Anne Thériault | Longreads | June 2022 | 29 minutes (8,006 words)
From the notorious to the half-forgotten, Queens of Infamy, a Longreads series by Anne Thériault, focuses on world-historical women of centuries past.
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In the late summer of 1326, a small mercenary army gathered in Dordrecht, Holland, preparing to cross the North Sea and invade England. This in and of itself wasn’t all that unusual — from the Romans to the Vikings to the Normans, it seems like all of the European historical heavyweights wanted a piece of that green and pleasant land. I mean, I get it! It’s a classic case of those itchy Julius Caesar fingers: A man sees an island, and he wants to take it. What set this case apart was that the person leading the army wasn’t a king or a prince or a red-headed upstart duke, but a woman who was already the queen of England — had been queen, in fact, for nearly two decades. And the king she wanted to depose wasn’t some usurper who had unjustly taken the throne, but rather Edward II, her husband and the father of her four children. As she stepped onto that boat, the 31-year-old queen would set into motion a sequence of events that would leave her forever remembered as Isabella the She-Wolf of France.
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The French social scene of 1308 began with two glittering back-to-back events: the wedding of the future Charles IV of France to Blanche of Burgundy and, a week later, the wedding of his sister Isabella to Edward II of England. With Charles clocking in at 13 years old, and Isabella having just celebrated her 12th birthday, it was a double tween wedding extravaganza! Charles’ new wife, a veritable spinster at the ripe old age of 11, was young but at least age-appropriate. Edward, meanwhile, was nearly twice his child bride’s age — he would turn 24 three months later. Still, it wasn’t exactly an inauspicious start. By all accounts the union of the king and future queen of England was a sumptuous affair, attended by no fewer than eight European monarchs, as well as assorted princes, princesses, and other nobles. For Isabella, who was brightly turned out in robes of blue, gold, scarlet, and yellow and a crown dripping with precious stones, this was the moment she’d been preparing for since she was 4 years old.
With Charles clocking in at 13 years old, and Isabella having just celebrated her 12th birthday, it was a double tween wedding extravaganza!
Isabella of France was likely born in 1295 or early 1296, since most contemporary chroniclers agree that she was 12 years old at her wedding on January 25th, 1308. At the very least, we know that she wasn’t any younger than 12, since that was the minimum age at which someone could marry in the church. Her brothers all have recorded birth dates, naturally, but I guess when royal daughters were born someone just scrawled “fuck, looks like another girl,” in some forgotten journal somewhere.
Isabella was born into the illustrious Capetian dynasty, which had been ruling France since 987 A.D. Her father, Philippe IV, was also known as Philippe le Bel, because along with his many other sterling qualities he was also, apparently, extremely good-looking. It’s always good to have a hot king! Bolsters the national morale and all that. Philippe did a lot of stuff, including various wars, quashing the Knights Templar, and, at one point, arresting the pope. Dante Alighieri referred to him throughout the Divine Comedy as the Plague of France, but that’s just one Italian man’s opinion. Anyway, he certainly had an eventful life.
Isabella’s mother was Joan I of Navarre, a sovereign ruler in her own right, though she left the actual governing of Navarre to various appointees. She and Philippe had grown up together at the French court, and by all accounts they were mutually smitten with each other. One source I read described her as “plump and plain,” but, like, come on, by the time she was 25 she’d already given birth seven times. Let’s cut the woman some slack. Joan died in childbirth when Isabella was just 10 years old, already predeceased by two of her daughters. Only four of Philippe and Isabella’s children lived to adulthood; of those, Isabella was the youngest and the only daughter, and some sources say that her father doted on her especially.
Meanwhile, Isabella’s new husband had never really been close with his own father, Edward I of England, also known as Longshanks and the Hammer of the Scots. For one thing, there was a 45-year age difference between the two and Edward II was raised mostly by his nurse, and for another, Edward I’s legacy was just a lot to live up to. It probably didn’t help that Edward II was the fourth and only surviving son of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile — I feel like after you’ve seen three potential heirs die, it’s kind of hard to get invested in the last one. Like, oh, I guess you’re going to be king. Good luck! Try not to fuck it up too badly.
If Philippe IV was famous for being hot, then one of Edward I’s key personality traits was being so tall that you could climb him like a tree (and many women did). As his second nickname suggests, his other main thing was that he loved going to war with Scotland. Loved it! He’s the one who killed Braveheart! One historian even reported that his dying wish was to have all the flesh boiled off his body so that his bones could be mounted on a standard and brought onto Scottish battlefields. Now that’s commitment to a fault.
