Isabella Capet (1295-1358)

Relation to me: 19th Great Grandmother

Isabella is sometimes described as the She-Wolf of France. She was a Queen of England, as she was the wife of King Edward II of England. She was also a Regent of England from 1326 until 1330. Isabella was the youngest surviving child and only daughter to have survived childhood, of Philip IV of France and Joan I of Navarre. She was notable at the time for her beauty, diplomatic skills and her intelligence.

At the age of twelve, Isabella arrived in England, during a time when conflict was growing between the king and the powerful barons of the time. Her new husband was well-known for the patronage that he lavished on his favorite, Piers Gaveston. However, Isabella only supported Gaveston during the early years of the friend’s relationship. She would form a working relationship with Piers and had used her relationship with the French monarchy to bolster her own authority and power. After Gaveston died at the hands of the barons in 1312, Edward II later turned to a new favorite, Hugh Despenser the Younger. Edward would try to take his revenge on the barons, which resulted in the Despenser War, a time of internal repression across England. Isabella couldn’t stand Hugh Despenser and by 1325 her marriage to Edward had reached its breaking point.

Isabella traveled to France under the guise of a diplomatic mission. She then started an affair with Roger Mortimer. The two would agree to depose Edward and at the same time oust the Despenser family. Queen Isabella returned to England with a small mercenary army in 1326 and moved quickly across England. The king’s forces would desert him and Isabella would be successful in deposing her husband. After, she soon became regent on behalf of her son, Edward III. Isabella and Mortimer’s regime began to crumble quickly, partly because of her lavish spending and also because the Queen had successfully, but unproperly, resolved long-running problems, such as the wars with Scotland.

In 1330, Edward III had deposed Mortimer and took back his authority. He then ordered Mortimer to be executed and Isabella, his own mother, should not be punished. She would end up living for many years in considerable style, but not at Edward III’s court. She would pass away in 1358. Isabella became popular as a “femme fatale” figure in plays and literature over the years, usually being portrayed as beautiful but cruel and a manipulative figure.

The Early Life and Marriage of Isabella

Isabella was born in Paris, France. On the basis of chroniclers and based on the date of her marriage, she was probably born sometime between May and November of 1295. She has been said to have been born in 1292 in the Annals of Wigmore. Piers Langtoft agrees with this year and claims that Isabella was just seven years of age in 1299. French chroniclers Guillaume de Nangis and Thomas Walsingham describe her as being twelve years of age when she was married in January of 1308, this places her birth between January of 1295 and January of 1296. Papal dispensation by Clement V in November of 1305 had permitted the immediate marriage by proxy, even though Isabella was probably just ten years old. She had to reach the canonical age of seven before her betrothal in May of 1303, and that of twelve before her marriage in January of 1308.

Her parents were, King Philip IV of France and Queen Joan I of Navarre and she had also had three brothers; Louis, Philip and Charles, all of which would become kings of France. Isabella was born into a royal family that had ruled the most powerful state in Western Europe. Her father, King Philip, was a strangely unemotional man. Contemporaries describe him as “neither a man nor a beast, but a statue”. Modern historians, however, note that he “cultivated a reputation from Christian kingship and showed few weaknesses of the flesh”. Philip had built a centralized royal power in France and engaged in a sequence of conflicts to expand or consolidate the French authority across the region, but he remained chronically short of money throughout his reign. It appears that he had appeared almost obsessed about the building up of wealth and lands, something that his daughter was also accused of in her later life. Isabella’s mother passed away when Isabella was still quite young. Some contemporaries believed that Phillip IV had murdered her, but this probably wasn’t true.

Isabella had been raised in and around Chateau du Louvre and Palais de la Cite in Paris, France. She was taken care of by Theophania de Saint-Pierre, who was her wet nurse. She was given a good education and was taught to read, which would lead her to a love for books. As was the custom at the time, all of Phillip’s children were married when they were young for political benefits. Isabella had been promised, by her father, to Edward, the infant son of King Edward I of England. Their marriage was arranged with the intent that it would resolve conflicts between France and England, over the latter’s continental possession of Gascony and claims to Anjou, Normandy, and Aquitaine. The English king would attempt to break the engagement several times for his political advantage. It was only after Edward I had died in 1307 that the wedding had proceeded.

