Fun fact: Henry VIII was not the first English monarch to divorce his wife. That dubious honor goes to King John of Magna Carta fame, though it should be noted that the “divorce” was in fact an annulment and, as I’ve noted before, it was a bit of a reverse-Katherine of Aragon situation. In John’s case, he left his English wife for a brilliant foreign match and not the other way around. His motivation for doing this was, however, a situation Henry would have found familiar – he was a younger son not originally intended for the throne.
John was born on Christmas Eve 1166, the youngest child of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, arguably the most famous power couple of the Middle Ages. Between them they held not only England, but Normandy and Aquitaine, making them a true force to be reckoned with on the continent. Without the mandate of absolute primogeniture, Henry’s empire could in theory be split between his sons, much in the way William the Conqueror had done so a century before, but such wouldn’t be Henry’s strategy.
John, the youngest, not only had to jockey with his eldest brother – Henry – but two others, Richard and Geoffrey, who would claim a piece of the pie. As the least important, John in fact spent his childhood in Fontrevaud Abbey alongside his sister, Joan, where he was intended for an ecclesiastical career.
As John grew up, the situation changed – dramatically. Content with dividing his own estate among his three eldest sons, Henry II sought to solve the problem of John by marrying him abroad. Namely, he sought to invest him with Savoy, Piedmont and Maurienne by marrying him to Alais of Savoy, the daughter of Count Humbert III. The match never came to be and by 1174, Alais was dead. More importantly, 1173 marked the year in which John’s brothers rebelled against their father. The King triumphed and was eventually reconciled with his children, but John rose in prominence almost de facto – he was the son who remained loyal, child though he was.
In 1176, Henry arranged the betrothal of John to Isabel, daughter and heir of the Earl of Gloucester. When the Earl died in 1183, Henry duly swooped in and secured the estate for his son’s use by disinheriting Isabel’s two sisters, but still a marriage wasn’t forthcoming. That same year, John’s eldest brother died, leaving Richard as the heir, but there was little love lost between Henry and Richard. In other words, it behooved Henry to keep John single and on the market so as to use him for negotiations throughout Europe and as an ax over Richard’s head.
It was hardly an ideal situation for Isabel, but the status quo remained in place for six years until Henry died and Richard ascended the throne as King Richard I. Unlike his father, he had every intention of getting Richard’s matrimonial future locked down lest his younger brother be ushered into rebellion through a foreign alliance. John and Isabel were married at Marlborough Castle on August 29th of that year.
Sadly, we have no idea what the couple made of one another, and while John’s formative years are at least somewhat recorded, we have little insight into Isabel’s life prior to her marriage. We don’t even know what year she was born, with some estimating that she was approaching 30 in 1189 – and thus eager to marry – and others that she was only a teenager. The only thing we can say with reasonable confidence about this wedding is that it was brought about at the King’s insistence.
Legally, the marriage posed a question that would haunt the couple. Soon after the wedding, the Archbishop of Canterbury declared the union invalid on the grounds of consanguinity (both were descendants of Henry I). John went through the motions of obtaining a provisional dispensation from a papal legate in England, but nothing had been confirmed by the Pope. As such, the marriage would easily be dissolved.
The issue came to a head first in 1192 when King Philip Augustus of France, eager to make problems for Richard, offered John the chance to take over for his brother if he would promise to marry his sister, Alys. Alys had once been betrothed to Richard, a situation complicated by his feud with Henry II – more on that here. John accepted despite having a wife, which was mostly driven by ambition in all likelihood, but certainly doesn’t paint a picture of happy domesticity. The plan didn’t pan out.
That John intended to do away with his marriage became all the more apparent seven years later when Richard died. Without a child of his own, the throne passed to John (their brother, Geoffrey, having died in 1186) who promptly saw himself crowned king in May 1199, but made no move to have his wife crowned queen. By the end of the year, he convinced the bishops of Normandy to declare his marriage invalid, and by August 1200 he had married Isabella of Angouleme.
Further proof that John’s first marriage was never highly regarded in his eyes comes from the fact that he was a serial philanderer. By itself that’s hardly notable given the time and situation, but the fact that he took noblewomen as mistresses and acknowledged several bastards born after his wedding date is slightly more so.
But Isabel doesn’t wholly disappear from view at this point, though what we know raises more questions than answers. John’s second wife was a literal child and during her first years in England, she spent large swathes of time out of the King’s company and instead with various noblewomen charged with her care. In 1205 and 1206, records indicate that Isabella was one such woman tasked with caring for the Queen. We also know that even after the divorce, the King continued to subsidize her household.
It’s impossible to know how to read this. Some argue that it was an extra step to humiliate a detested first wife, others that it was a sign of respect and trust. Whatever the case, Isabel missed out on the chance to join the history books, stepping aside for a young woman who would become one of England’s most unpopular – and arguably deservedly so – queen consorts.
The earldom of Gloucester stayed with John post-divorce. He awarded it to Isabel’s nephew during his lifetime, and when he died in 1213, Isabel once more took the title Countess of Gloucester. She went on to marry a second time in 1214 to Geoffrey FitzGeoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex and a third in September 1217 to Hubert de Burgh. Isabel died just a month into her third marriage, passing away in Keynsham Abbey in Somerset. She is buried in Canterbury Cathedral.