When we think of a medieval queen, the woman who often comes to mind is the queen around whom I developed my debut novel Widow's Peak, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Yet, there is another queen who was at least equally as powerful in medieval times. Isabella of France was responsible for many changes in the history of England.
Isabella was born a princess of France sometime in 1295. While still an infant, she was promised in marriage by her father to Prince Edward of England with the intent to resolve some of the many conflicts over land holdings between the French Nobility and the Norman English Rulers. However, the English king, Edward I, attempted to break the engagement several times and the marriage only proceeded after he died, in 1307.
The new king, Edward II, was tall, athletic, and wildly popular when he and Isabella were married in January, 1308. She was twelve years old and considered a great beauty, but her time at the French court more than prepared her for the machinations of the English court.
Although they produced four children, Edward was notorious for lavishing sexual attention on a succession of male favourites, all of whom Isabella considered a threat to her son and thus to her own standing. The timing of her turn against her husband seems to be tied to his preference for his favorite, Hugh le Despenser. During her pregnancy with her fourth child, she begged her husband to exile Despenser from the kingdom. Edward agreed, but later that year reneged and called his favorite back to England. Apparently, that was the last straw as far as Isabella was concerned. It is rumored that sometime during the next few years she took as her lover Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March. Though Mortimer was married and had twelve children, the affair was soon openly acknowledged.
It’s commonly accepted that Edward II was an ineffectual ruler. When Isabella's brother, King Charles IV of France seized Edward's French possessions in 1325, she returned to France as a delegate charged with negotiating a treaty. However, she became a focal point for the many nobles opposed to Edward's reign. In alliance with her lover, Roger Mortimer, Isabella gathered an army to oppose Edward. Enraged by such treachery, Edward demanded that Isabella return to England, but her brother refused to expel her, saying she came to France of her own free will and could remain as long as she desired. As it turned out, her stay was not long enough for Edward II.
With the support of both the King of France and the King of Holland, Isabella and Mortimer landed in Suffolk in 1326 with a fleet of eight man of war ships and an army of mercenaries. Edward II offered a reward for their deaths and the king was rumored to have carried a knife in his hose saved just to kill his wife if he got the chance. Isabella responded by offering twice as much money for the head of Hugh Despenser, who was still Edward’s favorite.
The invasion by was successful and Edward's few allies deserted him without a battle. The Despensers were killed, and Edward II was captured and forced to abdicate in favor of his eldest son, Edward III of England. Since the young king was only fourteen when he was crowned in 1327, Isabella and Mortimer ruled as regents in his place. As instigator of her own husband's removal from the throne, Isabella contributed greatly to the decline in England of the power of the monarch and thus the rise of democracy.
According to legend, Isabella and Mortimer plotted to murder the deposed king by sending the famous order, Eduardum occidere nolite timere bonum est, which, depending on where the comma was inserted, could mean either "Do not be afraid to kill Edward; it is good" or "Do not kill Edward; it is good to fear". There is little evidence of who decided to have Edward assassinated, and none whatsoever that the infamous note was ever sent.
When Edward III turned 18, he and a few trusted companions staged a coup and both Isabella and Mortimer were taken prisoner. Mortimer was executed for treason, but Isabella was spared she was allowed to retire to Castle Rising in Norfolk. She did not, as legend would have it, go insane, but enjoyed a comfortable retirement and made many visits to her son's court, doting on her grandchildren, and later taking the habit of the Poor Clares before her death in 1358.
In the tumultuous 63 years of her life, Isabella of France married the bi-sexual King Edward II of England, lived with him for 17 years, bore him four children, fled to France in fear of his powerful favorite, returned with her lover, Roger Mortimer, to lead a rebellion and place her son on the throne, saw Mortimer executed as her son asserted his power, and lived to retire to a nunnery. She was indeed a medieval woman who dared pursue power.
I'm giving away a copy of Alison Weir's intriguing biography, Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, And Murder in Medieval England. Leave a comment about your favorite queen, ancient, medieval, renaissance, or any other period. I'll draw a winner on October 31st.
Hanna Rhys Barnes