Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England

Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England

by Alison Weir

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Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England by Alison Weir

In this vibrant biography, acclaimed author Alison Weir reexamines the life of Isabella of England, one of history’s most notorious and charismatic queens. Isabella arrived in London in 1308, the spirited twelve-year-old daughter of King Philip IV of France. Her marriage to the heir to England’s throne was designed to heal old political wounds between the two countries, and in the years that followed she became an important figure, a determined and clever woman whose influence would come to last centuries. Many myths and legends have been woven around Isabella’s story, but in this first full biography in more than 150 years, Alison Weir gives a groundbreaking new perspective.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345453204
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/26/2006
Edition description: Reprinted Edition
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 185,096
Product dimensions: 5.46(w) x 8.23(h) x 1.07(d)

About the Author

Alison Weir is the New York Times bestselling author of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley, and several other historical biographies. She lives in Surrey with her husband and two children.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

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 the former 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.

Philip IV, who was vigorously carrying on his predecessors’ expansionist policy, not surprisingly 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 tantalizing 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 15 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 the Earl of Warwick were appointed to act for Edward I and his son, and soon afterward, 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 onward. 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 Guienne, 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 misogynistic 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 highborn 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 jeopardized 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 practiced 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.

From the Hardcover edition.

Reading Group Guide

1. How far do you think the author has succeeded in rehabilitating Isabella? Do you think she set out to write a revisionist view of her? Or did that come about as a response to the historical sources that she studied?

2. Do you think our modern moral values allow us to take a more sympathetic view of Isabella than that of her contemporaries? Do you think she deserves our sympathy for her “moral” failings?

3. How would you account for Isabellàs transition from a model queen-consort and acknowledged peacemaker to a notorious femme fatale who became known as a jezebel and a she-wolf ?

4. Did you like Isabella? If you have read Eleanor of Aquitaine, did you find her as charismatic a character as Eleanor?

5. Were the author’s arguments for Edward II’s survival convincing? If so, what was the most powerful evidence in favor of that theory? If not, why not?

6. Did you find anything to like about Isabella’s husband, Edward II? Would you agree with the view that he was one of the worst kings in English history? What makes a good or a bad king?

7. Do you think that the issue of homosexuality is sensitively and objectively handled by the author? How should we allow modern politically correct views to influence the study of history?

8. It could be said that Isabella was a victim rather than a villainess. Would you agree with that view? And how far should we apply modern feminist perspectives when studying women of the past?

9. Isabella appears as a character in the film Braveheart. What is historically inaccurate about that portrayal? Should she have been in the film at all?

10. If you were asked to choose an actress to portray Isabella, who would it be? Were you convinced by the author’s theories as to what Isabella looked like? Should filmmakers always try to find actresses who look like historical characters?

11. How do you account for Roger Mortimer’s transition from a staunch supporter of the Crown to an exiled traitor, and then to a tyrant? What do you think was the true nature of the relationship between Isabella and Mor-timer? Who was the dominant partner?

12. Did Isabella have blood on her hands? If so, whose?

13. What was Edward III’s attitude toward his parents? Do you think the troubles between them caused him great anguish? And was he caught up in a conflict of loyalties?

14. Contrast Piers Gaveston and Hugh le Despenser the Younger. Were both villains? Whose was the worst influence on Edward II, and why? Are you convinced that his relationships with both were homosexual? Did both deserve to be put to death? Was Despense&rgrave;s execution unnecessarily cruel?

15. Would you agree that Isabellàs reputation had been restored by the time she died? To what extent was Edward III responsible for this? Why do you think Isabella was so concerned about penitence and redemption in her last years?

