Queen Isabella – the woman who declared herself a widow while her husband still lived
History isn’t always kind to people, especially if the writers have a particular axe to grind, or if all the evidence isn’t known at the time of writing. Unjustified reputations can get fixed in popular mythology before further information is available to challenge them. And when further information does become available, interest has often moved on, and there is a reluctance to revisit what “you have always known”.
Until recently Queen Isabella had suffered unjustly. If anyone knew anything about her, they would probably have known that Isabella had a reputation of being a “she-wolf” – a manipulating, cruel woman who selfishly seized power from her husband (Edward II). She was (allegedly) implicated in his murder (by having red hot pokers inserted into his anus), and she apparently ended her life as a mad woman locked up in Castle Rising near King’s Lynn. The epithet ‘She-Wolf’ was first used to describe Isabella by the 18th-century English poet Thomas Gray in his anti-French poem ‘The Bard’ (1757). The poem depicts Isabella ripping open her husband’s bowels with her “unrelenting fangs”.
Thankfully more recent historians have tried to avoid the cliché moralising and have wanted to establish evidence before jumping to judgement. And there is so much to challenge the untruths of the above narrative.
It Didn’t Start Too Well
It’s a bit grim when, after your wedding in France, you land in your new country and your new husband makes more fuss of his boyfriend than he does of you.
Around 1295 Isabella had been born into the most powerful state in Europe and was the only surviving daughter of Philip IV, King of France. Her childhood was spent in the Louvre Palace where she was educated and where she developed a life-long love of books (she had 30 with her at her death). Her father was known to be handsome and was given the epithet “The Fair” which was also given to her. Although it may have been traditional to describe all medieval royal princesses as beautiful, Isabella was also (unusually for the time) described as being very clever.
On 25 January 1308 she arrived in Boulogne as part of a political treaty to encourage peace between two warring nations. She was to be married to Edward II of England. He was 23 years old; she was 12. She would probably have been honoured to be marrying someone of equally high status. The notion of “marrying for love” was not part of a medieval princess’s mindset.
At a wedding celebration back in England, and at their coronation, the king insultingly paid more attention to Piers Gaveston, a young knight who had become Edward’s favourite and lover. Edward later gave Gaveston the gifts and jewels that Isabella’s family had brought for the couple.
Good Times Turning Bad
Despite the difficulties, the queen dutifully supported Edward during the early years, and bore him four children. Isabella managed to form a working relationship with Gaveston until the country’s Barons became tired of his influence over the king and rebelled and arranged Gaveston’s murder in June 1312.
There is plenty of evidence in the early years of their marriage of Edward’s affection for, and generosity towards, his wife. Once she had matured they spent a lot of time together. She carried out various diplomatic missions for him. He rewarded her with gifts of land and jewellery. Both were religious and often visited shrines. They appeared to be happy together and to respect each other. It is difficult to know for certain, but it seems that Isabella was able to accommodate Edward’s need for male company.
Unfortunately Edward II did not learn from the rebellion that had arisen because of his treatment of Gaveston, and he was soon showering new favourites with wealth, power, and regal influence. One favourite started to dominate. Hugh Despenser the Younger took Gaveston’s place and there was soon again great dissatisfaction amongst the Barons. Despenser tried to repress the opposition as well as unjustly acquire wealth, and the result was another war with the Barons (the Despenser War, 1321-1322). On this occasion the king and Despenser were victorious, and a period of injustice and cruelty followed.
Two significant events happened after the Despenser War
First, a formerly loyal knight called Roger Mortimer escapes incarceration in the Tower of London.
Mortimer had known Edward from childhood. At court he had been a talented soldier and administrator who had faithfully and successfully served the royal family for several years. He had fought in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, and as one of the governors of Ireland had tried to restore peace and justice after a protracted period of fighting and disruption.
Unfortunately Despenser had a long-standing grudge against the Mortimer family. Appalled at what is happening to the king and country under Despenser’s influence Mortimer reluctantly joined the king’s opponents. Although most of the ‘traitors’ were executed soon after the rebellion, the king commuted Mortimer’s sentence to life imprisonment. He was put in the Tower.
Annoyingly for the Edward II and Despenser, this talented and admired knight with significant military experience, escaped from the Tower on 1 August 1323 and succeeded in making his way to France where he was welcomed in the French Court.
The second significant event was the queen’s apparent abandonment at Tynemouth.
