I have read accounts where Isabella of France, the wife of Edward II, is labelled a she-wolf. She is described as being so vicious, and so ambitious that she murdered her husband in an attempt to gain power for herself. But is that really true? To understand Isabella you have to understand her husband, Edward II
I would like to point out that the Isabella depicted in Mel Gibson’s movie Braveheart is wholly fictional and while it is a wonderfully entertaining story, it is not a documentary and the scriptwriters did take some poetic licence with the facts. The real Isabella never met Edward I. Furthermore, at the time of Wallace’s death she was about ten years old, so she didn’t have an affair with him or give birth to his son.
We don’t know the exact year of Isabella’s birth, probably because she was a girl and therefore not important. (That’s not my opinion, but rather the attitude of the times.) Her father, Phillip IV, has been described as a cold, unemotional man and his contemporaries called him a human statue. He saw no problem in marrying his pre-teen daughter to a man in his twenties whose sexuality was already in question.
I rather doubt that Isabella expected love from her marriage. After all, the nobility didn’t marry for love. Their marriages were contracts in which she would have been expected to support her husband and bear his children, and for most of her married life Isabella did just that. The biggest problem with Isabella’s marriage wasn’t Edward’s sexual orientation. I’m sure there have been plenty of homosexuals in the past who have ruled successfully and had very good working relationships with their spouses. No, Edward’s preferences in the bedroom were not the problem; the real issue was the fact that he was a weak man who always submitted to a stronger male. It seems that when Edward married Isabella he already had a favorite, a partner with which he shared his throne. The man in question was Piers Gaveston, a handsome, athletic man. They met in 1300 and became inseparable.
By the time of Edward and Isabella’s marriage in 1308, Edward had been in his relationship with Piers for eight years. Isabella was about twelve years old and although she had friends, and relations in court nothing could have prepared her for marriage to a man who was so completely dominated by his partner. To give you an example of just how subjugated Edward was, when he travelled to France to marry Isabella he left Piers in charge of England. The English barons were outraged, Piers wasn’t even nobility. When Edward returned with his young bride, Piers was wearing the jewelry Phillip had given Edward as a wedding gift. That did not get things off on the right foot, and things were rocky for a while, but to give Piers his credit he did try to get along with Isabella, and give her the respect due to her as queen. But more credit is due Isabella, she was a dutiful wife who suffered through her husband’s humiliating infatuation. She even intervened diplomatically on Edward’s behalf with her father and then later her brother Charles IV, ensuring Edward’s place on the English throne.
In 1312, Piers was captured by the English barons, who had become increasing unhappy with his influence on the king and his use of royal favour to bolster his own position. He was executed. This devastated Edward, but forced him to rely on Isabella and for a while they got along quite well. It interesting to note that Isabella’s first child, Edward 111, (No they didn’t have much imagination when it came to names.) was born in 1312. In fact, three of her four children were born in this period between favorites.
Unfortunately, in 1318 Edward chose a new favorite, Hugh Despenser. Now Hugh was a thoroughly evil, greedy man who used his relationship with the king to line his own pockets. He would imprison widows until they signed their lands over to him and it is believed he even broke the limbs of a noble woman named Lady Barat, torturing her, until she agreed to give him her lands. He was completely unscrupulous and used his relationship with the king to seize lands, and punish enemies. By 1320 Hugh dispenser was the defacto ruler of England, a circumstance that enraged the populace rich and poor.
Hugh was a threat to Isabella and her children. She spent five years pretending to like him, but the fact is that sooner or later he would have turned against her, and she knew that Edward would never stand up to his favorite. In 1325, under the guise of a diplomatic mission, she fled to France. It is here that she met Roger Mortimer, a baron in exile. The pair became lovers and conspirators, planning to end the reign of Edward and Hugh. With the support of a group of English exiles, they raised a small army and in September 1326 invaded England, landing in Essex. But here’s the thing, circumstances were so bad in England that when Edward called for support from the barons and general population no one came to his aid. He summoned 2000 men to meet the invaders at Orwell, but only 55 showed up. Instead of amassing a huge force to repel the invaders the barons, who hated the Hugh Despenser, joined the invasion force. When Edward and Hugh realised they had no allies they fled, heading for Wales. Isabella and Mortimer were in pursuit and within two months Edward and Hugh were captured.
Within ten days of his arrest, Hugh was declared a traitor, put on trial, and executed. Edward was a different problem. No one knew how to proceed, a king had never been deposed before, but they couldn’t put him back on the throne. His failings, both personal and political had led the kingdom to disaster. He was held prisoner first at Monmouth Castle and later at Kenilworth Castle. Finally, in 1327 he agreed to abdicate in favour of his son Edward III.
As Edward III was still a minor Isabella and her lover, Mortimer, ruled as regents in his place. As a diplomat Isabella came into her own. She negotiated peace with the Scots ending a war that had lasted 32 years. In late 1327 Mortimer had Edward II killed. This was a necessity for them as plots to have the Edward II reclaim his thrown kept resurfacing and in the end killing him was the only way to ensure peace. Unfortunately, Isabella and Mortimer had learned nothing from the plight of Edward and Hugh. They, too, used their reign to amass a fortune for themselves. They became massively unpopular, sparking turmoil and unrest in England.
In 1330 Edward III who was now eighteen arranged a coup and seized power from his mother. The young king had Mortimer brought up on fourteen charges one of which was murdering his father Edward II. Mortimer was executed immediately. Isabella was spared, but she was banished from court and sent to live at Castle Rising, where she lived out her days in relative luxury. It’s known that she went hunting, had many visitors including her son and grandchildren, but was never in court again.
I think more was made of Edward’s sexual preferences than his inability to rule because under church law homosexuality was considered heresy, and committing heresy made Edward unfit to be king. Just being a useless king wasn’t a good enough reason to get rid of him. In the medieval world the king was chosen by God, and that meant no one could challenge him. But chosen or not, the fact was that he was completely inept.
Were Isabella’s action’s justified? Maybe. Her uprising against her husband was definitely popular. And I don’t think she was as calculating as she has been made out to be. For most of her marriage she sided with her husband against those who wanted to overthrow him, but Edward’s relationship with Hugh Despenser pushed her to a breaking point where she couldn’t take anymore. Personally, I would describe her as a woman pushed to brink of desperation rather than a she-wolf. If I had written her story I would have made her a better regent. She didn’t do a very good job of ruling England, but she did save the throne for her son.