The allegations still shock:
Come the night, when he had gone to bed in proper state, and he knew that the fine lady was in her bedchamber and that all her ladies were asleep and his gentlemen also, except his personal valets, he got up and told these valets that nothing must interfere with what he was going to do, on pain of death. So it was that he entered the lady’s chamber, then shut the doors of the wardrobe so that her maids could not help her, then he took her and gagged her mouth so firmly that she could not cry out more than two or three times, and then he raped her so savagely that never was a woman so badly treated; and he left her lying there all battered about, bleeding from the nose and the mouth and elsewhere, which was for her great damage and great pity. Then he left the next day without saying a word, and returned to London, very disgusted with what he had done.
The year is 1341. The chronicler is Jean Le Bel. The man is King Edward III of England. The woman is identified as Alice, Countess of Salisbury.
With “historical sexual abuse” and the #MeToo movement topical as I write, this tale of rape nearly seven centuries ago seems to me an intriguing case study in how rape by a powerful man in a past epoch has been recounted and responded to.
First, let’s take Jean Le Bel.
According to Wikipedia,
Jean Le Bel (c. 1290 – 15 February 1370) was a chronicler from Liege. His father, Gilles le Beal des Changes, was an alderman of Liege, where Jean himself was active.
Jean was one of the first chroniclers to write in French instead of Latin. He was a soldier and companion of Jean, Count de Beaumont and travelled with him to England and Scotland in 1327 [where he fought against the Scots in the Border Wars]. At the request of the duke, he wrote Vrayes Chroniques (“True Chronicles”), which recorded the events of the reign of Edward III. He is believed to be the first person to use interviews to confirm and supplement his facts. Jean gives as his reason for writing a desire to replace a certain misleading rhymed chronicle of the wars of Edward III by a true relation of his enterprises down to the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War. Jean Froissart was greatly influenced by him and borrowed from his texts. […]
In the matter of style Le Bel has been placed by some critics on the level of Froissart. His chief merit is his refusal to narrate events unless either he himself or his informant had witnessed them.
Jean lived to about age 80 and enjoyed a conspicuously prosperous lifestyle.
So, who witnessed this event who could have been Le Bel’s informant?
Presumably, one or more of King Edward’s personal valets; or someone in Edward’s retinue in whom a valet confided; or one or more of the ladies of the bedchamber, albeit they were seemingly asleep when the assault commenced.
Second, let’s consider Edward.
In late December 1341, the time of the alleged rape, King Edward III had recently turned 29 years old (born 13 November 1312). He had been crowned king at age 14 (1 February 1327), one week after his father Edward II was deposed. For three years he was a puppet king, with power in the hands of his mother Queen Isabella’s lover, Roger Mortimer. At 15 he was married to Philippa of Hainault (25 or 26 January 1328), following an 18-month betrothal. On 19 October 1330, just prior to his 18th birthday, Edward wrested power from Mortimer, through a coup led by Sir William Montagu.
Sir William was rewarded by being made earl of Salisbury, earl then being the highest rank of nobility in England after prince (‘duke’ at that time was a continental title, not yet in use in England). Sir William remained Edward’s closest friend and senior military commander till his death from tournament injuries in January 1344.
Edward’s marriage to Philippa was considered a great success. They were much the same age, met at about age 13, and hit it off from the outset. At the time of the alleged rape Philippa was five months pregnant with their eighth child, having already given birth to five sons. In total she birthed thirteen children, of whom six lived to have offspring: to them, we owe the Wars of the Roses (a.k.a. “the Cousins’ Wars).
That said, across the previous year – 1340-41 – the royal marriage faced a crisis and Edward seems to have engaged in some uncharacteristic behaviours. Edward had been king from his teens and had many sexual liaisons; his enemies condemned his court as immoral, while his friends acknowledged their king enjoyed the company of ladies. No one expected Edward to be monogamous. Yet, three envoys entrusted with a letter to the pope written 18 November 1340 were instructed by King Edward to inform the pontiff that the archbishop of Canterbury, the senior churchman in England, had “spoken separately to me of my wife, and to my wife of me, in order that, if he were listened to, he might provoke us to such anger as to divide us forever”.
Worse, in his letter to the pope, Edward accuses the archbishop of Canterbury of wanting him dead, possibly of attempting to contrive his death.
The accusations against the archbishop of Canterbury arise from the archbishop’s lack of support for Edward’s wars in France, specifically his disapproval of the financial costs and his opposition to the massive taxes Edward levied to raise finance.
