Isabella of France has gone down in legend as one of the femme-fatales of medieval history. According to the traditional and widely told story, the queen, scorned by her husband whilst he pursued his male favourites, was left bereft and alone and thereby inevitably fell into the arms of her lover, Roger Mortimer. Their passionate and illicit affair boiled over into a premeditated foreign invasion which resulted in the fall and deposition of the king himself and the brutal murder of the king’s royal favourites. Isabella and Mortimer’s subsequent three year rule, more grasping than Edward II and the favourites which they had replaced, terrorised England until they themselves were pulled from power in 1330; Mortimer headed to the hangman’s noose whilst Isabella entered political retirement at Castle Rising in Norfolk. Since the time of her marriage in 1308, the queen it would seem according to tradition, had earned the title given to her in the sixteenth century as the ‘She-Wolf of France’.
Of course this view, however colourful, is by and large heavily romanticised and is the product of a good dose of historical hindsight and creative story telling. Isabella’s story is indeed a colourful one but many of the events of her life are, particularly between 1324-1330, the product of a set of unusual and often unwitting circumstances which brought about extraordinary outcomes. Isabella herself I am certain could not have predicted many of the actions she would take which had such profound and long lasting implications on the course of British history. Up until this point, her marriage to Edward II had been both successful and mutually beneficial. The dramatic events that unfolded after 1324 must be viewed in context of Isabella’s biography and that of her husband’s.
Isabella’s story started off somewhat more sedately than her later reputation would have us believe. Despite much debate it is highly likely that the future queen was born in 1295. Her father was Philip IV of France (r.1285-1314), known as le Bel or ‘the fair’ and her mother Jeanne was Queen of Navarre in her own right. Of the seven children born from that marriage, Isabella was the sixth. The Capetian line to which Isabella was part of had ruled France since 987 when Hugh Capet took the crown claiming descent from the great, almost mythical Charlemagne. Isabella’s lineage was prestigious even by the standards of medieval royalty, a fact that would not have escaped her as she grew into womanhood. Her mother, a queen regnant in her own right, must have been a great inspiration to Isabella and gave her a clear sense of what her position could allow and expect both from herself and from those around her.
On 20 May 1303, Isabella and Edward of Caernarfon, the future Edward II, were finally betrothed at Paris through their proxies, the earl of Lincoln and the Count of Savoy. Isabella was just shy of eight whilst Edward was nineteen. At this stage they did not met in person. The betrothal was the price for the restoration of the duchy of Aquitaine, now centered around Gascony in the south of France, which had been held in English possession since 1154 following Henry II’s accession to the throne in that year. Philip IV had confiscated the duchy from Edward I in 1296 and after years of war and protracted negotiations mediated through pope Boniface VIII, the duchy was finally restored to England’s leopard-like king in part for two promised marriages. Edward I was to marry Philip’s half-sister Marguerite of France, whilst his heir, Edward of Caernarfon would marry Isabella when she came of canonical age; that was twelve in the fourteenth century. Through this union peace was restored, but importantly for Philip it meant his grandson would one day sit upon the English throne. That grandson would be Edward III who began The Hundred Years War. Their marriage would therefore begin like most medieval marriages of people of their position and status, as one born out of political necessity.
The death of Edward I on 7 July 1307 whilst heading north once more to campaign against the Scots, instantly propelled Edward of Caernarfon to the highest seat of power. By the end of the year preparations were long underway to bring about the anticipated marriage. In January 1308, Edward II and his court travelled to France to meet his new bride and on the 25th of that month, Edward and Isabella were married in a lavish ceremony outside the doors of the cathedral of Our Lady of Boulogne. Edward, wearing a satin surcoat and a cloak embroidered with jewels was now twenty-three, whilst Isabella wore ‘a gown and over tunic of blue and gold, and a red mantle lined with yellow sindon’.(1) She was but twelve or thirteen. They were attended upon by the bejewelled celebrities of their day, which included eight kings and queens, as well as many princes and nobles from across the great European houses. The ceremony was followed by eight days of celebrations, tournaments and general feasting which lasted until the start of February when Isabella and her new husband set sail for England and Isabella’s new home. However, the arrival was not quite what Isabella had expected. As Edward and Isabella sailed back to England on two different ships, Edward arrived first to port. As he disembarked, the new king ran across the dock to his intimate friend since 1300, Piers Gaveston, showering him with kisses in front of the assembled crowds.(2) There is no record of whether Isabella witnessed this, but whether she did or not, court gossip was rife. At the coronation Banquet later that month, Edward favoured Gaveston in front of the court, dominating the conversation with him and displaying his coat of arms. It is not clear whether they were alongside Edward’s looking at the contemporary evidence. There is no record either of whether Isabella’s arms were displayed or not or whether she was ignored outright; it seems unlikely. The world Isabella was entering however would become far from conventional to her.
It is unlikely that the marriage between Isabella and Edward was consummated until about 1311/12 which is not all that surprising given her young age. They would go on to have four children, Edward (b.1312), John (b.1316), Eleanor (b.1318), Joan (b.1321). But beyond this there are no more which given the number of children his father Edward I and grandfather Henry III fathered and Edward II’s son Edward III produced, is striking and out of character. This may suggest that Edward and Isabella were not that sexually active or fertility was an issue for them. However more likely than not, Edward’s bisexuality played out with a preference towards male company making it’s mark more pronounced in their own relationship. Isabella was not spurned by Edward but she may in these early years of the reign not have been uppermost in Edward’s sexual activity.
