Queen Isabella, the ‘she-wolf of France’

  • Themes: History

Queen Isabella, daughter of the king of France and wife and mother to kings of England, was an intelligent and shrewd political operator in an era of conquest and civil war.

Charles IV of France, meeting his sister Isabella of France at the gates of Paris in 1325.
Charles IV of France meeting his sister Queen Isabella at the gates of Paris in 1325. Credit: incamerastock / Alamy Stock Photo

On 22 September 1326, Queen Isabella, together with her lover, the exiled nobleman Roger Mortimer, and her son Prince Edward, heir to the English throne, set sail from the Low Countries to invade England, landing two days later. With her was a small force which, led by Mortimer, strode through Ipswich and then Bury St Edmunds finding the roads clear and town gates open, while the king, Edward II, fled towards South Wales, desperately attempting to rally his subjects in his defence as he went. Support for the monarch, if there was any to begin with, quickly melted away, his tyranny having alienated not only his wife, but his subjects across the realm. After a failed attempt to flee to Ireland (medieval seafarers were entirely dependent on favourable winds), Edward was captured on 16 November in South Wales and imprisoned at Monmouth. In January 1327 he was removed from the throne. So occurred the first deposition in post-Norman conquest English history, effected by the king’s own wife, Isabella, the queen of England and ‘she-wolf of France’.

Isabella was born in 1295, the eldest child of Philip IV of France and his wife Joan of Navarre, and spent her formative years in Paris. As a princess, she was educated and taught to read, but from the outset she was expected to be an asset to her father and the French crown in marital terms. As a key part of the settlement with the English in 1299 that saw Edward I marry Philip’s sister Margaret, Isabella was betrothed to Edward I’s eldest son, Prince Edward, a pawn in the arena of international politics. It is not clear that Edward I was committed to honouring the promise, but in January 1308, after his death, the wedding took place. Having travelled to France to collect his princess, Edward II and Isabella were married in Boulogne where the opulent ceremony took place in the cathedral. A month later, the handsome king and his apparently very beautiful new wife were crowned jointly in Westminster Abbey.

The marriage did not begin well. Edward had already allegedly fathered a child before Isabella arrived, but such things were not entirely unusual and, therefore, not unexpected. What neither Isabella nor her relatives had counted on, however, was that she would have to compete for the king’s time and affection with his close friend Piers Gaveston, a problematic character of whom most of the nobility disapproved. Even during the coronation at Westminster Abbey, the French courtiers who had come to England with Isabella were shocked and appalled at Gaveston’s behaviour, and at the king’s attitude towards him and his neglect of Isabella. Gaveston had even received all the gifts given to Edward by the French king to recognise the marriage to Isabella. Word went back to France of the goings on at the English court, leaving Philip IV incensed. He condemned Gaveston and offered money to those English nobles who were already Gaveston’s opponents at court, prompting the frightened Edward to engage in an immediate display of devotion and favour towards his young wife, granting her his lands of Ponthieu and Montreuil in France.

From then on, the king was careful to attend to his queen, but it was not just for outward appearances. It seems that despite the unfortunate start, the two soon developed a strong bond. In the years that followed, Isabella travelled together with Edward and Gaveston, and she became a key member of Edward’s inner circle. This mattered not only because the king and queen were united, but because the inner circle comprised a group of people who were widely felt to be a bad influence on the king and who benefitted from extraordinary levels of royal patronage.

Edward’s failings were not limited to the company he chose, and the leading nobles soon had cause not only to criticise the amount of money and lands his friends were receiving, some of which came from taxation that was supposed to fund war with the Scots, but also his military failures and his failure to attend to matters of government: the king was known for staying in bed late. In 1311, the situation was so bad that the nobles produced a document known as the Ordinances, through which they sought to force Edward to attend to his failings. With characteristic petulance, Edward rejected the Ordinances, and the concerned lords decided to act. This saw Edward and the now heavily-pregnant Isabella travel to York to confront the earls. Gaveston himself was captured and summarily executed by the Earl of Lancaster, prompting the rest of the earls to return swiftly to the king’s side in disapproval at the noble’s behaviour and fear for their own futures.