EDWARD II: I also did a lot of wars in Scotland
EDWARD II: you could say it was a sort of inheritance my dad left me, along with being really tall
EDWARD II: I didn’t get any fun nicknames, though
EDWARD II: actually, if people did have nicknames for me, I doubt they’d be flattering
EDWARD II: so it’s probably for the best if I don’t know about them
It must have been difficult to grow up in the shadow of a father who basically embodied the medieval ideal of kingship. It didn’t help that the younger Edward had some quirky hobbies: ditching, hedging, and thatching roofs. You know, peasant shit. Edward II’s dream vacation involved slumming it with a bunch of commoners, drinking beer with them and doing some manual labor, followed by a quick dip in the river (swimming just wasn’t a thing in England at the time, so Edward’s fondness for it was seen as further proof of his weirdness). But while all this stuff caused a fair amount of side-eye at court, the thing that people gossiped most about was Edward’s lifelong series of intense, emotionally charged relationships with men that made him behave in seemingly irrational ways.
Was Edward gay? That’s a tough question to answer, especially since medieval England didn’t have the same conception of sexuality as we do now. We do know that, along with his relationships with men, Edward also slept with at least one woman other than his wife, so maybe if he were alive in 21st-century Britain he’d identify as a chaotic bisexual. Or maybe not! This stuff is so tricky to unpack without assigning identities that may or may not be accurate. What is certain is that, whether or not the relationships Edward had with these men were sexual, he loved them and was infatuated with them to the point of self-destruction. What is also certain is that many of his contemporaries believed he was having sexual relationships with these men, and much of the ill-treatment he would receive at the hands of these contemporaries was rooted in homophobia.
Edward’s first favorite to cause a stir was Piers Gaveston, the son of a Gascon baron who had fought for Edward’s father in several campaigns. Actually, it was Edward I who had brought Piers into his son’s life, placing him as a squire in his household. Edward and Piers were both around 16 years old and soon became inseparable. At first, old Edward I was delighted, thinking that the charming, handsome boy was a good influence on his son. But then came an incident where the two teens went on some kind of hooligan tour around the Bishop of Chester’s property, drunkenly pulling down fences, scattering his deer and other game. Cheeky rapscallions!
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When the king tried to talk to his son about this little misadventure, the younger Edward “uttered coarse and harsh words to him.” The past is a foreign et cetera, but back-talking teenagers are forever. As part of his punishment, the prince was forbidden from seeing Piers, though it wouldn’t be long before the two were back in each other’s orbits. This was the beginning of a pattern that would last the rest of Piers’ life: He and Edward would get up to some shit, the pair would be forcibly separated, Edward would somehow finagle a reconciliation, and then after a brief period of quiet the two would once again get up to some shit.
EDWARD II: eventually my father just straight up exiled Piers to Gascony
EDWARD II: because of “undue intimacy” between us
EDWARD II: I’m sorry, is that a crime in this country now??
EDWARD II: he also forbade me from ever bestowing any titles or lands on Piers
EDWARD II: I wasn’t even allowed to go visit him
EDWARD II: anyway, when my dad died, the first thing I did was bring Piers back to England and make him the Earl of Cornwall
EDWARD II: like, literally, first thing
EDWARD II: less than a month after the old dude kicked it
Five months after his father’s death, Edward sailed to France for his wedding. When the happy couple returned to England on February 7th, 1308, Piers was there waiting for them at the docks. To say that Edward was thrilled to see him would be an understatement — one contemporary account describes the king falling into Piers’ arms and “giving kisses and repeated embraces.”
What did Isabella think of all this? It’s hard to know, since her reaction to meeting Piers went unrecorded. Actually, a lot of things about Isabella went unrecorded — we don’t know what color her hair or eyes were, how tall she was, or really anything about her appearance other than that she was routinely described as beautiful. Edward himself called her Isabeau the Fair (which is a pretty cute nickname, to be honest). And really, what else do you need to know about a woman other than whether she’s hot or not?
And really, what else do you need to know about a woman other than whether she’s hot or not?
Isabella might have found Edward’s behavior strange, but then again she was a 12-year-old arriving in a whole new country — she probably found a lot of things strange. Maybe she took her husband kissing and clinging to his favorite as yet another bit of culture shock. Or maybe she thought it was totally normal! This was, after all, a time when men were much more physically affectionate with each other, and kissing was a common greeting. That being said, the other noblemen gathered at Dover to greet the king and his new bride certainly knew that something was up — for one thing, even if kissing was culturally normalized, there was only one man among them getting kissed. And, of course, these men all knew that Piers had already been sent away from the young king twice. Even if the rumors about Piers had yet to reach Isabella, they would soon.
The coronation was a disaster. For some reason, Edward let Piers plan the whole thing, even though he had no background in event planning (and, after that day, no future in it either). First of all, Piers outdressed everyone in pearl-encrusted robes of imperial purple silk, even though that color was supposed to be reserved for royalty. Then he went ahead and assigned himself the best role in the procession, carrying England’s most sacred relic: the crown of St. Edward the Confessor. But fashion and religious slights aside, the whole thing was just a shitshow. Lack of crowd control led to a wall behind the altar collapsing and killing a knight. The food for the feast arrived hours late, and when it did come it was so badly cooked that it was inedible. Piers seated himself next to the king, a spot that should have belonged to the new queen. But the insult that truly put things over the top for Isabella’s family was the fact that the tapestries on the walls had Edward’s arms next to Piers’ arms, while Isabella’s were conspicuously absent.