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King Edward II

Edward II and Isabella would finally be married at Boulogne-sur-Mer on the 25th of January 1308. The soon-to-be queen’s wardrobe gives some indication of her wealth and style. Isabella had gowns of baudekyn, velvet, taffeta and cloth, along with numerous furs. She also had seventy-two headdresses and coifs. She’d bring with her two gold crowns, gold and silver dinnerware and 419 yards of linen. At the time of the marriage, Isabella was probably only about twelve years old. She had been described by Geoffrey of Paris as “the beauty of beauties…in the kingdom if not in all of Europe”, a description that was probably not simply flattery by a chronicler, as Isabella’s father and brothers were considered to have been very handsome men by contemporaries. Her husband’s nickname for her was “Isabella the Fair”. She was said to have resembled her father more than her mother, the Queen Regnant of Navarre, who was a plump woman. This would indicate that Isabella was slender and pale-skinned. The fashion of the time was for blonde, slightly full-faced women, and Isabella may well have followed the stereotype instead. Throughout Isabella’s career, she was noted as being both charming and diplomatic, with the particular skill of convincing people to follow her courses of action. Contemporaries also commented on Isabella’s high intelligence, which for the medieval period was unusual.

Isabella’s Queenship

As queen, the young Isabella faced numerous challenges. Her husband was handsome, but highly unconventional. He had possibly formed close romantic attachments to Piers Gaveston and then Hugh Despenser the Younger. He had also found himself at odds with the barons in his kingdom, in particular his first cousin, Thomas, the 2nd Earl of Lancaster, during the ongoing war against the Scots that he had inherited from his father, Edward I. By using her own supporters at court, and patronage of her French family, Isabella tried to find her political path through these challenges. She would successfully form an alliance with Gaveston, but after his death, at the hands of the barons, her position grew increasingly precarious. Edward started to take his revenge on his enemies, using ever more brutal alliances with the Despenser family, in particular his new favorite, Hugh Despenser the Younger. By 1326, Isabella had found herself at increasing odds with both Edward and Hugh. This would ultimately result in her own bid for power and invasion of England.

The Fall of Gaveston

Edward was an unusual character by standards of the medieval period. He had looked the part of a Plantagenet king to perfection, he was tall, athletic and wildly popular during the beginning of his reign. He rejected most of the traditional pursuits of a king of his time, such as jousting, hunting and warfare. Instead he had enjoyed music, poetry and many rural crafts. Furthermore, there is a question of his sexuality. He could be considered to have been bisexual, during a time when homosexuality of any kind was considered a very serious crime. However, there’s no complicit evidence that comments directly on his sexual orientation. Contemporary chroniclers made up most of his close affinity with a succession of male favorites, some condemned Edward for loving them “beyond measure” and “uniquely”. Others particularly referred to an “illicit and sinful union”. Nonetheless, Isabella bore four children with Edward, leading to the opinion among some historians that Edward’s affairs with his male favorites may have been strictly platonic.

When Isabella had first arrived in England after the couple’s marriage, her husband was already in the midst of his relationship with Piers Gaveston. Piers was an “arrogant, ostentatious” soldier, with a “reckless and headstrong” personality that particularly appealed to Edward. Isabella, at the age of twelve, was effectively sidelined by the two men. Edward chose to sit with Gaveston, instead of Isabella at their wedding celebration, causing grave offense to her uncles Louis, the Count of Evreux and Charles, the Count of Valois. Edward then refused to grant Isabella her own lands or her own household. Edward also gave Isabella’s jewelry to Gaveston, which he would wear publicly. It would take Isabella’s father, Philip IV’s intervention before Edward began to provide for her more appropriately.

Isabella’s relationship with Gaveston was a complicated one. The baronial opposition to Gaveston, championed by Thomas of Lancaster, was increasing. Philip IV began to covertly fund this grouping, using Isabella and her household as intermediaries. Edward was forced to exile Gaveston to Ireland for a period. He then started to show Isabella much greater respect and assigned her significant lands and patronage. In turn, Philip ceased his support for the barons. Gaveston would eventually return from Ireland and in 1309 until 1311 the three seemed to be co-existing together relatively comfortably. His key enemy, Thomas of Lancaster, considered Isabella to be an ally of Gaveston’s. She started to build up her own supporters at court, principally the de Beaumont family. They too opposed the Lancastrians and also came from France, as Isabella had. The senior member of the family, Isabella de Vesci, had been a close confidant of Edward’s mother Eleanor. She was supported by her brother, Henry de Beaumont and she would also become a close friend of Queen Isabella.

