Isabelle of Valois was born on November 9, 1389 to Charles VI of France and Isabeau of Bavaria. Though she would eventually become the eldest of her parents’ children to reach adulthood, at the time of her birth she joined an older sister, Jeanne, and followed a son, Charles, who died as an infant. Jeanne died in 1390 and was followed by another Jeanne in 1391, Charles in 1392, Marie in 1393 and Michelle in 1395. These would make up the siblings that Isabelle grew up with before her first marriage.
A few days before her seventh birthday, Isabelle married King Richard II as part of a peace treaty between England and France, then mired in the Hundreds’ Year War. The wedding, held on October 31, 1394, came a little more than two years after the death of Richard’s first wife, Anne of Bohemia. That Isabelle was married, and not merely betrothed, this young was slightly outside the norm, though certainly not unprecedented. And the fact that Isabelle immediately left home to be raised in England speaks to the importance of the new alliance between the two countries.
As for her parents’ reaction to losing their eldest living daughter at such a young age, there were myriad factors that likely helped convince them this was an appropriate course of action. Isabelle’s father became known as the “Mad King,” thanks to his increasingly serious mental health problems that led to bouts of violence. When ill, he didn’t recognize his wife or children, creating a chaotic atmosphere at French court both politically and personally.
Isabelle’s mother, Isabeau of Bavaria, has historically had a bad reputation, though quite a bit of that is likely unfair. What might be fair is the criticism that she spent excessive amounts of money and allowed her husband’s court to descend into a corrupt and indulgent cesspool, but the claims that she carried on affairs are hyperbolic and the accusations that she was a bad mother are misguided. If anything, she simply failed to correct a nearly impossible situation and was the scapegoat for large disappointment over her husband’s reign and the eventual civil war that would stem from it.
Over the next few years, Isabeau’s children would scatter across Europe at young ages, a fact that speaks less to the time period and more to the reality of needing to “settle” the King’s offspring in light of France’s instability. Isabelle went to England, but her sister, Jeanne, married John V of Brittany at the age of five, Marie entered a religious house at the age of two and a brother named Jean (born after Isabelle left home) would move in with his in-laws at the age of eight. The rest of the children were slightly older when they married, but with the exception of the eldest living brother who remained at home, marriage always meant the immediate departure from the royal household. The one exception to this would be Isabelle’s youngest sister, Katherine, yet another queen of England, but her case has to be considered in light of the full-scale war then going on.
As for Richard’s point of view, Isabelle’s age wasn’t a deterrent. He seemed to prefer the concept of a chaste marriage – indeed, there is a school of thought that he may very well have been a homosexual, though his marriage with his first wife was by all account loving. Richard’s attitude towards it was that he was young enough (29) to wait for Isabelle to grow up. And as for Isabelle, she seemed open to the idea of marrying a king and becoming “a great lady.” Even so, I’m hesitant to read too much into her willingness to leave France – given her age, the truth of it is that she likely didn’t understand the permanence of what was happening.
The terms of the marriage accounted for the bride’s youth. Because Isabelle was under the age of the canonical consent, she had the right (in theory) to refuse the marriage when she reached the age of 12, though there would be a financial penalty in such a choice. Richard, too, had the right to “return her” to France before the marriage was consummated. The treaty was signed on March 9, 1396, though the one clause that swims to the surface above all others has nothing to do with Isabelle, but is particularly significant with hindsight. The French promised Richard military assistance against the English people should he need it, though this term was later dropped and never came to fruition.
In October, Charles escorted Isabelle from Paris to Andres where she was formally delivered into Richard’s possession. In reality, the meeting was a diplomatic ritual, but the end result had Isabelle setting sail with Richard on November 3. Upon landing in England, Isabelle was handed over to the nominal care of the Duchesses of Gloucester and Lancaster, while her day-to-day care was handled by Lady de Courcy. The idea was that she would continue her education and spend her childhood in a safer and more tranquil environments than that of court.. While she would see Richard on certain ceremonial occasions and visits, they didn’t live together.
The Duchess of Gloucester was Eleanor de Bohun, who had married Thomas, Duke of Gloucester, the youngest son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainaut – as such, she was Richard’s aunt by marriage. Around 30 when Isabelle arrived in England, she had young children of her own with whom Isabelle could socialize. Notably, her younger sister, Mary, had been married to Henry of Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) before her death.
The Duchess of Lancaster was none other than Katherine Swynford, the matriarch of the Beaufort clan. She had been John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster’s long-time mistress and the mother of four of his bastards before they married in 1396 after the death of John’s wife, Constance of Castile. Like Eleanor, she was also Richard’s aunt by marriage.
Isabelle made her formal entry into London on January 3, 1397, spending that night in the Tower of London. The festivities were marred the death of several Londoners on the bridge between Southwark and Kennington, who were literally crushed by the crowds pressing to get a good look at their new queen. Even so, two days later Isabelle was crowned at Westminster Abbey, an event celebrated by a two-week long tournament that sparked criticism of the expense.
Isabelle joined her husband at the height of his unpopularity. Richard had sat on the throne since 1377 after the death of his grandfather, Edward III. A child when he ascended, he took control of his government in the wake of the Peasants’ Revolt in the early 1380s and was constantly at war with his magnates. The peace with France that he championed was strongly opposed by members of his own government and sects of the general public, not least of whom was the Duke of Gloucester. There is a school of thought that Richard only married Isabelle to cement French backing and inflict revenge against his political enemies for an uprising in 1388 that had severely checked his power and humiliated him before Europe.
