Doth This Marriage Prosper: Edward II and Isabella
Edward feels like Isabella should accept his friendships with his “favorites” since it doesn’t interfere with their royal marriage. After all she is his Queen and the mother of his children. But Isabella wants Edward to spend more time with her and be respectful of her nobility. Doth this marriage prosper?
I was born to be a Queen. I am the only surviving daughter of Joan of Navarre (a Queen in her own right) and Philip IV, the most powerful monarch in Europe as well as the most handsome. He was called Philip le Bel. I had three older brothers. Louis (X) Philip (V) and Charles (IV).
I cannot remember when I did not know I was destined to be Queen of England. When the Treaty of Montreuil was signed in in 1299, it stated that I was to marry Edward to establish peace between England and France. We were formally betrothed in 1303. I was only 7, but very excited to become the Queen of England.
Sadly, my mother died when I was about 9. So it fell to my father to instruct me in the role a Queen should play, how a court should structured and how (above all) to help maintain peaceful and cordial relations with my husband (to whom I owed loyalty, obedience and love).
My father also told me that as a Princess of France, it was my duty to make sure that my English husband’s policies favored France over any other nation. My father often praised my intelligence and my beauty, my skill at diplomacy and my impeccable court manners.
On the 25th of January 1308, Edward and I were married in Boulogne in front of the entire French Court, many European Royals and a large contingent from the English Court. We were dressed in the finest clothes available and if the gasps that filled the church when we arrived were any indication, we made an unusually handsome couple. I was twelve and Edward was 23.
I was very, very happy that day. I could not take my eyes off my handsome groom. I dreamed of a wonderful future together with Edward where we ruled a happy and prosperous England together, with a nursery full of handsome sons and beautiful daughters and sharing the same close and loving relationships our parents had.
I had such hope in my heart on my wedding day that I overlooked Edward’s odd behavior. For instance, Edward never looked at me. He wore a stiff, formal smile that never touched his eyes. And he spent no time with me at all. At the time I thought it was just the pressure of the occasion and once we were alone together, the prince of my dream would emerge.
At last we set sail for England. The trip across the Channel (seldom easy) was particularly difficult in winter. We finally landed at Dover, wet, cold and hungry. I looked around, expecting Edward, as my husband and my king, to escort me off the ship and introduce me to my new subjects.
That’s why I was so shocked to see him racing through the crowds below and joyously fling himself into the arms of a magnificently attired courtier.
My youngest brother, Charles, came and stood by my side at the ship’s rail looking both embarrassed and disgusted. I was bewildered. I knew that Edward had two half-brothers, but they were still in the nursery. I asked, ‘who is this man my husband is so happy to see?’
One of the English ladies standing behind me, snorted and said, “That, my dear, is “Brother Perrot” or Piers Gaveston, who has been the Kings constant companion for years.”
When Charles and I left the ship and joined the crowd on the dock, Edward came running up to me, pulled me by the arm across the dock, and stopped in front of Piers exclaiming, “Isabella, this is my dearest friend, Piers Gaveston. He is closer to me than any brother. I do hope you will be friends.”
As I opened my mouth to speak, I noticed that Piers was bedecked with the jewelry my father had given us as part of our wedding gift. I flushed with anger, turned on my heel and walked away. The crowd watched with avid interest.
The next few weeks passed in a happy blur. My triumphal entry into the city of London thrilled me. Huge crowds lined both sides of the streets. Loud cheers greeted my every wave and nod. My husband still ignored me but the people of England did not. I promised myself that I would work very hard to do my best for them.
The planning of our coronation had been left in Piers’ hands. Unfortunately, Piers didn’t do a good job. The service took hours more than it should have and when we all arrived in the banquet hall absolutely famished, we found that the dinner which should have been ready for us, was not. When we were finally served, the food was dreadful. Those of us used to the standards of my father’s court were disgusted and angry. The English were outraged and insulted.