However, during 1311, Edward conducted a failed campaign against the Scots, during of which Isabella and Edward only just escaped being captured. In the aftermath, the barons rose up and signed the Ordinances of 1311. The Ordinances would promise action against Gaveston and also expelled Isabella de Vesci and Henry de Beaumont from court. The following year would bring the descent into civil war against the king and his lover. Isabella would stand with Edward, who would send angry letters to her uncles d’Evreaux and de Valois asking for their support. Edward would leave Isabella, rather against her will, at Tynemouth Priory in Northumberland, while he was trying to fight the barons, rather unsuccessfully. The campaign was a disaster to say the least, even though Edward had escaped, Gaveston found himself stranded at Scarborough Castle where his baronial enemies first surrounded and captured him. Guy de Beauchamp and Thomas of Lancaster ensured Gaveston’s execution as he was being taken south to rejoin Edward. Isabella’s strive for Edward’s affections was now gone, but the situation in England was deeply unstable.

Tensions Continue to Grow

Tensions would mount steadily over the next ten years. In 1312, Isabella gave birth to the future Edward III, but by the end of the year, Edward’s court was beginning to change. He was still relying on his French in-laws. For example, Isabella’s uncle Louis, had been sent from Paris to assist him, but Hugh Despenser the Elder had now formed part of Edward’s inner circle, marking the beginning of Despenser’s increased prominence in Edward’s court. The Despensers were opposed to both the Lancastrians and their other allies in the Welsh Marches, making an easy alliance with Edward who sought revenge for the death of Gaveston.

In 1313, Isabella traveled to Paris with her husband to garner further support from the French. This would result in the Tour de Nesle Affair. The journey was a rather pleasant one for the couple, with a lot of festivities, even though Isabella was injured when her tent burned down. During the visit Louis and Charles had a satirical puppet show put on for their guests and afterwards Isabella gave new embroidered purses both to her brothers and to their wives. Isabella and Edward then returned to England with new assurances of French support against the English barons. Later on in 1313 though Isabella and Edward held a large dinner in London to celebrate their return. She apparently had noticed that purses that she had given to her sisters-in-law were now being carried by two Norman knights, Gautier and Philippe d’Aunay. Isabella then concluded that the pair must’ve been carrying on an illicit affair and she appears to have informed her father of this when she next visited France in 1314. The consequence of her reporting was the Tour de Nesle Affair in Paris, which led to legal action against all three of her sisters-in-law; Blanche and Margaret of Burgundy, being imprisoned for life for adultery. Joan of Burgundy was imprisoned for a year. Isabella’s reputation in France had suffered to an extent, as a result of her perceived role in the affair.

In the north though, the situation was becoming worse. Edward would attempt to quash the Scots in fresh campaigns in 1314, which resulted in a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Bannockburn. Edward was blamed by the barons for the catastrophic failure of the campaign. Thomas of Lancaster reacted to the defeats in Scotland by taking increased power in England and turned against Isabella. He cut off funds and harassed her household. To make matters even worse, the “Great Famine” fell upon England during 1316 through 1317, causing widespread loss of life and financial problems.

Even though Isabella gave birth to a second son, John, in 1316, Edward’s position was precarious. John Deydras, a royal Pretender appeared in Oxford, claiming that he had been switched at birth with Edward and was in fact the real king of England. Given Edward’s unpopularity, rumors spread across England before Deydras’ eventual execution. The situation appears to have greatly upset Isabella. She responded by deepening her alliance with Lancaster’s enemy Henry de Beaumont, and also took up an increased role in the government herself. This would include her attendance at council meetings and acquiring increased lands. Henry’s sister, Isabella de Vesci, continued her close relationship as an adviser to the Queen. Scottish general Sir James Douglas, a war leader for Robert I of Scotland, made a bid to capture Isabella personally in 1319, he almost did at York, Isabella had only narrowly escaped. Suspicions fell on Lancaster, one of Edward’s knights, Edmund Darel, was arrested on charges of having given up her location, the charges were essentially unproven. In 1320, Isabella accompanied her husband to France to try and convince her brother, Charles IV, to provide new support to crush the English barons.

