Of all England's medieval Queens few have captured the imagination quite like Isabella of France. Through the ages distinguished playwrights, Hollywood directors and a plethora of historical novelists have attempted to portray this fascinating and enigmatic Queen but their attempts have done little to add to our understanding of a woman who continues to polarise opinion. Depending on which side you take Isabella can be seen as ‘the She Wolf', the femme fatale of the English monarchy, or simply as a misunderstood woman, passionate, intelligent and driven to desperate measures by her cruel despotic husband.
Initially contemporaries tended to view Isabella as something of a tragic figure, a beautiful, passionate French princess trapped in a loveless marriage to an incompetent, negligent husband. Isabella's early years as a dutiful, albeit long-suffering, wife tend to be forgotten in favour of the high drama, romance and intrigue that surrounded the eventual breakdown of her marriage and continued to plague her during her brief reign as unofficial ruler of England. While many had sympathised with her plight, regarding her husband as weak and despotic, there can be little doubt that once she found the confidence to take action, Isabella's behaviour scandalised her contemporaries and badly damaged her reputation. Casting aside her previous role as a compliant consort before finally throwing away all pretence of obedience and duty, Isabella actively opposed her husband's regime and participated in his overthrow (and some believe in his mysterious death) all the while conducting an affair with Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, the man with whom for a time she ruled England. To make matters worse during her short time in power the arrogance and avarice her regime displayed alienated her supporters and eventually forced her young son, Edward III to take action against her.
But to judge Isabella solely on these brief but dramatic years is to underestimate the important role she played both before and after her time in power. Isabella was a woman who displayed a genius for survival and reinvention and even after her enforced ‘retirement' from public life, she remained an influential figure in royal circles. With the benefit of hindsight, and our twenty-first century sensibilities it is possible to be a little more lenient with some of her failings and it is important not to allow the drama attached to her years in power to take from the very important role she played in European history. Throughout her life Isabella was known for her fierce loyalty to her native land, in England Isabella's behaviour helped overthrow her husband's regime while dynastically, by transferring her claim to the throne of France to her eldest son and by actively encouraging him to pursue the French throne on the death of her last surviving brother, Isabella athe She-Wolf' planted the seeds for what would become known as The Hundred Years War.
So what do we really know about this enigmatic Queen? Born late in 1295, the only surviving daughter of two reigning sovereigns, Philippe IV of France and Jeanne de Champagne, Queen of Navarre, from the moment of her birth, Princess Isabella was guaranteed a high-profile role in European history and as early as 1298 during negotiations for an Anglo-French truce, was being proposed as a bride for the King of England's eldest son. By 1299 the Anglo-French truce was a reality, and in order to cement the alliance the young Isabella's aunt, Princess Marguerite was married off to King Edward I of England. There were rumours that by 1303 the wily English king may have wished to keep his options open and despite protestations of friendship and love for his brother-in-law King Philippe, was in fact considering a Castilian bride for his heir, but in the end the rumours came to nothing. Later that year a permanent truce was announced and the formal betrothal of Princess Isabella of France and Prince Edward of Caernarfon, as the heir to the throne of England was known, swiftly followed.
Born in 1284, unlike his child-bride, at the time of his betrothal Edward of Caernarfon was in his early twenties, whatever thoughts he may have had regarding his impending marriage went unrecorded. Described by more than one historian as 'one of the most unsuccessful kings ever to rule England', Edward was the youngest of the fifteen children of Edward I and his first wife, Queen Eleanor, his eldest brother Prince Alphonso died shortly after Edward's birth. As the only surviving son this left the young Prince Edward heir to the throne. Despite his lofty status his childhood was lonely and isolated, Edward's mother died when he was six and his father, preoccupied with the wars in Scotland and France, took little interest in the heir to the throne.
As he grew older Prince Edward's relationship with his father became increasingly strained. Despite being conventionally handsome, and possessing some regal qualities, Edward was regarded by his peers as weak while his enthusiasm for 'rustic' pursuits usually reserved for the lower classes, further damaged his reputation and led to outlandish but persistent rumours that Prince Edward was in fact a changeling. Insecure from the outset and desperate for affection, Prince Edward had another potentially dangerous weakness; he tended to develop passionate, all-consuming attachments to 'favourites' and allowed himself to be dominated by these favourites to such an extent that the balance of royal patronage was viewed as being in danger. Even before his marriage his relationship with particular favourite, Piers Gaveston, the son of a royal household knight, whom Edward had taken to calling 'brother' had led to violent quarrels between father and son, and eventually banishment for Piers.
