Isabella (left) directing the Siege of Bristol in October 1326
Philip IV of France, known as ‘the Fair’ for his good looks, had three sons out of his wife Joan of Champagne before she gave birth to a daughter, Isabella, in 1295. As part of Edward I’s search for a solution to the vexed question of Aquitaine, he married the French king’s sister, Margaret, in 1299, his first wife having died in 1290, and had his eldest surviving son, the future Edward II, betrothed to Isabella. Their wedding took place in Boulogne in 1308, the year after Edward II became king, when he was twenty-four and his bride not yet thirteen. The earliest age permitted by the church for a girl to have sex in marriage was twelve, but practicalities ruled that she must have passed puberty. We do not know whether Isabella had passed that point at the time of their marriage – and if she had not, then there might be a charitable explanation for the non-consummation of the marriage – but contemporary chronicles all describe her as being beautiful, so, if she was not yet physically capable of sexual intercourse, we may assume that she was within the next year or so. In any event, she did not conceive until 1312, when she was rising seventeen, which would indicate that Edward visited her bed but rarely. He did fulfil his dynastic duty, however, perhaps without much enthusiasm, and Isabella gave birth to the future Edward III in 1312, a second son, John, in 1316, and daughters Eleanor in 1318 and Joan in 1321.
Isabella must have felt humiliated and embarrassed by her husband’s obvious preference for Gaveston over herself, particularly when she found Gaveston wearing the jewels given to Edward by her father, the French king, as wedding presents, and, worse, some of her own jewellery that had come over to England as part of her train. In spite of this, she seems to have done her best to support and help the king, albeit complaining to her father that she was kept short of money and that Gaveston was preferred over her.
Since the eighteenth century, Queen Isabella has been described as the ‘she-wolf of France’. Reviled as a notorious adulteress, a rebel against her husband and an accomplice in his murder, only recently has she been reassessed, at least by some, as a tragic queen. Isabella certainly had much to contend with, and for most of her marriage to Edward II she was a loyal and supportive wife. She accompanied her husband on military campaigns (campaigns which almost always had disastrous results), and on several occasions she was entrusted with the Great Seal of England; she was literate and, with maturity, certainly capable of understanding the political nuances, both domestic and international, of her time. As the daughter of the king of France, and after the death of Philip in 1314, the sister of his successor Louis X, she was well aware of her status and determined to maintain it in the face of her husband’s frequent neglect and casual cruelty.
Isabella’s discovery of adulterous relationships involving the wives of two of her brothers with the connivance of the wife of a third and her eventual reporting of it to her father, Philip, in full knowledge of what the result might be, have been cited as evidence of a hard-heartedness in her character, but it is far more likely that she knew what the punishment for her might be if she concealed such knowledge. Margarite of Burgundy was the wife of Louis, later Louis X, and Blanche of Hungary was married to Charles, later Charles IV. Both young ladies, aided and abetted by Jeanne of Burgundy, wife of Philip, later Philip V, were carrying on with two knights of the French court, the brothers Philip and Gautier d’Aulnay. All five were arrested and the brothers tortured until they admitted adultery – a particularly serious offence as it could call the whole royal succession into question. The wretched knights were publicly castrated with their organs thrown to the hounds, then flayed until almost dead, and finally decapitated. Margarite and Blanche were sentenced to life imprisonment in Château Gaillard, while Jeanne was put under house arrest.
Isabella’s importance in British history lies not in whether or not her eventual conduct was justified, but in who she was and her place as a catalyst of the Hundred Years War. Gaveston’s relations with the king, while shaming to the queen, did not seriously affect her property or her safety, while those of the Despensers certainly did. Until the rise of the Despensers, Isabella had supported her husband against his barons and in disagreements with her own father and brothers, kings of France. When the Despensers began to move against her, however, suspecting that she was in contact with their enemies, as she probably was, and when they persuaded the king to take back her property on the grounds that they should not, as an independent source of funds, be left in her hands as Anglo-French relations worsened, Isabella’s attitudes began to change. She did retain the confidence of the king in political matters, for when war over Aquitaine broke out again in 1324, it was Isabella, with the approval of the overconfident Despensers, who was sent to France to mediate with her brother, Charles IV. Charles had succeeded his brother Philip V in 1322, when the latter had died of dysentery without a legitimate male offspring, and, while he was undoubtedly supportive of Isabella as his sister, he also saw her as a possible pawn that could be manipulated to discommode the English king.