In the meantime, Hugh de Despenser the Younger had become an increasing favorite of Edward. It was widely believed that he began a sexual relationship with him around this time as well. Hugh was the same age as Edward and his father, Hugh the Elder, had supported Edward and Gaveston a few years previously. The Despensers were bitter enemies of Lancaster. With the support of Edward, their power base in the Welsh Marches began to increase. In the process, Edward made enemies with Roger Mortimer de Chirk and his nephew, Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, their rival Marcher lords. While Isabella had been able to work with Gaveston, Edward’s previous favorite, it became increasingly clear that Hugh the Younger and Isabella couldn’t. Unfortunately for Isabella, she was still estranged from Lancaster’s rival faction, giving her little room to maneuver. During 1321, Lancaster’s alliance moved against the Despensers, sending troops into London and demanding they be exiled. Aymer de Valence, the 2nd Earl of Pembroke, who was a moderate baron, with strong French ties, asked Isabella to intervene in an attempt to prevent war. Isabella would publicly get down on her knees to appeal to Edward to exile the Despensers. She would provide him with a face-saving excuse to do so, but Edward intended to arrange their return at the first opportunity.

The Despensers Return

Despite momentary respite being delivered by Isabella, by the autumn of 1321, tensions between the two factions of Edward, Isabella and the Despensers, opposing baronial opposition led by Thomas of Lancaster, were extremely high, with forces still scattered across the country. At this point, Isabella had undertaken a pilgrimage to Canterbury, during of which she left on the traditional route to stop at Leeds Castle in Kent. The castle was a fortification that was held by Bartholomew de Badlesmere, steward of the king’s household. By 1321, he would join the ranks of Edward’s opponents. Historians believe that this pilgrimage was a deliberate act by Isabella on Edward’s behalf to create a casus belli. Lord Badlesmere was not at the castle at the time, leaving his wife Margaret in charge of the castle while he was away. When the latter had adamantly refused admittance to the queen, fighting broke out outside of the castle between guards of Isabella’s and the garrison, marking the start of the Despenser War. While Edward had mobilized his own faction and placed Leeds Castle under siege, Isabella was given the Great Seal and assumed control of the royal Chancery from the Tower of London. After surrendering to Edward’s forces on the 31st of October 1321, Margaret, the Baroness Badlesmere and her children were sent to the Tower and thirteen of the Leeds garrison were hanged. In January of 1322, Edward’s army, reinforced by Despenser’s returned from exile and forced the surrender of the Mortimers. By March, Lancaster himself had been captured after the Battle of Boroughbridge and he was promptly executed, leaving Edward and the Despensers victorious.

Hugh Despenser the Younger was now firmly ensconced as Edward’s new favorite and lover. Over the next four years the two imposed harsh rule over England. A “sweeping revenge” that was characterized by land confiscation, large-scale imprisonment, executions and the punishment of extended family members, including women and the elderly took place. This was condemned by contemporary chroniclers and is felt to have caused concern to Isabella as well. Some of the widows being persecuted included Isabella’s friends. Her relationship with Despenser the Younger continued to deteriorate. He would refuse to pay her any money that was owed to her, or return her castles at Marlborough and Devizes. Various authors have suggested that there’s evidence that Hugh may have attempted to assault Isabella in some fashion. It is certain that immediately after the Battle of Boroughbridge, Edward began to be markedly less generous in his gifts to his wife. None of the spoils of war were ever awarded to her, and worse still, later in the year Isabella was caught up in the failure of another of Edward’s campaigns in Scotland. In a way, the failure had permanently poisoned her relationship with both Edward and the Despensers.

Isabella and Edward would travel to the north together at the beginning of his autumn campaign. Before the disastrous Battle of Old Byland, Edward rode to the south, apparently to gather more men, he would send Isabella east to Tynemouth Priory. With the Scottish army marching south, Isabella expressed great concern about her personal safety and requested the assistance of Edward. He would initially propose sending Despenser’s forces to secure her, but Isabella refused them outright. Instead, she requested friendly troops. As a result, Isabella found herself and her household cut off from the south by the Scottish army, with the coastline patrolled by the Flemish naval forces that were allied with the Scots. The situation was precarious and Isabella was forced to use a group of squires from her personal retinue to hold off the advancing army while other knights of hers commandeered a ship. Fighting had continued as Isabella and her household retreated onto the vessel, which resulted in the death of two of her ladies-in-waiting. Once aboard the vessel, Isabella evaded the Flemish navy and landed further south and made her way to York. The queen was furious with Edward, for, from her perspective, had abandoned her to the Scots, and with the Despensers for convincing her husband to retreat rather than send her help. For this, Edward blamed Lewis de Beaumont, the Bishop of Durham and an ally of Isabella for the fiasco that had occurred.

