Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Isabella of France (1292-1358)

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ISABELLA of France (1292–1358), queen of Edward II, was the daughter of Philip the Fair, king of France, and of his wife, Joan of Champagne and Navarre. She is said to have been born in 1292 (Anselme, Histoire Généalogique de la Maison de France, i. 91; Ann. Wig. in Ann. Monastici, iv., 538). She is, however, described as about twelve years old in 1308 (Cont. Guill. de Nangis, i. 364, Soc. de l'Histoire de France). In June 1298 Boniface VIII, ae mediator, brought about a truce between her father and Edward I, by which her aunt Margaret became Edward's second wife and Isabella was promised to Edward. the king's son. The renewal of the truce in 1299 contained a similar provision, and after the conclusion of the permanent peace in May 1303 Isabella was formally betrothed to young Edward at Paris (Fœdera, i. 954). In January 1307 the Cardinal, Peter of Spain was sent to the Carlisle parliament to conclude the marriage arrangements (Chron. de Lanercost, p. 206, Maitland Club"), Edward soon after became king of England, and, crossing over to France, was married to Isabella at Boulogne on 25 Jan. 1308, Philip the Fair and a great gathering of French nobles attending the magnificent ceremonies. Charles of Valois and Louis of Evreux, Isabella's uncles, accompanied her to England. On 25 Feb, she was crowned at Westminster. Edward gave all her presents from her father to Piers Gaveston, and neglected her for the sake of his favourite. Her uncles left England, disgusted at her treatment (Ann. Paulini in Stubbs, Chron. Edward I and II, i. 262, Rolls Ser.) Isabella complained to her father of the slights she underwent and the poverty to which she was reduced (Trokelowe, p. 68). In May 1312 she was with Edward and Gaveston at Tynemouth. She implored Edward with tears in her eyes not to abandon her, but Edward left her with Gaveston and went to Scarborough. She was comforted by secret messengers from Thomas of Lancaster, assuring her that he would not rest till he drove Gaveston from Edward's society ib. pp. 75-6). This is the first evidence of her dealings with the opposition.

Isabella's first child, afterwards Edward III, was born on 13 Nov. 1312 at Windsor. On 29 Jan. 1313 she removed from Windsor to Westminster. On 4 Feb. the Fishmongers' Company gave a great pageant in her honour, accompanying her to Eltham, where she now took up her abode (Ann. London. in Stubbs, i. 221). In May she accompanied Edward on a visit to her father at Paris, where, on Whitsunday, her brothers were dubbed knights with great state. She returned to England on 16 July. In October she joined Gilbert Clare, tenth earl of Gloucester [q. v.] in mediating a peace between Edward and the barons (Trokelowe, p. 80).

On 15 July 1316 Isabella gave birth to her second son John, at Eltham. In July 1318 her daughter Isabella was born at Woodstock. In August of the same year she joined the Earl of Hereford in procuring for a second time a peace between Edward and the party of Lancaster (Monk of Malmesbury in Stubbs, ii. 236). In 1319 she went northwards with Edward. While Edward and Lancaster besieged Berwick, Isabella remained behind, in or near York. The Scots invaded Yorkshire,and James Douglas formed a plan for carrying off Isabella by surprise (ib. p. 243; Trokelowe, p. 103). The design was frustrated by the capture of a spy, and Isabella was sent off by water to Nottingham. The expedition which had sought to capture her defeated Archbishop Melton at Myton, Yorkshire. It was believed in France on another occasion that Robert Bruce purposely avoided capturing the queen on account of her connection with his friends (Cont. Guill. De Nangis, i. 410).

