The She-Wolf of France: Isabella of France as a product of an avaricious and ruthless age

Miniature of Isabella of France by Jean Froissart

Born in 1295, Isabella of France, who was Queen of England as the spouse of King Edward II of England, died on the 22nd of August 1358.  The youngest surviving child and only surviving daughter of Philippe IV of France and Jeanne I of Navarre, Isabella is frequently described as the She-Wolf of France due to her role in the deposition and perhaps even death of Edward II.  Although some of her actions were highly controversial, she was known for her diplomatic skills, intelligence, and beauty, considered ‘femme fatale’ figure in plays and literature for too long.  Isabella’s story is the colorful tale of an eventful life with ups and downs, and the events of her biography between 1324 and 1330 are brimming with intrigue, suffering, struggle, revenge, bloodshed, loss, and fatality.

In May 1303, Isabella and Edward of Caernarfon, the future Edward II, were betrothed in Paris through their proxies.  Their marriage was necessary to resolve the conflicts between France and England over the latter’s continental possession of Gascony and her persisting claims to Anjou, Normandy, and Aquitaine.  Pope Boniface VIII attempted to have this marriage proceed as early as 1298, but Edward I endeavored to break the betrothal several times for political reasons.  Only after his death, the new King Edward II and his court journeyed to France to meet his new bride.  Isabella, who resembled her handsome father in appearance, was slender, captivating, and beautiful, and we know that Edward called her jestingly ‘Isabella the Fair’.   The princess married Edward II at the age of 12 in a lavish ceremony in the cathedral of Our Lady of Boulogne in 1308.

The French chronicler Geoffrey of Paris admired Isabella and described her so:

“The beauty of beauties… in the kingdom if not in all Europe.” 

This teenaged girl arrived in England not knowing yet how many challenges she would have to face in her marriage to the handsome, but highly controversial Edward.  He was unorthodox by medieval standards: Edward disliked jousting, hunting, and warfare while enjoying music, poetry, dancing, and rural crafts.  Edward is portrayed by historical fiction writers as a homosexual man, but in fact there is no direct evidence of this.  At the time, the kingdom of England was going through the intensifying conflict between the monarchy and the influential baronial factions, although these conflicts were not as dangerous as the baronial revolts over a century ago.  Despite Edward’s strong emotional and maybe physical attachment to his favorite, Piers Gaveston, Isabella supported her husband during these early years.  For some time, she was on relatively good terms with Piers and worked hard to secure her authority in England using her connections with the powerful kingdom of medieval France and her father, Philippe IV known as the Fair.

 The marriage of Isabella of France and Edward II in 1308, Flemish manuscript, c. 1470

However, Gaveston was not destined to live for long: he died at the hands of the barons in 1312.  Having survived through this heartbreak, Edward found another favorite – Hugh Despenser the Younger, to whom he would become even more attached than he was to Gaveston.  Hugh Despenser the Elder, the father of the king’s favorite, and his other relatives became part of the royal inner circle, and the ascendancy of the Despensers’ to power at Edward’s court was a quick one.  The Despensers were enemies of both the Lancastrians and their other allies in the Welsh Marches, while Edward sought vengeance for the demise of Gaveston.  Edward’s thirst for revenge and the encouragement of the Despensers resulted in the Despenser War and a period of internal repression across England.  Hugh Despenser the Younger could have a sexual relationship with the monarch, for he was with Edward all the time as royal chamberlain.  One of Edward’s enemies – Roger Mortimer de Chirk and his nephew, Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, rival Marcher Lords – were imprisoned in the Tower of London, but they managed to escape to France.

Isabella of France in the French series ‘The Accursed Kings’ created on the basis of Maurice Druon’s historical novels

Thanks to the Lancastrian faction, the Despensers were expelled from London for some time, but they soon returned.  Unable to live without Hugh Despenser the Younger, Edward II was happy to have him back, and cold determination for revenge solidified in him like a block of concrete.  For about 4 years, Edward and the Despensers terrorized the English barons: they confiscated lands, imprisoned and executed many of them, and even implemented the punishment of extended family members, including women and the elderly.  Unlike her relationship with Gaveston, Isabella was unwilling to or unable to find a compromise with the Despensers, especially after they confiscated her castles at Marlborough and Devizes.  The awful rift between Edward and Isabella was widening, and she separated from Edward, finally leaving him to live with Hugh.  At the end of 1322, Isabella went on a 10-month-long pilgrimage around England, and upon her return in 1323, she refused to take a loyalty oath to the Despensers.

