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'The Fair Maiden'
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 Eleanor's 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.
Unsurprisingly, Philip IV, who was vigorously carrying on his predecessors' expansionist policy, 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 tantalising 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 12 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 Guy de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick were appointed to act for Edward I and his son, and soon afterwards 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 onwards. 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 Gascony, 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 mysoginistic 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 high-born 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 jeopardised 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 practised 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.
Isabella was born into the most illustrious royal house in Europe. It had gained its reputation largely through the careers of its thirteenth-century kings, and the canonisation in 1297 of her great-grandfather, Louis IX, one of the greatest of mediaeval monarchs. Her grandfather, Philip III, was a mild, mediocre man who briefly carried on the work of the sainted Louis, but it was left to his son, who became Philip IV in 1285 at the age of seventeen, to add to the prestige of the French monarchy: Philip IV extended the royal domain, effectively founded the Estates General, which evolved from his Paris Parlement, and centralised the royal administration.
In 1284, Philip had made a brilliant marriage with the eleven-year-old Jeanne, Queen of Navarre, who had succeeded to the throne of that kingdom in infancy. The acquisition of Navarre and Jeanne's counties of Champagne and Brie further strengthened Philip's power.
Philip IV was 'the most handsome of men', and his stunning good looks earned him the nickname 'Philip the Fair', in those days, an indication of good looks, not blond hair. Exceptionally tall and strongly built, he also possessed a cold, calculating intelligence and a ruthless character. Yet there was too an ascetic side to his nature: beneath his costly velvets and furs was concealed a hair-shirt, to mortify the flesh, and he regularly whipped himself with the monastic discipline on the orders of his confessor.Those who met him found his fixed stare, his long silences and his mysterious manner disconcerting. 'He is neither a man, nor a beast, but a statue,' commented the Bishop of Pamiers.
As a ruler, Philip was authoritarian, despotic, efficient, and feared by his subjects. He was a resolute defender of the royal prerogative, and obsessed with the acquisition of wealth. Being perennially short of money, he often resorted to drastic measures to get it. He dispossessed the Jews in his realm of vast sums, confiscated much of the property of the Lombard bankers, taxed the Church heavily, sold peerages to commoners and, notoriously, debased the coinage several times. His daughter Isabella would inherit his obsession with money, and his avarice.
Isabella's mother, Jeanne of Navarre, was no beauty. Plump and plain, with a Moorish cast to her features, she was a dignified, pious and intelligent woman, capable of managing her kingdom of Navarre and her other domains, although she tactfully adopted her husband's reforms in France as her administrative model.Twice, and with great vigour, she successfully defended her territories, firstly against the Count of Bar, and secondly against the combined might of Aragon and Castile. In 1298-9, the Queen, along with her mother Blanche of Artois and the Queen Dowager of France, Marie of Brabant, was actively involved in the diplomatic negotiations for her daughter Isabella's betrothal.
Generally, however, being frequently preoccupied with the business of childbearing, Jeanne chose not to dabble in French politics, and confined her influence to the domestic and intellectual spheres. In Paris in 1304 she founded the College of Navarre, also known as the Hôtel de la Reine Jeanne, as a cultural centre for the city's flourishing university. When Philip ventured forth on his frequent tours of the French provinces, Jeanne invariably went with him. Theirs had been a love match, on her part at least, for they had been brought up together at the château of Vincennes, after Jeanne's mother had seen fit to place her fatherless daughter under the protection of the King of France.
The career of her mother seems to have impressed itself upon Isabella's consciousness; she inherited many of her mother's abilities, and may well have tried to emulate her example in later life. Certainly she learned from Jeanne what a woman was capable of in a male-dominated society.
Philip's marriage to Jeanne produced seven children.Three sons survived childhood: the heir, Louis, born in 1289 in Paris, Philip, born around 1292-3 at Lyons; and Charles, probably born in 1294. All grew into 'very handsome and great knights'. Isabella was the sixth child. Her two older sisters, Marguerite and Blanche, died young in or after 1294, and her younger brother, Robert, born in 1297, died at the age of eleven in 1308 at St-Germain-en-Laye. As the only surviving daughter, Isabella was much favoured by her father, and may well have been a little spoilt by him.
