Isabella of France (1296–1358)

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Isabella of France (1296–1358)

Queen consort of England who is most famous for her leadership of the rebellion against her husband Edward II (1325–27) and for her short period of power (1327–30) when she and her lover, Roger Mortimer, ruled England in the name of her young son, Edward III. Name variations: Isabel of Buchan; Isabella the Fair; She-Wolf of France. Born in 1296 (some sources erroneously cite 1292), in Paris, France; died at Hertford castle and thought to be buried at Christ Church, Newgate, London, on August 22, 1358; daughter of Philip IV the Fair (1268–1314), king of France (r. 1285–1314) and Joan I of Navarre (1273–1305); sister of Charles IV, king of France (r. 1322–1328); married Edward II (1284–1327), king of England (r. 1307–1327), on January 25 or 28, 1308; children: Edward of Windsor (1312–1377, later Edward III, king of England, r. 1327–1377, who married Philippa of Hainault); John of Eltham (1316–1336, became earl of Cornwall, 1328); Eleanor of Woodstock (1318–1355), duchess of Guelders; Joan of the Tower (1321–1362), queen of Scotland.

Isabella, princess of France, was born to Philip IV the Fair, king of France, and Joan I of Navarre in 1296. Almost immediately, Isabella became a pawn in international politics. When she was only two, her father entered into negotiations with Edward I Longshanks of England to end the war which had broken out between the two kingdoms in 1294. In 1298, a settlement was reached between the two parties and, in keeping with diplomatic practices of the time, marriages between the two royal houses sealed the final agreement. The English king, Edward I, who had been widowed by the death of his wife Eleanor of Castile in 1290, married Philip IV's half-sister, Margaret of France , and Edward I's son and heir, Edward (II) of Carnarvon, was betrothed to Isabella. The young prince Edward was 15, while his bride-to-be was not yet three.

Although she was betrothed in 1298, Isabella's marriage did not take place until 1308. When he succeeded his father as king in 1307, Edward II acted quickly to fulfill the terms of his prearranged marriage. In January 1308, he journeyed

to France and did homage to Philip IV for his English possessions in France. With these important and necessary diplomatic formalities completed, Edward and Isabella were married on January 25. At their joint coronation in February, Edward II granted Isabella the counties of Montreuil and Ponthieu as her dower to pay for the personal expenses of her household.

Already accustomed to political life as a result of the time spent at her father's court, the 12-year-old queen quickly began to confront the realities of her husband's court politics and personal behavior. For the first five years of the reign, court diplomacy revolved around the king's charismatic, dominating, and arrogant boyhood friend, Piers Gaveston. As the reign progressed, Edward II showed that he was either unwilling or incapable of restraining himself where Gaveston was concerned. Edward I had recognized Gaveston's hold over his son. Before his death, Edward I banished Gaveston, hoping to avert disaster. The first action Edward II took as king was to recall Gaveston from exile. After Gaveston returned, Edward II elevated him to the earldom of Cornwall and granted Gaveston other lands and privileges.

Gaveston's newfound wealth and his hold over the king's affections gave him unprecedented amounts of political power at the royal court. The English nobility, who resented his rapid rise and hated his arrogance, attempted once again to secure his exile. After tense and protracted political battles with his nobility, Edward II was finally forced to consent to Gaveston's banishment again in late 1311. The exile, however, was short-lived, and Gaveston returned to celebrate Christmas with the king.

Isabella hated Gaveston for usurping much of her position, and she detested the control he wielded over her husband. She apparently made no secret of her feelings but did not openly oppose him at court. Evidence for her attitude can be found as early as 1308, when the queen's relatives who had accompanied her to England for her coronation, returned indignantly to France because "the king loved Gaveston more than his wife." Also in 1308, several monks from Westminster

referred to the queen's hatred of Gaveston in a letter to their colleagues. Around 1311, Thomas of Lancaster, the king's cousin and leader of the aristocratic opposition to Gaveston, wrote to the queen telling her that he would not rest until he had rid her of Gaveston's presence. With or without the queen's active participation, Lancaster made good his word. In June 1312, two Welshmen from his retinue beheaded Gaveston.

