Harlot Queen by Hilda Lewis

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To mark LGBT history month, a novel about the much-debated issue of Edward II’s relationships with Piers Gaveston and Hugh le Despenser the younger.  Now, why is there no equivalent word to “mistress” for a male lover?   “Master” just doesn’t work in this context: you wouldn’t talk about Catherine the Great having a lot of “masters”.   You can say “paramour”, or just “lover”; but Hilda Lewis, born in 1896, rather charmingly describes first Gaveston and then le Despenser as “the king’s sweetheart”.  I’ve always liked the word “sweetheart”.  So much nicer than “partner” or “boyfriend/girlfriend” 🙂 .

As a slight aside, it’s been suggested that a statue of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, two 18th century female pirates thought to have been lovers (or, if you prefer, sweethearts), be put up on Burgh Island in Devon.  But the parish council have rejected it, and a statue relating to the local pilchard industry has been suggested instead.  Seriously?   On whose planet are pilchards more interesting than female pirates?!

Anyway, to get back to the book, it says something rather nice about the late Hilda Lewis that she, born the year after Oscar Wilde’s trial, and writing in a style very much of her generation (like Jean Plaidy’s books, it seems very dated now, but I quite like it), in a book published in 1970, starts with a pillow talk conversation between Edward and Gaveston. And she makes it quite clear that, whilst Edward had rotten taste in men and very little common sense himself, this was a true romance … much more so than Isabella’s relationship with Mortimer, to whom she firmly refers as a “paramour” rather than a “sweetheart”.

So, were Piers Gaveston and Hugh le Despenser Edward II’s “sweethearts”, or was he just good friends with them?  Well, like Hilda Lewis, and I think like most people, I’m convinced that both of them were his lovers, and also that people weren’t particularly bothered about that, just about the fact that both of them were seen as greedy, disrespectful, and in receipt of a lot of money, power and influence to which they weren’t entitled.  But that was Edward’s fault, not theirs, and, whilst neither of them were very attractive characters, it was rather unfair that they got the blame: they didn’t force him to give them anything.  The same thing happened with Alice Perrers, the mistress of Edward III. Having said which, the Despensers, both father and son, were pretty nasty pieces of work.

Hilda Lewis is rather mixed in her sympathies, but she’s generally pretty sympathetic towards the “Harlot Queen”, Isabella, known to English historians as “the She-Wolf of France”, and I assume that the title of the book’s meant to be ironic.

It’s fascinating how much these three extra-marital relationships, Edward’s with Gaveston and le Despenser, and Isabella’s with Mortimer, influenced the history of England at this time.  Edward annoyed all the barons, and indeed the rest of the royal family, by handing so much power and money over to Gaveston, and, later, to the Despensers – and the Despensers were also downright cruel, not to mention stealing other people’s land.  Both of his lovers ended up being killed by the barons.  Of course, there was a lot more going on than that – he was totally humiliated by Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn, he was unlucky in that the country was hit by poor harvests and outbreaks of disease, and, as the book reminds us, he inherited huge debts from his father.  But I doubt he’d have been anything like as unpopular had it not been for the way that the Despensers put everyone’s backs up – and he let them.

Then there was Isabella’s relationship with Mortimer.  This one’s particularly interesting, because most kings have had lovers, but few queens have done, and certainly not so openly.  And plenty of kings have been overthrown, but, with the odd exception – Tsar Peter III of Russia being the obvious one – not usually by their own wives!   But she made exactly the same mistake as Edward did, letting her lover become too powerful and wind up all the barons … and he ended up going the same way as Edward’s lovers did.

How much of it was about these relationships, and how much of it was just part of the general tide of history, the clashes between kings and barons?  I think that the signing of the Magna Carta’s become such an iconic moment in English history, and even in world history, that we tend to forget everything else that went on – the Provisions of Oxford and the wars between Henry III and the de Montforts, Edward I and the Model Parliament, and Edward II and the “Lords Ordainers”.  And even the overthrowing of Richard II by Henry IV.  People tend not to have strong opinions about Henry IV, but there is this very strong feeling against Isabella – because she was a woman, and because she overthrew her husband.

Hilda Lewis’s sympathies do seem to jump about a lot.  At first, she’s sympathetic towards Isabella, and very critical of Edward and Gaveston.  But she shows how much the relationship means to Edward, and then suggests that maybe Gaveston isn’t that bad after all.  No sympathy for either Mortimer or the Despensers, and she turns against Isabella, but then she shows sympathy for Isabella again.  But then that probably reflects public opinion at the time.  Fickle, as always   The only people who don’t get criticised at all are Edward III and Philippa: she’s very keen on them 🙂 .

The history in this book is generally pretty accurate, which is wonderful.  I really can’t be doing with people who write about real historical figures but twist it all to suit themselves!   But then, at the end, she has Isabella living in seclusion and never seeing her grandchildren, which isn’t what happened, and she also goes for the “Fieschi letter” storyline (the Fieschi letter having been sent to Edward III by an Italian monk, suggesting that Edward II survived and escaped).  The book includes the well-known story that Edward II was murdered by having a red hot poker stuck up his backside, which a lot of historians now no longer believe … but then it suggests that that wasn’t true, and that Edward escaped, and lived as a monk, and that he and Isabella met up in old age.

It’s unlikely.  But history is full of legends about people who were said to have died but allegedly haven’t.  And, hey, false news and conspiracy theories have been going on since the dawn of time.

In summary, this is a very readable portrayal of a complex series of complex relationships – the marriage of Edward II and Isabella, who did have their moments, the relationship between Edward and Gaveston, the relationship between Edward and the grasping Hugh le Despenser, the relationship between Isabella and the power-hungry Mortimer, the loving relationship between Edward III and Philippa of Hainault – and how they and the history of England all got tangled up together.  Good read!