Much is made nowadays of Isabella’s supposed ‘neglect’ by her husband in the first months and years of her marriage and life in England, usually by people who conveniently ignore that she was little more than a child married to a man almost twice her age who was, admittedly, involved in an intense relationship with Piers Gaveston, earl of Cornwall. She and Edward were crowned king and queen of England at Westminster Abbey on 25 February 1308, exactly a month after their wedding. Shortly afterwards, Edward granted Isabella a generous income out of the revenues of the county of Ponthieu in northern France, his inheritancefrom his half-Spanish, half-French mother Eleanor of Castile – Ponthieu was not Isabella’s dowry, as is often stated – and a large household of close to 200 people. The king also paid all his wife’s expenses. In February or March 1312 when Isabella was sixteen, she and Edward conceived their first child, the future Edward III, who was born on 13 November 1312. Contrary to popular belief, based on nothing more than a modern assumption that because Edward II was a lover of men he must have been incapable of intercourse with women, there is no doubt whatsoever that Edward was the boy’s father. Three more children were to follow: John of Eltham, earl of Cornwall, born 15 August 1316; Eleanor of Woodstock, duchess of Guelders, born 18 June 1318; Joan of the Tower, queen of Scotland, born 5 July 1321.
There is no reason to suppose that until about 1322 at the earliest, Edward and Isabella’s marriage was an unhappy or tragic or even a particularly unusual one; for many years there is ample evidence of mutual support and affection between the couple, with modern assumptions that it must have been a disaster from start to finish, and that Isabella must have always loathed her husband, based solely on hindsight knowledge of how it ended. How Isabella felt about her husband’s ‘favourite’ Piers Gaveston is unknown and unknowable, but there is no evidence for the assertion that she must have loathed him and wished him ill. Here are some examples of the couple’s apparent closeness: in 1313 Edward and Isabella spent a few weeks in France at her father Philip IV’s court. One morning, Edward arrived late for a meeting with Philipbecause he and Isabella had overslept, and on another occasion, he saved her life when a fire broke out in their bedchamber one night and he scooped her up and rushed outside with her, although they were both naked or in their bedclothes. It certainly seems to me that their intimate marital relations were entirely normal, even close. They conceived Edward III during Lent in 1312, a time when intercourse was forbidden, which hardly implies that Edward slept with his wife unwillingly; Lent gave him a perfect excuse to avoid it if he wanted to. In 1316 when Isabella was pregnant with their second son John, Edward paid for cushions for her carriage so that she could travel in greater comfort, and bought new horses to carry her litter. In his letters to her (few of which survive, sadly), Edward called his wife ‘dear heart’ while in her own letters she called him ‘my very sweet heart’ (mon tresdoutz coer). Even in 1326 when she refused to return to him and remained in France with their son, and later led an invasion of England against him, Isabella still referred to her husband as “our very dear and very sweet lord and friend” (nostre trescher and tresdouz seigneur et amy), which is a most unconventional form of address and hints that, despite her anger and humiliation at his confiscating her lands, reducing her income and his permitting his ‘favourite’ Hugh Despenser to treat her with disrespect, she neither hated Edward nor felt “profound revulsion” for him, as a modern writer has claimed. On the contrary, this unconventional way of referring to her husband as ‘sweet’ and her ‘friend’ implies that, despite her rebellion against him as a king, she still felt affection for him as her husband. When Edward was detained in custody in 1327 after his forced abdication in favour of his and Isabella’s son Edward III, Isabella continued to send him gifts and letters – something she had absolutely no reason to do unless she genuinely wanted to, which again implies that despite everything, Isabella still felt affection for the difficult, unpredictable, erratic, fiercely emotional man who had been her husband for nearly twenty years and whose existence had been a constant in her life since she was a toddler. Edward II and Isabella’s relationship was, in my opinion, far more complex and interesting than the tediously basic ‘nasty cruel Edward / suffering neglected little Isabella’ way it is most often depicted nowadays. It seems to me, however, that this is something some people don’t want to hear; I’ve been told here and on my Facebook page about Edward that I’m wrong to think that maybe, just maybe, Edward and Isabella’s relationship was slightly more complex and one-dimensional than the usual ‘he ignored her, she hated him’ way it’s mostly written these days. That I’m wrong to think that a marriage which lasted nearly twenty years might change and develop, that each partner’s feelings might likewise have evolved and changed and might not have been relentlessly negative all the damn time. It’s not as though either of them had foreknowledge of what would happen in 1325/27; as far as both Edward and Isabella were concerned, they would be married for life, and it was in both their interests to make their relationship work as well as they could.
