Friday, 31 October 2014

An Unconventional King and a fantastic story: An interview with Kathryn Warner

Knowledge is a compellingly beautiful thing and by that I mean the kind possessed by the master of their trade, rather than the jack. When one is in the company of someone whose awareness of their subject is so deep and so painstakingly researched, it is a privilege to hear them speak, particularly if their words bounce easily with a confident rather than a phlegmatic intelligence. That is the experience of reading Kathryn Warner's superb biography Edward II: The Unconventional King. Outside of Queer Theory classrooms, Edward II does not enjoy a kindly reputation. He was portrayed as a sniveling incompetent, a pathetic and faintly homophobic caricature, in the hit movie Braveheart, while a recent biography of his glamorous wife compared his government to one of depraved and vicious terror.

Kathryn Warner sets out to rescue Edward II from the calumnies heaped upon him and she does so with success, because it is quite clear upon reading this book that the author is a lady who has spent years researching every detail of her subject's tumultuous life. Edward II, king and man, emerge from this biography not just as an unconventional king, but as a fascinating person.

Warner's book wears its sympathies openly and honestly. I have no problem with sympathetic biographies - one only need thing of Eric Ives's take on Anne Boleyn, Amanda Foreman's on Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, or Dominic Lieven's on Tsar Nicholas II - to know that a sympathetic biography can often produce the finest scholarship, as the author is inspired to delve deeper to produce the truth about someone who they have come to admire or pity, as well as remain fascinated by. (Likewise, biographies with a more critical hue, like Leanda de Lisle's account of Lady Jane Grey or Anna Sebba's account of Wallis Simpson, can often produce gems of historical writing. The crucial component seems to be emotional honesty with the subject.)

The biography that An Unconventional King has most in common with, at least in terms of its tone, is Lady Antonia Fraser's 2002 bestseller, Marie Antoinette: The Journey. Both Fraser and Warner are very clearly on their subjects' side, and while both are more than prepared to recount their mistakes and follies, they underscore the humanising, empathy-generating or admirable qualities firmly because both royals have suffered a fate that saw their historical reputation torn asunder and their reality buried beneath a hundred petty, obscuring lies.

This is a beautiful, thought-provoking and compelling life of one of England's most enigmatic kings, who emerges from the shadows as a flawed but oddly likable prince. Anyone interested in monarchy or the Middle Ages will enjoy this superb book.


As part of her blog tour promoting "Edward II: The Unconventional King" I am delighted to welcome Kathryn Warner, who's here to answer a few questions about her book.

Kathryn Warner holds two degrees in medieval history from the University of Manchester. She is considered a foremost expert on Edward II and an article from her on the subject was published in the English Historical Review. She has run a website about him since 2005 and a Facebook page about him since 2010 and has carved out a strong online presence as an expert on Edward II and the fourteenth century in general. Kathryn teaches Business English as a foreign language and lives between Dusseldorf and Cumbria.

1. Kathryn, you've spent years researching Edward II's life and reign. When did you first become interested in him?

I studied medieval history and literature at Manchester University, where I gained a BA and MA with Distinction, but, despite writing an essay about Edward II in my second year as an undergraduate, I somehow always felt that he was the medieval king of England I knew least about.  All that changed several years later, when I was reading a novel which mentioned Edward's great-uncle Richard of Cornwall, Henry III's brother.  I started reading about and researching Richard and his family, and this led me inexorably to Edward II.  Once I started reading about Edward, I couldn't stop, and felt that I'd finally found the thing I was meant to be doing in life - researching Edward II, his reign, his life, his family. everything about him.  In 2005, I began writing a blog about him to try to correct the many inaccurate stories told about him and to make him much better known, and I still write it regularly and it's had almost a million readers by now.  The historian Ian Mortimer suggested some years ago that I should write a full-length biography of Edward, so I did, and it was great fun.  I'm so thrilled to be getting his story out there to a wider audience.

2. One of the things that's often repeated about Edward II is that he was not the biological father of his son and heir, Edward III. But in your book, you argue that it's more or less impossible that Edward II didn't father Edward III. Why do you think that myth has proved so durable? 