When I asked Piers about it, he claimed his enemies had bribed the people in charge to deliberately embarrass him. And Edward believed him! Sadly it wouldn’t be the last time that my husband sided with his friend over me, his wife!
My first few years as Queen of England were difficult, to say the least. Far from having the “perfect” King I had dreamed of, Edward was a rude awakening. Unlike my royal father who relished the duty and powers of the Monarchy, Edward does everything he can to anger the Barons (cheered on by Piers), avoids his duty to the people and to the court. But worst of all, Edward avoids his duty to govern.
He prefers swimming and rowing a boat. He spends hours with his horse trainers, grooms and kennel keepers, working on the breeding books. Whenever he can he joins his tenants on his estates as they dig ditches, thatch roofs or raise barns.
His greatest joy seems to be showering “Brother Perrot” with jewels, estates and riches beyond belief (and some of this largesse was mine by right). But to add insult to injury, Edward gave that knave the royal title, The Earl of Cornwall, and arranged a royal marriage with his niece Margaret de Clare.
I could see I was on the losing side of this Piers relationship. I had to learn to compromise with Piers if I was ever going to have a relationship with my husband. So I tentatively joined them in their discussions. I joined the gambling and the games, and I encouraged hunting and hawking parties. Eventually, I won a grudging respect from them. I wrote letters supportive of my husband to the French Court, the Barons and the Pope and Bishops trying to bring all parties to a peaceful resolution of their concerns.
But even with all my efforts, my husband continued to favor Piers. Edward couldn’t see how much the court hated him. Three times Piers was banished from England, and each time Edward demanded his return. The third time he came back, Piers was captured by his enemies and beheaded. I can’t say I was sorry.
Edward was beside himself with grief. I tried to comfort him and in his grief he turned to me for affection, companionship and advice. Finally, I came first in my husband’s world.
The next 10 years were the happiest years of our marriage. We started having marital relations on a somewhat regular basis. Miraculously our relationship produced four healthy and handsome children, Edward, John, Eleanor and Joan.
Edward was delighted with all of us. He started including me in the governance of the country. I often sat in on council meetings, negotiations with diplomats and even, occasionally, meeting with the Barons. He encouraged me to continue writing letters on his behalf. We visited France together, we went on pilgrimages to Canterbury and Walsingham, and we celebrated the holidays with extravagant gaiety. As Queen, I was generous to the poor and tried to set a pious example. I was still wildly popular with the people and attracted cheering crowds whenever I appeared in public.
But about the time little Joan was born, I sensed a change in Edward’s feeing towards me. I was no longer included in anything to do with governance. I was not consulted or asked my opinion on anything. The monies due me were harder to obtain than early in our marriage.
I began to suspect that a new favorite had emerged. His name was Hugh Despenser. And Hugh really hates me. Unlike Piers who only wanted wealth, Hugh wanted everything. My estates were stripped from me. My household was decimated and my French courtiers banished to France
Edward ignored all my pleas. My living expenses were cut to a beggarly amount. And the final insult, the one that really drove me over the edge, was Edward took my children away from me and sent them to live with Hugh’s relatives. And to make matters even worse, Hugh’s awful wife, Eleanor, was forced upon me as a lady-in-waiting. I know she was sent to spy on me.
Hugh Despenser is one of the most odious men on earth. He is incapable of any sense of decency. He took away my husband, my children, my estates, my position and when he stripped me of all that, he tried to take me. So besotted is my husband by this man, and so under his control that Edward refuses to see me – his own wife.
Fortunately, the Barons and the Court hate Hugh much more than thy hated Piers. And I had another advantage: I was a Princess of France, well schooled in diplomacy and my brother Charles sat on the throne of France.
Edward needed someone to negotiate a peace treaty with France. He dare not go and take Hugh with him. (Enough of my smuggled letters had gotten through to my brother to guarantee an unpleasant reception for Hugh.) He dare not leave Hugh behind, in case his English enemies took it upon themselves to remove this most hated of men. Finally, some of the bishops persuaded Edward to send me to handle the negotiations.
