Royal Mother, Royal Son: Isabella & Edward III
by Peggy M. Baker
Isabella of France is often defined purely by the spectacular failure of her marriage to King Edward II. She was not the first (or the last!) English queen to suffer a lack of harmony, or even respect, within her royal marriage. The steps that Isabella took to avenge her unhappiness and loss of dignity, however, were unique in their extent and success.
Edward sent Isabella on a diplomatic mission to France, with far-reaching and fatal consequences. Isabella established an independent power base, invaded England, and overthrew her husband in the name of their teenage son. Edward II was imprisoned and then murdered. For three years, Isabella ruled England. Finally, her son Edward III grew to maturity and claimed his throne, toppling his mother’s regime.
Isabella’s prolonged and deadly struggle with Edward II has overshadowed all other aspects of her life. Her story has been interpreted as the degeneration of a queen and wife, in a downward spiral from guile to treachery to murder. Even Isabella’s ultimate loss of power to her son has been seen as the final chapter of her duel with her husband.
The extraordinary clash between Isabella and Edward II was played out on a public stage, to the disbelief and shock of all Europe. Behind the scenes, however, was another equally fascinating set of interactions between Isabella and her son Edward III. Conducted quietly and with discretion, their mother-son relationship remains one of the great mysteries of English royal history.
The marriage between 12-year-old Isabella, daughter of King Philip IV of France, and 24-year-old Edward II, who had just succeeded to his father’s throne, did not have a promising start.
Edward had already formed a strong emotional attachment to the ambitious, witty, impudent, young aristocrat Piers Gaveston. Piers was absolutely loathed by the English barons. They forced Piers into exile in 1308. Edward recalled him – and the turmoil worsened. Isabella, sidelined and ignored, nevertheless remained loyal to her husband. After Piers was murdered in June 1312, she became Edward’s closest supporter.
On 13 November 1312, Isabella gave birth at Windsor Castle to their first child, a son named Edward for his father and grandfather. Edward II was overjoyed with the birth of his heir. According to the chronicle of the Monastery of St. Albans, “on that day his love of the boy began.”
Nevertheless, Edward and Isabella soon separated themselves from their infant son. This was expected and usual. Duty and devotion alike mandated that small royal children not be subjected to constant travel or to the perils of the court. Young royals, instead, were given their own households in clean and quiet country surroundings, with staffs of nurses and tutors to provide stability and continuity.
By the end of January 1313, Edward and Isabella had returned to London and the court. The household of young Lord Edward had moved to the healthy, safe, serene, non-political surroundings of an English countryside castle. Lord Edward, however, remained in his parent’s thoughts and hearts. They supervised his upbringing from afar, visiting when they could and writing when they could not.
Lord Edward’s brother John, born in 1316, joined his household, as did his sister Eleanor, born in 1318. By the time youngest sister Joan was born in 1321, however, the household had been dissolved. Lord Edward had joined his father’s household and court in London. John and Eleanor had joined their mother, Isabella, in her household just outside of London.
A Marriage Disintegrates
Isabella’s position had also (once again) changed. Since becoming mother to Edward II’s son and heir in 1312, she had grown in prestige, respect and wealth. In 1317, however, Edward began to fall under the influence of two new favorites. Hugh Despenser the Elder and his son Hugh Despenser the Younger were far more rapacious, aggressive, ruthless and unscrupulous than Piers had ever been. By 1321, the Despensers were so firmly entrenched that they were, in essence, ruling Edward and England.
The Despensers had always seen Isabella as a threat to their own power. Now, with their influence in the ascendancy, they could slowly and steadily move against her. Looming conflict with France gave them the excuse they needed.
In 1324, Edward II and the Despensers claimed that Isabella was a foreigner and an enemy. This was a totally unfounded accusation. Isabella was mother to England’s heir and had lived as England’s queen for sixteen years. Edward had sought marriage with her precisely because she WAS a princess of France. Together, Edward and Isabella had visited the court of her father, King Philip IV of France. On one memorable occasion, Isabella had arrived in Paris the day after Philip had burnt the Templar Grand Master at the stake and been (according to legend) cursed by him.
