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Queens of Infamy: Isabella of France

An illustration of Queen Isabella of France
Illustration by Louise Pomeroy

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: please!

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


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


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.


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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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Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Fact Checker: Lisa Whittington-Hill
Illustrator: Louise Pomeroy

Queens of Infamy: Boudicca

Illustration by Louise Pomeroy

Anne Thériault | Longreads | May 2021 | 18 minutes (4,866 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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She was tall — terrifyingly large, in fact. Her tawny hair fell in a “great mass” to her hips. She was dressed in a colorful tunic and cloak, her outfit completed by a giant fuck-off gold torc. Her voice was harsh, unfeminine. She had spent the last weeks murdering and maiming her way across the British countryside, and now she led a force of hundreds of thousands of Britons in a standoff against the occupying Romans. She had a rabbit hidden in her skirt for occult purposes. She was a bloodthirsty barbarian, devoted to a ghoulish religion, out to destroy the social order of the known world. At least, this is how historian Cassius Dio described Boudicca, a British tribal queen, over one hundred years after her death — every civilized man’s worst nightmare.

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But before we dive into the revolt that literally burned London to the ground, we need some context. The Romans had first cast their eyes toward Britain back in the good old days before Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and got himself murdered. Caesar, who had been conquesting his way through Gaul for a few years, decided to take a break in 55 BC and invade Britain as a little treat, although “invasion” is probably a stretch since he didn’t do much more than visit Kent and then turn back. But it must have been a fun caper, because he returned the next year, this time managing to cross the Thames and score a few victories against the Britons. After that Caesar had to put a pin in it due to other pressing business; he had a republic to bring down, after all, and a back that needed stabbing. In the chaos that ensued, Rome more or less ignored Britain for the next hundred years until the Emperor Claudius decided to invade again in 43 AD.

Boudicca appears in the narrative about 17 years after Claudius’ invasion. Her husband, Prasutagus, was the ruler of the Iceni, a British tribe whose territory included modern-day Norfolk and parts of Suffolk. The historian Tacitus, who gives us a near-contemporary account of Boudicca’s uprising, wrote that she was of royal blood, but beyond that we don’t know much about her. Did she come from Iceni nobility or was she a princess from another tribe who had married Prasutagus as part of an alliance? Was Boudicca her given name, or since it’s believed to come from a Proto-Celtic root word meaning victory, was it a title she adopted? We don’t even know how old she was in 60 AD — she had two daughters by Prasutagus who were probably in their tweens or early teens, and if those were her first and only children, she could have been as young as 30. Then again, if there had been other children who had died or if, for some reason, she’d married later or hadn’t been able to conceive right away, she could have been in her 40s or even 50s. All we know about her life are the scraps that Tacitus and Dio left us, and those are the highly biased Roman accounts describing an enemy they considered to be primitive and sub-human.

BOUDICCA: I mean, the Romans barely consider their own women to be people

BOUDICCA: even the ones they allegedly like

BOUDICCA: you know, the ones who’ve mastered the skills of shutting up and spinning wool

BOUDICCA: neither of which are exactly my forte

The Iceni had allied themselves with Rome and been allowed to live fairly autonomously with Prasutagus as their client king in the standard Roman model. They were apparently quite wealthy and prosperous, even as neighboring regions were gutted by invading forces. As long as the Iceni kept bootlicking paying their taxes, everything was going to be fine. Or at least that’s what they believed right up until Prasutagus died and all hell broke loose.

BOUDICCA: my husband had a will, as all responsible adults should

BOUDICCA: if you don’t have one yet, close this tab and go make one right now!

BOUDICCA: anyway, he split his assets between our daughters and the Emperor Nero

BOUDICCA: the Romans, being always fair and just, honored that agreement

BOUDICCA: oh my god, I’m sorry, I can’t even say that with a straight face

BOUDICCA: of course they didn’t honor it

BOUDICCA: but seriously, you need a will if you don’t have one already

The fact that Boudicca was not named as one of Prasutagus’ heirs, even though she was his wife and the mother of his children and was going to rule as regent until they came of age, might be a clue as to what kind of person she was. Some historians speculate that she might have had strong anti-Roman sentiments even before shit went sideways — that perhaps her family of origin may have been involved in some of the earlier revolts against the Empire. Maybe Prasutagus had strategically left her out of his will as a way of reassuring Rome that he was on their side. After all, nothing was guaranteed to stir up ire like naming a possible insurrectionist as your successor. But, as it turned out, the Romans’ ire was going to be stirred no matter what. Prasutagus’ death was the perfect opportunity for a land grab, and the Romans were going to use whatever excuse they could to make it look legitimate.

All we know about her life are the scraps that Tacitus and Dio left us, and those are the highly biased Roman accounts describing an enemy they considered to be primitive and sub-human.

The Romans claimed that Prasutagus’ agreement with the Emperor Claudius was now null and void as both parties were dead. Since there existed no contract between Boudicca and Claudius’ successor, Nero (yes, that Nero), they were under no obligation to honor Prasutagus’ will. When Boudicca pushed back, the Romans turned violent. Their army plundered Prasutagus’ lands and enslaved various members of his family. They stripped the most powerful Iceni men of their land and possessions. Worst of all, they publicly flogged Boudicca and raped her daughters. This last act was not only meant to terrorize the girls both physically and psychologically, but, from a Roman perspective, the soldiers were also marking them as damaged goods. One of the foundational myths of Rome involves a noblewoman killing herself to escape the perceived dishonour of having been raped — that was the only way she could restore her lost virtue. The assault on Boudicca’s unnamed daughters was a way to harm not only their present but also their future prospects as wives, mothers, or even just respectable women. And considering that the girls were the heirs of the King of the Iceni, it may even be seen as an attempt to curtail the future of the tribe itself.

BOUDICCA: I guess they thought they could break me

BOUDICCA: beat me into submission, that kind of thing

BOUDICCA: they weren’t used to women who fight back

BOUDICCA: or women who fight at all, full stop

BOUDICCA: which is why they failed to notice or care when I started rallying my own troops

BOUDICCA: told my daughters to get in the chariot, because we are going to burn this fucker DOWN

PASSING ROMAN SOLDIER: awww, it’s cute that a little lady thinks she has troops!

BOUDICCA: you see what I mean

Part of the reason the Romans were less than attentive to Boudicca’s casual fomenting was that they were distracted by a different British problem. Suetonius, the governor of Britannia, was tired of the turbulent British priests — the Druids — and decided to stamp them out. His official reasons? The Druids were sheltering anti-Roman political refugees on the Isle of Mona (modern-day Anglesey) and it was alleged they practiced human sacrifice. It’s honestly kind of rich that the Romans — who had only stopped ritually sacrificing people about 150 years before and who loved to, you know, watch gladiators fight each other to the death — were so hung up on the sanctity of life or whatever, but people can rationalize anything. Anyway, the real reason that Suetonius and his peers wanted to take out the Druids was because they held an uncomfortable sway over the British population and refused to be assimilated. Basically, the Romans were worried that they would stir up rebellion, and also they just found them kind of spooky.

Worst of all, they publicly flogged Boudicca and raped her daughters. This last act was not only meant to terrorize the girls both physically and psychologically, but, from a Roman perspective, the soldiers were also marking them as damaged goods.

When Suetonius and his men arrived at Mona, they could see the Druids raising their arms and chanting, while a bunch of messy-haired women in black swung burning sticks around. Tacitus would later compare these women to the Furies, which might explain why the Roman soldiers were so uncharacteristically unnerved.

SUETONIUS: it was just, you know, so uncivilized

SUETONIUS: I had to … god, this is embarrassing

SUETONIUS: I had to remind my men that women aren’t worth being afraid of

SUETONIUS: anyway, we pulverized their sacred groves

SUETONIUS: we pulverized them GOOD

SUETONIUS: Druids delenda est and all that

It’s hard to overstate the level of desecration at Mona. It wasn’t just that the island was an important place of worship; in the belief system of the Celtic Britons, every river, every lake, every grove had its own individual god. By destroying the groves, the Romans quite literally killed British gods. The tribes were already primed for revolt, and as the news about Mona reached them, it must have added fuel to their fire.

Another result of Suetonius’ decision to take on the Druids at Mona — which was on the opposite side of Britain from the Iceni territory — was that the Roman governor was conveniently out of the way when Boudicca and the Iceni set off on their tear.

Boudicca found an ally in another local tribe, the Trinovantes. Like the Iceni, the Trinovantes had an axe to grind with the Romans, namely the colonia they had established in Camulodunum (modern-day Colchester), and the rebels chose that as their first target. But before we go deeper into that story, we need to take a brief detour.

One of the Empire’s grifts was that legionaries who fulfilled their enlistment terms received a small parcel of land. So if you were an enlisted nobody from a poor family, you could pull yourself up in the world by serving the required 25 years and getting your own land grant (assuming you lived that long; plenty of legionaries didn’t). The problem, of course, was that land is a finite resource, and these land grants typically stayed in families for generations. This meant that to fulfill their promise to their veterans, the Empire had to keep expanding outward into the ether, annexing more and more territory. Of course, the Emperors had their own reasons for wanting to broaden the Empire’s boundaries! But a side benefit to all that growth was that it meant more available land for veterans — once they’d cleared out those pesky native inhabitants, of course.

