Isabella of France
When Isabella of France (1295-1358) arrived at the church in Boulogne in 1308 for her wedding to England’s Edward II, the idea that she would someday be one of the most reviled Queens in English history never entered her pretty head. After all her groom was everything a King should be, tall, athletic, with blond good looks to match her own. The youngest surviving child and only surviving daughter of Philip IV of France and Joan I of Navarre, the marriage had been set in motion to end the war between France and England over territory, specifically the province of Gascony. But there were two things that stood in the way of their domestic bliss; Edward didn’t particularly want to be King, and he was in love with someone else.
Piers Gaveston, a native of Gascony, entered the King’s household when they were teenagers. “As soon as the King’s son saw him, he fell so much in love that he entered up on an enduring compact with him.” Edward I banished Gaveston from England, fearing his influence over his son, but as soon as the old King was dead, the new King called his lover back. He made him the Earl of Cornwall and married him to his own niece, making him a member of the royal family. In other words, there were now three people in this marriage and Isabella was the odd one out. When the newlyweds arrived at Dover in England, Edward rushed into the arms of his favorite. He even gave the couple’s wedding presents to his lover. Gaveston had been left behind as Regent while Edward went off to claim his bride. The highest nobility in the land, including the Earl of Lancaster who was related to the King, naturally expected Edward to turn to them for advice, not an upstart who delighted in openly poking fun at them.
The coronation of the new King and Queen in February 1308 turned into a complete fiasco. Gaveston, not Isabella, seemed to be the guest of honor. Tapestries were made with the coat of arms of the King and Gaveston, pissing off the French who considered it to be an insult to Isabella. The leading nobles in England shuddered to discover that Gaveston had been given the honor of carrying the coronation crown. He had also been given the responsibility for planning the coronation, and his organizational skills left a lot to be desired. The food and the banquet was badly cooked and ill-served, it was also long after dark before the banquet got under way. Not that Edward II seemed to mind, no matter what Gaveston did, the King applauded.
Soon Isabella was writing to her father how about how she was being ill-treated. The new Queen might have been only twelve but she knew what was owed to her as a royal princess and now a Queen. Lands that were supposed to be given to the Queen were given to Gaveston instead. She was also broke; no money was allocated to her to set up her own independent household. Having no other choice, Isabella had to suck it up, and figure out a way to live in this foreign court.
Isabella put up with her husband’s relationship with Gaveston for four years, even befriending him and his wife. Despite the sting to her pride, Isabella supported her husband, was loyal to him, which earned her the respect of the people of England. While Isabella might have been willing to put up with Gaveston, the barons were not quite so open-minded. They forced the King to exile his beloved, the first time to Ireland, but Edward soon found a way to bring Gaveston back. Again the King’s reliance on the favorite divided the barons into two camps, those who opposed Gaveston and those who supported the King. Finally the jealous barons had had enough of Gaveston, many of whom had lost their lands and titles to him. They seized him and had him executed.
For a few years after Gaveston’s death, Edward and Isabella were happy. No matter how she might have felt personally about the death of Gaveston, she put it aside to console her husband. After four years of marriage, Isabella soon gave birth to an heir, Edward. Three more children joined the royal nursery in the next ten years as Isabella devoted herself to being a good wife and Queen. Edward made no move to seek out a new favorite. Edward, for his part, finally began to appreciate the woman he married, particularly Isabella’s intelligence. She was a better judge of character than he was and he was happy to seek her advice, and to allow her to mediate in politics. When they were apart, they wrote frequently to each other. They’d managed to forge a working partnership. His trust in her judgment was such that he began to allow her to attend council meetings.
It was around 1319 that Hugh Despenser the younger began to insinuate himself into the King’s affections. Like Piers Gaveston, Despenser was married to the King’s niece Eleanor de Clare, heiress to the Earldom of Gloucester. Unlike his father who had always been loyal to the King, Despenser the younger had supported the barons until he realized he could fulfill his ambitions by sucking up to the King. Soon Despenser was made a council member and Chamberlain of the King’s Household. Despenser was more dangerous than Gaveston. He was smart ruthless and cunning. No one knows for sure whether or not the relationship between Edward and his new favorite was physical or not. But for Isabella and the barons, it really didn’t matter as they watched the King abdicate more and more responsibility to his new favorite.
For Isabella, it must have been déjà vu all over again, only Despenser was a power hungry bully. As the younger Despenser rose in the King’s favor, so Isabella faded from view. Despenser, jealous of Isabella’s influence over the King, convinced Edward to decrease her authority, and her income. Isabella inwardly seethed while outwardly putting on a brave face. But the final straw may been when he attempted to sexually harass the Queen. Nobody knows for sure, but rumors flew that Despenser wanted to possess the Queen as well. In 1321, when she was pregnant with her last child, Isabella begged the King to exile Despenser. Despenser was banished, but the King recalled him the next year.
