I am thrilled to host author Conor Byrne on the second stop of the blog tour for his just-out Queenship in England, which examines the challenges faced by the nine queens who were married to kings of England between 1308 and 1485. Conor investigates the relationship between gender and power at the English court, while exploring how queenship responded to, and was informed by, the tensions at the heart of governance. I found it a great way to understand the model of queenship under which Tudor queens operated – and which they inevitably modified.
Today’s post was written by Conor – it is a special post for me about the first woman in this line-up of queens: Isabella of France, who was Queen of England as the wife of Edward II, and Regent of England from 1326 until 1330).
As part of the tour, Conor’s publisher (MadeGlobal Publishing) is offering one lucky follower the chance to win a copy of Conor’s book (your choice between a paperback or the kindle version) – details at the bottom of the post.
Over to Conor…
For the first fifteen years of her tenure as queen consort of England, Isabella of France conformed to conventional expectations of queenship. In 1308, at the age of twelve, she married Edward II of England and went on to provide her husband with four children. Their eldest son, Edward, was born in 1312. Isabella was praised by her contemporaries for her successes as an intercessor, both at home and abroad. She was acknowledged as a moderating force in an unstable kingdom, in which the king’s relations with his nobility fluctuated and were often characterised by tension.
By the mid-1320s, however, everything had changed. In the realm of popular history, the relationship between Edward and Isabella has been cast in lurid terms, with allegations of sexual impropriety, betrayal, vengeance and hatred. In recent years, the queen has been depicted as a long-suffering victim of her cruel and sexually perverted husband, who lost the respect of his nobility and courtiers as a result of his sexual shenanigans with Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser the Younger. Edward has been accused of permitting Despenser to seduce, and perhaps rape, Isabella. According to this narrative, so fed up did Isabella become that, when she was sent on a diplomatic mission to France in 1325, she plotted to force her husband’s removal from the throne and set up her young son in his place. When Isabella returned to England, widely supported by her adoring subjects, her husband was imprisoned and either murdered or allowed to escape abroad and live out the remainder of his life on the continent. The increasing opposition to Isabella’s regime during her son’s minority was a result of the cruel actions of her lover, Roger Mortimer, who controlled and manipulated her. Eventually, after Mortimer’s execution, Isabella won back the respect and love of both her son and her subjects and lived out the rest of her life in quiet dignity.
This narrative makes for a gripping story, and it is perhaps unsurprising that so many lurid novels have been published about Edward, Isabella and Piers Gaveston, her husband’s favourite and, possibly, his lover. The problem with this narrative, however, is that much of it is speculative and is situated in modern attitudes to spousal relations and femininity. In some instances, the narrative of the long-suffering Isabella, controlled and abused by her merciless husband, is distinctly homo- or biphobic, and reveals more about modern attitudes to sexuality than those of the fourteenth-century. The surviving sources present a more nuanced picture of the relationship between Edward and his queen and the circumstances that led to their separation from one another and Edward’s eventual deposition.
Isabella of France is a controversial figure, but her queenship can be interpreted as a study in contrast. As noted earlier, her actions for most of Edward’s reign were conventional and conformed to contemporary attitudes of how the queen ought to behave, act and exercise authority. Above all, as a French tract of 1347, later translated as The III Consideracions Right Necesserye to the Good Governaunce of a Prince, noted, the queen should ‘have good and due regarde to suche thinge as toucheth the profyte and the honeure of hir lord and hir self.’ With the consent of her husband, the king, the queen should ‘take in hande… greet maters’, for her duty was to ‘bere reverence and oneure’ to her husband ‘at all tymes.’ It will be seen that Isabella’s actions were authorised by virtue of her close relationship with Edward and sought to redound to his ‘oneure’.
Isabella’s Household Book of 1311-12 survives, and documents the queen’s activities in her household management and intercession from early on in her tenure. Evidence indicates that the queen provided care for a Scottish orphan named ‘little Thomelinus’, to whom she granted alms by way of ‘sustenance and clothing’. In this respect, Isabella appears to have been cultivating a motherly role, which reflected contemporary depictions of the queen as the mother of the kingdom, and can be understood in the context of motherhood being idealised and emphasised as the primary duty of the queen. The calendar rolls, moreover, reveal that Isabella frequently sought pardons for malefactors. Thus Gilbert de Berewick, the ward of her lands, was pardoned at Isabella’s request for not appearing before justices appointed to investigate felonies, trespasses, and oppressions in Wiltshire. Isabella also responded to the contemporary expectation that the elites, including the consort, rewarded their servants for their loyalty and good service. William de Ros received pontage and pavage, perhaps as a reward for his good service. The queen also granted sums of money to her maidens when they were about to be married, including Margaret de Vilien shortly before her marriage to Odin Bronard. Isabella also drew on her good relationship with her husband to seek his assistance in matters concerning her household. Thus, in 1320, she sought Edward’s help in assisting her yeoman Godard Hauteyn. In actions such as this, Isabella was able to exercise authority by deferring to her husband, in ‘honouring’ him as her contemporaries expected the queen to do.
That Edward and Isabella enjoyed a stable, harmonious relationship for much of their marriage is further demonstrated by the king’s decision to enhance his wife’s authority within her household, therefore enabling her to exercise authority as a landowner. In 1313-4, perhaps in gratitude for the delivery of a son, Edward granted his wife lands, manors and castles in Kent, Oxfordshire, Derbyshire and Northamptonshire, thus extending her authority. Edward also appreciated Isabella’s effective actions as an intercessor between England and France, a duty that she took seriously given that her marriage had sought to maintain peace between the traditionally warring kingdoms. It was Isabella’s success in her foreign mediation that explains why she was selected to travel to France in 1325 to promote England’s interests with the French king.
