Queen Isabella II: The She-Wolf of France

Born in Paris in 1292, Isabella was the daughter of Philip IV of France and his Queen Jeanne of Navarre. Her mother died while she was still an infant and her father, a cold, distant man paid little attention to his children. Even so, she was a happy child who despite a love of learning was thought conniving rather than intelligent, a sharp cunning allied with a charm it was said she used only sparingly.

Like the female progeny of all the Royal Households of Europe Isabella was a pawn in the affairs of state and described as pretty with blonde hair, pale skin, sparkling blue eyes and a full mouth she would prove an asset in the dynastic marriage bed and while still an infant she was betrothed to Edward, Prince of Wales.

On 25 January 1308, aged 13, Isabella married the now King Edward II, ten years her senior, whose sexual proclivities suggested that the union would be neither happy nor fruitful. Indeed, the rumour soon spread that when she’d visited London the previous year the elderly Longshanks, doubting his son’s ability to do so, had taken it upon himself to deprive Isabella of her virginity. It seems unlikely but then it was evident to all that Edward had little interest in his new bride but it was always first and foremost a political marriage intended to stabilise relations between the old foes England and France, children would be expected of course but that was for later.

On 7 July, 1307, Edward I died, he had been the quintessential Warrior King ambitious, greedy, ruthless and unforgiving. The English Nobility expected his son to be the same.

Certainly, the young Edward was as physically impressive as his father being tall and athletic with long blonde hair and a full beard but there the similarities ended. Whereas the older Edward had been consumed by war, politics, and the acquisition of power his son was more interested in the latest fashions, enjoyed dancing, and had a passion for arts and crafts. By no means as effeminate as he has often been portrayed, Edward was nevertheless a flamboyant homosexual who did nothing to conceal his passion for handsome young men. If this wasn’t problematic enough in a society that condemned homosexuality as a sin against nature then his lack of interest in the minutiae of administration and low threshold of boredom only aided those who wished to use his sexual predilection to plot against him. The King had an immoderate desire for wicked and sinful sex, they said. Edward took too much delight in sodomy. Such was the talk from early in his reign and Edward did nothing to quash it. If indeed he heard it at all.

Edward and Isabella were married in Boulogne on 25 January, 1308. They then returned to London where a month later they were Crowned King and Queen of England. Isabella dressed to impress, she brought with her dozens of the most exquisite gowns, 73 different headdresses, and a great deal of expensive jewellery. She was determined that neither her husband nor the Royal Court would be disappointed in their new Queen.

It made no difference for Isabella was sidelined almost from the outset and though, as Edward made plain, he adored the gowns it was just not on her.

Her jewellery he gave away to his favourite Piers Gaveston who proceeded to wear as much of it as possible whenever he was in her presence as she was humiliated time and time again as her husband took a string of low-born male lovers. She hated the way he openly flaunted his homosexuality, the hugging and kissing in public displays of affection, the dancing with young men or balancing them on his knee at banquets. Even so she did her duty and bore him four children including the future Edward III, but all the time she seethed with anger and the desire for revenge.

Unlike his fearsome father who could strike terror into the hearts of all those he met, Edward never acquired the respect of those he ruled and his reign was to be one of constant dispute, disorder, rebellion, and war. Indeed, so concerned had the elder Edward been by his son’s incapacity to rule that he had demanded that upon his death the flesh be boiled from his body so his bones could be carried before the army should he ever have to face Robert the Bruce in Battle.

Devoting too much time to his love of luxury and not enough to running his Kingdom he was insensitive to the feelings of the powerful Baronial faction who resented the way all positions of influence were given to Edward’s small coterie of friends, how all access to new wealth was denied them, and how he publicly relished the homosexual act which after all was still a crime in Medieval England and could be punishable by death.

In 1311 the Barons patience snapped the focus of their wrath not the King but his favourite Piers Gaveston, who Edward had showered with gifts and promoted well beyond his status. Threatened by the prospect of open conflict if he did not concede to their demands Edward had little choice but to send Gaveston into exile and strip him of his lands and title Earl of Cornwall.

Gaveston returned secretly to England and on 13 January 1312 he and the King were reunited at Knaresborough Castle in Yorkshire. Edward soon returned to London where he declared Gaveston’s exile unlawful and reinstated his title and lands. Furious the Barons pursued Gaveston finally cornering him in Scarborough where on 19 May he surrendered himself on the promise of safe-keeping and that he would be returned to the King where negotiations would take place as to his future.

The Duke of Pembroke, who hated Gaveston but had vowed to protect him, now reneged on his promise and on the night of 19 July as he sat down for supper Gaveston was overpowered, bound, and dragged to Blacklow Hill near Kenilworth where he was unceremoniously beheaded.

Edward upon hearing the news broke down in a flood of tears but his distress soon turned to anger and he vowed vengeance on those responsible but he was impotent to do anything about it; with Gaveston dead the Barons thirst for vengeance had been sated and they lost the impetus to go on and depose Edward who was able for a time at least to restore his authority only for it to be shattered once again by defeat at the hands of Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

Throughout this period of instability, Isabella, who had taken the ambitious Sir Roger Mortimer as her lover, conspired with her husband’s enemies, and it would be his Queen not the Barons who would seal Edward’s fate.

