The first full-length biography of one of history’s most notorious femme fatales — Isabella — a much maligned Queen of England.
Isabella of France, Edward II’s queen, was a woman much maligned in her day. Today, it is said that her maniacal laughter can be heard on stormy nights at Castle Rising in Norfolk, and that in the ruins of the 14th century church where she is buried, her angry ghost can be glimpsed, clutching the beating heart of her murdered husband. In literature she has fared no better; Christopher Marlowe’s “unnatural Queen, false Isabel” has also been described as “a woman of evil character, a notorious schemer,” and as the “She-Wolf of France.” Tragic, cruel, tormented: how did Isabella acquire such a reputation?
Born in 1292, the daughter of Philip IV of France and sister to three future French kings, Isabella was a pawn in the game of international politics. She was married at the age of twelve to Edward II of England, thus beginning a public and private life more turbulent and eventful than any heroine, or anti-heroine, in fiction.
Through a long period of civil war, Isabella bore Edward four children but was constantly humiliated by his relationships with male favourites. Although she is known to have lived adulterously with Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, accusations of murder and regicide remain unsubstantiated. Had it not been for her unfaithfulness, history may have immortalized her as a liberator — the saviour who unshackled England from a weak and vicious monarch.
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Alison Weir’s books include Britain’s Royal Families; The Six Wives of Henry VIII; Children of England; Eleanor of Aquitaine; Henry VIII: King and Court, and most recently, Mary, Queen of Scots.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
'The Fair Maiden'
On 20 May 1303, a solemn betrothal took place in Paris. The bride was seven years old, the groom, who was not present, nineteen. She was Isabella, the daughter of Philip IV, King of France, he Edward of Caernarvon, Prince of Wales, the son and heir of Edward I, King of England.
The Prince had sent the Earl of Lincoln and the Count of Savoy as his proxies, and during the ceremony they formally asked the King and Queen of France for the hand of their daughter, the Lady Isabella, in marriage for the Prince of Wales. Consent was duly given, then Gilles, Archbishop of Narbonne, the presiding priest, required Isabella to plight her troth. Placing her hand in that of the Archbishop, she duly did so, giving her assent to the betrothal on condition that all the articles of the marriage treaty were fulfilled.
This union had been arranged after tortuous negotiations to cement a lasting peace between those old warring enemies, England and France. Isabella's father, Philip IV, known as Philip the Fair, was the most powerful ruler in Christendom at that time, and also the most controversial. Not only had he been engaged in territorial wars with both England and Flanders for the past seven years, he had also, despite boasting the title of 'Most Christian King', become involved in a bitter conflict with the Papacy after imposing limitations on the Pope's authority in France. This was to lead to his excommunication only months after his daughter's betrothal.
Philip's war with Edward I was the result of a long-standing feud over England's possessions in France. In the twelfth century, through the marriage of Henry II to Eleanor of Aquitaine, the empire of the Plantagenets, the dynasty that Henry founded, had extended from Normandy to the Pyrenees, while the royal demesne of France had been limited to the regions around Paris. By 1204, Henry's son, King John, had lost most of the English territories, including Normandy, to the ambitious Philip II 'Augustus' of France, and there were further French encroachments under John's son Henry III, as successive French monarchs sought to broaden their domain. By the time of Edward I, all that remained of England's lands in France was the prosperous wine-producing duchy of Gascony, the southern part of Eleanor's duchy of Aquitaine, along with the counties of Ponthieu and Montreuil, which had come to the English Crown through the marriage of Edward I to Eleanor of Castile in 1254.
Unsurprisingly, Philip IV, who was vigorously carrying on his predecessors' expansionist policy, had his eye on Gascony, and in 1296 he invaded and took possession of it. There were two ways to settle a conflict: by military force, or by diplomacy. Edward I wanted Gascony back, and Philip wanted to drive a wedge between Edward and the Flemings, who were uniting against him. By 1298, the two Kings were engaged in secret negotiations for a peace. Then Pope Boniface VIII intervened. In the spring of 1298, he suggested a double marriage alliance between France and England: his plan was that Edward I, a widower since the death of Eleanor of Castile in 1290, marry Philip's sister Marguerite, while Edward's son and heir, the Prince of Wales, be betrothed to Philip's daughter Isabella, then two years old. Once this peace had been sealed, Gascony could be returned to Edward I. Boniface's suggestion appealed to both parties; it conjured up for Philip the tantalising prospect of French influence being extended into England and his grandson eventually occupying the throne of that realm; and for Edward I it promised the return of Gascony and a brilliant match for his son. As the daughter of the King of France and the Queen of Navarre, Isabella was a great prize in the marriage market: no queen of England before her had boasted such a pedigree.
