Earlier this month we examined the case of Katherine Howard, Henry VIII’s unfortunate fifth wife, who was accused of adultery and executed in 1542. I highlighted recent scholarship which casts doubt as to whether she was guilty of infidelity during her marriage, however today we will be taking look at a union in which there is little doubt of mutual adultery. The events that transpired during the reign of Edward II in the 14th century, and the role that his wife, Isabelle of France, played in them are so fantastical as to be hard to believe. Put another way, when it comes to rebelling against the edicts of her husband, Isabelle puts her 16th century peers to shame.
Today, February 25th, marks the anniversary of Isabelle’s coronation alongside Edward at Westminster Abbey, a ceremony which would showcase the dynamics that would later spell out not only their marriage’s downfall, but that of Edward’s reign itself. At the time, Edward and Isabelle had been married for a month, their marriage an alliance between England and France meant to allay the growing warfare between the two countries as England tried to re-capture French land lost during the prior reigns of King John and Henry III.
They were both descended from remarkably capable fathers. Edward I was arguably one of the most successful medieval monarchs, an able soldier and politician who, though he became known as the “Hammer of Scotland,” took a similar stance towards his own barons. Isabelle’s father, Philip IV, could be similarly ruthless, with the added bonus of being famous for his remarkable beauty, a trait he apparently passed along his only daughter.
When Isabelle arrived in England she was 12 years old and boasted the most illustrious pedigree of any queen the country had ever seen, her mother being the queen of Navarre in her own right. She would also soon prove herself to be shrewdly intelligent, active and relatively well-educated. Unfortunately, her new husband wasn’t much impressed. At the time of their marriage, Edward had only been on his throne since the previous summer. He was 23, attractive, a capable soldier and, in theory, he possessed all the makings of a great king. He was, however, already in love with another, a young man whom he had known since his youth, Piers Gaveston.
The relationship between Edward and Piers was already scandalizing Christendom and had been going on for years. Indeed, when Edward I had been alive he had attempted to separate the two, a move quickly overturned the moment his son ascended the throne. Now king, Edward displayed his affection carelessly, not worrying how it was received by his noblemen, his new French relations or the diplomats moving through his court. Philip IV no doubt knew the predilections of his son-in-law, but the alliance was important enough, and the rewards high enough, that he sent over his favored daughter regardless. For her part, Isabelle likely had no idea what she was walking into.
By the time of her coronation, she would be left in no doubt. Piers had been given the lofty honor of arranging the ceremony, of which he cast himself as the star. He showed up to the Abbey in purple silk robes covered in pearls, a color reserved only for royalty, overshadowing not only the other barons, but the King himself. He also carried in his hands the crown of Saint Edward the Confessor, a privilege usually bestowed upon the highest-ranking nobleman, which Piers most emphatically wasn’t.
But these weren’t the only faux-pas. The Abbey itself was so overly stuffed with people that a wall behind the altar fell, killing a knight mid-ceremony. Once the party had moved back to the Palace for the traditional feasting and celebrating, the food wasn’t ready until much later that evening, and when it was it was under-cooked and inedible. The biggest affront, however, came from the King himself, who chose to sit next to his lover and not his wife. Tapestries that dotted the Palace carried the arms of Edward and Piers alongside one another, Isabelle’s notably absent.
The French nobles, including some of her male relations, were horrified and returned to France in disgust, railing against both the insult and what it signified. But Isabelle had no recourse, though her coronation likely brought to light the reality of her husband’s affections and what it foretold for her in England.
It is unlikely the marriage was immediately consummated due to both Isabelle’s age and Edward’s disinterest. Indeed, given that Isabelle appears to have given birth to healthy children that easily survived infancy and childhood – a notable feat given the rate of youth mortality – and her pregnancies were separated by years, sexual relations between the two appear to have been infrequent once they began. And while it’s unclear exactly when the relationship was consummated, it likely had been by 1311, by which point Isabelle appears to have slightly warmed to Piers’s existence.
In full, Isabelle would have four children, the eldest being the future Edward III (the future grandfather of both Richard II and Henry IV). Her younger children were John of Eltham, Earl of Cornwall, Eleanor of Woodstock, Duchess of Guelders and Joan of the Tower, Queen of Scotland. (N.B. before receiving titles, royal children were usually styled with their place of birth.)
