Thursday, 16 April 2015

Edward II and Isabella of France

The relationship between King Edward II and his wife Isabella of France is almost always depicted in negative terms. In Derek Jarman's film Edward II (1991), Tilda Swinton offers a sexually frustrated, ambitious Isabella who turns against her ineffectual husband and usurps his throne. In Mel Gibson's Braveheart (1995), Isabella enjoys a romantic affair with the Scottish landowner and hero William Wallace, perhaps because she experiences frustration and dismay with her husband Edward. The film even suggests that Wallace is the father of her son Prince Edward, despite the fact that Wallace died in 1305, three years before Isabella arrived in England and seven years before the birth of the prince. Biographers of Isabella have tended to characterise the queen as a passive victim of her cruel and merciless husband. She apparently was humiliated, hurt and shamed by his homosexual relationships. She was neglected at court and was mistreated by her husband's courtiers. Finally, her husband seized her children from her and took hold of all of her estates, lands and possessions. He probably allowed his lover Hugh Despenser to violate her. The long-suffering Isabella, who by now had had enough, departed for France alongside her lover Roger Mortimer and arrived back in England with foreign aid. The citizens of England, who loathed their king as much as she did, willingly rallied to her side, and together they marched through the country. Edward was removed from the throne and the popular Isabella achieved a resounding victory. Her son Edward was crowned Edward III and Isabella was celebrated forever after as a liberator.

However, the real story is not as simple as this version would like to make out. This version reduces Edward and Isabella to simplistic and unconvincing cardboard caricatures: Edward as a sexually depraved bully and Isabella as a passive, humiliated victim. This does no justice to the real people. King Edward and his queen actually enjoyed a close, supportive relationship for most of their lives together. They had four children with one another, and frequently departed for France on peace missions, where contemporaries, including Geoffrey of Paris in 1313, noted their love and respect for one another. Isabella sought her husband's support and assistance in her household governance, which he readily gave. Edward was so impressed with his young wife's success in the sphere of her household that he awarded her with possession of the great seal on two occasions, in 1319 and 1321, which greatly honoured the queen and confirmed his trust in her abilities.

Isabella was happy enough to approach Edward when she sought to intercede on behalf of individuals. The administrative documents at the National Archives are full of references to her seeking pardons from the king for those whom she felt to be oppressed and in need of assistance. Edward made sure his wife enjoyed a splendid household and she was afforded every dignity as queen. It is actually uncertain, contrary to popular belief, how she felt about Piers Gaveston, her husband's favourite and, possibly, lover, but it does not seem her relations with Gaveston were as hostile as is often believed. She assisted him financially in 1311 before his exile from England, and she sheltered some of his supporters in her household. There is no evidence of how Isabella personally felt about him. 

The relationship between the royal couple did become more strained in the mid-1320s, probably because of Hugh Despenser's malign influence. He seems to have begun a concerted campaign of poisoning the king's mind against his wife, perhaps because he was attempting to replace her in Edward's counsels. In September 1324, the king seized all of Isabella's estates and lands. Yet this does not mean that Isabella gradually came to hate and despise her husband. On the contrary, when she was abroad a year or so later, she continually reiterated her desire to return to Edward, because she loved him and wished to obey his wishes. However, she felt that she could not do so on account of the enmity of Despenser and his father. She believed that her very life would be endangered if she returned to the country. Isabella also sought to protect her son Prince Edward's inheritance, who was with her in France: rumours were circulating at this point that he would be disinherited and not allowed to succeed to the throne on account of his refusal to return to England. 

The evidence credibly suggests that Isabella loved her husband and longed to return to him, but could not do so on account of the malicious Despensers, who enjoyed the king's influence and protection. Edward came to view his wife as disobedient and treacherous, for he was unable to appreciate the danger she faced. Their marriage fell into ruin and they were never able to experience the happiness which they had enjoyed in each other's company for such a long period. Whether Edward was murdered in the autumn of 1327, or whether he died at a later date as an obscure pilgrim in Europe, Isabella certainly continued to honour his memory and, when she died in 1358, she chose to be buried with his heart. The relationship between Edward and Isabella was not one of abuse, hatred and murder. It was, for fifteen years, a loving, stable and supportive union. The royal couple were frequently in one another's company and were parents to four children. Contemporaries commented on their love for one another. Yet the malign influence of the Despensers and Edward's growing tyranny destroyed their once happy marriage. 


  1. Conor, It might be helpful if you cite some sources for these articles. The fact that Isabella interceded for others with the king doesn't necessarily mean she was happy in her marriage. Medieval queens were expected to intercede. It was their "job" so to speak, along with being pious.

    1. Very true Susan. But it is interesting that Isabella felt comfortable enough approaching her husband on many occasions. This should be looked at alongside their frequent trips abroad; their many letters to one another (in which Isabella addressed her husband in affectionate terms); and Isabella's declaration, as several chroniclers reported, that she would return to Edward were it not for the Despensers.

  2. Thank you for this! Queen Isabella and King Henry are my great great great.... grandparents!