Isabella’s protestations at the French court in Paris in 1325 sent out a wave of sympathy across Europe. Those that had been increasingly alienated by the Despensers and their control over the king, who seemed to protect his favourites at all costs, suddenly made Isabella a figurehead for the discontented. Within weeks, disgruntled members of the English court found themselves flocking to her side. Those already with the queen in France, such as Henry de Beaumont, John of Brittany, earl of Richmond and Edward II’s half-brother, the earl of Kent fell into opposition, a position they seemed to consciously and quickly adopt.(1) Rebels, exiled since the fall of the Marcher lords and the execution of Thomas of Lancaster in 1322, also made their way to Isabella. Some in the queen’s entourage however, still loyal to the king or appalled at her behaviour which broke medieval convention, deserted her and made for England. People began to choose a side.
News of Isabella’s stand quickly reached into Hainault where the exiled baron of Wigmore, Roger Mortimer was currently residing, having been forced out of France by Charles IV following a personal plea from Edward II.(2) Roger, who had broken his oath of fealty in 1321 when he had rebelled against Edward II and the Despensers, had been subsequently disinherited after being tried and found guilty of treason. He was promptly spared the death penalty by Edward II but nevertheless locked up in the Tower of London with his uncle, Roger Mortimer of Chirk. Over a year later, Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, engineered a rare and dramatic escape from the Tower in August 1323; one of only few men in history to ever do so. He fled to France, moved into Germany and then appeared in the Low Countries as English agents desperately sought to track him down and bring him to justice.
To make matters worse, the Mortimers and the Despensers had a long standing family feud that had simmered away since a former Despenser was killed by another Mortimer at the battle of Evesham in 1265, when Simon de Montfort was killed and Henry III restored to his royal power. Mortimer in 1325, was bitter, exiled, disinherited and desperate to return home. Above all he wanted revenge on the Despensers for his humiliation. Isabella wanted the removal of the Despensers. She wanted revenge for her humiliation to. This common interest, united in a political alliance could, and did, prove catastrophic for Edward and his favourites. It did not take Isabella and Mortimer long to realise the potential. Within a month of Isabella’s declaration in Paris, the queen went on pilgrimage to Reims, located on the border with Hainault. Reims was near enough to the city of Valenciennes where Mortimer was said to be waiting.(3) Whilst it cannot be proved, it is likely that the pilgrimage was a smoke screen for a meeting in which a joint venture was initially agreed between them. Their aim, the removal of the Despensers, but not most likely at this stage, the deposition of the king himself.
Momentum built quickly.
Despite an frenetic exchange of letters between Edward, Isabella and the young Edward their son, Isabella continued to refuse to return to England without the removal of the Despensers. Edward’s responses became increasingly frustrated. The pope, John XXII tried to mediate, but even envoys from the papacy could not bring about a reconciliation.(4) Before long, Mortimer had moved to Paris and joined the company of Isabella. When the new queen of France, Jeanne d’Évreux was crowned in early 1326, Mortimer, apparently not invited, nevertheless attended wearing Edward II’s livery. Edward was informed and was furious, having already accused the queen of having Mortimer ‘within and without house’; a possible euphemistic reference to an adulterous relationship that may have been forming.(5) Whether this is true or not, Edward certainly believed it and Isabella did nothing to quell the growing rumours. Mortimer’s presence at court and behaviour at the coronation presented a challenge that could not have been plainer. The threat of rebel invasion became more than just common gossip. England, and Edward and the Despensers’ in particular, made preparations for war.
Isabella took a central role.
Before long, the queen and her growing band of supporters had become an embarrassment to her brother, Charles IV. Before he forced his sister to leave France, Isabella left for Hainault with Mortimer, her son and many of her followers.(6) The year previously Mortimer had been in Hainault according to a report made by Walter Reynolds, archbishop of Canterbury to Edward II, forging an apparent deal to raise ships in order to invade England to reclaim his lands. He had failed it would seem because he had no collateral. This now changed. Together Isabella and Mortimer could now raise that collateral and once in Hainault, the queen, despite Edward II’s prohibition, betrothed the heir to the throne (the future Edward III) to the count of Hainault’s daughter, Philippa. In return, much like Daenerys Targaryen of Game of Throne’s fame, Count William gave the queen ships; 132 small ships and a further 8 warships to be exact. In June and again in August 1326 Isabella secured the deal, pledging the revenues of the county of Ponthieu to William should the enterprise fail. The deal was done. On 7 September, Isabella moved to Dordrecht to see her fleet and the assembled army made up of approximately 1,000 – 1,500 men; many of whom were paid mercenaries.(7) On 21 or 22 September, the queen boarded one of her ships and there with her son and Mortimer, set sail into the unknown.