The queen had effectively separated from Edward from this point on. She left him to live with Hugh Despenser and at the end of 1322 she left court on a ten month long pilgrimage around England by herself. Upon her return in 1323 she briefly visited Edward, but refused to take a loyalty oath to the Despensers and was thus removed from the process of granting royal patronage. At the end of 1324, tensions grew with Isabella’s homeland in France. Edward and the Despensers confiscated all of Isabella’s lands and took over the operation of her household. They also arrested and imprisoned all of her French staff. Isabella’s youngest children were taken from her and placed in the custody of the Despensers as well. It was at this time that Isabella appears to have realized that any hope of working with Edward was effectively over and she began to consider radical solutions.

The Invasion of England and Tensions Grow in Gascony

In 1325, Isabella was facing growing pressure from Hugh Despenser, Edward’s new royal favorite. With her lands in England seized, her children taken and her household staff arrested, she began to pursue other options. When her brother, King Charles IV of France had seized Edward’s French possessions, Isabella returned to France. She initially was a delegate of the king and was charged with negotiating a peace treaty between the two nations, however, her presence in France became a focal point for many nobles who were opposed to Edward’s reign. Isabella would gather an army to oppose Edward, in alliance with Roger Mortimer, whom she would also take as her lover. The queen and Mortimer returned to England with a mercenary army, seizing the country in a lightning campaign. The Despensers were executed and Edward was forced to abdicate. His eventual fate and possible murder still remain a matter of considerable historical debate of which was covered in my earlier post about the king’s life. Isabella would rule as regent until 1330 when her son, Edward III deposed Mortimer in turn and ruled directly in his own right.

Edward II, as the Duke of Aquitaine in 1323, had owed homage to the King of France for his lands in Gascony and Isabella’s three brothers each had only short reigns. Edward had successfully avoided paying homage to Louis X and had only paid homage to Philip V under great pressure. Once Charles IV had taken up the throne, Edward tried to avoid doing so again, increasing tensions between the two. One of the elements in dispute was the border of Agenais, part of Gascony and in turn part of Aquitaine. Tensions had risen in November of 1323 after the construction of a bastide, a type of fortified town, in Saint-Sardos and part of Agenais by a French vassal. Gascon forces destroyed the bastide and in turn Charles attacked the English-held Montpezat, the assault would be unsuccessful. However, in the subsequent War of Saint-Sardos, Isabella’s uncle, Charles of Valois, successfully wrestled Aquitaine from being under English control. By 1324, Charles had declared that Edward’s lands be forfeited and then occupied the whole of Aquitaine, except for the coastal areas.

The English king was still unwilling to travel to France to give homage and thus the situation in England was febrile. There had been a plot of assassination against Edward and Hugh Despenser in 1324. Allegations were that the famous magician John of Nottingham had been hired to kill the two using necromancy in 1325 and criminal gangs were occupying much of the country. Edward was deeply concerned that if he left England, even for a short time, the barons would take the chance to rise up and take their revenge on the Despensers. Charles sent a message through Pope John XXII to Edward suggesting that he was willing to reverse the forfeiture of the lands if Edward ceded the Agenais and paid homage for the rest of them. The Pope proposed that Isabella be ambassador, but she saw this as the perfect opportunity to resolve her situation with Edward and the Despensers.

Having promised to return to England by the summer, Isabella reached Paris, France in March of 1325. She’d rapidly agree to a truce in Gascony, under which Prince Edward, who was then thirteen years old, would come to France to give homage on his father’s behalf. Prince Edward would arrive in France and gave homage in September. At this point though, rather than returning, Isabella remained firmly in France with her son. Edward began to send urgent messages to the Pope and to Charles IV, expressing his concern about his wife’s absence, but to no avail. For his part, Charles replied that the “queen has come of her own will and may freely return if she wishes. But if she prefers to remain here, she is my sister and I refuse to expel her.” Charles went on to refuse the return of lands in Aquitaine to Edward, which resulted in a provisional agreement under which Edward resumed administration of his remaining English territories in early 1326, while France would continue occupying the rest.

Meanwhile, messages that were brought back by Edward’s agent, Walter de Stapledon, the Bishop of Exeter, and others grew steadily worse. Isabella publicly snubbed Stapledon and Edward’s political enemies were gathering at French court, threatening his emissaries. Isabella was dressed as if she was a widow, claiming that Hugh Despenser had destroyed her marriage, and she assembled a court-in-exile, including Edmund of Kent and John of Brittany, the Earl of Richmond. By this time, Isabella had started her romantic relationship with the English exile Roger Mortimer.

