Isabella of Valois, Queen of England

The young Isabella of Valois meets her first husband, King Richard II of England
The young Isabella of Valois meets her first husband, King Richard II of England

The Hundred Years War was started in 1337 by King Edward III of England, grandfather of King Richard II. The constant fighting was taking its toll on England and France. Both King Richard and the French King Charles VI were looking for a truce, if not a complete cessation of hostilities. Richard’s wife, Anne of Bohemia had died in 1394 and it made sense for him to marry a French princess to cement any agreement. Talks began shortly after Anne’s death of a marriage between Richard and Princess Isabella of Valois.

Isabella of Valois was born on November 9, 1389 at the Louvre in Paris. She was the eldest child of King Charles VI of France and Queen Isabeau of Bavaria. King Charles suffered from bouts of madness which may have been made for some frightful moments for the young princess. Queen Isabeau kept her small children close to her until they were weaned from their wet nurse. When she left Paris, many times she took her children with her. When the Queen was separated from her children she would visit them and bring gifts and write letters to them.

A document exists from 1404 conveying an agreement between Queen Isabeau and the Celestines de Notre-Dame de Paris to construct a gate allowing herself and her children access to the order’s gardens and vineyards as well as the church and monastery for worshipping purposes as well as for pleasure. We can just imagine Isabella and her sisters wandering and playing in these pleasant gardens.

Isabeau purchased devotional books for her daughters demonstrating her interest in educating them. An entry in her account books indicates the purchase of little brooms and a golden mill with pearls for Isabella. Other purchases for Isabella and her sisters included pets, parrots and turtledoves, birthday presents, toys and clothes. While Isabella’s upbringing until she married may not have been ideal due to her father’s illness, her mother appears to have tried to ensure the days were filled with the usual childhood pursuits and education.

In 1394, when Isabella was five years old, King Richard II of England’s beloved first wife Anne of Bohemia died of plague. Soon afterwards, Richard went on campaign in Ireland. Already offers were coming in for new brides for Richard from the King of Aragon, the Duke of Bavaria and the King of Scots. Charles VI of France was anxious to prevent an alliance with Spain and maintain peace between France and England. Charles’ uncle, the Duke of Burgundy also wanted to strengthen his authority in Flanders by safeguarding his trade relations with England. In May of 1395, Charles sent envoys to Ireland to propose a marriage with his daughter Isabella. Charles commissioned a treatise by Philippe de Mezières stating all the advantages of the marriage. Mezières argued that by having control of Isabella so early in her life, Richard could educate and mold her as he wanted.

In the summer of 1395, Richard sent the Archbishop of Dublin, the earl marshal and several others to Paris to negotiate. When the earl marshal met Isabella he asked her what she thought of going to England and marrying the King. The chronicler Froissart reports her as saying she would be happy “For I am told that then I shall be a great lady”.

Richard’s envoys demanded from King Charles two million gold francs as Isabella’s dowry. The amount was negotiated down to eight hundred thousand francs with a down payment of three thousand. If the match was broken off, the French would be responsible for paying the English three million francs and Charles was obligated to pay for Isabella’s journey to Calais, the last port in France before she sailed to England. If Isabella died before she was thirteen, Richard was to marry one of her relatives, possibly one of her sisters and keep four hundred thousand francs. If Richard died before Isabella was twelve, she would receive five hundred thousand francs and a dower settlement of £6,666 per year. Any jewels in her possession were to be returned to France with her. Included in Isabella’s trousseau were dolls trimmed with silver utensils.

On March 9, 1396 a twenty-eight year truce between England and France was concluded and a proxy marriage was performed at the Sainte-Chappelle in Paris three days later. In October, Isabella and her father left Paris with a large retinue and by October 26 they met Richard at Ardes. A few days later, Isabella, dressed in a blue gown and jeweled crown, curtsied before Richard as he kissed her. Her father formally handed her over to Richard’s care.

King Richard II of England sitting in the Coronation Chair
King Richard II of England sitting in the Coronation Chair

This was Richard’s first formal international embassy and neither party wanted to be out shown by the other. There was a city of tents erected with elaborate pavilions for the monarchs. A steady stream of sumptuous gifts passed between the pavilions and Richard wore his most extravagant fashions. This display would be repeated again during the reigns of King Henry VIII and King Francis I about one hundred years later at the Field of Cloth of Gold. The entire spectacle cost Richard between ten thousand and fifteen thousand pounds but the expense was considered worth it as it highlighted his royal prestige.

On All Saints Day, Isabella was carried in a cloth-of-gold litter to the church of St. Nicholas in Calais for the wedding ceremony. Isabella was given into the care of the duchesses of Gloucester, Eleanor de Bohun and Lancaster, Katherine Swynford. She would spend the rest of her married childhood between their two households. Isabella also had her own French governess, Margaret de Courcy.

Two days later Richard and Isabella sailed for England. Some of the ships were wrecked on the way. They landed at Dover and then journeyed through Rochester and Canterbury to Eltham where they stopped to await Isabella’s entry into London. When Isabella arrived in London, there was a terrible crush of people on the bridge between Southwark and Kennington and several people were killed.