PIERS: the whole thing was devastating, to put it mildly
PIERS: here I am, trying to plan this beautiful day for my king
PIERS: and anyone who knows me knows that my passion is pageant planning
PIERS: I was trying to look my best for him
PIERS: trying to publicly redeem myself after that humiliating banishment
PIERS: and some of the stuff that went wrong legitimately wasn’t my fault
PIERS: for one thing, a wall collapsing seems more like a structural issue
PIERS: and of course Edward wanted to sit next to me, his age-appropriate friend
PIERS: what is a grown man going to talk to a little girl about?
PIERS: which horsie in the parade had the prettiest braids in their hair?
PIERS: how to dress your poppet for the pretend ball??
PIERS: I’ll admit that the tapestry thing was a touch too far, though
What was Isabella’s reaction to all this? We don’t know, though several contemporary chroniclers noted that several close family members who were present — specifically, two uncles and a brother — were absolutely fuming over the insult. Some accounts even have them storming out of the feast, silk robes and velvet capes a-swirling. While that most likely didn’t happen, it’s still fun to imagine because medievals had the best flouncing clothes. Modernity has its upsides, but it’s hard to make a dramatic exit in jeans and a sweatshirt.
But even if we have no historical record of what Isabella was going through in the wake of her disastrous coronation, she must have felt incredibly hurt and alone. Not that anyone should be too sympathetic to the royals, who live lives of unbelievable wealth and comfort, but it is pretty unhinged to be born into this very public job and have to do that job until you die. Not to belabor this point, but Isabella was 12, an age where everything about life seems excruciatingly embarrassing. I can only imagine what it must have felt like to be sent off to a whole new life, with a new husband who can barely give you the time of day, to live in a new culture whose customs you don’t understand, and then be humiliated in front of everyone who’s anyone.
However, life goes on, and Isabella had little choice but to figure out how to live in a strange royal ménage à trois. At least one contemporary source says that Isabella hated Piers (at first, anyway), but even if she did, there wasn’t much she could do — a prepubescent, foreign-born queen doesn’t exactly wield much institutional power. Edward continued to see Piers frequently, whether his wife liked it or not. Piers continued to further alienate the rest of the English nobility by making up rude nicknames for them (“Sir Burst-Belly” and “The Whoreson” are representative of his sense of humor), while also limiting everyone’s access to the king. Basically, if you wanted a favor or any kind of patronage, you had to go through Piers, and you also had to be ready to pay him for the privilege. Unsurprisingly, the favorite remained extremely unpopular among everyone who wasn’t Edward.
The nobles started intriguing against Piers pretty much immediately after the coronation. When Parliament met in March, almost everyone present demanded another banishment. Edward told them he’d think about it, then granted a bunch of his stepmother’s lands to Piers. Parliament met again at the end of April and renewed their demands. Meanwhile, Isabella’s father, perhaps prompted by complaints from his daughter, sent some
spies envoys to make sure that he had an accurate picture of the queen’s life at court.
Eventually, Edward caved and agreed to strip Piers of his title as earl of Cornwall and exile him. Considering that his “exile” involved a cushy appointment as the new lieutenant of Ireland (who, by the way, had viceregal powers), it doesn’t seem like much of a punishment. Isabella flourished while Piers was away, traveling across the country with her husband as he carried out his official duties. Edward, meanwhile, seemed to finally notice his wife, and began granting her lands and privileges. The queen must have hoped that she’d finally winnowed her marriage down to two people.
PIERS: I left Ireland less than a year after arriving there
PIERS: then Edward immediately restored my titles
PIERS: Just picture me sailing to England while Eminem’s Without Me plays in the background
PIERS: CORNWALL’S BACK, TELL A FRIEND
The barons were extremely chill about this development and decided to just live and let live when it came to the king’s favorite. Kidding! Piers’ return pushed the country to the brink of civil war. A bunch of barons calling themselves the Lords Ordainers planned — with the backing of Parliament — to come up with a bunch of regulations curtailing the royal abuse of power. One of these barons was the earl of Lancaster, who happened to be Isabella’s uncle and Edward’s first cousin and would prove to be an enormous thorn in the king’s side. Edward was not thrilled about the regulations, called Ordinances, but Parliament basically told him that if he didn’t accept them, he’d be overthrown.
Backed into a corner, Edward decided that now was a great time to start a military campaign against Scotland. Everyone knows that wars are great for the economy, plus if you’re a guy that everyone is accusing of being gay and corrupt, it’s good branding to look like you’re following the footsteps of your strong, masculine, extremely heterosexual father. Oh also Piers was going to come too.
The campaign was a disaster, at least in part because most of the nobles who were pissed at Edward refused to join in. It’s cool to let your own commoners die in battle because of petty infighting! Meanwhile, Robert the Bruce, king of Scotland, was up there reaping the rewards of England’s inability to get their shit together. Thanks, Ordainers!
