Never a pawn, ever a queen
Okay, I can’t resist her any longer. She’s played bit-parts in some recent posts, but today’s protagonist is of the firm conviction she deserves her moment in the limelight – by birth, if nothing else, seeing as the lady in question is rather fond of her bloodlines. So, having been browbeaten into submission, I give you Isabella of France.
Some call her a she-wolf. Towards the end of his reign, her husband probably called her a treacherous, adulterous whore. And as to Isabella, she’d restrict herself to a Gallic shrug and say “I did what I had to do. For my son.” Hmm. Not only for her son…
We shall breeze through Isabella’s early years – no matter that she pouts in protest.
“But my Papa, mes frères?” she demands when it seems I intend to skip her precious Capet family. Sorry, honey: this is not about them, remember? It is about you.(And if you want to read up about her beloved frères, why not stop by here?)
“Ah, oui,” she agrees, shining up like a beacon. So, in summary, Isabella was considered the most beautiful of women, and yes she was splendidly attired when she married Edward II in 1308 at the tender age of twelve, and yes, she was upstaged by Piers Gaveston, Edward’s current male favourite.
“Upstaged?” Isabella sniffs. “Mais non. Piers was fond of me.” As was the king, to some extent. But the king loved Piers, this upstart baron who had the rest of the English nobles gnashing their teeth.
Very briefly, Piers Gaveston was the second son of a Gascon minor lord. Piers entered Edward’s life when Edward was a young man not yet twenty, and an immediate – and some say unwholesome – affection sprang up between the two men. When Edward became king, he showered Piers with honours and offices, thereby alienating the other barons.
As this post is not about Piers, we will leave him to his fate for now but can conclude that ultimately the royal favourite was executed in June of 1312 – murdered, some would say – at the behest of the the barons led by Thomas of Lancaster.
Edward without Piers was an unhappy man. It was some consolation when Isabella presented him with a son and heir in November of 1312 and the next few years seem to have been good years for Isabella and Edward – she grew into her role as royal consort, and whether or not theirs was a passionate affair, there were more children. Things trundled along, the king never entirely happy with his barons, the barons never entirely taken with their king.
Enter Hugh Despenser, and the relative stability of the realm was a thing of the past. The barons cast but one look at Hugh Despenser – and his father – and shuddered. The Despensers were greedy for wealth, for land, for power, and once Hugh the younger had established himself as the king’s beloved favourite, all he had to do was snap his fingers to have his wishes come true.
At this time – around 1318 – Isabella was no longer a child. She was a mother, a queen, and was seriously disinclined to be shoved into the background by a new male favourite.
“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” William Congreve wrote some four centuries after these events, but yes, Isabella felt scorned – and she blamed Hugh Despenser. The barons wholeheartedly agreed, and when the king turned a blind eye to Despenser’s unlawful execution of one of Roger Mortimer’s Welsh clients, a Llewellyn Bren, things came to a head.
In 1321, the barons, led by Thomas of Lancaster, Humphrey de Bohun and Roger Mortimer, rebelled. The king was forced to exile his beloved Despenser – both of them. Enraged by this humiliation, the king plotted revenge. Some months later, he had managed to turn the tables on the barons. Mortimer ended up in the Tower, de Bohun and Lancaster ended up dead.
The Despensers were reinstated. The king was overjoyed. Isabella was not. Mortimer managed to escape to France, promising to return and claim what was his. Edward and Hugh shivered in dread at this threat, and England became a dark place where it sufficed with a whispered accusation of being a Mortimer supporter for a man to lose his liberty, if not his life. Isabella became increasingly isolated, living on the fringes of a court dominated by the royal chamberlain, Hugh Despenser.
It is doubtful whether Isabella and Mortimer were in cahoots already at this point in time. In my books, I have taken the liberty of suggesting they were – it makes for a better story – but nothing indicates Isabella had ever been anything but a dutiful wife. It is therefore quite incomprehensible why Edward, on Despenser’s advice, chose to deprive Isabella of her dower lands and the related income. In one move, he had angered and humiliated his wife.
Things took a turn for the worse when the brewing conflict between England and France over Gascony exploded into outright war. It was to a large extent Hugh Despenser’s advocated policies that led to the Gascony situation. It was assuredly because of the Gascony situation that Edward II exiled Isabella’s French retainers, many of whom had been with her since 1308. In doing so, he definitely pushed Isabella into the enemy camp.
There was nothing Isabella could do but bear it. No matter that she was a queen, she had little real power, and even less so when deprived of her income. But she did have her brains – and her looks – and somehow she lulled her husband into believing she had forgiven him – or at least accepted her reduced situation.
In 1325, England decided to treat for peace with France. Edward chose Isabella as his negotiator – as sister to the French king, she was an excellent choice. She was sent over to France with a household handpicked by the king and Despenser and negotiated a peace treaty which called for the English king to do homage for his Gascony lands. “I did my job,” she whispers in my head (yes, she spends a lot of time in my head). “But I vowed never to return to Edward – not unless Despenser was banished.”
Fat chance. Edward was utterly dependent on his beloved Hugh, which was why he listened when Hugh begged him not to go to France but send his eldest son instead. Hugh feared for his life should he be left behind in England. A correct assumption, I believe.
In sending his son, Edward effectively handed Isabella the sword upon which he would eventually fall. The heir to the English throne arrived in France invested with the Duchy of Aquitaine, which in itself generated an important revenue stream. More importantly, the prince’s hand in marriage could be bartered for men and ships. And finally, with the young prince at her side, Isabella could paint a potential invasion as a legitimate venture, intended to release the English from the heavy yoke of the Despensers.