Unfortunately for Edward, his barons were in no mood for the favoritism of an upstart, for while Edward I had been an excellent king, he had also been a strict one and his nobles had begun to chafe under his rule towards the end of his reign. By the time Edward II succeeded his father, they were already well-positioned to bite back the royal hand. Following multiple forced exiles at the behest of the barons which were supported by Philip IV in France, Piers returned to England one last time around Christmas 1311. He would be reunited with Edward early in 1312, but when the King moved that the judgment against his lover was unlawful, the barons prepared for war. Piers was apprehended by his enemies in June, held up for a mockery of a trial and executed.
But what have might felt like sweet relief to Piers’s enemies and perhaps even Isabelle, wouldn’t fix the problem. Edward was infuriated by what amounted to Piers’s murder, swore vengeance and found a new favorite in Hugh le Despenser the Younger, who became a chamberlain in 1318. Hugh had no problem taking advantage of the King’s affections and using them to enrich his family to the consternation of the English barons.
By 1321, civil war had officially broken out, and by 1324 it was supplemented by war with France over the duchy of Gascony. But here is where Isabelle fully put her foot on the political stage, beginning her own love affair by 1325 with Roger Mortimer, a powerful Marcher lord with whom she would have been acquainted with for years. Their relationship is succinctly described by Isabelle’s biographer, Alison Weir, thusly:
“For her part, Isabella, at twenty-eight, had probably suffered emotional and sexual frustration for years and was doubtless all too willing to succumb to this strong and virile adventurer, with whom she shared many bonds. He was in a unique position to understand her alienation and her fear of Despenser, and what was more, he was a powerful ally who was ready to protect her and take decisive action to rectify her situation. For Isabella, going to bed with Mortimer may well have been a means of getting back at Edward and his favorites. Thus, the affair may have been born partly out of a desire for revenge on both sides.
“But the union of Isabella and Mortimer was also a meeting of minds and shared interests. Both were fascinated with Arthurian legends; both loved fine objets d’art and the luxuries of life. Yet this appears to have been no equal relationship. By all accounts, Mortimer dominated Isabella, probably because of the sexual hold he had over her, and also because he was a jealous, possessive man. He seems to have made the decisions, while she, by virtue of her position, helped him to implement them. It seems, too, that, after their early days together, she did not venture to question what he did but willingly complied. Modern women might conclude she had sold out, but few females enjoyed any autonomy in the Middle Ages, and after all she had suffered, Isabella was likely greatly relieved to have a strong and domineering man take up her cause.”
Whatever the nature of their relationship, they had one more crucial thing: possession of Isabelle’s eldest son, the 13-year-old Prince Edward. From France, Isabelle and Mortimer planned the invasion of England, which was carried out in 1326.
The defense of England would be led by the Despenser family, however it would be Isabelle and Mortimer who prevailed. In November, Hugh would be brutally executed, the heart of his party dying with him. Edward was captured by the Earl of Lancaster (a not-so-ironic precursor to Henry IV’s later deposition of Richard II in 1399) and while in custody he handed over the Great Seal. In January 1327 a council convened by Isabelle decided that Edward should be deposed and kept under house arrest for the remainder of his life, Isabelle (and, of course, Mortimer) ruling on behalf of Prince Edward until he came of age.
In late January Edward was presented with the option of abdicating and allowing his son to succeed him or refusing to do so, in which case council would look for an alternative monarch outside of the current line of Plantagenets. On January 21st, Edward formally abdicated and by the 25th, the end of his rule had been proclaimed in London. The new Edward III would be crowned king on February 2nd.
But so long as he lived, Edward represented a threat to the government of Isabelle (who, legally, was still his wife) and Mortimer. On September 23, 1327 Edward III would be informed that his father had died two days earlier. While no one took responsibility for the act, it was widely believed to have been an assassination borne out of politically necessity and likely ordered by Mortimer. The death, however, would be the undoing of this tenuous arrangement.
Within three years Edward III staged a coup d’etat with Isabelle and Mortimer captured by the King at Nottingham Castle in October 1330. Mortimer was taken to the Tower, refused a trial and hanged at Tybrun on November 29th. And while the nature of his relationship with the Queen was well-known, Isabelle would be presented an innocent woman who had fallen under the influence of a treasonous noble. She would spend the next 21 years under glorified house arrest, slowly gaining some liberty as the years went on. She remained close to her daughter, Joan, and was financially well-provided for, but kept away from court and her movements restricted.
Before her death in 1358 she would become a nun, while afterwards her body was taken to Greyfriars in London. She was interred wearing her wedding gown from 1308, Edward’s heart placed beside her. Fifty years after their marriage, she would finally have access to it.
For more, see From Normandy to Windsor