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.
How could a woman go from being prostitute to empress? Believe it or not the answer is – love. But I’ll get to that later. First let me tell you about Theodora’s early life.
She was born around 500AD, into a world where the old Roman Empire was in the process of dying, giving birth to the new Byzantine Empire. No one knows the exact date or her birth which is not surprising when you consider her humble origins. Her father was a bear trainer in the Constantinople Hippodrome and her mother was a dancer. Her father died when she was still a child, forcing her and her sisters to become dancers and actresses too. In this world an actress was the equivalent of a prostitute. Theodora would dance for the nobles and then entertain them in private. We don’t know the exact age she started this profession, but I do know that by today’s standards she was way too young.
At the age of sixteen, she became the escort to a wealthy man named Hecebolus. By all accounts she was beautiful, witty, and intelligent. When he was appointed to the position of governor to the minor North African province of Pentapolis, she accompanied him. We don’t know exactly what happened in their relationship, but after four years Hecebolus threw her out of his house, penniless. This had to have been a low point for Theodora. She was in a foreign land, far from home, with nothing but the clothes on her back. Once again, she was forced to rely on her looks and charm to provide an income. She travelled through the Middle East making her way back to Constantinople.
Now this is where the records become a little shaky. Some sources say she was in Antioch others say Alexandria, Alexandria, at that time, was the capital of Egypt. Wherever it happened at some point in her early twenties Theodora met Pope Timothy, the thirty-second pope of the Eastern Church. She converted to Monophysite Christianity. This is a form of Christianity that was considered heretical in Constantinople. She renounced her previous life as a courtesan, and returned to Constantinople in 522AD, making her living spinning wool. It was here that she met Justinian and fell in love.
I should mention this is not as surprising at it might seem at first glance. Justinian wasn’t emperor yet, but he was heir to the throne. And he had also been born into poverty. It was Justinian’s uncle, Justin I, who as an illiterate soldier worked his way to the position of emperor. Justin took Justinian under his wing, educated him, and named him heir. So Justinian probably understood, all too well, the circumstances that had forced Theodora to become a courtesan.
The biggest obstacle standing in their way was a law forbidding a high-class official such as Justinian from marrying a low class courtesan. Justin I changed this law and the couple were married in 525AD. Justinian became emperor in 527AD following the death of his uncle. Theodora ruled alongside him. I don’t think it was that she revelled in the power. I think she was a good judge of character, astute and Justinian knew he could always count of her to have his best interests at heart.
In 532 AD when anger over high taxes, religion, and political corruption caused a riot, Justinian was advised by his officials to leave the city. It was Theodora who counselled him to remain and quell the uprising. He took her advice and successfully crushed the revolt.
In her time as empress she championed women’s causes passing laws that prohibited forced prostitution. She also expanded the rights of women in divorce and property ownership, gave mothers guardianship rights over their children, forbade the killing of a wife who had committed adultery, stopped the killing of unwanted infants by exposure, and instituted the death penalty for rape. She also closed brothels and created convents where ex-prostitutes could support themselves by other means.
Together with Justinian, she restored the empire gaining back some of the territories lost to the Germanic tribes in the West. They also built bridges, aqueducts, and churches, including Hagia Sophia which is still standing today.
Theodora died in 548AD of cancer. Justinian never remarried, dying seventeen years later in 565 AD.
Not everyone loved Justinian and Theodora. The couple most certainly had their detractors, but even those who hated Theodora never accused her of immoral behaviour, or of not supporting her husband. Personally, I like the fact that she used her power to help women and children, changing laws to make their lives better. She was a woman who squeezed her lemons into lemonade and for that she is an excellent example for us all.
Grace O’Malley (Gráinne Ní Mháille in Irish Gaelic) was born into a noble family in 1530 in Co. Mayo, Ireland. It is believed her father taught her how to sail and conduct business as a young girl. Words used to describe her include: trader, pirate, chieftain, and the English considered her a traitor. It’s interesting to me that most of what we know about Grace comes from English writings and not Irish sources. If I find out why she was ignored by her own people, I’ll let you know.
At the age of sixteen Grace married her first husband Donal O’Flaherty by whom she had three children, two boys and a girl. It is believed to have been a politically motivated marriage, but they stayed together for nineteen years, until his death.
Sources differ on what happened next, some say she assumed leadership of the his clan on her son’s behalf, and others say the O’Flaherty’s refused to give her what she was due on her husband’s death. Under Brehon law (The Irish had their own system of laws that governed every part of their life.) any property she held when she entered the marriage would have stayed in her possession. She would also have been entitled to half of any profits they made while married.
Whatever the truth, it seems that Grace returned to the O’Malley clan in 1564. This is when she starts her life as an independent woman. With a base of operations on Clare Island, she earned a living using her father’s ships, and a private army of two hundred men. She traded, and demanded taxes from ships in her waters; this is where the piracy comes in. She was known for being an able sailor and commanded her ships in person.
In 1566 she married for the second time to Richard Burke (Also known as Iron Richard Bourke.) This was a trial marriage for one year. A trial marriage was another Irish tradition. A couple would marry for one year at the end of which they could decide whether to stay married or not. Grace moved her men and ships to Rockfleet Castle on Achill Island. It is believed, she then divorced Richard. But they must have been fond of each other because they stayed close until his death in 1583. By Richard, she had one son, Theobald. It is rumoured, she gave birth to him aboard one of her ships.
