The She-Wolf. It’s quite a nickname for anyone, let alone a King’s consort, isn’t it? But knowing that’s how she’s remembered then makes the fact that Isabella of France was descended from William the Conqueror a less surprising piece of trivia. Obviously, to be granted such a tribute, she’d had to add her own twist by taking William’s chaste and feisty determination and throwing in a dose of sex, drugs and rock and roll. And it has to be said that her most famous accolade is to be the only Queen of England to order the execution of an English King. But no one’s trying to say that her bite wasn’t worse than her bark. So at least the nickname now makes sense, eh?…
How did it all begin?
Well, Isabella actually enjoyed a ‘normal’ upbringing up to the age of twelve. However in 1308, being both extremely well connected and also quite some beauty, she then suddenly found herself betrothed to a man eleven years her senior – Edward II of England, son of Edward Longshanks. At that point, Edward was revered as the most handsome man in Europe, so she may not have batted too many eyelids; but this was not to be a marriage made in heaven.
On the face of it, Isabella and Edward were a publicity consultant’s dream; both being beautiful and at the top of their status tree. However, there was one big spanner in the works. Isabella was too young to be anything other than a wife in name, and Edward actually only had eyes for a gentleman called Piers Gaveston. This became insultingly clear within a very short time after Isabella’s arrival, for its conjectured Edward even gave Gaveston her jewels to flounce around wearing in court.
Before too long, Edward awarded Gaveston a position higher than that of Isabella in his court. Things were to go downhill from there.
The wolf cub was born…
Undoubtedly this behaviour was a slap in the face to Isabella, but Gaveston’s influence over the king wasn’t popular with the barons either. This potent mix of animosity was further stirred by the Earl of Lancaster – a particularly powerful and wealthy nobleman – and by 1312 Gaveston found himself assassinated.
During this time, the She-Wolf had not been twiddling her thumbs, however, for she had already begun to learn how to position herself.
When Gaveston was killed, Isabella was pregnant with Edward’s first child; a useful tie to the king. The future Edward III was born in November 1312, and was followed by three more children over the period to 1321.
Some surmise this suggests theirs grew into an affectionate marriage for a while. However, Edward’s eyes did eventually wander again. This time in the direction of a powerful nobleman called Hugh Despenser.
It appears that Edward’s penchant for unpleasant male partners was set to continue, for Despenser was a nasty piece of work. Abusing his position as the king’s right hand man, he was content to confiscate money and land from those who couldn’t argue; happy to extort funds from the Church; and delighted to arrest and kill innocent folk for ‘poaching’.
As was Edward’s way, it soon came to the point where Despenser had more influence over Isabella’s husband than she did. But Despenser took it one step further than Gaveston ever had, and Isabella effectively became an enemy alien. In 1324, Edward went to war with her brother, Charles IV of France, and the queen found her lands confiscated.
The wolf switches pack…
This was never going to be something that a, now seasoned, She-Wolf could tolerate. Isabella was going to have to play it strategically, but play it she did. Edward sent her to negotiate a peace settlement with her brother, which she dutifully achieved, and then remained in France. For a short while it was a waiting game. But within a few months Edward made a diplomatic error…
Being a peer of the realm he owed homage to Charles IV, but he was loath to leave England in the tense state it was in. Instead, therefore, he sent his son – 13 year old Edward of Windsor – to perform the ceremony. Mother and son were now reunited in France.
With Edward of Windsor now by her side and protected by her brother’s power, Isabella could start to play hard ball. She issued an ultimatum to her husband: Banish Despenser, restore her rightful position as queen by his side, and return her lands. She and her son would then come back to England. Foolishly, however, Edward refused. Now the She-Wolf was truly piqued.
She-Wolf and alpha male unite…
An attractive English baron who had rebelled against Edward and Despenser now appeared on the scene. Roger Mortimer was certainly a worthwhile ally for Isabella to have. He had both clout and motivation to bring Despenser and his cronies down. Getting her ducks in a row, Isabella betrothed her son to a daughter of the Count of Hainault in exchange for ships, mercenaries and cash. Very soon, she and Mortimer were set to invade England.
Their fleet landed on England’s shores in September, 1326, and within a short time Edward’s main support defected to Isabella and his world began to crumble. Despenser and his father were caught. Both were brutally executed. By 1327, parliament had decreed that Edward should abdicate in favour of his son.
A regency council was set up to rule in Edward of Windsor’s stead until he was of age. Though Isabella wasn’t a member of this council, she and Mortimer ruled England for several years. However, by this time, with many years of mistreatment, plotting and revenge having seeped into her psyche, Isabella’s approach had morphed into one of greed and self-interest. Their popularity waned. Then when Edward came of age, he had Mortimer hanged and his mother placed under house arrest.
Isabella, She-Wolf of France, though imprisoned for a short spell, actually saw her days out in freedom. Being the king’s mother afforded her respect and consideration, it seems, and she was given a considerable income and a life befitting a dowager queen. Isabella died in Hertford Castle in 1358, and was buried in Greyfriars, in London. Behind her, she left a legacy with “Don’t mess with me…” stamped across it. She came, she howled, she got her own way…