But by 1307 Edward I was dead and his son had succeeded him as Edward II of England. As one might expect from a King described as 'careless of convention and disastrously arrogant' the favourite Piers Gaveston was welcomed back with opened arms and lavished with gifts and to the disgust of the court a title previously reserved for royalty, Earl of Cornwall. Despite the fact that it was clear that any chance he would have of being recognised as King of Scotland required that he remain in England, the headstrong Edward, who had heard reports that Isabella of France had grown into a great beauty, was determined to wed, so much so that chroniclers claim that Edward 'lost the kingdom of Scotland through his impatience to secure his prize.'
At the request of her father, Philippe IV, Edward II increased Isabella's dower assignment and, despite continued disputes regarding Edward's rights in Aquitaine, and rumblings of discontent in England where Edward had left his beloved Piers as regent, on 25th January 1308, the royal couple were married in Boulogne in a ceremony attended by a remarkable assembly of European royalty, including no less than five kings and three queens. Royal biographer Agnes Strickland reports that 'The beauty of the royal pair, whose nuptials were celebrated with extraordinary splendour, excited universal admiration; for the bridegroom was the handsomest prince in Europe, and the precocious charms of the bride had already obtained for her the name of Isabella the Fair'.
On the face of it, despite her youth and inexperience the new Queen of England was better connected at the court of England than many of her predecessors, and therefore well-placed to make her mark and exert some influence in her new kingdom. Her aunt Marguerite was Queen Dowager, her husbands young half brothers the Earls of Kent and Norfolk were her cousins, while one of England's most powerful lords, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, was an uncle on her mother's side. Yet from the outset there were problems. Even before the couple had reached England for their coronation it was learned that Edward had sent King Philippe's wedding gifts to his favourite Piers. Isabella's uncles Charles de Valois and Louis d'Evreux who had accompanied her to England were soon voicing their concerns at their niece's treatment. On arrival in England Edward had thrown himself into the arms of Gaveston, 'fell on his neck and called him “brother”…conduct which greatly displeased the queen and her uncles' and caused many to wonder at the nature of the relationship between the King of England and his favourite. Even if Isabella and her entourage had decided to overlook Edward's ill-advised behaviour they were soon faced with a far more public humiliation, for the coronation, organised by none other than Gaveston himself was regarded as nothing less than a fiasco and an insult to the new Queen.
Although Isabella's beauty had won the admiration of the court and her coronation outfit was reportedly 'magnificent' it seemed her husband only had eyes for his favourite. Not only did the King outrage his nobles by assigning the most important ceremonial task of the day, that of bearing St Edward's crown, to Gaveston, the favourite was noted to be more sumptuously dressed than the King, 'so decked out that he more resembled the god Mars than an ordinary mortal'. Gaveston was clothed in 'pearl-encrusted silk robes of imperial purple, a colour that should have been reserved for the King himself, behaviour which further outraged the English lords. One of the earls was reported to have been so incensed 'that only consideration for the sensitivities of the Queen and the sanctity of the Abbey prevented him from coming to blows with him in the church itself'.
Strickland notes that either Gaveston's 'arrangements were made with little judgement, or his directions were perversely disobeyed, for it was from the beginning to the end a scene of the most provoking confusion and disorder' A knight was trodden to death, ceremonies were interminably delayed, the food was badly cooked, inedible and ill served. For the young Queen and her party of French nobles there were yet more slights to endure, for the King had chosen to sit with Gaveston, rather than with his bride, 'while the tapestries made for the coronation bore his (Gaveston's) arms alongside the King's'
Despite her youth and relative inexperience Isabella displayed confidence and self-assurance during those difficult early years as Queen. Although she was well-connected at court, she was forced to rely on her own instincts, for her aunt Marguerite had retired from court shortly after the coronation, while her uncles, still bristling at the slights they had endured, had returned to France. Isabella had few to advise her she was determined to make her voice heard. She made no secret of her displeasure, penning letters to her father complaining that Gaveston had usurped her position at court and that her funds were inadequate. It was said that in order to eliminate Gaveston Isabella was in contact with her father, the pope and cardinals and the English earls, it was even whispered that her uncle Lancaster had secretly promised her that he would see to it that Gaveston was expelled from England.
These were turbulent times, the vast majority of the English barons wanted Gaveston gone, while others sought to use Gaveston to influence the King. Twice the barons demanded Gaveston's banishment and twice the King recalled his favourite. By 1311 the exasperated barons spearheaded the formation of a committee called the Lords Ordainers, the group drew up a series of ordinances which, in the interests of reforming the government of the country and the running of the royal household, which was deeply in debt, sought to limit royal authority.