In the years and through the political fall-out that followed, Isabella stayed firmly at Edward’s side. Their first child, a son, and another Edward, was born in November 1312 and despite the political situation, the king and queen seemed genuinely devoted to each other. When they visited France through May to July 1313 at Philip IV’s invitation, the French chroniclers commented with satisfaction on how happy the couple seemed. Tensions over Gascony with the French king himself were notably diffused by the visit and by the evidence of the strong relationship between his daughter and her English king.

In spring 1314, Isabella had even been dispatched back to France to continue negotiations with her father over Gascony. Furthermore, it was Isabella to whom foreign visitors to England appealed when they wanted assistance. Her political shrewdness told in her ability to secure what she wanted, as is demonstrated by the appointment of her friend Louis Beaumont to the see of Durham in 1316-17 with her husband’s blessing, even though Edward had his own candidate for the position. His wife’s obvious ability did not seem to irk the king: the couple remained close and produced three further children together in 1316, 1318 and 1321. From the neglected young bride of 1308, Isabella had transformed herself into Edward’s indispensable ally and political advisor.

It was not to last. Edward was always vulnerable to the flattery of unsuitable favourites, and in 1320, two new friends came to dominate the court, who were to poison the king’s relationship with Isabella, and, in turn, change the course of English history. Edward’s new favourites were a father and son pairing: Hugh Despenser the elder and Hugh the younger.

Much more grasping and dangerous than Gaveston, they and a small clique around them quickly alienated even the most committed loyalists with the king’s blessing. In late 1320, opposition to the new favourites began to emerge, and in 1321 several earls appeared in arms at Parliament forcing Edward to banish the Despensers. Edward quickly embarked on his revenge, using Isabella as a willing foil for his actions against one of his opponents. Pretending that she was going on pilgrimage to Canterbury, he sent her to Bartholomew Badlesmere’s castle ,of Leeds in Kent, to ask for admittance and shelter for her retinue. When Badlesmere’s wife refused, fearing an attack, the queen ordered her retainers to break down the gates. A battle ensued in which several of Isabella’s forces were killed, enabling the king to launch an attack under the banner of defending his wife. He besieged the castle, and when the garrison finally surrendered he had them hanged. Later that year, Edward recalled the Despensers to England and celebrated his victory.

As the Despensers’ power increased and the political situation went from bad to worse, the queen’s alienation became inevitable. In summer 1322 her husband’s military incompetence in Scotland nearly cost Isabella her life. Having defeated the English forces at Byland, the Scots advanced into Yorkshire, where Isabella was staying at Tynemouth Priory for her safety, forcing the queen to flee by sea, nearly drowning in the process. Tellingly, she refused the assistance of Hugh Despenser the younger during the Tynemouth Priory escape. In September 1324, Despenser moved on her lands, sequestering her estates without compensation, citing spuriously the risk of a French invasion. He went on to arrest the French members of her household and took her three younger children, John, Eleanor and Joan, who were placed in the custody of Elizabeth Clare.

It can only be assumed that Isabella would have been furious at this outright attack on her power, but, in a testament to her political intelligence, she managed to keep up an outward appearance of loyalty. It must have been extremely convincing; so unconcerned was Edward about his wife’s position that he agreed to the pope’s suggestion that he should send her to France in 1325 to negotiate with the French king, now her brother Charles IV, over serious tensions in Gascony. When Charles indicated that he would be receptive to such a visit, Edward not only permitted Isabella to travel to France, but to take with her his eldest son Prince Edward, in March. The queen again showed her intelligence and worth during discussions with Charles, who, despite negotiating hard himself, was persuaded to reach a settlement. The agreement was far from good from an English perspective, but it might have been much worse, and certainly even with her relationship to the French king, Isabella could not have hoped to do better.

