One of the most pivotal Plantagenet reigns was that of Edward III between 1327 and 1377. Part of that is due to its sheer length – 50 years would be a remarkable reign today, so imagine how that felt in the 14th century. Another facet is everything that was accomplished during that time, not least of which were strategic victories against the French at Crecy and Poitiers. But its greatest legacy was the dynasty that Edward left behind, one which in some respects was night and day from the England which he inherited as an adolescent, and in others was an eerie mirror image of it.
Eleanor of Woodstock had the misfortune to be born a daughter of Edward II and Isabelle of France, but the stubbornness, resourcefulness and tenacity that she may have inherited from them saw her through the dark side of a Medieval arranged marriage.
Edward III and his wife, Philippa of Hainaut are best-remembered for their plethora of sons, but between them they also produced five daughters, the eldest of whom was Isabella of England. Believed to be her father’s favorite, Isabella was born at Woodstock Castle on June 16, 1332 and named for her paternal grandmother, Isabelle of France.
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.
There once was a woman who married the King of France and the King of England, and her name was Eleanor of Aquitaine. You might have heard of her. Not only did she marry her way into two of the most prestigious European dynasties, she also divorced a king on her way to doing so. Consider the outrage and disdain with which Wallis Simpson was met in the 1930s and compare that with the fact that Eleanor went through a divorce and came out on top back in the 12th century. Let’s just say there’s a reason she’s famous.
Edmund of Woodstock’s trajectory would likely have been familiar terrain to the more famous Beaufort clan of the Wars of the Roses. Brother to a king, Edmund’s fortunes were tied to his relationship with the throne and, as a younger son, he was dependent on his own performance, ability and strategic marital alliance. In many ways, Edmund had the makings of an ideal Medieval prince and his brother, Edward II, was lucky to have him. Unfortunately for Edmund, the same couldn’t be said for the King, who was mercurial, self-interested and failed to understand the enormity of his position.
Loyal to the crown for the vast majority of his life, Edmund’s eventual defection to the coup that would bring his brother down speaks less to his own personal feelings and more to what he believed necessary to maintain England. That he wavered in his last years is tragic and his eventual arrest and execution mark one of the first instances a prince of the blood was put to death on the orders of a family member – its legacy can most closely be seen by the death of George, Duke of Clarence when Edward IV was on the throne and by the arrest of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester by Henry VI.
Philippa of Hainaut had the opposite problem of Henry VIII’s wives. Over the course of her 41-year marriage to Edward III she gave birth to 13 children, eight of them sons. Of those eight sons, five lived until adulthood. That might not seem extraordinary today, particularly in light of the fertility of Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in the 18th century or Queen Victoria in the 19th century, but for the 14th century’s infant mortality rate it was remarkable. Usually, in instances where the monarch had multiple sons they would slowly be picked off through warfare or illness, but the issue remained that several adult princes was both expensive and a liability, for all that it shored up the succession.
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.
It’s safe to say that Eleanor of Aquitaine’s five daughters have pretty much been over-shadowed by their legendary mother, but her youngest, Joan, gave her a solid run for her money. At the time of her October 1165 birth at Angers Castle in Anjou, the marriage of Eleanor and her second husband, King Henry II of England was on its last legs. Within a year, her father had begun what would become a flagrant and notorious affair with his mistress, Rosamund Clifford, and within two, her parents had seemingly agreed to separate, Eleanor packing up her belongings and leaving for Poitiers.
On this day, January 18, in 1425, Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March died at Trim Castle, on the south bank of the River Boyne in County Meath, Ireland. At the time of his death, Edmund was only a distant cousin of King Henry VI of England, with limited fortune and slim career prospects at court. However, he was a controversial figure in England and his death caused the royal family a certain amount of relief since some of his contemporaries maintained he, and not Henry VI, was the rightful king.
Henry VI’s grandfather, Henry IV, was the founder of the House of Lancaster after deposing the last Plantagenet king, Richard II, in 1399. Richard II’s claim to the throne was undeniable – he had been the only surviving son of the monarch’s eldest son (Edward, the Black Prince) – and he had smoothly inherited the throne from his grandfather, Edward III, in 1377 at 10 years old. It was less clear, however, who his own heir was since he, despite two marriages, was childless.
While today the laws of succession are clearly defined, it was bit murkier in the 14th century and Richard II’s own choice of his many uncles and cousins would have held significant sway, even if they were not next in birth order. The most powerful of Richard’s uncles – the sons of Edward III – was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. He was enormously wealthy, politically savvy and had decades of governing and military experience – he also had a capable heir, Henry of Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford. However, Gaunt wasn’t popular with his nephew the King and there were many at court that mistrusted his ambition – afraid that he would end up with too much centralized power during Richard’s minority or, worse, would attempt to seize the throne for himself.