive about how involved Isabella was in her husband's death - if indeed he was dead.   Mortimer is described as being given a traitor's death while Isabella mourned in private.   What interests me here is what Castor doesn't say - she totally omits the horrifying capture, torture and execution of Hugh Le Despencer, and that of his father.  There's no mention of Isabella dining as she watched the horrific spectacle.  What a fine PR Castor has managed for Isabella in 25 minutes!


Kathryn Warner said...

PR, exactly! No mention of the many months Edward and Isabella spent alone at Berwick in 1310/11, when Piers was in Perth, which makes a nonsense of the 'alone for once' in 1312 remark. I was hugely disappointed with the programme and with the chapters of She-Wolves it's taken from. It's so obvious Castor didn't look at any primary source except the Vita Edwardi Secundi, and just repeats what other modern writers have said, with all the usual myths. It's good entertaining writing, but a historian not even bothering to look at primary sources? Ouch. I'd really, really love to know how she knows that Mortimer was Isabella's lover but that Despenser wasn't Edward's! A webcam in their bedchambers? And that ridiculous 'giving away Isabella's jewels to Piers' was invented by Agnes Strickland in the 19th century. Gaaaah.

Kasia Ogrodnik said...

What a coincidnece - recently I have watched this part of She-wolves. I was hugely disappointed as well. One really may get tired of the usual "bad Edward-holy martyr Isabella" stuff. I expected better of Dr Castor.

Anerje said...

Lol Kathryn - I knew this post would 'get your goat' - it certainly got mine. For the casual history fan, it was all presented as fact, and I found some of her remarks a bit snide, to put it mildly.

Anerje said...

Hi Kasia - it's so weighted in Isabella's favour - just the casual asides, like Isabella being 'dragged' around by her husband etc - it's all negative.