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Anyway, back in the pre-Roman times, Camulodunum had been one of the most important settlements in Britain, serving at one point as the capital of the Trinovantes tribe. Naturally the Romans thought it would be the perfect spot for them to settle down. In doing so, not only did the Romans drive the Britons out, but archeological evidence shows that they forced the displaced people to live and work in brutal conditions while re-building the town to Roman specifications. According to Tacitus, the soldiers posted encouraged this abuse of the Britons, even though it went against Roman policy (this was, after all, supposed to be a peaceful settlement, not a battlefield); he noted that those soldiers saw their future selves in the retired veterans and hoped they too would be allowed to treat native populations however the fuck they wanted someday.

BOUDICCA: you can’t spell colonialism without colonia!

BOUDICCA: yes, I know that’s the point

BOUDICCA: I understand how language fundamentally works

BOUDICCA: root words, et cetera

BOUDICCA: but since my husband’s death I’ve had to take up the mantle of dad jokes in our family

As Boudicca travelled across the country, her following grew. Those joining her cause weren’t just warrior-type men from the Iceni and the Trinovantes, they were people of all genders and ages. Farmers abandoned their fields and women loaded their children into carts to join the throng. With every British settlement they passed, the mass of people bearing down on Camulodunum increased in size; according to Dio, by the time they reached the city, they were 120,000 strong. The Britons were done hedging their bets — they were either going to solve the Roman problem once and for all, or they were going to go down in a blaze of glory.

Meanwhile, in Camulodunum, strange things were happening. A statue of Victory fell over, apparently for no reason. Women went into a frenzy, speaking in tongues and making frightening prophecies. South of the city, at the Thames Estuary, people saw visions of drowned houses in the water and the North Sea seemed to turn the color of blood. But even with all these portents and the news of Boudicca’s approach, the leaders told the townspeople not to worry. It was just a rag-tag group of women, after all — and not just any women, but primitive, uncivilized British women. No big deal. There was time to evacuate, but why bother? The procurator of Roman Britain, Catus Decianus, ordered an extra two hundred men to Camulodunum and figured the problem was solved.

BOUDICCA: obviously misogyny sucks

BOUDICCA: and no one likes to be underestimated

BOUDICCA: but sometimes that kind discrimination is a gift

BOUDICCA: a gift called the element of surprise even though they saw you coming

Boudicca’s army did not just attack Camulodunum, they razed it. They slaughtered every Roman they could find, even children and the elderly. They defaced graveyards and set buildings ablaze. The head of a statue of Emperor Claudius was crudely hacked off and thrown in a river. Some townspeople barricaded themselves in a temple, but even that couldn’t save them — after two days’ siege, the Britons stormed it and killed everyone inside. The destruction was so intense and so fiery that the layer of soil from that period is a strange orange-red.

BOUDICCA: some people use the term “scorched earth” metaphorically

BOUDICCA: but I’d say I’m more of a literalist

BOUDICCA: some women just want to watch the Roman world burn, I guess

BOUDICCA: again, not in a figurative sense

One curious thing about Boudicca’s sacking of Camulodunum is that it seems to have left no bodies behind. There’s plenty of archeological evidence to show that the city was gutted, but there are no mass graves or deposits of human remains, even though everyone agrees that the Queen of the Iceni authorized wanton mass-murder. Some historians theorize that the Romans later came back and cremated the dead, while some wonder if the high death toll was a bit of exaggeration. Still others have suggested that Boudicca and her people removed the bodies to a nearby oak grove for darker purposes, perhaps some kind of religious rite to Andraste, a local goddess of victory. While Celts of all stripes did enjoy dismembering those they had conquered in battle — they would apparently embalm their heads and put them on display in their homes as trophies — this last theory is probably a little too far-fetched to be true. Then again, given some of the allegations Dio would later make against Boudicca, maybe not.

The destruction was so intense and so fiery that the layer of soil from that period is a strange orange-red.

After Camulodunum, Boudicca turned her gaze toward Londinium. Although it wasn’t a particularly big or important city, Londinium made sense as her next target because, unlike many of the other towns in Roman Britain, Londinium had likely never been a British settlement — it was a Roman enterprise, a trade outpost whose location was chosen because the river there was narrow enough for a bridge but deep enough to accommodate Roman seagoing vessels. By the time Boudicca went on her tear, the young city had already become a bustling centre of commerce, with goods from such distant locations as Spain, Greece, and Syria later uncovered in archeological digs. To strike at Londinium would, in Boudicca’s mind, have been like striking at the heart of the Roman occupation itself.

The Romans had, of course, by now figured out that this was more than a throw-two-hundred-men-at-it-and-call-it-a-day kind of problem. The IXth legion (or, at least, part of it) was dispatched to deal with the unpleasantness at Camulodunum, but they were routed by Britons just north of the colonia. Meanwhile, Suetonius himself, having finished butchering those old harpies on Mona, rushed to Londinium. He somehow made it there before Boudicca, even though he had to cross the breadth of the country and the Britons only had to saunter down the coast. That’s one of the benefits of travelling without children, I guess!

Suetonius had, at least according to Tacitus, initially hoped Londinium could be used as a military stronghold against the Britons. He quickly realized that Londinium was not fortified and was in no way capable of withstanding the type of attack that Camulodunum had suffered. He immediately abandoned the city to its fate.

SUETONIUS: look, I’m a real-talk kind of guy

SUETONIUS: I tell hard truths, and some people think that makes me an asshole

SUETONIUS: but I think it just makes me honest

SUETONIUS: so I honestly told them they were honestly fucked

SUETONIUS: I’m not a magician, I can’t make defences appear from nowhere!

SUETONIUS: so I told them I was going to make a last stand somewhere else

SUETONIUS: and I invited all the able-bodied men to join me

SUETONIUS: which I feel was very generous

It’s not known how many people took Suetonius up on his offer; it’s not even known how large the population of Londinium was at the time, although some estimates place it around 30,000. The residents there were Suetonius’ own people, they were Romans, they were the ones he was supposed to be protecting. But what are a few civilians — women, children, the elderly or disabled — worth when it comes to protecting the Empire? Not much, as it turned out.

Boudicca did to Londinium what she’d done in Camulodunum, but worse. Her brief presence there is also marked by a red layer of soil, about 13 feet below the surface. It’s full of smashed treasures, ruined food stuffs, and debris from the cataclysmic fires that swept through Londinium, which archeological evidence shows burned in excess of 1,000 degrees Celcius. The Britons continued to show no mercy, and slaughtered everyone they could find, sometimes in exquisitely cruel ways.

Boudicca did to Londinium what she’d done in Camulodunum, but worse. Her brief presence there is also marked by a red layer of soil, about 13 feet below the surface.

After Londinium, Boudicca and her forces descended on the settlement of Verulamium, which might seem like a curious choice, since it was neither a settlement full of veterans like Camulodunum or a Roman merchant town like Londinium. In fact, it was a town populated by Britons — specifically, Britons who were friendly to the Roman cause. Although Verulamium suffered the same fiery fate as the two cities that had been sacked before it, excavations of the red layer there show far less debris from personal possessions, which suggests that the inhabitants had time to gather up what was precious to them and flee. Still, according to Tacitus, Boudicca’s tear across the country had left 70,000 dead (although, again, many modern historians agree this figure is likely inflated).

The Britons didn’t just kill citizens of the cities they razed — according to Dio, they often tortured them first. The Roman historian vividly describes the gruesome acts the Britons were alleged to have committed: stripping the “noblest and most distinguished women” naked, cutting off their breasts and sewing them into their mouths, then “impal[ing] the women on sharp skewers run lengthwise through the entire body.”

Was this another Roman hyperbole meant to paint the Britons in a savage light, or is there some truth to it? Again, dismemberment or disfigurement of enemies was not outside the realm of Celtic practices. If it is true, Boudicca might have found a certain poetic justice in the act of defiling Roman women’s bodies after the violence their men had inflicted on her and her daughters. Sure, these Roman women were innocent civilians, but to the Britons they were still the enemy — interlopers, invaders, colonizers. Hadn’t the British tribes been pushed off their own lands, defrauded, and even killed so that these women could live in peace? A passive beneficiary to violence is still, in some ways, an abettor of it.

The red layer of soil in present-day London has the same curious problem as that in Camulodunum, namely that it isn’t filled with human remains. According to Dio, the Britons followed up each round of sacking with visits to groves dedicated to Andraste and other “sacred places.” There, they held sacrifices and banquets and indulged in “wanton behavior.” It’s possible that the events he’s describing — if they happened at all — were little more than boozy victory celebrations, distorted to fit Dio’s agenda. At this point, who knows? What does seem clear is that Boudicca’s spiritual beliefs seemed just as fervent and uncanny to the Romans as those of the Druids on Mona.