By late 1325 it was evident Isabella had no intention of returning to her husband’s side – or of sending her son home. Instead, she was spending more and more time with Roger Mortimer and rumours began to fly. A match made in heaven, those two: ambitious, intelligent and ruthless when so required. Personally, I am convinced theirs was a relationship built on hot, searing passion – and I’m thinking Mortimer didn’t mind rubbing Edward’s nose in the fact that he was sleeping with the queen.
Some people seem to think Isabella was some sort of pawn. To me, it is apparent Isabella and Mortimer were equal partners – she needed his military expertise, he needed her and the prince to legitimise his actions. Besides, there was that constant, simmering attraction, that which had Mortimer heatedly declaring that he would rather kill her than allow her to return to the king. After all those years with a man who did not set her first, I believe it was a novel and exhilarating experience for Isabella to find herself swept off her feet by the charismatic Mortimer.
By betrothing her son to Philippa of Hainaut, Isabella acquired the ships and men required to invade England. In September of 1326 she landed in Suffolk, declaring that she – and her army – were here on behalf of her son, thereby making Prince Edward complicit in the rebellion that would ultimately cost Edward II his throne. I don’t think the young prince was all that happy about this – in fact, at fourteen he must have been terribly conflicted.
Instead of leading his army to meet the relatively small rebel force, Edward II fled west with Hugh Despenser. Isabella and Mortimer went after, and wherever they went, they were welcomed with open arms, the aggrieved people hoping this would spell the end of the Despenser terror. They rode together, Isabella and Mortimer. Side by side, they led their army in pursuit of the fleeing king.
In October, the queen and her lover arrived in Bristol. The older Hugh Despenser was behind the walls, but after a week he gave up – and was summarily tried and executed. In November of 1326, the king was captured. With him was Hugh Despenser Jr. Edward II was carried off to Kenilworth, Despenser ended up on a gallows in Hereford, dying excruciatingly while Isabella and Mortimer wined and dined in front of him.
Some months later, the king had been forced to abdicate – he’d be declared dead in September of 1327 – Edward III had been crowned, and Isabella and Mortimer confirmed as his regents. Isabella had also ensured she’d been more than compensated for her lost dower lands: her son, the new king, had been “encouraged” to grant her an annual income of 20 000 marks, equal to approximately a third of the total royal income. The lady was, putting it mildly, greedy. Note also that no equivalent grant – or anything even close to it – was made to Mortimer.
Over the coming years, Isabella and Mortimer did everything together. They travelled together, planned together, ruled together, disappeared for months at a time together. Peace and order was restored to the kingdom, capable administrators appointed throughout the realm. Except, of course, that some barons remained unhappy, chief among them Henry of Lancaster, younger brother to Thomas of Lancaster. Henry felt he deserved the role as regent. Isabella and Mortimer obviously did not agree. In late 1328, Henry rebelled, and quite a few flocked to his banner, disenchanted with the regents’ – and especially Mortimer’s – growing power.
The uprising was put down – ever the kick-ass lady, Isabella donned armour and rode side by side with Mortimer through the night to surprise Henry at his camp at Bedford. Lancaster had no choice but to submit. Mortimer and Isabella showed leniency, fining the participants rather than executing them for treason. It seemed the kingdom had finally found peace.
Except, of course, that the young king had no intention of remaining forever under the control of his mother and her lover. In this matter, Isabella showed a remarkable lack of perceptiveness. She should have recognised her own ambition in her son, seen how the boy grew into a young man – a man determined to be the perfect king, and perfect kings are rarely managed by their mothers.
When Mortimer tricked the king’s uncle, Edmund of Kent, into treachery – which led to Kent’s execution for treason – something snapped in the young King Edward. Partly, I suspect he feared that Mortimer – and loving Mama – had no intention of ever relinquishing their power. Partly, he was enraged at having been played as a pawn in the matter of Edmund. And so, our young king retired to his chambers and began to plot.
As described in a previous post, Isabella and Mortimer were ousted from power in Nottingham – quite the cloak-and-dagger stuff, involving a determined band of conspirators and a secret tunnel. Mortimer was dragged off to face trial and subsequent execution, Isabella was taken to Berkhamstead Castle, there to contemplate her manifold sins – or rather wise up to the fact that her son expected her to return all the lands and incomes she’d appropriated over the last few years. Not being stupid, she did just that – and in return she was granted lands and income equivalent to her dower, which left her more than comfortably off.
At the time of Mortimer’s execution, Isabella was thirty-five. In some aspects, her life was over, but soon enough she was a well-received guest at her son’s court. There must have been dark and dreary days when she missed her lover and the thrilling sense of power, but ultimately Isabella was a pragmatist. She’d had her days in the sun, and such halcyon days came at a price. When she died, in 1358, she chose to be buried in her wedding finery and with Edward IIs purported heart. A repudiation of Mortimer? Not necessarily – but Isabella was a Capet, the daughter of a king, the wife of a king, the mother of a king. Of course she wanted to be buried as a widowed queen!
To close this post without touching upon the fate of Edward II would be like baking a chocolate cake without chocolate. As we all know, Edward supposedly died in September of 1327 – some say murdered by Mortimer (and Isabella). I find it doubtful that Isabella would ever have countenanced murdering her deposed husband – or that Mortimer would have lowered himself to do so. In fact, I am not entirely convinced Edward II did die in 1327 – I am rather fond of the recent theories that indicate he lived abroad for a number of years. If so, maybe Isabella was one of those behind the scheme to smuggle her husband out of England and give him his freedom in return for his oath never to return. Maybe. Or maybe that’s me being romantic again. One of my major faults, they tell me…