It can hardly be denied, however, that when their marriage did go wrong, it went spectacularly wrong. Although often-repeated stories such as, for instance, Edward cruelly ‘removing’ Isabella’s children from her andgiving her jewels to Piers Gaveston, are modern inventions, he did confiscate her lands in September 1324 and reduce her income when he was at war with her brother Charles IV, to Isabella’s understandable fury. It was almost certainly this, and her hatred and fear of her husband’s chamberlain and ‘favourite’ Hugh Despenser the Younger and his father the elder Hugh Despenser, which led Isabella to take a momentous step, and lead a rebellion against her own husband. Sent to Paris by her husband in March 1325 to negotiate a peace treaty with her brother, and reunited with her son the future Edward III there six months later, the queen refused to return to England and to her husband unless he removed Hugh Despenser from his side, which he refused to do. She began a relationship with Sir Roger Mortimer, lord of Wigmore, a Contrariant (baronial rebel) who had been imprisoned in February 1322 and escaped from the Tower of London in August 1323, and fled to the continent. Whatever is claimed nowadays, the true nature of Isabella and Roger’s relationship is uncertain; usually assumed with very little evidence to have been passionately sexual and a great love affair, it may merely have been, at least at the start, a political alliance between two people who hated the Despensers and their influence over the king, and wanted their lands back. Perhaps I’m just cynical, but it seems highly unlikely to me that Roger Mortimer fell deeply and sincerely in love with Isabella in late 1325, given the benefits he was to derive from the relationship, ultimately becoming the richest and most powerful man in England. (In the same way, I certainly don’t believe that Hugh Despenser the Younger just happened to fall madly and genuinely in love with Edward II in 1318.) The first people to suggest that Isabella had some kind of relationship with Roger Mortimer before late 1325 were the dramatists Christopher Marlowe and Michael Drayton in the 1590s, and although some fourteenth-century chroniclers say that the pair were rumoured to have had a ‘liaison’ or a ‘familiarity’, others state merely that Mortimer was Isabella’s ‘chief counsellor’ or even just ‘of her faction’, and don’t hint at any kind of romantic or sexual relationship. It was nowhere near as ‘notorious’ or ‘flaunted’ as it’s usually said to be nowadays. Many modern writers assume that Isabella had something to do with Mortimer’s escape from the Tower in 1323, or at the very least smoothed his path to her brother’s court afterwards, but this is also based solely on centuries of hindsight and cannot be corroborated.
I’m afraid that I simply cannot see the romance that many others see in Isabella and Mortimer’s actions of 1326 to 1330. Assuming that their relationship was indeed sexual, it was doubly adulterous, yet the same modern commentators who complain about how tragic and awful it is that Isabella was ‘neglected’ by her husband for other people never express the same compassion for Mortimer’s loyal wife Joan Geneville, who had borne him a dozen children and was held in close confinement for years because of his treason against his king. The people who applaud Isabella’s cleverness, courage, strength and amazing empowerment in acting against her husband and invading England never seem to consider what it involved: keeping her thirteen-year-old son little more than a prisoner in a foreign country; forcing him to act as a weapon against his own father; leading an illegal invasion with mercenaries; destroying her husband’s relationship with his children. When Isabella and Mortimer were in power from late 1326 to late 1330, they proved no more competent and more greedy even than Edward II and the Despensers; in four years, Isabella bankrupted her son’s kingdom by enriching herself and her favourite almost beyond measure (they reduced the treasury from almost £80,000 in November 1326 to a mere £41 four years later), kept for herself the £20,000 given to England by Robert Bruce in exchange for peace, kept her son, again, little more than a prisoner while she and Mortimer ruled in his name (which they had no right to do as they had never been appointed to the regency council), kept him and his queen Philippa of Hainault humiliatingly short of money, and put spies in his household. The Brut chronicle says that by the late 1320s ‘the community of England began to hate Isabel the queen’, other chroniclers point out how she and Mortimer destroyed the kingdom, and their downfall in October 1330 when Mortimer was arrested, tried and hanged by the teenage king was greeted with universal joy and relief. Isabella was kept under house arrest for a