In 1312 Lancaster had taken up arms against the King to limit his authority and more pressingly to compel the King to dismiss Gaveston. Isabella accompanied the King and Gaveston as they fled to Newcastle. While wardrobe records now refute the legendary tale that in May 1312 Edward and Gaveston had callously abandoned the Queen at Tynemouth while they fled, anxious to avoid capture by Lancaster, contemporary reports reveal that at this time Edward preoccupied with a kingdom which was on the brink of civil war, and determined to save his favourite from the vengeful barons viewed his wife as little other than a 'petulant child' and certainly displayed little concern for her welfare.
Abandoned or otherwise, the time she spent in Tynemouth shows us something of the human side of this enigmatic Queen, for in a far cry from her reputation for being self-regarding and spoiled, Isabella was so taken by the plight of a 'poor destitute' Scottish orphan she befriended that she 'adopted' him. The boy was sent to London to live with the wife of her French organist, while Isabella paid for his education and upbringing.
Meanwhile the King found himself in an increasingly impossible situation, unable to stand against his barons, and powerless to save Gaveston who in June 1312, was kidnapped and swiftly executed at Blacklow Hill. King Edward was inconsolable, one contemporary believed that '…the King grieves for Piers as a father grieves for his son, for the greater the love, the greater the sorrow.' While Edward vowed to avenge his friend's death, Isabella's thoughts went unrecorded.
Despite the turmoil that surrounded the early years of their marriage the relationship between King and Queen was not entirely unsuccessful. During the early years of his reign Edward regularly granted pardons and bestowed lands, money or offices at his new wife's request. In spite of the numerous rumours regarding his relationship with Gaveston, Edward did not neglect his conjugal duties and in 1312 Isabella gave birth to her first child, a son, Edward born at Windsor on 13 November (conceived well before Gaveston's death in July 1312). In November 1313 the Queen reportedly miscarried, but continued to fulfil her dynastic duty when a second son, John of Eltham was born in July 1316 followed by two daughters, Eleanor of Woodstock in July 1318 and Joan of the Tower in June 1321.
The loss of Gaveston appears to have caused a shift in the relationship between Edward and Isabella with the capable young Queen coming to the fore exerting more influence over her husband than had previously been the case. Having already been granted the county of Pointhieu to increase her revenue, in 1318 when her aunt Marguerite died, Isabella was granted her dower lands. Isabella induced her husband to favour her relatives, the Beaumounts and was several times names custodian of the Great Seal.v
The respect and consideration Edward showed for his wife during these years went some way towards reassuring her family, who it seemed kept a watchful eye on Edward's behaviour, but it was obvious that the royal marriage was not without tension and remained far from harmonious. Despite the haste with which he married her, Edward reportedly insisted that he had wed her unwillingly, and is believed to have blamed his wife for the continuing Anglo-French disputes. For a woman as proud of her lineage as Isabella this must have been humiliating, while her husband's continued interest in 'rustic pastimes and low company' meant that the rumours that he was not Edward I's son persisted and spread across Europe, fuelling his wife's humiliation and frustration. Signs of marital discord and Isabella's wilful independent streak can be seen in the fact that during an Episcopal election in 1316, she boldly sought papal approval for her confessor, one Hamo Hythe, over her husband's candidate, enlisting the support of the Earl of Pembroke and the King of France along the way.
Despite her husband's complaints and the fact that as she matured Isabella showed that she was more than capable of exerting her influence (in 1317, at his wife's command Edward supported her cousin Louis de Beaumount's appointment as Bishop of Durham), at this stage it appears Isabella was content to play the role of supportive consort; and without Gaveston to guide him Edward found that he was forced to rely on her advice. He may have regarded his wife as irksome but given his strained relationship with his barons and troubles with France, the increasingly beleaguered Edward cannot but have been grateful for her support. Whether he chose to admit it or not, in his relations with the barons and with France Isabella's consistent support was vital.
In May 1313 the royal couple travelled to France, were nobly received, attended the coronation of Isabella's cousin the King of Navarre and declared their intention to go on a Crusade. While in France Isabella and Edward were involved in a fire, which destroyed all their possessions and badly burned the Queen's hand and arm. But her visit to France is best known for another reason, for it was during this visit that Isabella first become aware of the scandal that would soon engulf her family and rock the French monarchy to its core. While at the French court Isabella became suspicious of her brothers' wives behaviour. On her advice an investigation was launched and to everyone's horror it proved that the French princesses had taken lovers, a fact which in medieval times was not only shocking for its immorality but was dynastically disastrous, as their behaviour could taint the purity of the Capetian line. The King of France was merciless, the men involved were arrested tortured and executed and the princesses imprisoned, with only one able to convince her husband of her 'innocence'.
