In Which I Ponder the Subject of Queen Isabella

I do my best pondering in the shower, and today in the shower I was pondering two things: what I should blog about next, and why historians and novelists—particularly female ones—have taken such a rosy view of Edward II’s queen, Isabella, lately. Thus a blog post was born and my hair made squeaky clean, all in the course of a few minutes. You just can’t beat the shower, can you?

So why has Isabella become a feminist heroine of sorts? It’s true that she did put up with a lot during Edward II’s reign, and it’s true that she acted with courage in amassing troops and sailing to England to overthrow her husband’s despised favorites, the Despensers, without knowing how successful her enterprise would be. It’s also true that there was moral justification for her actions, given the threat the Despensers, especially Hugh the younger, posed to anyone who possessed property they coveted. So far, so good.

Once Isabella achieved her objective of overthrowing the Despensers, though, and put her son Edward III on the throne in place of his father, she is notable mainly for the greed, short-sightedness, maliciousness, and sheer stupidity she displayed. She granted herself an enormous dower and went through the considerable amount Edward II had left in his treasury with remarkable speed. She and her lover, Roger Mortimer, quickly alienated their allies, especially Henry of Lancaster, by excluding them from decision-making despite their status as members of the young king’s regency council. She entered into a hugely unpopular treaty with Scotland and wrecked any chances she might have had of reconciling the northern landholders to it by appropriating most of the reparation money from the Scots for herself. She tolerated the increasing disrespect with which Roger Mortimer treated the maturing king and seems to have done nothing to protect her own son’s interests against those of her lover. She and Mortimer duped her own brother-in-law, the Earl of Kent, into believing that Edward II was still alive, then had him executed for attempting to rescue his brother from prison. This act of tyranny was probably the last straw for Edward III and his friends, who brought Mortimer and Isabella down only months thereafter.

I’ve left out the most damning of Isabella’s actions, the murder of her husband. Even if it was directed by Mortimer without Isabella’s involvement, she nonetheless continued her relationship with him, suggesting that she felt little if any revulsion at his deed. She might have felt guilt at the end of her life, when she elected to be buried in her wedding cloak and with Edward II’s heart in her tomb. (This, of course, does not take into account the theory that Edward II was not murdered at Berkeley Castle. That’s another blog post, another day.)

Isabella also comes out rather poorly when one looks at her dealings with other females. I’ve already blogged about her forced veiling of the Despenser girls, children who had done her no harm and posed no threat to her or to the crown. Other women and girls were treated shabbily as well. About the same time the Earl of Kent was executed, Isabella and Mortimer ordered that his widow—who was nine months pregnant—be arrested, along with the couple’s children, all of whom were very young. (Among them was the two-year-old Joan of Kent, later mother to Richard II.) The order for the arrest of the Countess of Kent shows great concern for the countess’s jewels, which were to be tracked down and delivered to royal officials, and very little for the countess herself, who was to be accompanied to her new quarters only by her children and two damsels.

Alice de Lacy, the widow of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, had been treated badly by the Despensers; thus, one would expect the victorious Isabella, who had publicly decried the Despensers’ treatment of orphans and widows, to restore her to the lands out of which she had been bullied. Instead, Roger Mortimer, undoubtedly with Isabella’s acquiescence, took over the more valuable of Alice’s Welsh estates, notably Denbigh.

Isabella’s adultery with Roger Mortimer has often been treated as a justified response to the presumed unfaithfulness of her husband the king. Even if one accepts this dubious morality—which was quite dubious in medieval England, where women were expected to be faithful wives even if their husbands strayed—Isabella’s apologists have seldom addressed the fact that Mortimer himself was married, to a woman against whom Isabella had no cause to bear a grudge. Joan de Geneville had borne Mortimer a dozen children and had suffered imprisonment for his sake by Edward II. Her reward was the destruction of her marriage at the hands of Isabella and her husband, though it could be argued that the estrangement of the Mortimers at least gave Joan a break from child-bearing, if age hadn’t done that already.