I was so desperate to get out of England and away from Hugh and Edward that I smiled and nodded at their long list of instructions. I poured on the charm towards both my husband and his favorite. Soon I set sail for France. I was FREE!
The negotiations went as well as could be expected. My brother and I rapidly reestablished the affection we had had shared as children. He spent a great deal of time talking with me and is horrified at the way I am being treated.
So as I sit here in my home country, I wonder, if I can ever go back to Edward. Can I ever trust him to treat me like his wife and his Queen? I no longer expect love from Edward, but I do expect respect. And what about my children?
Plus, I’ve met someone. He’s an English refugee, living in exile here after escaping from the Tower of London. When he learned that Hugh and the rest of the Despensers were stealing estates from the Marcher Lords, he led a rebellion. Unfortunately it failed and he was sent to the Tower. His name is Roger de Mortimer.
When we met, I thought I had been struck by lightning. Even though I have been married for many years, I have never experienced any type of grand passion. I have been loyal and true to my husband, but he has closed his ears and eyes to the degrading actions of “his favorite” towards me. My fairy-tale prince is a monster.
I know the Pope will say no divorce. But I don’t think I can give up my new-found love. But I am Queen of England and I must think of my duty and the future of my son, Edward. His father may be unfit to rule, but I believe my son will make a splendid king. Don’t I have a responsibility towards my son?
Could I ever go back to England and Edward, who has lied and cheated and given his loyalty, which should have been mine, to his favorites? And if I should go back, even if the nobles got rid of Despenser, how long would it be before another “Brother Perrot” or “Nephew Hugh” would appear on the horizon? I don’t know if I could survive that.
As usual, Isabella is blowing things way out of proportion. All my life, I’ve had my special friends, first Piers and now Hugh. There’s nothing sinister about them. I had a very lonely childhood and I never wanted to be king. These friendships help me deal with all the kingly pomp and duty I have to suffer through,
Had the fates been kind, one of my three older brothers would have lived to rule and I could have lived away from Court pursuing the activities I enjoy. But fate was not kind and at age four months I was the sole surviving son of Edward I of England and Eleanor of Castile. My parents were devoted to each other and were seldom apart. I scarcely saw my parents growing up.
When my mother died, I was six. I barely noticed. But my father was shattered. Eventually though, he realized that I was it in the way of heirs, so he better toughen me up.
Trained in the military arts and in governance by Simon De Montfort, my father epitomized the “perfect king”. He was a born leader. He was good at negotiations. He was blessed with the common touch – the people of England took great pride in him. He was a strong enough personality to keep the nobility under control. He codified the laws of England and conducted “perfect “parliaments. In short, my father was good at everything … and I was not.
Oh, physically I was as tall as he was (he was called “Longshanks”). And we looked quite a bit alike. I could hold my own with a sword. The difference was, I didn’t love it – I didn’t even enjoy it.
Before my father began to take an intense interest in my education and training, my household had been fairly lax. We passed our days gambling and drinking wine. (How upset my father used to get at the vintner bills!) Some effort was made to teach me the rudiments of reading and writing and a smattering of Latin. We sometimes had lessons in sword play and other military skills and I did have some religious training.
I spent a great deal of time with the sons of the household servants and the crofters’ sons. I loved helping them dig ditches, thatch roofs, build sheds and shoe horses. I loved horses and dogs (especially greyhounds) and the stable and kennel masters taught me how to breed them and how to keep accurate stud books. I liked to work in the garden.
My father despaired of me.
So when I was 16, my father selected a group of young courtiers and sent them to join my household. With one exception, they were all rather dull, despite being well trained in the “manly” arts and manners of the Court.
