Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England

Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England, by Alison Weir

If you think of Medieval queens as well-dressed baby-making machines, Alison Weir’s artful biography about Isabella of France will make you think again.

This beautiful 14th century ice-queen has become known as a traitor, adulterer, and even a vicious terrorist. She has been vilified more than any other English queen, perhaps because she had both the gift of thinking fast and the character-flaw that leads to revenge and retribution. Combined, these traits made for some questionable decisions, yet she did land on her feet in the end.

As baby-maker, Isabella did her part, producing a male heir on the first try. Her firstborn, Edward III, arrived four years after her wedding. Isabella was a child bride, married at twelve years of age in 1308 to the bisexual king Edward II. He was at best, mean-spirited, at worst, a weak but tyrannical king.

Isabella was both neglected by Edward and “cruelly slighted by his vicious favorites,” Weir writes. Who knows, but that all of these things added together led to a young woman who was bitter and angry? History doesn’t provide any evidence of how she felt, but eventually, Isabella, “being deprived of her liberty, her children and her income,” left England and her spouse. (Was this treachery or self-preservation?)

In France, she took up with Roger, Lord Mortimer, an exiled English traitor, and began a long adulterous affair. The pair deposed Edward II and installed Isabella’s eldest son as King. (Adultery and murder, or love amid the ruins?)

All of this happened after a particularly violent episode that took place under Edward II’s watch. Called “the terror of Leeds,” one family known as the Badlesmeres took up arms against him. Edward II then “exacted a savage vengeance” by hanging the constable of the castle and 13 of his men before the castle gates. The king became ever more violent and ever more unpopular as time went on. Isabella and her lover Mortimer saw a searing need to get rid of the tyrant.

Sparing the gory details, suffice to say that the sadistic details of Edward’s execution as recounted in documents of the time were lies. Some writers of the period claimed the king actually escaped. If he escaped, the story is told in a document called the Fieschi letter. Addressed to the king’s son, Edward III, the letter claimed that Edward II still lived—in a hermitage in France. It hasn’t been conclusively proven that the letter was true, but it does in some measure vindicate Isabella, who perhaps was not the she-wolf that her worst detractors thought she was.

The same ambiguity that surrounds Edward II also surrounds his wife, Isabella. Weir states that Isabella was popular among her subjects and contemporaries, but that judgmental biographers gave her a bad reputation. Some of Isabella’s earliest biographers, hardly fastidious researchers, left us with a picture of Isabella that would give the Bride of Frankenstein an inferiority complex. But was Isabella really as bad as all that?

Readers decide for themselves as Weir attempts to separate fact from fiction. If Edward II was not popular, history seemed decidedly biased in his favor and not in any way sympathetic to a strong-headed woman with adultery and treason on her “permanent record.”

If we believe Isabella was as heartless as she appears to be in her dealings with her enemies, we have to weigh in how she worshipped God and prayed as all Medieval Christian women were supposed to do, albeit while committing adultery openly. At the end of Isabella’s life, Weir reports, kings still had respect for Isabella’s political skill and she was a “kind of elder stateswoman.”

In her sixties, Isabella retired to Castle Rising in Norfolk as the revered Queen Mother. Later she moved to Windsor Castle and was in regular communication with Edward III and her other children, leading a political and social life second to none until her death in 1358.

Weir’s exhaustive Notes and Bibliography show to what extent the author tried to come to a more solid assessment of Isabella’s life and times, but we are reminded throughout the biography how little the author has to go on. Even so, Weir’s work is engaging, enlightening, and does much to de-bunk the lies and half-truths surrounding Isabella.

It seems the Queen’s worst shortcomings are that she stood up to a tyrant and had the audacity to take up for herself.