She also interceded regularly on behalf of her husband’s subjects. In 1319, she wrote a letter on behalf of Philip Malton, requesting that the mayor and aldermen of London uphold the king’s appointment of Malton to the office of mace bearer and crier of Guildhall. Three years later, the queen was approached by Joan de Knovile, who sought her assistance for the release of her husband, who was then imprisoned in York Castle. Contrary to popular narrative, Isabella also maintained stable relations with her husband’s favourite, Piers Gaveston, and attempted to conciliate him by sheltering some of his supporters in her household.
It was in her motherhood, however, that Isabella most successfully conformed to contemporary expectations of queenship, and permitted her to maintain good relations with her husband. Contemporaries reported Edward’s ‘love’ for his wife in 1313, several months after she gave birth to their first child, Edward. The birth of the prince has been interpreted by Kathryn Warner as ‘an enormous public relations coup’ that demonstrated divine favour and confirmed Edward II’s right to rule at a time of political tension. Three more children followed, but Isabella’s motherhood was to prove a source of controversy, for it came into tension with her role as wife to the king. Contemporaries warned that the queen should not be ‘curious in nourisshynge of her children’ to the detriment of her husband. However, the rise of the Despensers and the escalating tensions during the mid-1320s meant that Isabella experienced a conflict of interests. The queen’s lands were seized and sequestrated, and members of her household dismissed, as a result of her displacement in the king’s counsels by the Despensers. This resulted in the deterioration of relations between Edward and Isabella, and explains why the queen resolved on her husband’s removal while seeking peace with France in 1325.
It is worth emphasising, once more, that until 1325 Isabella’s model of queenship had been entirely traditional, and in her activities as an intercessor, patron, lord and mother, she had conformed to conventional expectations and had exercised significant authority through informal means, as a result. However, the political context necessitated Isabella’s decision to ally with her husband’s enemies in a bid to secure the inheritance of her son, Prince Edward, for whom she may have been greatly concerned as a result of the aggressive posturing of the Despensers, who seemed to control her husband. Isabella’s actions astonished her husband, whose response was initially one of shock. Before long, however, the king had publicly branded his wife and eldest son traitors; others reported that he had ordered their exile from the kingdom. In response to this hostility, Isabella publicly represented herself as a much-wronged wife, who earnestly sought reconciliation with her husband. She explained, however, that she could not return to the realm, much as she would like to, until her enemies had been apprehended.
In representing herself as reacting to the corruption of her husband’s ‘evil counsellors’, and in presenting herself as an explicitly feminine victim, Isabella secured the support of her husband’s enemies. As Margaret of Anjou was later to do, Isabella presented herself as concerned for her son’s inheritance and exercised authority on his behalf. The success of her mission, which resulted in the deposition of Edward II and the executions of the Despensers, demonstrated the potential authority that could be exercised by a consort. However, Isabella failed to learn that the support she had attained from large parts of the kingdom was dependent on the succession of her son, to restore peace and harmony to a fractured realm. By effectively taking on the role of regent between 1327 and 1330, and in engaging in corrupt actions alongside her ally – and possibly lover – Roger Mortimer, Isabella began to be hated, where before she had been ‘so much loved’. Her contemporaries accused the queen and Mortimer of keeping the young king ‘in subjection to themselves.’ This unlawful exercise of authority effectively meant that Isabella’s actions were no longer legitimised. She was seen to be acting against her son, rather than for him.
The young king rebelled against his mother and Mortimer and commenced his ‘personal reign’ in 1330, which was accompanied by the execution of Mortimer, who was tactfully accorded full responsibility for the corrupt actions that had characterised the preceding years. Although she appears to have been initially reluctant to cede her queenship to her daughter-in-law, Philippa of Hainault, Isabella came to occupy a more conventional role during her period as dowager queen. After the turbulence of the 1320s, her subsequent role more closely resembled that of the early years of her marriage to Edward II.
As noted at the beginning of this article, Isabella of France’s queenship is a study in contrast. She admirably conformed to conventional expectations of queenship for most of her marriage to Edward II and was renowned for her piety and patronage during her tenure as dowager queen. Her son, Edward III, sought Isabella’s involvement in ceremonial and diplomatic occasions at court, which demonstrated that he continued to respect her influence. By contrast, her actions during the mid-1320s, which led to the deposition of her husband, were unconventional, but they were mainly supported because Isabella successfully represented herself as a victim of tyranny, concerned for the lawful inheritance of her son. To begin with, she enjoyed the support of the kingdom, but she was later criticised for the perceived corruption undermining the body politic.
Conor Byrne studied History at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Katherine Howard: A New History and Queenship in England, both published by MadeGlobal. Since 2012 he has run a historical blog and was formerly editor of Tudor Life Magazine. His research to date specialises in late medieval and early modern European history, with a focus on gender, sexuality and the monarchy.
So – ready to try to win a copy? Paperback or kindle version, your choice! Just leave a comment below this post with one trait of Isabella’s that you see in one of Henry’s wives (or daughters!) – and leave it by midnight on Sunday, February 19. Or just feel free to tell me you loved my Jane the Quene and that will be fine too! One lucky commenter will be picked at random and contacted for their details.