Isabella of France (1295 – 22 August 1358), sometimes described as the She-wolf of France, was Queen consort of England as the wife of Edward II of England. She was the youngest surviving child and only surviving daughter of Philip IV of France and Joan I of Navarre. Queen Isabella was notable at the time for her beauty, diplomatic skills, and intelligence.
Isabella arrived in England at the age of twelve during a period of growing conflict between the king and the powerful baronial factions. Her new husband was notorious for the patronage he lavished on his favorite, Piers Gaveston, but the queen supported Edward during these early years, forming a working relationship with Piers and using her relationship with the French monarchy to bolster her own authority and power. After the death of Gaveston at the hands of the barons in 1312, however, Edward later turned to a new favorite, Hugh Despenser the younger, and attempted to take revenge on the barons, resulting in the Despenser War and a period of internal repression across England. Isabella could not tolerate Hugh Despenser and by 1325 her marriage to Edward was at a breaking point.
Traveling to France under the guise of a diplomatic mission, Isabella began an affair with Roger Mortimer, and the two agreed to depose Edward and oust the Despenser family. The Queen returned to England with a small mercenary army in 1326, moving rapidly across England. The King's forces deserted him. Isabella deposed Edward, becoming regent on behalf of her son, Edward III. Many have believed that Isabella then arranged the murder of Edward II. Isabella and Mortimer’s regime began to crumble, partly because of her lavish spending, but also because the Queen successfully, but unpopularity, resolved long-running problems such as the wars with Scotland.
In 1330, Isabella’s son Edward III deposed Mortimer in turn, taking back his authority and executing Isabella’s lover. The Queen was not punished, however, and lived for many years in considerable style-although not at Edward III’s court-until her death in 1358. Isabella became a popular "femme fatale" figure in plays and literature over the years, usually portrayed as a beautiful but cruel, manipulative figure.
Isabella was born in Paris on an uncertain date – on the basis of the chroniclers and the eventual date of her marriage, she was probably born between May and November 1295. She is described as born in 1292 in the Annals of Wigmore, and Piers Langtoft agrees, claiming that she was 7 years old in 1299. The French chroniclers Guillaume de Nangis and Thomas Walsingham describe her as 12 years old at the time of her marriage in January 1308, placing her birth between the January of 1295 and of 1296. A Papal dispensation by Clement V in November 1305 permitted her immediate marriage by proxy, despite the fact that she was probably only 10 years old. Since she had to reach the canonical age of 7 before her betrothal in May 1303, and that of 12 before her marriage in January 1308, the evidence suggests that she was born between May and November 1295. Her parents were King Philip IV of France and Queen Joan I of Navarre; her brothers Louis, Philip and Charles became kings of France.
Isabella was born into a royal family that ruled the most powerful state in Western Europe. Her father, King Philip, known as "le Bel" (the Fair) because of his good looks, was a strangely unemotional man; contemporaries described him as "neither a man nor a beast, but a statue"; modern historians have noted that he "cultivated a reputation for Christian kingship and showed few weaknesses of the flesh". Philip built up centralised royal power in France, engaging in a sequence of conflicts to expand or consolidate French authority across the region, but remained chronically short of money throughout his reign. Indeed, he appeared almost obsessed about building up wealth and lands, something that his daughter was also accused of in later life. Isabella's mother died when Isabella was still quite young; some contemporaries suspected Philip IV of her murder, albeit probably incorrectly.
Isabella was brought up in and around the Château du Louvre and the Palais de la Cité in Paris. Isabella was cared for by Théophania de Saint-Pierre, her nurse, given a good education and taught to read, developing a love of books. As was customary for the period, all of Philip's children were married young for political benefit. Isabella was promised in marriage by her father to King Edward II of England whilst she was still an infant, with the intention to resolve the conflicts between France and England over the latter's continental possession of Gascony and claims to Anjou, Normandy and Aquitaine. Pope Boniface VIII had urged the marriage as early as 1298 but was delayed by wrangling over the terms of the marriage contract. The English king, Edward I attempted to break the engagement several times for political advantage, and only after he died in 1307 did the wedding proceed.
Isabella and Edward were finally married at Boulogne-sur-Mer on 25 January 1308. Isabella's wardrobe gives some indications of her wealth and style – she had gowns of baudekyn, velvet, taffeta and cloth, along with numerous furs; she had over 72 headdresses and coifs; she brought with her two gold crowns, gold and silver dinnerware and 419 yards of linen. At the time of her marriage, Isabella was probably about twelve and was described by Geoffrey of Paris as "the beauty of beauties... in the kingdom if not in all Europe." This description was probably not simply flattery by a chronicler, since both Isabella's father and brothers were considered very handsome men by contemporaries, and her husband was to nickname her "Isabella the Fair". Isabella was said to resemble her father, and not her mother, queen regnant of Navarre, a plump, plain woman. This indicates that Isabella was slender and pale-skinned, although the fashion at the time was for blonde, slightly full-faced women, and Isabella may well have followed this stereotype instead. Throughout her career, Isabella was noted as charming and diplomatic, with a particular skill at convincing people to follow her courses of action. Unusual for the medieval period, contemporaries also commented on her high intelligence.
After the coup, Isabella was initially transferred to Berkhamsted Castle, and then held under house arrest at Windsor Castle until 1332, when she then moved back to her own Castle Rising in Norfolk. Agnes Strickland, a Victorian historian, argued that Isabella suffered from occasional fits of madness during this period but modern interpretations suggest, at worst, a nervous breakdown following the death of her lover. Isabella remained extremely wealthy; despite being required to surrender most of her lands after losing power, in 1331 she was reassigned a yearly income of £3000, which increased to £4000 by 1337. She lived an expensive lifestyle in Norfolk, including minstrels, huntsmen, grooms and other luxuries, and was soon travelling again around England. In 1342, there were suggestions that she might travel to Paris to take part in peace negotiations, but eventually this plan was quashed. She was also appointed to negotiate with France in 1348 and was involved in the negotiations with Charles II of Navarre in 1358.
As the years went by, Isabella became very close to her daughter Joan, especially after Joan left her unfaithful husband, King David II of Scotland. Joan also nursed her just before she died. She doted on her grandchildren, including Edward, the Black Prince. She became increasingly interested in religion as she grew older, visiting a number of shrines. She remained, however, a gregarious member of the court, receiving constant visitors; amongst her particular friends appear to have been Roger Mortimer's daughter Agnes Mortimer, Countess of Pembroke, and Roger Mortimer's grandson, also called Roger Mortimer, whom Edward III restored to the Earldom of March. King Edward and his children often visited her as well. She remained interested in Arthurian legends and jewellery; in 1358 she appeared at the St George's Day celebrations at Windsor wearing a dress made of silk, silver, 300 rubies, 1800 pearls and a circlet of gold. She may also have developed an interest in astrology or geometry towards the end of her life, receiving various presents relating to these disciplines.
Isabella took the habit of the Poor Clares before she died on 22 August 1358, and her body was returned to London for burial at the Franciscan church at Newgate, in a service overseen by Archbishop Simon Islip. She was buried in the mantle she had worn at her wedding and at her request, Edward's heart, placed into a casket thirty years before, was interred with her. Isabella left the bulk of her property, including Castle Rising, to her favourite grandson, the Black Prince, with some personal effects being granted to her daughter Joan