Isabella and her husband seem to have improved their relationship in the years after Gaveston's death. The couple rejoiced when their first child, Edward of Windsor (the future Edward III), was born at Windsor on November 13, 1312. Over the next nine years, the queen gave birth to three more children, John of Eltham (1316–1336), Eleanor of Woodstock (1318–1355), and Joan of the Tower (1321–1362). Isabella also gained influence with her husband as she matured. Edward II entrusted her with a mission to France in 1314, and in 1317 he withdrew his own nominee for the bishopric of Durham in favor of her choice. He also furnished her with a household appropriate to her station as royal consort.

Isabella's household contained over 180 persons and constantly moved throughout the kingdom. It was highly organized, staffed by a large number of officials whose duties included collecting her revenues, keeping her accounts, drafting and writing her correspondence, and supervising other functions. This large household, and her own lavish lifestyle, caused her some economic difficulties. Isabella had been bred as royalty and lived as befit a queen; she had expensive habits and tastes. As a result, her expenses frequently outpaced her income. Historian Hilda Johnstone has determined that in 1313–14, Isabella's income totaled about 5,600 li., while her expenses amounted to nearly 6,030 li. When the queen mother, Margaret of France, died in 1318, Isabella received some of her mother-in-law's estates, which increased her income. By 1320, Isabella held the county of Ponthieu, estates in North Wales, and lands and castles in 17 other English counties.

In 1322, the relationship between Isabella and Edward II soured noticeably. In that year, Edward defeated Thomas of Lancaster and other opponents and immediately created another dominating influence at court in his new favorite, Hugh Despenser the Younger. In the decade since Gaveston's fall, Isabella had traveled with the king on campaign and gained influence with her husband. After Lancaster's defeat, however, she found herself competing for affection and influence with Despenser, an individual much more dangerous than Gaveston had been. Suspicions about a sexual relationship between the king and Hugh Despenser the Younger mounted, and the relationship between Isabella and Edward deteriorated.

Sensing that his influence was on the rise, Despenser convinced the king that there was a danger of a French invasion and pointed out that Isabella had strong ties to France. Reacting to these charges, in September 1324 the king sequestered his wife's estates. This loss of property severely curtailed Isabella's income and, by extension, her independence and influence. Realizing he had placed Isabella in a desperate position, Despenser pushed for a total victory over the queen. He had his wife Eleanor de Clare appointed as Isabella's housekeeper to spy on the queen and censor all her correspondence, and he was rumored to be in contact with the pope in an effort to annul Isabella's marriage to the king.

Isabella realized that her position was rapidly deteriorating and, in 1325, seized an opportunity to escape the grasping reach of Despenser. Three years earlier, Isabella's brother Charles had become King Charles IV of France. Charles IV had demanded that Edward II come to France and make the oath of homage to him for his lands in France. Edward II balked at Charles IV's demands, and in August 1324 the French king invaded Gascony. Papal officials, who had been unsuccessful mediators between the two parties, suggested that Isabella might be able to succeed in negotiations between England and France where they had failed. Despenser, wary of letting the king slip beyond his influence, agreed with the pope, and Edward II, too, reluctantly agreed. On March 9, 1325, Isabella sailed for France accompanied by members of her household.

Clare, Eleanor de (1292–1337)

English noblewoman. Name variations: Alienor or Eleanor Despenser; Eleanor Zouche. Born in 1292; died in 1337; daughter of Gilbert de Clare, 7th earl of Hertford, 3rd of Gloucester, and Joan of Acre (1272–1307); married Hugh Despenser the Younger, in 1306 (executed, November 24,1326); married William Zouche, in 1327; children (first marriage) Isabel Despenser ; Edward Despenser (d. 1352).

Isabella quickly showed that she was a remarkably effective negotiator. Acting as mediator between her brother and her husband, she brought the two sides together in agreement. According to the terms of her settlement, Edward II's French possessions were to be returned to him as soon as he had performed his homage. A French steward would take custody of the duchy until Edward II made his oath. Hugh Despenser, though, feared he might lose his control over the king should Edward be separated from him and go to France to take the oath personally. He persuaded Edward II to invest his heir, Edward of Windsor, with the French lands and send him to France to make the oath in his father's place. Charles IV found this alternative acceptable, and, on September 21, 13-year-old Prince Edward sailed to France to meet with his mother and make the oath of homage to his uncle.

Despenser had erred, and it would cost him his life and the life of his king. He had been able to keep the king in England but had misjudged the queen and her abilities, and Isabella quickly took full advantage of Despenser's mistake. In France, a circle of English nobles disaffected with Hugh Despenser's influence and power had collected around the queen. When Prince Edward arrived in France, this group took control of the heir to the throne and refused to return him to England. When the queen and her son did not return, Edward II began to worry. He sent letters to his wife pleading with her, but she responded openly that she would not return to England as long as her enemy Hugh Despenser was there. Isabella had made a decision. She told Charles IV that her marriage with Edward II had been broken and that she would live as a widow until Despenser had been removed.