The issue within the marriage is more mysterious. Did Edward believe Philippa committed adultery? Could he have believed her seventh child, Edmund, was not his? Edward could not have fathered the child if the pregnancy went full-term, as the royal couple was separated, in Ghent and in Tournai, at the time conception must have taken place. But sixteen days premature is not implausible. If Edmund was premature and perhaps sickly, that could explain why he was not accorded the same honours as his elder brothers as the same young ages, why he lived in Philippa’s care longer than the others, and even, possibly, why his temperament was milder than his brothers’.
Or, was what the archbishop had to say not against Philippa but against Edward? Some misbehaviour beyond the expected infidelities? Some abuse or misuse of members of her household? Of female relatives?
Third: let’s look at the alleged rape victim.
Jean Le Bel names her as Alice, countess of Salisbury, wife of Edward’s great friend Sir William Montagu.
Except Sir William’s wife was Catherine.
In Jean Le Bel’s account, Alice, countess of Salisbury, is in her husband’s northern castle at Wark besieged by the Scots. Her nephew, the castle’s governor, apparently another William Montagu, escapes the siege, seeks out King Edward and his armies in Newcastle, and begs the king’s aid, which is forthcoming. King has not seen the countess since her marriage and is publicly, conspicuously, struck by infatuation. The lady declines his overtures, tactfully. Subsequently he invites her and her husband to a great tournament in London, where she dresses in a subdued manner to attempt to deflect his attentions. Then Edward visits the castle in her husband’s absence and, when the countess continues to refuse him, he rapes her.
Which parts are attestable fact?
William Montagu, earl of Salisbury, was lord of the castle at Wark. In the summer of 1342 he was a prisoner of war in France. At that time, King Edward and his armies were engaged in Border War fighting in the immediate area of Wark. The earl did die just a few years later.
Which parts are wrong?
Sir William’s lady was Catherine. She did not have a nephew named William Montagu – but her 12 year-old son, the earl’s heir, was named William. (Le Bel claimed the couple had no heir.) The earl died in England, not fighting abroad. He did not abrogate his estates, his marriage and his liege lord.
Which parts are plausible?
After the earl’s release from imprisonment in France and his return to England, he and his wife almost certainly attended the king’s great feast in London that summer, which very likely included jousts.
Which parts just don’t sound right?
It’s improbable the countess of Salisbury would have resided in a border castle while warfare with the Scots was flaring.
Sir William and his countess had by 1342 been married 13 years. It seems improbable the king had never since the wedding seen his best friend’s wife. Catherine would have been about 38 and had six children by then, four of them girls. It’s not impossible a 38 year-old mother of six could be raped by a king. Cesare Borgia notoriously raped Caterina Sforza when she was 37 and the mother of eight children. But he’d just captured her castle, with her as the enemy commander. He was not her purported rescuer, and she was not married to his closest, long-time friend.
Can these discrepancies be reconciled?
Curiously, they can, to an extent.
Sir William was not married to an Alice and his countess did not have a nephew named William. But Sir William had a brother, Edward, and Edward Montagu married Alice of Norfolk, a cousin of the king’s, in 1338. King Edward had not seen Alice since her marriage; in 1342 she was 18 years old. Obviously, Alice Montagu did have a nephew named William Montagu – her brother-in-law the earl’s son and heir, Catherine’s eldest son. William Montagu was not old enough to be Wark Castle’s governor, but it’s plausible Edward Montagu might have been. Edward Montagu might have been his nephew’s guardian. It’s plausible young William Montagu might have served in his uncle Edward’s household.
Jean Le Bel wrote his account about ten years after the alleged rape occurred, in about 1352. In January 1352, Alice Montagu was savagely beaten by her husband and his retainers and died from her injuries shortly after. She would have been perhaps 27 years old.
Was Alice of Norfolk killed by her husband for bringing his name into disrepute, for injuring his reputation? Was she killed because her cousin the king had sex with her, possibly raped her?
It’s tempting to surmise.
But caution is in order. Edward Montagu had a history of violent lawlessness. He had squeezed dry his wife’s substantial estates. She had given him four daughters but the male issue had died. Edward and several of his men were indicted for Alice’s killing but it appears only one henchman was convicted and he was subsequently pardoned. Edward Montagu was a veteran of the Battle of Crecy (1346), a famous English victory in the Hundred Years’ War with France. It’s probable his henchman were also Crecy “heroes”.
It’s quite possible Edward Montagu’s murder of his wife Alice was unrelated to any alleged sexual episode between his wife and his king. It’s possible he killed her simply because he was a violent murderous man and because he could.
