It’s History: Isabella of France

Isabella of France
Today, I am going to shed some light on a personal hero of mine, Isabella of France.

Isabella was born sometime around 1295 to King Philip IV of France and Queen Joan I of Navarre. Her marriage to the future Edward II of England was arranged Pope Boniface VIII in 1299 to end yet another war between England and France, and Isabella and Edward were married in January 1308.

Throughout her reign as England’s Queen Consort, Isabella was known as a skilled stateswoman, and was often sent to France as a peacemaker. She also wrote letters to powerful men from an early age, and her husband recognized her as a political asset to him, and letters have been preserved that consist of her giving him advice, usually quote authoritatively. For a large portion of their marriage, she and Edward enjoyed an amiable partnership, which was seen as the mark of a “successful” royal marriage.

However, it wouldn’t be a proper medieval royal family if there wasn’t at least a little drama, right? The drama started almost as soon as Isabella got off the boat in England after her marriage, when her new husband, Edward, ditched her to be reunited with his – ahem – good friend, Piers Gaveston. And over the next few years, our bisexual king would ignore his teenage bride in favor of the aforementioned Piers – at least until a few irate English nobles took matters into their own hands and had Piers executed as a traitor.

Things went well for Edward and Isabella, at least for awhile. Ed seemed to have realize that – oh, damn – he had a wife. They ended up having four children together, including Eddie (the future Edward III), who happens to be another favorite English King of mine. But then, sadly, this all came to an end as another man came between Isabella and her husband. This new paramour was Hugh Despenser the Younger, the son of one of Edward’s earls. And once Hugh took her place in her husband’s affections, things started to hit proverbial the fan for Isabella. Honors, wealth, respect, everything associated with the office of Queen, were no longer hers. And it is a fairly safe assumption that she. was. pissed.

Isabella took her revenge, though, in fairly spectacular fashion. She was sent to France once again in 1325 to smooth things over with her brother, who was now the King. She convinced Ed to let her take Eddie along for the ride. Once in France, Isabella disobeyed her husband’s numerous orders to return to England. She also effectively took her son hostage, possibly guilting him into staying with her in her time of need.

Oh, yeah. And then Isabella took a lover, Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, who had previously been appointed to positions of authority in Ireland and Wales by Edward II. (Some payback, huh?) And together, Isabella and Roger launched the first successful invasion of England since 1066, invading in 1326 and deposing Edward II. Eddie took his place as Edward III, with Isabella and Mortimer (but mostly Mortimer) ruling as regents until 1330.

And here is where things get fun. (Read: these next few paragraphs are a bit graphic and if you’re not into that sort of thing you might want to skip over them.) Because, you see, Isabella had Hughie darling executed. Later sources have portrayed this as an act of bloodthirsty revenge on Isabella’s part, but interpretation of more contemporary sources imply that this execution was more lawful. Either way, it was a work of art, as far as executions go. According to Froissart in a passage I have marked in my copy because it’s so beautiful:

After the feast this same Sir Hugh, who was not loved in those parts, was brought before the Queen and the assembled nobles. All his deeds had been written down and were now read out to him, but he said nothing in reply. He was condemned by the unanimous verdict of the barons and knights to suffer the following punishment. First, he was dragged on a hurdle through all the streets of Hereford to the sound of horns and trumpets, until he reached the main square of the town, where all the people were assembled. There he was tied to a long ladder, so that everyone could see him. A big fire had been lit in the square. When he had been tied up, his member and testicles were first cut off, because he was a heretic and a sodomite, even, it was said, with the King, and this was why the King had driven away the Queen on his suggestion. When his private parts had been cut off they were thrown into the fire to burn, and afterwards his heart was torn from his body and thrown into the fire, because he was a false-hearted traitor, who by his treasonable advice and promptings had led the King to bring shame and misfortune upon his kingdom and to behead the greatest lords of England, by whom the kingdom ought to have been upheld and defended; and besides that, he had so worked upon the King that he, who should have been their consort and sire, had refused to see the Queen and his eldest son, but rather had expelled them from the realm of England, at the hazard of their lives.

After Sir Hugh Despenser had been cut up in the way described, his head was struck off and sent to the city of London. His body was divided into four quarters, which were sent to the four principal cities of England after London.

But it doesn’t stop there, children. You see, Edward II ends up disappearing. The legend goes that, “On the night of 11 October while lying in on a bed [the king] was suddenly seized and, while a great mattress…weighed him down and suffocated him, a plumber’s iron, heated intensely hot, was introduced through a tube into his anus so that it burned the inner portions beyond the intestines.” (You can thank Thomas de la Moore for this charming bit of information.) There is not any actual evidence that this happened, though – the more plausible theory is that Edward was suffocated. (Or that he actually escaped and lived as a hermit on the Continent – this was a popular one, too.) The hot iron legend actually became popular near the end of Isabella and Mortimer’s brief reign, when they became unpopular due to their abuse of power and the royal treasury, and mishandling of the precarious situation with Scotland. People pointed fingers at Isabella, the woman scorned, and today, her reputation has been tarnished because of it; she has become known as the “She-wolf”, a bloodthirsty, jealous woman who took her gruesome revenge.

Once Eddie was 18, he overthrew his mother and Mortimer. Mortimer was executed in rather unspectacular fashion (he was hanged, a commoner’s death). Isabella was placed under house arrest, where Eddie often visited her. Later in life, she was allowed more freedom, and came to be looked to as an elder stateswoman.

Isabella has been villified for her actions, for taking a lover, overthrowing her husband, and for taking revenge on her husband and his lover in incredibly brutal ways. (Which is definitely left open for interpretation – history is subjective that way.) Some recent scholarship has been taking a more sympathetic look at her – I highly reccomend Alison Weir’s Queen Isabella. Having researched Isabella, I have come to admire her, for being an intelligent woman who seized the opportunity to change her fate in a world where women took second place, and because no matter what happened, she kept her head held high. Which isn’t to say that she wasn’t flawed, because she was…but she was only human.

Next Time: the medieval toilet


2 thoughts on “It’s History: Isabella of France”

  1. MissBluestocking:This was a MOST compelling blog entry. I read it with parted lips and saucer-round eyes. Wow, people were brutal during the medieval times. To cut off that man's thingy…was he alive when this was executed? Oh dear. The children of those days must have been living in a horror movie. They probably saw the man's thingy being cut off? It's like taking the movie SAW to the extreme! *I let out a long whistle* Isabella–what a woman!

  2. Sometimes they were, but only when the offenses were very, very serious. (For instance, Despenser had not only been a traitor, but had burned many bridges along the way. Willam Wallace…well, maybe you saw Braveheart, even if it's one of the movies I snark at most.) Most executions were much more mundane. Members of the nobility were beheaded, and commoners were hanged. But yeah, there were probably children there. I'm sure this sort of thing was grand entertainment – it's not like there was much else to do. Though I probably would've been far, far away.I remember when my professor read that passage out loud to my English medieval history class. You could've heard a pin drop. And then I ended up analyzing the crap out of it for the term paper I wrote on Isabella…

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