The one exception – Piers Gaveston. At first sight, I felt as if I had been stuck by lightening. The more time I spent with him, the more I loved him. I had yearned for a brother closer to my age than my two small half- brothers, who I rarely saw.
We soon became inseparable. The son of a minor Gascon Knight who had loyally served my father, Piers was far better trained as a soldier than I was. He excelled at tournaments. He found Council meetings and governance as tedious as I did. He had a sharp and sarcastic wit that made me double over with mirth.
Piers would mock the nobles in my father’s court and give them outrageous nicknames. He could outshine them in tournaments and mock battles. Worst of all, they felt, he encouraged me in pranks and other mischief against them. The Nobles were not amused.
When I asked my father to make Piers, Count of Pontieu (one of the counties I had inherited), my father erupted in a towering rage. He struck me, kicked me and dragged me about by my hair. He accused me of giving away the kingdom. The pain and humiliation was bad enough but a far worse punishment awaited. Piers, my beloved brother, was banished from England. I, too, was banished from Court and sent to a small manor.
Eventually, my father summoned me to join him on the Scottish border as he fought the unruly Scots. But before I could leave to join him, my father died. I was stunned. How could I, his flawed eldest son, ever hope to fill his boots.
The very first order I gave as King was to end Piers banishment. Oh the joy at our reunion. I made him Duke of Cornwall since he was like a royal brother to me. I arranged his marriage to my wealthy niece, Margaret de Clare. I showered gifts and honors upon him. The nobility was enraged but I didn’t care. I was King of England and I could do as I wished.
I soon found out, however, that as King, I would have to do a few things I would have preferred not to do. In order to establish peace with our perpetual enemy, the French, I had to go to France to negotiate a treaty, pay homage to their King for my French landholdings and fulfill the promise my father made that I would marry the French Princess, Isabella, a mere child of twelve .
She was pretty enough. And I knew my duty. The wedding was fine and although I scarcely spoke to Isabella, she didn’t seem to mind. We soon set sail for England and arrived back in Dover. Okay, looking back, I probably shouldn’t have rushed off the boat and flung myself at Piers. But he looked amazing – the best dressed in the crowd simply dripping in the jewels from the French treasure trove.
But when I introduced my new wife to my best friend, Isabella was just so snotty to him. Why couldn’t she understand that I had missed my dear brother? And what was the big deal if I chose to ride next to him all the way to London.
Couldn’t she be happy that she dazzled the people of London with her youth and beauty … and all the alms she doled out? The crowds adored her and so did I in my way. But she was only 12!
Soon we settled in to royal married life. It wasn’t easy. I had arranged for Piers to be General of Ireland. The nobles wanted him banished outright. I know Isabella secretly did too. But I couldn’t do it. I went to see him off and as the sails of his ship disappeared beyond the horizon, a sadness and loneliness descended the likes of which I had never felt. I tried to explain it to Isabella, but she just doesn’t get Piers and me.
The years pass. Isabella was away from court a lot. And when we did meet up, all she did was complain. There wasn’t enough money. She hadn’t received her dower lands. Her clothes were shabby. She has to patch her own shoes. I know she felt ignored and neglected.
So even though the Royal Treasury was virtually empty, I managed to scrounge enough money to upgrade her wardrobe. Well, I guess that was all she needed. She was delighted. We soon were sharing the same residence and I saw a great deal more of her on a daily basis. We took long walks, went riding, had picnics by the river and spent the evenings playing chess or reading to each other.
The more time I spent with her, the more amazed I was by her intelligence and of the extensive training in governance and negotiation she had received from her father. So I began to include her in Council meetings. She was a good judge of people and was often able to smooth over disagreements among the Council members. She also excelled at conciliatory letters of negotiation with the nobles, the churchmen (including the Pope) and foreign foes and allies.
She was a delightful dinner companion, almost as witty as Piers without his tendency to wound. I became quite comfortable in her company.