This myth was first invented in 1982 by Paul Doherty in his novel Death of a King, and popularised by the 1995 film Braveheart, which makes William Wallace the father of Isabella's child - impossible given that Wallace was executed on 23 August 1305 when Isabella was only nine or ten and still in France, and more than seven years before her and Edward II's eldest child Edward III was born on 13 November 1312.  I can always tell when Braveheart has been on television somewhere in the world as the number of searches along the lines of 'Did William Wallace father Isabella's child?' which reach my blog dramatically increase, usually a few thousand hits within mere hours.  The huge popularity of the film is a large part of what drives belief in this myth, and it also continues to be perpetuated because some people are determined to think that because Edward II was a lover of men, he must automatically have been incapable of intercourse with women.  These people miss the fact that Edward and Isabella had three younger children as well, and that Edward fathered an illegitimate son, Adam.  Isabella did later have a relationship with the baron Roger Mortimer, long after her children were born, and he has often been put forward as the real father of Edward III.  This is impossible, however, as Roger was several hundred miles away from Isabella when all her and Edward II's children - Edward III, John, Eleanor and Joan - were conceived.

3. Something that struck me so much when I read your book was how human Edward seemed and the quirks and kindness that he was capable of. What is your favourite anecdote about him? 

For all his faults, Edward could be extraordinarily generous, kind and loyal to people he loved and who pleased him.  I've found so many wonderful entries in his household accounts detailing how he loved chatting with fishermen, carpenters, shipwrights and the like, how he spent time at the wedding of Lady Hastings' daughter in 1326 with a servant who "made him laugh very greatly," how he gave a pound to a woman he drank with on the way to Scotland in 1310, how he stood by a river near Doncaster in November 1322 to watch a group of fishermen fishing, how he played a ball game with some of his household at Saltwood in Kent in 1326 while waiting for two envoys from the pope to arrive, and so on.  To choose my favourite anecdote is hard as there are so many, but it's probably this one: on 25 July 1326, when Edward was sailing along the Thames near his palace of Sheen with his niece Eleanor Despenser, he gave a gift of two shillings to a fisherman called John de Waltham.  The reason?  John had given him a bucket of loach, and also "sang before the king every time he passed by water through these parts."  John, the singing fisherman, entertaining the king every time he sailed past; what a wonderful image!

4. The marriage between Edward II and his controversial queen, Isabella of France, is usually presented as a miserable one, but you see it as much more complicated?

Absolutely.  There's a tendency nowadays to depict their relationship in the most one-dimensional manner imaginable, as though it was nothing but a unloving, unhappy disaster from start to finish, which is just silly if you ask me. Surely we all know as human beings that relationships which last for many years change and evolve over time, they're not static, and for heaven's sake, people feel much more than one emotion towards their partner of nearly two decades!  There is much evidence that Edward and Isabella's marriage was, for a long time, a successful and mutually affectionate, even loving, one.  It ended spectacularly badly, of course, but that doesn't mean it had always been bad or was doomed from the beginning, and much of Isabella's behaviour in 1325/26 strongly suggests to me that she was deeply distressed at the breakdown of her marriage and the intrusion into it of Edward's last and most powerful favourite, Hugh Despenser. There is no evidence at all that she disliked Edward's previous favourites such as Piers Gaveston and Roger Damory, whose relationships with Edward she seemed to view as entirely separate from her own.  Edward showed little interest in Isabella at the start of their marriage, but given that he was twenty-three and she only twelve it's hard to blame him for that, and as she grew older, he grew to love her.  Probably not in the same passionate all-consuming way he loved Piers Gaveston, but love nonetheless, as an eyewitness to Edward and Isabella's visit to Paris in 1313 declared.  For her part, Isabella addressed Edward in letters as 'my very sweet heart' and 'my very dear and very sweet lord and friend', which is highly unconventional and hints at her strong feelings for him.

5. Finally, a question I love to ask historians: if someone came along and decided to make a television series on your life of Edward II and you had a say in casting - money is no object - who would you cast as Edward II, Piers Gaveston and Queen Isabella?

For Edward II, Chris Hemsworth, as he's big and tall and fair-haired.  For Piers Gaveston, Ben Barnes.  For Isabella, the French actress St├ęphanie Crayencour.

Chris Hemsworth - Kathryn's choice for a convincing-looking Edward II

St├ęphanie Crayencour for Edward's French wife, Queen Isabella
Ben Barnes, of Prince Caspian and A Portrait of Dorian Grey, for Edward's great love, Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

My new book is out next week!

