Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Queen Isabella

It has been some years since Queen Isabella by Alison Weir was published; I am only now getting around to reading and reviewing it. I enjoy Weir's popular histories in that she usually sifts through the household accounts to find out how many bolts of cloth were ordered, and other such details, which can tell us a lot about a person. As for Isabella of France, Queen of England, the bolts of cloth were many, since Isabella always placed a high priority on clothes, as well as on jewelry and books. Like other medieval queens, a generous part of her income was spent on charities and endowments to churches and religious houses. To be able to maintain so many varied grants and charities, which also enhanced her level of influence, the Queen needed income. In the middle ages, the main source of income was land. Therefore when her husband Edward II, to whom she had borne an heir to the throne and other children, took away her lands and gave them to his friend Hugh le Despenser, it was a blow to her prestige as Queen Consort. It left her unable to fulfill her duties and relegated her to a humiliating status.

Isabella was the only daughter of Philip IV of France, a King known for his ruthlessness as well as his physical beauty, which is why he was called le Bel or "the Fair." Isabella inherited his good looks as well as his political shrewdness. At the age of 12 she was married to the 19 year old King of England, Edward II. As Isabella matured they must have made a striking couple, for Edward, like most of the Plantagenets, was tall and well-built with red-gold hair.  Unfortunately, Edward had a tendency to develop inordinate attachments to male favorites, upon whom he showered gifts, lands and titles. When Isabella first came to England, Edward gave some of her jewels to his favorite Piers Gaveston. His attentions to Gaveston disturbed many other nobles and Gaveston was murdered. Edward was heartbroken but focused on his duties. He and Isabella had four children and he showered upon her many gifts and estates. They shared a devotion to St. Thomas Becket, and the mendicant orders, although Isabella favored the Franciscans while Edward loved the Dominicans.

After a few years, however, Edward latched onto a new favorite, Hugh le Despenser the Younger, whose family and fortunes he raised high. Isabella, her lands taken away, felt that the Despensers had gained control of both the kingdom and her husband. When Edward and Hugh le Despenser sent her to France to see her brother the King on a diplomatic mission, she asked if their eldest son the Prince of Wales could accompany her. Edward, not suspecting a thing, allowed the Prince to go with the Queen. While in France, Isabella met an exiled English lord and enemy of the Despenser clan, Roger Mortimer. Together they plotted to overthrow Edward II and place young Edward on the throne.

With the help of the lords of Hainault, Isabella and Mortimer successfully invaded England and dethroned Edward. The English people, tired of the tyrannical rule of the Despensers, welcomed Isabella and her son with joy. Hugh le Despenser and his father were horribly executed. Prince Edward, who was torn between his parents, would not consent to taking his father's crown unless Edward II permitted it. Edward II abdicated in a sorrowful ceremony and later he disappeared. Some historians think he was murdered; Weir proffers a theory that has him escaping to Italy and living a life of holy penance as a hermit. No one knows for certain and it seems the question haunted many people, including his wife and son.

In the meantime, Edward III married Philippa of Hainault but Isabella would not let the young queen have any dower lands; Isabella would not surrender an acre. Her lover Roger Mortimer had become as dreadful a tyrant as the Despensers. Edward III at age 17 had to gather together a group of friends and personally overthrow Isabella and Mortimer by force of arms. Mortimer was executed and Isabella sent to live in dignified retirement in one of her many castles. She lived to see Edward and his Queen become successful rulers as they built a large family, fought with France and won, made the kingdom thrive and became, in the minds of many, the ideal king and queen. Isabella died on the octave day of the Assumption, August 22, 1358, and was buried in her wedding dress, with her husband's heart in a casket, according to her own wishes. I enjoyed Weir's book and it has me wanting to learn more about a human tragedy that played itself out on an international stage.


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