In 1320, Edward took another lover, Hugh Despenser the Younger. He had obviously not learned from previous mistakes for he again lavished the target of his desires with gifts and titles. Outraged, the Barons once again took up arms and the Despenser’s, both father and son, were forced into exile. But Edward determined to assert his authority over his Kingdom once and for all soon summoned their return and in 1322 issued a statute revoking all ordinances that in any way restricted his power.

It appeared for a brief moment that Edward was at last in control but then he made a fatal mistake. He had refused to pay homage to the French King for the territory of Gascony. As a result, war appeared imminent.

Having only just recently restored stability in his Kingdom and unable to depend upon the loyalty of his own nobility, Edward wished to avoid conflict at all costs so in March 1325 he sent Isabella, who he believed as the French King Charles IV’s sister wielded an influence over him that he did not, to negotiate a settlement on his behalf. It was to prove a serious error of judgement for by this time Isabella so despised her husband and his lackeys the Despenser’s that she very quickly agreed a deal detrimental to Edward’s interests. Furious he at first refused to pay homage under the terms agreed and would certainly not do so in person but unable to keep the peace without doing so he agreed to send his eldest son, the Prince of Wales, also Edward, to pay homage instead.

This played straight into Isabella’s hands and safe in the Royal Court of her brother and with her son the heir to the throne in her possession she now openly declared her liaison with Sir Roger Mortimer, condemned her husband’s homosexuality, and declared her intention to invade England with an army raised in France.

Edward immediately demanded that the French King send her home, but this Charles refused to do declaring that:

“The Queen has come of her own will and may freely return if she wishes but if she prefers to remain, she is my sister and I refuse to expel her.”

Edward’s authority now began to unravel as his son also refused to return to England preferring to remain with his mother, his brother now married a cousin of the Mortimer’s thereby allying himself to their cause, and many of the great Baron’s of England also declared for Isabella who by August 1326 had assembled and equipped an army in preparation for invasion.

Edward was determined to defend his realm but when his call to arms went largely unheeded it soon became clear that his days were numbered and when on 24 September Isabella accompanied by Mortimer and her small army landed in England they were able to rapidly advance on London unopposed which upon their arrival surrendered without a fight Edward having earlier fled along with the Despenser’s and a great deal of treasure.

Journeying west in great haste Edward and his entourage rallied little support and with Isabella and her army closing in they agreed to separate. Not long after Hugh the Despenser the Elder was captured at Bristol where Isabella, refusing to hear his pleas for clemency ordered his immediate execution.

In the meantime, Edward and the younger Despenser had sought relative safety in Caerphilly Castle from where the King still hoped that loyal Barons would rally to the cause of their divinely appointed Monarch, but it was to prove a forlorn hope and eventually, and leaving much of their treasure behind them they fled to the Welsh coast where they tried to take ship for Ireland but were unable to do so; roaming the countryside with nowhere to go and no money to bribe those who might be willing to help on 16 November they were intercepted and taken prisoner by forces loyal to Isabella.

Unlike his father Isabella had a particular hatred for Hugh Despenser the Younger who was not only her husband’s lover but it was rumoured had raped her in a deliberate act of humiliation and had later paid for assassins to murder her in France. His would be a very public execution and according to the chronicler Jean Froissart, overseen by Isabella in person particularly brutal. He was stripped naked and tied to a ladder which propped up against a wall had a fire lit beneath it. His genitals were then sliced off and thrown into the flames before his stomach was cut open and the entrails pulled out. Still conscious the dying Despenser was cut down from the ladder and beheaded. His body was then chopped into small pieces and fed to dogs. Isabella, who had been present throughout looked on it was said with some satisfaction.

While Isabella had been delighting in the disposal of her enemies Edward II, imprisoned in Kenilworth Castle, had been forced to abdicate in favour of his son. This however did not answer the question of what to do with him. Certainly he needed to be kept from the public gaze and so on 3 April 1327 Edward was removed in secret from Kenilworth to the more remote Berkeley Castle near Gloucester.

A few months later Isabella was heard to remark:

“Edwardum occidere nolite timere bonum est” (Do not be afraid to kill Edward, it is good).

According to Sir Thomas More what happened next was unparalleled in its savagery:

“On the night of 11 October while lying on his bed (the King) was suddenly seized and while a great mattress held him down and suffocated him, a plumbers iron, heated intensely hot, was introduced through a tube into his private parts so it burned the inner parts of his intestines.”

A hot rod pushed up his rectum was a truly horrible and painful way for Edward to die, but the insertion of a tube ensuring there would be no marks guaranteed that for Isabella and Mortimer it was a clean death, a death that had been specifically designed for him by a vengeful Queen, a punishment she felt befitted his crime.

Just three years later in 1330, when Edward III came of age, he ended the short-lived Regency of Isabella and Mortimer. It had been just as corrupt and venal as anything the previous King had presided over and the sober level-headed young Edward was sickened by it. He ordered that Mortimer be executed and forced his mother into retirement and internal exile. Though she was awarded a generous allowance and permitted to visit the Royal Court she was never again to involve herself in the Affairs of State. When she died on 22 August 1358, it was ordered that she be buried in her wedding dress.

 

 

 

 

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