Finally, Isabella had obtained money and ships for her invasion of England by agreeing to marry the future Edward III to Philippa of Hainault. Isabella thus owed a considerable debt of gratitude toward her new daughter-in-law when she and Edward III married in 1328. Instead, Isabella delayed Philippa’s coronation until 1330, when Philippa was visibly pregnant with her first child and the matter could not be decently postponed for much longer. Philippa was also deprived of dower lands and prevented from having her own household until that time, and does not seem to have gotten her full dower until 1331, after the fall of Isabella and Mortimer.

Isabella’s defenders have largely blamed Roger Mortimer for the shortcomings of Isabella’s rule. They fail to recognize that one can’t have it both ways. If Isabella was truly dominated by Mortimer and subject to his will, her subservient role as Mortimer’s tool is hardly the stuff of which feminist icons are made. If she was his equal or his superior in power, she has to assume her share of blame for the couple’s actions.

I don’t mean by this to suggest that Isabella was devoid of all redeeming characteristics or that it’s unreasonable for a biographer or a historical novelist to take a sympathetic stance toward her. To the contrary, I think that like most people, she was a mixed bag of qualities and that circumstances worked to put her in a situation where her worst ones came to the forefront. After all, before and after the events of 1325 to 1330, she mostly conducted herself in a manner that was free from reproach. She was certainly kind to some people, like the Scottish orphan boy she provided for early in her reign; she retained some loyal friends, like Joan of Bar, to the end of her days; and she seems to have had an affectionate relationship with her younger daughter in her old age (Isabella’s old age, that is). Perhaps like so many who have found themselves suddenly in a position of power, she found it too heady a brew. And one can’t tell from the records whether she struggled with guilt and remorse, during or after the events in question.

So that brings me back to my original question: why such a blinkered view of Isabella? I don’t really have an answer (gee, thanks!), except that I think that some writers are so taken by the idea of Isabella as a strong woman avenging the wrongs done to her that they blind themselves to the more unpleasant aspects of her character.

It’s quite possible, I might add, for a novelist to make Isabella a sympathetic character without sanitizing her. Brenda Honeyman did it brilliantly in The King’s Minions and The Queen and Mortimer, and Margaret Campbell Barnes in Isabel the Fair and Hilda Lewis in Harlot Queen managed it well also. (Harlot Queen, by the way, has been reissued by Tempus Publishing, evidently through the influence of biographer/novelist Alison Weir, an admirer of Lewis’s novels.) Show us the strong, sensitive Isabella by all means—but not at the cost of pretending that the she-wolf didn’t exist.

17 thoughts on “In Which I Ponder the Subject of Queen Isabella”

  1. Great post, Susan. Just recently I’ve also been pondering, and making notes on, historians’ treatment of Isabella, with a view to a future blog post – it’s like you read my mind! 🙂

    What strikes me most is how modern their depiction of her is – as a victim who found the strength to get out of a bad marriage and take control of her own destiny, who was courageous enough to leave her husband and find sexual fulfilment elsewhere. This is a late 20th century/early 21st century narrative, not a medieval one, surely?

    I think it’s great to remember that history is not only about (white, heterosexual) men, and I’m all for recognising women’s contribution, but too often I feel that Isabella’s role in events is greatly exaggerated – as one example of many, Doherty’s comment that Isabella ‘set up an alternative government’ in Paris in 1325, when of she did no such thing. But of course it sounds a lot better than the reality: ‘Hung around with a group of English exiles at the French court’. 🙂

    I’ve often commented on my blog how irritated I am at some historians’ insistence that Isabella was solely responsible for all the ‘good’ or ‘admirable’ things that happened 1326-30, but then using Mortimer as a convenient scapegoat for all the mistakes and ‘nasty’ things. So I won’t write any more about that now. 😉

    I’m very sympathetic to Isabella in many ways, and I do think it’s possible to write a biography or novel with a balanced view of her and Edward – both of them flawed people who made lots of mistakes, but who had many admirable qualities too. The overly sanitised version of Isabella seen so often these days does her no favours.