For a woman as proud of her lineage as Isabella these scandals cannot fail to have had an impact, but once back in England there were other things to occupy her. In October 1313 with the aid of Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, Isabella successfully mediated between the King and his barons, even the disapproving Strickland admits that it was through the Queen's mediation 'that a reconciliation was at length effected between King Edward and his barons, and tranquillity restored.'
Sadly this 'tranquillity' did not last long and in 1316 Isabella's skill as a mediator were once more required, when, this time with the assistance of Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, she helped to make peace between the King and Lancaster. In 1318 she shared in the negotiations for the Treaty of Leake. In 1321 Isabella and her husband travelled to France where Edward paid homage for Ponthieu and the couple spent some time with her brother, now Philippe V of France. In August 1321 Isabella was once more attempting to ease relations between Edward and his barons. Her efforts reportedly made her popular with the people, but the kingdom remained in a turbulent state and her efforts had little lasting success either domestically or abroad.
It was during this troubled period that, to Isabella's dismay, Edward became increasingly intimate with Hugh Despenser a son of one of his staunchest supporters. According to the chroniclers 'this ambitious young man became the King of England's right eye and, after the death of Piers Gaveston, his chief adviser against the earls and barons'. As with Gaveston before him Despenser was loathed by the barons, who were increasing in power and anxious to secure Despenser's banishment. When the Despensers were banished in 1321 the Earl of Pembroke wrote a warning to the king, 'he perishes on the rocks that loves another more than himself'. Matters came to a head due to a well-known incident, orchestrated by Edward himself. Isabella, returning from pilgrimage, was refused entry to Leeds Castle by the custodian's wife. Six of Isabella's men died as a result of the scuffle that followed and Edward swiftly used this insult to his wife as an excuse to attack the barons. Edward's siege of Leeds ignited a conflict that ended with Lancaster's execution after the Battle of Boroughbridge on 16th March, and Edward's triumph at the York parliament of May 1322.
Edward may have been triumphant, but with Despensers' arrogance and ambition growing to unprecedented levels, Isabella now found herself in an increasingly precarious position. As his attachment to Hugh Despenser grew, Isabella found that almost without warning she had been supplanted by a rival far more dangerous than Gaveston. It seemed that the loyalty she had shown her husband now counted for nothing; on the advice of the Despensers Isabella was isolated and her access to Edward II was curtailed. It is claimed that 'the bitterness she had felt as a bride when she became aware of her husband's preference for Gaveston returned in 1322 when she saw him giving his affection to Sir Hugh, and from then on she became the Despensers's implacable enemy'.
Although understandably outraged at the position she now found herself in, particularly when one considers the loyalty and support she had given her husband when he most needed it, at first there was little Isabella could do but endure the insults the Despensers (father and son) heaped on her. The younger Hugh Despenser now all but controlled the King, and at his urging Edward confiscated Isabella's lands in September 1324, arguing that it was unwise to leave them in her hands while relations with France were worsening by the day. According to biographer Agnes Strickland Edward declared, 'that he did not consider it safe to allow any portion of his territories to remain in her hands, as she maintained a secret correspondence with the enemies of the state'. The Queen blamed her estrangement from her husband on the Despensers, and reiterated her complaints to her outraged brother.
Although it is untrue that she was only allowed twenty shillings a day for her expenses, she was left dependent on Edward for her funds, and many of her friends and French servants were dismissed. And according to Strickland during this time Isabella wrote to her brother Charles, who had succeeded Philippe V as King of France, bitterly complaining that 'she was held in no higher consideration than a servant in the palace of the King her husband'. As a crowning indignity for this proud young Queen, Despenser's wife, Edward's niece Eleanor de Clare, was appointed as 'housekeeper' with the right to read her correspondence, it was also alleged that Isabella was unable to send letters without Eleanor's knowledge. When the Despensers discovered that Isabella was in contact with their opponents, the Bishops Adam Orelton of Hereford and Henry Burghersh of Lincoln, Hugh the Younger apparently sent one Father Thomas Dunhead to ask the pope to divorce Isabella from Edward. Due to her nationality and the poor state of Anglo-French relations, Isabella continued to be suspected of intrigue with her relatives, in particular Charles of Valois, leader of the French army that, in 1324 had again confiscated Aquitaine.