Nevertheless, Edward II sanctioned the actions of the Despensers. Isabella was deprived of her estates. Her income was cut drastically. All debts owed to her were called, and went straight into the king’s coffers. Hugh the Younger’s wife was put in charge of supervising Isabella and her household, holding Isabella’s seal and reading all her letters. Her three younger children (John, age 8; Eleanor, age 6; and Joan, age 3) were removed from her care and she was denied access to her oldest son Edward.
Those same troubles with France that prompted Isabella’s persecution, however, would ultimately provide Isabella with her own avenue to power.
Isabella’s brother Charles had succeeded to the French throne in 1323. He summoned Edward II, as Duke of Aquitaine, to Paris to pay homage for his hereditary lands in Gascony. Edward delayed until, in 1324, an exasperated Charles sent his armies in to repossess Gascony. War with France seemed likely. After being petitioned by both the Pope and the English Parliament, Edward agreed to send Isabella to France to negotiate a truce. He granted her a temporary retinue but refused to restore her estates, income, or access to her children.
Setting sail in March 1325, Isabella met her brother King Charles and, together, they made a grand ceremonial entrance into Paris on 1 April 1325. Terms were negotiated for the end of hostilities. Edward then ordered Isabella to return home. Isabella, instead, remained in France (with brother Charles paying her bills). She was gradually joined there by a number of disaffected England noblemen.
Yet to be settled was the issue of Edward II’s homage for Gascony. Edward would not, could not, leave the Despensers in England without his protection. Instead, in September 1325, he invested his son, young Lord Edward, not quite 13 years old, with the Duchy of Aquitaine and sent him to France to pay homage.
Lord Edward In France
Lord Edward landed at Boulogne on 14 September 1325. His meeting there with Isabella was probably their first reunion in two (or more) years. Lord Edward did not encounter the downtrodden, marginalized, powerless mother he had known in England. He met instead an honored and powerful Queen of England and Princess of France, dressed in silks and velvets, sparkling with jewels, accepting the deference of the high and mighty of Europe. Together they travelled to Paris, cheered by the populace.
Two days later, before a crowd of mighty nobles and prelates, he performed homage to Charles IV for the English lands in Gascony. Young Lord Edward must have been dazzled.
From then on, Lord Edward was constantly in Isabella’s presence. The 13-year-old undoubtedly was aware that his mother had been humiliated and treated with appalling disrespect in England. He came now to know her as a forceful, intelligent, passionate, determined, charming and absolutely regal woman. She continued to gain in personal strength and in the assurance of her convictions.
When Edward II wrote again and demanded that she return to England immediately, she not only refused, she openly attacked the Despensers. Appearing before the French court dressed in the black garb of mourning, she dramatically proclaimed
“I feel that marriage is a joining together of man and woman, maintaining the undivided habit of life, and that someone has come between my husband and myself, trying to break this bond. I protest that I will not return until that intruder is removed, but, discarding my marriage garment, shall assume the robes of widowhood and mourning until I am avenged of this Pharisee” (as quoted in Queen Isabella, by Alison Weir, p. 190).
To young Lord Edward, Isabella was now a creature of romance. In later life, Edward was known for his fascination with Arthurian tales. He shared this interest with his mother, who had in her personal library, at the time of her death in 1358, not only three Arthurian romances, but three from the Charlemagne cycle and one from the Trojan War. Lord Edward probably saw himself now as a chivalrous young knight, protecting his beautiful injured mother, now even more appealing for being garbed in black silks and velvets.
To Edward II, however, Isabella’s public statement came as total shock and surprise. He sent a letter to Isabella’s brother Charles, King of France, asking him to send Isabella and the Lord Edward home. Charles refused.
A Son Caught In the Middle
Edward II also wrote to Lord Edward. Beginning with “My very dear son, as you are young and of tender age…,” he went on to say
“since that your homage has been received by our dearest brother, the King of France, your uncle, be pleased to take your leave of him and return to us with all speed, in company with your mother, if so be that she come quickly, and if she will not come, then come you without further delay, for we have great desire to speak with you” (as quoted in Queen Isabella, by Alison Weir, p. 197-98).
Young Edward was torn. Edward II, as both king and father, was doubly owed his obedience. There was undoubtedly also a bond of affection; Edward II had been a generous and loving father. The need and allure of the very present Isabella, however, predominated. He responded to his father’s letter with the weak excuse that his mother would not let him leave.
