Isabel of Portugal – or how one portrait inspired +2000 words
This post started with a picture. If we’re going to be quite correct, it didn’t even start with the picture relevant to this post, but with another picture by the same artist. The artist in question is one Rogier van der Weyden, and he’s been dead for so long likely even his bones have turned to mulch by now.
Anyway: once upon a time, our Rogier was a much sought after painter. He was known not only for his gorgeous triptychs and altarpieces, but also for his portraits. The rich and famous queued up to have their unprepossessing features put on canvas by Rogier, to a large extent because he was a good painter, but also because he was a kind painter. That little wart you so hated on your chin might very well not make it to the canvas. Or that sagging round your jowls which you so hated might not appear quite as sagging once Rogier was done. Photo-shopping before photo-shopping, if you will, and it is my personal opinion Rogier was not alone in doing this.
Well, that is enough about Rogier. Our female protagonist is looking a tad restless, and as she is royalty and Rogier is not, we must behave ourselves and pay her the attention she was born to. So, with that I give you Isabel of Portugal. As can be seen from her portrait, she is not exactly drop dead. I also suspect those lines on her neck are a tad more visible in real life, and as to the thing she has atop her head, well, I can assure you Isabel has little choice in her headgear – a lady of certain means must keep up with fashion, and fashion dictates this odd creation, further complemented by a shaved brow. Takes a LOT of good bone structure to carry off that look, let me tell you!
What I like about this portrait is how intelligent she looks. This is no bimbo staring at us, no, this is a woman of wit and education. Isabel was fortunate in that she was born an Infanta of Portugal. Her mother was Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt, and her father was King Joao I of Portugal. Philippa of Lancaster was an exceptionally well-educated woman. Her father was a big believer in learning, and he therefore ensured his daughters received a good and broad education. Nice man, that John of Gaunt. Truth is, if I had to choose a medieval man to carry me off, I’d have chosen him. Or maybe his father-in-law, Henry of Grosmont. Or perhaps Edward I, but such a choice may have very many going “What???”, so let’s drop the subject and return to Isabel.
Isabel’s father, was as per some not fit to be king. After all, Joao was the bastard son of Pedro I (he of the sad, sad love story with Inés de Castro) and as such his claim was weak. “Fiddlesticks,” Joao would probably have said. He was chosen as Portuguese king when his half-brother Fernando died without male issue. One of the main reasons for choosing Joao was that Fernando’s daughter was married to the Castilian king, and no Portuguese worth his salt would even contemplate having a Castilian overlord.
Whatever blots may have existed up Joao’s family tree, these were effectively eradicated when he married Philippa of Lancaster, granddaughter of Edward III, descended from Henry III on both sides. Here was royal blood indeed, and Philippa herself was quite the catch: not only was she well-read, but she would prove to be loyal and politically astute. Mind you, there were concerns regarding her fertility at the time of her marriage. All of twenty-seven, Philippa was old for a first time bride, but her union with Joao would be fruitful, resulting in nine children of which six survived to adulthood.
Only one of these surviving children was female. Isabel was brought up in a court dominated by her virtuous mother and received as thorough an education as her brothers. King Joao had a reputation as one of the best educated men in Europe, and he had every intention of ensuring his children received the best tutors, so Isabel learnt Latin and French, English and Italian. She was taught science and politics, and she was also a proficient rider.
All in all, with all those virtues, all that education, one would have thought Isabel would have been snapped up as a potential bride. Not. Yes, there were plans to see her wed to Henry V, but that fell through (probably a good thing: they were first cousins) and Isabel somehow ended up on the shelf. Or maybe it was her father, wanting to keep her close after his wife died in 1415. At the time, Isabel was 18, and whether or not she was unhappy as a spinster, we don’t know.
In 1428 an embassy from Philip of Burgundy arrived in Portugal. Recently widowed, Philip desired to wed again ASAP. He needed an heir, and for there to be an heir he needed a wife. He also wanted a bride that came with good English connections – Philip wanted to strengthen his alliance with England, probably so as to stop the French king breathing down his neck. Being the Duke of Burgundy came with a patchwork of territories, many of which lie in present-day Belgium and Netherlands. It also came with a tricky balancing act: the Duke of Burgundy owed allegiance to the French king for some territories.
Philip was by all accounts a competent ruler. He was also something of a skirt-chaser, with well over two dozen of documented mistresses. As a result of all that loving, Philip had numerous offspring – but they were all illegitimate. Not good. Without a legitimate heir, chances were the duchy would be absorbed into France, and for a proud Burgundian that was a fate worse than death. Which was why Philip was in such a hurry to marry again, even if the prospective bride was a bit long in the tooth. (At thirty, Isabel was deffo past her best-before-date. At least as per medieval standards) However, Philip was heartened by the fact that Isabel’s mother had also been an old bride, and look how many babies she’d produced!