Yet it was the renewed conflict in Aquitaine that finally gave Isabella the opportunity to escape an increasingly intolerable position in England. Despite their strained relationship, Isabella somehow managed to persuade Edward that the best means of resolving the situation was to negotiate and to that end nominated herself as the best person for the role. The King of France, was her brother and the two enjoyed a warm relationship, Isabella had previously proved her worth as a mediator and with no end in sight to the conflict in Aquitaine, Edward had little option but to begrudgingly agree. Isabella's household was restored just before her departure for Paris in March 1325 but although there was a staged reconciliation between the Queen and both Despensers (who rather short-sightedly were delighted to be rid of her presence) rumours already circulated that Isabella had decided that she would never return while they remained at her his side.
The peace Isabella negotiated imposed severe financial burdens on her husband it was also 'couched in such ambiguous terms' that Isabella's stay in France was extended. King Charles agreed to accept his nephew, Prince Edward's homage, if he were made Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Ponthieu in place of his father, something that had been suggested as early as January 1325. In France Isabella had been enthusiastically welcomed, not only by her beloved brother, but also by one Sir Roger Mortimer, who was still wanted in England after his dramatic escape from the Tower of London. Mortimer was by all accounts a charismatic man of action, the polar opposite of Isabella's husband, and the pair were drawn to one another almost from the start, their shared loathing of the Despensers appears to have first thrown them together, but before long rumours were circulating that these allies were becoming far closer than they should.
Edward and the Despensers appear to have remained blissfully ignorant of this state of affairs for when Isabella wrote suggesting that, in line with the terms of the recent agreement, he send Prince Edward to Paris to pay homage to the King of France, Edward raised no objection and sent the young prince with his blessing. The Prince of Wales left for France in September 1325 accompanied by the King's half-brother Edmund, Earl of Kent. But having paid homage, the prince, the Earl of Kent and Isabella remained on in Paris.
By late September Edward, now a little alarmed at this turn of events, ordered Isabella to return to England. The Queen sent many of her retinue back to England but remained on in Paris with her son at her side. King Edward wrote numerous letters, to the King of France, the Prince of Wales and Isabella herself, all urging the return of his wife and son, but to no avail. Now that she had the Prince of Wales in her possession, Isabella seized her moment. Rather dramatically she declared that 'marriage was a bond between husband and wife, and that until the middleman (the Despensers) who divided them was gone, she would live single or in a convent' Privately it seems Isabella had secured her brother's support throwing herself on his mercy by revealing that if she were to return to England her life was in danger, both from the Despensers and King Edward himself, who it seems in a fit of rage had sworn to crush her in his teeth if he had no weapon to kill her. Naturally the King of France stood by his sister although it was noted that the pragmatic Charles was also hopeful that supporting his sister might eventually lead to the recovery of Aquitaine.
In Paris Isabella spent more and more time with exiled English traitors and with Sir Roger Mortimer in particular. It was soon being whispered throughout the courts of Europe that the Queen of England and the exiled traitor Mortimer were lovers and furthermore that thanks to Mortimer's influence Isabella was now actively plotting against her husband's regime. King Edward continued to plead for the return of his wife and son, but his efforts were futile, the King of France in one of his replies explained that 'he could not permit her (Isabella) to return…unless she were guaranteed from the evil that was mediated against her by her enemies the Despensers'.
At their refusal to return the Despensers persuaded Edward to outlaw his wife and eldest son. Meanwhile Isabella, now in the high-throes of her increasingly public affair with Mortimer, corresponded with English nobles who had formed an anti-Despenser party and desperate to raise the funds they needed to launch an invasion of England, now proposed a marriage between the Prince of Wales and the daughter of William II of Hainault, Holland and Zeeland. Despite his earlier show of support for his sister, it appears that the rumours circulating about her relationship with Mortimer had caused a cooling of relations between King Charles and Isabella. It was one thing to offer protection and a safe haven to his sister and nephew, but it was quite another to be seen to condone immorality, particularly given the French royal family's recent history.
Determined to press on, regardless of this setback, early in 1326 Isabella left Paris for Ponthieu and then Hainault, where the betrothal took place. A delighted Count William had provided his daughter Philippa with a generous dowry, which Isabella swiftly used to hire mercenaries, commanded by Mortimer and the Count's brother Jean. In March 1326 there were still rumours that Isabella might yet return peacefully to England, and in May Pope John XXII was making vain attempts to reconcile the couple, but as his plan called for the removal of the Despensers Edward refused to consider it, although he swore that he would 'receive his wife and son honourably' if they would return to England.