Speaking of the Romans, what were they up to while Boudicca was slashing and burning her way across the country? They were making plans, of course. The Britons had numbers on their side — Dio writes that by the time of the final battle, Boudicca’s army had swollen to 230,000 strong. The Romans only had a tiny fraction of that, but they had the benefit of intensive training and organization, something their enemy sorely lacked.

In fact, the Britons’ whole escapade was a bit haphazard from beginning to end. They seemed more interested in killing and plundering than they were in actually engaging the Roman forces. They’d missed several key chances to attack Suetonius while he was travelling to and from London. Why hadn’t they set an ambush for him the way they had for the IXth Legion back at Camulodunum? Maybe, drunk on their successes (and, no doubt, actual alcohol), they believed themselves to be invincible, or maybe they genuinely didn’t realize that the absolute worst thing they could do was give the Romans more time. Maybe they just thought their uprising was just too big to fail. Whatever their reasoning, it’s possible that victory may have been within the Britons’ grasp and they fucked it up.

No one is quite sure where the final battle took place, although many historians think it was somewhere in the West Midlands. According to Tacitus, Suetonius chose a spot with a forest on one side and open fields on the other, and then positioned his troops so that they weren’t vulnerable to British ambushes. Tacitus also tells us that Suetonius had 10,000 men with him, which means that even if there were only half as many Britons as Dio says, their forces were still more than ten times bigger than that of the Romans. As the two sides arranged themselves on the field, more than one Roman soldier must have wondered if this was going to be a battle or a bloodbath.

Both Tacitus and Dio have Boudicca addressing her troops before the battle; this is where Dio’s description of her as a large, be-necklaced woman with a bossy voice comes from. He has her finish the speech by calling out an invocation to Andraste and then releasing a hare from underneath her skirts (the direction it ran was supposed to predict who would win the battle). In Tacitus’ version, she speaks from her chariot, riding up and down her lines with her daughters on either side of her, telling those assembled that “it was indeed usual for Britons to fight under the leadership of women.” Both versions of the speech give off a noble savage sort of vibe: together, the Britons would throw off the shackles of Rome! Their ways were superior and more natural than those of their invaders! It would be better to follow the ways of their ancestors in impoverished freedom than to live as slaves with Roman wealth! Of course, there’s almost no chance that either of these speeches could be accurate — Boudicca would not have been speaking Latin to her people, and the Romans who were present would not have understood the British language. The words that Dio and Tacitus put in Boudicca’s mouth say more about them and how they wanted to portray the Britons than they do about anything else.

BOUDICCA: I mean, my people don’t need me to explain to them that we don’t mind women leaders

BOUDICCA: especially not when I’m literally in front of them?

BOUDICCA: but I guess Tacitus’ audience needed to hear it

BOUDICCA: at least he didn’t say my voice was ugly, unlike some historians I could name

The battle was an absolute shitshow for the Britons. They might have been numerous, but they weren’t seasoned warriors like their opponents — don’t forget that Boudicca’s following was largely made up of random men, women, and children who had joined her ranks as she marched across the country. They were far more likely to be farmers than trained soldiers, and they lacked the weaponry and armour of the Romans. Not only that, but the Britons had stationed their wagons — packed with their animals and children — in a ring around the back of the battlefield, which meant that when the Romans started pushing forward, the Britons were effectively trapped by their own people. And push forward the Romans did, killing everything in their path — even the women and “beasts of burden,” according to Tacitus. He also reported that 80,000 Britons died, as compared to only 400 Romans.

The words that Dio and Tacitus put in Boudicca’s mouth say more about them and how they wanted to portray the Britons than they do about anything else.

Boudicca died too, although not in battle; Tacitus says she drank poison, while Dio merely tells us that she “fell sick and died.” It’s possible that the Romans had her killed — Tacitus never specifies exactly who administered the poison — but that wouldn’t have been their style. They were more a “dress our conquered enemies up in golden chains and publicly humiliate them in the streets of Rome” type of people. Then again, it’s possible that Suetonius knew that parading a defeated Boudicca around might not have the effect he hoped for. There would have been little glory in having bested a woman on the battlefield, and in showing off Boudicca to a home audience, there was a good chance that he was the one who would have been humiliated. What kind of man nearly has his territory wrested from him by a lady, and a barbarian to boot? This is why the size of the British horde had to be exaggerated, why Dio had to go out of his way to describe Boudicca as large and hyper-masculine — to have struggled so hard against a smaller number of backwoods savages led by a woman would have been emasculating in the extreme. That being said, suicide is the more likely option. Boudicca had seen first-hand what the Romans did to British women who disagreed with them. Like Cleopatra before her and, possibly, Zenobia after her, she might have felt that self-inflicted death was the least painful course of action.

What kind of man nearly has his territory wrested from him by a lady, and a barbarian to boot?

What about her daughters, the two girls who helped spark the rebellion? Neither Dio nor Tacitus says what happened to them, so we can only speculate. Maybe they died in the battle. Maybe Boudicca slipped them a dose of poison. Maybe the Romans captured them. Maybe they escaped, went into hiding, lived out the rest of their lives as farmer’s wives who, on cold nights, would spin tales for their children about watching Londinium burn.

It’s frustrating that so little concrete information about Boudicca exists, not just because it would be satisfying to fill the gaps in her story, but because the existing records reduce her to this one, brief period in her life. What was her life like back before she entered recorded history as a bloodthirsty warrior queen? I try to imagine her in quiet moments of bliss — on her wedding night, or touching her daughters’ hair as they sleep, or hurtling alone in a chariot down a track. I hope that even in her last days she had times when she felt happy, or at least powerful. I hope she enjoyed every second of those debauched victory feasts.

There is no record of where Boudicca was buried. Several theories have sprung up over the years, including one that says her remains are somewhere under Platform 8 at King’s Cross Station. English writer Jane Holland published a collection of poems called Boudicca & Co. in 2006, the final poem closes with the lines “The end/was confused. Some screaming, vomit./It hurt, I know that much./Nothing else. Just good British dirt/and closing my mouth on it.”

This is how I like to imagine Boudicca: somewhere deep in the rich, dark, earth, nothing but nourishment now. She is reborn again and again, in the stories that we tell, in the fires in our bellies, in every fight against injustice, even the ones that feel unwinnable. She is the opposite of those dead red layers of earth that mark her passing. She is nothing but life now.


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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.

Editor: Krista Stevens Fact Checker: Julie Schwietert Collazo Illustrator: Louise Pomeroy

Queens of Infamy: Lucrezia Borgia

Lucrezia Borgia
Illustration by Louise Pomeroy

Anne Thériault | Longreads | May 2020 | 33 minutes (8,371 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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Mention the Medieval period and people free-associate themselves right into visions of plague, violence, and shit-covered peasants. The term “Renaissance,” on the other hand, conjures up stuff like humanism, science, and paintings of people that actually look like people. But late 14th-, 15th-, and 16th-century Italy consisted of more than just painters with Ninja Turtle names wanking their way from one Tuscan villa to another; it was also full of intrigue, murder, and complex intergenerational family drama. If there was one family that featured heavily in some of the most violent and licentious stories of the period, it was the Borgias — even today their name is a by-word for depravity. And at the center of many of the wildest Borgia stories was the beautiful, wily, thrice-wed Lucrezia.

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People have called Lucrezia many things over the years: seductress, murderess, femme fatale of the Borgia cabal. The attributes assigned to her didn’t come out of nowhere; as we shall see — and as Lucrezia noted herself — many of the men around her came to unfortunate ends. In portrayals where she escapes the villainess role, she’s often made out to be another hapless aristocratic daughter traded off into various political marriages, someone with no agency or ambitions of her own. The reality, of course, is much more nuanced. While Lucrezia was indeed married off several times to further her family’s agenda, as an adult she proved herself to be a skilled ruler loved and respected by her subjects.

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Queens of Infamy: Mariamne I

Illustration by Louise Pomeroy

Anne Thériault | Longreads | December 2019 | 21 minutes (5,424 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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The year was 54 BC, but not really, because Christ hadn’t been born yet. In Rome, it was 700 ab urbe condita, or 700 years since the founding of the city; at the northern edge of the empire, Julius Caesar was veni, vidi, vici-ing his way into Britain for a second time. In Egypt, it was the 251st year of the Ptolemaic dynasty, and a 15-year-old Cleopatra was scheming. In Judea, which had recently lost its full sovereignty and become a client state of Rome, the year was… who even knows? The Judeans of the time would count it as year 258 in the Era of Contracts, though for Jewish people living after the 12th century, it’s anno mundi 3707. Either way, it was there that a new princess was born into a royal family torn apart by usurpers, civil war, and aggressive foreign meddling. In spite of all the chaos in the Hasmonean household, no one could have imagined that tiny Miriam would one day be that dynasty’s last hope.

