Thursday, 3 October 2013

Isabella of France, Queen of England

Above: Isabella of France - a 15th century portrait (left) and a later drawing (right).

Although Margaret of Anjou, consort of Henry VI of England, was famously the English queen termed 'she-wolf' by Shakespeare, it is Isabella of France (c1295-1358), wife of Edward II, whom many both then and now continue to view as a she-wolf, an adulteress, a murderess, and a ruthless schemer. Thomas Gray, writing in the 1750s, notoriously wrote of Isabella:

she-Wolf of France, with unrelenting fangs
That tear'st the bowels of thy mangled mate.

Alison Weir, whose 2005 biography was somewhat controversial for its almost hagiographic treatment of Isabella and its disapproval of Edward, believes that Isabella 'has been more vilified than any other English queen' - although the likes of Margaret of Anjou and Anne Boleyn might have something to say about that. The Victorian historian Agnes Strickland opined that 'no Queen of England has left so dark a stain on the annals of female royalty as Isabella', and Kenneth Fowler called her 'a woman of evil character, a notorious schemer'.

While these hostile and cruel views of Isabella are certainly exaggerated and distorted, there are considerable dangers in reverting to the other extreme position and viewing her with warmness, admiration, or support. Weir herself contends that, had it not been for Isabella's adultery with Mortimer following her husband's deposition, she might have been  remembered as a liberator who 'unshackled England from a weak and vicious monarch'.

As with other misunderstood queens of this era, Isabella's life can only be understood fully in context of the age in which she lived and through paying close attention to her gender. Until the collapse of her marriage to Edward II in the 1310s/20s, Isabella was universally popular throughout England, and was praised by French chroniclers as 'Isabella the Fair'. Her beauty, personality and traits were warmly praised. In many ways, her desire to take charge of English politics can be applauded, for as Theresa Earenfight wryly notes, she acted like a king, but this severely threatened her husband because, in being unable to control her, he was made to seem less than a man.

Writing in 1984, Sophia Menache very thought-provokingly suggested, in her reinterpretation of Isabella's career, that 'if the kings of England are not measured according to their morality alone, then Isabella of France should not be denied this privilege either'. She questioned why historians continually are unable to keep their subjects at an emotional arm's length, and let their own moral judgements influence their interpretations of their subjects. She has a compelling point - rather than judging Isabella's life emotionally and dramatically from a moral standpoint, perhaps, in Menache's words, a more 'scientific' approach would be of greater value.

Isabella clearly took her duties as queen seriously following her marriage to the handsome Edward II in 1308, aged twelve. She participated in acts of intercession, maintained an orderly household, and was renowned as a peacemaker (particularly during her husband's conflicts with the nobles of the kingdom). How she personally felt about her husband's relationship with Piers Gaveston is unknown - historians fiercely debate whether the two enjoyed homosexual relations, or whether it was more of an adoptive brotherhood. Contemporary sources depicted Isabella as an important political personage, but this was perceived to be dangerous since it 'did not conform to the conventional expectations of medieval English queens' (Menache). As Menache wittily suggests, Isabella was 'the antithesis' of most queenly conventions.

As with Margaret of Anjou, Isabella clearly believed that she had a right to be closely involved in English politics. As her marriage with Edward deteriorated, she sought aid from abroad, returning to her native France. Although modern historians often assume that her open adultery with Roger Mortimer scandalised the people of England and led to a dramatic loss of support for her cause, Menache insightfully suggests that it was her assumption of the king's duties, the disastrous policy with Scotland, and her financial mismanagement that led to Isabella's downfall rather than her private life.

It is uncertain whether Isabella was involved in the murder of her husband, Edward II. Some historians believe today that he actually escaped and lived out the rest of his life in Europe as a hermit, but that is unlikely. It is probably certain, however, that the brutal red-hot poker story was nothing but a myth created by chroniclers to discredit Isabella's regime. As queen, she certainly exhibited signs of cruelty, particularly when she forced three of her enemy Despenser's daughters to become nuns - although these girls were only children at the time. But whether she deserves the epithet 'she-wolf' is questionable.

Again, as with Margaret, it was Isabella's disastrous marriage that unsettled and undermined her. Had she been married to a strong, popular monarch who enjoyed good relations with the English nobility and maintained peace in his kingdom, she might have continued to remain a popular consort celebrated within the realm. Neither she-wolf nor 'liberator', she was a powerful, charismatic, determined woman who sought to preserve peace in the realm and ensure her son Edward's succession to the throne. Historians should detach  themselves when discussing her career and not stoop to moral judgements. What Isabella was, or how she behaved, is removed from us by 700 years. A fairer, and less emotional, assessment of her life is long overdue.

Like most people, Isabella was a complex personality. It is unfair and ridiculous to reduce her to a monstrous caricature, the bloodthirsty she-wolf, the cruel murderess, the unfaithful adulteress. But at the same time, it is pathetic to view her life with tear-filled eyes, characterising her as a much wronged wife, a victim, an oppressed woman who lost her sense of womanhood because of her continual embarrassment at the hands of her 'homosexual' husband (if he even was...) She took her duties as queen seriously, was extremely popular in England, and was remembered during her own lifetime as 'Isabella the Fair'. Yet it is also clear that she was ruthless, scheming, perhaps manipulative. She wanted the best for her son (later Edward III) and clearly believed that she deserved better. We should view her life with interest, but not indulgence, nor with hostility. Both the woman and her career deserve better than either.

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