With attempts to reach a reconciliation all but abandoned, and having finally gained the funds to support an invasion Isabella and Mortimer decided that the time was right to act. In September 1326 Isabella and her supporters set sail and landed near Harwich, Mortimer at the side, in command of a force of English exiles and mercenaries. 'After she had made a theatrical pilgrimage to Bury St Edmunds in the symbolic mourning dress of a widow', Isabella was joined by a number of barons and many London citizens.
On hearing of the Queen's ever-increasing army of supporters Edward and the Despensers fled to Gloucester to try and raise troops of their own, an impossible task as it was becoming clear, even to Edward that his disillusioned subjects now viewed his estranged wife as the saviour of the kingdom. Unlike Isabella who appeared to relish action, Edward was seemingly paralysed by indecision and instead of taking action at this critical moment wrote 'pathetic letters to the pope and the king of France, entreating their succour or interference' Cowering in Bristol the best Edward could manage was to offer a £1000 reward for Mortimer's head… Isabella replied by offering £2000 for his.
As she marched on Isabella met little resistance, at Oxford her supporters reinforced the view that Isabella was the saviour of England when they declared that the Queen sought to end misgovernment, while a proclamation she issued at Wallingford on 15th October was even more specific and violently denounced the Despensers. London rose to support the Queen that same day, officially marking the collapse of Edward's authority. Once her military strength was assured Isabella proclaimed her son guardian of the realm on 26th October. With the surrender of Bristol the elder Despenser was captured and swiftly executed. Edward and young Hugh Despenser were captured, close to Llantrisant in Glamorgan on 16th November; Hugh the younger was brutally executed on 25th November.
A parliament was summoned to London for 7th January 1327. King Edward was informed at Kenilworth that it had been decided that 'because of his incompetence to rule the kingdom, for being controlled by wicked councillors and for losing territories bequeathed him by his father, he should be deposed and his place taken by Prince Edward' At first Edward refused to abdicate, but was told that if he did not his son would be denied the crown and a new sovereign found and his dynasty destroyed. With no option left to him King Edward resigned the throne and his son was crowned on 1st February 1327. In order to provide an official explanation (and one that would be palatable to medieval sensibilities) for the fact that Isabella remained estranged from her husband, and made no attempts to join him in his 'retirement', her supporters told the assembly that Edward had declared that he would kill her should she ever rejoin him: in April the council rather obligingly forbade her from doing so, although she continued to fulfil the role of concerned spouse by sending gifts to her husband, now known as 'Lord Edward, sometime King of England'.
Despite this it appears that when it came to her relationship with Mortimer Isabella had thrown caution to the wind. After suffering years of humiliation and neglect at the hands of her husband and his favourites Isabella now ploughed all her energies into nurturing 'an alternative political and romantic fantasy around a talented and attractive man who terrified baronial rivals, men of lineage and wealth who had far less clout than Mortimer after 1327.' A fantasy it was, Mortimer and Isabella even indulged her passion for Arthurian legend by appearing at tournaments 'dressed as Arthur and Guinevere.' According to Strickland it was now that the 'evil nature of Isabella of France blazed out in full view. Hitherto her beauty, her eloquence and her complaints had won all hearts towards her cause; but the touchstone of prosperity showed her natural character…the cruel and perfidious spirit of her father Philippe le Bel …may be traced in her proceedings at this period. She was however the popular idol of the English just then; and as long as the national delusion lasted, she could do no wrong.'
In July 1327 the deposed king was almost rescued by a conspiracy led by Thomas Dunhead, and in September another plot was exposed. Despite his unpopularity there were still those who regarded Edward II as their rightful king and his deposition by his wife and her lover as both shocking and unlawful. As the enormity of what had just occurred began to sink into the public consciousness, it soon became clear to Isabella and her party that they had to take action or risk losing everything. For as long as he remained alive Edward II would be a focal point for every resistance movement, and a rallying cry for all those loyal to the old regime.
On 21 September the former King was mysteriously killed in Berkley Castle. According to legend Isabella and Mortimer were directly responsible, famously plotting and issuing the ambiguous order 'order "Edwardum occidere nolite timere bonum est" which depending on where the comma was inserted could mean either "Do not be afraid to kill Edward; it is good" or "Do not kill Edward; it is good to fear". In reality, there is little evidence of just who decided to have Edward assassinated, and none whatsoever of the note ever having been written. However the fact remained that Edward's removal was unquestionably at the new regime's tacit or express wishes.
