I must confess that I am becoming a hardcore fan of Susan Higginbotham.
Since I liked Higginbotham’s book, Her Highness the Traitor, so much I thought I would read some more of her work. Her first novel, The Traitor’s Wife, was on sale on Amazon Kindle so I decided to read it next. It had the added bonus of being about historical figures of whom I had scanty, barely basic knowledge so it would be very “fresh” for me.
The book centers on the life of Eleanor le Despencer (nee de Clare), the granddaughter of Edward I the Longshanks and the wife of Hugh le Despencer the Younger. Hugh the Younger was a favorite, and eventually a lover, of Edward II.
Edward II reined from 1307 –1327
I had read Jean Plaidy’s books about Edward II and his French wife, Isabella the She-Wolf, back in high school, so I knew some of the “larger” history of Edward II. In a nutshell, Edward II was an inept King deposed by Isabella in favor of their fourteen year old son, Edward III. During his lifetime poor Edward II was pretty despised, in part because he liked to do weird things (for a King) like boating and in part because he was a less than stellar military leader. However, what really got him trouble was the fact he granted two “favorite” courtiers, Piers Gaveston and Hugh the Younger, outrageous gifts of land, jewels, and money during his reign … even if the kingdom suffered for it. In spite of the fact that Edward II had four children with his wife and at least one illegitimate child with an unknown woman, historians largely agree that he was either bisexual or a homosexual who could at least complete the sex act with a woman and “pass” (as many homosexuals were forced to do over the years) as a straight guy. His sexual fondness for men would have probably have been overlooked (God knows it had been for royalty in the past) if he hadn’t been so immoderate with his gifts to his bedmates.
His wife, Isabella, made the exact same mistakes as the King after she murdered him and made herself regent. Her favorite was Roger de Mortimer, and his lust for power and money, conjoined with her lust for him, made the pair insufferable to the peerage. Isabella’s son, Edward III, eventually staged a coupe while he was still in his teens and took control of his own crown. Mortimer was hanged at Tyburn and Isabella retired to a country life.
Although I knew some the bare-bones of Edward II’s story, I knew nothing of Hugh the Younger and less than nothing about his wife Eleanor. After I read Higginbotham’s book I looked up the facts and found that, as usual, she had written with amazing historical accuracy based on the most cutting edge research and theories available. Frankly, it is just as well that Higginbotham stuck to the facts, because the story of Eleanor’s life was so fantastical that I would have called “unrealistic & overdramatic” shenanigans if it had be fabricated.
It was in the pages of Higginbotham’s novel that I discovered that Eleanor’s husband may have been willing to sleep with his King in exchange for lucre, but he also had a warm and very loving relationship with his wife, and she adored him in turn. Eleanor, rather than coming off as a passive milksop, was presented as an incredibly strong and loving woman who remained steadfastly loyal to her husband and to her King, who also happened to be her favorite uncle. Moreover, Edward’s other favorite, Gaveston, was married to Eleanor’s sister. It was a tightknit little group back then, no?
Eleanor gave Hugh 10 children, and nine of them survived infancy which was quiet an impressive achievement back then. Moreover, the little le Despencers kept coming even after Hugh was sleeping with Edward, so he and Eleanor were clearly able to “adjust” to his other duties to her uncle and remain close. She also managed to hold her family together after Hugh’s gruesome death, and used her relationship as Edward III’s cousin to claw her way out of the Tower and to create her children’s adult livelihoods. Eleanor must have been all kinds of a fabulous woman, because even when she was out of favor and raising a passel of young ones on her own, two well-born and well-heeled men actually got into a protracted legal fight over who was “actually” married to her. She had sex with a baron named John de Grey, and he took this as a legally binding precontract to marry, which was a de facto marriage, but she fell in love with William de la Zouche and eloped with him instead. Eleanor and Zouche won the court battle and she gave Zouche two more children, both of whom survived infancy.
The strongest effect this book had on me is that it changed my opinion of Isabella the She-Wolf completely. Prior to The Traitor’s Wife, I felt that Isabella was much-maligned. After all, her husband abandoned her and their children to enemy forces while he escaped with his boyfriend; I would have been out to get him after that too. Before I read the book, I thought the worst thing she had done was fall in love with a total bastard and let him get away with (literally) murder. Even the death of Edward II was something that I put down to Mortimer as much as Isabella. it might not have even been something she knew about, since she had Edward II’s embalmed heart buried with her and that indicated a certain lingering affection toward her ex husband.
Then I read what that wretched bitch did to Eleanor’s daughters and I was livid. When Hugh died he and Eleanor had three daughters, ages 10, 6, and 3 with another baby girl still in Eleanor’s womb. Isabella, to revenge herself on Hugh (who had already been castrated, disemboweled, and quartered so you would THINK her sense of vengeance would have been satisfied) and to hurt Eleanor (whom she blamed for supporting Hugh and Edward), Isabella had the three little girls ripped out of their mother’s arms in the Tower and forced to to become nuns at different convents so they would have nothing familiar and no one they knew to comfort them. I have three daughters. The youngest one is just 3 years old. I had a complete meltdown in sympathy with Eleanor after I read about the blatant kidnapping and religious incarceration of her daughters and I wanted Isabella’s blonde head on a pike.
Seriously, I hate Isabella now. I also decided that if I had been Eleanor the guards would have had to have chopped down the door and ripped my girls out of my broken arms and even then I would have torn chunks of flesh out of the guard’s with my teeth. Of course, Eleanor was also trying to keep her sons alive (including the eldest who had been captured and who might have been killed at Isabella’s whim) and she might have “let” her daughters go because at least they would be safe and well-fed in a nunnery. Nevertheless, I don’t think I could have kept myself from fighting like an enraged badger. I’m not rational during times of stress, and messing with my kids would cause me stress in the same way that the ocean is a bit damp.
Loathing for Isabella aside, I really, really enjoyed reading Higginbotham’s retelling of Eleanor’s story, as well as finding out more details about Edward II’s life and reign. I highly and without reservation recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fiction!