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23.03.02 Moeglin, Édouard III, le viol de la comtesse de Salisbury et la fondation de l’ordre de la Jarretière

23.03.02 Moeglin, Édouard III, le viol de la comtesse de Salisbury et la fondation de l’ordre de la Jarretière

Jean-Marie Moeglin published Les Bourgeois de Calais: Essai sur une mythe historique to considerable acclaim in 2002. This was a study of Jean le Bel’s account of the surrender of Calais, and of the apparent heroism of the six burghers who offered themselves for execution to appease the wrath of Edward III. It is a meticulous examination of one of the most famous passages in the history of the Hundred Years’ War, and reveals a much more ancient ritual of surrender beneath the chronicler’s vivid but flawed account. Le Bel’s narrative in this case can be checked against that of other contemporary writers, notably the English chronicler Geoffrey le Baker, and against documents.

In Édouard III, le viol de la comtesse de Salisbury et la fondation de l’ordre de la Jarretière, he returns to an equally famous--perhaps notorious rather than famous--incident described by the same chronicler, with an equally great afterlife in popular history. It concerns the foundation of the Order of the Garter, and is a very tangled tale. In its final form, which evolved about two centuries after the foundation, the Order was said to have been created to celebrate an incident at a court dance, when the countess of Salisbury lost her garter. Edward III picked it up and tied it round his own leg, and when the courtiers mocked him, reproached them with the words which became the Order’s motto, “Honi soit qui mal y pense” (“Shame on him who thinks ill of this”).

This tale is a very distorted re-invention of a remarkable passage in Jean le Bel’s chronicle. The author was a canon of Liège; the man portrayed by a contemporary writer, Jacques de Hemricourt, was better known for his secular magnificence and lavish lifestyle than his piety. His book is entirely secular, and the opening sentence sets out his agenda: “Anyone who wishes to read and hear the true history of the noble and valiant King Edward, presently reigning in England, should read this little book...” [1] Le Bel presents a narrative of the king’s deeds, and Edward is the focus of his attention throughout. He insists that he is writing only about “what I’ve witnessed myself or have heard from those who’ve been present when I have not.” It is an unusual text, as the basic source, apart from his own experiences, is entirely oral. Hemricourt relates that he was constantly on the lookout for “any worthy stranger, be he a prelate or a knight or a squire” to be invited to dine with him, evidently to provide him with information for his chronicle.

The framework of the chronicle is the career of Edward, presented chronologically and including a selection of important events at the appropriate points in time. There is no attempt to create a literary framework, although Le Bel was said to have composed virelais and other poems. His skill is in the retelling of the stories he has heard. The first part of the chronicle, up to 1340, was commissioned by Jean de Beaumont, uncle of queen Philippa (who seems to have edited it) and is more tightly drawn than the second part, from 1340 onwards, which was written after Beaumont’s death. Le Bel admits that he was less well informed about English affairs when he resumed work in 1358; this was because Hainault had gone over to the French side after the death of William II in 1345, and many nobles from Hainault had died at Crécy as a result.

In the second part, Le Bel describes how in the Scottish wars of 1341 Edward went to relieve a castle at Wark held by the wife of his closest friend, William Montagu, earl of Salisbury, and fell in love with her. This scene is in a romantic style not found elsewhere in Le Bel’s work. Edward held a feast in London the following year, and insisted that the earl bring his wife, who was very reluctant to come. The sequel is even more surprising. After describing Edward’s campaign in Brittany in 1343, Le Bel tells us that Edward declared a great feast at Windsor at which he intended to found a new order of the Round Table. He then tells us that Edward, having sent the earl to Brittany, travelled to Scotland specifically to see the countess at Wark, who refused his advances, and was violently raped by Edward. When she told her husband what had happened, the earl of Salisbury went to London and accused the king, saying that he “should be utterly ashamed.” He resigned his fiefs to his son, and went abroad, where he died at the siege of Algeciras. Le Bel then continues with a brief note about the feast, which took place in January 1344, saying that he knows little about it.