The queen was well aware of the enmity of the Despensers but was clever enough to bid an ostensibly amiable farewell to Hugh the Younger on leaving Dover for France and to send him friendly letters from Paris. In her discussions with her brother Charles, Isabella seems genuinely to have wanted a solution to the issues between England and France that would benefit her adopted country and her husband, its king, while still being acceptable to the French. Inevitably, much centred around the homage that would have to be paid for any continental lands where the French would agree to English rule, and whether that would be simple homage, which acknowledged that the lands were held from the king of France; or liege homage, which carried with it a feudal obligation of service to that king – something that could never be acceptable to any English monarch. At one stage, Edward was prepared to come and pay simple homage in person, but then the Despensers, fearful for their own position if the king was out of the country, persuaded him not to go, and it was agreed, probably at Isabella’s instigation, that Edward would grant his eldest son all his titles and lands in France and that the son, rather than the father, would go to France to pay homage. Whether this was a genuine attempt by Isabella to resolve the conflict, or whether it was a ploy to obtain control of the heir to the throne, is still the subject of debate – it was probably a bit of both. But in any event Edward, Prince of Wales, who was not quite thirteen, set sail from Dover with his entourage, including two bishops and a number of knights, on 12 September 1325 and paid homage to his uncle Charles at Vincennes on 24 September.
With a truce brokered and the English lands safe in the hands of the heir, there was now no need for Isabella and her son to remain in France and the king expected their return. At first, this took the form of enquiries as to their travel arrangements, with the queen giving various reasons why she should stay a little longer, but, as the king’s enquiries became demands that she and his son should return, she made it clear that she would not set foot in England until the Despensers were exiled, as she feared for her safety if she returned. In the meantime, she began to become a focus for various disenchanted Englishmen and exiled nobles in France – something that was duly reported back to the king by emissaries sent to escort her back and by members of her own household whom she returned to England when the king stopped her allowance. The king of France, her brother, was initially happy to pay Isabella’s bills, but then she became embroiled in scandal.
Roger Mortimer was born in 1287, into a family that was already enormously rich with lands in the Welsh Marches and mid Wales, southern England, the Midlands and Ireland, but, when his father died in 1304, his wardship was given by Edward II to Piers Gaveston. A wardship was immensely lucrative as all the income from the ward’s estates was controlled by the guardian (and could be diverted to the latter’s own purposes) until the ward reached his majority. The guardian also controlled his ward’s marriage, and in 1306 Roger paid Gaveston 2,500 marks to claim his estates and income for the rest of his minority. As his minority had only two years to run, the payment of £140,000 in today’s money (by the silver standard) indicates how valuable the estates were.
At first, Roger’s life was like that of any other sprig of the nobility: knighted by Edward I in the same year as he reclaimed his estates and in the same batch as the Prince of Wales, later Edward II, he played an official role in the latter’s coronation, served in Aquitaine, took part in the suppression of revolt in Wales, and served two terms as Justiciar of Ireland, where he was as successful as any English peacemaker could be in that lawless land. From 1320, towards the end of his second tour in Ireland, he became increasingly part of the opposition to the Despensers as they extended their holdings in Wales to what he and his fellow Marcher Lords saw as their detriment. In any case, it was said that Hugh Despenser the Younger was determined, in the manner of a Pathan blood feud, to wreak vengeance on Mortimer for the death of his, Hugh’s, grandfather at the hands of Roger’s at the Battle of Evesham in 1265. As we have seen, the success of the baronial opposition to the Despensers in 1321 was short-lived. The Battle of Boroughbridge on 16 March 1322 ended the civil war, but before that, on 23 January, Roger Mortimer and his uncle, Roger Mortimer of Chirk, had already surrendered to the king at Shrewsbury. They were sentenced to death but spared the terrible fate of so many of their fellow rebels when the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in the Tower of London.
