Isabella of France
Isabella was born in Paris sometime between 1288 and 1296, the daughter of King Philip IV of France and Queen Jeanne of Navarre, and the sister of three French kings. While still an infant, her father had promised her in marriage to Edward II to resolve the conflicts between France and England over the latter's continental possession of Gascony and claims to Anjou, Normandy and Aquitaine. Pope Boniface VIII had urged the marriage as early as 1298 but was delayed by wrangling over the terms of the marriage contract. The English king, Edward I had also attempted to break the engagement several times. Only after he died in 1307 did the wedding go forward.
Her groom, the new King Edward II, looked the part of a Plantagenet king to perfection. He was tall and athletic, and wildly popular at the beginning of his reign. She married Edward at Boulogne-sur-Mer on January 25, 1308. Since he had ascended the throne the previous year, Isabella never was titled Princess of Wales.
At the time of her marriage Isabella was about twelve, described by Geoffrey of Paris as "the beauty of beauties...in the kingdom if not in all Europe." This may not merely have been a chronicler's politeness, as Isabella's father and brother were likewise very handsome men. Despite her youth and beauty, King Edward paid little attention to his bride, bestowing her wedding gifts upon his favorite, Piers Gaveston.
Edward and Isabella produced four children, and she suffered at least one miscarriage. The itineraries of Edward II and Queen Isabella also show that they were together 9 months prior to the births of all four surviving offspring. Their children were:
- Edward, born 1312
- John, born 1316
- Eleanor, born 1318, married Reinoud II of Guelders
- Joan of the Tower, born 1321, married David II of Scotland
Although Isabella produced four children, the king was notorious for lavishing sexual attention on a succession of male favourites, including Piers Gaveston and Hugh le Despenser the younger. He neglected Isabella, once even abandoning her in a dangerous situation in Scotland, at Tynemouth. She barely escaped Robert the Bruce's army, fleeing along the coast to English soil. Isabella despised his favorite, Hugh the younger Despenser, and in 1321, while pregnant with her youngest child, she dramatically begged Edward to banish Despenser from the kingdom. Despenser was exiled, but Edward recalled him later that year, and this act seems to have finally turned Isabella against him altogether. She may have helped Roger Mortimer escape from the Tower of London in 1323.
When her brother, King Charles IV of France, seized Edward's French possessions in 1325, she returned to France and gathered an army to oppose Edward, in alliance with Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, who had become her lover. Enraged by this, Edward demanded that Isabella return to England. Her brother, King Charles, replied, "The queen has come of her own will and may freely return if she wishes. But if she prefers to remain here, she is my sister and I refuse to expel her."
Isabella and Mortimer left the French court in summer 1326 and went to William III, Count of Hainaut and Holland, whose wife was Isabella's cousin. He provided them with eight man-of-wars in return for a marriage contract between his daughter Philippa and Isabella's son, Edward. On September 21, 1326 Isabella and Mortimer landed at Suffolk with their mercenary army. King Edward offered a reward for their deaths, and even carried a knife in his hose with which to kill his wife, and said that if he had no other weapon he would crush her with his teeth. Isabella responded by offering double the reward for the head of Hugh the younger Despenser, in a manifesto from Wallingford Castle.
King Edward's few allies deserted him; the Despensers were killed, and Edward himself was captured and abdicated in favour of his eldest son, Edward III of England. Since the young king was only fourteen when he was crowned on January 25, 1327, Isabella and Mortimer ruled as regents in his place.
Isabella and Mortimer famously plotted to murder the deposed king in such a way as not to draw blame on themselves, sending the famous order "Edwardum 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".
When Edward III attained his majority, he remembered their disloyalty, and had both Isabella and Mortimer taken prisoner, despite Isabella's cries of "Fair son, have pity on gentle Mortimer". Mortimer was executed for treason, but Isabella's life was spared and she was allowed to retire to Castle Rising Castle in Norfolk. She did not, as legend would have it, go insane; she enjoyed a comfortable retirement and made many visits to her son's court, doting on her grandchildren. Isabella took the habit of the Poor Clares before she died on August 22, 1358, and her body was returned to London for burial at the Franciscan church at Newgate. She was buried in her wedding dress, with Edward's heart interred with her.
Isabella in Fiction
Queen Isabella appears as a major character in Christopher Marlowe's play Edward II, and in Derek Jarman's 1991 film based on the play and bearing the same name. She is played by actress Tilda Swinton in this version.
In the historically-based but fictional film Braveheart, directed by and starring Mel Gibson, Queen Isabella was a major character, played by the French actress Sophie Marceau. In the film, Isabella is depicted as having a romantic affair with the Scottish hero William Wallace. This is entirely fictional, as there is no evidence whatsoever that the two people ever met one another. Wallace was executed in 1305, a date when Isabella was not yet married and therefore had practically nothing to do with Northern Britain (not speaking of the fact she was not anywhere close to Scotland at that time). When Wallace died, Isabella was, if we use the later dates of birth (1293-1296), about 10 years old. It is unlikely she was involved in any romantic or sexual relationships at that age. If we use the earlier dates of birth (1288-1291) she may have been. All of Isabella's children were born several years after Wallace's death, thus any fictional implications that Wallace was the father of Edward III are entirely false.
Isabella has also been the subject of a number of historical novels, including Margaret Campbell Barnes' Isabel the Fair, Hilda Lewis' Harlot Queen, Maureen Peters' Isabella, the She-Wolf, Brenda Honeyman's The Queen and Mortimer, and Jean Plaidy's The Follies of the King. She is the title character of The She-Wolf of France by the well-known French novelist Maurice Druon. The series of which the book was part, The Accursed Kings, has been adapted for French television in 1972 and 2005. Most recently, Isabella figures prominently in The Traitor's Wife: A Novel of the Reign of Edward II by Susan Higginbotham.
- Blackley, F.D. Isabella of France, Queen of England 1308-1358, and the Late Medieval Cult of the Dead. (Canadian Journal of History)
- Doherty, P.C. Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II, 2003
- McKisack, May. The Fourteenth Century 1307-1399, 1959.
- Woods, Charles T. Queens, Queans and Kingship, appears in Joan of Arc and Richard III: Sex, Saints and Government in the Middle Ages, 1988.
- Geoffrey le Baker
- Vita Edward Secundi
Marguerite of France
|Queen Consort of England
25 January 1308 - 20 January 1327
Philippa of Hainault