Isabella of France, Queen of England

Queen Isabella as depicted in Froissart’s Chronicles

Right or wrong, Isabella of France has a reputation for being a she-wolf. In reality, she made some mistakes but her bravery in defending her rights as a French princess and crowned and anointed queen, as well as the patrimony of her eldest son, is much to be admired. In furthering the interests of his favorites over his wife and queen, Edward II put Isabella in a complicated position and she engaged in the politics necessary to deal with the situation.

Born in late 1295, Isabella was the only surviving daughter of Philip IV of France and Jeanne de Champagne, Queen of Navarre. It is clear from her surviving collection of books that Isabella was taught to read; however, it is unknown if she could write. During the negotiations for an Anglo-French truce in the duchy of Aquitaine in 1298, a match between the eldest son of King Edward I of England and Isabella was first proposed. When the treaty renewed in 1298, King Edward married Philip IV of France’s sister Marguerite and again, they deliberated regarding a match with Prince Edward and Isabella.

By the year 1303, a permanent Anglo-French peace ensued and Isabella was formally betrothed to Edward of Caernarfon with an eighteen-thousand-pound dowry agreed upon. The prince became king upon the death of his father in 1307. Edward I’s second wife Marguerite, as dowager queen, kept her dower and income at her niece Isabella’s expense. At King Philip’s request, Isabella’s dower was enhanced by the English but the French king would not concede to any of Edward’s claims to Aquitaine. Despite the continuing disputes over the duchy, Edward and Isabella were married at Our Lady of Boulogne on January 25, 1308 where five kings and three queens attended the lavish wedding.

King Edward II of England, Isabella’s husband

Isabella and Edward arrived in England for their coronation on February 25, 1308. Much to Isabella’s dismay, Edward visited his favorite, Piers Gaveston’s bed more often than hers, something she complained about to her father. She felt the favorite usurped her place at court and she didn’t have enough funds to maintain her household. Edward gifted his wife the county of Ponthieu and all of its revenues to supplement her income in 1308.

Her uncles, Charles de Valois and Louis d’Évreux, who had accompanied her to England, were incensed by her treatment. Isabella’s animosity toward Gaveston was well known and she approached not only her father, but also the pope, cardinals and various English earls, looking for aid in eliminating the favorite. Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, a half-brother of Isabella’s mother, promised to expel Gaveston from England.

Gaveston increasingly met with opposition at court and was exiled on three different occasions. After returning to court for the last time, the nobles tightened the net. Edward and Gaveston separated and as Gaveston made his way to Scarborough Castle, he was captured by his enemies. He surrendered on the condition he receive a safe conduct to York to negotiate with the king once again for his favor.

The terms of the safe conduct were violated when the Earl of Warwick kidnapped Gaveston from Deddington in Oxfordshire and brought him to Warwick Castle. He was tried by a panel of his opponents and taken to nearby Blacklow Hill, where two Welsh soldiers crudely executed him, leaving King Edward devastated by his death.

Despite this state of affairs, Edward would regularly grant pardons and bestow lands, money and offices at Isabella’s request, indicating her ability to exercise a modicum of political power. Gaveston did not keep the king from his marital duties. Isabella was only thirteen when she married and Edward probably avoided sleeping with her because of her youth in the beginning of the marriage. She conceived her first born son, the future Edward III, well before the death of Gaveston in the summer of 1312. The child was born at Windsor Castle on November 13, 1312 and more children were born regularly. After a miscarriage a year later, Isabella gave birth to a son John at Eltham Palace in 1316, a daughter Eleanor at Woodstock in 1318 and Joan, the future Queen of Scots, in the Tower of London in 1321.

When the dowager queen, Marguerite of France died in 1318, Isabella gained custody of the usual queen’s dower lands. She actively promoted her relatives, the Beaumonts, gaining their favor with her husband. Edward turned over custody of the great seal to Isabella on several occasions.

Isabella went on campaign with Edward in Scotland in 1319 where a plot to abduct her was foiled when they apprehended a Scottish scout. During the campaign in the fall of 1322, Isabella was left in Tynemouth Priory for her safety but the Scots were threateningly close. Having no troops to defend her position, Isabella escaped in a boat. One of her ladies died during the perilous voyage and another passed away once they arrived safely in Scarborough. The Scots defeated the English at the Battle of Byland on October 14 and Edward came close to being captured.

