A Legacy of Destruction: King John & Isabella of Angouleme

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Fun fact: Henry VIII was not the first monarch to divorce their spouse from the throne. That auspicious honor goes to none other than King John, who, upon ascending the throne in 1199, divorced his wife, Isabel of Gloucester, and married the young Isabella of Angouleme. There are a few reasons why this divorce is of less fame, though it was its own 13th century scandal at the time. For one, this would be John’s only divorce and he stopped at two wives. Secondly, there was no religious component – the annulment, for all its detractors, was approved. And finally, instead of casting aside a princess and marrying an Englishwoman, John did the reverse. Isabel of Gloucester was no Katherine of Aragon and she didn’t have the familial ties of claiming relation to the Holy Roman Emperor. For that matter, we don’t know whether Isabel had any desire to stay married to John in the first place.

Which brings us to Isabella of Angouleme, who had one notable characteristic in common with Anne Boleyn – they were both wildly detested by the public.

Isabella was born around 1188 to Aymer Taillefer, Count of Angouleme and his wife, Alice of Courtenay, a granddaughter of King Louis VI of France. She was famous in her day – and still remembered in history – for her beauty. Blonde, blue-eyed and possessing an impeccable pedigree, Isabella has been referred to as the Helen of Troy of the Middle Ages, which, if one is going to take a nickname, is as good as it gets. She was betrothed as a child to Hugh of Lusignan and had already moved to the court of her betrothed when, in the summer of 1200, her father “abducted” her and brought her home.

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At the time, Hugh was traveling in King John’s retinue and he angrily departed, sensing there was a plot afoot – not to mention the loss of his fiancée. He was right: On August 24, John went to Angouleme and married Isabella himself, the result of a plan that had to have been in the works for several weeks, if not months. Aymer’s motivation is clear enough – an alliance with the King of England was more beneficial to him than that of Lusignan. What prompted John to take such dramatic action is less clear, with some arguing he had fallen in love with the 12-year-old Isabella. More likely was the knowledge that as her parents’ sole child and heir, access to the Angouleme lands would be invaluable to England considering its then still-significant presence in Normandy and Aquitaine.

Her age is also in dispute here, for while she is usually recorded as being 12 at the time of her marriage, she may well have been just under that, explaining why she and Hugh of Lusignan were not yet married (12 being the canonical age of consent/adulthood). In any event, John had an uphill battle to ensure the legality of their marriage was enforced at home and abroad, having made a considerable enemy out of Hugh and appearing underhanded, if victorious, in the eyes of Christendom.

John and Isabella swiftly departed for England, arriving in early October. They were jointly crowned on October 8 at Westminster Abbey and in the early weeks of 1201 they set out on a progress around northern England. Hugh, meanwhile, was still angry and began attacking English strongholds in Aquitaine in direct defiance of John’s authority. The nobles of Poitou, angry on Hugh’s behalf, joined him, causing enough unrest that John’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Dowager Queen of England, began sending alarmed messages cross the Channel, urging his immediate attention. John traveled to the region in the spring, soundly beat back the rebellions, taking his revenge against not just High, but the entire Lusignan family. King Philip Augustus of France was forced to intervene, quelling Hugh and re-committing peace between England and French territories.

Even so, aggression didn’t immediately abate and in the spring of 1202 proxies for John and Philip Augustus met with the French arguing that John, as Duke of Normandy, should come to Paris to answer for his aggression and insubordination. Worth noting, for those less familiar with this time period or power dynamic, was that while John was Philip Augustus’s peer as King of England, England still held possession of the duchy of Normandy, which swore fealty to the kings of France. To say this caused complications would be an understatement, though technically it could be argued that English action in England versus in French territory was meant to be separated by a Chinese wall. In theory, this worked. In reality, not so much.

Over the next two years, John’s impolitic ways – as exemplified by how he went about his second marriage – and the death of Queen Eleanor – led to the eventual loss of Normandy to Philip Augustus in 1204. From that point on, England’s possessions were limited to Aquitaine, a sickening blow to English power on the continent and one that severely undermined John’s reputation at home and abroad.