What must have been going through Isabella’s mind at this time is almost unimaginable. She was a wife, a mother and a queen. Now she was a rebel. Whatever happened next, how could either Isabella or Edward ever reconcile their differences? Their marriage was over. If the rumours are true it would not be unthinkable to suggest that at some point around this time the queen’s political alliance with Roger Mortimer may have become something far more intimate. The evidence is scant, but the circumstances in which they now found themselves, the common bond they had politically with each other, and the emotions and intensity of the situation they were both in may well have spilled over into something more personal. We will never know for certain, but just like Edward did with his favourites, Isabella would now do everything in her power to keep Mortimer by her side right up until she was outwitted in October 1330.
The queen’s forces landed at Orwell on 24 September. The fleet had been unchallenged, Edward’s navy failing to materialise. There, the army moved quickly to Bury St Edmunds and then on to Barnwell, Baldock in Hertfordshire, Dunstable in Bedfordshire and then west as Edward and the Despensers, along with Robert Baldock and others moved away from London for Wales. (8) Support for the queen and her son grew rapidly. Edward II’s remaining half-brother, the earl of Norfolk was the first to join Isabella and his brother the earl of Kent.(9) Henry of Lancaster, brother to the executed Thomas came to the queen at Dunstable.(10) Many of the bishops who had in recent years fallen foul of Edward II’s temper, quickly joined the rebels. These included the likes of Lincoln, Ely and Hereford, who was a long time supporter of Mortimer and who had lost his temporalities in 1325 when found guilty of colluding with the baron of Wigmore in 1321 during the Marcher lords rebellion.(11) All these men had in some way or another lost out at the hands of Despenser’s greed and manipulation over the king.
Edward’s support simply melted away. The king’s detailed plans to overcome the invasion had been well thought out and prepared and were fundamentally sound on paper. The exception however was that these plans relied on the support of the very men who now joined Isabella after her landing. The defection of his half brother Norfolk and his cousin Lancaster was a death knoll to Edward’s ability to counter the invasion.
The queen’s army moved swiftly. It was not long before they cornered their prey. On 15 October Isabella was at Wallingford castle, and there issued a joint proclamation with her son and the earl of Kent, again setting out the reasons for why she had arrived in England in a state of martial array. The queen claimed that the state of the church and the kingdom had been greatly diminished by the counsel of Hugh Despenser the younger; that he had seized royal power for himself; that widows and orphans had been deprived of their rights; that the great men of the kingdom had been dispossessed and put to death, but above all, Isabella claimed, Hugh Dispenser was a tyrant and an enemy of God, of the Holy Church and ‘our beloved king and the whole kingdom’.(12) The queen ended by asking the people to offer her every assistance and to be sure that the actions of the army were for the honour and profit of the Holy Church and the whole kingdom. With such sentiment, the people loved her. Any hope for Edward of even the slightest resistence from his subjects evaporated. He had been outmanoeuvred and fast. The game was up.
On 18 October Isabella and her army reached Bristol, where soon after the castle fell, its garrison having no appetite to back the loosing side. Behind it’s walls was Hugh Despenser the Elder. On 27 October, he was tried, found guilty of treason, robbery and acts against the church and promptly hung, drawn and beheaded. His body was then quartered and fed to the dogs. Only twelve days earlier London had erupted into anarchy. Many men associated with Edward and the Despensers were hunted down. Walter Stapledon, the former treasurer and a man Isabella held partly responsible for the loss of her lands and income in 1324, was caught by the London mob, dragged away from gaining sanctuary at St Paul’s, and beheaded with a bread knife along with two of his household. His butchered head was sent to the queen at Gloucester.(13) Isabella’s invasion had descended into bloody murder.(14) On the 16 November, Edward, Despenser the Younger and Robert Baldock were also captured at Llantrisant on their way back to the mighty fortress of Caerphilly castle by Henry of Lancaster and others.(15) Edward was taken to Monmouth castle and then onto Kenilworth castle in Warwickshire. Hugh Despenser the younger was taken to Hereford to await his ignominious end.