Having finalised negotiations, she now showed her hand. Instead of returning to England, Isabella remained in France, sending a blistering letter to her husband stating that she both could not and would not return to England while the younger Hugh Despenser, who had come between husband and wife, was there. In Parliament the king desperately tried to find people to assist him in persuading her to come back, blaming a mysterious ‘someone’ (he probably had Roger Mortimer, who had been banished and was known to be with her in France, in mind) for influencing her. It was to no avail.

Isabella not only remained in France, but began to plan an invasion. She had help both from her brother the French king, who underwrote her financial commitments, and from the count of Hainault (whose wife Joan was Isabella’s cousin), with whom Isabella agreed a marriage between his daughter Philippa and the future King Edward. The count supplied 140 ships and 700 mercenaries for the invasion, a move undetected by Edward II and his spies, who thought until the last moment that the real threat came from France. It was thus from Dordrecht that Isabella, her son and her now lover, Roger Mortimer, sailed in 1326. But this was not simply an invasion: the party also had the support of several English lords who had been secretly provided with information about Isabella’s plans. ]

On 24 September 1326, the queen and her forces landed at Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex. Isabella claimed immediately that the invasion was anti-Despenser, not anti-Edward, but support for the invading army left Edward II, who was unwilling to relinquish Despenser, isolated and desperate. Edward’s early decision to flee to Wales and attempt to escape to Ireland made it easy for Isabella to say that he had abandoned the realm, and to appoint Prince Edward as Keeper of the Realm in October. This was then used as a justification to call Parliament under the prince’s privy seal. In January 1327, when Parliament convened, the king refused to appear, and the meeting broke up to allow further discussions. Events, however, moved much more quickly, and the following morning Articles of Accusation were produced that saw Edward II condemned and deposed. The new regime had taken control.

While it was clear that Mortimer now intended to rule through the young prince, it was equally clear that Isabella had no intention of simply being a pawn in his hands. Instead, she became a central figure in the regime that governed in the prince’s name for the next three years. The pair were calculating and determined: to ensure that they retained power they kept Edward’s court away from Westminster and in areas where Mortimer held lands, isolating the prince from the wider political community – Edward III would later say that he had been their captive.

Once in control, Isabella quickly enriched herself by securing grants of vast lands, increasing her annual income to 20,000 marks, an enormous sum by contemporary standards. Indeed, the government over which she and Mortimer presided was itself both brutal and vested in their self-interest, even to the extent of abandoning English crown rights in Scotland in order to achieve a peace settlement with Robert Bruce, rather than fighting for her son’s rights. This so-called ‘shameful peace’ with Scotland brought some members of the nobility into open opposition, and, as Prince Edward sought more independence, it was inevitable that he would ally with at least some of the dissatisfied nobles. He finally took control in a coup in 1330 when he was 17 years old.

In the end, Isabella’s regime had been no better than that of her husband, with greed, corruption and rapaciousness at its heart. Following the coup, the new king inherited empty coffers, widespread disorder and threats of invasion, but, while Mortimer met his death by execution, the theme of the final chapter of Isabella’s life was rehabilitation. Deprived of most of her lands, she was initially placed under house arrest at Berkhamsted, but by 1332 she had returned to the court, and went on to live as a dowager queen moving between Norfolk and London, where Edward, himself the shrewdest of judges, continued to consult her for advice. She died peacefully in 1358.

Intelligent, shrewd and with huge talent, Isabella was nonetheless a complex character. Her self-interest and political acumen was apparent from a young age: after becoming Edward II’s wife she made his faults and failings work for her, and he relied on her wise judgement. She showed a keen appetite for survival throughout, but never so clearly as in the 1320s. Yet Isabella was also rapacious and lacking in principles, perhaps even amoral. If women lacked formal power in the Middle Ages, Isabella shows us how some could make the system work for them nonetheless; in outwitting her husband in 1325, it was Isabella who brought about his downfall.


Caroline Burt