Good afternoon! I am delighted to announce that I have a new book out next week with Amberley. As part of their gorgeous "An Illustrated Introduction to..." series, a set of books giving an introduction for adults to a particular historical topic, they asked me to write the installment on the Tudors. (As readers of this blog will know, I've written about them a lot!) They've picked some absolutely beautiful illustrations for the book, including my favourite portrait of Elizabeth I, as she approached old age. It's so moving!

An Illustrated Introduction to the Tudors covers the private lives and political roles of all the Tudor monarchs, as well as providing snapshots into issues like - sex in Tudor England, burning at the stake, the myth of Anne Boleyn's six fingers and whether or not Henry VIII had syphilis.

It's available through Amberley and online book stores, like Amazon and the Book Depository.

Competition winner!

Many congratulations to Libby, who won the competition to receive a copy of Sara Cockerill's new book, Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen. The San Fernando Valley, named after Eleanor's father (above), is indeed in the US State of California. To all those who entered, thank you! 

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Out of the Shadows: Review and Giveaway of "Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen" by Sara Cockerill

It is often stated that writing a biography of a medieval person, particularly a woman, is impossible and that any effort will descend into quasi-fiction, littered with more than its fair share of "must haves" and "presumably would haves". In her new book, Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen, Sara Cockerill disproves this assertion splendidly. Longshanks' queen and Edward II's mother emerges from this beautiful book full of fire, vigour and more than her fair share of deeply unlikable flaws.

At 410 pages in length, The Shadow Queen can hardly be accused of narrative anaemia and the decade or so of research that went into writing it bounces off the page, intellectually convincing but rendered readable by Cockerill's light narrative touch. There are touching and thought-provoking deviations about the humanity of her subject - a particular favourite of mine being when the author, weighing up evidence that Eleanor was either fair or dark, concludes, "her own colour choices make it almost certain that her colouring was dark; as will be seen, she favoured reds and greens, colours which no blonde would be likely to choose but which are very becoming to brunettes." This is set alongside a razor-sharp understanding of the quagmire of thirteenth-century international diplomacy and warfare, both of which shaped Queen Eleanor's life.

Cockerill believes that Eleanor of Castile was a more likable individual than she has been presented in recent histories of the monarchy, for instance in Lisa Hilton's study of English medieval queens, from which Eleanor emerges as a chillingly avaricious matriarch, who bled the Anglo-Jewish community white in her relentless quest for personal financial security. Cockerill allows Eleanor's faults to show in all their ugliness, but she suggests that, by the standards of her own generation, England's second Iberian queen consort had more on the credit than debit side by the time she passed away in 1290. Personally, I emerged from my compulsive reading of The Shadow Queen still rather dubious about the Queen's personal plus-points, but that is a tribute to the wealth of detail that Cockerill relates to her readers. While the author wears her views plainly, she is too good a writer to force them upon her audience. Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen is a compelling and exhaustive look at one of England's most fascinating queens and a beautiful example of a medieval biography.


To win a copy of Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen, please answer the question below and provide your e-mail address, which will not be published. It is purely so that I can contact you when the competition has closed. The winner will be announced next Saturday (18th October), thank you.

QUESTION: The San Fernando Valley in the USA was named in honour of Eleanor of Castile's father, King Ferdinand III of Castile. What US state is the Valley located in?

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Sara Cockerill discusses her new biography "Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen"

Hi, Sara, and welcome to the blog.
Congratulations on the publication of your biography of Eleanor of Castile. I'm sure it's a question that you get asked a lot, but to get the ball rolling, could you share with us what it was that attracted you to Eleanor's story in the first place?
Well, I think the story of Eleanor and Edward – the arranged marriage that went so gloriously right – is one which had a certain romantic appeal to me from childhood, fuelled by far too much reading of Strickland, Costain, Plaidy et al.  But the Eleanor in that depiction struck me as sweet but dull, and I certainly had no interest in finding out more about her.  It was later, when I started reading more seriously on Edward’s reign, that the more recent scholarship started to pique my interest.  How did the romantic story of the quiet submissive queen gel with the acquisitive landlord?  If Eleanor was forceful in one direction, did she really have no influence over Edward in other matters?  And Michael Prestwich’s note of the coincidence between the date of Eleanor’s death and the change in the character of Edward’s reign finally made me think that there were too many questions, and no good answers.