In June 1320 Isabella went with Edward to Amiens,where she met her brother Philip V, to whom Edward did homage for Ponthieu. In June 1321 she gave birth to her youngest daughter, Joan, at the Tower of London. In August she again joined Pembroke and some of the bishops in procuring a new peace between the king and his lords, 'begging on her knees for the people's sake' (Ann. Paul. p. 297). But on 13 Oct. of the same year she was travelling to Canterbury, and requested Lady Badlesmere to give her admission to Leeds Castle to pass the night. Though the castle belonged to the crown, and Badlesmere was a member of Pembroke's party, with whom Isabella had generally acted, her marshals were told that no one might enter. Six of her followers were slain in a scuffle that ensued (Trokelowe, pp. 110-111; Ann. Paul. pp. 298-9). Edward took up his wife's cause, and his siege of Leeds brought about the beginning of the conflict which ended with the fall of Lancaster and the great triumph of Edward's reign at the parliament of York. In the disastrous campaign against the Scots which succeeded Isabella was again exposed to great personal danger. When in October Edward was nearly captured by the Scots at Byland Abbey, Isabella fled with difficulty to some castle on the sea-coast, whence she only escaped the danger of a siege by a voyage over a stormy sea, during which she suffered great hardships and two of her ladies perished (Cont. Guill. De Nangis, ii. 44).

The influence of the Despensers over Edward in the years following his triumph soon proved no less irksome to Isabella than that of Gaveston. By their advice Edward resumed possession of her estates on 18 Sept. 1324 (Fœdera, ii. 569; Galfridus Le Baker, pp. 17-18, ed. Thompson), and put her on an allowance of 20s. a day. Her friends and servants were removed from her, the wife of the younger Hugh Despenser was appointed to look after her, and she could not even write a letter without that lady's knowledge (Lanercost, p. 254). The motives for such action, apart from economy, were that Isabella was in close relations with Adam of Orleton, the disgraced bishop of Hereford, and with Bishop Burghersh of Lincoln, who was anxious to revenge his uncle Badlesmere. She was also suspected of intrigues with the French, and especially with her uncle Charles of Valois. It was rumoured that the younger Despenser had sent a friar, named Thomas of Dunheved, to Rome to ask the pope to divorce Edward from Isabella (ib. p. 254; Ann. Paul. p. 337).

Isabella's indignation with the Despensers was soon transferred to her husband. But, guided probably by the crafty Orleton, she quietly meditated revenge. She found her opportunity in the unwillingness of the Despensers to allow Edward to visit France to perform homage to her youngest brother, the new king, Charles IV. She used all her blandishments to persuade Edward to allow her to visit her brother, and begged him to desist from his attacks on Gascony. Bishop Stratford and many of the magnates approved of her design. The Despensers were not sorry to get rid of her. Early in February 1325 the prudent prior Henry of Eastry [q. v.] urged the necessity of restoring her to her accustomed state and following before she went abroad (Lit. Cantuar. i. 137, Rolls Ser.) But the commonest precautions were neglected, and early in March 1325 she crossed over to France with a scanty following. Froissart gives a pretty picture of her reception by her brother (ii. 29, ed. Kervyn de Lettenhove). But the only political advantage she obtained for England was a prolongation of the truce until 1 Aug. (Malmesbury p. 279). All through the summer Charles insisted that Edward should perform homage in person, but, instigated by Isabella, agreed to accept the homage of their eldest son, Edward, if the king would invest him for that purpose with Guienne and Ponthieu. On 12 Sept. the boy left England; but after he had performed homage, he and his mother lingered at Paris. About Michaelmas Edward wrote asking her to return. She sent back many of her retinue, and gave specious excuses for remaining at her brother's court. But her acts had now become so hostile that Bishop Stapleton, who had accompanied her son to France, escaped to England in the disguise of a pilgrim. On 1 Dec. Edward peremptorily ordered her to come home (Fœdera, ii. 615). But she had now formed a close political connection with the escaped traitor, Roger Mortimer, which soon ripened into criminal intimacy. Before Christmas it was feared she would invade England (Lit. Cantuar. i. 162). Her connection with Mortimer was notorious in England in March 1326. An increasing band of exiles and fugitives gathered round her. She protested that she would never return to her husband as long as the Despensers remained in power. Edward stopped all supplies, but Isabella was maintained by her brother, King Charles (Cont. Guill. de Nangis, ii. 61), who saw in her perfidy prospects of recovering Guienne.