Things continued to not go well for Edward. That winter, the earl of Lincoln died, which was a problem for the king since the earl had been one of the few moderate voices in Parliament and had managed to somewhat control the Ordainers. After that, the shit really hit the fan. The Ordainers finally completed and presented their list of 41 Ordinances, and chief among them was that Piers would be exiled again. Edward, never one to properly read a room, said that he’d agree to the rest of the Ordinances as long as Piers could stay. The thing about bargaining, though, is that you have to offer something of equal value in order to get what you want. The king had nothing to offer and everyone knew it.
Piers left England on November 3rd, then snuck back in, possibly as soon as late November. Certainly by early 1312, Piers and Edward had been reunited. I’m not sure how these chuckleheads thought this was going to play out, but obviously it didn’t end well.
ROBERT THE BRUCE: Edward even asked me at one point if Piers could come stay with me in Scotland
ROBERT THE BRUCE: I’m sorry, but weren’t you trying to invade my country last year?
ROBERT THE BRUCE: and now you want a favor from me?
ROBERT THE BRUCE: ok, bud, good chat
Meanwhile, Isabella turned 16 and, just a few months later, found out she was pregnant.
What was the Queen up to during all these Piers shenanigans? Mostly just queen stuff, like, patronages and whatever, plus publicly supporting Edward and his doomed quest to keep one hot man in the country. But while Isabella might not have been able to speak out against her husband’s antics — assuming that was even something she wanted to do — she was in a better position than she’d been in a few years before. Not only was she older and more experienced but, most importantly, she was carrying what everyone hoped would be the heir to the English throne. Four years into her role as England’s queen, Isabella was finally ready to step into the spotlight.
Four years into her role as England’s queen, Isabella was finally ready to step into the spotlight.
But first there was the whole Piers issue to resolve, which Edward did by fleeing from the Ordainers with the queen and his favorite. Early in the journey they were all traveling together, but later the two men ditched the pregnant Isabella, either because they were worried about her safety or because her household was moving too slowly (this wasn’t exactly a high-speed chase, since everyone involved had an entire staff of servants plus carts and carts of supplies). Anyway, eventually there was a siege, Piers was (predictably) captured, then tossed in a dungeon until his jailers could decide what to do with him.
EDWARD: so they had a little mock trial
EDWARD: where Piers wasn’t even allowed to speak in his own defense
EDWARD: then they took him out into the road and ran him through with a sword
EDWARD: I’ve seen animals slaughtered with more dignity
EDWARD: they called it an execution, but for what crime?
EDWARD: me not wanting to follow their made-up rules?
EDWARD: rules that let them arbitrarily exile people they don’t like?
EDWARD: no wonder the rest of Europe thinks we’re a barbarian backwater
Edward was devastated, and would grieve the loss of his favorite for the rest of his life, but Piers’ death did have a stabilizing effect on the country. For one thing, the Ordainers had gotten what they wanted, more or less. For another, all the nobles who weren’t part of that core group of Lords Ordainers thought that what had happened was, frankly, super fucked up. As a result, the king enjoyed far more support than he’d had since he’d come to the throne.
His image also got a boost from Isabella’s pregnancy, since that helped dispel some of the rumors about his sexuality, plus a royal baby is always good for PR. Isabella delivered a healthy son on November 13th, and Edward was so overjoyed that he gave £20 cash plus £80 per annum for the rest of their lives to the couple that brought him the good news. At a time when an unskilled laborer was earning around £2 per year, that was a pretty hefty sum. Edward’s faults were many, but he was an unfailingly generous man. He also just seems to have been thrilled to be a dad — throughout his life he would take genuine delight in his children, creating a much different environment than the one he’d grown up in.
His image also got a boost from Isabella’s pregnancy, since that helped dispel some of the rumors about his sexuality, plus a royal baby is always good for PR.
By the end of 1312, Isabella was 17 and finally settling into some kind of normalcy. With Piers out of the picture, the queen seemed to come into her own, managing a large household, doing all her official queen stuff, and even occasionally advising her husband (to be fair, he needed all the advice he could get). Edward, to his credit, seemed to dote on his wife even as he mourned Piers’ death. Things weren’t perfect — one historian describes Edward’s court as a “disorderly hotbed of jealousies, intrigues and tensions,” which sounds like it would be fun for maybe a week and then get very old very fast — but they were stable. Which might be why he and Isabella decided to go to France in the spring of 1313.