As fond as I became of Isabella, I never ceased to ache for the companionship of my dearest Piers. To everyone’s astonishment, he had been extremely successful in Ireland. When I could no longer bear the emptiness his absence left in my life, I recalled him and let the nobles be damned.
I was the King and could do as I wished. Why don’t people get that! But again, the nobles insisted on Piers banishment and I refused. Isabella was with child and I was sure that an heir might give those with dreams of seizing my throne, pause for thought. Pause???? They chased us all over England. Piers was captured and beheaded at Blacklow Hill. I was heartbroken.
But strangely, for Isaballa and me, the next few years were the happiest of our marriage. Isabella gave birth to two handsome sons, Edward and John, followed by two beautiful daughters, Eleanor and Joan. I had never particularly liked children but my own were quite wonderful and I tried to be a good father.
While Isabella was busy with the children, there was constant strife throughout England. Bad weather destroyed the crops causing several years of famine. There was talk of Civil War. The Barons and the Marcher Lords rose up against me and I was thankful to have the help of the two Hugh Despensers. Hugh the Elder had been one of my father’s most loyal supporters and always supported me as well. His son, Hugh the Younger was a clever, ambitious man who soon became my chamberlain. Unlike me, Hugh took to governance as a duck takes to water. He was someone I could rely on. I needed him. I knew I wasn’t very good at doing the king stuff.
But again, Isabella became suspicious and jealous of my growing friendship. Hugh was a solid, able advisor. He showed me that women had no place in government, and it was their duty to obey and support their husbands. Surely she can understand that. With all my duties, it was only natural that I would see less of Isabella. I wasn’t ignoring her. I was just busy with work.
When war with France broke out again, Hugh convinced me that Isabella’s loyalty was to her brother, not to her husband. It’s so awkward when fights break out with the in-laws. At Hugh’s urging, we confiscated her manor houses, eliminated her staff, restricted her public appearances and limited her allowances. It was war. It had to be done. Okay, maybe taking the children away from her and placing them with solid English families so they wouldn’t be corrupted by her French influence was a bit much.
But I trust Hugh to do what is best for England and for my family. Isabella has to understand that England comes first. When the war ended, Charles suggested his sister come to France to negotiate the peace. Isabella is an excellent negotiator and I thought she could influence her brother better than I. Things had been tense between us, and I though this show of trust and responsibility would bring us closer. Hugh and I went to Dover to wish her Godspeed. She seemed quite happy and chatted with us in a friendly manner. I believed everything between us would be okay!
But once she arrived in France and was under the protection of her brother she became a different person. Oh, she did well with the treaty, but she also began to attract a large group of radical exiles, including Roger Mortimer, a traitor to England. It was like she became all French again. Now she tells me she’s not coming home.
Charles is demanding I come to France to do homage for Aquitaine or forfeit it to the French crown. Hugh doesn’t want me to go. So I’m sending my 14-year-old son, Edward in my place. I think that will make Isabella happy and show her I want our marriage to work. After all, she’s my queen. But I want the old caring Isabella back. Not this demanding shrew. She’s so melodramatic. She says I betrayed her. Please. I just did what a King has to do to keep his throne and country safe.
I now sit in a room in in the Royal Quarters in the Tower (the only place Hugh feels safe) reading letters from Isabella and young Edward. I would do anything to get them back, except the one action Isabella insists upon – expelling Hugh from England forever.
The Counselor’s Turn
Arranged marriages can be difficult, said the counselor. But it’s not as if Edward and Isabella weren’t raised knowing they were going to marry complete strangers.
But Isabella’s tender age of only 12 didn’t help these two begin their marriage realistically. Isabella’s head was stuffed with dreamy notions of a Prince in Shining Armor who would love her and place her, not only on the throne of England, but also on the throne of his heart.
With his mother’s death when he was only six and his father retreating into grief, Edward’s world at a young age was shattered and he never really put himself back together again. His sisters left for marriage or the convent when he was still a very young child and his younger half-brothers weren’t born until he was 16. He grew up alone, neglected, lonely and unsure of who to trust. He may have seen his mother’s death as a cruel desertion and therefore can’t bring himself to trust his wife, afraid she too might leave.
