Queens of England + Isabella of France (1295-1358)
Isabella was born in 1295, the youngest surviving daughter of Philip IV of France and Joan I of Navarre. She was brought up in Paris and given a good education where she developed a love of books. Contemporaries would later comment on her intelligence which was unusual for the medieval period.
As an infant, Isabella was promised in marriage to Edward, Prince of Wales to help resolve conflicts between England and France. Philip and Edward I wrangled over the terms of the contract until the latter died so it wasn’t until 1308 that the marriage occurred when Isabella was 12.
Isabella’s husband became notorious for the favoritism he showed to Piers Gaveston but she continued to show support in the early years of their marriage. She developed a working relationship with Gaveston and used her relationship with the French monarchy to bolster her own authority and power. When Gaveston died in 1312 at the hands of the barons, Isabella’s position grew more precarious. Edward turned to a new favorite, Hugh Despenser, and attempted to take revenge on the barons which resulted in the Despenser War.
Isabella could not tolerate the new favorite and effectively left Edward in 1322 when she left the court on a pilgrimage around England by herself. She returned briefly in 1323 but refused to take a loyalty oath to the Despensers and was removed from the process of granting royal patronage. In 1324, Edward and the Despensers confiscated all of Isabella’s lands, took over the running of her household, and arrested and imprisoned all of her French staff. Her youngest children were also taken from her and placed in the custody of the Despensers.
Her marriage effectively over, Isabella traveled to France in 1325 under the guise of a diplomatic mission and began an affair with Roger Mortimer. They agreed to depose Edward and oust the Despensers and returned to England with a mercenary army in 1326. Edward’s forces deserted him and Isabella deposed him, becoming regent on behalf of her son, Edward III. Isabella and Mortimer’s regime began to crumble after Edward II’s death in 1327 and it is not impossible that he was murdered on Isabella’s orders.
In 1330, Edward III deposed Mortimer, taking back his authority and executing him. Edward showed leniency toward his mother and Isabella lived the rest of her live in considerable style although not at her son’s court. In her later years, Isabella doted on her grandchildren and became increasingly interested in religion. She took the habit of the Poor Clares before she died in 1358 and her body was buried at the Franciscan church at Newgate. At her request, Edward’s heart, placed in a casket thirty years before, was interred with her.
Isabella became known as the “She-wolf of France” in the 18th century when Thomas Gray produced an anti-French poem in which she rips apart the bowels of Edward II with her “unrelenting fangs.” (x)