Isabella and Edward’s trip to France went fine, except that a tent that they were sleeping in caught fire. Edward bravely scooped up his wife and carried her out, though she suffered burns on her arms which troubled her for several months. One contemporary chronicler noted that the king and queen of England were completely naked when they came out of the tent, which must have been a titillating sight. But other than being That Time When The Royal Couple Almost Burned To Death After Doing It, this trip to France is best known for allegedly being the time when Isabella sowed the seeds of the Tour de Nesle Affair, an event which would help speed the demise of her family’s entire dynasty. Whoops! Here are the facts of the situation: Isabella had three brothers, all of whom were married. At some point it was discovered that two of her sisters-in-law were cheating on their husbands with a pair of Norman knights, and the third sister-in-law knew about this and was somehow aiding and abetting. Isabella’s father found out and shit went very sideways for the wives and their boyfriends. The knights were castrated and then, according to various sources, either drawn and quartered, flayed alive, or broken on the wheel and then hanged. All three women went to horny jail, though one of them was eventually pardoned.
Facts aside, here is the rumor that dogged Isabella for the rest of her life: During her time in France, she allegedly gave some cute purses to her sisters-in-law after watching a “satirical puppet show” with them. Later that year, Isabella noticed a pair of knights holding those same purses at a dinner in London. She apparently came to several conclusions from this: Purses are both genderless and useful, and also her sisters-in-law had slept with these knights and then gave them these purses to remember them by. So the queen called up her father and told him that his daughters-in-law were giant sluts. Isabella’s alleged motive was to get rid of all these potential royal baby-making machines and clear the way to the French throne for her own children. This makes absolutely no sense, since a) Isabella’s children were not in line for the French throne and b) she had no way of knowing that all three of her brothers would die without any surviving male children. It was one of those stories that gained traction later, when there was a succession crisis in France and this narrative seemed to prove certain ugly things about the English queen’s character, but when looked at closely it doesn’t hold any water.
Meanwhile, things were chugging along in England. Edward cycled through a few new favorites, but none of them held his attention the way Piers had. In the summer of 1314, he decided to start yet another military campaign in Scotland, apparently forgetting that just two years earlier he’d been begging the Scottish king to give sanctuary to his favorite. Not sure if you’ve ever heard of a little battle called Bannockburn, but it was an absolute disaster for the English. Edward left home at the head of an enormous army and returned to England in a fishing boat. It was another public humiliation in a long line of public humiliations and reignited some of the tensions between him and the Lords Ordainers.
If Edward hoped that 1315 would be a better year, he was sadly mistaken. Heavy rains and flooding led to poor crops and drowned livestock, which in turn led to widespread famine. Obviously, this did nothing to bolster Edward’s popularity, though Isabella did help national morale by popping out another son in 1316, which she and Edward named John. Then in 1318 she gave birth to a daughter, which they named Eleanor after Edward’s mother.
Obviously, this did nothing to bolster Edward’s popularity, though Isabella did help national morale by popping out another son in 1316, which she and Edward named John.
Shortly after Eleanor’s birth, something truly bizarre happened: A man named John showed up claiming to be the real king of England. He said that he was the true son of Edward I, but his ear had been bitten off by a sow when he was an infant, which had led to a royal nurse switching him out with a commoner’s baby, who then grew up to be Edward II. The king thought the whole situation was pretty funny and suggested John be made into a court jester. Isabella was considerably less amused. The matter might have ended there, but John kept trying to convince Edward to fight him in single combat for the throne. In the end, John was put on trial for sedition and hanged. What a weird little interlude.
In late 1318, a man named Hugh Despenser became Edward’s new chamberlain and, shortly thereafter, became Edward’s new favorite. In many ways, their relationship would mirror the one Edward had had with Piers, but there was one crucial difference. While Piers had never seemed to have any goals besides exclusive access to the king (and making up rude nicknames for everyone else), Hugh was power-hungry. Isabella had always more or less graciously endured Piers’ presence, but she would soon come to absolutely loathe Hugh.
By the time 1320 rolled around, Edward was in deep smit, and Hugh was embroiled in some extensive land-grabs in Wales. This resulted in a new set of enemies for the king: the so-called Marcher Lords from the border between England and Wales. They showed up at Parliament to demand Hugh’s exile shortly after Isabella gave birth to her fourth and final child, a girl named Joan.
ISABELLA: Edward refused, of course
ISABELLA: I was terrified that this was going to spiral into another Piers situation
ISABELLA: except worse
ISABELLA: so I got down on my knees and begged Edward to exile Hugh
ISABELLA: on my knees
ISABELLA: in public
ISABELLA: while still recovering from childbirth
ISABELLA: he eventually gave in, but I’ll let you guess whether that exile stuck
Meanwhile, Edward came up with a plan to get rid of the Marcher Lords and, of course, bring Hugh back. He came up with a scheme that involved Isabella going on a “pilgrimage” to Canterbury, but then detouring along her way to stop at Leeds Castle, which belonged to one of the Marchers. The queen demanded that she and her retinue be accommodated at the castle for the night, which was her right. But with the lord of the castle away, his wife refused to admit Isabella since, you know, her husband was in a fight with the king. Isabella’s servants tried to enter the castle by force, and six of them were killed by the castle guards. That was all Edward needed to start an all-out war against the Marchers and end Hugh’s exile.