In 1325, Isabella’s brother Charles IV of France seized the English crown’s territory in France. Isabella, along with her son the Prince of Wales, set sail to negotiate a peace treaty between the two countries. While in France, Isabella renewed her acquaintance with Roger de Mortimer, Baron Wigmore. Mortimer had been one of Edward’s most successful generals, fighting against the Scots in Ireland. Now in his mid-forties, Mortimer had rebelled against Edward when Despenser had made off with some of his land. Arrested and confined to the Tower of London, Mortimer had made a daring escape, rappelling down the walls, and swimming the Thames to freedom.
They became lovers, although they were initially discreet about their relationship. Soon they were making plans to invade England to put her son on the throne instead of his father. Once Edward began bombarding her brother and the Pope with letters, Isabella and Mortimer felt no need to hide their affair. Considering her marriage irretrievably broken down, Isabella began dressing like a widow, and telling anyone who would listen that “Someone has come between me and my husband….I protest that I will not return until this intruder has been removed, but discarding my marriage garment, I shall assume the robes of widowhood and mourning until I am avenged of this Pharisee.” After seventeen years of being a good wife, Isabella was not about to take her husband’s disrespect anymore.
Edward, on his part, refused to take his wife’s infidelity lying down. He had proved that he could be as ruthless as his father Edward I when he wanted to be. He had waited years, but he had finally taken his revenge against the barons who had killed Gaveston and tried to curtail his royal authority. Edward may have been a reluctant King but no one was going to tell him what to do. Angry letters flew back and forth across the Atlantic, demanding the return of the Prince of Wales, but Isabella would not budge. The Despensers, and by extension her husband, must go.
Armed with foreign troops and the support of the nobles opposed to Edward’s reign, Isabella and Mortimer invaded England. Edward II and the Despensers fled, hoping to rally support, but they were soon captured. Isabella pleaded for the life of the elder Despenser who had always been civil to her. Hugh Despenser the younger she had no pity for. Fearing that he might try to starve himself to death before they got him to London, he was put through a quick trial, and then sentenced to a traitor’s death, to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. Isabella soon showed that she could be as merciless as her father as the King’s supporters were systematically hunted down. Edward II was now deposed and his son crowned Edward III. Since he was only fourteen at the time, Isabella and Mortimer were named regents.
Edward was another story. He was an anointed King although not a very good one, and public sympathy was swinging his way now that the hated Despensers were out of the picture. He would always be a magnet to the disenchanted and disenfranchised. There had already been two aborted attempts to free him. Edward was also still relatively young at forty-two, his father Edward I had lived to the age of sixty-eight. While he might claim to be contrite sitting in his jail cell writing bad poetry, Isabella knew that it was an act. She no doubt remembered Edward had broken his oaths to the barons. The King also had a long memory when it came to those who had wronged him.
Berkeley Castle, where Edward was allegedly murdered
For everyone’s peace of mind, the King had to die. In September of 1327, Edward II died, supposedly by sticking a hot poker through a cow’s horn up his posterior, which left little to no marks on the body. After his funeral at Gloucester Cathedral, Isabella was given his heart in a silver casket. How ironic that the one thing that had eluded Isabella in life, should be hers after her husband’s death.
By 1330, Mortimer had worn out his welcome. He had turned out to be just as greedy and rapacious a tyrant as the Despensers. But the final nail in his coffin was the execution of the King’s uncle Edmund, Earl of Kent. Edward III was now married, eighteen, and a father. It was time for him to take the reigns of power. Supported by the same barons who had deposed his father, Edward III now took steps to get rid of Mortimer. Mortimer was arrested and hanged. It was only due to Isabella’s intervention that he didn’t end up with a traitor’s death like the Despensers. Isabella was so distraught at losing her lover that she may have suffered a nervous breakdown during her two years of house arrest at Windsor Castle. Her son made sure to place on the blame on Mortimer, proclaiming Isabella’s innocence.
Isabella was soon welcomed back at court. A doting mother and grandmother, Isabella spent as much time as she could with them. Always pious, Isabella turned more towards religion in her later years, visiting in particular the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury, perhaps to atone for her sins. When she died after a short illness in 1358, at the age of sixty-two, she was buried in her wedding dress, holding the casket with her husband’s heart. However, she was not buried with Edward II at Gloucester, reunited in death. No, Isabella was buried at Greyfriars church in London where Mortimer’s body had been taken after his death.
Isabella had been a good and dutiful wife until circumstances forced her into leading the most successful invasion of England since William the Conqueror. In her actions she was only following in the footsteps of other English Queens before her. Queens like Eleanor of Aquitaine who waged war against her husband Henry II, or Matilda, daughter of Henry I, who spent seventeen years fighting her cousin Stephan for the throne, until finally conceding her claim to her son, the future Henry II. But Isabella stepped into infamy when she looked away while regicide occurred. For that the chroniclers could not forgive her. Despite being cleared of any wrongdoing, the stain remains on her reputation, further immortalized in Marlowe’s and Brecht’s plays.
Leslie Carroll: Royal Affairs: A Lusty Romp Through the Extramarital Adventures That Rocked the British Monarchy, NAL, 2008
P.C. Doherty. Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II. London: Robinson. (2003)
Eleanor Herman: Sex with the Queen: 900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers, and Passionate Politics, Harper Collins, (2006)
Alison Weir, Queen Isabella: She-Wolf of France, Queen of England. London: Pimlico Books. (2006)