Isabella of France And Edward II: Reality Is Far More Interesting Than Myth

Today is Epiphany, AKA Three King’s Day, AKA Twelfth Night. In the Tudor era this was an important night of feasting, merry-making, and often gift giving. My gift for you all is the gift of accurate historical knowledge, per your request. Smile Thus, here is a truth-telling guest post by Kathryn Warner, author of Edward II: The Unconventional King.

Edward II, aged twenty-three, succeeded his father Edward I as king of England on 7 July 1307.  On 25 January 1308, he married Philip IV of France’s only daughter Isabella in a glittering ceremony in Boulogne, northern France, which was attended by much European royalty and nobility; the couple had been officially betrothed since 1303 and the marriage had first been arranged back in 1299.  As is widely known, Queen Isabella was instrumental in her husband’s downfall and forced abdication in favour of their son Edward III in January 1327, nineteen years after their wedding.  Given this, and given that Edward was in love with a series of male ‘favourites’ throughout most of his adult life, it is often assumed that Edward and Isabella’s marriage was nothing but an unhappy disaster from start to finish.  Their relationship is usually depicted one-dimensionally: Edward neglects and callously abandons his tragic queen, who loathes him and finally falls in love with someone else and plots his downfall.  Perhaps the most famous – and wildly inaccurate – depiction of their relationship can be seen in the 1995 Hollywood film Braveheart, where Isabella enjoys a passionate affair with Sir William Wallace and becomes pregnant by him.  Edward II in this film is a feeble court fop, a horrible caricature of a gay man cuckolded by the much more stereotypically masculine Wallace.  The whole thing is a farrago of nonsense: Isabella was born in 1295 and was only nine or ten years old when Wallace was executed on 23 August 1305; she didn’t arrive in England until 7 February 1308 and never met her father-in-law Edward I (‘Longshanks’), who had died seven months previously, let alone Wallace; her first child Edward III was born on 13 November 1312.  And there is no doubt whatsoever that Edward II was the father.

Some modern fiction and even non-fiction writers seem to find it inexplicable that Edward II did not fall madly and instantly in love with the beautiful Isabella as soon as he laid eyes on her.  We must remember, however, that Isabella was only twelve at the time of her marriage, Edward twenty-three.  It seems hard to blame him for not being particularly interested in a pre-pubescent girl.  Beginning in about 1300 and until his murder in June 1312, Edward II was infatuated with a Gascon knight called Piers Gaveston, whom he made earl of Cornwall and brought into the royal family with marriage to his niece.  Although it is possible that Isabella hated and resented Gaveston and his presence in their lives, this is far from certain.  It is often stated as fact that Edward gave her jewels or wedding gifts to Gaveston, but this is a myth: the chronicle which tells the story says only that Edward sent his wedding gifts from his father-in-law Philip IV – his own gifts, given to him alone, not to him and Isabella –  to Gaveston, his regent in England, most probably only to store safely for him.  It is also a myth, though sadly also often repeated as fact, that Edward abandoned Isabella at Tynemouth in the north-east of England in May 1312, when she was pregnant with their first child, in order to save Gaveston from his baronial enemies.  Isabella’s own household accounts disprove this story, and the chronicler who tells it confused the king and queen being at Tynemouth in 1312 when another occasion when Isabella was there in 1322, and this time truly in danger.