In the spring of 1326 Isabella left Paris for her dower lands in Ponthieu (ib. ii. 67). She afterwards removed to Hainault, where she obtained a valuable ally by negotiating the marriage of her son with Philippa, daughter of Count William of Hainault (G. le Baker, p. 20), Froissart, who (ii. 43-61) gives a long romancing account of her wanderings in the Netherlands, says that she left Paris because her brother was ashamed to support her any longer. She had employed her daughter-in-law's marriage portion in hiring morcenaries in Germany and the Low Countries. Roger Mortimer and John, brother of the Count of Hainault, took command of her troops, and she and the Duke of Aquitaine were outlawed as traitors.

On 23 Sept. 1326 Isabella embarked at Dort, and on 24 Sept. landed at Harwich, accompanied by her son, Edmund, earl of Kent, her brother-in-law, John of Hainault, Roger Mortimer, a large number of English exiles, and her foreign mercenaries. She took Colvosse, four leagues from Harwich, about mid-day, and lodged for the first night at Walton. Her other brother-in-law, Thomas, the earl-marshal, amid whose estates she landed, at once joined her, along with Henry of Lancaster and most of the gentry of the neighbourhood. She then marched on Bury St. Edmunds, 'as if on a pilgrimage,' and siezed there a large sum of the King's money. Thence she went to Cambridge, stopping some days at Barnwell Priory and went through Baldock and Dunstable, in pursuit of the king, who had fled to Wales. Bishops Orleton and Burghersh hurried to her standards, and were soon joined by Bishop Stratford, after his hollow attempt at mediation had failed. Archbishop Reynolds sent her money. She found no real resistance. At Oxford her spokesman, Orleton, explained in a sermon that she had come to put an end to misgoverenment. At Wallingford she issued on 15 Oct. a violent proclamation against the Despensers (Fœdera, ii. (645-6). On the same day London rose in revolt in her behalf, the king's minister. Bishop Stapleton, was murdered, and a revolutionary government was established under her second son, John of Eltham. Isabella now advanced to Gloucester, where she was joined by a northern army under Lords Percy and Wake, and a strong force from the Welsh marches. She then marched from Gloucester to Berkeley, restoring the castle, which the younger Despenser had held, to Thomas of Berkeley, the lawful heir. When she advanced to Bristol, the town surrendered after a show of resiststance. On 26 Oct. she proclaimed the Duke of Aquitaine guardian of the realm (ib. ii. 646). Isabella then advanced to Hereford, where she stayed a month. The execution of the two Despensers and the capture of her husband soon completed her triumph. Returning eastwards with Mortimer and her son, she kept Christmas at Wallingford, and reached London on 4 Jan. 1327. A parli ment assembled there on 7 Jan., deposed Edward II, and recognised the Duke of Aquitaine as Edward III. Isabella's agent, Orleton, told the estates that if she rejoined her husband he would murder her.

The new king was only fourteen years old,and Isabella and Mortimer governed England in his name. So large a provision was made for Isabella that hardly a third of the revenue remained to the king (Murimuth, p. 52). The forfeited estates of the Despensers were secured for herself and her lover. She now sought to win popularity by carrying on the war against Scotland, and after keeping Easter at Peterborough Abbey, held a great council on 19 April at Stamford, where she was ordered by the barons never to return to her husband (Orleton's apology in Twysden, c. 2766, and Baker, ed. Thompson, p. 207). She went north for the rest of the year, dwelling mostly at York, while her son Edward led an inglorious expedition over the border. She still wrote in affectionate terms to her husband(Murimuth, p.52), but conscious that he was a danger to the permanency of her rule, and fearful, perhaps, of being forced to return to him (G. le Baker, p. 29), she urged on his gaolers to treat him with the utmost severity, and in September 1327 procured his murder (ib. p. 31). To strengthen her position, she now concluded a permanent peace with France (September 1327). This was followed by the 'disgraceful peace' (Avesbury, p. 283, Rolls Ser.) of Northampton, which in March 1328 gave up the overlordship of Scotland, and was especially regarded as the work of Isabella and Mortimer (Lanercost, p. 261). Isabella seems to have obtained for herself a large share of the 20,000l. paid by the Scots. Her shameless rapacity. no less than her pusillanimous policy provoked the strongest disgust. Already in 1327 Isabella's old enemy, Thomas of Dunheved, formed an abortive plot against her.