Isabella, who, it can be argued – and indeed it was by contemporaries – had been the start of John’s decline, remained in England. As of her coronation in 1200 she was treated like a child and it’s unknown whether the marriage was immediately consummated, or even what the nature of the couple’s relationship was. Given the fragility of the politics surrounding the union it’s possible that once consummated the couple stopped sleeping together until Isabella was older – at any rate, they also spent enough time apart in the early years of their marriage given the war in Normandy that the issue might have resolved itself organically.

Isabella was not immediately given separate lands, which is significant in that such a move would have provided her with an independent financial income. In the absence of one she remained wholly dependent on John, as evidenced by a steady stream of goods and money to whatever residence in which she was then residing. Bizarrely, for a time, Isabella was housed in the care of John’s ex-wife, Isabel of Gloucester, who remained on John’s payroll even after their divorce.

And while there is not enough concrete evidence to conclude anything about the nature of John’s relationship with either of his wives, nor what their temporary dual living arrangement was, given a lack of royal children with Isabella and of royal bastards with mistresses (of which there are no record from this time), it’s entirely possible that John was both faithful and chaste, as argued by his biographer, Marc Morris.

Whatever the case was, Isabella did become pregnant in January 1207, six and a half years after her wedding when she was about 18/19 years of age. On October 1, she gave birth to a healthy son at Winchester Castle in Hampshire, christened Henry after John’s father. He was soon followed by a younger brother, Richard, on January 5, 1209, and a sister, Joan, on July 22, 1210. John began visiting Winchester more and more frequently during Isabella’s first pregnancy and was in residence there for the birth of Prince Henry – evidence which may point to a supportive marriage or may simply indicate his eagerness for an heir at nearly 40 years of age.

Two final daughters, Isabella and Elenaor, would join the nursery in 1214 and 1215, respectively.

In 1214, John finally secured a truce with Hugh, well over a decade after marrying Isabella. However victorious he might have felt, the feeling was undermined by the rise of the English barons who were disgusted by John’s wild mismanagement of governance (a topic we’ll return to another time). He met with his nobles at Runnymede on June 15, 1215 and was forced to sign a charter outlining peace between monarch and nobles – the agreement became known as the Magna Carta, of course, and evolved into the closest thing to an English constitution at the time, upholding the rights of free men, protection of the church, access to a fair legal system and financial reforms that limited feudal abuses.

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And if that doesn’t sound like a sweeping doctrine that would be easy to implement you would be right. While he signed it, John (obviously) had little interest in enacting it and instead appealed to Pope Innocent III, starting off a sequence of events that led to the First Barons’ War from 1215 to 1217. In the middle of this, John died, leaving a mess for his still-minor son, Henry, to inherit and putting the boy in the position of having his power limited, mangled and corrupted before he was old enough to assume any authority. John passed away on October 19, 1216 at Newark Castle in Nottinghamshire at the age of 49 and was interred at Worcester Cathedral.

Isabella, meanwhile, had been widowed at the ripe old age of 28 and it was up to her to ensure her son was properly named king. Eight days after John’s death, she had Henry crowned King Henry III at Westminster Abbey. She remained in England for the next year while the logistics of the minority were settled and finally returned to France to assume control of her own lands of Angouleme.

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For three years she did just that until, in 1220, she cropped up again by marrying the same Hugh of Lusignan who her father forced her to jilt. But because nothing can be simple, Hugh was already betrothed to none other than Isabella’s eldest daughter, Joan. Preferring Isabella, Joan was returned to England and swiftly married instead to King Alexander II of Scotland. Hugh and Isabella went on to have nine children of their own, meaning that in her lifetime Isabella gave birth a grand total of 14 times.

She died on June 4, 1246 at Fontrevaud Abbey in France, the resting place of her former in-laws, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II.

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