Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Sunday, February 1, 2015

Isabella of France: He's King But She Rules

Isabella of France, queen of England (1 February 1327)

On 1 February 1327, Edward III was crowned king of England, and although he would become one of England's most powerful kings (reigning fifty years), at the time of his coronation his mother was ruling for him, as regent. 

Isabella of France (1295-1358) had assumed the regency in 1326 before the death of her husband, the notably incompetent Edward II, whose disastrous twenty-year reign staggered from one controversy to another.

(Isabella's father was the French king Philip IV. Her mother was Joan of Navarre--by marriage Joan was queen of France, but she was also a queen in her own right--she had inherited the throne of Navarre. She ruled there, as queen regnant, from 1274 to 1305.)

A fifteenth-century illustration showing Isabella among the troops
at the Siege of Bristol, 1326
Edward II lost his throne after years of mismanagement and civil strife--and Isabella played an active role in the events that led to her husband's defeat, capture, and, in the end, deposition. She seized power in the last few months of 1326, with Edward's formal abdication taking place 25 January 1327.

Isabella's regency lasted until 1330, when Edward III successfully rebelled against his mother's ongoing control. Roger Mortimer, who had long acted as Isabella's political partner (and who is generally believed to have been her sexual partner as well), was accused of treason, convicted, and executed. Isabella was initially under house arrest, but she was allowed to "retire" from power and the court, though she remained very wealthy. She eventually regained some measure of influence, entering into peace negotiations for Edward III in France (1348) and Navarre (1358). She remained very close to her children and, eventually, her grandchildren, a welcome member at court.

History has not been kind to Isabella--contemporary chroniclers condemned her as "that harridan" and "that virago." In his play Edward II, Christopher Marlowe had one character refer to her as "that unnatural Queen, false Isabel," while the fictional Edward described his wife as "my unconstant Queen, who spots my nuptial bed with infamy." In the eighteenth century, stealing a phrase from Shakespeare, the poet Thomas Gray described her as the "She-Wolf of France," who, "with unrelenting fangs" ripped through "the bowels of thy mangled mate." (Shakespeare had coined the phrase for another powerful woman-who-would-be-king, Margaret of Anjou.)

Such descriptions survive--in Berthold Brecht's adaptation of Marlowe's play, "Isabella" applies the name to herself: "I shall become a she-wolf," she says, "Ranging bare-toothed through the scrub." Contemporary historians are not much kinder. Helen Castor's She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England before Elizabeth at least gives Isabella some companions in the "she wolf" business, though her discussion of Isabella is titled "Isabella: Iron Lady," which is marginally more positive. Elizabeth Norton uses the same phrase for her She Wolves: The Notorious Queens of England, with the chapter on Isabella titled "The She-Wolf of France."

Isabella landing in England with her son, Edward,
in 1326
While her popular biography of the queen is not particularly condemnatory, Alison Weir's title capitalizes on Isabella's reputation as a monster: Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England. In his Treasury of Royal Scandals: The Shocking True Stories History's Wickedest, Weirdest, Most Wanton Kings, Queens, Tsars, Popes, and Emperors, Michael Farquhar writes about Isabella in a brief chapter called "A Royal Pain in the Ass." (At least Farquhar's monsters are gender-balanced.) 

My recommendation? There's also a fine chapter on Isabella of France in Lisa Hilton's Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens.

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