15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Slanted, biased, inaccurate,
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This review is from: Isabella: She-Wolf of France, Queen of England (Paperback)
Isabella of France, queen of England (c.1295-1358), has been unjustly vilified down the centuries as `the She-Wolf of France' and condemned as wicked and unnatural by writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries incensed that a woman could rebel against her lawfully wedded spouse. Nowadays, however, she is almost always portrayed as a long-suffering, put-upon victim of her neglectful husband who is miraculously transformed into an empowered feminist icon, striking a courageous blow for women everywhere by fighting back against marital oppression and finding an opportunity for self-fulfilment by taking a lover. Depictions of her reflect the way society currently views women who step outside the bounds of conventional behaviour rather than the real Isabella, who was neither a modern feminist and believer in sexual equality transplanted to the Middle Ages, nor an evil unfeminine caricature. Alison Weir's hagiography, oops I mean biography, of Isabella follows the usual modern trend, depicting Isabella as miraculously changing from a Great Helpless Victim to the Great Saviour of England in 1326/27. Her victimhood is hopelessly overstated here, as it always is these days, and Weir tries too hard to absolve Isabella of blame for her later actions, when she and her favourite Roger Mortimer ruled England for her young son from 1327 to 1330. There are numerous factual errors in the work, nothing too big and important, admittedly, but they made me grit my teeth.
One example of Weir's endless whitewashing of her subject - and ohhh boy, does she go out of her way to whitewash her subject - is what she says about the widow and children of Hugh Despenser, her husband's 'favourite' whom Isabella and her paramour Mortimer executed in 1326. Weir claims that Isabella didn't harbour vindictive feelings towards them, which could hardly be further from the truth. In fact, Isabella had three of Despenser's young daughters forcibly veiled as nuns, in three separate convents, although they were only approximately ten, seven and four years old at the time. This was a cruel and spiteful act that took place less than six weeks after their father's execution; Alison Weir, unable to admit that her beloved Isabella did such a thing, states extremely disingenuously that the girls "later became nuns". Hmmmm. She also fails to notice, although the orders are in plain view on the Close Roll, that Isabella imprisoned eighteen children in Chester Castle in 1327 as hostages for the good behaviour of the townspeople, who had supposedly been 'disobedient and ill-behaved' towards her fourteen-year-son King Edward III. This doesn't tend to indicate that her motive for invading England and ending her husband's rule had much to do with her horror of his tyranny against his enemies and their wives and children, as Weir claims. The contemporary Brut chronicle, which says that in the late 1320s "the community of England began to hate Isabel the queen", is mysteriously not cited, though Weir finds plenty of space to quote the fawningly pro-Isabella/anti-Edward II Jean Froissart, even though he wasn't born till about 1337 and didn't visit England until 1366 and again in the 1390s, and is hopelessly unreliable for the 1320s. Weir misquotes a poem dating to 1346, calls it a 'chronicle' and pretends that it dates to 1326, as part of her evidence that Isabella was widely beloved in England at the time of her invasion that year and soon after. (As the poem's modern title is 'An Invective Against France, 1346' and was clearly written in the period shortly after the battle of Crecy that year, and as it refers to Isabella as 'the king's mother, Isabella' - which Weir has to misquote as 'Mother Isabella' to make it look like it belongs to 1326 - it's hard to see how this error was unintentional.)
Weir's double standards are irksome. Hugh Despenser's presumed sexual dominance over Edward is proof of Edward's weakness and incapacity, and "perverted" to boot. However, Roger Mortimer's presumed sexual dominance over Isabella provides a convenient excuse for Isabella not to be responsible for any of her misdeeds, which can be blamed on the scapegoat Mortimer.
There are in fact some unpleasant statements about Edward II's sexuality: "perverted" as stated above, a comment that his and Piers Gaveston's fathering children demonstrates that they were "capable of normal [i.e. heterosexual] sexual relations", the statement that Roger Mortimer was "everything Edward II was not: strong, manly, virile, unequivocally heterosexual...", the assumption that Edward's love of men was an 'insult' to Isabella's 'femininity', the sneering comment that when Edward consummated his marriage (and of course Weir has no idea when that happened, whatever she speculates) that he had "at last played the man." These don't always read as though Weir is describing medieval attitudes, and in fact I'm surprised that her publisher allowed them to pass. Edward II was described by at least half a dozen fourteenth-century chroniclers as enormously strong, tall, handsome, and powerful, "the strongest man of his realm," as the Scalacronica calls him. We also know that he was devoted to outdoor exercise and to crafts which demanded physical strength and dexterity. So why then does Weir say that Roger Mortimer was manly and strong, unlike Edward? Because gay or bi men are presumed to be feeble and weak and not 'manly' like the 'unequivocally heterosexual' Mortimer? It seemed to me as I read the book that Weir could not forgive Edward for not falling madly in love with the beautiful fabulous sexy Isabella, and as Weir seems to find it difficult to keep the subjects of her books at an emotional arm's length - I found her Mary, Queen of Scots book the same - she takes a remarkably negative, unfair and unkind view of Edward's non-heterosexuality. (Roger Mortimer, incidentally, was married when he had a relationship with Isabella, but any 'insult' to his wife of a quarter of a century is not mentioned.)
We do learn near the beginning of the book that Isabella has - supposedly - been the victim of "sexual prejudices". This makes the fact that Edward II's non-heterosexuality is spoken of in such negative terms deeply ironic. Hypocritical, one might perhaps say.
