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the traitors wife

 


 

    When I first encountered Christopher Marlowe's Edward II in graduate school, my professor told us,
"Every English schoolboy knows how Edward II died." Not being English or a schoolboy, I hadn't
heard of this king before. I read the play with fascination, but it wasn't until over fifteen years
later that I ran across an online version of it and read it again. At the time, I was writing a
novel that was intended as sort of a back story to Romeo and Juliet--Mercutio was the main
character--but Edward II and his circle soon pushed Mercutio aside. (A formidable feat indeed.)


     In the Marlowe play, Edward II's relationship with his first favorite, Piers Gaveston, takes center
stage. Hugh le Despenser the younger (called Spencer in the play) is little more than a stand-in for
Gaveston, and directors indeed often cast the same actor in both roles. When I began researching
the life of Edward II in earnest, I was surprised to learn that Gaveston had died relatively early
in Edward II's twenty-year reign and that its final crisis had been precipitated by Despenser,
a much more determined, ambitious, and unscrupulous character than Gaveston. I was also
surprised to learn that Despenser had a wife--and that she had a story that begged to be told.


     Daughter to a powerful earl and granddaughter to Edward I, Eleanor de Clare became a bride
at age thirteen. She was widowed twenty years later when her hated husband was hung, drawn,
beheaded, and quartered at the instigation of Edward II's estranged queen, Isabella. She was twice
a prisoner in the Tower of London. Her second husband was the man who had captured her first
husband and who had besieged the castle held by her eldest son. She was accused of the theft of the
king's jewels--and she was likely guilty.  She lost her lands, regained them, lost them again, regained
them again. For several years she was the subject of a dispute in which two men each claimed to be
her husband. The splendid fourteenth-century stained-glass windows in Tewkesbury Abbey,
where Eleanor's relatives and husbands are buried, depict Eleanor's ancestors, brother, and
husbands and are most likely Eleanor's gift--although her own burial place in the abbey is unknown.


     Eleanor's occasional appearances in other historical novels seldom bear any resemblance to the
actual woman. Her relationship with her husband is often portrayed as barren--yet she bore
Despenser at least nine children. She is often shown as a ninny who is treated contemptuously by
her husband--yet she was entrusted with the care of the queen's household and of the king's
second son, appointments that would have hardly been possible without the approbation of both
the king and his favorite. She is often depicted as being a spineless coward--yet within less than a
year's time, she bore the violent deaths of her father-in-law, her husband, her uncle, and her daughter's
father-in-law, the imprisonment of herself and her children, and the forced veiling of three of her
daughters. During this period, she was landless and imprisoned, at the mercy of a hostile
regime--yet she survived to rebuild her life and to give the world something of great beauty. It is this
woman that The Traitor's Wife is about.

 

 

caerphily castle

 

Caerphilly Castle, Wales, birthplace of Eleanor de Clare

 

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