2. I wrote about Eleanor while I was studying my masters, but it was in comparison to her mother-in-law, Eleanor of Provence, and focussing on the royal family's interaction with the Jewish population before 1290. Going into it, I expected to find Eleanor extremely unlikable, harsh, greedy and very cold. I ended up finding her more nuanced and sympathetic than her mother-in-law and my own expectations. Was that a process you experienced yourself and how do you think Eleanor acquired such a negative reputation?
I think my introduction to her through her Victorian reputation meant that I had two conflicting pictures of her in my head, rather than one entirely negative one!  What troubled me was that the two versions seemed almost irreconcilable – a problem which I think bothered John Carmi Parsons too.  I did at one point wonder whether the answer was that Eleanor was indeed unlikeable, and Edward’s tributes to her were political rather than personal.  But as you say, once one gets into the evidence it is clear that she really was adored by him – which seems implausible if she was a vile person; and there are numbers of small things which help one to see why.  I think the reason why she has developed this very negative reputation in the academic world is twofold.  Firstly, I suspect there was a reaction to the unsubstantiated hagiographic approach of Strickland et al – and a desire to find a different reality.  But more importantly the documents which survive do tend to assist in that.  What you have of directly contemporaneous comment on Eleanor does tend to be negative, including a number of letters deriving from Eleanor’s business activities which definitely tend to suggest that she was capable of being pretty terrifying, and that her property business was run very hard indeed.  This first person testimony is naturally compelling.  Add to that the results of the inquest on her business, and it is not surprising that the tendency has been to view Eleanor in a negative light.  But, as I’ve mentioned in the book, you have to remember that these are fragments – just because they represent the bulk of the surviving evidence we should not forget that they testify to very isolated incidents, and that Eleanor’s life was made up of very, very much more than this.  The challenge is to try to place these specific pieces of material in context, and evaluate how much weight should be allowed to rest on them - particularly when you see countervailing evidence in the vignettes from the wardrobe records.   Ultimately it seemed to me that the evidence suggests that Eleanor was an extremely tough businesswoman, but very adept at leaving that side of herself in the office.  To friends, family and intimate staff – as well as petitioners or personal acquaintances - she was warm, engaging and very considerate. And to me, that is very credible; I have lots of friends of whom exactly the same could be said.

3. Eleanor is often presented as an indifferent mother to her children; is that fair?
No, it is not.  I do think the evidence suggests fairly strongly that she regarded her marriage as more important than her children – and was much more emotionally invested in it.  But there is plenty of evidence to rebut the charge that she was an indifferent mother. The mere fact of her leaving them behind for two extended periods (Crusade 1270-4 and Gascony 1286-9) does not demonstrate the charge.  She was far from the only royal wife to go on crusade – and in many ways her primary role as childbearer, in a world where children died so very often, would have meant that she was failing in that duty if she took 3½  prime childbearing years off. And the Gascon venture was never meant to last so long.  So those are red herrings. Nor is it fair to criticise her by the yardstick of Eleanor of Provence who was anomalously devoted to her children, staying with them for great portions of the year.  Again, the evidence is there in the details of the wardrobe accounts, and in sidelights from the correspondence.  Eleanor ran a considerable childrens’ establishment, with close attention given to the details of the children’s regime and routine.  She wrote to ask after the children regularly.  She sent thoughtful gifts.  For Alphonso, the child to whom she was perhaps most close, she went to great lengths to commission a simply beautiful psalter, with illustrations that bear the hallmark of her own input.  But to me the most compelling fact is that she ensured that the children’s establishment was moved hundreds of miles to be near to her when she was away travelling for longer than usual.  So in the Welsh years, the children are carted up to Acton Burnell to see their parents, and then off to Bristol for Christmas.  And later they are sent north to Clipstone in Eleanor’s final months to bid her farewell.  In fact there is reason to argue that if Eleanor had been a less concerned mother England might have been spared Edward II!  The second son, Henry, died shortly after being sent for to greet his parents on return from crusade, and to participate in the coronation (in London in mid August – maybe not the greatest decision? …).  Alphonso died not long after a trip north to see his parents during the Welsh campaign.  It was doubtless for these reasons that Eleanor of Provence advised against moving the children north for their final farewell to their mother.