In her desperation to push Isabella's 'victimhood', Alison Weir assumes that any story which can be used to promote this is 100% true and factual: she wrongly takes as certain truth the story that Edward II abandoned Isabella at Tynemouth in 1312 while she was pregnant with their first child, in order to protect Piers Gaveston, conveniently failing to mention that this story appears in ONE chronicle written many years later and is flatly contradicted by the evidence of Isabella's own household accounts of 1312, which Weir must have read thoroughly as she cites them frequently. (See [...]; Seymour Phillips, Edward II (2010), p. 203, who states "the pregnant Isabella was not abandoned at Tynemouth; instead she left there with her husband on 5 May..." and points out that the chronicle which tells this tall tale confuses events of 1312 with another occasion when Isabella was in Tynemouth ten years later). If Weir was interested in writing a biography of Isabella as unbiased and accurate as possible and wasn't so desperate to blacken Edward II's name at every possible juncture, she would have mentioned the story but pointed out that it is certainly untrue, but oh no, she wants to portray Isabella as a helpless neglected victim of her nasty cruel gay unmanly husband, so in it goes as 'fact'. Weir - as do several other modern writers, in fairness - assumes that Edward deliberately and cruelly 'stole' their children from Isabella in 1324, totally failing to understand fourteenth-century royal norms of childcare, and overstates Isabella's supposed 'poverty' after Edward confiscated her lands in 1324; Isabella still enjoyed a large income.
Weir forgets to mention the fact that Isabella and Mortimer's greed and theft of other people's lands was every bit as bad - in fact, quite a bit worse - than Edward II and Despenser's. She doesn't go into the fact that most of their allies had turned against them by 1330. She skates over their illegal appropriation of the £20,000 given to England by Robert Bruce, intended as compensation for the people of the north of England. She fails to point out that Isabella and Mortimer inherited a treasury of almost £80,000 from Edward II and left just £41 - not £41,000 or even £4100 - four years later; in short, they totally bankrupted the country. Weir doesn't point out that the income that Isabella granted herself in 1327 was the highest income anyone in England (except the kings) earned in the entire Middle Ages, an income 20% higher than Isabella's fabulously wealthy uncle Thomas of Lancaster received from five earldoms. And every time Isabella does something wrong, Weir jumps in to defend, excuse and justify her actions. (Or, preferably, ignores them altogether, as with the children imprisoned in 1327 and the little girls forced into taking lifelong vows as nuns simply because Isabella hated their dead father.) Needless to say, Edward II is entirely responsible and accountable for all his misdeeds, and so is Roger Mortimer. Isabella isn't. Weir doesn't defend Mortimer on the grounds that he was infatuated with Isabella. The impression is that women, unlike men, cannot be held responsible for their own actions; it's the men around them who 'make' them act that way. However, any of Isabella and Mortimer's actions which reflect well on them are assumed to be Isabella's alone, and lauded to the heavens. I find this attitude patronising and paternalistic.
I'm also unconvinced that Isabella was as intelligent and astute as Weir (and some other modern historians) claim she was. She and Mortimer invaded England in 1326 supposedly to liberate its people from the greedy, cruel tyranny of Edward and Despenser, and then what did they do? Prove themselves far greedier and more tyrannical. They made all the mistakes of Edward and Despenser and added quite a few of their own. Their regime was so precarious that it took Isabella's son and a handful of his friends literally a few minutes at Nottingham to overthrow it; they were so unpopular that within two years of their invasion most of their allies, even Isabella's uncle the earl of Lancaster, had turned against them.
EDIT: Professor Seymour Phillips' magnificent biography of Edward II came out in 2010. Please read the Phillips book as well as, or preferably instead of, Weir's biased work (amusingly not included in Professor Phillips' bibliography, which runs to nearly 30 pages - that tells you his opinion of her book, doesn't it?). The Edward II biography is how a REAL historian does it; a historian who is steeped in knowledge of the fourteenth century and who isn't in the business of re-writing history, repeating lies about his subject's enemies and blackening their names to further his agenda. That's what this 'biography' of Isabella of France really is: history re-written with an obvious agenda, history that Weir thinks should have happened rather than what actually did, that seeks to redress the awful image with which Isabella was unjustly lumbered in the past and goes a million miles too far in the other direction.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 29 Jul 2012 09:25:20 BDT
uncle barbar says:
Excellent review - I could not agree with you more - so much better than the actual book! Thanks for writing this (six years ago!) Great stuff!
In reply to an earlier post on 29 Jul 2012 10:09:36 BDT
Kathryn Warner says:
Thanks so much - so glad you liked the review! It's odd, I first wrote a review of the book six years ago on Amazon, then deleted it a while later (can't remember why now) and totally re-wrote it just a few weeks ago - but for some reason Amazon posted it under the date of my original review, rather than the new date! So actually it is pretty new. :-)
Posted on 23 Feb 2014 12:24:19 GMT
Niccolò Machiavelli says:
Thanks for the review Kathryn you just saved me a fiver! I'm not overly familiar with this period of British history, I much prefer more contemporary history, but I do like my history to be at the very least accurate. I have read other works by Ms Weir and found her to be wanting, but a decent read no matter what her slant is, but being as i know little of the period I could be lead to believe this work as a true representation, your review has saved me from being mislead, thanks.
In reply to an earlier post on 24 Feb 2014 16:47:11 GMT
Kathryn Warner says:
Hi Niccolò, thanks for the kind words! Glad the review was helpful to you. The book is extremely biased and slanted in favour of Isabella, and I find the remarks in it about Edward II's sexuality offensive.
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