Like so many women from ancient history, we have very few concrete facts about Miriam, who would gain wider infamy under the Hellenized version of her name, Mariamne. What little information we do have was recorded by men. Even her birth year is pure speculation, based on the typical ages for engagement and marriage in her culture during the 1st century BCE. What we do know for certain is that things were not going well for the Hasmoneans when Mariamne entered the scene.

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Queens of Infamy: Njinga

Illustration by Louise Pomeroy

Anne Thériault | Longreads | October 2019 | 23 minutes (5,741 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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Late into the 16th century, Kengela ka Nkombe gave birth to her second child. Her first had been a son, and she had dutifully named him after his father, Mbande, the future king of Ndongo. This one was a girl. The birth was difficult; the baby was breech, her face was upturned, and the umbilical cord was wrapped firmly around her neck. Royal attendants were able to safely guide the baby out of her mother’s body, but everyone present agreed that the birth foretold an unusual life. Mbande, who openly doted on Kengela as his favourite concubine, was immediately smitten with his newest child. He named her Njinga, from the Kimbundu verb kujinga, which means to twist or turn — ostensibly a reference to the cord wrapped around her neck. But perhaps as he held his daughter for the first time, he caught a brief glimpse of her future: how she would twist and turn to outwit her enemies, gain the throne, and, ultimately, fight for her country’s freedom.

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Grandiose and Claustrophobic: ‘Prozac Nation’ Turns 25

Riverhead Books

Anne Thériault | Longreads | September 2019 | 6 minutes (1,607 words)


When I was 20, I cornered my ex-boyfriend in his bedroom during a party and cried on him for two hours, leaving a watery mascara stain down the front of his shirt. When he finally managed to extricate himself, I found his best friend and did the same to him. I made the rounds of the party, rehashing my misery to anyone who would listen: how my ex had broken my heart, how I was certain that I was an unloveable failure, how I thought about killing myself. I knew that I should stop and go home, but I couldn’t; my feelings were huge and immediate; the thought of being alone was unbearable.

I’d always been an over-emotional cryer, but that year was a personal nadir when it came to mental health. There had been the breakup, then I’d lost my housing situation, and finally, financial problems had forced me to drop out of school. I went from being an occasional downer to a wailing banshee party-ruiner. I just couldn’t differentiate between the immediate relief of dissolving into tears and the long-term gratification of cultivating emotional continence — probably because I no longer believed I had a future. My friends were exasperated and wanted to know why I couldn’t just stop doing things that made me feel bad. My answer — everything made me feel bad anyway, and I just couldn’t help it — seemed insufficient even to me.

A few weeks after the party crying incident, I found a copy of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation at a secondhand bookstore. It had been out for nearly a decade, but up until then I’d resisted it. For one thing, I’d actually been on Prozac for the previous three years, so reading it seemed a little too clichéd. For another, I was skeptical that the beautiful girl on the cover, with her clear skin and artfully messy hair, could know anything about my ugly life. But by the end of the prologue — titled, with extreme subtlety and nuance, “I Hate Myself And I Want To Die” — I was hooked.

Whether we like it or not, Prozac Nation really did change the landscape when it comes to the way women write about themselves.

Prozac Nation is a young person’s book, both in terms of its author and its target audience. It’s full of florid language, sweeping generalizations, and an obsessive, unproductive introspection. Each chapter begins with an epigraph from someone like Albert Einstein, Sylvia Plath, or Edith Wharton. Many of the original reviews were negative, and offered valid critical perspectives on the book. The text did need a stronger editorial grip, at the very least to fix the distracting moments when Wurtzel jumps from one tense to another within the same paragraph. The narrative really was just as repetitive and self-pitying as critics accused it of being. Wurtzel seemed to have no perspective when it came to her own behavior, offering it all up for consumption without any kind of analysis. But all of this (tense-jumping aside) might be the book’s secret genius.

Prozac Nation was the first time I saw myself reflected in writing about mental illness. Sure, I’d read and loved Plath, Kaysen, and all the other stars of the depressed-lady canon, but none of their work was as relatable to me then as Wurtzel’s prose, at once grandiose and claustrophobic. It’s the kind of book that feels like edgy literature to a white girl in her early 20s, and I don’t mean that as snidely as it might sound; everyone deserves their own version of On The Road or Naked Lunch for that period in their life. Prozac Nation read to my 20-year-old self like something I aspired to someday write, precious epigraphs and all. At one point early in the narrative, Wurtzel voices a worry that her story is “too stupid, too girlish, too middle class.” But that was exactly why it resonated with me. Even the parts that grated on my nerves, like Wurtzel’s frequent bewailing of the fact that she had once been the best little girl in the world, sounded like me. In fact, I had a litany of similar regrets that I dragged out whenever I was down; I called it my catechism, which I thought was witty and ironic. There are certainly times when Prozac Nation feels monotonous and solipsistic, but that aligns with my own experiences with depressive spirals. Repetition and self-obsession are part of the nature of the illness.

Wurtzel was oversharing before oversharing even became an everyday term we use, writing in a way that made people recoil with discomfort.

What seemed most important to me about Wurtzel’s writing was that she had been messy, and she was willing to detail that mess without apology. Just: here is how I’ve behaved. She offers the reader no contextualizing, no explaining, no objective distance from the events described. I still can’t tell if Wurtzel did this intentionally or not — and, if it’s a device meant to draw readers deep into her own stream of consciousness, she doesn’t always wield it skilfully — but either way, it was a radical departure from how I’d seen women write about themselves. I’d never read a story about a woman engaging in such rambunctious self-destruction that didn’t turn into a morality tale; on the other hand, there was no shortage of stories about men being comparably messy. This isn’t meant to be a bad faith argument about how “equality” means women deserve to behave just as badly as men, but rather that youthful messiness is a reality for people of all genders. There is power in seeing yourself represented, warts and all. How do you survive something if you don’t know that someone else has already survived it, too?

Whether we like it or not, Prozac Nation really did change the landscape when it comes to the way women write about themselves. It laid the groundwork for the what Jia Tolentino called the “personal-essay boom” of the early 2010s, an era when no detail was too graphic, no humiliation too private for sharing. Wurtzel was oversharing before oversharing even became an everyday term we use, writing in a way that made people recoil with discomfort. But, like so many of those XOJane-style pieces, she also made people feel seen. Wurtzel’s writing has influenced how I write about mental illness; it’s made me more committed to relate my experiences in honest ways, rather than style them to appear more understandable or sympathetic. Through her, I’ve learned that it’s much more interesting when I center myself in my own narrative rather than the feelings my readers might have about it. The embarrassing personal details are, somehow, what makes these stories relatable. I’m sure there are many others whose writing owes a similar debt of gratitude to Wurtzel, even if they don’t realize it.

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Prozac Nation was published on September 25, 1994, three days after Friends premiered on NBC. Both are emblematic of that era: angsty Gen-X youth and the golden age of television sitcoms. Like many cultural artifacts that are very rooted in their particular time and place, neither has aged very well. Wurtzel’s semi-premise — that the use of SSRIs was too widespread, that America had become a nation of pill-poppers who were drawn to Prozac because of its name-brand trendiness — seems especially unsturdy. For one thing, she doesn’t even encounter the drug until the very end of the book, and when she does take it, she experiences a swift and nearly miraculous recovery. For another, all of the panic about SSRI consumption seems, in retrospect, almost adorable in its unfoundedness. Doctors were pushing the idea that oxycontin was non-habit-forming in any amount, but people were worried about Prozac?

Re-reading Prozac Nation again after all these years felt a bit like being a 20-year-old melting down at a party: embarrassing, but somehow comforting in its familiarity.

Many of those concerns piggybacked on the very real problems with mid-century tranquilizer use, but they were also influenced by what psychiatrist Gerald L. Klerman termed pharmacological Calvinism: the idea that a drug that alleviates unhappiness is morally questionable. It’s an attitude that’s still very much present today, even though the use of SSRIs has become more normalized over the past 25 years. Pharmacological Calvinism is what makes your high school friend share those memes describing nature as the real antidepressant. It’s what leads people to view medication that treats anxiety and depression as a “crutch” rather than an ongoing and necessary treatment (which is a weird framing in and of itself, considering that people rarely use crutches unless they really need them). It’s the reason we hear arguments like the one in David Lazarus’ recent Los Angeles Times essay, where he describes himself as a “drug addict” because quitting antidepressants caused him to experience symptoms of depression, and quotes doctors praising the “work” of not taking medication as compared to the “easy” out of taking a pill every day. Of course, some people do experience adverse reactions while discontinuing use of SSRIs, but history has largely proven them to be quite safe compared to many other medications that experience similar faddish moments.

Re-reading Prozac Nation again after all these years felt a bit like being a 20-year-old melting down at a party: embarrassing, but somehow comforting in its familiarity. It made me feel grateful, above all else, for no longer being young. It’s such a relief to get older and be less vulnerable to Big Emotions, to have better coping skills, and to know how to opt out of drama. But I’m also grateful to my younger self for being deep in that depressive morass and still managing to navigate us to where we are now. I don’t hate her for who she was, as much as she sometimes failed to measure up to who I wanted to be. I try to be tender to her and understand that she was doing the messy best she could. Hopefully Wurtzel feels the same way.

