In the early years of the fifteenth century, the government of France was in complete disarray. The king of England was attacking in an attempt to take the throne. The French king Charles VI was suffering from debilitating episodes of mental instability. Various French factions, the Armagnacs who were supporters of the Duke of Orléans and the Burgundians were fighting amongst themselves for control of the throne and the French treasury. Amidst all this conflict, Queen Isabeau of Bavaria was expected to act as mediator between the warring parties. She was also responsible for the guardianship of her children, especially her sons who were the heirs to the throne. It was an impossible task.
Elisabeth von Wittelsbach was born c. 1370 in Munich in the powerful German state of Bavaria. She was the daughter of Stephen III who reigned as Duke of Bavaria-Ingolstadt from 1375 to 1413. Her mother was Taddea Visconti, daughter of the Milanese Bernabo Visconti, one of the ruling family of Lombardy. We know little of her childhood years but she was given an education worthy of her rank. Elisabeth’s family was close. Her mother died when she was eleven and every year, she and her father attended commemorative masses in her mother’s name. Elisabeth also had a good relationship with her brother Louis.
The chroniclers are contradictory on the details of Elisabeth’s character as well as her appearance. She is described as being tall and blonde but is also said to have been small and brunette. It is said she was beautiful and hypnotic but she is also described as being so obese she was crippled. She never lost her German accent which led those at the French court to view her with suspicion.
The French were eager for an alliance with the Holy Roman Empire against the invading English. In 1383, Charles VI put out a call for aid amongst the Low Countries which were under the influence of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Frederick, brother of Elisabeth’s father, answered the call for help. Frederick was asked by the French if he had any daughters eligible to marry the king. He didn’t but he volunteered his brother’s pretty teenage daughter.
The match was discussed again in April of 1385. King Charles, who was then seventeen years old, was a handsome, athletic young man who relished jousting and hunting and was eager to be married. Philip of Burgundy began brokering the marriage between Elisabeth and Charles in an effort to cement the alliance with the Holy Roman Empire and to consolidate and advance his own growing influence in the Low Countries. When Elisabeth’s marriage was being discussed, her father was reluctant to send her to be viewed in the nude by the French king as a potential bride which was customary at the time. He hesitated and only relented after it was agreed that no one, including Elisabeth, be told of the real purpose of her visit. Elisabeth was told she was going on pilgrimage to Amiens.
Elisabeth’s uncle Frederick accompanied her to Hainault where she spent some time at the home of her granduncle Duke Albert I. His wife Margaret began working on educating Elisabeth about the etiquette of the French court. She quickly did away with Elisabeth’s Bavarian style of dress and replaced it with the more elegant French style. Elisabeth learned very quickly and on July 13, 1385, she set out to meet Charles, arriving in Amiens on July 17.
The chronicler Jean Froissart described the meeting saying Elisabeth stood fully clothed and perfectly motionless as she was inspected. Arrangements were being made for the couple to marry in Arras if all went well. Regardless of the ambiguity of the chroniclers about her appearance, Charles found Isabeau so beautiful he insisted on being married immediately. The nuptials took place three days later. Elisabeth’s name was changed to the more French sounding Isabeau.
The day after the wedding Charles left to go on campaign against the English while Isabeau went to live with Charles’ great aunt Blanche, Duchess of Orléans who taught her about courtly rituals and traditions. Isabeau then moved to the Château of Vincennes where Charles frequently visited her. It would become her favorite home. In the early years of their marriage, Charles lavished her with gifts. Isabeau’s brother Louis arrived at the French court and she promoted his career there and arranged two separate marriages for him to French widows. Her father sent a minstrel to her in the early years of her reign. She became a patron of the arts and was known for her piety.
Isabeau was crowned and anointed on August 23, 1389 in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The coronation was proceeded by a lavish procession through the streets of Paris that lasted for an entire day. The ceremony was followed by another extravagant procession and a sumptuous feast. Isabeau, who was seven months pregnant at the time, nearly fainted from the heat on the first day of the festivities.
Isabeau had many children beginning in September of 1386 when a son Charles was born. He died three months later. A daughter Jeanne was born in June of 1388 but died two years later. Her third child was a daughter named Isabella who would be married at the age of seven to King Richard II of England. Another daughter Joan was born in 1391 and she would survive and marry John VI, Duke of Brittany. Another son named Charles was born in February of 1392 but he died at the age of eight of a wasting illness. Historical evidence shows that Isabeau kept her children near her during their childhood, allowing them to travel with her. She wrote letters to her children, bought them gifts and devotional texts and educated her daughters.
The early years of Charles’ reign had been dominated by several noblemen who acted as regents. The regents were more interested in self-promotion than politics. Isabeau quickly took authority in acting as mediator between the fighting factions of the court. She was allied with Philip of Burgundy but managed to maintain ties with his foes. She seems to have used her authority judiciously and to have had charisma.
Charles dismissed the regents in 1388. He appointed competent and respected men from his father’s reign in their place. They restored order and Charles’ reign was successful until a fateful August day in 1392. Isabeau’s life was to change forever. Charles had begun to exhibit signs of psychosis with short bouts. But in August, he had a frightful, feverish attack near Le Mans. He attacked his brother Louis of Orléans along with some of his household knights. The attack ended with the death of four men. He then fell into a coma that lasted four days. Charles’ uncles seized power as regents and dismissed the king’s current council.
A respected doctor was called in to treat him. His fever subsided and he regained consciousness and was returned to Paris in September. He had a second severe attack the following June which kept him from his duties as king for about six months. A pattern was established for the next twenty years where he vacillated between periods of insanity and lucidity.