On 1 August 1323, in a Buchanesque adventure involving conniving jailers and drugged sentries, Roger Mortimer escaped from the Tower, obtained a boat in which he rowed across the Thames, stole or was given a horse, rode to Dover, found a ship to cross the Channel to France, and was welcomed at the court of Charles IV, then at loggerheads with Edward II over the usual vexed question of Aquitaine. Mortimer now joined the band of expatriates who were also in opposition to Edward II’s England and clustered around the French court or that of the count of Hainault, whose territory bordered on Flanders and is now part of modern Belgium. His uncle, however, remained in the Tower, his lands forfeited, and died there aged seventy in 1326.
Roger Mortimer did not stay long in Paris and spent the next year or so in Hainault trying to raise troops and money to mount an invasion of England; in this, he was encouraged by the count and by disaffected elements in England who vowed they would rise if an invasion to remove the Despensers were to happen. Isabella probably first met Mortimer at the funeral of the old count of Valois, when he came to Paris in the entourage of the countess of Hainault. As both he and Isabella were united in hatred and fear of the Despensers, it was natural that they should meet and that Roger should confer with the English opposition now coalescing around the queen.
Remarkably quickly, their relationship became more than a political alliance, and by at least early 1326 it was generally assumed that they were sleeping together. While it was considered normal for married men to have mistresses (and Mortimer had been separated from his own wife for three years), for a lady to have extra-marital affairs was regarded as a heinous crime and for a queen to do so was treason of the worst sort. One can only assume that Isabella knew this perfectly well but that she was motivated by years of sexual frustration and resentment of her husband’s actions towards her and his predilection for unsavoury favourites. She was a mature beauty of thirty-one and the thirty-nine-year-old Mortimer was, after all, everything King Edward was not: he was heterosexual, decisive, outgoing and audacious, and he shared her interest in culture and the arts. We might not blame either of them today, but at the time both were playing a dangerous game. Once news of their relationship reached England – and it did so remarkably quickly – Edward redoubled his efforts to force his son to return to his allegiance, even if the boy’s mother would not. Letters were sent to the king of France, to the pope, to his son and to anyone who might listen, but to no avail.
Rumours of invasion were rife, and throughout the summer Edward issued commissions of array calling up troops, sequestered ships to watch the maritime approaches, ordered coastal defences to be put in order, seized Isabella’s remaining lands and confiscated her funds lodged in the Tower, attempted to arrest Mortimer’s mother (she was tipped off and went into hiding), and locked up anyone else he could lay hands on who might be sympathetic to the queen or who might oppose the Despensers. Eventually, having failed to persuade Charles IV to cooperate, Edward declared war on France in July 1326. At last, Edward’s appeals to the pope in Avignon bore fruit: John XXII had hoped to keep the peace between England and France and had sent nuncios to try to mediate between Isabella and her husband, but he could not condone adultery and wrote to Charles IV to tell him so. Charles, no doubt mindful of what had happened to his ex-wife Blanche and her illicit lover, agreed to expel Isabella and her lover, but it would seem to have been done in a gentlemanly way, with the couple given plenty of notice and Isabella allowed to take with her all her possessions and the funds provided by Charles. It seems that she now accepted, if she had not done so before, that it was not just the Despensers that were her enemies, but her husband, the king of England, as well. Since his escape from the Tower, Mortimer had always hoped to overthrow Edward II, and Isabella became part of the plan too, for it was she who possessed the strongest card – the king’s son, Edward, Prince of Wales. After a diversion to Isabella’s county of Ponthieu to raise further funds, she and Mortimer were welcomed in Hainault in August.
Young Edward was now betrothed to Philippa, daughter of the count of Hainault, with a dowry of men, money and ships to be placed at Isabella’s disposal immediately, and troops raised by Mortimer and those provided by Hainault began to gather at the assembly port of Dordrecht, south-east of Rotterdam. There were no French troops involved: Charles IV was fully engaged campaigning in Aquitaine, and Isabella and Mortimer both knew that the way to make their support in England evaporate overnight would be for a single French soldier to land on English shores. Edward II was well aware of what was being planned, and on 2 September he ordered the earl of Norfolk to raise 2,000 troops from East Anglia to defend the port of Orwell in Suffolk. We do not know whether Edward’s intelligence service, such as it was, had discovered that port to be the intended landing area or he concluded that an invasion mounted from the port of Dordrecht would probably make for Orwell, but in any event the troops were never raised and the earl, the king’s half-brother, went over to Isabella. Edward himself does not seem to have checked that his orders were being obeyed.