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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 Longreads, where she created the Queens of Infamy series.

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Editor: Ben Huberman

Queens of Infamy: Josephine Bonaparte, from Malmaison to More-Than-Monarch

Illustration by Louise Pomeroy

Anne Thériault | Longreads | April 2019 | 23 minutes (5,836 words)

From the notorious to the half-forgotten, Queens of Infamy, a Longreads series by Anne Thériault, focuses on badass world-historical women of centuries past.

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When we left the future Empress, she was 32 and had just completed her third transformation — and name change — in as many decades. First she had been Yeyette, the coarse, uneducated girl from the colonies struggling to find her place in Paris society; then she had been Marie-Josèphe, the beautiful and popular estranged wife of a Revolutionary hero with a whiff of the courtesan about her; now she was a survivor of the Reign of Terror, a Merveilleuse famous for her revealing clothing, and a semi-professional mistress to the rich and powerful. It was in this latest incarnation that she was christened Josephine by her newest bedmate, a young general named Napoleon Bonaparte.

The young lovers had met through Paul Barras, who was both Napoleon’s boss and Josephine’s sugar daddy. After being aggressively pursued by the famously uncouth Corsican for months, Josephine had, for her own inscrutable reasons, decided to give in to his advances.

If she’d hoped that sleeping with him would somehow slake his obsession with her, she was wrong. Very wrong.

Napoleon’s fixation on Josephine only deepened once they became lovers, and often it tipped over into vicious fits of jealousy. In a letter to a friend, Josephine wrote, “I am afraid, I admit, of the empire he seems to want over all those who surround him.” She also wrote that the “force of [his] passion” made her uncomfortable, although she couldn’t quite articulate why; she knew that she should find his devotion to her attractive, but it creeped her out. Still, after weighing the pros and cons, she eventually gave in to his marriage proposal. She was getting older, and she wanted the security of a husband. Plus, he did seem to genuinely love her, even if his particular brand of love sometimes had a frightening edge.

The wedding was set for March 9, 1796. Since Catholicism was still banned in France, it was a civil service held at a small town hall. Napoleon arrived two hours late, a total asshole power move. The rest of the event was as messy as its beginning: the ages on the marriage certificate were wrong, one of the witnesses was too young to legally be a witness, and everyone was in a bad mood. It almost certainly wasn’t the wedding Josephine had expected, but she grimaced her way through it. When they got home, Josephine refused to move her beloved dog Fortuné off the bed to make room for Napoleon. When his mistress’ new husband tried to push him aside, the pug bit him. Sometimes dogs just know.

If Josephine found one bright spot on her second wedding day, it might have been the inscription on the wedding band Napoleon placed on her finger: “au destin,” to destiny. Both husband and wife believed that they were marked by fate, and nothing could have been a more fitting motto for them. Their shared faith that their marriage — and, indeed, their entire lives — had been predestined would shape many of their choices in the coming years.

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Two days after the wedding, Napoleon left for a military campaign in Italy. His letters from this time are textbook examples of the cycle of abuse, heady declarations of love alternating with vicious scolding for not writing back often enough or with the right emotion. That being said, Josephine’s reasons for not replying in a timely fashion were less than virtuous: she’d begun an affair with a beautiful young soldier named Hippolyte Charles and, through him, had become involved with some shady backroom arms dealing. In Josephine’s defense, taking a lover or two on the side was a normal part of the world she lived in; after all, it hadn’t been that long since she’d been a fixture at Thérésa Tallien’s orgies. Still, she must have known that Napoleon expected monogamy. She must have known that she was playing a dangerous game.

While Josephine was ignoring her husband’s letters and living the high life in Paris, Napoleon was growing more and more anguished, and when he told Barras that he hated all women and was consumed with despair, the older man decided that he needed to step in. Napoleon had been racking up astonishing victories in Italy, and Barras couldn’t afford to have him distracted from his work. So one night, after a dinner given in her honor, he muscled Josephine into a carriage bound for Milan. She cried and begged him to let her stay, but Barras was adamant. He was going to give Napoleon whatever he wanted, including, once again, Josephine.

When they got home, Josephine refused to move her beloved dog Fortuné off the bed to make room for Napoleon. When his mistress’ new husband tried to push him aside, the pug bit him. Sometimes dogs just know.

Napoleon was overjoyed by his wife’s arrival. Their time apart had only heightened his obsession and when they met in Italy, he couldn’t stop fondling her, even in front of his staff. Josephine found his attentions overwhelming. “My husband doesn’t love me, he worships me,” she wrote to an acquaintance. Even though her life in Milan was lavish — she was staying in a literal palace — Josephine was miserable. She missed her life in Paris, she missed her children, she missed her freedom.

Napoleon had to return to the front lines soon after Josephine’s arrival, from whence he sent her letters about her vagina, calling it “the little black forest” and writing that “[t]o live within Josephine is to live in the Elysian fields.” Truly, this man missed his calling as a romance writer.

JOSEPHINE: on the whole, Italy was kind of a wash

JOSEPHINE: I mean, the plundering part was pretty fun

JOSEPHINE: the Italians make great art, I’ll give them that

JOSEPHINE: but then Napoleon’s family arrived from Marseilles

JOSEPHINE: I mean, they basically moved in with us!

JOSEPHINE: and there are not enough Correggio paintings in the world to make it worth putting up with them

Napoleon’s family had been less than enthused to learn about his marriage.  Josephine was infamous by this point, and her scandals well-known. Napoleon’s mother opposed the match from a moral standpoint as well as a financial one — her son had been supporting the family ever since his father’s death several years earlier, and she didn’t relish seeing that support drained away by a depraved slattern from the colonies. In spite of Josephine’s attempts to charm her new husband’s family, they would openly loathe her for the rest of her life. His 16-year-old sister Pauline was especially heinous to Josephine: she referred to her as “la vielle” (the old woman), stuck her tongue out at her behind her back, and did her best to outdress her sister-in-law on every occasion.

Josephine left Italy in November, ostensibly bound for Paris. Napoleon left at the same time, but headed to peace talks in Austria first. He was shocked when he returned to Paris in December and his wife still wasn’t there. Instead of going straight back, Josephine had met up with Hippolyte in Nevers, and the two were leisurely fucking their way across France. A ball dedicated to her was organized by Napoleon’s ally Talleyrand in Paris for December 25th, but when she still hadn’t arrived it was postponed until the 28th. Josephine didn’t show up until January 3rd, by which point organizers had been forced to throw out two rounds of food and flowers. The event went grimly ahead but Napoleon was furious, as Josephine must have known he’d be. Josephine and Napoleon reconciled with a Big Dramatic Scene, a completely healthy relationship dynamic they both seemed to relish. This was something that played out over and over again throughout their time together: Napoleon would stomp around and yell, while Josephine wept and begged for his forgiveness. Eventually he would play the part of Big Merciful Daddy and take her into his arms and comfort her; nothing made Napoleon feel more secure in his masculinity than reducing his wife to tears and then comforting her. Josephine, for her part, seemed to feel like she could get away with almost anything as long as she cried hard enough about it later.

In 1797, Napoleon began planning his next big military campaign.

NAPOLEON: babe, I’m going to conquer Egypt

JOSEPHINE: can I ask why?

NAPOLEON: for the empire

JOSEPHINE: sure, but, why Egypt specifically?

JOSEPHINE: I mean, isn’t it kind of … out of the way?

NAPOLEON: Alexander the Great conquered Egypt

JOSEPHINE: I don’t know if that’s really a reason

NAPOLEON: it’s an empire-building thing, you wouldn’t understand

If Josephine had been reluctant to join Napoleon in Italy, she was now desperate to accompany him to Egypt: her involvement in Hippolyte’s shady business had been revealed and the resulting scandal had been deeply unpleasant; she wanted to have Napoleon’s baby and solidify her position as his wife; she owed a lot of people a lot of money. But Napoleon refused to take her, so instead she headed to the spa town of Plombières, where she hoped to recover her fertility. Both she and Napoleon were desperate for a baby, but lingering physical trauma from her time in prison coupled with years of using what then passed for the morning-after pill (highly toxic douches, mostly) had left her unable to conceive. She hoped that “taking the waters” would improve her reproductive system. Instead, her time at Plombières made her chances of getting pregnant even more remote when a balcony she was standing on collapsed, leaving her with a broken pelvis and a severe spinal injury. Although she would go on to make an incredible recovery, the incident almost guaranteed that she would never have another child.

Meanwhile, things in Egypt weren’t going so great. The British were sinking Napoleon’s ships, and his friend Junot was sinking his hopes by telling him what everyone in Paris already knew — that Josephine was fucking Hippolyte. You would think Napoleon might have figured this fact out on his own, but denial is a powerful drug. Admitting that Josephine had betrayed him shook not only his relationship with her, but also his relationship with himself: maybe he wasn’t actually the most virile and powerful man in the world, but a cuckold and a laughingstock. He swore to divorce Josephine, and for once she wasn’t there to weep and rend her garments and beg forgiveness.