After the first attack, Charles arranged for Isabeau to be co-guardian of the dauphin and the rest of the royal children. She shared her duties with the Dukes of Burgundy, Berry and Bourbon and her brother Louis. If Charles died before his son reached his majority, his uncle Louis of Orléans was to be regent. Louis would contend his regency powers extended to the times when Charles was unfit to govern during his illnesses. This was disputed by the Duke of Burgundy who considered himself the head of the government in the absence of the king.
At times the king would exhibit violence towards Isabeau. It is a testament to her loyalty to him that when he was lucid, she would sleep with him. She bore more children after the onset of his illness. A daughter Marie was born in the summer of 1393. Marie was sent to a convent when she was four where she would become the prioress. A daughter Michelle was born in February of 1395. She would survive to marry Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. A son Louis was born in 1397. He would die in 1415. A son John was born in August of 1398. He married Jacqueline, Countess of Hainault but died with no issue in 1417.
Isabeau’s tenth child was a daughter named Catherine. She would survive to marry King Henry V of England and have a child who became King Henry VI. After the death of Henry, she married Owen Tudor. Her son Edmund Tudor was the father of the man who would eventually become King Henry VII and the founder of the Tudor dynasty of kings of England. Isabeau’s next son Charles was born in February of 1403. He would inherit the throne of France and reign as Charles VII. Isabeau’s last child, a son name Philip was born in 1407 but only lived a few hours. Isabeau remained in contact with those children who married and left home.
Charles’ periods of illness were difficult for Isabeau. At one point, Isabeau moved her residence to the Hôtel Babette. She was accused of abandoning him but her life with him when he was ill must have been unbearable. In 1405, it was deemed prudent to provide Charles with a mistress. This was done with Isabeau’s consent.
In March of 1402, Charles assigned Isabeau as arbiter between the fractional Dukes. In July he authorized her to head the royal council during his absences. Philip of Burgundy died in 1404 but his son Jean the Fearless arrived to take his father’s place. This set up a struggle for control of the crown and its resources and for physical control of the Dauphin between Louis of Orléans, John and Queen Isabeau. The feuding and vendettas from this struggle would basically disintegrate into civil war. The Duke of Orléans was murdered in November of 1407 by agents of John the Fearless. From 1409 until 1413, John and his allies were beneficial to her. From 1413 to 1415, the supporters of Louis, including her youngest son Charles, were allied with Isabeau.
John the Fearless himself was murdered by councilors of the Dauphin Charles in September of 1419. While these parties fought, Henry V rode roughshod over France gaining territory as he went. At one point Isabeau was imprisoned at Tours, her household disbanded, all her personal property confiscated and she was separated from her ladies-in-waiting and from the rest of her children. Eventually, the new Duke of Burgundy made peace with England and it became inevitable that Charles and Isabeau agree to these terms. The result was the Treaty of Troyes dated May 21, 1420. Charles was unable to attend the signing of the treaty so Isabeau stood in his place.
The Treaty didn’t divide France but provided for Charles VI to remain king with Henry V as his regent and heir. Charles and Isabeau’s son the Dauphin Charles was disinherited. Isabeau was to live in English controlled Paris. Henry V would become king upon Charles VI death and the French throne would pass on to Henry’s heirs. Henry was to marry Isabeau and Charles’ daughter Catherine. The theory was that both England and France would be governed separately according to their own customs and laws but ruled by one man.
Charles VI died in October of 1422. Henry V of England had died earlier that year and his infant son Henry VI was declared King of France. Isabeau lived in Paris, possibly in a degraded state. Rumors began that Isabeau was promiscuous with many lovers. Other rumors were that her disinherited son was not legitimate. In 1429, Isabeau retired to live in the Hôtel St. Pol with her brother’s second wife. She died there in 1435 and was given a state burial.
Isabeau has been the subject of a litany of attacks on her character at first by the Burgundians and later by those who were pro-English. She was forced to take and change sides multiple times making her look weak and indecisive. Her son was rebellious and worked against her. Her appearance at the signing of the Treaty of Troyes left her open to accusations she swore away France by disinheriting her son in favor of the English king. She was accused of adultery, obesity, covetousness, dressing too fancy, being wasteful and extravagant, of staying up until all hours of the night partying and neglecting her children. During her husband’s illnesses, she could no longer keep up with his sexual demands and dangerous behavior. When it was decided to provide Charles with an official mistress, she was accused of abandoning her husband to gain power and of indulging in a life of decadence and immorality. These accusations originated from her political enemies and would haunt her legacy for centuries.
In the twentieth century, historians began to examine the historical evidence of Isabeau’s reign and came to a very different conclusion about her character. Rachel Gibbons and Tracy Adams (see references below) have reassessed her reputation and exonerated her of many of the accusations. Indeed, R.C. Famiglietti calls her a perfect spouse. Isabeau did the best she could under extremely difficult circumstances. Her son Charles did eventually take back the throne of France with the help of Joan of Arc and during the reign of Isabeau’s grandson, Louis XI France began to be consolidated and have a national identity.
Further reading: “The Life and Afterlife of Isabeau of Bavaria” by Tracy Adams, “Tales of the Marriage Bed from Medieval France (1300-1500) by R.C. Famiglietti, “The Hundred Years War: A People’s History” by David Green, Rachel Gibbons (1996). Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France (1385-1422): The Creations of an Historical Villainess (The Alexander Prize Essay). Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6, pp 51-73 doi: 10.2307/3679229