On January 3, 1397, Isabella spent the night in the Tower of London before her coronation. On January 4th she rode in procession before ladies and knights in red gowns with the white hart badge of her husband. She met Richard at Westminster and was crowned the next day. Two weeks of celebration and tournaments followed. As happened with the marriage of Richard to Anne of Bohemia, people grumbled about the expense of the proceedings. Isabella was seen as an unsuitable bride for their king due to her youth and inability to provide an heir any time soon. Also, many nobles were against the truce with France and the marriage and Isabella received a discourteous reception from some of them.

Because of Isabella’s youth, she had no political influence for the next three years. Isabella and Richard went on pilgrimage to Canterbury in February of 1397 and they were together during Christmas of 1397 at Lichfield and attended the opening of Parliament in January of 1398 at Shrewsbury. Shortly after this Richard, who had been in political trouble with his nobles and his cousin Henry Bolingbroke before, was becoming increasingly tyrannical and paranoid. He sent Bolingbroke into exile and instituted a “pleasure” fine in violation of the Magna Carta. He collected thousands of pounds in forced loans and his court became increasingly magnificent.

While all this was unfolding, Isabella spent most of her time at Eltham under the tutelage of Margaret de Courcy. She was well treated and became devoted to her husband. Letters between Isabella and her parents were transmitted by Pierre Salmon. In the spring of 1399, Richard visited her at Windsor where a tournament was held in her honor. Richard was going on campaign in Ireland again. Before he left, he played with Isabella, held her hand and kissed her, promising he would call for her to join him in Ireland soon. His real plan was to send Madame de Courcy back to France and he probably never intended to bring Isabella to Ireland. In fact, this was the last time she saw her husband.

While Richard was in Ireland, Bolingbroke came back to England and raised thousands of troops. Richard’s uncle, Edmund, Duke of York who was in charge of the kingdom while Richard was gone, was forced to choose between Richard and Bolingbroke and he chose Bolingbroke. Richard made his way back to England with a small company but they soon deserted him. He was taken to Flint Castle where Bolingbroke had him arrested.

Richard was forced to abdicate and Parliament declared Richard deposed. Henry Bolingbroke was crowned as King Henry IV at Westminster on October 13, 1399. Richard was purportedly murdered at Pontefract Castle in February of 1400. There was a requiem held in Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London which King Henry attended.

In the meantime, Isabella was awaiting news of her husband at Donning in Berkshire. She was not allowed to see her husband and at one point her house was stormed and her attendants’ badges were torn from their livery. In December, the earls of Kent and Salisbury visited her and informed her Richard was free and it was an imposter in the Tower of London. We can only imagine how frightened Isabella must have been during all this turmoil. When she finally realized Richard was dead, she plunged her household into deep mourning.

Isabella’s position was tenuous. She hadn’t reached the age of canonical consent and she wasn’t technically a queen dowager. All of her dowry had been paid and the French were demanding it be returned. King Henry sent an embassy to Paris to discuss the marriage of Isabella to his son Henry, now Prince of Wales. The Prince did eventually marry Isabella’s younger sister Catherine. The English didn’t have the money to return the dowry and they couldn’t afford to endanger their truce with France.

After Richard’ deposition, Isabella’s parents were frantic to have her returned home. They were diligent in their negotiations. Documents reveal the ambassadors were instructed to confirm with Isabella that her parents were working on her rescue. She was urged not to marry anyone that King Henry might recommend. She most likely refused to marry the Prince of Wales out of loyalty to Richard. If the ambassadors were allowed to speak to Isabella alone they were to assure her that her parents wanted to see her and were doing everything in their power to return her to France as quickly as possible.

In May of 1401, a treaty was signed at Leulinghem whereby King Henry agreed to return Isabella to France with her jewels and property. She was accompanied by the Earl of Worcester and handed over to the Count of St. Pol at Calais on July 21, 1401. Isabella returned home to her parents to their great joy. She reentered her mother’s household but of course her status was not as important there as it was when she was Queen of England. But her mother did make sure she was surrounded by ladies of higher rank than she had before she went to England.

In May of 1406, Isabella was married to her cousin Charles of Orleans, son of Duke Louis of Orleans. When Louis was murdered in November of 1407, Charles became the new Duke. This marriage may have been seen by Isabella as a source of humiliation as her new husband was only the son of a Duke and she had once been a Queen. Records indicate Isabella visited her mother in April of 1409 when she was pregnant. She would die on September 14, 1409 after giving birth to her daughter Joan. Isabella was buried in Blois at the chapel of the abbey of St. Laumer, now the church of St. Nicholas. In 1624, her remains were moved to the Orleans chapel in the church of the Celestines in Paris where she had played as a child.

Further reading: “The Life and Afterlife of Isabeau of Bavaria” by Tracy Adams, “Queen Consorts: England’s Medieval Queens from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Elizabeth of York” by Lisa Hilton, “Sister Queens: Isabella & Catherine de Valois” by Mary McGrigor, entry on Isabella of Valois in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by J.L. Kirby, entry on King Richard II of England in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Anthony Tuck