The question that Jean-Marie Moeglin poses is “What then are we to make of this passage in Le Bel’s ‘true chronicles’”? He broadly agrees with the universal view among historians that the story of the rape is false, [2] but argues that this episode has a particular function in Le Bel’s chronicle. In his view, the chronicler sets out to tell the story of Edward’s attempt to make good his claim to the kingdom of France “on the model of the chivalric adventures of the heroes from the court of Arthur,” and that the chronicle must be read “as a recital rigorously thought out and constructed, in which nothing is left to chance and no detail is unimportant.” So this chivalric “adventure” which Le Bel intends to recount is “a sort of new quest for the Grail,” the Holy Grail in this case being the achievement of Edward’s recognition as lawful king of France. The rape is inserted at the point when Le Bel recognises that this quest has failed, and is a purposeful literary fiction reflecting Edward’s failure.

In support of this, Moeglin quotes Le Bel’s view of Edward’s reputation as “the second king Arthur,” and rightly points out that Arthur is both a central figure in the romances and an established figure in contemporary histories which drew on Geoffrey of Monmouth. From the thirteenth century onwards, there were therefore effectively two Arthurs. The Arthur of the romances appears as a roi faineant, a ruler who does not act, but is the focal point of a court without taking part in the knightly quests which dominate the romances. When men talked of Edward III as a second Arthur, they had in mind Arthur as a “historical” figure. This is how Le Bel sees him, and his emphasis is specifically the king’s deeds of arms and prowess. Furthermore, Edward himself only invoked the Arthurian theme on one single occasion, that of the foundation of the abortive Order of the Round Table in 1344. As I have shown elsewhere, this is not related in any way to the later foundation of the Company of the Garter in 1348-1349, a confraternity dedicate to the remembrance of the victory at Crécy. It was not described as an order of chivalry until the next century.

The only occasion when we can definitely associate a chivalric event with the Garter assembly is the festival in 1358, which was held on St George’s day in the presence of the captive kings of France and Scotland. This was not part of the Garter ceremonies, but a parallel event held in order to impress Edward’s involuntary guests. It was a tournament of a particular type, a re-enactment of the Round Table, that is found from the early thirteenth century onwards. That this event was not directly associated with the Company of the Garter is proved by Henry IV’s reply to a general challenge to the Garter companions to joust against a French team in 1408 that they did not engage in such activities.

Furthermore, apart from three mentions of Edward’s reputation as a “second Arthur,” Le Bel only invokes Arthur in connection with place names associated with him, to indicate their great antiquity. As to chivalry, Le Bel barely recognises it: he uses the word seven times in the whole of his chronicle, four of which are the formal epithet “the flower of chivalry” applied to a person. [3]

If the account of the rape is invented, my view is that it is not Le Bel’s own invention, nor is it inserted by Le Bel as part of an underlying structure of his view of Edward. In many ways, Le Bel is writing a fourteenth century version of a chanson de geste, and we have noted that the style is at odds with the rest of the book. Le Bel has a splendid feel for narrative in the first person, as well he might, since he insists that he has “heard” his history from reliable witnesses. By and large, his evidence can be checked against other sources, but here there is nothing to confirm it. Furthermore, the historical details are sketchy, and even the identity of the countess is uncertain.

The visit to Wark in 1343 does not fit in with Edward’s known itinerary, and the death of the earl at Algeciras is a distant echo of the mission of the earls of Lancaster and Arundel. In fact, William Montagu jousted while in ill health at the tournament after the Windsor festival of 1344, and died shortly afterwards.

Everything about Le Bel’s work is driven by what he himself has heard or seen. This seems like a hostile story in circulation about Edward which was told to Le Bel by a trusted witness, one of his dinner guests (“a prelate or a knight or a squire”) to be invited to dine with him in the hope that he might provide material for his chronicle. It need not be identified as French propaganda, which had played a large part in the destruction of the Templars at the beginning of the century. It could simply be gossip told so convincingly that he felt he had to include it.