News of Isabella's response spread, accompanied by rumors of impending invasion. Edward II and Despenser finally realized their exposed position and began to react. Isabella, however, found herself faced with a daunting task. Despenser was widely hated in England, and she would have little trouble raising support to unseat him, but she had created difficulties for herself in France. Among the circle of disaffected English nobles who joined her at the French court was an erstwhile rebel, Roger Mortimer of Wigmore. At some point, Mortimer and Isabella became lovers—the origins and timing of the affair are unclear. Rumors of the affair between Mortimer and the queen, though, spread quickly throughout Europe. Charles IV received complaints about the scandalous behavior of his sister from no less than the pope. Incensed at her adultery, he withdrew his support from her and made it clear that she should leave his court.

In fear of being returned to England, the conspirators left France and traveled to Hainault, where they were received by William II, count of Holland, Hainault, and Zeeland. At William's court, Isabella and her followers gained a sympathetic ear—for a price. Isabella, always the intriguer and negotiator, persuaded the count of Hainault to give her military support for her invasion. In return, William II obtained the marriage of his daughter Philippa of Hainault (1314–1369) to the young Prince Edward. With the agreement concluded, the rebels set sail for England from Dordrecht on September 23, 1326.

The queen, Mortimer, and their small band of followers landed at Orwell, Suffolk, the next day and began their advance. Opposition to the rebels melted as Isabella's forces marched towards London. As the rebels approached, Hugh Despenser and the king panicked and their own support in London evaporated. They fled west, where the bulk of Despenser's land lay and where Edward's support was strongest. Mortimer and the queen followed. They captured Despenser's father, the earl of Winchester, at Bristol and executed him. They captured the king and the younger Despenser at Neath Abbey shortly afterwards. On November 24, Despenser was "tried" and executed. Though Isabella and her followers had removed Despenser from the scene, they refused to return power to Edward II. They turned rebellion into revolution by de posing a lawfully crowned king, an action that had never before been taken in England. Isabella had her husband imprisoned and, on January 25, 1327, forced him to abdicate his throne in favor of his son, Edward of Windsor, who succeeded to the throne as Edward III. Because the new king was only 14 years of age, his mother and her lover assumed control of the government as regents and ruled England in his name until he should come of age.

Isabella and Mortimer had capitalized on the English nobility's hatred of Edward II's mismanagement and Despenser's tyranny to take control of the government. Much of the nobility's hatred of Despenser had been spurred by his domination of the king and the greed he had shown in his drive to accumulate ever more land and wealth. The new government meted out some rewards to its adherents, but Isabella and Mortimer quickly showed themselves to be just as grasping and ambitious as Despenser had been. They confiscated the lands of their enemies and, instead of redistributing them to their associates and allies, began to accumulate huge blocks of wealth that easily rivaled Despenser's at his height. Isabella's dower of 4,500 li. was not only restored to her, it was increased significantly by seizing confiscated lands until her income was a staggering 13,333 li. a year. Mortimer regained his family estates and added a huge block of lands that had belonged to Despenser and other rebels until he was the most powerful man in Wales. In 1328, he created and assumed the title earl of March, a presumption of nobility which further aggravated his relations with English magnates.

When the nobility realized that they had not rid themselves of tyranny but only changed the tyrants, Isabella and Mortimer quickly began to lose their base of popular support. The suspicious death of Edward II in Berkeley Castle in late 1327, an unpopular peace treaty which recognized the independence of Scotland, and the scandal and unchecked greed of the queen and her lover cast ominous shadows over the ruling partnership. Influential nobles such as Henry of Lancaster and Thomas Wake, who had supported the invasion in 1326, began to distance themselves from the regents, who reacted brutally to any hint of disloyalty or disaffection.

One of those most disaffected with the actions and ambitions of the queen and her lover was the young king himself, Edward III. In March 1330, Mortimer designed a trap to catch Edward III's uncle, Edmund, earl of Kent, in a treasonous plot. Mortimer circulated rumors that Edward II was still alive, and Kent, filled with guilt at his role in his half-brother's deposition, took the bait Mortimer's agents dangled before him and made arrangements to free Edward II. At a parliament held at Winchester, Isabella and Mortimer presented the evidence of Kent's actions and had him convicted of treason. The earl was sentenced to death and executed without any regard for the royal blood that coursed through his veins.