Through the marriages of his children, Philip was resolved to extend France's influence and borders.With any luck, his grandson, born of the union between Isabella and Edward, would sit on the English throne. In September 1305, Philip's eldest son Louis was married to fifteenyear- old Marguerite of Burgundy, a granddaughter of St Louis on her mother's side, and the daughter of Robert II, Count of Burgundy. In 1307, Charles was married to Marguerite's cousin, eleven-year-old Blanche of Burgundy, and Philip was married to the latter's sister Jeanne; they were the daughters of Othon IV, Count of Burgundy. Through these unions, Franche-Comté and part of Burgundy became annexed to the French Crown.
In the early fourteenth century, France was the wealthiest and most heavily populated country in Europe: it had an estimated 21 million inhabitants, compared to 4.5 million in England; 80,000 people lived in Paris, twice the number who lived in London. French society was essentially feudal, and the royal domain now covered more than half of modern France; the rest was made up of vassal feudatories.The Capetian dynasty had ruled since 987, since when the crown had passed unfailingly from father to son.
France at that time was at the hub of European culture, and Paris was the intellectual centre of Christendom. King Philip himself was a generous and discriminating patron of the arts, and Queen Jeanne, who descended from the brilliant and scholarly counts of Champagne, set a high cultural standard at court; in her retinue she kept minstrels and trouvères, who provided sophisticated musical entertainment.
Isabella spent her childhood in the royal palaces around the Île de France, and of course in Paris, at the Louvre, then a moated château, and the Palace de la Cité, which was rebuilt by Philip IV. (The Palais de Justice now stands on the site.) Very little is known of her daily life during these early years. A few grants to her are recorded, and probably quite early on, a lady called Théophania de Saint-Pierre was appointed her nurse; Isabella became much attached to her, and Théophania would accompany her to England and remain with her for many years.
Isabella apparently received a good education for her time: she was lucky enough to be taught to read, and her love of books remained with her throughout her life. There is no evidence that she ever learned to write, although it is quite possible. Above all, she must have grown up with a strong sense of her status and importance as the daughter of Europe's most powerful monarch and the future wife of the Prince of Wales, whose father was nearly as powerful. Promised when she was four, she could hardly have remembered a time when she was not aware that she would one day be Queen of England. Moreover, as the great-granddaughter of St Louis, she would certainly have been raised to believe in the sanctity of the royal House of Capet to which she belonged, and its superiority over all other ruling dynasties. She may well also have cherished the naive expectation that all kings were like her father.
Although Isabella's childhood was privileged it was overshadowed by war and by the quarrel her father waged with the Pope. She would have heard of Philip's envoys' physical assault on the violent and intransigent Boniface VIII in September 1303, and would have learned - doubtless to her distress - how the outraged Pontiff excommunicated her father the very next day. Even more shocking, later that month, Boniface died as a result of the assault. Fortunately for France, the election of a compliant elderly Frenchman, Clement V, in 1305 paved the way for a reconciliation, and in 1309, under pressure from Philip, Clement moved the seat of the Papacy from Rome to Avignon in southern France, where it was to remain for nearly seventy years, in thrall to the kings of France.
Meanwhile, in April 1305, when Isabella was not quite ten, her mother had died at Vincennes, aged only thirty-two. One French chronicler accused her husband of poisoning her, but that is hardly credible, for Philip the Fair was grief-stricken at Queen Jeanne's passing, and his suffering was manifestly evident as he followed her funeral cortège to the Abbey of St-Denis, near Paris.There is no record of Isabella being present. Jeanne was succeeded as King of Navarre by her eldest son Louis. After her death, Philip remained faithful to her memory and never remarried, which was exceptional in an age in which royal marriages could secure valuable political advantages.
With Queen Jeanne's steadying influence removed, the French court lost much of its gravitas. The King's three young daughters-in-law now emerged as the leaders of fashionable society, and they were flighty, mischievous girls, intent only on pleasure. Soon, the court was plunged into a hectic round of fêtes, dancing and novel diversions, and moralists professed themselves shocked at the new fashions promoted by these princesses, who, along with other fripperies, set a trend for daringly slit skirts.
In the months after the Queen's death, Pope Clement began urging Edward I to press on with plans for his son's marriage to Isabella, and on 15 October, the Prince of Wales authorised the English envoys to conclude the contract. There was talk of a proxy wedding at Lyons, to coincide with the new Pope's coronation there, and on 11 November, Philip empowered Isabella to appoint her proxies. The Pope issued the necessary dispensation for the marriage on 27 November, and on 3 December, at the Louvre, Isabella named as proxies her uncle, Louis of Evreux, Gilles de St Pol and the Count of Dreux. Yet there is no record of the proxy marriage ever taking place. The evidence suggests that it was prevented by further disputes over Gascony.