The passages in Le Bel’s Chronicle that concern the foundation of the Garter company and the story of the countess of Salisbury are dated firmly to a period when Hainault was no longer in the English sphere of influence. We have Le Bel’s own admission that his information about England after 1346 onwards is generally less reliable. His text is also rather less organised, and it may be that some of its weaknesses are due to the absence of Jean de Beaumont’s scrutiny. Furthermore, in 1358, there was a major crisis in Hainault when the count, William III, Philippa’s nephew, was declared insane. Edward III is said to have formally revived the claims of Philippa to the county of Hainault. One historian claims that this intervention “threatened to destabilize the whole balance of power in the Low Countries; Hainault itself was split on the issue at almost every social level.” [4]

A century later, an alternative version of the foundation of the Company of the Garter began to circulate. The concept that this organisation originated in a secular courtly context could only come about when the exact nature of Edward’s foundation has been forgotten. Its early records largely disappeared in the disturbances of Richard II’s reign. The reinvention of the Company as an Order of knighthood, I would suggest, came about shortly after the creation of the office of Garter King of Arms and of the College of Heralds by Henry V, when documents relating to the erstwhile Company first name it as an “Order.”

Professor Moeglin points out that in the case of the Garter, there was evidently an oral foundation myth in circulation in England by the middle of the fourteenth century. Joan Martorell, a Spanish knight, came to England in 1438-9, and witnessed the annual garter feast at Windsor. He incorporated a description of this into his romance Tirant lo Blanc, which he began to write in 1460, preceding it with the earliest version of the story of the lady’s garter. That this was controversial is shown by a remark by another author interested in the subject in 1463, an Italian named Mondonus Belvaletus who dedicated a book of advice to princes to the Order extolling its moral values. He says that “there is more than one who supposes that this Order owes its origin to the female sex.” Again, the historical background is important, and I would suggest that the ambience of Edward IV’s lascivious court combined with his impressive revival of the Order is the likely context for this invention.

The author skilfully traces the way in which the romantic story of the dropped garter and the king’s response is given an aura of historical identity, when it is merged with Le Bel’s identification of the countess of Salisbury as the object of Edward’s disastrous affections. It is only as late as the sixteenth century that name and event are put together: the myth is finally completed in 1576 in a history of France commissioned by Henry III the year after he became king. [5] And it was not until 1607 that William Camden became the first English historian to mention the countess of Salisbury in this context, concluding, “this is the common and most received report.” Shakespeare, who contributed largely to the play The Reign of King Edward III, knew of it, and later authors reworked the story in a variety of ways. Moeglin’s survey ends with recent interpretations, including an extraordinary psychoanalytical version. The whole affair of the story of Edward III, the Garter and the countess of Salisbury is indeed, as he justifiably declares in conclusion, “a dazzling demonstration of the inextricable intertwining which has, over the centuries, bound together History, Fiction and Romance.” Even if his opening stance on the revelations of Jean Le Bel can be challenged, this is a fascinating study of the interplay of the process that leads from the writing of “true history” to the creation of a persistent myth.



1. All quotations unless otherwise indicated are from Nigel Bryant, The True Chronicles of Jean le Bel 1290-1360 (Woodbridge 2011).

2. “Tout porte...à croire que l’histoire est une fiction” (16).

3. For a differing view of Edward III’s Arthurian activities see the articles by Christopher Bérard in Arthurian Literature XXIX (2013) and XXXIII (2017). I would argue that Edward III was simply invoking the historical Arthur for political reasons in the same way as his grandfather, which Bérard has documented excellently in his Arthurianism in Early Plantagenet England (Arthurian Studies LXXXVIII, Woodbridge 2019).

4. Juliet Vale, s.v. “Philippa of Hainault” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,

5. It is tempting to claim once again that the historical background, Henry III’s attempted marriage negotiations with Elizabeth I, is relevant; but that would be hard to justify.