Unfortunately for Edward, when his father did get around to noticing him, it was only to toughen him up to be king. Something Edward was not inclined to do. Edward grew up knowing of the huge disappointment he was to his father. He brought all of this baggage and low self-esteem to his marriage.
In the early years, Isabella and Edward communicated poorly. Neither one were emotionally mature enough to face the big issues confronting their marriage. Edward didn’t help matters with his all-consuming friendship with his childhood friend, Piers. All the attention, love and support he should have given to his new, young and foreign wife, he gave instead to Piers. Edward simply couldn’t rearrange his affections at that time to include his wife.
Meanwhile, Isabella was demanding to be treated as his wife and queen. So Edward simply retreated from her. It wasn’t until Piers was beheaded that the couple started to behave like a married couple. Isabella put aside her jealousy and was able to comfort her husband at the death of his friend. Edward responded by finally acting like the husband Isabella had dreamed about while a girl in France.
Both would agree that this was perhaps the best time in their marriage. During this interlude, their children were born and they grew closer as a family. Isabella also was finally able to use the diplomatic skills she had been trained with as a child. It gave her a sense of importance, not only in her public life, but in her relationship with Edward.
Yet Edward couldn’t help but fall back into old patterns. Perhaps Isabella and her perfection in her royal duties reminded him too much of his father and the demands his father placed on him. Edward felt he couldn’t live up to his role of King and that put enormous internal pressure on him.
So he fell in to another dependent relationship with Hugh Despenser, that once again, Isabella soon became jealous of. And Hugh was very different from Piers. While Piers was simply greedy and Edward obliged him in his greed, Hugh wanted all-consuming power over Edward and was a real threat to Isabella. Sadly, Edward, in his great need for acceptance, couldn’t see the difference between the two men.
Then of course Isabella’s brother was not helping by declaring war on her husband. Despite all of Isabella’s assurances, Edward chose to believe Hugh that his wife was more loyal to her brother than to him. Edward, in his deep insecurities, began punishing Isabella by taking away her wealth and marginalizing her as queen.
Isabella was a proud woman. She had firm ideas of how she was to be treated by her husband. Any small deviation by Edward could trigger jealousy, as her perfect image of what married life was supposed to be was threatened.
It’s hard to save a marriage where the sense of betrayal runs so deep. Both spouses must want to overcome the obstacles. No easy thing to be sure, but I think it is just possible that Edward and Isabella can pull themselves back from the brink. They have four children to consider and a sense of duty to the crown.
However to accomplish this, Edward absolutely must give up Hugh as his advisor and restore to Isabella her manors and wealth. This would be a huge step forward for Isabella to reconcile with her husband and believe she has regained her rightful place by his side as Queen, wife and mother to his children.
When I told Isabella she must give up her relationship with Roger Mortimer, she was unwilling to do so. I’m sure Roger is meeting many of her emotional and perhaps physical needs as well. But she is Queen of England. She can’t really be off canoodling with a mere Marcher lord, and a married one at that. Nothing good will come of it. And she also must curb her rash statements that she will only return to England at the head of the army. That’s not helpful.
Right now, Edward and Isabella have committed to communicating with one another through letters. That’s a positive first step. I’ve asked both to clearly state what they want from the other and what they want for England.
There is common ground. Both want to see their son safely succeed to the throne. Isabella wants her husband to respect her skills and abilities. I believe Edward is open to that. Edward wants Isabella to not be so harsh and critical of his friends. Isabella might consider that if Hugh leaves court.
Plus, they both recognize that the Pope will most likely never grant a divorce. So if they wish to find any happiness in this life with one another, they must make sacrifices to return to the respectful, if not loving, relationship they once shared. Only then, will this marriage prosper.