Isabella, the She-Wolf of France, by Jan van Seist

History lessons place little emphasis on dates in these mundane times, partly because they are often irrelevant, but mostly because they are rather tedious. This is a pity as a passing knowledge of William Wallace’s chronology might have helped the director of the recent popular film, Braveheart. The Wallace’s somewhat extreme appendectomy took place in 1305. The film’s love interest, Isabella, was born in 1296 and did not arrive in Britain until 1308. By all accounts, Isabella was a precocious child but I doubt that she was quite as precocious as the film would suggest.

Leaving aside this petty pedantry, Isabella is one of the more interesting ladies of our period. Eleanor of Aquitane may have been more influential and Elizabeth of England more powerful but Isabella certainly gave mediaeval life her best shot. She was the daughter of King Phillip IV of France (a.k.a. Phillip the Fair) and was married at the tender age of 12 to the recently crowned King Edward II of England. Phillip gave her a large quantity of jewellery as a wedding present and the revenues of two French counties for pocket money. Isabella was rather distressed when, on her arrival in England, Edward gave most of her wedding jewellery to his (ahem) favourite, Piers Gaveston. Piers was definitely not Isabella’s favourite and, together with a number of the senior barons, she prevailed upon Edward to banish him.

Unfortunately for Piers, Edward changed his mind. He not only recalled him but gave him effective command of the English army. Some of Isabella’s friends (the Earls of Pembroke & Surrey) showed what they thought of that idea by capturing Piers and making him sit down very hard on a large sharp pole. Edward was not very happy about this. However, Piers had stirred up the Scots before being rudely relieved of his command and the prospect of a good war helped reconcile the king and his barons. So, in 1314, Edward & co. rode north to teach the Scots a lesson. The campaign did not go entirely Edward’s way(*) and, after his somewhat hasty return to England, he choose to console himself with two favourites, a father and son combination called Hugh le Despenser.

The Despensers became the effective rulers of England but were eventuallyexpelled by an army led by three barons, two called Roger Mortimer and one not.Isabella was naturally grateful to the barons and it was widely rumoured thatshe was rogering the younger Mortimer. At this point, Edward decided that theDespensers were inDespensible. He recalled them and Roger Mortimer recalledpressing duties elsewhere. Isabella was left to face the music.

Some years earlier, Isabella had inherited a vast amount of property makingher the richest woman in England. On their return, the Despensers promptlyaccused her of treason and seized her estates, thus making themselves therichest favourites in England and permanently removing their names fromIsabella’s Christmas card list. The following year, a less than impressedIsabella managed to persuade Edward to send her to France to help solve the Gascony question. Isabella’s answer to the question appears to have been: teamup with Mortimer, invade England and put the Despensers to death. It is unlikelythat this was Edward’s preferred answer but it was certainly emphatic.

After seizing power, Isabella and Mortimer had Edward II declared officially incompetent, Isabella’s son declared king and themselves named as regents.Shortly thereafter, Edward II was found impaled on a large stake in suspiciouscircumstances but, as no one was brave enough to suspect the culprits, nocharges were laid.

The two regents ruled England for almost four years and it was during thisperiod that their happy and contented subjects gave Isabella her charming petname. Their reign would undoubtedly have been longer but for the impatience ofthe young king. King Edward III, who by this stage was happily married toPhillipa of Hainault and the proud father of a black prince, decided he was oldenough to be king in his own right. In one of the world’s most sucessful teenagerebellions, he used a secret underground passageway to sneak into Nottinghamcastle at night and captured Mortimer. Edward promptly declared the regency(and Mortimer) at an end.

Edward encouraged Isabella to retire from public life but, as he allowed herto retain the revenues from her various estates, she was able to live relativelycomfortably in the country. When she eventually grew tired of being incrediblywealthy, she joined a religious order, the Poor Clares, and retired to an abbeywhere she died peacefully of old age in 1358.


(*)Bannockburn, Battle of.
Edward II had replaced Edward I in the war with Scotland during the half time interval. In the first half, the Wallace had put the Scots in front at Stirling but Edward I’s equaliser at Falkirk and the suspension of the Wallace had swung the war England’s way. As Edward II had started his reign as the recognised ruler of Scotland, all he really had to do was play for a draw. Despite this, both Scotland and England kept up the aggression in the second half and, in 1314, Robert the Bruce sliced through the English defence at Bannockburn to win the war for Scotland and give the Scots independence up until the end of history in 1600.(**)

(**)The SCA is an ideal home for Scottish nationalists as the more embarrassing events of Scots history (its attempt to colonise South America, its subsequent bankruptcy and the sale of Scotland to England) occurred in the 17th Century and, therefore, didn’t happen.