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Queen Isabella, "the She-Wolf of France"
History has not been kind to Queen Isabella (1295-1358) , the wife of Edward II of England. Referred to by the 18th century poet, Thomas Grey as ‘She-Wolf of France with unrelenting fangs / That tear’st the bowels of thy mangled mate’, she is associated in the minds of many with adultery and murder. There is, however, more to Isabella’s story and much of her reputation is due to notions of medieval womanhood and the concept of a female gaining power as being a grotesque corruption of the natural order of things.
This article gives a very brief overview of the fascinating life of Isabella.
Although some historians date Isabella’s birth to 1292, the more widely accepted year of her birth is 1295. Born in Paris, Isabella’s parents were King Phillip IV of France (also known as Phillip the Fair due to his good looks) and Queen Joan I of Navarre. As the daughter of one of the most powerful kings in Europe, Isabella was destined to be used as a political pawn and her betrothal to the future Edward II of England was intended to bring peace to the two nations which had been in conflict over the territories of Gascony, Anjou, Aquitaine and Normandy.
There was great debate over the terms of the marriage contract and negotiations took several years. Despite the Pope’s involvement in trying to bring about the marriage, Edward I tried to break the engagement on numerous occasions in order to gain political advantage and ensure the marriage contract worked in England’s favour. Following Edward I’s death, Isabella was married to Edward II in 1308. Despite being a mere twelve years old, Isabella knew her duties as a royal bride and had certain expectations of what her new position would bring. Isabella was considered to be one of Europe’s great beauties and having been brought up in a royal court, she possessed excellent diplomatic skills. She was reputed to be extremely charming and also intelligent, a trait with which medieval women were rarely credited.
Marriage to Edward II
As the wife of the King of England, Isabella should have enjoyed an exalted position but, from the moment of her marriage, she found herself vying for her rightful status by her husband’s side, with Edward’s favourite, Piers Gaveston. It was rumoured that Edward and Gaveston enjoyed a romantic relationship and this alienated many of the country’s powerful nobles who envied the closeness of this one man to the king.
In the spring of 1312, whilst pregnant with her first child, Isabella found herself on the run with her husband and Gaveston, evading angry nobles who wanted to get rid of the king’s favourite. Isabella have birth to her son, Prince Edward, in November 1312. This should have secured her status but still Edward showed favour to Gaveston. As the mother of the future king, however, Isabella was in a much more powerful position and used this to broker peace between Edward and his nobles when, eventually, Gaveston was captured and executed.
The stability that came with the peace Isabella was instrumental in achieving, soon came under threat when the English army suffered a humiliating defeat against the Scots at Bannockburn in 1314. Hostilities with France also constantly threatened to erupt, and Edward’s popularity decreased as he was seen as unable to secure the safety of the realm.
Isabella gave birth to three more children between 1316 and 1321 but was forced to endure the humiliation of once again being supplanted in her husband’s affections by another man, Hugh de Spenser. The lavishing of wealth and honours upon de Spenser angered not only Isabella, but the English nobility and Edward’s popularity continued to decrease.
As tensions with the French over several territories erupted in 1325, Isabella found herself in a precarious position. With war seemingly imminent, Edward II ordered the arrest of all French people living in England at that time. Hugh de Spenser used the opportunity to strike a blow against his great rival, Isabella. Her lands and property were seized and she was kept apart from her children.
The threat of war with the French gave Isabella the opportunity to use her considerable skills in persuasion to convince her husband that she would be the ideal envoy to send to Paris to negotiate a peace settlement. Failing to see that this might give his wife the chance to act against him, Edward agreed and Isabella was dispatched to the French court where she successfully brokered a peace deal with her brother, Charles IV.
As part of the truce, Isabella arranged for her son, Prince Edward, to come to France to pay homage to the French King. Believing that his wife would obey his command for her to return to England once the terms of the treaty had been honoured, Edward II send the prince to France. Isabella, reunited with her eldest son, heir to the English throne, then defied her husband by refusing to return to England. Instead, she remained in France and kept her son with her. She demanded that her rival, Hugh de Spenser be banished and Isabella began to dress as a widow, presenting herself to the world as a wronged woman whose marriage had been destroyed by the presence of a man whose close relationship with the king had usurped her position.