He did not have long to wait. Like his father before him, he was hauled before his peers including Mortimer, Lancaster, Kent and others. The outcome was a full gone conclusion. He was found guilty of extensive crimes, from tyranny, to usurping royal power and rather pointedly for Isabella, for leaving her at Tynemouth in 1322. He was also accused of sending vast sums of money abroad to bribe French nobles to bring about the queen’s destruction whilst at her brother’s court in 1325-6; of seizing her dower lands and causing discord between herself and her husband the king. The list goes on. In the end, despite his previous attempts to starve himself since his capture eight days earlier, he was condemned to death as a traitor. He was to be drawn and quartered and his various body parts sent to Carlisle, York, Bristol and Dover as a warning to other would-be renegades. He was to be beheaded for outlawry and disembowelled and his entrails burnt for promoting discord between the king and queen. His genitals were to be cut off in symbolic reference to him coming between the king and queen’s marriage. It was a brutal end for a brutal man.
The judge made good on his word. Dragged through the streets of Hereford wearing a crown of nettles and his tunic in reverse, Hugh Despenser was then partially asphyxiated with a piece of rope tied around his neck, but not to the point of death. He was then trussed up a 50ft ladder, his genitals cut off and burnt in front of him. After which he was cut open from chest to navel and his entrails pulled out which were also burnt in the fire. He had until this point been strangely quiet, but during the disembowelment he cried out in pain. The queen had won. Shortly after, he was beheaded. His head was then sent to London were he was particularly hated, arriving on 4 December. (16) Robert Baldock, as a member of the clergy was beyond the queen’s immediate reach, yet he was handed over the bishop of Hereford, Adam Orleton and was thrown into prison. There he was captured by a London mob, transferred instead into the Fleet prison and died shortly after, most likely from neglect or great violence.(17) The earl of Arundel, a longtime supporter of Edward II was also brutually beheaded on 17 November. It took twenty-two strokes of a blunt sword to sever his head. (18)
Isabella had her revenge.
But at what cost? Her marriage was effectively over and her husband was now being held in captivity at Kenilworth castle. Without the chance of reconciliation and against a backdrop of such bloodletting, the mood shifted amongst the rebels to the unprecedented action of deposition, something that had neither precedence nor legal procedure in January 1327. Nevertheless, unable to return to her husband, Isabella and Mortimer constructed an elaborate set piece of theatre to bring about the unthinkable. On 21 January 1327, Edward II was formally, albeit illegally forced to abdicate his throne; in short he was effectively deposed.(19) From here on in Isabella and Roger Mortimer became the defacto rulers of the kingdom until October 1330. On 2 February, 1327, Isabella stood in Westminster Abbey and watched as her eldest son, who was fifteen years old, crowned as Edward III. According to tradition, she was said to have wept throughout.
On the same day, Isabella granted herself enormous tracts of land and revenues. The sum was staggering; £13,333 (20,000 marks). Before her lands had been confiscated, the queen’s annual income was £4,500 in keeping with the dower lands of England’s previous queens. No magnate in England, with the exception of Thomas of Lancaster who had held five earldoms, could ever boast an income anywhere near as high as this; Lancaster’s yielded £11,000 at the peak of his power, but even this was highly unusual. Most earldoms generated between £2,000 – £5,000 a year. No person before or since, saving the king himself, ever claimed such an income in medieval England. Against the heady backdrop of 1326-7, the queen herself began to become tyrannical. Isabella and Mortimer kept the royal privy seal, the tool best used to exercise royal power. Edward III was reduced to nothing more than a puppet. In October 1328, the king, just shy of his sixteenth birthday, reluctantly agreed to grant Mortimer the newly created title of earl of March. This enforced ‘gift’ gave Mortimer more land, revenue and control over the marches of Wales than Hugh Despenser had ever amassed. In the same year, Isabella and Mortimer agreed to a permanent peace with Scotland, recognising Robert Bruce as king of an independent Scotland, something Edward II refused point blankly to do during his reign, even after Bannockburn. It is still known today as ‘The Shameful Peace’.
