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Isabella of France – The Fair She-Wolf

Isabella was a French princess during the first half of the 14th century, a rational bargain in times when British Gascony was causing some skirmish between the English and French. The main annoyance for the English king Edward I were the ever so cunning Scots and their feared leader Robert Bruce, so establishing a pact with the French by cementing a bond between his son Edward II and Isabella of France was only sensible. Isabella was only twelve years old when the wedding ceremony took place in January 1308, in French Boulogne. From there on it became more than apparent to her that this marriage would become anything but easy, even at those days’ standards.

In France, Isabella is called The Fair. The nickname she-wolf was originally used by Thomas Gray in his poem The Bard from 1757 (Source: Wikipedia). A 19th century lithograph by an unknown artist.

Edward II ruled England from 1307 on, after the death of Edward I. Unlike his father, the conqueror of Wales, he was not very belligerent or ambitious. Throughout his life, he was more interested in hunting, outdoor sports and music. What is more, he was madly in love – but not with his beautiful and intelligent if somewhat arrogant and demanding wife, but with a Gascon soldier Piers Gaveston. A contemporary observer noted that the king was unable to concentrate on anything else if young Gaveston was in the same room. For Isabella too, all this was very evident: for instance, all her dowry was presented to Gaveston, who occupied the position of a royal advisor – the position which in all truth should have been hers. A male lover per se was not a problem for the powerful nobility, but the fact that the king neglected all his duties so as to socialize with his low-born favorites was. Among the most powerful earls was Thomas of Lancaster, who together with his supporters was determined to get rid of Gaveston. As the attempts to banish him failed when the king kept on smuggling him back, Lancaster and allies chose to decapitate him after they had captured him in Deddington. In the middle of all of this, Isabella managed to get the best guarantee for her position: she gave birth to a baby boy in November 1312.

The king and his favorite are having a jolly conversation while Isabella and the nobility disapprove. Marcus Stone: Edward II and his Favourite, Piers Gaveston (1872).

Isabella as a diplomat

 When England was at the brink of a disastrous civil war, Isabella acted as an arbitrator, and a frail treaty between the king and the lords was reached in August 1318. The pact secured Lancaster’s hold on the reins of the kingdom, but he feared nothing more than Edward’s inexorable revenge on him for killing his dear Gaveston. After the treaty the royal couple traveled to Isabella’s home country to rub shoulders with the French, but new problems were ahead. For Isabella, this could have finally been the time to establish her and her children’s place by Edward’s side as the inheritors of the kingdom, but a new player on the chessboard appeared: greedy and dangerous Hugh Despenser the Younger. Despenser was appointed the chamberlain for the king’s court and took almost as good a hold of the king as Gaveston before him. But while Gaveston had been a pretentious ‘peacock’, Despenser was a merciless and power-greedy strategist. From his position, he started to hog up nobility’s lands and threaten the peace Isabella had fought so hard to secure.

The king and Despenser’s actions annoyed the nobility to no end. In 1321, the civil war broke out again. The time for Edward’s revenge came in March 1322, when Thomas of Lancaster lost a rebellious fight and was then decapitated in the same grisly manner as the flashy Gaveston before him.

Thomas, 2nd earl of Lancaster, is led to his execution. James William Edmund Doyle in 1864. Later, Lancaster was thought of as a something akin a martyr.

Isabella’s revenge

 When traveling to France in 1325 to meet her brother, the French king, and to use her position so as to negotiate for the status of the Gascony province, Isabella came up with a plan. She requested for her now thirteen-year-old first-born to be sent to France and be made the duke of Aquitaine. King Edward accepted this as a way of easing the English-French relationship, but in actuality he handed the trump card to Isabella. ‘Someone has become between my husband and myself’ she wrote to England ‘I will not return until this intruder is removed’. She was most likely plotting with King Charles and the English exiles who had been on Lancaster’s side. One of the exiles was Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, a lord who also became Isabella’s lover. 

Isabella of France is welcomed to Paris. An anonymous work from the 15th century. The coat of arms on the horse’s back has both the symbols of French and English royal families.

As Isabella and her allies planned an invasion on England (officially to get rid of the land-hogging Despenser, but in reality to supersede the old king with his son), she was converted into a heroine for a short moment in time. The English people, weak with hunger and frustrated with the bad managing of the kingdom, welcomed Isabella and her supporters with relief and joy. Before long Hugh Despenser was captured and gruesomely executed. King Edward was captured and held in a prison. What is certainly noteworthy in this case was the warm welcome that Isabella received: despite all the plotting against her husband and most notably the fact she had a lover. This must have been thanks to her clever image construction: she was a righteous queen and wife displaced by power-hungry villains.

Isabella and Mortimer held the effective power together with the young king Edward III. While it became more and more clear that Edward II still had supporters, he died suddenly and conveniently in September 1327. A popular semi-historical tale goes that he was murdered in one of the most brutal ways in English royal history and that Isabella, of course, was the mastermind behind this. Another popular story claims that Edward was not murdered by conspirators thrusting a scalding hot iron into his anus, but was instead smuggled abroad. All the same, Isabella too was soon to learn the one true lesson about power: it corrupts.

Isabella and her lover Mortimer stand on the foreground while the castration of Hugh Despenser is carried out in the background. 15th century manuscript illustration, dated between 1471 and 1483.

About legacy

The reasons behind the disaster of Edward II’s rule were his inability to understand the needs of his subjects and his disinterest to maintain good relations with the earls and lords who held most of the actual power in England. One could argue that Isabella’s opportunity for power lied exactly in her husband’s uselessness – but then again – would it not be more likely that she would have wanted to be married to a powerful king and ally, who would have secured her children’s rights of inheritance? Partially, she was a victim of circumstance, yet she is remembered for her thorny personality and alleged involvement in several murders (including the lovers of her French sisters-in-law). But something that tells about her complacency and feeling of endless entitlement was the fact that she did not expect her own son to turn against her. At the end of 1330, Edward III was fed up with his mother and her lover holding the reins of his kingdom and together with his supporters captured and hanged Mortimer. Isabella was forced to cede her property, but as a highly considered mother of the king she got to live the rest of her life in luxury, quietly and peacefully.

The posterity has treated the story of beautiful Isabella with interest. In modern films she has been portrayed by Tilda Swinton in Derek Jarman’s Edward II (1991) and by Sophie Marceau in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995). A colored picture based on a 14th century engraving.

Nevertheless, Isabella, the she-wolf of France, was a great if rare example of a proud queen who remained firm in her decisions and refused to yield, yet still lived a long and wealthy life. Her story is also an exemplary case in a couple of other important respects: even though people dying in various ways was not rare in medieval times, a murder enforced by a relative makes a story all the more juicy to share with the posterity. And if Isabella really was behind the murders she is accused of, it just goes to show that devil does not always have his (or hers) due.

Isabella the Fair (as she is called in France) paved the way for future queens by reinforcing the meaning of female line and intrusion in the process of crowning a king. More unfortunately though, his son was persistent in claiming that he also inherited the kingdom of France through his mother’s line: the long and tiring Hundred Years’ War was about to be ignited.

The article is mostly based on Helen Castor’s book She-Wolves – The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth (Faber and Faber Limited 2010). Thumbnail is by the author herself (2018). Other pictures are from Wikimedia Commons and in the public domain in the United States and in their country of origin.

Siiri Sinko

Helsinki '21

The author is a student of political history in the University of Helsinki. She is a sensible freak who enjoys the fine little details of life. Her interests and hobbies include history, music, visual arts, cartoons, national symbols and international competitions.
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