More Jezebel than Isabel

I recently wrote about Joan of England, Queen of Scotland, who is little known because she was a quintessentially nice young lady. Her mother, Isabella of Angoulême, was not such a nice young lady and as such she is a much more intriguing historical figure – albeit more famous in France than in England.

Isabella of Angouleme

Why is Isabella more well-known in France when she was an English queen and the mother of King Henry III? Because she may have tried to poison King Louis IX, that’s why.

Isabella absolutely loathed Louis IX’s mother, Blanche of Castile. Blanche, like many other queens who were born of that stock, was a total badass warrior queen and as such she defended her family and her family’s inheritance tooth and nail. Isabella, no less steel-spined than Blanche, also strived to give her children everything it was within her power to secure them. One of the biggest sources of contention was the claims of Isabella’s son, Henry III, to French lands and Blanche’s defense of what she thought of as her son’s natural territory. Blanche furthermore wanted to keep the nobles from usurping governmental control from the king, and Isabella’s second husband, Hugh X, was one of those prominent French nobles. Isabella was additionally vexed when Blanche kept blocking Henry III’s attempts to wed the heiresses of French duchies. 

Honestly, it is surprising the women didn’t come to blows.

The final straw for Isabella came in 1241, when Blanche was rude to her in court. That’s when the former queen of England decided to hit Blanch where it hurt the most – right in the monarchial authority. 

This so infuriated Isabella, who had a deep-seated hatred of Blanche for having fervently supported the French invasion of England during the First Barons’ War in May 1216, that she began to actively conspire against King Louis. Isabella and her husband, along with other disgruntled nobles, including her son-in-law Raymond VII of Toulouse, sought to create an English-backed confederacy which united the provinces of the south and west against the French king.

Henry III also came to help his mother and step-father, which resulted in the brief and ineffectual Saintonge War of 1242. When Henry was unable to make a decisive victory, Isabella and Hugh allowed themselves to be cajoled away from supporting the English king provided the French king (via Blanche) made it worth their while. Henry didn’t seem to bear his mother much ill-will over this, although thirteenth century English chroniclers practically crucified her for it.

Two years after the failed Saintonge War, two royal cooks were accused of trying to poison Louis IX. After a fair bit of torture, they confessed that Isabella had paid them handsomely to kill Blanche’s son. It seems a bit pat that the woman Blanche hated was the bad guy, no? Although it is unconfirmed, historical rumor suggests that she went into Fontevrault Abbey to escape Blanche’s wrath, rather than to atone for her sins the way many noblewomen did at the end of their lives. Isabella died on May 31, 1246, and is said to have requested that she be buried in the Abbey churchyard to make amends in death for her misdeeds in life. Whatever her misdeeds were, Henry III still loved her, and on a visit to Fontevrault, he “was shocked to find his mother buried outside the Abbey and ordered her moved inside, were she was re-interred beside John’s parents, Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.”

Thanks to the historical writer’s efforts to brand Isabella as a troublesome strumpet, the errors of both King John of England and Hugh X of Lusignan were laid at her feet as well. 

… the St Albans monk, Roger of Wendover, also attributed the king’s inadequate defence of Normandy in 1203-4 to Isabella’s skills in ‘sorcery or witchcraft’. According to Wendover, John became so infatuated with Isabella that he remained inactive and adopted a cheerful demeanour in the face of the French invasion … Matthew Paris, Wendover’s successor at St Albans, went so far as to describe Isabella as a woman who was ‘more Jezebel than Isabel’.

What made Isabella a Jezebel? Was she unfaithful to her husbands? Promiscuous? Nope. As I explain in The Jezebel Effect, a woman like Isabella did what all true Jezebel’s do –  she was “a girl or woman who broke a gender based cultural taboo; she did something women aren’t supposed to do.” The taboo she broke? She wasn’t feminine enough; she was too manly. She was opinionated and warlike and ambitious for herself rather than only for her children. Women were just not supposed to have such fire in their belly. Good women were supposed to be meek and docile, dang it. Isabella was really bad at being good.





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