Thanks to that mother, young Lord Edward’s dilemma (and his trauma) now worsened. Isabella had formed a liaison, both political and personal, with an exiled English noble named Roger Mortimer. Word of her scandalous affair became widespread, reaching the ears of Edward II.
In March 1326, Edward II wrote again to his son, publicly charging Isabella with having
“openly and notoriously, and knowing it to be contrary to her duty, and against the welfare of our crown, … attached to herself and retains in her company the Mortimer, our traitor and mortal foe, proved, attainted and adjusted; and him she accompanies in the house and abroad … And worse than this, if worse than this can be, she has done in allowing you to consort with our said enemy, making him your counsellor, and you openly to associate and her with him, in the sight of all the world” (as quoted in Queen Isabella, by Alison Weir, p. 209-10).
Lord Edward made no response. No longer able to see his mother as a wronged and innocent heroine, he seems to have simply withdrawn into himself. He was, in fact, a teenager with no power of his own. He accompanied his mother on her travels, did as he was told, and kept his counsel to himself.
The implications of Isabella and Mortimer’s liaison were more than personal. The liaison presented a very real danger to Edward II’s throne. Isabella and Roger planned to invade England and use the presence of Lord Edward, England’s heir, to their advantage. The goal, at first (or so it was claimed), was simply to remove the Despensers from power.
Isabella, Mortimer, and Lord Edward moved to Hainault. Situated in the Low Countries, it was an ideal place from which to launch an invasion. There, Edward formed an attachment to the Count of Hainault’s daughter Philippa. A betrothal was agreed upon, with Philippa’s dowry to be troops, ships and money for Isabella’s invasion of England.
When Isabella, Mortimer and Lord Edward landed in England on 23 October 1326, they met with no resistance. Instead, most of England, tired of Edward II’s mismanagement, welcomed them. Edward II, then in London, fled the city and headed to Wales, seeking support. Isabella and her forces were not far behind. The Despensers, and Edward II, were captured. The Despensers were executed. Edward II was put into custody at Kenilworth Castle. He surrendered the great seal to Isabella.
The Parliament of January 1327 called for Edward II’s deposition and the crowning of 14-year-old Lord Edward. Lord Edward, conspicuous until now for his silent and detached presence, finally spoke.
Edward refused to sanction his father’s deposition and refused to be crowned unless his father willingly abdicated. The delegation that visited Edward II at Kenilworth Castle, however, made it clear that there was no real choice involved. Edward II, therefore, “voluntarily” abdicated in favor of his son. On 1 February 1327, Lord Edward was crowned King Edward III at Westminster Abbey.
After a plot to free Edward II from Kenilworth was foiled, he was moved to Berkeley Castle. The plots continued. On 22 September 1327, Edward II was murdered. There is no evidence that Isabella was even aware of what was planned. It is, however, difficult to believe that the action was totally unexpected. There was no sure way to ensure that a living king would remain imprisoned. Isabella and Edward III were present when Edward II was entombed with great public ceremony at St. Peter’s Abbey, Gloucester, conveniently far distant from London.
Isabella, Mother and Ruler
Even after Edward’s coronation, power continued to reside in the hands of Isabella and Roger Mortimer. Isabella’s power was based on Mortimer’s armed men, but also on her son’s affection – and his awareness of his own youth and lack of resources and followers.
Isabella kept Edward very near to her. Nevertheless, young Edward gradually increased his personal visibility. In 1328, he married Philippa of Hainault. Isabella, however, wanted only one queen in England and refused to sanction Philippa’s coronation.
Edward began making a name for himself as a fighter by joining in tournaments, acquiring a growing retinue of young friends. He made it publicly known that he disapproved of a treaty Isabella and Mortimer had negotiated with Scotland.
At the beginning of 1330, with Philippa now pregnant with her first child, Isabella finally agreed to her coronation. Philippa was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 4 March. Some three months later, on 15 June 1330, she gave birth to her first son, another Edward.
Edward, now a father as well as the leader of a group of dedicated young supporters, made his move for independence on 19 October 1330.
The court was in residence at Nottingham Castle. Entry to the castle was strictly regulated; Isabella and Mortimer held the castle keys. Edward and his companions, however, had identified a secret tunnel that led from outside the walls of the castle to the corridor housing the Queen’s chambers. They entered, took the guards by surprise, subdued and imprisoned Mortimer and held Isabella in custody.