Although neither figured on the young King's council Isabella and Mortimer now effectively ruled and were determined to make the most of their reign. According to the disapproving Strickland Isabella seized all of the Despensers lands and assigned herself so much of the royal demesne that she left only a third of its revenue to her son, the King. While in France it appears that Isabella had secretly agreed to recognize Robert I as King of Scots, and to abandon English claims to the overlordship of Scotland. She agreed a peace with France in September 1327, and after her son's failed Scottish campaign Isabella supported the Treaty of Edinburgh (17th March 1328), which recognized Scottish independence. The treaty was symbolised by the marriage of Isabella's youngest daughter Joan of the Tower and David of Scotland, to show their support Isabella and Mortimer both attended the ceremony. Isabella kept much of the £20,000 paid by the Scots as reparation for their actions in the North of England, as she needed funds for her mercenaries and to attract English loyalties, but for many her actions provided further proof that they had swapped a weak and foolish king for a puppet king at the head of ruthless and dangerous regime. Public opinion or what Strickland called 'the national delusion' was wavering.
The Treaty of Edinburgh outraged many of the barons, including Lancaster, who although a member of the council, held little or no power and had an uncertain relationship with the new regime. It was noted that Lancaster was not alone in his unease, Edward II's half-brothers the Earl of Kent and Thomas, Earl of Norfolk had also withdrawn from the council, 'in utter indignation at her late proceedings and of the insolence of her favourite Mortimer'. When it was discovered that Lancaster was attempting to displace Mortimer's influence with the young king Isabella and her lover swiftly took action. Lancaster's town of Leicester was seized, his lands ravaged. Only mediation from Archbishop Mepham and defections amongst Lancaster's supporters staved off conflict and the Earl submitted.
By March 1330 Isabella and Mortimer had orchestrated the death of Kent, the more dynamic of the late King's brothers. Implicating him in a plot to free the former king, who was rumoured by some to be still alive and at large. Mortimer managed to obtain Kent's lands, something which was viewed as a warning by many not to attempt to challenge the new regime, but by now Isabella's greed and her lover's ruthless arrogance had alienated those who had once looked to them as the saviours of the kingdom.
Although the evidence does not fully support the theory that the young King and Lancaster now connived to depose Isabella and Mortimer they were clearly ill at ease with these recent developments which showed that the lovers were now dangerously out of control. According to Strickland the barons 'perceived, too late that they had been made tools of an artful, ambitious and vindictive woman, who under the pretence of reforming the abuses of her husband's government, had usurped the sovereign authority and in one year committed more crimes than the late king and his unpopular ministers together had perpetrated during the twenty years of his reign'.
Strickland's assessment may be biased; however it was now clear to all that Isabella and Mortimer and the ruthless regime they headed were spiralling out of control. Historian Miri Rubin describes Mortimer's period of hegemony alongside Isabella as '…restless and troubled. While they both sought to rule after Edward II's deposition in 1327… eventually the couple were thwarted by Isabella's 'precocious and assertive son'.
In October 1330 Isabella and Mortimer examined the King and several of his associates on their loyalty to the regime. It was clear to the young King that they intended to arrest his friends and it was this which set off the rapid chain of events that ended when Edward III and his supporters arrested Isabella and Mortimer in the Queen's chambers in Nottingham Castle. Isabella sensing what was to come is reported to have cried 'Good son, good son have pity on gentle Mortimer' Despite Isabella's attempts to soften her son's resolve and save her lover's life, Edward III stood firm and Mortimer was executed as a traitor; interestingly the only charge against him that involved Isabella was that he had caused discord between her and the late king.
Isabella's ultimate fall was ascribed by the chronicler Henry Knighton to five causes 'usurpation, profligacy in use of crown revenues, links with Mortimer, the execution of her brother-in-law the Earl of Kent, and the shameful peace with Scotland.' Isabella was briefly kept under guard but later lived at Castle Rising in Norfolk and elsewhere. Despite the many legends that surrounded her retirement she had freedom of movement and was treated with all the respect due to a Queen Dowager. Once he gained control of his kingdom Edward III ensured that his mother returned the wealth she had amassed during her reign, but he was generous and forgiving enough to see that by 1337 she was restored to the lands and revenue she had enjoyed as Queen Consort.
Isabella regularly welcomed her son and his wife when they came to visit and during the last months of her life her daughter Joan, Queen of Scots came to live with her. Despite her 'retirement' from public life she retained a keen interest in European affairs and kept a healthy correspondence with many of the leading figures of her day. She even received Jean II of France, although a proposal that she should mediate between Jean and her son Edward came to nothing. Nevertheless Isabella retained a keen interest in her native land. Following the unexpected death of her last surviving brother Charles in 1328, who like her brother Philippe before him died with no male heir thus ending the direct Capetian line, Isabella actively encouraged her son Edward to pursue the throne of France, which she felt now belonged to him as the closest living male relative of the late King Charles and at that time the only surviving male descendant of the senior line of the Capetian dynasty descending through Philip IV. By the English interpretation of feudal law, Isabella argued, this made Edward III the legitimate heir to the throne of France.