Philip was a major patron of the arts. Among the artists he supported (other than the as yet up-and-coming Rogier van der Weyden) was a certain Jan van Eyck, the man behind the famous Arnolfini portrait. Van Eyck was sent off to Portugal to paint Isabel – Philip had no desire to be landed with an old and ugly bride. This portrait is now lost, so I can’t present you with a pic, all that survives are sketches of the painting. It is said van Eyck was honest in his depiction of his sitters. Isabel was therefore presented as not particularly pretty, but her pose indicated a forceful personality, someone it might be fun to get to know.
Whatever the case, what Philip saw, Philip liked, and so, in July of 1429 Isabel and Philip were married by proxy. Some weeks after that, Isabel set off for her new homeland, a rather disastrous journey involving several storms. She arrived in Sluys in late December of 1429, and two weeks later, she and Philip were formally married.
Very soon, Isabel discovered she was pregnant. She also discovered her husband had no intention of remaining faithful to her. Philip liked his life the way it was, and as yet he’d developed little fondness for his wife, being very occupied with other matters, such as capturing Joan of Arc and handing her over to the English. Isabel was distraught. She’d grown up with parents who respected and cared for each other, and while it may not have been a surprise that her husband strayed, she detested having his infidelity flung in her face, so to speak. She was also uncomfortable in her new home. The ambulating court of Philip the Good was lavish to the extreme, a far cry from the austere surroundings Isabel was accustomed to. And as to Isabel herself, she stuck out among the elegant Burgundian ladies, preferring to dress plainly.
“Almost like a nun,” the courtiers snickered, expressing that it was no wonder Duke Philip went elsewhere for some nightly fun. After all, what could their flamboyant ruler possibly see in this severe and drab woman?
Not, all in all, a good start to the Philip and Isabel marriage. But at least she did present him with a son in December of 1430, and while the child was sickly this proved Isabel was fertile. Soon enough, she was pregnant yet again, this time after having spent several months in her husband’s company. During that time together, Philip reassessed his wife, finding her both intelligent and resourceful. So impressed was he that he made her his regent when he had to hasten off to some distant part of his domains, a responsibility Isabel discharged efficiently.
In 1432, both Isabel’s sons died. Fortunately, she soon found herself pregnant again, and in 1433 Philip’s longed for healthy heir was finally born. Charles the Bold had seen the light of the day, and his proud mama doted on him.
The time Isabel could spend with her son was restricted: she was often sent off as Philip’s ambassador to the French court, and in general spent a lot of time counselling her husband who seems to have appreciated her input. Not always, of course, and when father and son fell out several years later, Isabel sided with her son by the simple strategy of retiring from court, officially so as to lead a more devout life. I don’t think that pleased Philip. Even less did he like it when in 1457 his wife set up a parallel court to his, a court at which his critics were openly welcomed.
In 1458, Philip suffered a stroke, supposedly after having played a hard game of tennis. Isabel rushed to his side, and whatever tensions had existed between them dissipated like fog on a summer morning. For the remainder of Philip’s life, Isabel would be there to nurse and support, the epitome of the loyal and devoted wife.
In 1467, Philip died, passing his precious duchy to his son, Charles. Unfortunately for Philip, despite all his efforts to secure male descendants Charles would never sire a legitimate son. Instead, upon Charles’ death his daughter, Mary, would become Duchess of Burgundy. Mary would go on to marry one Maximilian of Hapsburg, thereby laying the foundations of one of the most powerful dynasties to ever have ruled in Europe. But that is another story, even if I suspect Isabel would have been more than delighted to know that one day her great-great-grandson, Charles I (or V) would become king of Castile.
Isabel died in 1471. She’d lived more than forty years in Burgundy, been an active participant in the ruling of her husband’s territories, sorted out conflicts, raised armies, negotiated important royal marriages, kept a close eye on the unfolding wars in England and in general shown the world that a woman could be much, much more than “just” a mother. I somehow think her contemporaries were pretty unsurprised: strong women are not in any way a modern phenomenon. In fact, strong women have been around since the beginning of time. After all, what was it that Maurice Chevalier sang? “Thank heaven for little girls, thank heaven for them all, no matter where, no matter who, without them what would little boys do?” Too right! And it works both ways, BTW!
And so ends this post, inspired by a painting. What better way to end it than with yet another of Rogier’s paintings? IMO, the man was something of a genius, but for very many years his work was considered old-fashioned and boring. Boring? With all that colour, all those details? Pah!