By 1325, Isabella’s marriage to Edward reached its lowest point.  She travelled to France on a diplomatic mission to meet with King Charles IV, the last Capetian monarch.  It appears that she could have started an affair with Roger Mortimer while in France, and in 1326 she returned to England with a mercenary army, while the barons flocked to her banner and even more to her young son, Prince Edward (later King Edward III of England).  The Despensers fled west with the king, with a significant sum from the treasury, but the escape plans were derailed.  Having no support, Edward II was deposed, captured, and later forced to abdicate in favor of Edward III, with Isabella becoming their son’s regent.  In November 1326, in Hereford, Hugh Despenser the Younger was dragged through the streets naked before Mortimer, Isabella, and hundreds of other, then he was, according to Froissart, castrated while other contemporary accounts only have Despenser hanged, drawn, and quartered.  Later, in 1327, the deposed Edward II died under odd circumstances in Berkeley Castle, perhaps being murdered on the orders of Mortimer and Isabella, which cannot be proved.  The queen displayed her deep potential for ruthlessness, which she perhaps inherited from her highly capable, but also very controversial father – Philippe IV.

Despite all these dramas in personal life, Isabella had 4 offspring with Edward II: Edward III (born in 1312), John of Eltham, Earl of Cornwall (born in 1316), Eleanor of Woodstock (born in 1318), and Joan of the Tower (born in 1321).  One might say that the births of these children reinforces the idea of the success of their matrimony and their closeness, but it is not necessary to be true as monarchs were required by their royal station to produce heirs, which Edward II understood regardless of his real sexual orientation.  Isabella ruled as regent of England only for 3 years from 1327 until 1330.  When Edward III turned 18, he engineered a coup against his own mother and Lord Mortimer, who was arrested.  Isabella was also apprehended in Berkhamsted Castle and then held under house arrest at Windsor Castle until 1332; she was then transferred to her own Castle Rising in Norfolk, where she lived in luxury and remained extremely wealthy.

To save Mortimer’s life, Isabella reportedly threw herself at Edward’s feet, crying:

Fair son, have pity on gentle Mortimer!

A 15th-century manuscript illustration portraying Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella in the foreground. In the background, we can see Hugh Despenser the Younger on the scaffold, being emasculated.
Castle Rising in Norfolk, England, where Isabella lived as Queen Dowager

It did not help: Mortimer was tried for treason, but Isabella was portrayed as an innocent bystander during his prosecution.  According to some historians, Isabella had fits of madness before and sometime after the execution of Roger Mortimer.  She regained her peace of mind in the tranquility of Castle Rising over time, and perhaps the friendly relations with Edward III helped her come back to a normal state of mind.  Although in her later years Isabella did not reside at court, she met with her grandchildren and was also visited by her ruling son, Edward III, who restored his affection to her and even let her negotiate with France in 1348.  Isabella was also involved in the negotiations with Charles II of Navarre, known as Charles the Bad, in 1358.

Was Isabella the She-Wolf of France?  Given her unhappy marital life to Edward II who was likely to have been bisexual, Isabella was emotionally abused since her early adulthood.  How long could a woman, even though she was raised to be an obedient wife, tolerate this horror, provided that Edward II and his second favorite, Despenser the Younger, were as bad as most of us believe?  Even the most tremendous patience is always eventually exhausted, and so did Isabella’s.  While being a highly contradictory woman, Isabella was an avaricious and ruthless product of an avaricious and ruthless age, and she was a true daughter of Philippe IV of France the Fair.  Yet, Isabella was a resourceful diplomat and an affectionate mother in her own way, manipulate and determined to use Edward to establish her own power in England.  Philippe IV’s daughter was not a model of medieval femininity, which was the main reason why she was blamed for many sins, partly maligned, and why the legend of the black-hearted ‘she-wolf’ appeared.

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville