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.