while, but otherwise treated with respect by her son for the rest of her life, which was an entirely conventional one. She was not sent to a nunnery, or imprisoned, and did not go mad. She died at Hertford Castle on 22 August 1358 at the age of sixty-two or sixty-three and was buried at the Greyfriars church in London, not next to Roger Mortimer, as is still often claimed today – he was buried in Coventry – but with her husband Edward II’s heart (not Mortimer’s, as is also sometimes stated these days) and the mantle she had worn to their wedding. Some modern writers assume that Isabella continued to love Roger Mortimer for the rest of her life, and barely gave her husband a second thought. I have no idea one way or the other, but little in the evidence we have bears this out. I do think that Isabella was a woman with a strong sense of her royalty and high position, and her marriage to Edward had made her a queen. And as I’ve pointed out elsewhere in this post, although Isabella didn’t meet Edward until she was twelve, she had known of his existence as her future husband for her entire life. To suggest that she never gave her husband, the father of her children, the man who had put a crown on her head, another thought after 1327 seems utterly ridiculous to me.
In the past, Isabella was unfairly condemned by many writers as a ‘She-Wolf’ (a nickname first given to her in a 1757 poem, and still, annoyingly, sometimes used even today) and condemned as wicked and unnatural by writers incensed that a woman could commit adultery and rebel against her lawfully wedded spouse. In recent decades her reputation has been re-examined, however, and in the many novels and non-fictional works about her she is more often portrayed as a long-suffering, put-upon victim of her cruel neglectful husband who is miraculously transformed into an empowered feminist icon, striking a courageous blow for women everywhere by fighting back against marital oppression and finding an opportunity for self-fulfilment by taking a ‘strong, manly, virile, unequivocally heterosexual’ lover. The ‘She-Wolf’ nonsense is ridiculous, but perhaps the pendulum has been swinging too far in the other direction lately. Depictions of Isabella reflect the way society currently views women who step outside the bounds of conventional behaviour rather than the real woman, who was neither a modern feminist and believer in sexual equality transplanted to the Middle Ages, nor an evil unfeminine caricature. Like her husband, Isabella was a complex character with qualities both admirable and not. Avaricious and extravagant to a degree extraordinary even by the standards of the time, she nevertheless had many fine qualities, including compassion, loyalty, generosity, piety and courage. The contemporary chronicler Godefroy of Paris claimed that she was “very wise”, and although for sure Isabella was an intelligent person, most of her actions during her regency of 1327 to 1330, the only period in her life when she had much of a chance to act independently, hardly seem to demonstrate wisdom.
There is a tendency in modern writing to excuse, minimise and justify (or preferably ignore altogether) Isabella’s less pleasant actions by blaming them on the convenient scapegoat Roger Mortimer and her infatuation with him, which I find patronising and paternalistic. Edward II’s many errors and flaws are not excused on the grounds of his infatuation with Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser; Roger Mortimer’s own errors and flaws are not excused on the grounds of infatuation with Isabella. If Isabella is to be praised for her courage and intelligence and assumed to have been acting under her own agency when doing things modern writers approve of, she must be held equally responsible for the actions they don’t like, in the same way as men generally are. Isabella was, in many ways, a remarkable person, who would probably not recognise herself in the frequently mawkish, inaccurate tales invented and related about her in modern times, such as having her children ‘removed’ from her, being ‘abandoned’ by her husband when pregnant in 1312 and having to see her husband’s lover parade around in front of her wearing her own jewels. I truly hope that one day we see a more accurate, scholarly re-telling of her life which puts these tiresome myths to rest rather than perpetuating them, and examines Isabella and her life and actions fairly without whitewashing or blackwashing either her or Edward II. Re-writing Isabella’s life to cast her as either a helpless victim of nasty men or as an evil manipulative bitch is simplistic, inaccurate and unhelpful. Isabella and Edward were both complex, fascinating people and their marriage was equally complex, and too much modern writing about them reduces them both to the level of one-dimensional, tedious caricatures.