Book Review: Edouard III, le viol de la comtesse de Salisbury et la fondation de l’ordre de la Jarretière by Jean-Marie Moeglin

By Louise Gay

After analysing the episode of the Burghers of Calais twenty years ago, Jean-Marie Moeglin returns in his latest study to another narrative composed in the first century of the Hundred Years War: the much less famous story of the rape of the countess of Salisbury by Edward III of England (r. 1327-1377).

First reported by Jehan le Bel (c. 1290 – 1370) in his Chronicles, the alleged crime of the king has puzzled historians since the rediscovery of the chronicler’s works in the 19th century. Why would the author tarnish the reputation of the one he frequented during his youth and whose claims to the crown of France he then defended? Indeed, Edward III is otherwise the great hero of Le Bel’s narratives which immortalise him as a new Arthur, a nearly-perfect chivalrous king. But how then explain the horror suffered by Catherine Grandison at the hands of her husband’s close friends?It is with these questions in mind that the author proposes a new interpretation of the “countess of Salisbury affair”, before extending his historiographical investigation to its later and largely reworked revisions. Indeed, the posterity of the event can be discerned through its distorted echoes in some of the greatest classics of modern and contemporary literature.

Preceded by a brief contextualisation, the study opens with the facts as they are bluntly reported by Le Bel. Particularly sordid, the account of the rape shocks by its raw details which prohibit any ambiguity on the nature of the relationship between the king and the countess. Seized with passion at the sight of the woman who had captured his attention some time earlier, the king would have ignored Catherine’s protests before beating her to the brink of death. An immoral and unworthy behaviour contrasting perfectly with the previously established model of the English king being a paragon of virtues.

In 1972, Antonia Grandsen had questioned the historicity of the affair and put forward a first interpretation to give it. For her, Le Bel’s story would be a false tale peddled by French propagandists to discredit the enemy king. In all good faith, the Liège chronicler would have heard of it then resigned himself to including it for the sake of historical veracity. While agreeing on its fictional nature, Moeglin gives another explanation of the rape story. Disappointed by the decision of Edward not to conquer the crown of France in the years around the peace of Brétigny (1360), the chronicler would have invented the crime to justify what he perceived as his champion’s ultimate failure. As the historical relevance of narrative sources is increasingly questioned in recent studies, the scholar recalls that, for medieval men and women, truth can be found “in the meaning and not in the facts, (…) such as it should have been to find itself in perfect adequacy with the meaning of history”. Because moral values were seen as a reflect of the political and military qualities of rulers, Edward’s renunciation of the conquest would thus be explained by a fault.

It is the powerful entanglement between history, fiction and novel which is therefore at the heart of the author’s remarks and serves as a common thread for the following parts of his study on the story’s later revisions. Most notably, Froissart, who wrote under the patronage of Queen Philippa, transformed Le Bel’s shameful anecdote into a courtly romance. This popularised version then merged with another myth, the creation of the Order of the Garter, in the 16th century. During a ball, Edward would have picked up the garter which had slipped from the leg of the countess, cutting short any gossip with “Honi soit qui mal y pense”. For Moeglin, the insertion of the countess’ character in the Order’s founding legend clarified both its emblem, which had become a strictly feminine garment, and its motto. A gallant story that certainly marked and inspired minds throughout the centuries, from William Shakespeare to Alexandre Dumas.

Highlighting the difficulties, as well as the riches, offered by narrative sources, Jean-Marie Moeglin’s work demonstrates an exemplary methodology as well as a great mastery of medieval texts. Retracing the many challenges of writing history, it also underlines the historians’ own subjectivity who, preferring one source to another, or brushing aside rumours deemed indecent or anti-patriotic, also participated in the development of our collective memory.

One thought on “Book Review: Edouard III, le viol de la comtesse de Salisbury et la fondation de l’ordre de la Jarretière by Jean-Marie Moeglin

  1. I just read about this in Alison Weir’s forthcoming book Queens of the Age of Chivalry. She dismisses it as fictional based upon confusion as to who the alleged victim really was, as in not the countess of Salisbury at all, and acknowledges that leaves unexplained the ultimate fate of the woman in question. She seems to go with the ‘made up to damage the opponent’ motivation.

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