Recently, I had a comment from someone who'd read the beginning chapters to my story Isabeau, which is about Queen Isabella, the wife of Edward II of England. In essence, the remark was, "We all know the gruesome end that Edward met." For those of you who don't know yet, the myth that has been perpetuated for centuries was that Edward II was murdered in Berkeley Castle by having a hot poker inserted up his rectum. Here is where I bow to the sage Alianore, whose blog on the life of Edward II is an absolute goldmine. In a recent post, she addresses some of the misinformation surrounding his death, and if you peruse past posts, she sheds a whole new light on his life.
A letter written in 1340 by an Italian priest named Manuel Fieschi to Edward III more than refutes that rumor, it purports that Edward escaped, took refuge for a time in Corfe Castle, and eventually found his way to a hermitage in Lombardy. I must say, the murder theory is more sensationalistic, but the possibility of a fallen king living in disguise among monks is pretty darn intriguing, too. Edward II is not one of England's best loved monarchs, because clearly he made a lot of bad choices, but I think a lot of what motivated him was that he placed love and friendship above compromise and peace. In short, he was willing to accept conflict (or perhaps delusional enough to think people would just forgive him and let him live on his own terms) in favor of rewarding those (Gaveston and Despenser) he felt undying loyalty towards.
When I was writing about Robert the Bruce, making him into a likable character was almost too easy. Who couldn't admire a rebel who leads his ragged band to battle to overcome great odds and rise victorious? But I've also embraced the challenge of writing about historical figures who've not always had the best reputations, such as Edward I, Edward II, Piers Gaveston, Hugh Despenser, Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer. I'm not going to say which, but some of these I simply cannot redeem. Some, I can, to varying degrees.
How? you ask. By looking at all the available information, not just popular theory. And, perhaps even more importantly, by attempting to understand what drove these people to do what they did. Was it greed, power or lack of morality? Or fear of losing control of their fates, the hunger for revenge or the trials of forbidden love? I mean, were they really evil and unscrupulous, or were they restricted by the mores and laws of their day, born into situations they would not have chosen, or trapped in toxic or dead marriages? Hmm, when you think about it that way...
More and more these days, writers of historical fiction and non-fiction are tackling the perpetually maligned figures of the past and providing plausible motivations for their actions. Note that I don't say excusable, but if we attempt to understand the psychological and emotional causes, then we can become less judgmental and more sympathetic. I suspect, though, that it will take many more decades to undo the erroneous information about many past events and people that has already survived for centuries.
I always liked a challenge, though. So bring on the bad boys. I like digging around inside people's heads to figure out what made them tick.