The war with the Marcher Lords ended in a decisive victory for Edward at the Battle of Boroughbridge. This resulted in the exile, imprisonment, or death of many of Edward’s enemies, including the old earl of Lancaster, whose execution mirrored Piers’ murder all those years before. Edward was finally able to get his revenge, but he didn’t stop at punishing those who had been directly involved in Piers’ death. Instead, he and Hugh went on a years-long campaign to destroy anyone and everyone related to Piers’ killers. Lands and titles were taken and redistributed to Edward’s supporters (especially Hugh), possessions were confiscated, widows and children were imprisoned.
EDWARD: I don’t know who it was that said that the best revenge is living well
EDWARD: but they were wrong
EDWARD: the best revenge is the kind that lines your pockets and makes children cry
EDWARD: THERE, I SAID IT
What did Isabella think of all this? She’d publicly supported Edward throughout his war with the Marcher Lords, as well as helping run the country while he was out on campaigns, giving up a few of her strategically placed castles to aid in the fighting, and, of course, taking part in the ruse that Edward had used to start the war in the first place. Some contemporary chroniclers paint her as being shocked and distressed by the death of her uncle, the earl of Lancaster, but there had been so much enmity between the two of them over the years that it seems equally possible that she was unmoved. What we do know is that around this time there began to be obvious cracks in Edward and Isabella’s relationship, and in just a few years Isabella would blame Hugh for destroying her marriage.
In 1322, Edward launched yet another disastrous military campaign in Scotland. You might be wondering why I’m bothering to mention it — are these failures even noteworthy at this point? This man has two hobbies: toxic relationships and fucking up in Scotland. But this particular failure involved an event that — for Isabella, at least — was a true crossroads. At some point during the conflict, while the queen was staying at Tynemouth Priory, she was in danger of being captured by the Scots and had to flee through pirate-infested waters. It was a calamitous and possibly even deadly escape; one chronicler alleges that a lady-in-waiting died and another went into preterm labor, though these claims can’t be verified. What is certain is that Isabella felt abandoned by her husband, and she said that Hugh had “falsely and treacherously” counseled Edward “to leave my lady the queen in peril of her person.”
After that, Isabella kind of disappeared from the public record for a while. In late 1322, Edward said that she was going on a pilgrimage to “diverse places within the realm,” but it’s not clear if that’s true. It’s equally possible that Edward sent her away to cool off, or that the queen had finally peaced out of her own accord. If I thought my husband had abandoned me to the Scots and/or a dangerous sea voyage, I would probably leave too!
Things continued to go badly for Edward, or, rather, Edward continued to cause things to go badly for himself. In 1323, Isabella’s brother Charles, now the king of France, insisted that Edward come and pay homage for lands that England held in France. Edward was pissed because the French had slowly been encroaching on these lands, so he politely told Charles to go fuck himself. Charles even more politely told Edward that he was free to go fuck his own self, and a small war ensued.
On September 18, 1324, Edward seized Isabella’s lands in Cornwall under the pretext that they were vulnerable to French invasion and thus he had to … protect them I guess? That was already his job as king of the whole country, but that’s fine. He also seized the rest of her lands and castles, even though the majority of them weren’t on the coast. In lieu of her income from these properties, which was what paid for all her household expenses, Edward granted her an allowance. He also removed all the French attendants from the queen’s household (except for her chaplain) and either imprisoned them or forced them to return to France. According to some chroniclers, Edward even appointed Hugh Despenser’s wife as some kind of guardian for Isabella, meant to surveil her communication with her family. All of this was intended to be cruel and humiliating to the queen, and she was sure that Hugh was behind it.
ISABELLA: but then in March of 1325, my husband sent me to France
ISABELLA: to work out some kind of peace with my brother
ISABELLA: kind of a weird move, considering
ISABELLA: I wish I could be pithy and say, “this was his first mistake”
ISABELLA: but, let’s be real, this was more like his one millionth mistake
Six months later, Edward made another enormous blunder: He sent his eldest son, the 12-year-old Edward of Windsor, to join Isabella in France. Although a tentative peace had been reached, England still had to pay those pesky homages for their French lands. Edward should have gone himself, but he knew how unpopular his little regime was and he was worried that someone would assassinate Hugh in his absence (he was especially anxious because a magician named John of Nottingham had recently tried to kill them with magic). The king might have brought his favorite along with him to France, except that Hugh had been banished from that country. So instead, Edward decided to throw his son into the snake pit and hope for the best.
By the end of 1325, it was clear to everyone that Isabella was not returning to England and neither was her son. She didn’t mince words about it either, declaring publicly that “… someone has come between my husband and myself […] and I will not return until this intruder is removed.” What’s less clear is whether or not she was already formulating a plan to invade England and get her husband off the throne.