It’s possible that when Jean Le Bel wrote his account, he inadvertently conflated Catherine, countess of Salisbury, with Alice, the recently deceased wife of Edward Montagu.
It’s also possible Jean Le Bel deliberately conflated the countess with Alice of Norfolk, because by conflating the two, the story elements become so much more sensational – wife of best friend, wife of friend to whom King Edward owes his crown – and with Alice dead, speculation can run rife.
Maybe Jean Le Bel, ex-foot soldier in the Border Wars, had sympathy with Edward Montagu, hero of Crecy, and wrote the tale to help Montagu justify the killing of his wife – although this seems unlikely, given the lady in Le Bel’s tale behaves with impeccable propriety, and the king, whom Le Bel admired, and had met, behaves shockingly.
Which begs the question: why did Jean Le Bel write this tale?
It’s easy to dismiss the entire story as propaganda by King Edward’s enemies in France. But Le Bel is not a Frenchman: he’s from Hainault, home of Queen Philippa. And he’s Edward’s supporter.
The better-known chronicler Jean Froissart is more circumspect:
You have heard me speak of Edward’s love for the countess of Salisbury. The chronicle of Jean Le Bel speaks of this love less properly than I must, for, please God, it would never enter my head to incriminate the king of England and the countess of Salisbury with such a vile accusation. If respectable men ask why I mention that love, they should know that Jean Le Bel relates in his chronicle that the English king raped the countess of Salisbury. Now I declare that I know England well, where I have lived for long periods mainly at the royal court and also with the great lords of the country. And I have never heard tell of this rape although I have asked people about it who must have known if it had ever happened. Moreover I cannot believe [it] and it is incredible that so great and valiant a man as the king of England would have allowed himself to dishonor one of the most notable ladies of this realm and one of his knights who had served him so loyally all his life.
This is Froissart’s second attempt at addressing the rape episode. In the first version, he omits mention of rape and instead substitutes an anecdote about Edward being enamoured of the countess and engaging in risqué flirting with her during a game of chess. Rapey ‘flirting’, it must be said – when the countess wins at chess, because he lets her, she refuses the ring he presses on her as a gift, whereupon he allegedly remarks “she could be sure he would have taken something of hers if he had won”.
When Froissart revised his chronicle a third time, he omits all mention.
It is said a principle informant of Froissart for his chronicles was Queen Philippa herself. Queen Philippa died in 1369, before the first volume of Froissart’s chronicles appeared. But removing the rape story might have been judicious.
There is another scandalous tale about a countess of Salisbury circulating from about the late 1340s. Famously, King Edward III created the Noble Order of the Garter, with founding members knighted in 1344 and Garter costume first issued, according to the king’s wardrobe accounts, in late 1348.
Popular legend has it that the countess of Salisbury was dancing at a ball in Calais when her garter slipped from her thigh. Courtiers sniggered, but King Edward gallantly picked up the undergarment and returned it to the countess, exclaiming “Honi soit qui mal y pense!” (“Shame on him who thinks badly of it!”).
Or, as the popular twentieth-century garbled humorous history book 1066 And All That recalls it, “Honey, your garter’s slipped!”
It’s a nonsense. The Order of the Garter refers to the straps (garters) used to secure armour. “Honi soit qui mal y sense” heaps shame on him who thinks badly of the English king’s claim to the French throne.
If a garter slipped on a dance floor (and it didn’t), the “countess of Salisbury” could have been Catherine, wife to Sir William. More likely it would have referred to Joan of Kent, another cousin and protégée of King Edward’s, who had bigamously married William Montagu the younger at age 13 in 1341 and had become countess on her father-in-law’s death in 1344.
Joan subsequently returned to her first husband, whom she’d married secretly (without royal consent) at age 12 in 1340, and, after his death in 1360, despite many obstacles the Black Prince, Edward Prince of Wales, son and heir to King Edward III, made her his wife.
Their son became King Richard II. Richard II’s deposition unsettled the succession and paved the way for the Wars of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster.
Now that really was a scandal.
But still I ask myself:
If Jean Le Bel so admired Edward III, and if, as he says, he only ever knew King Edward to do one bad thing (this alleged rape – not starting the Hundred Years’ War, not hanging 12 year-old hostage Thomas Seton, not other war crimes or miscarriages of justice): why did Jean feel compelled to recount, in such grim detail, that one bad thing that Edward, allegedly, did?
This blog owes everything to Ian Mortimer’s discussion of the alleged rape by Edward III in his biography The Perfect King: The life of Edward III, father of the English Nation (2006) – Chapter 8, Chivalry and Shame