Roger Mortimer

Roger Mortimer of Wigmore was a powerful Marcher Lord. He was married to the wealthy heiress Joan de Geneville and was the father of twelve children. Roger had been imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1322 after being captured by Edward during the Despenser Wars. His uncle, Roger Mortimer of Chirk had died while in prison, but Mortimer managed to escape from the Tower in August of 1323. He’d do so by making a hole in the stone wall of his cell, then escaped onto the roof, before using rope ladders that were provided to him by an accomplice to get down to the River Thames. He then crossed the river and eventually escaped to safety in France. Victorian writers suggested that, given later events, Isabella may have helped him escape. Some historians continue to argue that the relationship between Mortimer and Isabella had already began at the time of his escape. However, most believe that there’s no hard evidence for the two having had a substantial relationship before meeting in Paris.

Isabella was reintroduced to Mortimer in Paris by her cousin, Joan, the Countess of Hainault, who appears to have approached Isabella, suggesting a marital alliance between their two families. This alliance would involve marrying Prince Edward to Joan’s daughter, Philippa. Mortimer and Isabella began a passionate relationship from December 1325 on. Isabella had been taking a huge risk in starting this relationship as female infidelity was a very serious offense in medieval Europe, as is shown during the Tour de Nesle Affair. Both of Isabella’s French sisters-in-law had died by 1326 as a result of their imprisonment for exactly this offense. Isabella’s motivation has been the subject of many discussions among historians. Most agree that there was a strong sexual attraction between the two and that they had shared an interest in Arthurian legends and enjoyed fine art and high living. One historian has described that their relationship was one of the “great romances of the Middle Ages”. They had also shared a common enemy, the regime of Edward II and the Despensers.

Taking Prince Edward with them, Isabella and Mortimer would leave French court in the summer of 1326 and traveled north to William I, the Count of Hainault. As Joan had suggested in the previous year, Isabella betrothed her son to Philippa, the daughter of the Count, in exchange for a substantial dowry. She then used the money from her dowry and an earlier loan from Charles to raise a mercenary army, scouring Brabant for men, which were added to a small force she had already gathered consisting of Hainault troops. William would also provide eight men of war ships and numerous smaller vessels as a part of the marriage arrangements. Though Edward was now in fear that he’d be invaded, secrecy would remain key with him. His estranged wife would convince William to detain envoys from Edward and she also appears to have made a secret agreement with the Scots for the duration of the forthcoming campaign. On the 22nd of September, Isabella, Mortimer and their modest force set sail for England.

Seizure of Power

Having evaded Edward’s fleet, which was sent to intercept them, Isabella and Mortimer landed at Orwell, on the east coast of England on the 24th of September, with a small force. Estimates of Isabella’s army vary from somewhere between three hundred and two thousand soldiers, with fifteen hundred being a popular middle figure. After a short time of confusion, during which they attempted to work out where they had actually landed, Isabella quickly moved inland, dressed in her widow’s clothing. The local levies that were mobilized to stop them immediately changed sides. By the following day, Isabella was in Bury St. Edmunds and shortly after she swept further inland to Cambridge. Thomas, the Earl of Norfolk, joined Isabella’s forces and Henry of Lancaster, the brother of the late Thomas and Isabella’s uncle also announced that he’d join her and headed to the south to join her.

By the 27th, word of the invasion reached the king and the Despensers in London. Edward issued orders to the local sheriffs to mobilize an opposition to Isabella and Mortimer, but London itself was becoming unsafe as well. Due to the local unrest, Edward made plans to leave the city. Isabella struck the west again, reaching Oxford on the 2nd of October, where she was “greeted as a savior”, as described by Adam Orleton, the Bishop of Hereford. She would emerge from hiding to give a lecture to the university on the evils of the Despensers. Edward fled from London on the same day and headed for the west towards Wales. Mortimer and Isabella now had an effective alliance with the Lancastrian opposition to Edward, bringing all of his opponents into a single coalition, and thus a dangerous situation for the king.

Isabella then marched to the south, heading towards London, but paused at Dunstable, just outside of the city on the 7th of October. London was now in the hands of the mobs, although broadly allied to Isabella. Bishop Stapledon failed to realize the extent to which royal power had collapsed in the capital and tried intervening militarily to protect his property against rioters. Locally, Bishop Stapledon was a hated figure, he promptly was attacked and killed, his head was later sent to Isabella by local supporters. Edward was still fleeing for the west and reached Gloucester on the 9th of October. Isabella would respond by marching quickly to the west in an attempt to cut him off, she’d reach Gloucester a week after Edward, who had slipped across the border into Wales on the same day.

