Castle Rising’s She-Wolf Revisited (2 of 2)

Queen Isabella – the only woman to successfully invade the country and depose an English king

See Castle Rising’s She-Wolf Revisited (1 of 2) for the first installment.

The Return of the Queen

Isabella and Mortimer arrived at Orwell in Suffolk 24 September 1326 with an army of mercenaries. Although they would have easily been outnumbered had the king been able to meet them quickly in battle, several key players previously loyal to Edward II now joined the new invasion force. Isabella appreciated the power of propaganda and claimed (falsely) that she had two cardinals travelling with her who were carrying a papal bull absolving all Englishmen from their oath of allegiance to Edward II and threatening to excommunicate anyone raising arms against her troops. Edward II offered £1,000 reward for Mortimer’s head: Isabella offered £2,000 for Despenser’s head.

The unpopular Edward II and Despenser, who had fled to Wales, were soon outnumbered and captured. In 1173 a previous queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had failed to overthrow her husband Henry II, but Isabella achieved the first successful invasion of England since 1066 and the first overthrow of an English king by a woman. The 14-year-old Edward III was appointed king and Isabella reigned as regent (though Mortimer shared power).

Isabella had demonstrated that as a rebel against her own husband and king, and regent for her son, she was a powerful, capable, and intelligent woman. She forced the first ever abdication of a king in England.

The Death of the Favourite

Despenser was treated in the way he had previously treated a friend of Mortimer. He was dragged by four horses to his place of execution, briefly hung, eviscerated (removal of genitals and entrails, while still alive – and finally of the heart), beheaded, and quartered. His head was sent to London and the remaining parts of his butchered body were displayed for four years in Newcastle, York, Dover, and Bristol.

The Death of the King?

Edward II was imprisoned at Berkeley Castle. Although it was reported that Edward had died in 1327, and although there was a funeral for him, it now seems reasonably certain that Isabella and Mortimer did not have him killed (and certainly not with a poker), and that Edward II was alive after 1327, at least until 1330, and probably until 1341.

The evidence is complex and too detailed to fully enter into here (see the sources below). However, briefly – Isabella still retained some small affection for her husband and sent him letters and gifts in prison. It is extremely unlikely that she would have wanted him killed. However, his publicly stated death (and public funeral) aided the 1327 smooth transfer of power to the young Edward III, and it also took papal pressure off Isabella to be reconciled to her husband. As late at 1330 there were significant plots to rescue Edward II from Berkeley Castle involving several notable figures, and at the trial of one of the major players, Edward’s brother, the Earl of Kent, nobody claims that escape was unnecessary because Edward was dead.

The Wheel of Fortune Turns Again

On the surface all is well for a while. The country arguably has a more focused, more capable, and less corrupt leaders. Isabella and Mortimer had not only “delivered” the kingdom from oppression but had also managed to achieve a degree of self-vindication after their years of misrepresentation and pain. However, beneath the surface all is not well and soon problems begin to emerge.

Isabella started to get very greedy and displayed one of the qualities she despised in Gaveston and Despenser. Perhaps the uncertainties of the last years had made her want to acquire and cling onto things. She may have been aware that the wheel of fortune might turn at any moment and that one-day Edward III would assume power. She could not be sure how he would judge her and Mortimer and wanted the comfort of wealth while she could. Perhaps her recent time in the French court had reminded her of the luxury of her youth and of what her royal lineage might entitle her too.

Whatever her motivation, she set about gathering land and wealth to an extent that was beyond what would be normal for someone in her position. She also awarded herself 20,000 marks or about £13,000 a year – the largest income anyone in England received (the kings excepted) in the entire Middle Ages. If her most notable characteristics were duty, piety, and loyalty to those she loved, Isabella’s spending in the years 1326-1330 amounted to a quarter of the royal purse.

Mortimer too started to over-step the mark. To begin with there was no open hostility, but he was clearly enjoying his privileges and power, and to many seemed to be acting the position of king too openly and too comfortably – almost as if he had forgotten who the actual king was.

As a middle-to-late teenager Edward III was growing up. He had a strong sense of chivalric pride and a growing sense of his destiny. He surrounded himself with younger knights who were loyal to him. He was aware of the victories of his grandfather, Edward I – the Hammer of the Scots – and was uneasy with the queen’s and Mortimer’s new strategy of appeasing the Scots and the French. The result was that he was losing parts of his kingdom.

And Mortimer had humiliated him. Mortimer had countermanded Edward’s orders to attack the Scots on one occasion. He had also put Edward in a position where he had to agree to the execution of his uncle (the Earl of Kent) for trying to help Edward II escape from Berkeley Castle in 1330. And Edward did not like learning that Mortimer had told castle guards to obey Mortimer himself rather than the king.

