You may remember her, wet-eyed and winsome, in Braveheart. Mel, kilted and blue in his role as William Wallace, enjoys a romantic interlude with her in between defeating the invading Sassenachs of Edward Longshanks.
In real life she would have had them both for breakfast.
Isabella never met William Wallace, and she certainly never had his child because she was about nine years old when he died.
Like Sophie Marceau in the 1995 movie, she was beautiful, sophisticated and highly intelligent; but in character she was more like Mel’s Mad Max. In fact, she later become known as the She-Wolf.
She was born in 1295 into the royal family of the most powerful kingdom in Europe. The youngest daughter of Phillip le Bel (the handsome) of France, she arrived in England when she was twelve to be married off to Longshank’s son, Edward II.
Young Edward looked like a Plantagent king but he didn’t act like one; he preferred jigs to jousting and poetry to pig hunting. Edward was on the downlow – contemporary chroniclers referred to an ‘illicit and sinful union’ with his friend and adviser, Piers Gaveston. He even chose to sit next to him at their wedding rather than with his new bride.
She tolerated this; she was only twelve after all, and had no choice. The three lived out an uneasy truce until the King’s lover was murdered in 1312 in one of the ongoing feuds between the king and his barons.
In 1314, after Edward was humbled by the Scots at Bannockburn, she took up a more queenly role in the governance of the kingdom. But she soon had another rival, when Edward found that a noble named Hugh Despenser the Younger had become … well indispensable.
The country descended into chaos with the King and the Despenser family pitted against the barons under Thomas of Lancaster. Isabella and Hugh detested each other, but Edward sided with his favourite. He confiscated all of his queen’s lands, imprisoned her French staff and then her youngest children were taken away and placed in custody by the Despensers.
The situation came to a head when the King left her stranded at Tynemouth priory during another Scottish war, and the gutsy Isabella was forced, along with a group of squires from her personal retinue, to hold off the Scots while some of her knights commandeered a ship. It was a close call, and two of her ladies in waiting were killed in the fighting. Once aboard, Isabella then evaded the Flemish navy, and escaped.
Hell hath no fury.
Isabella went back to France in 1325 but instead of retiring to a nunnery to mutter about the perfidy of men, she took matters into her own hands. She began a passionate affair with an exile named Roger Mortimer – in fact, it’s said she already knew him, and that she sprang him from the Tower in 1523 after he’d been arrested by the Despensers.
This was a huge risk for her – female infidelity, even in the face of such provocations, was a very serious offence in medieval Europe. Their romance has been described as one of the great romances of the Middle Ages. It may have been – but the pillow talk was all about settling old scores.
Isabella and Mortimer returned to England in 1326 with a mercenary army, and defeated Edward in a lightning campaign. Edward and Hugh were arrested after they fled to Wales. Hugh Despenser was dispensed with in a very medieval manner. He was stripped and had Biblical verses about the evils of corruption and arrogance scrawled on his skin prior to his grisly execution (see the rather cheery illustration below.)
The king was invited to abdicate the throne and was then placed under house arrest at Berkeley Castle on the Welsh borders, where he later died trying to escape custody, as we would say in modern parlance. There is still much controversy over the circumstances surrounding his disappearance.
The queen then ruled as regent for her son, but even the She-Wolf could not protect herself against her own cub; five years later he came of age and took back the crown, and it was Mortimer’s turn on the gallows.
Isabella survived the transition however, and retired from politics to spend more time with her family. She continued a lavish lifestyle at Castle Rising in Norfolk, doting on her grandchildren, one of whom was Edward, the Black Prince. She took to religion, continued to be a gregarious member of the court, and remained on good terms with her son.
This complex, courageous and indefatigable woman died an old lady in 1358, remaining an enigma until the end. She asked to be buried in her wedding dress and Edward’s heart, which had been placed into a casket after his death thirty years before, was interred with her, at her request.
She remains one of the most remarkable women of medieval history; a true braveheart, in fact.
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