    I could write loads more, but I’ll save some things for another blog post. 🙂

  2. I think Alianore has hit it with her comment that it’s a modern narrative. You could imagine Isabella being interviewed on a TV chat show or telling My Story to a tabloid newspaper or celebrity gossip magazine, couldn’t you? So it’s perhaps seen as easy to ‘relate’ to and therefore easy to sell, whereas a more balanced portrayal is messy and complicated and requires some effort.

    It may also reflect the same process that’s turned Richard III into a cross between Sir Lancelot and Sir Galahad – a reaction against a (perceived) unfair portrayal that goes to the opposite extreme.

  3. elena maria vidal

    I never cared much for Isabella, even before I knew so many details. I was always surprised that Edward III turned out as well as he did – someone else must have raised him.

    Oh,no, Carla! Don’t destroy my illusions!! I thought Richard III was a cross between King Arthur and Sir Galahad! Oh, what a way to start the day….

  4. Since reading Carla’s comment, I can’t get the image of Isabella being interviewed on TV out of my head. That famous interview Diana did, a few years ago – with all the eyeliner – now I’m picturing Isabella in her seat. “For so many years, my husband neglected me for his male lovers” *Sighs, bats her eyelashes* “but somehow I found the courage to leave him, and now I’ve discovered true happiness and fulfilment with Roger Mortimer.”

    Or, Isabella on Jerry Springer or similar, with the audience hollering “You go, girl!”

    Funny how so many portrayals of people are either extremely positive or extremely negative – Carla’s example of Richard III is a good one. For centuries Isabella was the ‘She-Wolf’, now she’s practically a saint, it seems. It’s all so black and white.

  5. Susan Higginbotham

    Great comments, all! You are so right–I can see Isabella on the talk show circuit now. And the Richard III comparison is quite apt too. I think that many people just can’t deal with shades of gray.

  6. Having just finished reading the two Plaidy books covering Isabella’s life, I think you make some great points. For most of the first book, I totally felt sorry for her, but after her husband was deposed, it seemed like she took on a totally different personality that was not very likeable or sympathetic.

    I’m not sure that she can’t somewhat have it both ways in being a strong woman when it came to dealing with her situation with Edward, but being a weaker, more dependent one with Mortimer. Perhaps she was so starved for love that she was willing to “sacrifice” that part of herself in return for what she perceived as Mortimer’s love for her. Had she continued being the person she had been, would he have stayed with her? Of couse he would have since what he wanted was power, but to her, maybe she was afraid of losing him. It is not uncommon for women to play this game (and for many it is totally unconscious) in order to keep a man and not be alone.

  7. Susan Higginbotham

    True, Daphne! I remember being astonished when I was in family law to see how many women, given the choice between staying with their abusive, druggie boyfriend and keeping their children, would choose the boyfriend every time. My clients were at the lower end of the social scale, but I suspect the same holds true for many woman at the upper end too.

  8. I totally agree with what Daphne says about Isabella managing to be both strong, and dependent on Mortimer, at the same time. However, I just think it’s a wee bit convenient how her modern biographers try to insist that she, not Mortimer, was totally in control when doing something they approve of – like invading England, or negotiating the peace treaty with Scotland – but totally under Mortimer’s thumb when doing something they don’t like, such as murdering Edward II or judicially murdering the earl of Kent. Psychologically, I find Isabella’s relationship with Mortimer fascinating and complex – I just don’t think you can pick and choose when you want Isabella to be subservient the way her defenders tend to do, and insist on her enormous mental strength at other times.

  9. Lol, I never liked Isabella since I read Les Rois Maudits – albeit I think Druon tried to make her sympathetic; only he failed with me. I think she was woman with double moral standards, and that’s the ones I hate most.

    Never liked Lady Diana, either, btw. 🙂

  10. Elena – Sorry!

    Alianore – I had a not dissimilar mental image 🙂 Perhaps because Isabella’s story as recently told fits that pattern rather well. Whether Isabella herself would have recognised it is a moot point, though!