Piers Gaveston is perhaps the most infamous of Edward’s lovers, and whilst the chroniclers of the day fall just short of stating the obvious with their language slightly opaque as was a convention of the time, it is often pointed enough to read the intended meaning. (**) Edward’s fierce determination to promote Gaveston, to marry him into the royal house and his extensive lengths taken to protect and keep him by his side from 1307-1312 against enormous pressure from his magnates, wittingly and unwittingly makes plain the nature of their relationship. It is often what is not said in these circumstances that carries the greatest weight of evidence. Those arguments presented by some that the king could not be gay or bisexual by the virtue that he was married and fathered children somewhat misses the point. Many bisexual and gay men throughout history married and fathered children whilst they had intimate relationships with members of the same-sex. Oscar Wilde is just one of countless historical figures. For Isabella, her marriage to a bisexual husband must have come as a profound shock. However, through these early years, despite the widely held tale, Edward was very supportive and loving towards his wife, showering her with gifts whilst the queen was often in his company as noted by household accounts. Isabella herself was generally supportive of Gaveston, offering him money and support during his third and final exile in 1311-12 and also did much to support his wife Joan, who was Edward II’s niece.
There are no records of open hostility from either Isabella or Gaveston to one another after 1308 and whilst this cannot be entirely ruled out, it would seem that Isabella was tolerating Gaveston at this point in time. Isabella herself was only sixteen in 1312 and early in that year pregnant with her first child, the future Edward III. The story that Gaveston stole her wedding jewels after her return from France in 1308 is often used as an example to demonstrate their difficult relationship, but is taken of context by those who do not appreciate the medieval court. As chamberlain of the royal household, Gaveston received the jewels for safe keeping when Edward had them sent from France which was the custom for the role of chamberlain. These jewels were not for Gaveston to keep for his own person, he was merely performing his office. In short, he did not steal them either. This is one of many examples where some but certainly not all historians have failed to dig deep enough with their research, spinning stories without evidence or quick to follow the bandwagon without critical analysis. The benefit of hindsight often leads people astray.
Like all royal marriages, the need for heirs was the principal pre-marker behind marriage. In an age where infant mortality was high – Edward himself had lost many elder brothers and Isabella two elder sisters – the need for an heir and the proverbial spare was essential in order to secure the future of the Plantagenet line. Isabella and Edward achieved that and to this end their marriage is marked out as successful. For Edward, whatever his sexuality, the failure to provide an heir was something that he could not allow. Dynasty was all and Edward, who always fiercely defended his royal dignity, would not have failed to see and live this duty. From a marriage born out of political necessity, collectively they made it work and it appears to have been affectionate.
After Piers Gaveston’s murder in June 1312, a closer examination of the surviving records and household accounts demonstrates that Edward and Isabella became even closer. From 1312 until 1322 their marriage is best described as solid. Whilst in France in June 1313 the chronicler Geoffrey of Paris noted that Edward failed to attend a meeting with his father-in-law Philip IV on account that that the king and queen overslept because of a ‘night-time dalliance’.(3) The queen continued to receive widespread gifts of land and patronage. In December 1316 Isabella was able to gain the support of Edward in securing the appointment of her friend, Louis de Beamount as bishop of Durham over that of her husband’s initial choice of candidate.(4) Her role as intercessor, a key marker of medieval queenship was being exercised, albeit less widely than her earlier predecessor, Edward’s late mother, Eleanor of Castile. Isabella, also supported her husband with his ongoing feud with his cousin Thomas of Lancaster, on occasion acting as a mediator, a support that Edward undoubtedly respected and appreciated.
Whilst in France in June 1313, during one evening Edward and Isabella’s silken pavilion caught fire and Edward, naked, rescued an equally naked Isabella by lifting her up in his arms and getting them both to safety. Isabella burnt her arm in the process but both were lucky to survive. This glimpse from the chronicler Geoffrey of Paris into their marital life is by simple perchance but the details resound loudly. The birth of three children between 1316-1321 is not by coincidence. It reinforces the success of the marriage, their apparent closeness, but also that Gaveston and Edward had been lovers before the earl’s murder in 1312. With Gaveston’s absence, their relationship worked all the better, albeit it had not failed whilst Gaveston lived. Edward’s affections were in the main centred on his wife, although he does appear to have granted exceptional favour to Roger Damory in particular from 1314, but nothing that came near Edward’s love for Gaveston.
However, by the dawn of 1320, there was a new imposter making his presence more than felt. That man was Hugh Despenser the Younger and his growing influence both at court and over the king, would create a devastating rift between Isabella and Edward and one from which both king and queen could not circumnavigate. More on that and the dramatic twist in their marriage follows in part two.
(1) Weir, Alison. Isabella, 27
(2) Trokelowe, 65
(**) See my blog post ‘Piers Gaveston: Love, Life & Death (An Overview)’ for further information.
(3) Warner, Isabella, 78
(4) Foedera, 302
- Isabella, her father Philip IV and her three brothers, all later kings of France. Miniature from the Dimna va Kalila, Raymond de Beziers (Bibliotheque Nationale de France. MS Latin 8504, f.iv
- Jean de Waurin, Chroniques d’Angleterre. MS Royal 15 E.iv f.295v
- The kiss of peace. c14th manuscript