4. This is a game I love to play for something lighter: if a production company came along and wanted to make the dramatised version of your biography, is there any actors you would love to see take on the roles of Edward I and Queen Eleanor? Assume budget is no issue!
I like this game too!  But it is way too difficult.  My husband favours Burton and Taylor, but there are all sorts of problems with that.  Looking into golden era Hollywood I rather like Katherine Hepburn (brainy, feisty, sporty) and Gregory Peck (tall, dark and handsome with a rather Edwardian chin).  But in the current crop of stars my favourites are Rachel Weisz and Daniel Craig – who could bring their own personal chemistry to the roles on top of all their other qualifications.  Particularly, though, I love the idea of book addict Eleanor being played by a Cambridge graduate.  And what is more, Rachel Weisz already knows how to ride a camel for the Crusade section … (How about Robert Downey Jr as Robert Burnell, by the way?).

5. Finally, why will the story of Eleanor of Castile appeal to readers?
How long have you got?  I can bore on about this for hours!  Seriously, while writing the book I have often wondered why such a great story has remained untold, and I lived in terror someone would get there first. There seem to me to be a number of levels on which it should appeal.  Firstly, Eleanor’s is just a fascinating story: exotic childhood, child marriage, at the centre of international politics, civil war and crusade.  She lived in five different countries and visited several others, she had at least sixteen children and a busy professional life, she experienced captivity, an assassination attempt on her husband, the loss of beloved children and immense triumph and success  - alongside a fulfilling professional career.  And she inspired a remarkable artistic tribute after her death.  On top of that she is an interesting person, in that she had a large number of subjects about which she felt passionately.  So there are several Eleanors: Eleanor the bookworm, Eleanor the obsessive gardener, Eleanor the interior designer, Eleanor the gourmet and Eleanor the equestrienne.  With my feminist hat on, I also find Eleanor the businesswoman, striking terror into the hearts of bishops and barons, a very inspiring picture! And finally you come back to where I started – a real and very touching love story, the evidence of which still stands in stone for us to see.  All in all, whether you like her or you don’t – and she will not be as much to everyone’s taste as she is to mine – I think many people will find a remarkable story and an even more remarkable woman.

My review of Sara's book will be up soon, along with a chance for a reader to win a copy of it. In the meantime, please check out its Facebook page here. My thanks to Sara for taking time to answer the questions so fascinatingly. 

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Prime Minister Gordon Brown gives the greatest speech of this year in the Scottish referendum

Our former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, addressed the media and Labour Party supporters in Scotland giving what was, for me, the finest speech that we've been waiting for. A wonderful, magnificent piece of oratory in praise of a United Kingdom rather than the Yes campaign's for Scottish secession, which is voted on tomorrow. Well done, Mr. Brown. 

Friday, 12 September 2014

My new monthly column for "Tudor Life" magazine

I am pleased to say that I will now be writing a monthly column for Tudor Life magazine, an exciting new online magazine from the brain of Claire Ridgway, author of The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown.

The magazine runs in conjunction with a members forum, the Tudor Society, and here is a word from its founders.

The Tudor Society is an exclusive membership club for all those who love Tudor history and who want to keep learning more and more. Lots of  historians and authors are involved in this new society, and they are willing to give their time and knowledge to members of the Tudor Society, through magazine articles and talks. For example, this month the Tudor Society has got a talk and chat by Conor Byrne, guest articles in the magazine by Jessie Childs, Melanie V. Taylor and Robert Parry and lots of regular articles. 
For the first edition of the magazine, Gareth Russell's column, Gareth on History, talked about Mary I's accusation that Elizabeth I was really the biological daughter of Mark Smeaton, and this month he'll be talking about the allure of Anna of Denmark, Mary Queen of Scots' under-rated daughter-in-law. Every month he will discuss a theory, personality, movie or historical mystery which crops up in his research, reading or talks with the public!
The aim of the Tudor Society ( is to enable Tudor history enthusiasts to connect with a wide range of experts and historians from the comfort of their own home. The society has launched with huge success, and there will be loads of fun and informative things added to the site and magazine each month.

Do pop over to if you're a Tudor fan to see if it's for you. I'm filming a talk for the society this month too about the career and reputation of Henry VIII's third wife, Queen Jane Seymour!
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