By 1330, the tyranny of Isabella and Mortimer collectively had driven nearly all their supporters who had stood with them in 1326 into opposition, rebellion or exile. The execution of the earl of Kent on 19 March 1330, who was Edward II’s half brother and uncle to Edward III, was a brutal affair and one that will be covered in a future blog post. His demise was the catalyst that forced Edward III to act. On the night of the 19 October 1330, Mortimer was taken by surprise whilst in conference with Isabella and a few intimate associates. He was dragged to London and executed at Tyburn on 29 November by hanging. Isabella was forced into temporary retirement.
After this date, the queen returned to the more traditional role of a Queen Dowager. Despite tradition, Isabella was not hauled up for years at Castle Rising, although the queen did spend a great deal of time there. Nor did she go mad either. In fact the queen continued to live on, dying in 1358. She was later buried in the Franciscan church in Newgate, London. Following the alleged death of Edward II on 21 September 1327, Isabella was given ‘his’ embalmed heart in a silver vase that cost Thomas Berkeley 37s 8d to commission. This vase was interred in the breast of the queen’s effigy, which has long since been lost after the Great Fire of London in 1666.(20) What is to be made of this gesture is open to the widest interpretation and debate and another future blog post.
Isabella’s life is a tale of great drama. Her marriage to Edward II at the young age of twelve in 1308 began reasonably successfully. By 1321, the queen had four children, the affection of her husband and position and power. However the rise of the Despensers, the younger in particular, directly threatened Isabella’s position and status. In the end, her stand in Paris would have a profound impact, and whilst initially designed to bring about the end of the Despenser regime, broadened out unwittingly into something far more sinister and far reaching. The collapse of her marriage, Edward II’s failure to give up his favourites despite all opposition, and the subsequent invasion that followed, led Isabella down a path she could not return. Certainly in a political alliance with Roger Mortimer, it is likely but by no means certain, that the two became lovers. After Edward II’s deposition, the queen tainted her reputation through her own show of avarice and overbearing control over her son. It made her look just as tyrannical as the Despensers. In the end, the last twenty-eight years of her life were traditional for that of a queen dowager, dying in her bed in 1358. The title therefore attributed to her of the ‘She-Wolf of France’ does her much injustice when her life as a whole is laid bare, but her character is not nevertheless without great blemish. In her lifetime, the queen was most certainly a wife, a queen and a rebel.
(1) Buck, 161. Phillips, 492
(2) Sardos, 177-9
(3) Sardos, 270 – mentions Isabella’s pilgrimage but does not mention Mortimer.
(4) Calendar of Papal Letters, 473
(5) Foedera, 623. CCR, 1323-27, 578
(6) Flores, 231
(7) Mortimer, Ian. The Greatest Traitor, 149
(8) Anonimalle, 127. Ann Paul, 315
(9) Le Baker, 31. Murimuth, 46
(10) Lanercost, 255. Murimuth, 46
(11) Foedera, 614
(12) Phillips, 509
(13) Brut, 237. Buck, 220
(14) Brut, 240
(15) Flores, 234. Ann Paul, 319. Anonimalle, 131. Murimuth, 49
(16) Le Bel, 28. Anonimalle, 131. Ann Paul, 320. Brut, 240. Knighton, 436. Holmes, The Judgement on the Despensers, 263-7
(17) Ann Paul, 320-1
(18) Anonimalle, 131. Ann Paul, 321
(19) Ibid, 324. Anonimalle, 133. Foedera, 650. Select Documents of Constitutional History, 38
(20) The Tomb of Isabella, wife of Edward II of England’, Bulletin of the International Society for the study of Church Monuments, viii (1983), 161-4
Feature Image & Image Two: Isabella lands at Orwell, Suffolk. Jean Froissart. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, Ms. Fr. 2643
Image One: Isabella enters the city of Paris, 1325. Jean Froissart. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, Ms. Fr. 2643
Image Three: Execution of Hugh Despenser the Younger at Hereford. Jean Froissart. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, Ms. Fr. 2643
Image Four: Coronation of Edward III, 1327. Jean Froissart. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, Ms. Fr. 2643
Image Five: A Queen