At Dordrecht, Isabella, Mortimer and her army embarked on ninety-five ships and put to sea on 22 September 1326. The army was a mix of Flemish, German and Bohemian soldiers, mainly mercenaries but with some unpaid volunteers hopeful of making their fortunes, and a gaggle of English exiles and emissaries sent by Edward II who had then sided with Isabella and stayed. Estimates of their numbers vary from a high of 2,757 (Walsingham) to a low of 500 (Chronicle of Meaux), but, given the capacity of the ships of the time and the need to transport horses and equipment, the force was probably around 1,500 strong. It was a tiny army with which to mount an invasion, even by medieval standards, but Isabella had good reason to expect indigenous support once she landed, and she and Mortimer had probably concluded a secret treaty with the Scots – one that was to come back and haunt them – to ensure that Robert Bruce, styled King Robert I, did not invade northern England while Isabella was dealing with Edward II. In the event, the campaign was even easier than Isabella and Mortimer could have hoped. After two days being tossed about in a storm, the invasion force landed somewhere near the mouth of the River Orwell on 24 September unopposed by the king’s ships, which were either not in the vicinity or had mutinied against the Despensers.
Most of the nobility had now accepted that the influence of the Despensers was intolerable and that the king would not reform. The time had finally come to remove this ineffective and capricious monarch and replace him with his son. Many, perhaps most, of the queen’s contemporaries had some sympathy for her position and thought her more sinned against than sinning, and public opinion soon swung in her favour as more and more of the barons and their troops rallied to her. Edward’s support melted away, and he, the Despensers and what adherents they still had fled to Wales, where they no doubt hoped for support from the Despensers’ tenants there. It was not to be, and, when the garrison of Bristol surrendered on 26 October, Hugh the Elder was taken, tried for numerous offences, and executed the following day, with his head sent for public exhibition to Winchester. Then, on 16 November, the king and Hugh the Younger were captured at Llantrisant, near Caerphilly. Appropriately enough, their captor was Henry of Lancaster, brother of Thomas, who had been executed after Boroughbridge in 1322. Hugh Despenser was taken to Hereford, condemned to death as a traitor, a heretic and a sodomite, hanged from fifty-foot-high gallows, cut down while still alive, castrated, disembowelled and finally beheaded. The king was sent to Kenilworth and on 20 January 1327 was persuaded to abdicate in favour of his eldest son, who was duly crowned Edward III on 1 February.
The deposed Edward was now transferred to Berkeley Castle, and there were a number of plots to rescue him, some real, many more imagined. Then, during a parliamentary session at Lincoln, it was announced that Edward had died on 21 September 1327. Whether or not he did die then and, if he did, the cause and manner of his death have intrigued historians ever since. All the reliable evidence would seem to point to the fact of his death at Berkeley Castle in the autumn of 1327. At the time, it was stated to be from ‘natural causes’, but, as Edward was only forty-three, this seems unlikely. A lurid account – written thirty years later but probably circulating orally shortly after the king’s death, and sniggered over by schoolboys ever since – says that he was killed by having a red-hot poker or spit shoved up his bottom. This too seems unlikely and was more probably intended as a cautionary tale against homosexuality (Edward was reckoned by contemporaries to be the buggeree in his relationships). But in any case, why bother? The body of a dead king would have to be put on public display to avoid claims that he had been spirited away and was in hiding (and such tales of Edward II did arise), and charred flesh in the nether regions would surely be noticed during the removal of organs as part of the embalming process. It seems much more likely that the wretched Edward was smothered, a means of dispatch which would have left no marks on the body. In any case, the body was displayed in Gloucester from 22 October and buried there in the presence of Isabella and the new king shortly afterwards.
On 30 January 1328, Edward III married Philippa of Hainault, daughter of the count of Hainault. She was now sixteen years old and described by the chronicler Froissart as being ‘full feminine’ – past puberty. It was to be a genuinely happy marriage, despite Edward’s later womanizing, but at this early stage there was to be little time for domestic bliss, for the new regime faced difficulties enough.