Isabella’s “Retirement Castle”
by Peggy M. Baker
What do you do with a problem like Isabella? She had overthrown her husband and, with her lover, taken power in the name of her teenage son Edward III. Refusing to relinquish authority, she had to be forcibly evicted! Isabella’s lover was executed. What would happen to Isabella now?
Edward III did not dump his mother unceremoniously into a convent (or worse!). Instead, he kept her safely but honorably, and watched her closely. When it became clear that Isabella was not a threat, Edward restored her freedom and gave her an annual income and a number of properties.
One property given to Isabella was Castle Rising in Norfolk.
During the 1330s and 1340s, Isabella moved among her several castles and manors. As her energy waned in the 1350s, however, she spent more and more time at Castle Rising. In her last years, it seems to have been her most favored residence. It was here that she died in 1358. It is the castle most closely associated with Isabella, and she is its most famous owner and resident.
Castle Rising had a venerable history that began well before Isabella’s time. It was built around 1140 by William d’Aubigny, a Norman nobleman who had caught the eye of Adeliza of Louvain, the young widow of King Henry II. On their marriage in 1138, William became, in his wife’s right, Earl of Arundel. Soon thereafter, he began to build his own castles, symbols of his new wealth and growing personal influence.
William was not alone in his enthusiasm for building. The first half of the 12th century saw a number of new castles, built mainly by the nobility. Other castles of the period include Kenilworth, Lancaster, Middleham and Rochester.
Castle Rising is in a rural setting, situated on a high hill in Norfolk. Originally surrounded by a deer park, it was probably always more a symbolic center of authority and gracious living, than a truly defensible fortress. From its beginnings, the castle was prestigious and well appointed. By Isabella’s day, it had been updated to incorporate all the modern amenities needed for domestic living on a grand scale.
Castle Rising was held by William d’Aubigny’s descendants until 1243, when it passed into the hands of the deMontalt family. They sold Castle Rising to Queen Isabella in 1327. Isabella had just forced the abdication of her husband, Edward II, and established herself as the “power behind the throne” held nominally by her teenage son Edward III. Castle Rising was one of her first independent purchases.
Edward III had dispossessed Isabella of her properties, including Castle Rising, when he removed her from power in late 1330. Isabella spent several years in semi-isolation while her reputation was rehabilitated, and her son ensured his own grip on the throne. Edward III returned Castle Rising to Isabella around 1334.
Visiting Isabella at Castle Rising
Edward III visited Isabella at the castle. When he arrived, he would have proceeded from the gatehouse along a path leading to the west corner entry.
Going through the entrance door, he would have ascended a massive stairway, almost 8 feet wide with 24 steps leading up, through three arched doorways, to a reception chamber.
Turning to the left, Edward would have entered a large and splendid hall, two stories tall, measuring 46 feet by 23 feet. Behind the hall, the scene of banquets and receptions, is a kitchen. Also on this floor are an ornate chapel and a great chamber with a large 12th century fireplace.
Edward III did not always visit his mother on his own. The Prince of Wales, Edward “the Black Prince,” came with his father in October 1357. He returned, by himself, in April 1358 and visited again that same month, accompanied by Henry, Duke of Lancaster.
The Black Prince was Edward III’s first-born child. At the time of his visits to his grandmother, he was 27 and, unusually for the time and his status, still unmarried. His companion, the Duke of Lancaster, was Henry of Grosmont, the great grandson of King Henry III and, at age 51 or 52, closer in age to Isabella than to the Black Prince. Lancaster’s daughter Blanche would, in the fairly near future, marry the Black Prince’s younger brother, Isabella’s grandson John of Gaunt. John of Gaunt also visited Castle Rising, having dinner with his grandmother there in February 1358.
Another grandson, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, visited in March 1358. Lionel was only 19 years old but already a husband and a father. While still a child, he had been married to the orphaned heiress Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Ulster. Their daughter Philippa had been born in 1355.
Isabella’s oldest granddaughter, her namesake Isabella of Woodstock, also visited in 1358 with her father Edward III and with the Earl of March. Young Isabella was in her mid-20s and unmarried. As strong-minded as her legendary grandmother, she had refused several advantageous marriages and would, several years in the future, finally choose a dashing young Frenchman, Enguerrand de Coucy.
The most interesting and unexpected visitor, however, was perhaps the Earl of March, Roger Mortimer the Second. Roger was the grandson of Isabella’s long-deceased lover, who had been executed on the orders of her son Edward III. Edward was, however, an unexpectedly generous man; he did not persecute the children of his enemies. Edmund Mortimer, son of Roger the First, was allowed to inherit some of his father’s lands.
Roger Mortimer the Second succeeded in completely rehabilitating the family name. An outstanding and upright young man, he had fought by the side of the Black Prince and was knighted with him in France in 1346 when both were still in their teens. By 1349, young Roger had been made a Knight of the Garter. In 1354, on Roger’s petition, all the accusations against his grandfather were reversed on the basis that he had not had a fair trial. At the same time, Edward III restored to young Roger his grandfather’s title, Earl of March. In essence, the slate was wiped clean.
The bloodlines of Isabella of France and her lover Roger Mortimer eventually mingled. Young Roger’s son Edmund Mortimer, 3rd Earl of March, would marry Lionel of Clarence’s daughter Philippa.
Together, Edmund, the great-grandson of Roger Mortimer, and Philippa, the great-granddaughter of Isabella, would become the ancestors of Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry VII (Tudor). Elizabeth II of England can count both Isabella of France and Roger Mortimer among her ancestors.
After Isabella’s death, Castle Rising was granted to her grandson Edward, the Black Prince. The castle passed to the Howard family in 1544 and it remains in their hands today. The current owner, Greville Howard, Baron Howard of Rising, is both a member of the Howard family and a descendant of William D’Aubigny, the Norman baron who originally built the castle.
Today, Castle Rising’s ruined keep is one of the best-preserved and most evocative medieval castles in England. It is surrounded by acres of huge earthworks that once supported the outer walls of the castle’s enclosure.
The visitor still enters the enclosure through the surviving Norman gatehouse, walks the path to the entrance door and ascends the massive stairway. The reception camber is fairly intact, but the great hall is now floorless and open to the sky. The niche in the wall for Isabella’s throne is still visible.
Even in ruins, enough remains of Isabella’s “retirement castle” that, with a little imagination, once again can be faintly heard the merriment of banquets, the songs of long-dead minstrels and the footsteps of Isabella of France.
The Rise of the Castle, by M.W. Thompson
The English Castle, by John Goodall