The beginning of the end came in July 1397 when Richard invited one of his opponents, the Earl of Warwick, to dine with him. After the meal, Richard promptly had the man arrested and thrown in the Tower and sent the orders for the arrests of the Earl of Arundel and Gloucester – in the latter case, he rode out to handle it himself. While Gloucester was under lock and key in Calais that September he was murdered, likely on Richard’s orders.
When Parliament was opened that year, Richard promoted his cousin, Henry of Bolingbroke, to Duke of Hereford alongside the elevation of four other men. That Christmas, Isabelle joined her husband at Lichfield and in January they moved to Lilleshall where they received the Chancellor of France. On January 29, 1498, Isabelle was with Richard when opened Parliament again.
On September 16, Henry and Thomas de Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk met to take part in a public duel after accusations and counter-accusations over each other’s loyalty prompted legal action. The under-current of it all was fear that Richard would eventually seek revenge for their participation in the 1388 uprising. Taking advantage of the drama of the occasion, the King waited until both men were actively approaching one another before halting the proceedings. Two hours later, both men were banished from England.
Norfolk ended up in Venice where he died on September 22, 1399, while Henry’s case was a bit more significant. At the time of Henry’s exile, his father, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster was still living and Richard’s ruling was approved by him, though not necessarily personally endorsed. For a time, Henry resided in France where he met and mingled with members of Isabelle’s family, including her uncle, Louis, Duke of Orleans. Due to her father’s mental health problems, Orleans, alongside his cousin, the Duke of Burgundy, were in a constant battle of wills and power struggle. The two men worked together to overthrow current regimes in their respective countries, offering the other support.
In the meantime, however, John of Gaunt died in February 1399 and Richard took the bulk of his estate – one of the richest in the realm – for himself, depriving Henry of his inheritance. During this time, Isabelle was at Windsor where she was visited by Richard in the gardens before he departed for a military campaign in Ireland. Richard reportedly promised that he would send for her to join him shortly – in fact, that meeting would be the last time either saw each other. Soon after he left, Richard ordered Lady de Courcy, Isabelle’s chief governess, to return to France, which would have been a personal blow to the young queen.
In July Richard was in Ireland with Henry’s eldest son and heir, Henry of Monmouth, when Henry landed in England from France, claiming all he wanted was the restoration of his inheritance. At arrival the number of men with him was modest, but as he traveled through England unstopped his numbers swelled to becoming an overpowering military force. Richard’s uncle, the Duke of York, traveled between Richard and Henry to transmit messages, Henry still claiming that he had no desire to fight.
By the time Richard returned to England, there was little he could do – or that anyone could do for him. Richard was taken into custody by Henry, who mobilized to take the crown for himself. On August 19, the estates of the realm were summoned and Richard “willingly” abdicated in the hopes of his life being spared. He was taken to London and imprisoned in the Tower of London, while Henry made a formal claim to the throne on September 30. Henry was formally crowned king at Westminster on October 13.
Richard remained under strict lock and key, languishing for some time in the Tower before eventually moving to Pontefract Castle where he was murdered. An exact date of death is unknown, but the general consensus is that it was carried out in February 1400. He was laid to rest near Edward II, yet another unpopular king who had been deposed.
Isabelle, then nine years old, remained in England in diplomatic limbo. In the middle of the rebellion, her house was ambushed by Henry’s men and she was kept in Berkshire as the political machinations in London played out, not allowed to see Richard after his return and abdication or before his execution. Unclear what to do with her, the new Henry IV delayed returning her to France by proposing a match between her and Henry of Monmouth, now Prince of Wales. The French were horrified and it came to nothing.
In May 1401, well over a year after Richard’s death, Henry signed a treaty with France at Leulinghelm that agreed to return a portion of Isabelle’s belongings, but it wasn’t until 1404 that she was finally allowed to return to France. At the time of her return, Isabelle was 15.
It’s debatable whether life in France was much better. In the eight years since her departure, her father’s health had declined, the government was more corrupt and the fighting between Orleans and Burgundy deepened. In 1405 there was a crisis when the Duke of Burgundy attempted to kidnap Isabelle’s younger brother, the dauphin, and his siblings (not Isabelle) and was forced to return them, sparking a reckoning within the government over who held the reins of power.
On June 29, 1406, Isabelle married her first cousin, the eldest son and heir of her uncle, the Duke of Orleans. Based mainly in Blois, she was witness to the growing strife of her family, particularly when her father-in-law was murdered on the orders of Burgundy in November 1407. Siding with her in-laws, she was estranged from her parents who pardoned Burgundy out of necessity until a peace was reached at Chartres in March 1409. By then Isabelle was pregnant with her first child. She gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne, that September and died a few days later on the 13th. She was only 19 years old.
Her second husband, Charles, Duke of Orleans, became a leader of one faction in the ongoing Burgundian-Armagnac civil war. He made a deal with Henry IV’s government in England in 1412/1413 in the hopes of using them to permanently oust Burgundy, however Henry IV’s death in 1413 and Henry V’s accession helped fast-track England’s invasion. He fought at the Battle of Agincourt in October 1415 and was captured. He remained a prisoner in England until his release in 1440.
Her daughter, Jeanne, married Jean, Duke of Alencon in 1424. She died, childless, in 1432.
Isabelle’s younger sister, Katherine, born after Isabelle’s marriage to Richard and raised in the convent of Poissy, married Henry V in 1420 and was the mother of Henry VI. After her husband’s death in 1422 she married Owen Tudor, eventually becoming the grandmother and great-grandmother of Henry VII and Henry VIII.