There were constant threats and disputes between England and Scotland, and Edward II decided on another disastrous Scottish Campaign. In 1322 the queen happened to be near the Scottish border at Tynemouth Abbey when the Scots surprised Edward and Despenser at Blackhow Moor (between Thirsk and Helmsley). The king and his favourite immediately fled. There is evidence that the king did try to send some troops to her, but the queen’s perception was that because of Despenser’s influence, she had been left to the mercy of Robert the Bruce and his troops.
The queen saw this desertion as a heartless, contemptuous act. Isabella could imagine what fate might await her if captured. Edward I had been cruel in his treatment of Bruce’s sister and mistress when he had captured them in 1306. He had wooden cages made for them and they were kept publicly hung in these cages for three years at Roxborough and Berwick Castles respectively. Isabella now found herself and her household cut off from the south by the Scottish army, with the coastline patrolled by Flemish naval forces allied to the Scots. However, she managed to get a boat back to England (though one of her ladies-in-waiting died in the frantic escape).
Isabella hated Despenser’s manipulation of her husband and his ruthlessness and vindictiveness in his holding on to power. After 1322 Isabella fades temporarily from the records as Despenser seizes control and keeps her more and more from the king. She despised the way that he and the king didn’t just lock up individuals but punished whole families and communities. They became vindictive tyrants. After the Despenser War her marriage to Edward II moved towards a breaking point.
With Mortimer in France, and the French king claiming some of the English possessions, Edward and his favourite feared an invasion and became very suspicious. In 1324 Edward ordered all French subjects in England to be arrested and their goods to be confiscated. Isabella’s life became very difficult. Despenser cancelled all his financial debts to her, read all her letters, and used his wife to spy on her. Edward confiscated all her lands and property, reduced her living expenses, and appropriated all her income. He arrested and imprisoned 27 of her faithful French household staff. Despenser sent messages to the pope seeing if a divorce could be arranged. She was expressly forbidden from leaving the country.
The Pretend Widow
Just as there were often disputes over land in Scotland (as well as over land in Ireland and Wales for that matter), thankfully, for Isabella, the disputes about land holdings in France rumbled on as well.
There was a disagreement about land in Gascony that needed to be settled, and the King of France, Philip IV had died and had been replaced by Charles IV, Isabella’s brother. It was necessary for English royalty to pay homage to the new king. Isabella was the obvious person to solve both issues – though Edward disagreed.
Edward II initially refused to entertain the idea of sending Isabella and made plans to visit France himself without his wife. At the last moment Edward changed his mind, perhaps remembering what had happened the last time he left his favourite (Gaveston) running the country. To begin with only Isabella was allowed to travel (with an entourage carefully selected by Despenser) and she arrived in France in 1325. Eventually, and reluctantly, the Prince of Wales (the future Edward III) was allowed to follow his mother.
Once safely in France, having conducted the official business, Isabella refused Edward II’s specific order to return to England. Edward became alarmed on hearing that the queen now dressed as a widow, publicly declaring at the French court that Hugh Despenser the Younger had destroyed her marriage.
It was at this time that Isabella started to assemble a court-in-exile which included Roger Mortimer. She also started to become very close to Mortimer and began to form plans with him to rid the country of Despenser and replace Edward II with his son, Edward III in waiting.
It is difficult to know precisely what relationship Isabella had with Mortimer. They were both strong, literate, sophisticated, aristocratic characters united by a sense of having been treated very badly. Politically they needed each other. They were described as having “excessive familiarity”. Their closeness may well have been physical. If they were lovers they were certainly discrete (both being married). Of all the accusations their enemies threw at them, adultery was never mentioned. And although kings could get away with murder (and sometimes did) queens (and women in general) were expected to have a ‘higher’ moral standard. As a young woman Isabella had been very aware of this and in full agreement with the opinion. In 1313 Isabella had rightly suspected that some of her sisters-in-law were having affairs and she reported this to her father. The sisters-in-law were imprisoned and their lovers tortured, castrated, and finally broken on the wheel. If Isabella and Mortimer were lovers, she had obviously become more pragmatic over the years (and braver).
So what happened next?
Did she get back to England? Did she go mad? What happened to Despenser? What happened to Mortimer? What happened to Edward II and Edward III? And what actually happened at Castle Rising?
Click Castle Rising’s She-Wolf Revisited (2 of 2) to find out.
© James Rye 2021
Mortimer, I. (2008) The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Vintage Books.
Mortimer, I. (2010) The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer, Ruler of England 1327-1330, Vintage Books.
Warner, K. (2016) Isabella of France: The Rebel Queen, Amberley Publishing.