Queen Isabella

Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England

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In this vibrant biography, acclaimed author Alison Weir reexamines the life of Isabella of England, one of history’s most notorious and charismatic queens. Isabella arrived in London in 1308, the spirited twelve-year-old daughter of King Philip IV of France. Her marriage to the heir to England’s throne was designed to heal old political wounds between the two countries, and in the years that followed she became an important figure, a determined and clever woman whose influence would come to last centuries. Many myths and legends have been woven around Isabella’s story, but in this first full biography in more than 150 years, Alison Weir gives a groundbreaking new perspective.

Under the Cover

An excerpt from Queen Isabella

Chapter One

On 20 May 1303, a solemn betrothal took place in Paris. The bride was seven years old, the groom, who was not present, nineteen. She was Isabella, the daughter of Philip IV, King of France; he, Edward of Caernarvon, Prince of Wales, the son and heir of Edward I, King of England.

The Prince had sent the Earl of Lincoln and the Count of Savoy as his proxies, and during the ceremony, they formally asked the King and Queen of France for the hand of their daughter, the Lady Isabella, in marriage for the Prince of Wales. Consent was duly given, then Gilles, Archbishop of Narbonne, the presiding priest, required Isabella to plight her troth. Placing her hand in that of the Archbishop, she duly did so, giving her assent to the betrothal on condition that all the articles of the marriage treaty were fulfilled.

This union had been arranged after tortuous negotiations to cement a lasting peace between those old warring enemies, England and France. Isabella’s father, Philip IV, known as Philip the Fair, was the most powerful ruler in Christendom at that time and also the most controversial. Not only had he been engaged in territorial wars with both England and Flanders for the past seven years, he had also, despite boasting the title of “Most Christian King,” become involved in a bitter conflict with the Papacy after imposing limitations on the Pope’s authority in France. This was to lead to his excommunication only months after his daughter’s betrothal.

Philip’s war with Edward I was the result of a long-standing feud over England’s possessions in France. In the twelfth century, through the marriage of Henry II to Eleanor of Aquitaine, the empire of the Plantagenets, the dynasty that Henry founded, had extended from Normandy to the Pyrenees, while the royal demesne of France had been limited to the regions around Paris. By 1204, Henry’s son, King John, had lost most of the English territories, including Normandy, to the ambitious Philip II “Augustus” of France, and there were further French encroachments under John’s son Henry III, as successive French monarchs sought to broaden their domain. By the time of Edward I, all that remained of England’s lands in France was the prosperous wine-producing duchy of Gascony, the southern part of the former duchy of Aquitaine, along with the counties of Ponthieu and Montreuil, which had come to the English Crown through the marriage of Edward I to Eleanor of Castile in 1254.

Philip IV, who was vigorously carrying on his predecessors’ expansionist policy, not surprisingly had his eye on Gascony, and in 1296, he invaded and took possession of it. There were two ways to settle a conflict: by military force or by diplomacy. Edward I wanted Gascony back, and Philip wanted to drive a wedge between Edward and the Flemings, who were uniting against him. By 1298, the two Kings were engaged in secret negotiations for a peace. Then Pope Boniface VIII intervened. In the spring of 1298, he suggested a double marriage alliance between France and England: his plan was that Edward I, a widower since the death of Eleanor of Castile in 1290, marry Philip’s sister Marguerite, while Edward’s son and heir, the Prince of Wales, be betrothed to Philip’s daughter Isabella, then two years old. Once this peace had been sealed, Gascony could be returned to Edward I.

Boniface’s suggestion appealed to both parties; it conjured up for Philip the tantalizing prospect of French influence being extended into England and his grandson eventually occupying the throne of that realm; and for Edward I, it promised the return of Gascony and a brilliant match for his son. As the daughter of the King of France and the Queen of Navarre, Isabella was a great prize in the marriage market: no Queen of England before her had boasted such a pedigree.

The deal was agreed in principle, and two weeks later, on 15 May, King Edward appointed Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, to negotiate both marriages. In March 1299, Parliament accepted the terms negotiated by Lincoln, and on 12 May following, plans were set in hand for the proxy betrothals. Three days later, the Earl of Lincoln, Amadeus, Count of Savoy, and the Earl of Warwick were appointed to act for Edward I and his son, and soon afterward, they departed for France. Edward I privately instructed the Count to find out as much as he could about the personal attributes of Marguerite of France, including the size of her foot and the width of her waist. The Count reported back that she was “a fair and marvellously virtuous lady,” pious and charitable.

