Isabella of France, Queen of England

Born: c. 1295

Paris, France

Died: August 22, 1358

Hertford, Hertfordshire, England (Age c. 63)

Isabella in History

Being the only daughter of King Philip IV of France, it comes as no surprise that Princess Isabella was used as a political bargaining tool from a very young age. Marriage proposals were discussed as early as 1298, when Isabella was not yet three, with King Edward I of England for a union between Isabella and the English king's eldest son and heir, Prince Edward. The wedding finally occurred in January 1308, when Isabella was still only around twelve and the prince had now become King Edward II. Isabella's new husband immediately showed his wasteful behavior when he gave a majority of the couple's wedding gifts away to his favorite at court, Piers Gaveston. Edward II and Gaveston (a knight of Gascony who had previously been exiled by Edward I for the inappropriate relationship the king felt he and his son were engaging in) were rumored by many to be lovers, and certain sources will mention that the king spent more time in Gaveston's bed than in that of his wife. This is all mere speculation, and one must remember that the queen was well underage when they were married and that their eldest child was conceived in about February 1312, several months before Gaveston's murder (July of that year). After Gaveston's death, the royal couple seemingly enjoyed a happy marriage, and three more children (a son and two daughters) were born.

Even with his much hated favorite Gaveston out of the way, Edward II proved to be an insufficient monarch and, at many points, had a tense relationship with his magnates. Isabella, on a number of occasions, acted as a mediator between the two sides and also did her best to secure peaceful relations between England and her native France. The king achieved a major victory over the rebellious magnates after his victory at the Battle of Boroughbridge (1322), where his cousin, the Earl of Lancaster, was captured and subsequently executed, but by this point, two men named Hugh Despencer (father and son) were controlling access to the king and were receiving the same lavish and wasteful gifts that had been heaped upon Gaveston ten years earlier. The Despencers were much hated by the queen and all the magnates, and Isabella was practically ignored by her husband while they were in power. It is for this reason that Isabella decided to become the leading opponent of her husband and his evil counselors. In 1325, she was sent to France on a diplomatic mission pertaining to the Duchy of Gascony, which her brother Charles IV had partially taken control of after the minor (though ultimately fateful) War of Saint Sardos. While in France, the queen conspired with a number of English exiles who shared her hatred of the regime of Edward and the Despencers. The most significant English exile she associated with was Roger Mortimer, a powerful marcher lord who had narrowly escaped execution after Boroughbridge. Soon enough, the two became lovers.

Isabella gained another bargaining tool later in 1325 when her eldest son and heir to the English throne, Prince Edward, was foolishly sent to France to pay homage to the French king in place of his father, who (rightfully) feared that his enemies abroad would conspire against him and his enemies at home would eliminate his favorites in his absence. At this point, the plot was devised that Isabella and Mortimer would gather an army, invade England, depose Edward II and place the young prince on the throne so that they may rule the country in his name. Charles IV, however, refused to give any military aid and was fed up with the fact that his sister and Mortimer were so open about their adulterous affair. The two did find help from Count Guillaume of Hainault (though the military assistance came primarily from the count's brother John), and Prince Edward was betrothed to the count's daughter Philippa to seal the union between the two sides. With John of Hainault's help, Isabella and Mortimer invaded England in September 1326 and gained a slew of followers her greeted them as liberators against the regime of the Despencers. Both Despencers were captured and executed, the younger Hugh in a highly gruesome fashion, and the king was captured and forced to abdicate the throne in favor of his son, who was soon after crowned as King Edward III. Edward II was transferred to several different prisons but was ultimately murdered (undoubtedly under Mortimer's orders) in a hideous manner after there were several plots revealed for his liberation.

For the next three years, Isabella and Mortimer ruled England as de facto co-regents in the underage king's name. However, they proved to be no more popular than the Despencers had been. They made an extremely unpopular truce (the Treaty of Norhampton-Edinburgh) with Robert I of Scotland and executed the late king's brother, the Earl of Kent, for supposedly spreading a rumor that his brother was still alive. By 1330, Edward III had had enough of their oppressive rule and suddenly had them both arrested in the middle of the night. Mortimer was promptly executed and Isabella, though allowed to keep her life, was forced to retire quietly. She lived the rest of her life as a political exile in England (though she enjoyed all the benefits of a former queen) until her death in 1358. Most historians will portray Queen Isabella in an extremely negative light, but it must be remembered that she did what she thought was best for England during the time of an incompetent ruler. However, the fact that the regime her and her lover ran was just as terrible gives evidence that her intentions were not as noble as she would have people believe.

Isabella in Marlowe

Appears in: Edward II

Within Edward II, we are, at first, given a sympathetic portrayal of Queen Isabella. She is a good woman who is severely neglected by her husband who cares only for his favorites Gaveston and the Spencers. Though the king accuses her early on of having an affair with Mortimer, there is no evidence this is true until much later in the play when the plot becomes clear that Edward II will be deposed. The general belief is that the queen was pushed into the bed of another man as a result of the king's emotionally abusive behavior. At this point, Isabella gradually begins to agree with Mortimer's policies, including the execution of the Earl of Kent, which greatly alienates her from her son, the new King Edward III. After the young king has Mortimer arrested and executed, he orders that his mother be given a fair trial, and she is led off pleading to her son for mercy.


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