And then the unthinkable happened: the British seized a French mail ship containing a letter from Napoleon to his brother about Josephine’s unfaithfulness. Then, like an 18th-century WikiLeaks, the London Morning Chronicle published selections from the letter. If the French had been tittering behind their hands about the military genius and his cheating wife, the English were outright guffawing.

* * *

Now the entire world knew about Napoleon’s humiliation.

Josephine, ever practical, decided that this would be a great time to buy a house. Actually, not just a house — a proper country estate called Malmaison (a name that roughly translates to “bad house,” which is … a choice). Josephine’s reasons were twofold: she wanted somewhere to live if Napoleon divorced her, but she also hoped that a beautiful property like Malmaison might lure him back. Barras, who obviously had a vested interest in her marriage, loaned Josephine the money she needed. She moved in almost as soon as the sale was completed, and quickly realized Malmaison was a great place to carry on her relationship with Hippolyte away from prying Parisian eyes.

Napoleon didn’t return to France immediately after finding out about his wife’s relationship with Hippolyte, partly because he preferred to bury himself in his work, partly because the situation he’d started in Egypt was still unstable, and partly because he wanted to have his own revenge affair. Josephine spent the better part of a year on tenterhooks, waiting for her husband and praying that she could pull off the most audacious weep ‘n’ beg of her life. Finally, in October of 1799, while dining at a friend’s house, she received word that Napoleon was back in the country. She dashed from Paris to Lyon, hoping to get to him before anyone else could, but arrived to find that he had already left by a different road. When Napoleon arrived in Paris and found his house empty, he assumed Josephine was off with her lover. Furious, he ordered his staff to begin packing up her clothes.

When Josephine finally got back to Paris she went straight to Napoleon, but he had locked himself in his room and refused to see her. She sat on the floor outside of his door and cried all night, but her old tricks failed to move him. At 5 o’clock in the blessed morning, Josephine sensed she would need stronger ammunition, so she roused Eugène and Hortense. The two sleepy teenagers, still in their nightwear, joined their mother and begged their stepfather not to abandon them. Napoleon was genuinely fond of Josephine’s children, and it was their pleading that finally softened his heart. He allowed Josephine to come into the room and then, not long after, into his bed. Plus ça change!

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Napoleon did not live to regret this decision. Josephine’s ability to wield soft power — flattery, distraction, general diplomacy — soon came in very handy. While Napoleon was in Egypt, several of his sources informed him that the current government was deeply unpopular and France was in dire straits. The rumors were not an exaggeration. He plotted with Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, one of the five leaders of the Directory — the committee that had governed France since the end of the Revolution — to overthrow the other four. As soon as that was done, Napoleon immediately double-crossed Sieyès and declared himself First Consul of France, an authoritarian title that basically put him in complete control of the country. Like many two-bit despots, Napoleon claimed to be acting in the interests of liberty and democracy; like many two-bit despots, he felt that this was a personal victory that he had earned because he was destined to rule. But the truth was that Josephine had done much of the backroom work for him: hosting dinners, inflating egos, and diverting attention. Without her, it’s unlikely that the rough-mannered general would have succeeded.

Shortly after his coup, Napoleon decided that he needed a residence more befitting a ruler. First he and Josephine moved into the Luxembourg Palace, and a few months later into the Tuileries. The latter was a symbol of the ostentatious excesses of the French monarchy; built by Catherine de’ Medici in the 16th century, the Tuileries was where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were kept after their removal from Versailles. Napoleon’s choice to align himself with the kings of the Ancien Régime was obviously intentional, and he immediately installed his wife in Marie Antoinette’s old chambers. Josephine, though, was ill at ease. She hated the stiffness and formality of her new role, and complained to Hortense that she felt haunted by the dead queen’s ghost. Still, she did her best to fulfill her new role as consuless, even though her heart longed to return to Malmaison.

She soon had her chance, as Napoleon gave her permission to renovate Malmaison to use as a country estate for entertaining guests. Once that was completed, Josephine began working on the estate’s grounds. She discovered that she had a natural aptitude for horticulture, and began cultivating as many species of plants as she could. Tired of the formal gardens of Paris, Josephine hired an English gardener to achieve the jardin à l’anglaise look, much to Napoleon’s horror; she also used her husband’s connections to solicit seeds and plants from around the world, delighting especially in the rare and difficult to grow. Although she was entirely self-taught, Josephine’s botanical knowledge and ability impressed even the experts, and gardening was a passion she would keep up for the rest of her life. She even convinced Napoleon to let her import plants from England during the trade blockades that would mark the wars between Britain and the Napoleonic Empire.

JOSEPHINE: I also built a giant greenhouse and started importing exotic animals

JOSEPHINE: I had llamas and an orangutan that could eat with a knife and fork

JOSEPHINE: I know this all sounds ridiculously expensive

JOSEPHINE: but if life has taught me anything, it’s that you should spend money while you can

JOSEPHINE: because tomorrow you could go to jail

GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: seriously, that’s your takeaway from the Revolution?

GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: not that monarchy is oppressive, or that we should strive for freedom and equality

GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: you’re as bad as any of those Bourbon kings

JOSEPHINE: stay away from my fucking llamas, Robespierre

* * *

Josephine succeeded in building an estate that both she and the First Consul could love. Napoleon began to use Malmaison to meet with all kinds of dignitaries and officials; in the early years of his rule, much of his government business was conducted at the country estate. They hosted days-long events that involved outdoor dinners and games, and even theatrical interludes starring Bonaparte family and friends. Josephine had transformed herself once again, from sexually adventurous good-times Merveilleuse into a consuless at the height of sophistication and good taste. Unfortunately for her, this state of affairs couldn’t and wouldn’t last long.

As Napoleon’s authority grew, so did his royal ambitions. He began to consider Malmaison beneath his station, preferring life at the Tuileries. Josephine was forced to spend more and more time in the city (and more and more time with her miserable in-laws). Napoleon, meanwhile, was sleeping with as many women as possible. These affairs — if you can call them that — took an odd form. The consul would have the women he chose wait for him, naked, in bed; he would be in and out (so to speak) in a matter of minutes. More than sex, he seemed to enjoy his ability to order his mistresses around, to control how they interacted with him. These liaisons also gave him another type of power, over Josephine: the ability to reduce her to tears, push her to the brink of despair, then soothe her like a fretful child.

Napoleon’s attitudes toward women oscillated between furious resentment and paternal infantilization. Both of these were reflected in his Napoleonic Code, which severely restricted the rights women had gained during the Revolution and even the few they’d held under the Ancien Régime. He also made chattel slavery legal again, in spite of his promises to uphold abolition, a decision many blamed on Josephine’s influence. Whether or not she advocated for the reinstatement of slavery, Josephine certainly didn’t seem to oppose it, writing to her mother that Napoleon was “very attached to Martinique and is counting on the support of the planters of that colony.” Josephine was uniquely positioned to understand both the brutality of chattel slavery — she had witnessed it firsthand, after all — as well as the Revolutionary arguments that had led to its abolition. Her entire personal brand was built on the indignities of losing her freedom during the Reign of Terror. She either knew on every level that slavery was a violation of basic human rights and didn’t care, or she found some way to rationalize it to herself, which is functionally the same as not caring.

To justify his regressive laws, Napoleon reinstated Catholicism as the state religion. He explained his rationale to the senator Pierre Louis Roederer succinctly: “Society cannot exist without inequality of wealth and inequality of wealth cannot exist without religion.” With the Catholic Church back in business, nearly every change wrought by the Revolution was undone.

* * *

As time went on, Napoleon became increasingly preoccupied with having a child. It was becoming clearer and clearer that Josephine was not going conceive, although she suggested that the problem lay with him — after all, hadn’t she already had two healthy pregnancies? Her fertility was, according to her, demonstrably fine. But still Josephine was terrified that her husband would leave her for a younger woman who might provide him with a baby. Eventually, she came up with an idea straight out of Aunt Edmée’s playbook: Hortense, now 18, could marry Napoleon’s brother Louis. The children of that union would bear both Napoleon and Josephine’s blood, and would make the perfect Bonaparte heir.

HORTENSE: but Louis is awful!

JOSEPHINE: well, we all have to do our duty

JOSEPHINE: to the empire, you know

HORTENSE: this feels more like me taking one for the team so that you can get what you want

JOSEPHINE: aren’t we all on the same team?

JOSEPHINE: really, you’re helping me to help yourself

Louis, like the rest of Napoleon’s extended family, hated Josephine and spent his wedding night reciting all the reasons why his new bride’s mother was a slut. In spite of this, Hortense gave birth to a son almost exactly nine months later, who she christened Napoleon Louis Charles. Her mother and stepfather were exultant.