Hugh Despenser the Elder had continued to keep hold of Bristol against Isabella and Mortimer, who had placed it under siege from the 18th to the 26th of October. When it fell, Isabella was able to recover her daughters Eleanor and Joan, who had been kept in the custody of Despenser. By now, being desperate and increasingly deserted by their court, Edward and Hugh Despenser the Younger made an attempt at sailing to Lundy, a small island just off the coast of Devon. The weather was against them though, and after several days they were forced to turn back to Wales. With Bristol secure, Isabella moved her base of operations up to the border town of Hereford, which is where she would order Henry of Lancaster to locate and arrest her husband. After two weeks of evading Isabella’s forces in the south of Wales, Edward and Hugh were finally caught and arrested near Llantrisant on the 16th of November.

Retribution began immediately. Hugh Despenser the Elder had been captured at Bristol and though some attempts by Isabella were made to protect him, he was quickly executed by his Lancastrian enemies. His body was hacked to pieces and then fed to the local dogs. The remainder of the former regime were brought to Isabella. Edmund FitzAlan, a key supporter of Edward II who’d received many of Mortimer’s confiscated lands in 1322, was executed on the 17th of November. Hugh Despenser the Younger was sentenced to brutally be executed on the 24th of November. A huge crowd would gather in anticipation at seeing him put to death. They dragged him from his horse, stripped him and scrawled Biblical verses against corruption and arrogance on his skin. After this torture, he was then dragged into the city, presented to Queen Isabella, Roger Mortimer and the Lancastrians and then condemned to be hanged as a thief. He was then put through more torture as he was castrated, then was drawn and quartered as a traitor. His quarters were to be dispersed throughout England. Simon of Reading, one of Despenser’s supporters was hanged next to him on the charges of insulting Isabella. Once the core of the Despenser regime were executed, Isabella and Mortimer started to show restraint, lesser nobles received pardons and clerks at the heart of the government, mostly appointed by Despensers and Stapleton, were confirmed to be in office. All that had remained was the question of Edward II, who was still officially Isabella’s legal husband and the lawful king.

Death of Edward II

As a temporary measure, Edward II was held in the custody of Henry of Lancaster, who had surrendered Edward’s Great Seal to Isabella. The situation remained tense and Isabella was clearly concerned about Edward’s supporters staging a counter-coup. In November, she seized the Tower of London, appointed one of her supporters as mayor and convened a council of nobles and churchmen in Wallingford to discuss Edward’s fate. The council would conclude that Edward would legally be deposed and placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life. This was then confirmed at the Parliament of England, which was dominated by Isabella and Mortimer’s followers. The session was held in January of 1327, with Isabella’s case being led by her supporter Adam Orleton, the Bishop of Hereford. Isabella’s son, Prince Edward, was confirmed as Edward III, with his mother being appointed as his regent. Even with this appointment, Isabella’s position was still precarious, as the legal basis for deposing Edward was minimal. Many lawyers of the time maintained that Edward was till the rightful king, regardless of a declaration of Parliament, the situation could be reversed at any time. Edward was known to have been a vengeful ruler, and if the decision to depose him was overturned, who knows what he would have done to those who had crossed him.

berkeley-castle
Berkeley Castle

Edward II’s subsequent fate, and Isabella’s role in it still remains a hotly contested issue by historians. The minimally agreed version of events is that Isabella and Mortimer had Edward relocated from Kenilworth Castle in the Midlands to a safer location of Berkeley Castle in the Welsh borders, where he was then put into the custody of Lord Berkeley. On the 23rd of September, Isabella and her son were informed by a messenger that Edward had died while he was imprisoned at Berkeley Castle due to a “fatal accident”. Edward’s body was apparently buried at Gloucester Cathedral, with his heart being given in a casket to his estranged wife. After the funeral, there were rumors for many years that Edward had actually survived and was really alive somewhere in Europe. Some of these rumors can be found in the Fieschi Letter that was written in the 1340s, although no concrete evidence ever emerged to support the allegations. There are however, various historical interpretations of the events that surrounded his death.

According to legend, Isabella and Mortimer had famously plotted to murder the king, in such a way as not to draw blame on themselves. Supposedly they had sent a famous order, in Latin known as “Eduardum occidere nolite timere bonum est”, which depending on where the comma was inserted could mean either “Do not be afraid to kill Edward; it is good” or “Do not kill Edward; it is good to fear”. In actuality, there’s little evidence of anyone deciding to have Edward assassinated and there’s none whatsoever of the note having ever really been written. Similarly, accounts of Edward being killed with a red-hot poker have no strong contemporary sources to support them. The conventional twentieth century view has been that Edward had died at Berkeley Castle, either having been murdered on orders of Isabella or of ill-health brought on by his captivity. Subsequent accounts of his survival were simply rumors and are similar to those that surrounded Joan of Arc and other near contemporaries after their deaths.