Up until this moment, Isabella had been treated well and the king had been generous to her, in spite of the fact he preferred his favorites, creating considerable tension in their marriage. Edward reputedly began to make known he had married Isabella against his will and possibly blamed her for the ongoing Anglo-French tensions over Aquitaine. Until the elevation of the elder and younger Hugh Despenser in Edward’s favor, Isabella consistently supported Edward’s relations with his barons and the French crown. Both Isabella and Edward received a noble welcome when they visited Paris in May 1313. She acted as mediator between Edward and his nobles on several occasions but her efforts failed to generate any lasting success in either domestic or foreign affairs.

A notorious confrontation occurred at Leeds Castle on October 13, 1321 when Isabella was denied entry by the custodian’s wife and six of the queen’s men died in the resulting brawl. Apparently, Edward set up this scenario in order to provoke a show of defiance, allowing him to use the insult to his wife as an excuse to attack the barons. The ensuing conflict resulted in the death of the Earl of Lancaster and a triumphant Parliament at York in May 1322. As the Despensers continued their rise in dominance over the king, Isabella’s influence as an intercessor with the king markedly declined. They convinced the king to resume control of Isabella’s lands in 1324, leaving her dependent on the king for funds, resulting in the dismissal of many of her friends and French servants.

The younger Despenser’s wife, Eleanor de Clare (King Edward’s niece), who had long been a servant of Isabella’s, became a spy for her husband and his father. Allegedly, Isabella no longer had the ability to send letters without Eleanor’s knowledge. Despite this, she managed to communicate with a couple of bishops who opposed the Despensers. It was rumored the Despensers contacted the pope, asking for a divorce between Isabella and the king. She was suspected of intriguing with her French relatives who led an army into Aquitaine in 1324 and confiscated it.

This attack presented Isabella with an incredible opportunity. She convinced her husband to stop any further fighting in Aquitaine. Then, possibly with papal assistance, she persuaded him to allow her to enter into negotiations with her brother, King Charles IV of France. With her household restored, and a staged reconciliation with the Despensers, she sailed for France in March of 1325. Rumors were flying about in England that she would never return as long as the Despensers remained at Edward’s side.

The peace she brokered included heavy financial burdens on her husband. As part of the settlement, King Charles agreed to accept the homage of Isabella and Edward’s eldest son and heir, Prince Edward, with the stipulation he be made Duke of Aquitaine and count of Ponthieu. Prince Edward left England on September 12 with the king’s brother Edmund, earl of Kent. Following the homage ceremony, Isabella, Prince Edward and Kent remained in Paris.

Edward ordered Isabella to return to England by the end of the month. She sent most of her retinue back while offering ineffectual excuses for not returning herself. She informed her brother Charles she believed the younger Despenser would kill her if she returned. There were English reports this was true and it was suggested the Earl of Richmond would kill her in France and rumors her husband swore to kill her.

Because King Charles had high hopes of recovering Aquitaine, he supported Isabella. She was spending a great deal of time with the Englishmen in exile as traiors in France, rather than the men who had been sent with her as advisors. One of these exiles included the marcher lord Roger Mortimer. By March 1326, it was acknowledged in England that Isabella and Roger were lovers. Hostilities reached the point where everyone believed Isabella would invade England. Isabella departed France for Ponthieu and then traveled to Hainault where she betrothed her son Edward to Count William I’s daughter Philippa. She utilized the dowry to hire mercenaries, which were commanded by Roger Mortimer and Philippa’s brother Jean.

Return of Isabelle from France to England, landing at Harwick with her son Edward from the Grandes Chroniques de France, illuminated by Jean Fouquet, c. 1460

At one point, it was believed the situation had resolved itself with the Pope hoping to reconcile Isabella and her husband. However, the terms required the removal of the Despensers and Edward refused. In late September, Isabella sailed from the Continent with Edmund of Kent, Jean d’Hainault, Roger Mortimer, several English exiles and another thousand men, landing near the estates of the king’s half-brother Thomas of Brotherton, 1st Earl of Norfolk where they met with little resistance. Other nobles joined her and Archbishop Walter Reynolds sent money. Adam Orleton, Bishop of Winchester preached a sermon stating Isabella sought to end misgovernment and Isabella issued a proclamation at Wallingford in mid-October, ferociously denouncing the Despensers. On the same day, London rose up to support her, resulting in Edward losing all authority.

