Isabelle de Hainaut, Queen of France, was the first wife of King Philippe II of France known as Augustus. She was born in Valenciennes on the 5th of April 1170 to Baldwin V, Count of Hainaut, and his wife, Countess Marguerite I of Flanders. Isabelle was their oldest daughter and had at least 6 siblings. Little is known about her childhood, save that her father initially betrothed her to Henri, the future Count de Champagne, who was the nephew of Queen Adèle of Champagne. Nevertheless, Baldwin later consented to Isabelle’s marriage to Philippe II of France, which was arranged by her maternal uncle Count Philippe of Alsace who was a close advisor to Philippe.
Isabelle married the fifteen-year-old Philippe at the age of 10 on the 28th of April 1180 at Bapaume near Calais. She brought as her dowry the county of Artois and was de jure Countess of Artois between 1180 and 1190. Isabelle was crowned and anoited at Saint Denis on the 28th of May 1180 by the archbishop of Sens Guy I of Noyers, assisted by the bishops of Paris and Orléans. The marriage could not have been consummated straight away, so the couple waited for a few years. As Baldwin V rightly and proudly claimed to be a descendant of Emperor Charlemagne, the union of Isabelle and Philippe was seen as the great marriage of the Carolingian and Capetian dynasties, although Philippe himself was a descendant of Hugh Capet and, hence, of Charlemagne.
Although she was loved by the people of France (back then rather a small area around Paris in the Île-de-France), the wedding angered Dowager Queen Adèle because it led to the rejection of her nephew and the lessening of her brothers’ influence at the Capetian court. Young Isabelle also had a difficult relationship with Philippe. By 1184, Philippe was at war against Flanders, and he was furious at seeing Baldwin, his father-in-law, support his foes. According to the chronicles of the time, Philippe was disappointed with his wife because she failed to provide him with a male heir. In March 1184, the monarch called a Council at Senlis with the aim of repudiating her.
Isabelle acted wisely and cunningly. According to the chronicler Gilbert of Mons, she came to the town’s churches barefooted and dressed as a penitent, which earned her with the significant sympathy of the local people who eventually became angered so much that they nearly stormed the king’s castle. Robert I of Dreux, nicknamed the Great, who was Philippe’s uncle, interned on behalf of the young queen; Robert was the 5th son of Louis VI of France and his wife, Adélaide de Maurienne. Philippe backed away from his decision to get rid of Isabelle. We do not know whether their marriage was consummated as of 1184, but it could have been. We can assume that Philippe could have bedded Isabelle after she had turned 14, or in 1184. Anyway, she had no time to conceive and prove her fertility, so the king’s actions are likely to be explained by his anger that her father supported his enemies, not by the failure of this young girl, who recently had her first monthly courses, to birth his son.
The relationship between the king and queen improved, and they obviously resumed normal marital life. In the late autumn of 1186, Isabelle discovered her first pregnancy, and on the 5th of September 1187, she gave birth to the male heir – the future King Louis VIII of France. Finally winning her husband’s affections, Isabelle must have felt secure on her throne. In the summer of 1189, she conceived again, but the queen had a complicated pregnancy, perhaps because she was carrying twins. On the 14th of March 1190, she birthed twin boys named Robert and Philippe. Yet, the joy was premature: little Robert passed away on the same day, while little Philippe died 3 days afterwards. Isabelle lingered for a day and breathed her last on the 15th of March 1190 on the back of severe complications in childbirth, which, it seems, were caused by twins. The queen was buried in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris in a lavish funereal ceremony.
Queen Isabelle, who was initially unloved by King Philippe and his powerful mother, Queen Adèle, died at the age of barely 20! By that time, she was a popular queen, and the city of Paris mourned for her. At the time, Philippe was away from Paris fighting against King Richard I of England the Lionheart. I consider Philippe Augustus one of the most capable monarchs who ever sat on the French throne, and my admiration for him is immense. Philippe was a calculative, crafty, strong, and manipulative politician through and through, more intelligent and capable than most of his contemporaries. Yet, he had unfortunate marriages, much thanks to his own schemes; he was not a tender and amorous man. Philippe was more a politician than anyone else! However, when he learned about Isabelle’s death, he hastily signed a truce with Richard and journeyed to Paris to mourn for his consort. Philippe was indeed very sad that he had lost his young wife and spent several days in Paris before returning to Normandy.
Isabelle passed away at barely 20, but her only son, Louis VIII, had many children with Blanche of Castile. Therefore, Isabelle was the ancestress of all the descendants of Philippe II – the Capetian, Valois, and Bourbon dynasties together with their extended families through both legitimate and illegitimate bloodlines. Strictly speaking, it is incorrect to say that the Houses of Capet and Valois ended: they went extinct only in the legitimate male line, but not in legitimate female lines, as well as illegitimate lines. For example, many modern Bourbons are all descendants of King Charles VII of France called the Victorious (le Victorieux) through female legitimate bloodlines: Henri IV of France, the first Bourbon ruler, had Magdalena de Valois among his direct ancestors, who was a daughter of Charles VII and his wife-cousin, Marie d’Anjou.
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Text © 2021 Olivia Longueville