Friday, November 27, 2009
Often referred to as the ‘She-Wolf of France’, the 14th century English queen, Isabella, has been a poorly understood historical figure – her motivations and actions tainted by the biased pen-stroke of past chroniclers.
Isabella was born in 1295 in Valois, France, to King Philip IV of France and Queen Jeanne of Navarre. In 1308, she married King Edward II of England at Boulogne, France. He was 23 and she was not yet 13. It was a union meant to secure peace between the two most powerful kingdoms in Christendom; instead, it ended in the greatest scandal of their time.
Isabella’s life cannot be understood without first examining the men who played a part in it. From the beginning, more than the age difference separated Isabella and Edward, for when they arrived in Dover, the king was effusively greeted by his ‘favorite’, Piers Gaveston. Three times in the years to come, parliament decreed that Gaveston had corrupted the king and exiled him. When Gaveston returned the third time, without their consent, he was pursued, taken into custody and then executed. Despondent, Edward turned to Isabella, who thus far had displayed nothing but the utmost loyalty toward him. She bore him four healthy children: Edward, John, Eleanor, and Joan.
It may have seemed as though all was now well between the king and queen; however, a new sycophant had entered into the picture following Edward’s humiliating defeat at Bannockburn in 1314. His name was Hugh Despenser the Younger.
Just as he had with Gaveston, Edward soon began heaping titles and possessions upon Despenser. Ultimately, Despenser too was exiled. Embittered, Edward gathered an army and pursued Sir Roger Mortimer, a formerly loyal Marcher lord who had risen in protest. At Shrewsbury, Mortimer gave himself up, believing he would be pardoned, but he was promptly imprisoned in the Tower of London. With his enemies subdued, Edward recalled Despenser.
In desperation, Isabella wrote to her brother, King Charles of France, for help.
Sometime during 1323, it is believed that Isabella visited Mortimer in the Tower. Then, in August, after the castle garrison celebrated the Feast of St. Pater ad Vincula and imbibed a sleeping potion, Mortimer escaped and found his way to France.
Now under heavy suspicion, Isabella was confined to the Tower and not allowed to see her children. When a dispute over French possessions began to brew, the Pope suggested Isabella be sent to France to negotiate a treaty. Reluctantly, Edward allowed her to go – a very shortsighted move on his part.
In Paris, Isabella and Mortimer met again… and began an affair which they increasingly found it hard to hide. Meanwhile, they collected funds and made plans for an invasion. In September of 1326, Isabella and Mortimer landed in Suffolk with a mercenary force. They were welcomed by the people of England with open arms. Edward and Despenser fled west to Wales, but were eventually taken into custody. Hugh Despenser was brutally executed in Hereford. King Edward was sent first to Kenilworth, where he was persuaded to abdicate, and then later to Berkeley Castle.
Isabella and Mortimer were effectively ruling in the name of the young King Edward III. More than once, an attempt was made to free the deposed king. In September of 1327, an announcement proclaimed that the former king had died of natural causes. For centuries, rumors persisted that Edward II was murdered by applying a hot poker through a horn to his innards through his anus. However, letters uncovered in the last century suggest that he may have escaped to the continent and assumed the identity of a holy man.
Meanwhile, Isabella and Mortimer had accrued a great deal of wealth and were under increasing criticism. Despite the fact that England was now at peace with both France and Scotland, they were gaining many enemies. Young Edward himself bristled at their hold on power and just before he reached his eighteenth birthday in October of 1330, he had Mortimer arrested at Nottingham. Isabella was kept under house arrest at Berkhamsted Castle and learned, after the fact, that Mortimer had been tried and executed.
Isabella spent the next two years in virtual confinement at Windsor, deeply aggrieved by Mortimer’s death. Although she later joined her son’s court, relations between them were strained. She lived long enough to see the births of her thirteen grandchildren – and to see Edward III reverse Mortimer’s sentence of treason on the grounds he had not been allowed to speak in his own defense. After taking the habit of the Third Order of Saint Francis, she died in 1358. Edward II’s heart (or a heart purported to be his) was buried with her.
(This post was originally published on History and Women.)