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Edward II of England Was Overthrown by His Wife

Isabella of France is welcomed in Paris where she was born.

Isabella of France is welcomed in Paris where she was born.

Isabella: Pushed to the Breaking Point

The intelligent and captivating Isabella, who was born around 1295 and died in 1358, was the youngest daughter of King Philip IV The Fair Of France. She was married to Edward II of England (1284-1327) on January 25, 1308, when she was about 12 years old.

At age 16, she bore him a son and successor, another Edward (1312-1377). John, Earl of Eltham (1316-1336), Eleanor of Woodstock (1318-1355) and Joan of the Tower (1321-1362) completed this royal family. The girls’ birthplaces were Woodstock Palace in Oxfordshire and the Tower of London.

During Edward’s reign (1307-1327), conflict dominated as he tried to control the barons. In the early years, the barons were not inclined to give him unquestioning loyalty, because his favourite and probable lover Piers Gaveston (1284-1312) received too many privileges—including the earldom of Cornwall and a prestigious dynastic match organised by the king.

Gaveston threatened the baron’s powers and the king did not trouble himself to try and disguise his preference for his friend’s company above all other attendees at court, including Isabella. One contemporary chronicler claimed that England had “two kings . . . the one in name the other in deed.”

Marcus Stone's 19th century imagining of Edward II and Piers Gaveston watched by troubled barons and courtiers.

Marcus Stone's 19th century imagining of Edward II and Piers Gaveston watched by troubled barons and courtiers.

Surviving the Court Bullies and Imposters

Nobly, Isabella cultivated a relationship of strained toleration that bordered on friendship with Piers Gaveston but emotions ran too high in the country. He was executed by the barons in 1312. Although Isabella had proved herself a capable diplomat, reconciliation between king and barons was a distant prospect.

Edward’s era also saw The Great Famine in Europe, this was a long agricultural crisis in which crops failed, livestock died and the people suffered as their incomes dropped and prices of goods rose steeply. The English people decided that the famine and English military defeats against Scotland were punishments from God. In 1318 John of Powderham announced himself to be the true king. Edward had him executed. John was hung, so was his cat who he claimed was the devil, and he was then burnt. John of Powderham’s words stoked the dissatisfaction with the reign.

In the 1320’s the king championed the Despenser family, an unpopular power hungry thuggish brood who realised his revenge on the barons. Isabella loathed the Despensers, particularly Hugh Despenser the Younger (c.1287-1326,) Edward’s chief crony and rumoured lover. She lost lands, saw her staff arrested and despaired when her younger children were placed in the Despenser family’s care with Edward’s approbation. There were whispers that Hugh Despenser tried to or did assault Isabella but we’ll never know.

Invasion: A Woman on a Mission

From 1322 she lived separately from the king. Her resentment escalated. Women were largely ignored, regarded as weaker vessels. Historical records of the queens of medieval kings are often incomplete and are rare but it’s fair to say that Isabella was not thought of as a credible threat to anyone because as a woman she was routinely underestimated.

In 1325 Isabella, with the future Edward III, made a diplomatic trip to France. She announced that she would not return to England whilst the Despensers influenced Edward II. Roger Mortimer, 3rd Baron Mortimer of Wigmore (1287-1330,) an exiled baron living in Paris, and Isabella became lovers by the end of the year. The couple plotted Edward’s downfall so that they could seize power. Interestingly, Mortimer and Edward II were born on 25th April three years apart, This was the Feast of St. Mark Day, a day that was believed to be a bad omen by many.

Securing the support of a number of barons for a coup, they arranged a marriage between Edward and Philippa of Hainault (c.1310-1369,) Isabella’s cousin. Philippa’s dowry and a loan from Isabella’s brother Charles IV of France (1294-1328) helped to finance the invasion of England in 1326. The rebels overthrew the government, executed the Despensers, forced the king to abdicate, had him incarcerated in Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire and claimed the throne for eldest son Edward.

Mortimer was created the Earl of March. Isabella was the teenaged Edward’s regent and so Mortimer effectively ruled England. The king died in September 1327. Rumours persisted that he escaped and lived as a hermit but it’s likely that he met with a brutal fate. In 1330 Edward III broke away from Mortimer and his mother’s grasp; he had Mortimer executed at Tyburn and Isabella was sent to Berkhamsted Castle in Hertfordshire, then to Windsor Castle and Castle Rising in Norfolk, under house arrest. Edward III gave her a generous allowance.

A romanticised depiction of Edward II's arrest.

A romanticised depiction of Edward II's arrest.

Branded a She-Wolf and Unnatural

She experienced a nervous breakdown after Mortimer’s execution. Although publicly she was portrayed as a poor weak woman manipulated by Mortimer to engineer Edward II’s downfall, she had committed the crime of turning on her husband and king and behaving as an unnatural woman. A woman who thought that she could and should enjoy power. A woman who usurped a man. She was referred to as the She-wolf of France. Throughout the centuries that followed, her character in plays was often shown as a beautiful but manipulative cold creature.

As the years passed, she welcomed visits from her expanding family and grew increasingly religious, she joined the Poor Clares order of nuns in her final days. She died at Hertford Castle on the 22nd August 1358. She was buried in her wedding outfit at her request, at a Franciscan Church in Newgate, London with Edward II’s heart in a casket interred beside her. The grave did not survive Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries.

Hugh Despenser's execution by Froissart.

Hugh Despenser's execution by Froissart.


© 2021 Joanne Hayle