Seven months after the execution of the Earl of Kent, Mortimer was dead. Parliament was meeting in Nottingham and Isabella and Mortimer thought they were safe from opposition threats being secure in the castle. However, on 19 October 1330, still a month short of his 18th birthday, Edward III launched a dramatic coup against the pair. Knights loyal to Edward and opposed to Mortimer were let into the castle at night through a secret passage. As Mortimer was arrested Isabella was heard to scream into the darkness begging her son Edward to show Mortimer mercy.

Mortimer was executed on 29 November. Perhaps out of respect for his mother, Edward III only had him dragged to Tyburn by two horses and then hanged. He was not eviscerated, not beheaded, and not quartered, and his body was cut down after the second day and handed to friars for burial. Isabella was held under house arrest at Windsor Castle until 1332 and was forced to give up the vast lands and income she had appropriated for herself.

It Ended Well

The story that Isabella was incarcerated at Castle Rising in Norfolk and then went mad is entirely a myth created by later story tellers. It would be difficult to argue that Isabella had been cruel to her son or that the state of the country was worse than it might have been under Edward II, and in any case, Edward III was enjoying his reign that had been made possible because of his mother. Also, Edward III’s claims to be King of France and his campaigns to gain his French territory were based on his being Isabella’s son. He is hardly likely to want to be rid of her or to be seen to want to treat her badly. And Isabella herself was of high royal birth and deserved to be treated with respect and consideration.

Castle Rising, near King’s Lynn
Photo © James Rye 2021

After her short period of house arrest at Windsor Castle, when Isabella would naturally have been distraught following the death of Mortimer and her changed circumstances, she was allowed to go free and some years later was restored to her pre-1324 income of £4,500.

Isabella doted on her grandchildren, including Edward, the Black Prince. She also maintained an interest from earlier in her life in visiting several religious shrines in these later years.

For more than a quarter of a century Isabella lived an entirely conventional life as a dowager queen, travelling between her estates, entertaining noble guests. Isabella certainly spent a lot of time at Castle Rising, but that was because it was one of her favourite castles. She lived an expensive lifestyle in Norfolk, including spending money on minstrels, huntsmen, grooms, clothes, books, and jewels. Edward often writes to her and sends her gifts of wine, boar, and caged birds. In the last months of her life she spent £1,400 on clothes, falcons, and jewels.

Occasionally, when not on her estates Isabella was clearly welcome at court and received visitors. There is evidence that Edward III may have wanted to use her intelligence and skill to take part in peace negotiations with France on more than one occasion. And Isabella was no stranger to royal celebrations. The accounts for 1344 show that Edward III paid for mulberry-coloured Turkish cloth and taffeta for Queen Philippa (his wife) and for Queen Isabella to go on hunting expeditions with him. In 1358 she appeared at the St George’s Day celebrations at Windsor wearing a dress made of silk, silver, 300 rubies, 1800 pearls and a circlet of gold.

The dowager queen of England died at Hertford Castle on 22 August 1358 and was buried on 27 November at the fashionable Greyfriars church in London. Before she died Isabella was nursed by her daughter Joan. Isabella was buried in the wedding dress that she had worn at her marriage to Edward II 50 years earlier. Sadly, her final resting place has been lost. The Greyfriars church was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and again in the Second World War after it had been rebuilt in the C17th.

Four years before Isabella died (and perhaps to please his ageing mother) Edward III pardoned the dead Roger Mortimer on the grounds that Mortimer hadn’t been given a fair trial.

Isabella certainly hasn’t been given a fair hearing by many past historians.

See Castle Rising’s She-Wolf Revisited (1 of 2) for the first installment.

© James Rye 2021

Sources

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.

5 comments

  1. A very detailed account which I’ve enjoyed reading very much. Interesting how she was buried in her wedding dress ( a sense that she really wanted to be a part of her husband’s life in death ) though maybe Joan chose that. I suppose we have no accounts as to the cause of death, though for those times she lived beyond what was considered normal for the time.
    I’m glad she found some peace for awhile and that her son was fair to her. Shame about Mortimer.
    Do we know when and by whom the hung, drawn and quartered method of execution was introduced? Was it her, with the King’s lover, or someone else and when was it abolished?
    Maybe a separate blog post on crime and punishment and the changing sense of humanity over time from the Roman crucified Christ to the abolition of hanging. Gruesome but equally fascinating.

  2. Thanks. I note the link. Very surprised that this method survived as long as it did.
    I’m just interested as to how attitudes and barbarity changed over time. This was the main reason for the comment. How society changed as to what was acceptable and what was seen as savage and depraved.

    1. The butchery and distribution of the bodies, apart from causing excruciating pain and being a warning to others, also had a spiritual significance. It prevented the victims from being in buried in consecrated ground and therefore is likely to have increased their time in purgatory and troubles in the afterlife. It’s significant that Edward III didn’t have Mortimer dismembered, and that his body was taken down whole after two days and committed to friars for burial. The prayers of friars were thought to be especially effective in reducing time in purgatory. Perhaps Edward had some regrets about his treatment of Mortimer (as evidenced by his later pardon of him).

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