The Treaty of Montreuil, which provided for Isabella’s future betrothal to Edward of Caernarvon, was drawn up on 19 June, ratified by Edward I and the Prince of Wales on 4 July, and amplified by the Treaty of Chartres on 3 August. Under its terms, Philip was to give Isabella a dowry of £18,000, and once she became Queen of England, she was to have in dower all the lands formerly held by Eleanor of Castile, which were in the interim to be settled by Edward I on Marguerite; these amounted to £4,500 per annum. Should Edward I default on the treaties, he would forfeit Gascony; if Philip defaulted, he would pay Edward a fine of £100,000. On 29 August, at the instance of Edward I, the King and Queen of France gave solemn guarantees that the marriages would take place, and in September, Marguerite of France, then aged twenty at most, arrived in England and was married to the sixty-year-old Edward I in Canterbury Cathedral. Against the odds, this proved to be a successful and happy union, and produced three children. In October 1299, Philip IV finally ratified the Treaty of Montreuil. “When love buds between great princes, it drives away bitter sobs from their subjects,” commented a contemporary.

In 1300, the French occupied Flanders, but two years later, they were humiliatingly defeated and massacred by the Flemings at Courtrai. Throughout this time, Edward I had continued to press for the immediate restoration of Gascony, but Philip would not agree to this until after the Prince of Wales had fulfilled his promise to marry Isabella, who was still too young to wed.

By April 1303, Edward I was losing interest in the alliance and was beginning to look elsewhere for a bride for his son. At this crucial point, fearing a war on two fronts, Philip IV played his trump card and agreed to restore the duchy of Gascony to Edward without further delay; his intention was, as he reminded Edward II in 1308, that it should in time become the inheritance of his grandchildren, the heirs of Edward and Isabella. Edward I was now satisfied, and the Treaty of Paris, which officially restored the duchy, was signed on the same day that young Isabella and Edward of Caernarvon were betrothed. There would be further conflict between Edward I and Philip IV, but nothing serious enough to break this new alliance. Isabella was now destined to be Queen of England.

Isabella was probably born in 1295. There is conflicting evidence as to the year. Piers of Langtoft says she was “only seven years of age” in 1299, which places her birth in 1292, the date given in the Annals of Wigmore. Yet she is described by both the French chronicler Guillaume de Nangis and Thomas Walsingham as being twelve years old at the time of her marriage in January 1308, which suggests she was born between January 1295 and January 1296. Given that twelve was the canonical age for marriage, and that in 1298, the Pope had stipulated that she should marry Prince Edward as soon as she reached that age, these dates are viable. In the same document of June 1298, the Pope describes Isabella as being “under seven years,” which places her birth at any time from 1291 onward. Furthermore, the Treaty of Montreuil (June 1299) provided for Isabella’s betrothal and marriage to take place when she reached the respective canonical ages of seven and twelve. So she must have reached seven before May 1303, and twelve before January 1308.

It has been suggested that Isabella had already reached the canonical age for marriage in 1305, when she and the Prince of Wales nominated representatives for a marriage by proxy. This did not take place because of continued squabbles over Guienne, but the fact that these nominations were made has been held as evidence that Isabella had then reached, or was soon to reach, the age of twelve, which would place her date of birth around 1293. Yet this theory is contradicted by a papal dispensation issued by Clement V in November 1305, giving the young couple permission to marry at once even though Isabella had not yet reached her twelfth year and was at present in her tenth year. This suggests a birth date between November 1294 and November 1295. The waters are muddied still further by a decree issued by Philip IV in 1310, in which Isabella is referred to as his “primogenita,” or “firstborn,” which suggests that she was born in 1288 at the latest, as her eldest brother Louis was born in October 1289. This date conflicts with all the other evidence and is probably the result of an error on the part of the official drawing up the document.

In conclusion, the evidence in the papal dispensations and documents and the Treaty of Montreuil is likely to be more reliable, and taken together, it supports a birth date between May and November 1295, which in turn is supported by the statements of Guillaume de Nangis and Thomas Walsingham. This would make Isabella seven years old at the time of her betrothal and twelve years old at the time of her marriage.