Shortly before the birth of his heir, Napoleon was made “Consul for Life.” He officially moved his country seat from Malmaison to the Chateau de Saint-Cloud, one of Marie Antoinette’s former residences, where he did his utmost to recreate the court life of the Bourbon dynasty. He dressed his staff in red velvet and gilded everything in sight. He insisted that Josephine order extravagant new gowns for every occasion — including one covered with real rose petals — although he balked when her bills arrived. Few people remembered all the arcane rules and rituals of court, so Napoleon had Josephine consult with Henriette Campan, who had been Marie Antoinette’s First Lady of the Bedchamber, about things like who was supposed to bow when.

GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: what was the point of even having a revolution??

GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: did 40,000 people die in vain?? So that we could have another KING?

NAPOLEON: well, I didn’t start the Revolution, I just finished it

NAPOLEON: so that sounds like more of a you problem than a me problem

GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: I’m dead, I don’t have any problems

NAPOLEON: with all due respect, Max, I would say that even in death you have a lot of unresolved issues

If Josephine had been overwhelmed by the grandeur of the Tuileries, Saint-Cloud was even worse. She missed the casual country vibes of Malmaison, not to mention the public affection her husband had showered her with there. His liaisons were becoming more and more public, and Josephine knew that pushing back against his infidelity would only put her position at risk; in spite of Hortense’s child, Josephine was still terrified that her husband would leave her. Napoleon wielded his new relationships like weapons — he loved to recount graphic details about his conquests to Josephine, demanding that she applaud his sexual prowess. If she got upset, he grew vicious, reminding her that she had been unfaithful first. By Napoleon’s logic, she deserved payback for humiliating him in front of the entire world.

In January of 1804, a plot to assassinate Napoleon was discovered. The Duc of Enghien, a nephew of Louis XVI, was arrested at his home in Baden (even though there was no evidence linking him to the plot), found guilty in a secret military trial, and summarily executed. The rest of Europe was appalled — Baden was a neutral territory, and the legal proceedings had hardly been fair. But in France, Napoleon successfully spun the story; he was the hero his country needed, protecting it from anarchy and the dregs of the Bourbon dynasty. Riding a wave of popularity, Napoleon launched a referendum and was elected Emperor of the French. “I am the man of the State,” he declared. “I am the French Revolution.”

GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: I just want to say I totally called it that you would make yourself king

NAPOLEON: technically, an emperor is not a king

NAPOLEON: spiritually, it’s more in the tradition of the Roman Empire? Anyway, it polls well

GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: I fail to see how the Roman emperors were less oppressive or corrupt than the French kings

NAPOLEON: Max, you know I always treasure your input

NAPOLEON: but don’t you have anyone else to haunt?

GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: you know I don’t, I beheaded all of my enemies 10 years ago

Josephine was going to be “greater than a queen,” just as Euphémie had said — she was going to be an Empress. Or was she? Even though her husband was going to be Emperor, she didn’t have an official title. Napoleon himself didn’t seem to be too sure about which direction to jump. On the one hand, crowning Josephine as Empress would make it a lot harder to get rid of her if and when he wanted to take a new wife who would give him an heir. On the other hand, he was deeply superstitious and believed that his wife was his good luck charm; without her, he worried that his winning streak would break. Plus, every time he leaned toward not crowning Josephine his terrible family rejoiced, which infuriated him.

Josephine and Napoleon began playing a dangerous game of chicken. He told her that he was too loyal to leave her, and begged her to do the leaving for the sake of his dynasty. She retaliated by saying that she would separate from him as soon as he gave her a direct order to do so. Every time Napoleon was on the brink of breaking it off, something — his love for his stepchildren, his fear of a life without Josephine, her ability to lure him into the bedroom — stopped him. Finally, less than a month before his coronation, his family made up his mind for him. The Bonapartes, feeling triumphant, had spent weeks alternating between snubbing and teasing Josephine, sure that her downfall was imminent. Piqued by their disrespect, Napoleon publicly announced her coronation, then rubbed salt in the wound by telling his sisters that they’d be carrying Josephine’s train during the ceremony.

The night before the coronation, Josephine made the ultimate move to keep her husband at her side. The Pope was in town to do the coronating — although Napoleon actually ended up crowning himself, because despots will despot — and Josephine sought a private audience with him. She confessed that her wedding to the Emperor had been a civil service, which meant that they weren’t truly married in the eyes of the Catholic Church. Horrified, the Pope refused to participate in the coronation unless Napoleon and Josephine were married in a religious ceremony. Knowing that the Pope’s support was key to legitimizing his reign, Napoleon gave in. Josephine’s gamble had paid off.

* * *

On December 2, 1804, Josephine — heroine of the Reign of Terror, scantily clad Merveilleuse, former mistress of half a dozen men — was crowned Empress of France in front of the Pope himself.

All of this was, of course, set against the backdrop of Napoleon’s military career. He managed to spin even his defeats as successes, and used them to justify further expansion of his empire. In the summer of 1805, he turned his attention once more toward Austria, which was still salty about the whole Marie Antoinette thing and allied with Britain and Russia against France. Napoleon abandoned his plans to invade England in order to head east to quash the Austrian army, and he was hugely successful. The next year, he pressed even farther, into Prussia, and in early 1807, into Poland. He wrote to Josephine often, but even as he proclaimed his love, he was distracted by news out of France: one of his mistresses was pregnant. Josephine, who had traveled with Napoleon as far as Mainz, knew exactly what that pregnancy could mean for her marriage. She begged her husband to let her join him in Warsaw but he ordered her back to Paris, where she spent the winter white-faced and weeping, certain that orders for a divorce would come through any day.

Josephine had little reprieve from her unhappiness. In the spring of 1807, her grandson and heir Napoleon Louis Charles died. Hortense and the Empress were inconsolable; Napoleon, who thought they should be paying attention to his victories in the east, grew impatient with their grief. Less than a month later, Josephine’s mother died in Martinique. Napoleon refused to make the news of his mother-in-law’s death public, claiming that it would cast a shadow over his victories, and refused to name Hortense’s younger son his heir, which Josephine took as a further sign that he was about to leave her. When the Emperor returned to France after sealing an armistice with Tsar Alexander, his manner toward his wife was noticeably chilly.

Now that he was secure in his fertility, Napoleon began to consider a divorce in earnest. The idea of solidifying his new alliances with Austria and Poland with a marriage was deeply appealing and, he reasoned, the death of his heir was a good excuse to find and impregnate a new wife. Josephine, knowing she was about to be discarded, fell into an emotional spiral, dragging Napoleon with her: the more miserable she became, the more he resented her. But he still loved her, too, and couldn’t picture life without her gentling influence. Plus, he was sure that she brought him luck; his greatest victories had come after their wedding, and after all, what about “au destin”? Would his military winning streak continue without her? But in 1809, after learning that a Polish mistress was pregnant with another one of his children, he made up his mind: he had to divorce Josephine.

On November 30th, just two days before the 5th anniversary of their coronation, Napoleon and Josephine dined together. At the end of a nearly silent meal, the Emperor took his wife’s hand and told her that, while he would always adore her, he had to put the interests of France in front of his own wants. Josephine fell into hysterics, and Napoleon began to cry too, becoming even more upset when he realized that losing his wife meant losing his stepchildren. He had thought this through thousands of times, but faced with the reality of divorce, he blanched. In the end it was Eugène who insisted that the separation happen. He knew that a reconciliation would be brief and ultimately unhappy for everyone.

On December 14, 1809, Napoleon and Josephine convened a grand ceremony in the throne room to announce their divorce. The Emperor wept as he described what a wonderful wife the Empress had been. Josephine — whose face was a mess of tears and makeup — swore that Napoleon would always be her dearest love. Together, they signed the record of proceedings. That night they clung to each other in Napoleon’s bed, both sobbing, before Josephine retreated to her own chamber.

Josephine decamped to Malmaison, where Napoleon visited her. The pair continued to cry together over the dissolution of their grand love affair, more united in their separation than they had been over the last year of their marriage. But the Emperor’s grief didn’t stop him from marrying 18-year-old Marie Louise of Austria (who happened to be Marie Antoinette’s great-niece) on March 11th, 1810, just months after his divorce. He told Josephine that she would have to leave Paris before his new wife’s arrival, and at the end of March the deposed Empress set off for a chateau in Navarre.

Josephine did her best to rally her spirits, even though the lovely new home Napoleon had promised was a damp, drafty monstrosity, so hideous that people called it “la marmite” (the cooking pot). She began renovating its gardens, and occupied her evenings doing tarot readings for her ladies; years before, she had developed a close relationship with cartomancer Marie Anne Lenormand, and remained obsessed with Lenormand’s fortune-telling deck of cards for the rest of her life. Between her love of plants, her tarot fixation, and her (still ongoing) debt, Josephine was basically a prototype for the modern millennial lady.

* * *

In March of 1811, Marie Louise gave birth to a son. Napoleon was beyond exultant — he finally had a legitimate child and heir. In a fit of good temper, he allowed Josephine to return permanently to Malmaison (she had been there the year before, but was only allowed to stay briefly before traveling onward to Aix-en-Provence). She began to build a quiet life for herself — collecting art, hosting intimate soirées, and spoiling her grandchildren. She grew sugarcane in her greenhouse and let Hortense’s young sons suck on it just like she had as a child. Napoleon remained close to her, writing to her often and spending two hours visiting her before he left to conquer Russia; he even let her kiss and cuddle his son, although Marie Louise was furious when she found out.