Edward and the Despensers fled to Wales. Isabella took her army in pursuit and met with reinforcements at Gloucester. With the formidible army backing her, she proclaimed her son Edward guardian of the realm. The elder Despenser was captured and executed and the younger Despenser and Edward were finally apprehended. The younger Hugh Despenser was executed at Hereford on November 25.

Parliament convened in London on January 7, 1327. The king was held at Kenilworth and informed of Parliament’s decision that he should no longer reign. Edward II resigned his throne and Edward III was crowned on February 1. The council forbade Isabella to join her husband as they were told by Bishop Orleton that Edward would kill his wife. Despite this state of affairs, Isabella continued to send her husband gifts. Due to a conspiracy in July, Edward was nearly rescued and another plot to save him came to light in September. It is believed Edward was killed in Berkeley Castle on September 21, most likely with the new regime’s inferred or even open wishes.

Edmund FitzAlan, 9th Earl of Arundel and Hugh Despenser the Elder (or Hugh Despenser the Younger) before Queen Isabella. 15th century manuscript illumination from Froissart’s Chronicles by the Boethius Master

Neither Isabella nor Roger Mortimer had been assigned a legitimate role on the new king’s council but they governed England nevertheless. They seized all lands owned by the Despensers and Isabella took such a huge chunk of the royal demesne, that the new king was left with only one third of its revenues. Isabella made peace with France and agreed to recognize Scottish independence. Her daughter Joan was married to Robert I, King of Scots son and heir, David. She kept the twenty-thousand-pound reparations paid by the Scots in order to compensate her mercenaries and purchase English loyalty. By now, the controversial treaties and the greed of Isabella and Mortimer were beginning to alienate and outrage many.

Some of the major noblemen rose up to displace Mortimer but Isabella and Mortimer would not go down without a fight. In March 1330, they falsely accused Edmund, Earl of Kent of plotting to free the former king, who was rumored to be alive. In fact, it was Mortimer who started the rumors. They had the earl executed and Mortimer took Kent’s lands for himself. It was a strong signal not to challenge the regime but people were beginning to tire of Isabella’s avarice and Mortimer’s arrogance.

During a meeting of Parliament at Nottingham in October 1330, Isabella and Mortimer questioned Edward III and some of his friends regarding their loyalty to their regime. When it became evident to King Edward the couple planned to arrest some of his own supporters, the dominos began to fall. Edward III and his friends arrested Isabella and Mortimer in her chambers in Nottingham Castle. When they took Mortimer away, Isabella said “Good son, good son, have pity on gentle Mortimer”. They condemned Mortimer without trial and hanged him at Tyburn on November 30.

At first, Isabella remained under guard but eventually she was released and lived comfortably in Castle Rising in Norfolk and other locations, completely free to travel and given all deference due a queen dowager. Edward visited many times and was regally received. Isabella visited Windsor on several occasions. She gave up the lands and income she had seized but in return, was given all that she had enjoyed as queen consort.

She maintained a varied and sophisticated library filled with religious books, romances and a collection of Arthurian legends. She had a richly furnished chapel, went on pilgrimages and gave alms to the needy. Isabella’s health was poor for some time and her daughter Joan came to live with her near the end. She died at Hertford Castle on August 23, 1358. If she took the habit of St. Clare, it was on her deathbed.

In November, Isabella, wrapped in the mantle she wore at her wedding, was interred in the London Franciscan church in Newgate. Her son endowed the church with a large sum to perform services for her soul. The alabaster tomb above her grave held Edward II’s heart in the effigy’s hands. The grave disappeared when the priory was made a parish church in 1550.

Further reading: “Queens Consort: England’s Medieval Queens from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Elizabeth of York” by Lisa Hilton, “The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Roger Mortimer, Ruler of England from 1327 to 1330” by Ian Mortimer, “The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation” by Ian Mortimer, entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography on Isabella of France written by John Carmi Parsons