Sent to Berkhamsted Castle, the distraught and distressed Isabella may have feared punishment. Indeed, the Pope wrote to Edward urging him to treat his mother with honor. Which is exactly what Edward did. He spared his mother public shame.
Edward’s motivations were undoubtedly mixed. Affection probably remained, but Isabella was also his royal mother and damage to her reputation would damage his own prestige.
And so, when Mortimer was put on trial, the only mention of Isabella in the proceedings was a charge against Mortimer that he had “falsely and maliciously sowed discord” between Edward II and Isabella “Wherefore, by this cause, and by other subtleties, the said Queen remained absent from her Said lord.”
Mortimer was convicted of high treason and hung. Isabella, in contrast, was treated with respect and courtesy, addressed as “Madame the Queen Mother” or “Our Lady Queen Isabella.”
Isabella: Life “After”
Some things certainly did change. Isabella lost her independent income and “spontaneously” surrendered her lands to her son. Those lands she had held in dower were given to Queen Philippa.
At first, Isabella’s movements were restricted. After a month at Berkhamsted, she was moved to Windsor. While there, she was not allowed to go out without permission, but she had ladies and a retinue of gentleman, as well as an allowance.
In January 1331, Isabella was assigned a fixed income of £3000 per year. The next year, Edward gave Isabella lands and raised her income to £5000 per year. That same year, Edward and Philippa named their newborn daughter Isabella.
In 1334, Edward III restored her dower lands of Ponthieu and Montreuil in France. He also restored some English properties, including Castle Rising, Berkhamsted, Eltham and Leeds. Isabella seems to have spent more time at Castling Rising than at her other properties. While there, she kept a considerable degree of estate.
Isabella’s re-emergence in public view was gradual. Her special status as the transmitter of Edward’s claim to the French throne may have hurried the process along. After Edward decided, in 1340, to aggressively claim his rights as King of France, Isabella became seen more frequently in his presence.
Edward’s itinerary rosters show he spent only one day at Castle Rising in 1328, and another day there in 1333. In 1342, he spent nine days at Castle Rising, as well as two days there in 1343, and twenty-six days there in 1344. In addition, Edward’s accounts for the 1340s include fabrics purchased for Queen Philippa and Queen Isabella for a hunting expedition with the king and, on 18 January 1344, Isabella joined the royal family for a winter tournament held at Windsor.
Isabella continued to live well to the very end. A year before her death, she attended a tournament at Windsor and had dinner with her grandson Edward, “the Black Prince.” Between October 1357 and May 1358, Edward III came to Castle Rising to dine four times and regularly sent presents. Isabella’s grandchildren also visited here there. She continued to indulge at least two of her favorite luxuries: in 1357-58, she spent £1400 on jewelry alone and, at the time of her death, she had over thirty volumes in her library.
Isabella died 22 August 1358 at Castle Rising, Norfolk. She was buried (as she asked) at Greyfriars church in London, wearing her wedding cloak and with a silver casket containing Edward II’s heart on her breast. Several years later, Isabella’s younger daughter Joan, wife of King David of Scotland, also asked (and was) buried there.
It took three months for Edward III to put together her elaborate funeral, which took place in late November. A month later, a special requiem mass was held, attended by the entire court and all the dignitaries of London.
The following year, Edward commissioned a tomb with an alabaster effigy, to be made by the royal smith at the Tower. He arranged special commemorations on the anniversary of her death with hundreds of wax candles, three cloths of gold to cover the tomb, and generous alms given to the Franciscans, Augustinians and Carmelites.
Guilt? Love? Relief that the ugliest chapter in his life was well and truly closed? All of the above? Edward III’s heart, like that of his mother, remains a mystery.
The Grey Friars were dissolved in the Reformation in the 1530s and Isabella’s effigy was sold. The church itself, which had been turned into a parish church, was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. Rebuilt by Christopher Wren as Christ Church, it was flattened by the Blitz during World War Two. Today the site of Greyfriars is a small park, graced by the ruins of Christ Church, providing a calm green oasis in a very busy city.
Edward II: The Unconventional King, by Kathryn Warner
Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery and Murder in Medieval England, by Alison Weir
The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation, by Ian Mortimer
Edward III, by W. Mark Ormrod