Now, this was a time when the English were forcing their way across Ireland, compelling the old Gaelic noble families to submit to English rule. At the heart of the matter is the English Crown’s insistence that the Irish adopt the English rule of succession, meaning that a title would automatically go to the eldest son. In the Irish clan system a vote was taken to choose the chief from the nobility of the clan. By ending the Irish vote of succession the English cheated Richard out of his leadership of the Mac William clan. Richard and Grace unite, supporting each other against their common enemy, resisting English rule over their lands. When Richard dies in 1583 she returns to her power base at Rockfleet Castle.
In 1584 Sir Richard Bingham is appointed English Governor. Bingham’s job is to subdue the Irish population. Grace resisted using her fleet to raid coastal towns, and disrupt English trade. She also carried supplies and troops for the rebels. Bingham seems to have really hated Grace, claiming she was "nurse to all rebellions in the province for this forty years." Pretending to want to negotiate a truce, Bingham finally captures her in 1586. He condemns her to death. She is saved when her son-in-law offers himself as a hostage. Grace continues to seek support for her cause, consulting with the O’Neill and the O’Donell clans in Ulster, who in turn, are seeking help from the King of Spain. Bingham reports Grace to Queen Elizabeth I, accusing her of treason.
Bingham continues to provoke Grace, stealing her possessions and ships. Grace writes to the Queen appealing for justice. In 1593 Bingham captures her son and charges him with treason, a charge punishable by death. Grace takes a gamble and journeys to England to meet with Queen Elizabeth at Greenwich.She was now sixty-three years old and showed no signs of slowing down.
Grace promises to fight the Queens’s enemy’s, if her ships and livelihood are returned. Elizabeth in turn has a great deal of compassion for Grace describing her as this aged woman. Perhaps Elizabeth finds in Grace a kindred spirit, because the Queen releases Grace’s son.
Bingham is recalled to England the following year. Grace returns to Ireland and her way of life, dying of what appears to be natural causes in 1603.
Nowadays, Grace O’Malley she is seen as an Irish hero and rebel. She was born into a time of great upheaval. The old Irish way and the Brehon system of laws were being eradicated by the English. Did she see herself as a rebel, a role model for women and Irish resistance? I don’t know, but her actions seem to indicate that she saw herself first and foremost as a mother, and leader. And like all good leaders she did what was necessary to continue her way of life. Whether it be raiding or negotiating with a queen. She was a strong woman and an excellent example to us all. Every May there is a festival, in Clew bay, Co. Mayo, to honour her life. I wish I could be there.
March 2014 was Women’s History Month in the United States and March 8th 2014 marked International Women’s day, so this is a tad tardy, but I wanted to write something to commemorate all the brave and courageous women that have fought as warriors in a man’s world. The medieval era was one where war was commonplace, so there are countless examples where women were forced to defend their people and their homes. I thought I would introduce some of them to you in this post.
Matilda of Tuscany 1046 – 1115
Matilda was an Italian noblewoman who was renowned for her military strategy in defense of the Pope Gregory VII
The Order of the Hatchet
This was a military order of knighthood for women. It was formed in 1149 by Raymond Bergenger, Count of Barcelona, to honour the women of the town of Tortosa who took up arms to defend the town against a Moor attack. They fought with anything at hand, including hatchets.
Nicola de la Haye
In 1217 Nicola, Constable of Lincoln, held Lincoln Castle against the French forces for one month until help could arrive. She was in her sixties at the time.
In 1335 Christina defended Kildrummy Castle from an English attack, led by David Strathbogie, until her husband, Andrew Murray, could come to her aid.
Agnes Randolph – Countess of Dunbar
In 1338 Agnes held Dunbar castle against a five-month siege by the English. She succeeded in utterly defeating and demoralising her enemy. My post on 14th December 2013 goes into more detail.
Joanne De Montfort also known as Joanne of Flanders
In the siege of Hennebont, in 1342, she dressed in armour and led raids, protecting the town in the name of her infant son.
Joan of Arc 1412 – 1431
No blog on medieval women warriors would be complete without mentioning Joan of Arc. She led the French forces against the English and was responsible for their victory and the coronation of King Charles VII. Captured by the English, she was tried for heresy, not as a witch as some believe. The main charges against her seem to stem from her wearing men’s clothing. But the Catholic Church dictated that women were allowed to wear men’s clothes in order to protect themselves. Joan was justified in wearing her suit of armour on the battlefield. In May 1431 she was executed by burning. She was so influential and inspiring that the English destroyed her body and dumped it in the River Seine, so no relics could be collected.
Margaret of Anjou 1430 - 1482
Her husband, Henry VI of England, was prone to frequent bouts of insanity, so Margaret ruled the kingdom in his place. By all accounts she was not a very nice person. Leader of the Lancastrian faction in the War of the Roses, she led several battles against the Yorkists before ultimately being defeated.
This list is by no means complete. It seems that the average medieval noble woman was expected to defend her home and that instruction in the martial arts was not as limited as you might expect, as shown in this illustration from the Walpurgis Fechtbuch – a fourteenth century German training manual. If there is an historical woman warrior that has sparked your interest I would love to hear about her.