    It’s odd how black and white seems to be more appealing than shades of grey, isn’t it? I find the grey more interesting, myself. Not least because the grey can accommodate the contradictions in someone’s character, like Isabella being subservient some of the time and independent at others, kind at some times and a complete bitch at others. I never have understood why there’s a need to ‘resolve’ such contradictions; most people aren’t consistent, so why on earth should historical figures be any different?

  11. Gabriele – I once had a row with a complete stranger over the breakfast table at a conference when the guy said he couldn’t understand why on earth anyone would fancy ‘horse-faced’ Camilla when they had the beautiful Diana. I told him that was a facile comment, and there was more to a marriage than looks, and that I wasn’t impressed with manipulative interviews, and so on. I don’t suppose he was expecting that at 6.30 in the morning 🙂 Neither was I, to be honest, but for some reason his flip comment pressed one of my buttons.

  12. Carla, I always thought Camilla suited Charles better; she shares his interests and cares about him, while Diana only cared about herself (well, about the kids, too) and did not share any of Charles’ hobbies. Add to that Di’s disposition for theatralics – someone who knows her told me a story there 😉 – and it’s no wonder the marriage didn’t work out.

  13. Susan Higginbotham

    Gabriele, now you’ve got us curious! I always liked Lady Di myself, but then here in the US we probably heard more about her charitable doings and so forth than about her theatrics. I do think Camilla was a better match for Charles, though.

  14. One of your best, Susan!

    To get back to the definition of feminism, which in spite of its root refers to any person as a whole person, not just women, to admire any woman becuase she is strong makes no more sense than doing the same with a man. That is to say, admire strength if you will, but leave gender out of it.

    Otherwise you are in fact expressing “womanism”, which, in my humble opinion, is what feminism has devolved into. We have gone from believing in equal opportunity where rights and responsibilities are apporttioned regardless of gender back into seeking special protected status for women. We call it something else, but it is still characterizing half the planet as needing special care. I for one find that insulting.

    If women are turning to Isabella as a heroine becuase she was equally brutal as men like Mortimer, then I can’t see how this can be heroic for her and villainous for him.

    I would pose that admiration for Isabella has nothing to do with feminist values.

    I wrote so much better a response yesterday but for some reason it did not post! Let’s try again…

  15. I wanted to second Gabriele’s comments on Princess Diana with one exception. Yes, she was not an especially admirable person. She was nothing more than a socialite. She was shallow, vain, and selfish, and had terrible judgment. People only liked her better than Charles’ current wife becuase she was young and sort of pretty.

    Where I differ is in Gabriele’s concession that Diana loved her children. I remember hearing a story about how little William slipped a note under the bathroom door where Diana had locked herself to scream and cry. The note said something like “Don’t be sad, Mummy.” How loving is it to subject your children to something like that? Even if I was not inclined to believe Diana was throwing a tantrum, if she really was in pain then she should have gotten help and done all she could not to terrify her little boys.

    We are into stars these days and imagine if someone is a celebrity they are somehow superior human beings. It is symptomatic of what I said above about feminism that someone as vapid as Princess Diana can be so canonized.

  16. Margaret Evans Porter

    Susan, your comments about Isabella are quite good and most interesting. I am a proponent of presenting a historical character as a mixture of flaws and virtues. Admittedly it’s a sliding scale! How tempting for the modern author/historian to look back through time and assess a situation or motivation through the lens of our own learning and deductions and culture. We have the advantage of knowing how things turned out, and the consequences of the person’s actions, short-term and long-term.

    I would love to see Isabella on the Jerry Springer show, especially if confronted by the furious remnants of the Despenser family. Not to mention Edward III. Imagine the ratings!

  17. Susan Higginbotham

    Nan, great points!

    Margaret, now I can’t get the picture of everyone on the Jerry Springer show off my mind! Worse, I also have a picture of everyone on Oprah, and them being directed at the end to give each other a big hug and go home.

    Daytime TV could have worked out so many things in centuries past . . .

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