It is clear that Isabella did not remain long in disgrace nor did she spend the rest of her days in exile. And she did not, as legend would have it, go insane, spending her days pacing the rooms in Castle Rising. An inventory of her goods, taken at her death, proves that as Queen Dowager she lived as comfortable a life as one might expect from one of her rank. She kept a varied library, which suggests that she was cultured, while the tomb of her younger son, John of Eltham, which she most likely commissioned, is evidence of a woman of well-defined, cosmopolitan tastes. Isabella owned religious books, her chapel was richly furnished and she gave alms. If, as we are led to believe, she took the veil of the Order of St Clare, she did so shortly before her death.
Isabella had suffered from ill health for some time before her death on 23rd August 1358, a death possibly hastened by her insistence on taking a purgative. She was buried in November in the London Franciscan church in Newgate, of which she was patron. The funeral was held with great pomp and ceremony and, in a move that has intrigued historians and biographers alike Isabella chose to be buried in her wedding mantle. Her alabaster tomb, with Edward II's heart held in its effigy breast and figures of the archangels at each corner, was lost when the priory was made a parish church in 1550. Contemporary manuscript illuminations and corbel heads represent Isabella but disappointingly 'there exist no authentic witnesses to the beauty so widely praised by her contemporaries.'
Through the ages opinion on Isabella and her actions have varied; to her contemporaries Isabella, with her high lineage, beauty and tribulations was viewed as a lovely and tragic queen. 'In the face of very shabby treatment- emotional, financial and ceremonial, she sought her own way. She developed an ability to resist through gesture, grand gesture, she went into self-imposed exile in 1325, wore black like a widow until she was reinstated to the dignity and familial place that were her due.' The epithet 'She-Wolf of France' first used by Shakespeare for Margaret of Anjou, was applied to Isabella only in the eighteenth century, while biographer Agnes Strickland's disapproving tone tells us more about the author's nineteenth century sensibilities than it does about her subject's character and motivation. Isabella's genius for survival and sheer strength of personality was such that she was able to survive the fall of Mortimer and artfully distance herself from the shame and distaste that their association had created so successfully that despite her actions she was able to live out the rest of her days as a respected elder-stateswoman, much loved by her family.
To focus entirely on her strained relations with her husband and his preference for male favourites is misleading, as is the tendency to concentrate on Isabella's actions during 1325-1330. Despite a rocky start to their marriage Isabella quickly settled into a rather traditional role as intercessor, she was a valuable ally to her dismissive husband and as we have seen this conventional role was one that nevertheless guaranteed her a place at the centre of English politics, a position she held until the last years of Edward II's reign when the arrogance of the Despensers and assaults on her dignity by both Despensers and the King led her to the conclusion that her only hope lay in an alliance with those willing to end his reign and crown her son.
The exact extent to which Mortimer influenced Isabella and directed her actions will perhaps never be known, but during their years in power the couple became inextricably linked. Isabella's rank and personality ultimately saved her from complete ruin, while her genius for survival and reinvention meant that, as we have seen she was able to carve out a comfortable and dignified role for herself in her retirement. Enigmatic to the end, it is impossible to determine Isabella's sense of responsibility or contrition for the dramatic events of 1326-30 but her burial with her wedding mantle and Edward's heart proves not only her wish to be remembered as Edward's consort rather than Mortimer's lover, but that her behaviour towards her estranged husband was on her mind to the end of her days.
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Doherty, Paul, Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II, (2003)
Mercer, Derrik, Chronicle of the Royal Family, (1991)
Mortimer, Ian, The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer 1st Earl of March Ruler of England 1327-1330, (2003)
Mortimer, Ian, The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation, (2006)
Ormonde, William (ed), The Kings and Queens of England, (2001)
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Prestwich, Michael, Plantaganet England 1225-1360, (2005)
Rubin, Miri, The Hollow Crown; A History of Britain in the Late Middle Ages, (2005)
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Heidi Murphy is a freelance writer specializing in royal history and biography, currently living and working in Ireland. She is a graduate of University College Dublin, has an MA in Early Modern History and presently works in the Irish and UK book trade as Borders Marketing Executive (Scotland and Ireland). In addition to her work on this series she is closely involved with The Irish Book Review.