After Trinity Sunday 1328 Isabella went to Hereford and Wigmore, to attend the marriage of two of Mortimer's daughters and the great 'round-table' that celebrated the event, (Baker, p. 42; Avesbury, p. 284). On 19 July she was at Berwick for the marriage of her daughter Joan to David of Scotland (Lanercost, p. 261). In October she was at Salisbury to meet the parliament. Henry of Lancaster refused to attend it, and Isabella and Mortimer ravaged his lands and took his town of Leicester. Tha mediation of the new archbishop, Meopham, secured peace for a time, but in March 1330 Isabella and Mortimer procured the death of Edmund of Woodstock, earl of Kent [q. v.] This led Lancaster to make another effort against the queen and her favourite, and the king, tired of his mother's disgraceful tutelage, readily joined in his plans. In October Isabella and Mortimer, who now lived almost openly together, went to Nottingham to open a parliament (Knighton, c. 2553). On the night of 18 Oct. the attack was made on them. Both were arrested, despite Isabella's despairing cry, 'Sweet son, have pity on the gentle Mortimer!' Mortimer was speedily executed as a traitor (G. le Baker, p. 46; French Chron. of London, p. 63; Knighton, c. 2556; Ann. Paul. p. 352; Gesta Edwardi in Stubbs, ii. 101).

Isabella's power was now at an end, but Edward at the pope's entreaty hushed up the story of his mother's shame, and showed her every deference (Stubbs, Const. Hist. ii. 357). Numerous as were the articles on which Mortimer was condemned, nothing was said in the legal record of his adultery with the queen. The only charge against him which involved Isabella was one of causing discord between her and the late king (Rot. Parl. ii. 53). Though Isabella was forced to surrender her ill-gotten riches, the adequate dower of 3,000l. a year was assigned for her maintenance (Fœdera, ii. 835). It has often been said that Isabella lived the rest of her life in a sort of honourable imprisonment (Cont. G. De Nangis, ii. 120; Froissart,ii. 247), and her manor of Castle Rising, near Lynn in Norfolk, is generally regarded as the place of her confinement. But Castle Rising was only one of her favourite places of abode. The months immediately succeeding her fall were spent at Berkhampstead, while she passed her Christmas in 1330 at Windsor (Norfolk Archæology, iv. 61). In 1332 she received permission to dwell at Eltham whenever her health required a change of air. Her income was increased by the restoration of Ponthieu and Montreuil and other manors (Fœdera, ii. 893), and she was permitted to dispose of her goods by will. In June 1338 she was at Pontefract, and in 1344 she celebrated the king's birthday with him at Norwich (Murimuth, pp. 155, 231). At Castle Rising she lived a comfortable and somewhat luxurious life, as the presents of meat, wax, wine, swans, turbot, lampreys, and other delicacies from the neighbouring corporation of Lynn clearly show (Hist. MSS. Comm. 11th Rep. App. iii. 213-219). She amused herself with hawking and collecting relics, and went on pilgrimage to our Lady of Walsingham. She entertained her son on his frequent visits to her with no small state. Her numerous retinue sometimes quarrelled with the Lynn burgesses (ib. p. 217). In 1348 she was even proposed as a mediator for peace with France. She devoted herself to pious works, almsgiving, and charity, and finally took the habit of the sisters of Santa Clara (Chron. Lanercost, p. 266). She died on 23 Aug. 1358 at her castle of Hertford, and was buried in November in the Franciscan church at Newgate in London. There is a statue of her among the figures which adorn the tomb of her son, John of Eltham, at Westminster.

[Stubbs's Chron. of Edward I and Edward II, Thompson's Murimuth and Avesbury, Literæ Cantuarienses, Annales Monastici, Trokelowe (all the above in Rolls Ser.); Chron. Lanercost (Maitland Club); Galfridus le Baker, ed. E. M. Thompson; Cont. Guillaume de Nangis and Froissart, ed. Luce (both in Soc. de 1'Histoire de France); Rymer's Fœdera, vols. ii. and iii.; Rolls of Parliament, vol. ii. (Record ed.); Hist. MSS. Comm. llth Rep.; Harrod in Norfolk Archæology, iv. 59-68, 1855; Strickland's Queens of England, i. 326-76, 6 vol. ed.]

T. F. T.