The deal was agreed in principle, and two weeks later, on 12 May, King Edward appointed Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, to negotiate both marriages. In March 1299, Parliament accepted the terms negotiated by Lincoln, and on 12 May following, plans were set in hand for the proxy betrothals.Three days later, the Earl of Lincoln, Amadeus, Count of Savoy and Guy de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick were appointed to act for Edward I and his son, and soon afterwards they departed for France. Edward I privately instructed the Count to find out as much as he could about the personal attributes of Marguerite of France, including the size of her foot and the width of her waist.The Count reported back that she was 'a fair and marvellously virtuous lady', pious and charitable.
The Treaty of Montreuil, which provided for Isabella's future betrothal to Edward of Caernarvon, was drawn up on 19 June, ratified by Edward I and the Prince of Wales on 4 July, and amplified by the Treaty of Chartres on 3 August. Under its terms, Philip was to give Isabella a dowry of £18,000, and once she became Queen of England, she was to have in dower all the lands formerly held by Eleanor of Castile, which were in the interim to be settled by Edward I on Marguerite; these amounted to £4,500 per annum. Should Edward I default on the treaties, he would forfeit Gascony; if Philip defaulted, he would pay Edward a fine of £100,000. On 29 August, at the instance of Edward I, the King and Queen of France gave solemn guarantees that the marriages would take place, and in September, Marguerite of France, then aged twenty at most, arrived in England and was married to the sixty-year-old Edward I in Canterbury Cathedral. Against the odds, this proved to be a successful and happy union, and produced three children. In October 1299, Philip IV finally ratified the Treaty of Montreuil. 'When love buds between great princes, it drives away bitter sobs from their subjects,' commented a contemporary.
In 1300, the French occupied Flanders, but two years later they were humiliatingly defeated and massacred by the Flemings at Courtrai. Throughout this time, Edward I had continued to press for the immediate restoration of Gascony, but Philip would not agree to this until after the Prince of Wales had fulfilled his promise to marry Isabella who was still too young to wed.
By April 1303, Edward I was losing interest in the alliance, and was beginning to look elsewhere for a bride for his son. At this crucial point, fearing a war on two fronts, Philip IV played his trump card and agreed to restore the duchy of Gascony to Edward without further delay; his intention was, as he reminded Edward II in 1308, that it should in time become the inheritance of his grandchildren, the heirs of Edward and Isabella. Edward I was now satisfied, and the Treaty of Paris, which officially restored the duchy, was signed on the same day that young Isabella and Edward of Caernarvon were betrothed.There would be further conflict between Edward I and Philip IV, but nothing serious enough to break this new alliance. Isabella was now destined to be Queen of England.
Isabella was probably born in 1295. There is conflicting evidence as to the year. Piers of Langtoft says she was 'only seven years of age' in 1299, which places her birth in 1292, the date given in the Annals of Wigmore. Yet she is described by both the French chronicler Guillaume de Nangis and Thomas Walsingham as being twelve years old at the time of her marriage in January 1308, which suggests she was born between January 1295 and January 1296. Given that twelve was the canonical age for marriage, and that in 1298 the Pope had stipulated that she should marry Prince Edward as soon as she reached that age, these dates are viable. In the same document of June 1298, the Pope describes Isabella as being 'under seven years', which places her birth at any time from 1291 onwards. Furthermore, the Treaty of Montreuil (June 1299) provided for Isabella's betrothal and marriage to take place when she reached the respective canonical ages of seven and twelve. So she must have reached seven before May 1303, and twelve before January 1308.
It has been suggested that Isabella had already reached the canonical age for marriage in 1305, when she and the Prince of Wales nominated representatives for a marriage by proxy. This did not take place because of continued squabbles over Gascony, but the fact that these nominations were made has been held as evidence that Isabella had then reached, or was soon to reach, the age of twelve, which would place her date of birth around 1293.Yet this theory is contradicted by a papal dispensation issued by Clement V in November 1305, giving the young couple permission to marry at once even though Isabella had not yet reached her twelfth year, and was at present in her tenth year.This suggests a birth date between November 1294 and November 1295.The waters are muddied still further by a decree issued by Philip IV in 1310, in which Isabella is referred to as his 'primogenita', or 'firstborn', which suggests that she was born in 1288 at the latest, as her eldest brother Louis was born in October 1289. This date conflicts with all the other evidence, and is probably the result of an error on the part of the official drawing up the document.
In conclusion, the evidence in the papal dispensations and documents and the Treaty of Montreuil is likely to be more reliable, and taken together it supports a birth date between May and November 1295, which in turn is supported by the statements of Guillaume de Nangis and Thomas Walsingham. This would make Isabella seven years old at the time of her betrothal, and twelve years old at the time of her marriage.
Isabella grew up in a period when society regarded women as inferior beings. 'We should look on the female role as a deformity, though one which occurs in the ordinary course of nature,' states a thirteenth-century edition of Aristotle's Generation of Animals. 'Woman is the confusion of man, an insatiable beast, a continuous anxiety, an incessant warfare, a daily ruin, a house of tempest and a hindrance to devotion,' fulminated the mysoginistic Vincent de Beauvais in the thirteenth century. In 1140, the canon lawyer ...
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