After the Winchester Parliament, Edward III decided the situation had deteriorated far enough, and he quite rightly judged himself to be in personal danger. A small circle of intimate friends gathered around the tall, charismatic young king to plot the overthrow of his mother and her paramour. In June 1330, Edward III's position was strengthened immeasurably when his queen, Philippa, gave birth to their first son, Edward of Woodstock (the future Edward, the Black Prince), and thereby secured the succession. Isabella and Mortimer clearly fretted about these developments and moved to neutralize any erosion of their position.

In late summer 1330, the regents moved the court to Nottingham and called for a parliament to meet there in October. Edward III and his friends, led by a cleric named Richard de Bury and William Montague, a young knight who had been raised with Edward III, began to work for the overthrow of the regency and the personal assumption of government by the young king. Through intrigues that would have made Isabella proud, Edward III gained the blessing of the pope for his intended coup. When Parliament met at Nottingham in October, the small group of conspirators was ready to act.

Late on the night of Friday, October 19, William Montague and a handful of his men entered a secret passage into Nottingham castle. They emerged into the keep and joined the king, who was waiting for them there. The conspirators then burst into Mortimer's chamber and, after a short melee in which two of Mortimer's bodyguards were killed, arrested him, trundled him out of the castle through the secret passageway, and sent him to London to be imprisoned in the Tower. The queen, hearing the fight, realized what was happening and cried out to her son in fear from her chamber, "Have pity on gentle Mortimer!" Her pleas fell on unsympathetic ears.

The next morning, Edward III assumed complete control of the government. He declared that his mother and Mortimer had been guilty of maladministration, that the regency was ended, and that he would govern for himself in the future. The reign of Isabella and Mortimer had ended; Mortimer was executed for treason a month later. The king was more lenient with his mother, however, and forbade any mention of her role in the events of 1327–30 in the charges brought against Mortimer. Nonetheless, he knew his mother too well to allow her to continue to play a prominent part in political life. He placed her in honorable confinement at Castle Rising and forced her to surrender much of what she had taken while in power, reducing her income to 3,000 li.

Isabella lived for another 28 years after her defeat in the palace coup d'etat of 1330. She still seems to have been given to extravagance, for her presence at Castle Rising proved to be a steady burden on the citizens of Lynn, who complained that they were being ruined by demands of the queen mother's lifestyle. Despite her earlier behavior, throughout her life Edward III continued to visit her—at least twice a year—and often sent her letters and presents. She amused herself with hawking, reading romances, and collecting religious relics. Eventually, she was allowed to travel more freely, appear at court, and was even considered for diplomatic missions to France. In 1348, it was proposed that she mediate a peace between England and France; and in May 1354, the pope asked her to intercede with her son for the release of the duke of Brittany. Shortly before her death, she became a nun and entered the Order of the Poor Clares. She died at Hertford castle, in 1358, and was buried in the Franciscan church at Newgate.


Annales Londoniensis: Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II. Edited by William Stubbs. Rolls Series. Vol. 76, no. 1. London, 1882 (Latin).

Annales Paulini: Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II. Edited by William Stubbs. Rolls Series. Vol. 76, no. 1. London, 1882 (Latin).

Gesta Edwardi de Carnarvan: Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II. Edited by William Stubbs. Rolls Series. Vol. 76, no. 1. London, 1882 (Latin).

Vita Edwardi Secundi. Edited by N. Denholm-Young. London, 1957 (Latin, with English translation).

suggested reading:

Johnstone, Hilda. "Isabella, The She-wolf of France," in History. Vol. 21, 1936–37.

McKisack, May. The Fourteenth Century, 1307–1399. Oxford, 1959 (especially chap. 3, "Reaction and Revolution").

Packe, Michael. King Edward III. Edited by L.C.B. Seaman. London. 1983.

related media:

Braveheart (fictionalized account of English-Scottish wars), starring Mel Gibson as William Wallace, Patrick McGoohan as Edward I Longshanks, and Sophie Marceau as Isabella of France; produced by Paramount, 1995.

Douglas C. Jansen , Ph.D. in Medieval History, University of Texas, Austin, Texas

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Isabella of France (1296–1358)

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Isabella of France (1296–1358)