At some point during Isabella’s time in France, a man named Roger Mortimer entered the picture. He was one of the Marcher Lords, and, though Edward had tried to imprison him, he had somehow managed to escape and flee to the continent. Much has been speculated about Mortimer’s relationship with Isabella, some of it based in fact, but most of it not. For example, the rumors that the two of them had been secretly in love for years, or that Isabella had somehow helped him escape from jail were highly improbable. Same with the popular narrative that Isabella found Edward too effeminate and thus sought gratification in Mortimer’s virile arms — not only is this wildly homophobic, there’s also just no evidence that Isabella was unhappy with her husband before Hugh came onto the scene. These bits of fabrication might provide people with satisfying story arcs — that Isabella and Mortimer had a secret years-long affair right under Edward’s nose, or that the queen was enacting some kind of revenge against her husband by taking her own lover — but real life is rarely that tidy. But whether or not Isabella and Mortimer were sleeping together (and there’s no conclusive evidence that they were), they formed a powerful political alliance.
Edward begged Isabella to come back. He begged her to send their son back. Eventually the pope got involved, writing separately to both Edward and Isabella to try to get them to reconcile. The pope even wrote to Hugh, telling him to back off. Isabella stuck to her guns and said she wouldn’t budge as long as Hugh was in England, adding that she feared he would kill her if she returned. But getting rid of Hugh was the one thing Edward couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do.
POPE JOHN XXII: have you ever watched someone absolutely run their life into the ground for a bad relationship?
POPE JOHN XXII: and you ask them why they’re doing it and they don’t have a real answer?
POPE JOHN XXII: they’ll be like, ‘I know it’s bad, but …’
POPE JOHN XXII: then they just keep doing it?
POPE JOHN XXII: anyway, this was like that, except he was running an entire country into the ground
POPE JOHN XXII: sometimes a person’s choices are just so astonishingly bad that you almost have to admire them
Mortimer wasn’t the only English lord hiding out in France, and soon enough the queen had amassed quite a following. Isabella began planning her invasion, but there was one very obvious sticking point: She was broke. Edward had, of course, cut her off long ago, and without her lands in England, she had no source of income. But the resourceful queen figured out a way around this: She brokered a betrothal between her son and Philippa of Hainault, the daughter of a wealthy Dutch count. Isabella was able to fund a mercenary army with the aid of Philippa’s substantial dowry. On September 7th, 1326, she set off to conquer her own country.
Isabella and her army landed in England just over two weeks later, and didn’t face much resistance as they began zigzagging across the country. Edward had made many enemies in high places, and even the general population was pretty sick of his shit by this time. The king, sensing that things would not go his way, fled London for Wales, at which point the capital descended into chaos. Isabella and Mortimer, meanwhile, were hell-bent on vengeance. When they caught Hugh’s father, another crony of Edward’s, they hanged the elder Despenser and then fed his body to a pack of dogs. Then, on November 16th, 1326, Edward and Hugh were captured in south Wales. The jig was up.
Isabella and her allies gave Hugh a mock trial during which a long, long list of his crimes was read out. He was found guilty on all charges, of course, and sentenced to a brutal execution that involved a dragging through the streets by four horses, being hauled up and down by a noose around his neck, having his penis and testicles cut off, and then being eviscerated. His head was taken to London, where it was displayed on London Bridge, and the rest of his body was dismembered and sent to the four quarters of the realm. That’s what we call hanging, drawing, and quartering, baby!
Edward, now a broken man, was moved to Kenilworth Castle under heavy guard. Isabella, meanwhile, installed herself in Wallingford for the Christmas season. The pope wrote to her several times encouraging her to reunite with her husband, but that wasn’t happening. Invading your spouse’s country and horribly murdering his favorite and a bunch of his friends seems like an obvious relationship deal-breaker.
When Parliament met in early January of 1327, they agreed to depose Edward and crown his 14-year-old son. Isabella would act as regent until Edward III came of age. A deputation was sent to Kenilworth, where a swooning Edward II, dressed all in black, agreed to abdicate the throne and begged his subjects’ forgiveness. What else was he going to do? He was smart (or defeated) enough to know that there was nothing to be gained from fighting back. His enemies had won. All he could do now was try to make sure his eldest son was given his proper inheritance.
Isabella kept up a friendly correspondence with her estranged husband, in spite of the fact that she had just destroyed his life. She wrote to him enquiring after his health, sent him little presents, and said that she wished she could visit him but the “community of the realm” wouldn’t permit it. In fact, Isabella would never see Edward again. On September 21st, 1327, Edward died under mysterious circumstances at Berkeley Castle, where he’d been sent after a foiled plot to free him from Kenilworth.
ISABELLA: people thought that I had him killed, of course
ISABELLA: you’ve probably heard some of the rumors
ISABELLA: like the one about him dying from a burning poker up his …
ISABELLA: you know what, I’m not going to repeat it
ISABELLA: suffice to say that it was as ridiculous as it was disgusting
But these weren’t the only rumors. There were others that said that Edward hadn’t died at all, but had, in fact, escaped, and the body that lay in state for a whole month at St. Peter’s Abbey in Gloucester belonged to someone else entirely. There continued to be sightings of the dead king for years. One man even wrote to Edward III in the late 1330s, saying that his father was living in a hermitage in Italy.
