Staff Publications: The Traitor’s Wife

Written by Susan Higginbotham
Review by Heather Domin

At age thirteen young Eleanor de Clare, favorite niece of King Edward II, becomes the wife of Hugh le Despenser. She is installed as a lady-in-waiting to the equally young Queen Isabella and spends her teenage years coming of age alongside a distant, cold mistress and a restless, ambitious husband. But Eleanor loves Hugh relentlessly, almost as much as she adores her beloved Uncle Edward. She refuses to believe the rumors about either, supporting them through turbulent times with an innocent, naïve trust. But her loyalty comes at a great price. Betrayed by the two men she loves best on earth, Eleanor is caught in a downward spiral of ambition, greed, and politics that leads to the grisly deaths of both her husband and his lover, leaving Eleanor alone to suffer Queen Isabella’s retribution. Eleanor’s trusting nature, seen by many as gullibility, belies a strength that comes to the fore when her world is destroyed over and over again, leaving her to do what she must to survive. Disgraced and abandoned, Eleanor must find the courage to regain her honor, her identity, and a place for herself and her children in a new regime where she is neither royal kin, nor wife, nor lover, but “the traitor’s wife”.

Susan Higginbotham’s debut novel brings Eleanor le Despenser to life as a passionate, devoted, if naïve, young woman, telling the complex story of a character often overlooked in the lurid tangles of King Edward II’s reign. So why Eleanor? “I actually never considered writing [the novel] from another point of view,” Susan says. “I became fascinated with the reign of Edward II after rereading Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward the Second, and I began researching the history involved—not originally with the idea of writing a novel, but just out of interest. Along the way, I encountered the story of Eleanor and it intrigued me so much I put aside the project I was working on and began to write her story instead.”

And what of Eleanor’s flaws, whatever they might be? “One of the reasons I was attracted to Eleanor was that she was a flawed character,” Susan says. “Depending on how you interpret the facts, she was either blindly loyal to her husband and to her uncle or a part of their schemes—history doesn’t tell us which. I chose to see her as someone who loved her husband and her uncle deeply and who preferred not to look too closely at their goings-on—like the modern-day crime boss’s wife who’s happy to accept her husband’s explanation for their luxurious lifestyle without asking too many questions.”

Originally self-published, The Traitor’s Wife has won several awards, including the 2008 Gold Medal in History/Military Fiction at the Independent Publisher Book Awards as well as Foreword Magazine’s Silver Award for Historical Fiction. Now published by Sourcebooks, Susan’s novel is a poignant story about the many forms of love and the strength to live with them and without them, with a heroine who will linger in the reader’s mind.

Susan Higginbotham is an active HNS member, serving as US membership coordinator and writing many articles and features. She also co-moderates the Historical Fiction Online message boards ( and also runs her own blog, Medieval Woman ( Her second novel, Hugh and Bess, is also being reissued by Sourcebooks in 2009.