Relationship with Roger Mortimer
Mortimer was an enemy of the de Spensers who found himself imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1322 on the orders of Edward II. He managed to escape in 1323 and fled into exile in France. It was at the French court that he met Isabella and an affair began. At the time female infidelity was viewed as a serious crime and the fact that Isabella was married to a king, made her relationship with Mortimer an act of treason which ran the risk of serious punishment.
The couple formed a strong bond based on mutual attraction, enjoyment of a luxurious lifestyle and a common enemy in the form of Edward and de Spenser.
In 1326, Isabella and Mortimer left Paris and headed north to arrange the betrothal of Prince Edward to Philippa of Hainault in exchange for a large dowry which they used towards raising an army for their planned invasion of England
Rebelling Against Her Husband
In September 1326, Isabella and Mortimer sailed for England at the head of a fleet of 100 ships. The decision of the queen to take up arms against her husband was quite unheard of and defied medieval notions of womanhood. However, Isabella claimed that she was trying to depose her husband, not to take power herself, but in the name of her son, Prince Edward. This made her attempt to force her husband to give up the throne more palatable to England’s nobility and she quickly gained support for her cause. Edward’s popularity was low and, in the face of growing opposition, his power crumbled. He was forced to flee but he and his favourite, de Spenser, were captured two weeks later.
De Spenser was sentenced to a traitor’s death and suffered the grisly fate of being hanged and then castrated, drawn and quartered. Many of his supporters were also put to death. At the time, Isabella was hailed as the saviour of England. Her husband was imprisoned, first at Kenilworth and then at Berkeley Castle and forced to abdicate in favour of his son, who was crowned Edward III in 1327.
Death of Edward II
Although Edward II was imprisoned and had relinquished his crown to his son, he remained a threat to Isabella. As the legitimate king, there was a risk that he would become a rallying figure for any rebellion that might arise. Although modern historians disagree about the circumstances, it is generally accepted that Edward died at Berkeley Castle. Legend has it that he was killed with a red hot poker but there is no real evidence for this. It is likely that he was murdered, but equally possible that he died due to illness brought on by his captivity. Some historians argue that he did not actually die, but escaped and went on to live his life out in hiding but this is not a widely accepted interpretation of events.
Isabella's Reign and Mortimer's Downfall
Along with her lover, Roger Mortimer, Isabella ruled England for four years. Acting as regent for her young son, Isabella effectively held power. During this time, Isabella amassed vast wealth in terms of money and land. Although she had initially been viewed as a saviour of England, deposing an unpopular king, she now began to lose support as nobles held a dim view of a woman striving to gain money and power. Isabella was instrumental in bringing about peace with the Scots and the French with whom England still had unresolved political issues but her policies were unpopular and she and Mortimer began to lose support.
The grip which Isabella and her lover had on power was resented by Edward III who wished to rule in his own right. In 1330,Edward gathered together a group of supporters and waited for an opportunity to strike. When Mortimer dared to suggest that his authority outstripped that of the young king, Edward decided to take action. His supporter, Montague, led a small group of men into Nottingham Castle where Mortimer and Isabella had taken up residence. Mortimer was captured and tried for treason. He was executed at Tyburn.
In the face of defeat and her lover’s execution, Isabella realised that she had to consider her own position and portrayed herself as an innocent victim of Mortimer. She played on notions of feeble womanhood to suggest that she had fallen into his power and could not resist him. Following a brief period of imprisonment, Isabella, as mother of the King, was allowed to retire peacefully and maintained a luxurious lifestyle until her eventual death in 1358
Recommended Reading For Further Information
The Legacy of Isabella
Whether involved in it or not Edward II’s death sealed Isabella’s reputation. In Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, the young Edward III is described as a ‘lamb encompassed by wolves’ – a reference to Mortimer and Isabella.
Thomas Grey later used the term ‘she-wolf’ in his poem, The Bard and this description has remained in the popular imagination with subsequent films and books portraying her as a cruel and manipulative woman, an adulterer and murderess.
Despite being hailed as a peacemaker and saviour of her people from the unpopular Edward II, Isabella is now more likely to be remembered as the ‘She-Wolf of England’