Isabella of France: the rebel queen

One of the most notorious women in English history, Isabella of France led an invasion of England that ultimately resulted in the deposition of her king and husband, Edward II, in January 1327 – the first ever abdication of a king in England. Now, a new book by Kathryn Warner seeks to correct the many myths surrounding ‘the she-wolf of France’ who continues to polarise opinion…

Here, writing for History Extra, Warner offers a vivid account of this most fascinating and influential of women…

Isabella of France married King Edward II of England in Boulogne, northern France, on 25 January 1308 when she was 12 and he was 23. She was the sixth of the seven children of Philip IV, king of France from 1285 to 1314 and often known to history as Philippe le Bel or Philip the Fair, and Joan I, who had become queen of the small Spanish kingdom of Navarre in her own right in 1274 when she was only a year old.

Isabella’s two older sisters, Marguerite and Blanche, died in childhood, as did her younger brother, Robert. Her three older brothers all reigned as kings of France and Navarre: Louis X, who died at the age of 26 in 1316; Philip V, who died aged 30 at the beginning of 1322; and Charles IV, who died at the age of 33 in 1328. The three brothers were the last kings of the Capetian dynasty that had ruled France since 987. As they all died leaving daughters but no surviving sons, they were succeeded by their cousin Philip VI, first of the Valois kings who ruled France until 1589.

Isabella’s son Edward III of England claimed the throne of France in the 1330s as the only surviving grandson of Philip IV, and began what much later became known as the Hundred Years’ War.

Isabella arrived in England for the first time on 7 February 1308. She never met her husband’s father Edward I (or ‘Longshanks’), who had died on 7 July 1307, and she certainly never met William Wallace (as depicted in Braveheart), who had been executed on 23 August 1305.

She and Edward II were jointly crowned king and queen of England at Westminster Abbey on 25 February 1308, exactly a month after their wedding. Isabella was too young to play any role in English politics for a few years, and likewise too young to be Edward’s wife in more than name only. Since the early 1300s, Edward II had been infatuated with a young nobleman of Béarn in southern France called Piers Gaveston, whom he made Earl of Cornwall and married to his royal niece Margaret de Clare in 1307.

Gaveston was assassinated in June 1312 by a group of English barons sick of his excessive influence over the king. The barons were led by the wealthy and powerful Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, who was Edward II’s first cousin and Isabella’s uncle (the younger half-brother of her mother, Joan I of Navarre). The king finally gained his revenge on Lancaster 10 years later when he had him beheaded for treason in March 1322.


Edward II. Wood engraving c1900. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
 

Queen Isabella, now 16 or 17, was already pregnant with her first child when her husband’s beloved Piers Gaveston was killed, and her son was born at Windsor Castle on Monday 13 November 1312. He was the future Edward III, king of England from January 1327 until June 1377. Three more children were born to the royal couple. They were John of Eltham, Earl of Cornwall, in August 1316; Eleanor of Woodstock, duchess of Guelders, in June 1318; and Joan of the Tower, queen of Scotland, in July 1321.

Isabella and Edward II seemingly had a successful, mutually affectionate marriage until the early 1320s, and certainly it was not the unhappy, tragic disaster from start to finish as it is sometimes portrayed. Most of the negative stories often told in modern literature about the couple – for example that Edward gave Isabella’s jewels or wedding gifts to Piers Gaveston in 1308, that he abandoned her weeping and pregnant in 1312 to save Gaveston, or that he cruelly removed her children from her custody in 1324 – are much later fabrications.

An eyewitness to the royal couple’s extended visit to Isabella’s homeland from May to July 1313 stated that Edward loved Isabella, and that the reason for his arriving late for a meeting with Isabella’s father Philip IV was because the royal couple had overslept after their night-time “dalliances”. During this trip, Edward saved Isabella’s life when a fire broke out in their pavilion one night, and he scooped her up and rushed out into the street with her, both of them naked.


Edward III. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
 

Unfortunately, Edward II’s excessive favouritism towards his last and most powerful ‘favourite’, Hugh Despenser the Younger, an English nobleman who had married one of Edward’s nieces in 1306 and who was appointed as the king’s chamberlain in 1318, was to cause an irrevocable breakdown in Isabella and Edward’s marriage in and after 1322. Isabella had tolerated her husband’s previous male favourites, including Piers Gaveston and Roger Damory (a knight of Oxfordshire who was high in Edward’s favour from about 1315 to 1318), but she loathed and feared Hugh Despenser. Not without reason: Despenser seems to have gone out of his way to reduce Isabella’s influence over her husband and even her ability to see him, and Edward II allowed him to do so. When Edward went to war with Isabella’s brother Charles IV of France in 1324, he began to treat Isabella as an enemy alien and confiscated her lands.

Isabella was not a person to tolerate such disrespect. In March 1325, Edward sent her to France to negotiate a peace settlement with her brother, which she did successfully. Some months later, Edward made a fatal error. As Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Ponthieu and a peer of the realm of France, he owed homage to Charles IV as his liege lord, but for various reasons was reluctant to leave an England now seething with discontent and rebellion against his and Hugh Despenser’s greedy and despotic rule. Edward therefore sent his elder son and heir Edward of Windsor, not quite 13 years old, in his place to perform the ceremony in September 1325.