Still the tortuous preliminaries dragged on. In 1306, Clement sent Cardinal Peter the Spaniard to England to negotiate the final arrangements for the union between the Prince of Wales and 'the fair maiden', and expressed the hopeful opinion that peace between England and France was imminent. Cardinal Peter was received by Edward I at Carlisle on 12 March 1307 and on the 16th, the King gave his formal consent to the union. When Parliament met at Easter at Carlisle, the marriage was unanimously approved, and practical preparations for it were immediately put in hand. In late April, Prince Edward was supposed to go to France to marry Isabella at Poitiers; he even travelled to Dover and waited there nine days for his father's order to embark, but it never came. Instead, the Prince was summoned to Scotland to assist his father in the Scottish campaign. Apparently, the King was having doubts that this marriage would bring the lasting peace that everyone was hoping for. He evidently had further thoughts, however, for two months later, shortly before he died on 7 July 1307, he belatedly commanded his son to marry Isabella. The next day, the Prince of Wales succeeded him as King Edward II.
The new King had shown no interest whatsoever in his coming marriage. There is no record of his sending any letter or gift to his future bride, or even showing any curiosity about her. However, if he reneged on the marriage treaty, he stood to lose Gascony, and with Scotland in turmoil, he could not afford to fight a war on two fronts. Immediately after his accession, therefore, he dispatched the Bishops of Durham and Norwich and the Earls of Lincoln and Pembroke to France to conclude the negotiations. They returned home with enthusiastic opinions of Isabella's beauty, and some chroniclers accuse Edward of being so eager to marry her that he abandoned his chances of conquering Scotland in his haste. However, as will be seen, Edward had far more pressing personal concerns at this time.
Late in August, King Philip ordered his brother, Louis, Count of Evreux, to enter into negotiations with the English, and by 24 September, representatives of Evreux had arrived in England; the Count was already in correspondence with King Edward. In October, Parliament voted funds for the coming royal wedding and the coronation of the King and Queen that was to follow, and on 6 November, the King sent his envoys back to France to appoint a day for the nuptials and make the final arrangements.
Four days later, Edward gave orders for preparations for his journey to France, the wedding ceremony, which he wanted to take place at Boulogne, and the reception of his bride in England. At the Palace of Westminster, he had the royal lodgings restored, the gardens freshly turfed with new trellises erected, the fish ponds cleaned and restocked, and the nearby 'Queen's bridge', a pier on the Thames, repaired. A royal ship, The Margaret of Westminster, was commissioned to bring the new Queen home; Edward had it repainted and refitted, and he himself designed wardrobes and butteries inside it for his bride's belongings. He also ordered embroidered tapestries for the coronation.
Meanwhile, at the instance of the Pope, Philip agreed to the wedding taking place at Boulogne in January. He had a well-known devotion to Our Lady of Boulogne, and the location would be convenient for the English. By now, Isabella was busy with her trousseau.
These happy and auspicious plans were overshadowed in France by the mass arrest of about 2,000 Knights Templar, on the King's orders, on 13 October. All over France, members of this monastic order, the Knights of the Temple of Solomon, founded in 1119 to protect pilgrims visiting the Holy Land, were taken into captivity on charges of heresy, fornication and worse, and their property was immediately sequestered by the Crown. It was not, of course, coincidental that the Templars had grown fabulously rich over the centuries, and that King Philip was again desperately in need of funds. For the next seven years, the Templars in France would be accused of heresy, idolatry, sodomy, sacrilege, bestiality and various other vile practices and interrogated, tortured, tried and sometimes burned at the stake. Philip's treatment of the Templars paved the way for their condemnation by the Pope and the dissolution of the Order.
In England, in December 1307, Edward II gave offence to his future father-in-law by proclaiming that the charges against the Templars were unfounded, but just over a week later he changed his mind and ordered the arrest of all members of the Order in his realm. On 10 January 1308, the Order of the Temple was suppressed in England too.
Shortly afterwards, the English envoys returned from France, and on 22 January, King Edward set sail from Dover for Boulogne to marry Isabella.