Isabella grew up in a period when society regarded women as inferior beings. “We should look on the female role as a deformity, though one which occurs in the ordinary course of nature,” states a thirteenth-century edition of Aristotle’s Generation of Animals. “Woman is the confusion of man, an insatiable beast, a continuous anxiety, an incessant warfare, a daily ruin, a house of tempest and a hindrance to devotion,” fulminated the misogynistic Vincent de Beauvais in the thirteenth century. In 1140, the canon lawyer Gratian asserted that “women should be subject to their men. The natural order for mankind is that women should serve men and children their parents, for it is just that the lesser serve the greater.”

The husband was his wife’s lord and master: he was to her as Christ to the Church. Thus, if a woman murdered her husband, she was guilty of petty treason and could be burned at the stake. He, however, had the right to beat her if she displeased him; indeed, it was “the husband’s office to be his wife’s chastiser.” He was not supposed to kill or maim her through such punishment, although, according to the legal code enshrined in the Customs of Beauvais, “in a number of cases men may be excused for the injuries they inflict on their wives, nor should the law intervene.”

It was a woman’s duty to love her husband and show him due obedience. In 1393, an anonymous Parisian writer instructed wives to obey their husbands’ commandments, since “his pleasure should come before yours,” and he advised them to “cherish your husband’s person, give him plenty of attention, and the cheer of other delights, privy frolics, lovings and secret matters. Do not be quarrelsome, but sweet, gentle and amiable. And if you do all this he will keep his heart for you, and he will care nothing for other women.” The onus was always on the wife to maintain the stability of a marriage.

In law, women were regarded as infants, so they had few legal rights. They were viewed as assets in the marriage market, chattels in property or land deals, or prizes in the game of courtly love, and their roles were very narrowly defined. When a group of noblewomen attempted to usurp male privilege and arrange a tournament in 1348, God “put their frivolity to rout by heavy thunderstorms and divers extraordinary tempests.” In the fifteenth century, one of Joan of Arc’s chief crimes was the adoption of male attire, which was seen as tantamount to heresy.

Some highborn ladies were taught to read and write, but they were the fortunate few. In the thirteenth century, Philip of Navarre thought that generally women “should not learn to read or write unless they are going to be nuns, as much harm has come from such knowledge. For men will dare to send letters near them containing indecent requests in the form of songs or rhymes or tales, which they would never dare convey by message or word of mouth. And the Devil could soon lead her on to read the letters or”—even worse—“answer them.”

Above all, in an age in which lineage and inheritance were paramount concerns, women were expected to be beyond moral reproach and to follow the virtuous example of the Virgin Mary. But because they were descended from Eve, who had committed the original sin, and were thus more likely to give in to temptation than men, they had to carefully guard their reputations. There was much comment on the frailty of women. “Wheresoever beauty shows upon the face, there lurks much filth beneath the skin.” This anonymous Parisian writer also observed that “every good quality is obscured in the woman whose virginity or chastity falters. Women of sense avoid not only the sin itself, but also the appearance of it, so as to keep their good name. So you see in what peril a woman places her honour and that of her husband’s lineage and of her children when she does not avoid the risks of such blame.”

The Church taught that sex was primarily for procreation, not pleasure, and that intercourse was only permissible within marriage. Adultery was regarded as exceptionally sinful, especially on the part of a wife, for it jeopardized her husband’s bloodline. In 1371, the author of the Book of the Knight of La Tour Landry insisted that “women who fall in love with married men are worse than whores in brothels, and a gentlewoman who has enough to live on yet takes a lover does it from nothing but the carnal heat of lust.” A husband who caught his wife in adultery had the legal right to kill her.

There were, of course, many women who circumvented the conventions. Many ran farms or businesses, or administered estates. Some even practiced as physicians. A few wrote books. And queens, by virtue of their exalted marital status, could exercise political authority and the power of patronage. Isabella would have been brought up to know exactly what was required of her as a daughter and as a wife, and she had before her the example of her mother, who was a queen in her own right.

- About the author -

Alison Weir is the New York Times bestselling author of numerous historical biographies, including The Lost Tudor Princess, Elizabeth of York, Mary Boleyn, The Lady in the Tower, Mistress of the Monarchy, Henry VIII, Eleanor of Aquitaine, The Life of Elizabeth I, and The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and the novels Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession; Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen; The Marriage Game; A Dangerous Inheritance; Captive Queen; The Lady Elizabeth; and Innocent Traitor. She lives in Surrey, England, with her husband.

More from Alison Weir

Queen Isabella

Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England


Queen Isabella

— Published by Ballantine Books —