Much of what we think we ‘know’ about Edward II and Isabella simply melts away when we look at the primary source evidence.  They had four children together, Edward III (b. 1312), John (b. 1316), Eleanor (b. 1318) and Joan (b. 1321); another popular modern myth, invented in the late 1970s and for which there is not a shred of real evidence, is that Edward II cruelly and punitively snatched Isabella’s three younger children away from her in 1324.  Until 1322 at the earliest, despite Edward’s infatuation with various male ‘favourites’, there are signs that their marriage was a successful, affectionate and even reasonably happy one.  They spent most of their time together, and when apart addressed each other in letters as ‘dear heart’ (Edward to Isabella) and ‘our very sweet heart’ (Isabella to Edward).  Even in 1326 after she had refused to return to Edward until he agreed to remove his last ‘favourite’ Hugh Despenser – whom Isabella loathed because she felt he had destroyed her marriage – from his side, Isabella continued to refer to her husband as ‘our very dear and very sweet lord and friend’.  This highly unconventional formulation speaks to her strong feelings for him, and it is a ridiculous notion plucked out of thin air to state, as one modern writer has, that Isabella felt ‘profound revulsion’ for Edward, in 1326 or at any other time.  Isabella herself stated in late 1325 that Hugh Despenser’s intrusion into her marriage made her feel like a widow, which implies that before his rise in her husband’s affections, she felt her marriage had been a successful one.  Edward’s utter refusal to remove Despenser from court so that Isabella could return to her husband in safety, left the queen with no choice but to remain in France and side with Edward and Despenser’s enemies against Despenser, and ultimately against Edward himself.

English chroniclers did not record the nature of Edward and Isabella’s personal relationship, but we have some useful evidence from 1313 when the couple made a long visit to the queen’s homeland of France, where they were observed by one Geoffrey of Paris.  In his rhyming chronicle, Geoffrey tells us outright that Edward loved Isabella, that one morning he missed a meeting with her father Philip IV as the loving couple had overslept, and that Edward saved Isabella’s life from a fire one night.  A poem written by one of Edward’s supporters shortly after his downfall in 1327 has him exclaiming ‘God, how I loved the fair one’, meaning Isabella.  These are not Edward’s own words and may not of course represent his true feelings, but the poem demonstrates that an author closely associated with the former king found nothing strange in writing that Edward loved Isabella, even after she had been active in his forced abdication.

From what we can discern from extant records, the king and queen gave each other splendid gifts every New Year, and Isabella probably received a magnificent wedding present from Edward in early 1308: an illuminated manuscript now known as the Isabella Psalter and held in a library in Munich.  When Isabella was pregnant with their second child in 1316, Edward’s surviving household accounts show that he bought cushions for her carriage so that she could travel in greater comfort, and had responded to news of her first pregnancy in 1312 by spending forty pounds on jewels for her.  At New Year 1312, Isabella sent her husband unspecified “certain precious objects,” and at New Year 1318, Edward gave her an enamelled silver-gilt bowl, with foot and cover, worth seventeen pounds.  Remarkably, Isabella continued to send Edward gifts and letters (which sadly do not survive) even after his deposition in 1327, when he was in captivity at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire.  As she had absolutely no need then to try to deceive him, she can only have sent him the letters and presents because she genuinely wanted to.

When Isabella died in August 1358, in her early sixties, she was buried in the Greyfriars church in London with the clothes she had worn to her wedding to Edward fifty years earlier, and with his heart in a casket on her breast.  Contrary to popular modern myth, she was not buried next to her ‘favourite’ Roger Mortimer, who was laid to rest in Coventry after his execution in November 1330 and whose body may have been moved to Wigmore in Herefordshire some years later.  Isabella’s relationship with Mortimer remains mysterious; though inevitably written nowadays as an all-consuming, flagrant, passionately sexual love affair, there is little evidence that it in fact was, and a few fourteenth-century chroniclers call Mortimer simply Isabella’s ‘chief counsellor’.  Edward II and Isabella of France’s personal relationship was also far more complex, mysterious and fascinating than is commonly supposed nowadays.

6 thoughts on “Isabella of France And Edward II: Reality Is Far More Interesting Than Myth

  1. I have recently found through a DNA test that I am a descendant of King Edward lll. I find all the facts about him very interesting. Thank you for your research. Rebecca (Owen) Gripp.

  2. Hi I’m starting to think that the real story might be less sensational but more interesting

  3. I wanted to learn more about my ancestor, William Wallace. Now that I know he didn’t have a child with Isabella, I’m very confused. If anyone could tell me where to find his descendants it would really help.

  4. Thank you for rehabilitating my knowledge n understanding of my Ancestors.

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