The She-Wolf of France

We’ve all seen the incredibly inaccurate biopic “Braveheart,” also known as the realization of Mel Gibson’s fantasy that he is a steadfast hero fighting against a repressive regime while getting it on with all the ladies in his spare time. According to Gibson’s fantasy, Wallace always hooks up with the wronged Isabelle of France, the wife of England’s heir presumptive, and secretly fathers the next in line to the throne of England. Of course not only is this all wrong, but it also reduces Isabelle to being little more than a Scottish folk hero’s romantic interest. Isabelle’s story is very interesting on its own, and she wasn’t just anyone’s love interest, but very much a mover and a shaker in her own right.

The marriage of Isabelle and Edward II.

Isabelle was born in 1295, the daughter of Philip le Bel of France and Joan of Navarre. When she was twelve years old, she traveled across the English Channel to marry King Edward II of England. She had high hopes for this marriage; she had been trained her entire life to be a queen, and she expected that she would be treated with the same respect that her mother was in France. But her hopes were to be dashed. Her husband, Edward, already had eyes for someone else: his favorite, a young man named Piers Gaveston. Right away, he gave Gaveston some of the jewels that were part of Isabelle’s dowry. To make matters worse, at the young couple’s coronation, Gaveston carried the crown into Westminster Abbey, and he, not Isabelle, sat by the king at the coronation banquet. Isabelle’s uncles, who had chaperoned the young bride-to-be to England, returned to France in a huff, furious that their niece should be treated in such a way. This marriage was supposed to cement a peaceful alliance between France and England, but it looked like Gaveston held a higher place in court than the young queen did.

Young Edward III and Isabelle in France.

But things were about to get worse for Gaveston. There was a group of nobles who despised Gaveston and who thought his influence over the king was detrimental to the realm. When Gaveston was at one of his country estates, they forced their way in, dragged him out, beheaded him, and paraded the corpse through the town. Edward II was incensed that they would have the audacity to do this, and he ordered that the nobles involved in Gaveston’s death be captured and executed for treason. But Isabelle stepped in as queens were expected to do as bringers of peace: she publicly knelt before her husband’s throne and begged that he show mercy to the nobles. The king changed his mind and pardoned them. The couple’s marriage remained relatively stable for about ten years, during which time Isabelle bore the heir to the throne, Edward III. Isabelle was canny enough to realize that this changed her position in England completely. No longer was she simply the queen, but she was also the mother of the heir to the throne, and that gave her some power and clout among the nobles. And Isabelle was all too willing to use it.

Isabelle’s return to France.

While on pilgrimage to Canterbury, Isabelle and her retinue decided to stop for the night at the castle at Leeds. Lady Badlesmere, the castle’s chatelaine, denied the queen lodging for the night. Perhaps Lady Badlesmere’s actions were justified, because her husband was one of the nobles involved in the rebellion against the king. Isabelle, however, was incensed at having to spend the night out in the cold. She had Lady Badlesmere and her children taken to the Tower of London and had some members of the Badlesmere household hanged outside the gates of Leeds castle. This was only just a taste of how vindictive Isabelle could be. Yet even though she may have been a bitch when crossed, Isabelle was adored by the general public. She was seen as a charitable queen who performed all sorts of good works for the sick and the poor. Both of these qualities would only help her in the long run.

Isabella’s return to England

After this, Edward and the nobles finally went to war, and Isabelle and her children entered the refuge of the Tower of London. It was here that Isabelle met Roger Mortimer for the first time. Roger had been imprisoned and sentenced to death by starvation by the Despensers, yet Isabelle intervened on his behalf and brought him food. Needless to say, they left quite an impression on each other, and this signaled the beginning of things to come.

Edward won the war against the nobles and immediately brought the Despensers back to England. At this time, England became involved in a dispute with the French over the province of Gascony, and Edward, perhaps influenced by the Despensers, had every French person living in England arrested. The Despensers pounced on this opportunity, for the queen’s French heritage put her in a precarious position. Hugh Despenser the younger thought it would be a good time to put the queen, who was one of his main detractors, in her place. He had her servants fired and replaced them with those loyal to his family, confiscated her lands and her money, and had her younger children placed into the custody of his family. After this, Isabelle was done being treated like a doormat, and she had Roger Mortimer released from the Tower and secretly spirited across the sea to France.

Isabelle's surreptitious return to England.

Then she began to set a plan into motion. In 1325, Isabelle persuaded Edward that she could go to France to negotiate a peace, since the king was her brother. Edward agreed to this and let her go. Once she arrived in France, she met up with Roger Mortimer once again, and here their torrid love affair began. Not only were they lovers, but they became partners in this grand scheme. Next, Isabelle wrote to her husband to allow young Edward, the heir, to come to France to pay homage to his uncle and thereby seal their truce. Edward II, delighted at the prospect of this, sent young Edward to France. Soon, he demanded that they both return to England, but Isabelle refused, citing how badly she had been treated by her husband and his hangers-on.

Isabelle had been working diligently all this time on her plan to ovethrow her husband and put her son on the throne. She gained the support of the exiled English nobles in England, and she negotiated a marriage between young Edward and Philippa of Hainault. Philippa’s dowry included ships and soldiers to aid Isabelle in her cause. In 1327, Isabelle, Mortimer, and their army landed in England. The people welcomed them, and many joined them in their cause. Edward II and his army were chased out of London, and Edward vowed to kill Isabelle himself. Before he could do this, he and the Despensers were captured by the opposing army, and he was forced to abdicate so that young Edward III could take the throne. The king was imprisoned in Kenilworth, and the Despensers and those who had followed them were executed as traitors. Edward II eventually died in prison, though no explanation as to cause of death was ever given, and many believe that Mortimer and Isabelle may have had Edward II murdered.

The Despensers brought in front of Isabelle.

With the opposition out of the way, Isabelle and Mortimer began to rule England on behalf of Edward III, who was not yet old enough to assume full responsibilities as king. Isabelle kept Edward close to her at all times so that it was hard to gain access to him. And then she and Mortimer began a mad power grab that strongly resembled that of the Despensers. After the king’s death, Edward III finally had had enough, and he ordered the capture of Mortimer and his mother. Isabelle was imprisoned, while Mortimer was tried and executed. Isabelle may have mourned Mortimer in private, yet there has been no mention made of it. Whatever the case, she was now removed from power as her son fully embraced his responsibilities as king. He allowed her to live in lavish retirement on a generous sum of 3,000 pounds a year. She spent her final years relatively quietly, doting on her grandchildren, making court appearances, and studying astrology, geometry, and Arthurian legend. She eventually became a nun and joined the Poor Clares. When Isabelle died in 1358, Mortimer’s heart was buried with her. Perhaps this gives some insight into how much she loved him.Isabelle has been reviled during the past few centuries, and 18th-century poet Thomas Grey called her the “She-Wolf” who tore at her husband with “unrelenting fangs.” Nonetheless, she was a resourceful, intelligent woman, even if her ambitions turned out to be self-serving. She knew when she was not being treated well by her husband and left him, and then raised an army to overthrow him and put her son, who would be a more effective ruler, on the throne. Even if she was out for herself, in some ways, she did what a queen was supposed to do and acted in the good of her subjects.

Source:
Weir, Alison. Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England.
Ballantine, 2005.

This was originally published in Persephone Magazine.

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