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Queen Isabella 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 59 reviews.
Trebuchet1066 More than 1 year ago
After watching "Braveheart" at home, I decided to find out more about Queen Isabella. Someone at the bookstore recommended that I read this book. Two days later, I was back at the store buying as many of Alison Weir's books as I could and I haven't stopped. Her writing is concise, her citations & sources numerous and well annotated. She brings new "twists" by relating ancient monetary values to modern values, explaining the basic tennants of Catholicism as it related to the medieval world, parenting and other societal issues. What I find the most helpful are the genealogical references, specifically the family trees. Always a strong writer, she is even-handed in her treatment & very objective.
Kansas-Bailey More than 1 year ago
Queen Isabella is indeed a remarkable read. Rich in history while allowing the reader to take a clear, deep glance into British and French history. I visited Warwick Castle almost eight years ago and learned the history of the "King Maker". The Earls of Warwick. This book is packed with factual accounts and the description is as good as can be delivered. Reading this amazing tome allows you to actually picture the queen's volley of ships and barges during one of her many trips. Learning how much or how little workers and designers were paid is also interesting. Absorbing this book - Queen Isabella - trades learning for enjoyment. Simply an enthralling book to be treasured forever . I recommend it as a gift for all of your students, be they relatives, friends, or godchildren. The short, quick, but thorough introduction of the life of Piers Gaveston and his demise was fascinating. As young Isabella matures so does the unveiling of her sharp mind and bold personality. This singular blick in history explains much to us as to how decisions are made and also it lets us look into the lives of those early days of Court life and parliamentary decisions. How the Church influenced the court and vice versa. A gleaming mirror of why and how certain people were and are to this day, thrust in certain positiions. Either to balance out for a possible good fight in order to maintain ones wealth and power, or just simply, bad judgement. However, not even a king has absolute power and this is good to know and understand. Well Done, Ms. Weir
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In college I made Tudor History a hobby of mine and this is when I found Allison Weir. Her books do not read like other history books they read more like a story and they are captivating.After I read all the books I could on the Tudor's I expanded on to her other books and haven't been disappointed. Because of her writing she keeps my interested in time periods and people I first had no interest in learning about. Highly recommend all of her books!
JASharkey More than 1 year ago
Suprisingly I really like how Weir has written Queen Isabella better than her other works, which of course I love as well. Maybe the topic was easy to keep me entertained through the whole book. The real life drama! The empathy you could feel for Queen Isabella, Edward the II and III and the latter's Queen Philippa. The well-you-got-what-was-coming-to-you feelings for Despenser and Mortimer. All because how Weir keeps most personal feelings out of the book, most. This is also one of the few books where Weir mentions herself (I, Me, Personally, etc.) a little more than usuall, but it still doesn't take away from the book.
Melissa_W More than 1 year ago
As with other Weir biographies/historiographies, "Queen Isabella" takes a historically maligned, intelligent woman and brings her to life using the objectivity 650-700 years of distance affords. There is a lot of information contained within the book; compared to Weir's other somewhat contemporary subjects, Eleanor of Acquitaine and Katherine Swynford, Isabella is far more present in the historical record because of her role in the history of England. At times, all the information does make Isabella's story bog down in the details (several letters from around the time of the coup are transcribed in their entirety) but you can't fully understand Isabella's motives without information relating to the actions and movements of Edward II, the Kings of France and other contemporary figures. Weir also devotes several pages to the Fieschi letter, sent to Edward III around 1337, containing the startling revelation that Edward II was alive and in Genoa; using the possibility that the letter is authentic, Weir demonstrates how the information may have changed Edward III's perception of his mother and her role in the deposition and murder of his father. Weir's work manages to rehabilitate Isabella from she-wolf Jezebel, adulteress and possible conspirator in regicide to a strong, intelligent, wronged woman who is also a naturally-talented diplomat; if it weren't for the whole affair with Mortimer and subsequent hoarding of grants and lands, Isabella would be downright endearing. This is a great book for anyone who wants to know more about the history of England and how that history intertwines with the political machinations of the monarchy.
mzonderm on LibraryThing 5 hours ago
It's not uncommon for a biographer to develop some sympathy for their subject. In this case, though, one gets the feeling that Weir developed her sympathy before writing the book, and, in fact, set out to do her research to redeem Isabella's reputation, rather than simply to write an account of her life. Which is not intrinsically a bad thing. My problem is that Weir spends too much time disproving one historical theory of Isabella after another when, no matter your bias, the evidence is just not there for a conclusive determination either way. And yet, Weir routinely calls any conclusion but the one she has drawn "speculative." As far as I can tell, her conclusions are just as speculative!Having said that, Weir is to be commended for the thoroughness of her research. It must be incredibly difficult to come up with so much material about a woman of that time, even one as notorious as Queen Isabella. And Weir does an admirable job of taking the dry account books and other records and turning them into an actual narrative, to say nothing of making that narrative compelling at times.
littlebookworm on LibraryThing 5 hours ago
To be honest, this wasn't as good as Alison Weir's book about Eleanor of Aquitaine. It dragged in parts when nothing that exciting was happening to Isabella. Not necessarily the fault of the author, since Isabella's active role in politics didn't actually last very long. The book was still interesting, though, and informative. I like the way the author presents her information and her arguments; even if I don't agree with her, I can see her point in many ways. As one reviewer said, she does take special efforts to vindicate Isabella, perhaps more than Isabella deserved, but I never felt that her suggestions could not have been true. This was a worthy read overall, but not recommended for those lacking patience.
Meggo on LibraryThing 7 days ago
A detailed look at one of the more controversial queens of England, but perhaps a little too detailed. The day-by-day recounting of Isabella's movements gets tiring after a while, and the treatment of Edward II's death or alleged survival was unnecessarily distracting. A generally OK read, but not highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A very comprehensive and enlightened view of Isabella, her husband Edward II and their not so wedded bliss.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Queen Isabella by Alison Weir. Not what I was expecting out of King Edward II illustrious queen consort. Daughter of Phillip IV of France. I expected a demonized sinning witch on a broom. Lol. Shed in this light, I sort of had a bit of sympathy for her , at first. Ms. Weir made sense as well. Well researched . Good history. I loved it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Alison Weir has done it again, this book is unique because it is both extensively researched and has the pacing of a novel. Weir does an amazing job of exploring Isabella and giving her a fair biography. Queen Isabella has been despised for centuries, yet Weir peels back the prejudice around the so-called She-wolf. Weir portrays Isabella as a complicated woman who played a major role in medieval British history. The Queen is shown as a brilliant politician, respected diplomat and fiercely protective mother, yet Weir also shows her flaws and how they almost led to Isabella's ruin.
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Book was very well written & gave a fresh perspective to history
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