With her son under her control and under the protection of her brother, Isabella imposed an ultimatum on Edward for her return to England and to him: that he would send Despenser away from court and allow her to resume her normal married life with him and her rightful position as queen, and restore her to her lands. Edward, highly dependent on Despenser, refused. Isabella therefore had no choice but to remain in France.

She began some kind of relationship with an English baron named Roger Mortimer, who had been imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1322 after taking part in a baronial rebellion against the king and his favourite but escaped in 1323. Mortimer was a man with the ability and the will to lead an invasion of England and destroy Hugh Despenser and his father, the Earl of Winchester, and, if need be, bring down the king himself. Although their relationship has been romanticised to a considerable degree in much modern literature, it is far more likely to have been a pragmatic political alliance than a passionate love affair, at least in the beginning.

Isabella betrothed her son Edward of Windsor to a daughter of the Count of Hainault in modern-day Belgium in order to secure ships, mercenaries and cash to invade England. Her invasion force arrived in England on 24 September 1326, the first to do so since her great-great-grandfather Louis of France had attempted to wrest the English throne from Edward II’s great-grandfather King John in 1216. The king’s support collapsed almost immediately, and his two half-brothers, the Earls of Norfolk and Kent, and cousin the Earl of Lancaster, joined the queen. Hugh Despenser and his father, and the king’s loyal ally the Earl of Arundel, were caught and grotesquely executed.


Isabella of France at Hereford upon her invasion of England, 1326. (Everett Collection Historical/Alamy Stock Photo)
 

A parliament was held in London at the beginning of 1327, which decided that Edward II must be forced to abdicate his throne to his 14-year-old son Edward of Windsor. Finally accepting that he had no other choice, he did so, and Edward III’s reign began on 25 January 1327 – his parents’ 19th wedding anniversary. The young king married the Count of Hainault’s daughter, Philippa, a year later.

A regency council was set up to rule the country in Edward III’s name until he came of age. Although Queen Isabella and her favourite Roger Mortimer were not appointed members of it, it seems that they ruled England for several years. Within a very short time, their greed and self-interest made them as unpopular as Edward II and Hugh Despenser had been; Isabella had little capacity for learning from her husband’s mistakes.

In the meantime, the death of the former Edward II at Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire on 21 September 1327 was announced, and his funeral was held at St Peter’s Abbey, Gloucester (now Gloucester Cathedral) on 20 December 1327. How Edward died, whether by suffocation or illness or something else – the infamous red-hot poker is a later invention and dismissed by modern experts on the era – or whether Edward even died at all is still a matter of passionate debate. There is, however, no real reason to suppose that Isabella of France ordered the murder of her own husband. She had sent him gifts while he was in captivity in 1327.


Tomb of Edward II in Gloucester Cathedral. (© Angelo Hornak/Alamy Stock Photo)

 

Edward III’s first child – a son, Edward of Woodstock – was born on 15 June 1330 when he was 17, and the king was already chafing under the tutelage of his mother and her despised favourite Mortimer. On 19 October 1330, still a month short of his 18th birthday, the king launched a dramatic coup against the pair at Nottingham Castle, and had Mortimer hanged on 29 November. Isabella was held under house arrest for a while, and was forced to give up the vast lands and income she had appropriated; she had awarded herself 20,000 marks or 13,333 pounds a year, the largest income anyone in England received (the kings excepted) in the entire Middle Ages. It was hardly a wonder that Edward III found his coffers almost entirely empty.

Isabella of France was of high royal birth, and her son the king perforce treated her with respect and consideration; he claimed the throne of France through his mother, so could hardly imprison her. After her short period of detention she was allowed to go free and some years later was restored to her pre-1324 income of £4,500. For more than a quarter of a century Isabella lived an entirely conventional life as a dowager queen, travelling between her estates, entertaining many royal and noble guests, listening to minstrels and spending vast sums of money on clothes and jewels. The idea that her son locked her up in Castle Rising in Norfolk and that she went mad is merely a (much later) fabrication with no basis whatsoever in fact.

The dowager queen of England died at Hertford Castle on 22 August 1358, aged 62 or 63, and was buried on 27 November at the fashionable Greyfriars church in London. Her aunt Marguerite of France, second queen of Edward I, was also buried here, and so, four years later, was Isabella’s daughter Joan of the Tower, queen of Scotland. Roger Mortimer, however, was not: the often-repeated tale that Isabella chose to lie for eternity next to her long-dead but never forgotten lover is a romantic myth.

The dowager queen was buried with the clothes she had worn at her wedding to Edward II 50 years previously and, according to a rather later tradition, with his heart on her breast. Sadly, the Greyfriars church was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, rebuilt then destroyed again by bombs in the Second World War, and Isabella’s final resting-place is therefore lost.

Kathryn Warner is the author of Isabella of France: The Rebel Queen (Amberley Publishing, 2016).

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