It would be nice if this story ended with Isabella competently running the country until Edward III came of age, a satisfying conclusion after all that she’d gone through to wrest the country out of Hugh Despenser’s grip. But, again, real-life narratives are rarely so convenient or tidy. What actually happened was that during her handful of years as regent, the queen emptied the country’s coffers and enriched Mortimer with lands and goods much in the same way her husband had with Hugh. Much like Edward’s relationship with Hugh, it’s hard to figure out what it was about Mortimer that led Isabella to neglect her country so badly. Did she love him? Was she in on the take? Was there some kind of extortion going on? Had she ever really wanted to save England from her husband and Hugh, or had it all just been petty revenge?
Speaking of revenge, by late 1329 or early 1330, the 17-year-old Edward III was already fomenting his own rebellion. He was tired of his mother’s controlling ways, and felt that she behaved badly toward Philippa, who was now his wife. As for Mortimer, he had started behaving as if he was king, and undermined Edward III at every turn. The final straw for the young king was when Mortimer ordered the execution of his father’s half brother Edmund. With Mortimer picking off everyone who stood between him and royal power, Edward III must have wondered if he was next.
On Friday, October 19th, Isabella was relaxing with Mortimer in her bedchamber at Nottingham Castle when Edward III and a small group of knights burst in. Mortimer was quickly taken prisoner, while Isabella was placed under guard (as her favorite was being dragged, bound and gagged, out of the room, Isabella allegedly cried out, “Fair son, have pity on the gentle Mortimer”). Just over a month later Mortimer (still bound and gagged) was convicted by Parliament of the murder of Edward II and sentenced to death. He was hanged on November 29th. Though his trial and death bore eerie parallels to that of Hugh Despenser, Mortimer was at least spared the whole castration/disembowelment/beheading thing.
Isabella, who was only 35 years old at the time of her downfall, was held under house arrest for two years and then retired to lead a country life. Once the restrictions on her freedom were lifted, she enjoyed traveling around the country, hosting visitors, and doting on her grandchildren. The wayward queen who had once rebelled against her husband and invaded her own country died a quiet death at the age of 63, an apparently contented woman.
In the years after Isabella’s death, popular depictions of her grew increasingly dire. She was portrayed as an unnatural woman, bloodthirsty, out to emasculate all the men around her. When an 18th-century poet combined Christopher Marlowe’s unflattering portrayal of Isabella with the term She-Wolf, which Shakespeare had used to refer to Margaret of Anjou in Henry VI, the nickname stuck. Her image became a two-dimensional caricature of sex-crazed bitch, instead of the complicated person she’d actually been.
It’s impossible now to know why, exactly, Edward and Isabella behaved the way they did. How could Edward not see how harmful his relationships with his favorites, particularly Hugh Despenser, were to the rest of his life? How could Isabella repeat a pattern of behavior that she had so loathed in her husband? How could two people who seemed so fond of each other for most of their marriage treat each other with such cruelty? And yet they did, and on a national stage to boot.
And while it’s tempting to slip into a WOW, WHAT A BADASS WARRIOR QUEEN, GET IT GIRL kind of rhetoric when talking about women like Isabella, what makes stories like hers endure is the fact that beneath all the superlatives is someone who’s profoundly human. Isabella was messy in her personal life. She made bad choices, choices that sometimes irrevocably harmed relationships with people she cared about. She could be selfish and capricious. She could be downright cruel. But she was also brave, resourceful, and, in her own strange way, loyal to a fault.
For all that there is to criticize about Isabella, there’s so much to admire as well. She strategized, launched, and completed a successful military campaign against all odds. With the backing of a relatively small band of soldiers, she managed to take an entire country. And maybe most impressive of all, she believed that she had worth in a world that mostly considered women to be worthless. A meeker queen would have been cowed by Hugh and stood helplessly by while her husband took away her lands and rights, but not the She-Wolf of France.
LONG LIVE THE FUCKING QUEEN!
For further reading:
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- Queens of Infamy: Boudicca
- Queens of Infamy: Lucrezia Borgia
- Queens of Infamy: Mariamne I
- Queens of Infamy: Njinga
- Queens of Infamy: Josephine Bonaparte, from Martinique to Merveilleuse
- Queens of Infamy: Josephine Bonaparte, from Malmaison to More-Than-Monarch
- Queens of Infamy: Zenobia
- Queens of Infamy: The Rise of Catherine de’ Medici
- Queens of Infamy: The Reign of Catherine de’ Medici
- Queens of Infamy: Joanna of Naples
- Queens of Infamy: Anne Boleyn
- Queens of Infamy: Eleanor of Aquitaine
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Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based writer whose bylines can be found all over the internet, including at the Guardian, the London Review of Books and, obviously, Longreads. She truly believes that your favourite Tudor wife says more about you than your astrological sign. She is currently raising one child and three unruly cats. You can find her on Twitter @anne_theriault.
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