I probably don’t have to tell you that things didn’t go well in Russia. Things never go well for invading armies in Russia. Over 500,000 French soldiers died; fewer than 100,000 came home. Napoleon was ousted from power in the spring of 1814, and Paris was soon overrun with triumphant Cossack forces. By the beginning of May, they would restore the Bourbon dynasty to the French throne. Napoleon, meanwhile, had been exiled.

Tsar Alexander, who was in Paris to ensure that Louis XVIII acceded peacefully, began visiting Josephine. He was fascinated by the legendary woman who had held his enemy in thrall for so long, and the former Empress, for her part, received him graciously. She understood that this man held her life — and the lives of her children and grandchildren — in the palm of his hand, and turned on the charm accordingly. Other conquering dignitaries began to visit her as well; she was, after all, one of the spoils of war. She belonged to them now.

Stay away from my fucking llamas, Robespierre.

In the middle of May, Josephine caught a chill while out walking around the grounds of Malmaison with the Tsar. By the end of the month, she was desperately ill with a high fever and a rash. On the morning of May 29th, delirious but still the same old Josephine, she insisted on being dressed in a pink satin gown and rubies in case the Tsar came. She was dead by the time the clock struck noon.

French public opinion had run hot and cold on Napoleon — mostly cold over the last years of his reign — but Josephine had been almost universally beloved. She represented so many things to so many people, from the wild hope of the early days of the Revolution to the desperation of the Reign of Terror to the grandeur of the French Empire. Perhaps above everything else, she represented pragmatism and tenacity; she’d never been ashamed to do what was necessary to survive. Thousands upon thousands attended her funeral, weeping for their Empress. Her legacy was complicated, but it was the legacy of their people.

And Napoleon? In his disgrace, he was abandoned by almost everyone, including Marie Louise; Eugène and Hortense were among the few that remained loyal to him. He died seven years later, exiled to the island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic. His last word was “Josephine.”

There is a statue of Josephine in Fort-de-France, Martinique. In 1991, it was beheaded, just as she would have been if not for Robespierre’s timely downfall. It was a fitting tribute to the heroine of the Terror who had watched the restoration of slavery with the same secretive Mona Lisa smile she wears in all of her portraits.

Long live the dissolution of oppressive monarchies. Long live freedom. Liberté, fraternité, égalité forever.

Queens of Infamy: Josephine Bonaparte, from Martinique to Merveilleuse
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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For further reading on Josephine:
Kate Williams, Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte
Andrea Stuart, The Rose of Martinique: A Life of Napoleon’s Josephine

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Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based feminist killjoy. She is currently raising one child and three unruly cats. If she has a looming deadline, you can find her procrastinating on Twitter @anne_theriault.

Editor: Michelle Weber
Copyeditor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Illustrator: Louise Pomeroy

Queens of Infamy: Josephine Bonaparte, from Martinique to Merveilleuse

Illustration by Louise Pomeroy

Anne Thériault | Longreads | March 2019 | 22 minutes (5,569 words)

From the notorious to the half-forgotten, Queens of Infamy, a Longreads series by Anne Thériault, focuses on badass world-historical women of centuries past.

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Looking for a Queens of Infamy t-shirt or tote bag? Choose yours here.

In 1768, a 15-year-old girl traveled to the hills near her family home in Martinique to visit a local wise woman. Desperately curious to know what her future held, the girl handed a few coins to the Afro-Caribbean obeah, Euphémie David, in exchange for a palm reading. Euphémie obligingly delivered an impressive-sounding prediction: the girl would marry twice — first, unhappily, to a family connection in France, and later to a “dark man of little fortune.” This second husband would achieve undreamed of glory and triumph, rendering her “greater than a queen.” But before the girl had time to gloat over her thrilling fate, Euphémie delivered a parting blow: in spite of her incredible success, the girl would die miserable, filled with regret, pining for the “easy, pleasant life” of her childhood. This prophecy would stay with the girl for the rest of her life, and she would think of it often — sometimes with fervent hope, sometimes with despair, always with unwavering belief that it would come true.

That girl was the future Empress Josephine Bonaparte. Everything Euphémie predicted would come to pass, but young Josephine could not have imagined the events that would propel her to her zenith: the rise through Paris society, the cataclysm of the French Revolution, the brutal imprisonment during the Reign of Terror, the transformation into an infamous Merveilleuse, the pivotal dinner at her lover’s house where she would meet her second husband.

She wouldn’t even have recognized the name Josephine — that sobriquet would be bestowed by Napoleon some 18 years hence. The wide-eyed teenager who asked Euphémie to tell her fortune still went by her childhood nickname, Yeyette.

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Queens of Infamy: Zenobia

Illustration by Louise Pomeroy

Anne Thériault | Longreads | December 2018 | 18 minutes (4,570 words)

From the notorious to the half-forgotten, Queens of Infamy, a Longreads series by Anne Thériault, focuses on badass world-historical women of centuries past.

* * *

Looking for a Queens of Infamy t-shirt or tote bag? Choose yours here.

When one thinks about Roman triumvirates, insofar as one ever thinks about Roman triumvirates, there are two that spring immediately to mind: the First Triumvirate and the Second Triumvirate. The former involved a would-be emperor (Julius Caesar), a man with a beautiful head of hair (Pompey), and a guy whose name no one can ever remember (Crassus); the latter included an actual emperor (Augustus), a noted piss artist who also happened to have great hair (Mark Antony), and another guy whose name no one can ever remember (Lepidus). But I propose we add another Ancient Roman triumvirate and turn this list into a triumvirate of triumvirates. This last (and, frankly, greatest) of the triumvirates consists of the three queens who led revolts against the Roman occupation of their lands: Cleopatra, Boudicca, and Zenobia.

Do I understand that the term “triumvirate” means “three people who operate together as a governing coalition”? Yes. Since vir is Latin for “man,” wouldn’t the term refer specifically to men? Sure, whatever. Given that Cleopatra, Boudicca, and Zenobia were women whose lives were separated by the vagaries of time and geography, doesn’t that suggest that I’m applying “triumvirate” incorrectly here? Probably. Do I care about your petty and pedantic opinions on this matter? Not especially.

Cleopatra and Boudicca’s stories are both fairly well-known in the West, if somewhat distorted in their retellings (the Egyptian queen wanted her legacy to be tax reform and a stable, drought-resistant economy, but instead we mostly remember her as being sexily embroiled in Roman politics). Zenobia is a popular historical figure in the Arab world, especially in her native Syria, where her image appears on banknotes and where her story featured heavily in the 1997 historical soap opera Al-Ababeed (The Anarchy). Outside of the Middle East, though, she seems to be half-forgotten aside from a few works produced during the Enlightenment and the Romantic period, all of which employ extreme artistic license. Part of the problem is that when it comes to Zenobia, hard facts are few and far between. This is almost certainly related to gender; while historians were studiously chronicling the frequency and texture of royal men’s bowel movements, the most basic details of women’s lives are lost to time. The Romans were particularly reluctant to include women in their accounts, so it’s unsurprising that they didn’t leave much information behind about the queen who conquered a solid chunk of their empire.

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Queens of Infamy: The Reign of Catherine de’ Medici

Illustration by Louise Pomeroy

Anne Thériault | Longreads | October 2018 | 26 minutes (6,557 words)

From the notorious to the half-forgotten, Queens of Infamy, a Longreads series by Anne Thériault, focuses on badass world-historical women of centuries past.

* * *

Looking for a Queens of Infamy t-shirt or tote bag? Choose yours here.

When we last left the Serpent Queen, things were looking dire. She had been married to Henri, the heir to the French throne, for nearly five years. Although the Dauphin and Dauphine were both young and healthy, Catherine was failing in her most fundamental duty: providing the country with an heir. Rumors had spread throughout the court that she was incapable of conceiving. Since her husband’s only living brother was unmarried and childless, the entire fate of the Valois dynasty rested on Catherine’s ability to produce a child.

Faced with a rival noble faction, the Guises, who wanted to replace the apparently barren queen-to-be with one of their own, Catherine had thrown aside her pride and made a risky preemptive strike. Swooning pathetically at Francis I’s feet, the young woman tearfully begged the king to go ahead and replace her, saying that she loved Henri beyond measure and just wanted him to have a wife who could give him heirs. Catherine asked only that she be allowed to stay in France and humbly serve her beloved’s new bride.

It was a risky move, but Catherine had banked on the fact that the aging king couldn’t bear to see a young woman crying. Francis, nearly in tears himself, declared that it was God’s will that Catherine be the Dauphin’s wife. The question of replacing the Dauphine was resolved, for now.

But Catherine knew that this amnesty was only temporary; just across the English channel, Henry VIII was ditching his wives all over the place for not giving him a son. How long would it be before the Valois family decided to follow suit?

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