Three recent historians, however, have offered another interpretation of events of the king’s death. Paul Doherty’s view draws extensively on the Fieschi Letter of the 1340s. He argues that Edward had in fact escaped from Berkeley Castle with the help of William Ockle, a knight who he argues subsequently pretended to be Edward in disguise around Europe while using the name “William the Welshman”, so as to draw attention away from the real Edward. In this interpretation, a look-alike would have been buried at Gloucester. Ian Mortimer focuses more on contemporary documents from 1327 itself. He argues that Roger de Mortimer had engineered a fake “escape” for Edward from Berkeley Castle. After escaping, Edward was kept in Ireland, believing that he was really evading Mortimer, before finally finding himself free. However, politically he was unwelcome after the fall of Isabella and Mortimer. In Mortimer’s version, Edward makes his way to Europe before he subsequently was buried at Gloucester. The third interpretation is that of Alison Weir, who again draws on the Fieschi Letter. Weir has recently argued that Edward II had escaped his captors and in this interpretation, the body at Gloucester Cathedral is of Edward’s dead captor. In all of these versions, it is argued that it suited Isabella and Mortimer to publicly claim that Edward was dead, even if they were aware of the actual truth. Other historians though, including David Carpenter, have criticized the methodology behind this revisionist approach and disagree with the conclusions.

Isabella’s Later Years

Isabella and her lover ruled together for four years. Isabella’s time as regent was marked by acquisition of huge sums of money and land. When their political alliance with the Lancastrians began to disintegrate, she continued to support Mortimer. Isabella fell from power when her son deposed Mortimer in a coup, taking back royal authority for himself. Unlike Mortimer, Isabella had survived the transition of power, and remained a wealthy and influential member of the English court, albeit never returning directly to active politics.

After the coup, Isabella was first transferred to Berkhamsted Castle, then was held under house arrest at Windsor Castle until 1332. She was then moved back to her own Castle Rising in Norfolk. Agnes Strickland, a Victorian historian, argued that Isabella had suffered from occasional fits of madness during her later years. Modern interpretations suggest, at worst, she had a nervous breakdown after the death of her lover. Isabella did remain extremely wealthy, even though she was required to surrender most of her lands after her fall from power. In 1331, she was reassigned a yearly income of three thousand pounds, which increased another thousand by 1337. She would live an expensive lifestyle in Norfolk that would include minstrels, huntsmen, grooms, and other luxuries and was soon traveling around England again. During 1342, there were suggestions that she may travel to Paris to take part in peace negotiations, but eventually the plan was quashed. Six years later, Isabella was appointed to negotiate with France and ten years later she was involved in negotiations with Charles II of Navarre.

As the years went by, Isabella grew close to her daughter, Joan. Especially after Joan had left her unfaithful husband, King David II of Scotland. Joan would also be a nurse to her mother just before Isabella died. Isabella doted on her grandchildren, including Edward the Black Prince. She became increasingly interested in religion in her older life and visited a number of shrines. She would remain a gregarious member of the court and received constant visitors. Among these friendly visitors appear Roger Mortimer’s daughter Agnes Mortimer, the Countess of Pembroke and Roger’s grandson, also called Roger Mortimer, who Edward III had restored to the Earldom of March. King Edward had quite often visited with his children also. Isabella remained interested in Arthurian legends and jewelry as she had interest in earlier in life. In 1358, she appeared at St. George’s Day celebrations at Windsor, where she would wear a dress made of silk, silver, three hundred rubies and eighteen hundred pearls and a circlet of gold. She might have also developed an interest in astrology or geometry towards the end of her life as she had received various presents that relate to these disciplines.

Isabella took up the habit of Poor Clares before she passed away on the 22nd of August 1358. Her body was returned to London for burial at the Franciscan Church at Newgate in a service that was overseen by Archbishop Simon Islip. She was buried in the mantle that she had worn at her wedding and upon her request, Edward’s heart, which was placed in a casket thirty years before, was interred with her. Isabella had left the bulk of her property, including Castle Rising, to her favorite grandson, the Black Prince. Some of her personal effects she granted to her daughter Joan.

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