Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Isabeau of Bavaria: Wicked?

Isabeau of Bavaria, queen of France (died 24 September 1435)


Probably born about the year 1370, Isabeau of Bavaria was the daughter of Stephen III, duke of Bavaria-Ingoldstadt, and his first wife, Taddea Visconti, the daughter of Bernabò Visconti, lord of Milan. She was also the great-granddaughter of the Holy Roman emperor Louis IV.*

The entrance of Isabeau of Bavaria into Paris,
for her coronation, 23 August 1389
In the late fourteenth century, her father's Bavaria was the most powerful of the German principalities. It was Isabeau's uncle, Duke Frederick of Bavaria-Landshut, who in 1383 first suggested her marriage to the French king, Charles VI, a suggestion supported by his uncle, the duke of Burgundy, who thought the connection to the Holy Roman Empire would strengthen France against the English.

According to the French chronicler Jean Froissart, Isabeau of Bavaria was about thirteen or fourteen years old when the marriage was first proposed and about sixteen when she was married to the French king on 16 July 1385.

Unlike so many marriages arranged for political advantage, this one worked out well, at least at first. The young couple seemed happily matched and mutually pleased. As Froissart reports, when Charles first laid eyes on his potential bride, "happiness and love enter[ed] his heart, for he saw that she was beautiful and young, and thus he greatly desired to gaze at her and possess her." For her part, she seemed equally delighted with her husband. And their families were satisfied with their arrangements.

Charles planned a lavish coronation for his bride in 1389, with a ceremonial entry, a day-long procession, an evening ceremony at Notre Dame followed by another procession, this one lit by candles, a royal feast, and a series of pageants for entertainment. By the time of her coronation, Isabeau was seven months pregnant.

But by 1392, Charles fell ill, suffering the first of what would become a series of bouts of insanity: on a hot August day en route to Brittany, he attacked his knights, killing four of them, and then collapsed in a coma. His uncles took advantage of the king's illness to seize power.

Charles soon recovered, however, and by September he was back in Paris. A second collapse occurred the following June, and this time he was rendered incompetent for about six months before his sanity was restored. This was the pattern of his life for the next twenty years.

After his illness, and in the aftermath of his uncles' seizing power, Charles made arrangements for Isabeau to be "principal guardian" of his son and heir until the boy reached the age of majority, thirteen, and Charles gave Isabeau additional political power on the regency council. 

As Charles began to suffer further periods of insanity, Isabel's role was expanded in a series of ordinances; in 1402 he turned over control of the treasury to her, and by 1403, she was "acknowledged as the leader of a new regency council" empowered to mediate and to deal with matters of finance in addition to acting as principal guardian of the dauphin. 

As Charles's various male relatives fought each other to control the country, Isabeau sought to shift her allegiances in order to find the best support for her son. When she favored Louis of Orléans, Charles's brother, his Burgundian rivals accused them of adultery; when she turned to John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy, she was imprisoned. 

It was at this point that the writer (and inspiration for this blog) Christine de Pizan addressed a letter to Isabeau, written on 5 October 1405. Recognizing, like the queen, that the intense rivalry between the dukes of Burgundy and Orléans threatened the peace and stability of France, Pizan urged Isabeau to intervene in order to preserve the peace.

In addressing the queen and sometime regent of France, Pizan employs a critical image; rather than offering a threat to the realm, "at present sorely and piteously wounded,' the queen’s intervention "can be the medicine and sovereign remedy to cure this realm." Thus the queen can assume a role outside the usual "office" of a woman--that is, a political role--even while staying within a woman’s usual office--Isabeau can act, since her actions are healing. 

The queen herself stands to gain in the process, Pizan notes. The first benefit "pertains to the soul": Isabeau will acquire merit if she keeps blood from being shed. Second, while "instigating peace" she will be the "restorer of the welfare" of her children and "of their loyal subjects." Finally, the queen will acquire fame: the "third benefit, which is not to be despised," Pizan writes, is that that the queen, "would be perpetually remembered and praised in the chronicles and records of the noble deeds of France."

Despite Isabeau's efforts and Pizan's hopes, there would be no lasting peace within France--and no victory over the English in that long-standing conflict we now refer to as the Hundred Years' War. 

In 1415, after the victory of Henry V at the battle of Agincourt, the situation in France had gone from bad to worse. According to the terms of the treaty of Troyes, signed on 21 May 1420, the son of Isabeau and Charles was disinherited--after Charles's death, the crown of France was to pass to Henry V, who would marry the French princess, Katherine of Valois, about whom I posted way back at the beginning of the year. 

Christine de Pizan (kneeling) presenting
her work to Isabeau of Bavaria,
manuscript illustration c. 1410-14
Like Margaret of Anjou in England and, later, Caterina Sforza in Italy, Isabel was vilified and condemned for her political ambitions and for what was perceived as her pursuit of personal wealth and power.

As historian Rachel Gibbons notes, Isabeau was accused of "adultery, incest, moral corruption, treason, avarice and profligacy," her "reputed beauty" used as "'proof' of her evil," her sexual activity necessarily resulting in her "neglect" of her children.

"As is often the case today," Gibbon concludes, "the most accessible weapons . . . to use against a woman were criticisms of her looks and her sexual conduct," an "adulterous woman who also neglects her children . . . being totally beyond redemption."

Charles VI died in 1422. Living in a city occupied by the victorious English, Isabeau retired to the royal residence of Hôtel Saint-Pol, where she died on 24 September 1435. 

And here's the final line of the entry on Isabeau of Bavaria, queen of France, from the Encyclopedia Britannica (the source that never fails to make me angry): "She died despised by both the French and the English."

*This post has been adapted from The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan) and from Debating Women, Politics, and Power in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan).

I have quoted from Rachel Gibbons's essay "Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France (1385-1422): The Creation of an Historical Villainess," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th ser., 6 (1996), 51-73.