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Medieval Historical Backgrounds
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Historical Background to By Design
The historical background of BY DESIGN chronologically follows that of BY POSSESSION. To recap, toward the end of his reign Edward II came under the influence of the Despenser family and the political situation in England reached a crisis. During this period Edward sent his queen, Isabella, to France to negotiate with the French king. She took their eldest son, also named Edward, with her. Granting permission for the prince to leave with Isabella proved to be one of Edward II's most foolish decisions.
Once on the continent, Isabella announced that neither she nor the heir would return to England while the Despensers were in power. She then found an ally in the Count of Hainault by betrothing her son to his daughter, and with the count's aid launched an "invasion" of England. The story of Isabella's return, and the English barons' support of her, is the background to BY POSSESSION. After her triumphant return Edward II was forced to abdicate in favor of his son, who was crowned and became known as Edward III.
While in Europe, Isabella became the lover of Roger Mortimer. The Mortimer family held land on the Welsh border (marches) and had been among the victims of the Despensers land grab in that region. Roger Mortimer was on the continent as an exile when he became intimate with the Queen. He returned with her, and became her confidante and partner. She gave him the title of Earl of March, bestowing on him most of the borderlands wrested from the Despensers.
Neither Isabella nor Mortimer was named regent during Edward III's minority. However, the council that had been given the power to act in his name could not control this ambitious and extravagant pair. They acted as king and queen, and embarked on a campaign of revenge and greed as bad as England had known under the Despensers.
All the while the young Edward III was getting older and approaching the age when he should rule on his own. There is evidence that Isabella tried to forestall the inevitable. For example, she arranged to delay the crowning of her son's wife as queen so she herself would not be displaced. She also kept the young king's household short of funds. Mortimer became increasingly bold. It was reported that he made young Edward walk behind him in a position of inferiority. The excesses of Mortimer and Isabella caused discontent throughout the realm, and some saw Mortimer as an usurper. Certainly the young king did, but although he surely chafed at the way he was treated, he bided his time and encouraged no rebellions.
This is the situation that exists at the beginning of my novel, BY DESIGN. The outline of events portrayed in the novel regarding Edward III's move against his mother and Mortimer are essentially accurate, although I have obviously taken considerable liberties in inventing the players and constructing the intrigue. Edward did act privately, and with a small cohort of friends, and made his move while the Queen and her lover were at Nottingham Castle. The most famous of Edward's little band was William Montague, who later was made the Earl of Salisbury and one of Edward's advisors. (It was his son who was involved in the marriage confusion regarding Joan of Kent, as described elsewhere in my History Page.) Once Edward claimed his rightful power none stood against him, especially after Mortimer's execution. In his first independent act as a king, Edward III had affected a brilliant, and mostly bloodless, overthrow of an usurper.
As a novelist, I use the skeleton of historical events as we know them and then fill in gaps with a story that I hope is plausible. For the Middle Ages this is easier than for later periods, because normally only the basic outline of events has come down to us. This leaves a writer a lot of room for interpretation. For example, we do not know how early Edward was planning his move, and whether and when Mortimer and Isabella became suspicious. The intimation that Edward might himself have been in danger is a product of my artistic license. However, he was of age to rule independently, he had sired his own son for the succession, and the situation had become untenable. Something had to happen. Either Mortimer had to stand aside and the Queen retire from her position, or a war was probably going to be fought. Considering the times, my suggestion that Mortimer might have contemplated assassinating the young king is not too far-fetched.
The denouement of this historical drama is interesting, and informative of Edward III's character. He showed remarkable forgiveness to Mortimer's supporters, and eventually even reinstated Mortimer's son to the title of Earl of March. He embarked on no campaign of revenge. One gets the picture of a very generous young man, conscious of the need to heal the realm, savvy in bestowing favors and titles to secure his position. But within this magnanimity there emerged an edge of ruthlessness, and it gives us a perspective on the complexity of his character and the degree to which he had long swallowed his resentment. He not only executed Mortimer, but had it done with all the horrible brutality and indignities that had been used on the Despensers. He then locked his mother away at Castle Rising for the rest of her life.
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