Thursday, May 1, 2014

Isabella of Angouleme, Queen of England

A Victorian artist's engraving of Isabella.
My first post for this month is about an English queen from the Middle Ages: Isabella of Angouleme. Isabella was one of England's least popular queens consort. This was partly attributed to her husband's bad reputation and partly for her own indiscreet and troublesome ways. Her turbulent life perfectly mirrors the struggles between England and France during the 13th century.

She was described to be a stunningly beautiful woman and possessed the Middle Ages' ideal of beauty: blonde hair and blue eyes. She was called "The Fair Maid of Angouleme" and the "Helen of the Middle Ages". Despite her lovely face, Isabella was not a well-liked Queen during and even after her lifetime; she was described to be vain and capricious, and her marriage to the even more unpopular and disliked King John added more fuel to the people's growing hatred and dissatisfaction on his rule.


Isabella was the only child of Aymer de Taillefer, Count of Angouleme and Alix de Courteney, a great-granddaughter of King Louis VI of France. Her date of birth was not certain -- historians usually put it around 1183 and 1188. As her parents' only child, she was to inherit her father's title and lands. With her beauty and inheritance, she was thus a very desirable bride.

To ward off unwanted suitors, Isabella's father sought the protection of the King of France to keep her daughter's safe. To reunite Angouleme with a powerful county, Isabella's parents betrothed her at a very young age to Hugh de Lusignan, the eldest son of the Count de La Marche, and heir to the neighboring independent county of La Marche at the northern boundary of Aquitaine. Being a vassal of the French king, the Count was a formidable neighbor to Aquitaine. Little Isabella was sent to her fiance's castle to be raised with him by his parents until they were deemed old enough to get married. Coming from a wealthy family herself, Isabella looked forward to a life of luxury with one of the most powerful and richest nobles in France. Hugh and Isabella's union was greatly anticipated both by them and the people in Angouleme and La Marche, but their hopes -- and that of Hugh and his parents -- were dashed when she suddenly agreed to be the wife of King John of England.

Isabella was not even fifteen years old when she met King John on a hunting trip. The English king has just succeeded the throne of England and the dukedom of Aquitaine, and came to France to inspect his French dominions. He was invited in La Marche by Isabella's uncle for a hunting trip. It was said that Isabella was present during one of these hunting trips and John became instantly smitten with the beautiful heiress. He became madly enamoured of her and was overwhelmed with the need to possess her. Isabella might secretly prefered the handsome and brave Hugh over John, but she was dazed by the prospect of being Queen of England and all the privileges it entails. She and John were married in Bordeux on August 24, 1200 and she was crowned in Westminster Abbey a year later.

Once she became Queen of England, Isabella was extremely happy and she started to enjoy and indulge in the trappings of being queen. But she was probably less than happy with her husband who was described to be short and not particularly handsome. John was said to be lazy, cowardly, unprincipled, scheming, greedy and deceitful. His passion for Isabella made him neglect affairs of state, as he often wished to remain in bed with her until the afternoon, when it was customary that the King should rise as early as 4 or 5 in the morning. This made him even more unpopular with the nobles and proved him to be an undesirable ruler. Isabella somehow encouraged her husband's profligate lifestyle; after his marriage, he became more licentious, cruel and neglectful of his duties to his country.

John and Isabella were known to have both possessed violent tempers. As the spoiled children of wealthy parents, they were accustomed to having their own way. They were both calculating, indiscreet and promiscuous. As a result, their marriage was tempestuous and their domestic life dysfunctional. Their relationship was characterized by mutual infidelity, dislike and distrust. John had a string of mistresses while Isabella had many suitors and admirers. When John suspected her of taking a lover, John executed the man and had his body hanged over her bed as a sort of warning for any future behavior. She was vain and ambitious and was viewed by many English people as a foreign harlot that Matthew Paris referred to her as "more Jezebel than Isabel".

Nevertheless, John and Isabella's sixteen-year of marriage produced five children who led exemplary family life of their own, among these was the future King Henry III of England.

There were huge and fatal consequences for John's passion for Isabella. His marriage to her trigger a chain of unfortunate events that led to the collapse of John's control over his French dominions. Isabella's former fiance, Hugh de Lusignan, was determine to seek redress to the King of France for John's insulting behavior with regards to his and Isabella's marriage contract. Since John, as Duke of Normandy, was a vassal of the King Philip Augustus of France, he was ordered to appear before Philip Augustus to give explanation to his actions. He refused, and accordingly Philip Augustus, following the rules of the feudal system, reclaimed all the lands ruled by John in France: Normandy, Brittany and Aquitaine. England and France went to war but John had no military capability, unlike his brother King Richard, to save his French territories. He had no choice but to withdraw and flee from the lands that were once part of his father's Angevin Empire.

As a peace offering to pacify Hugh de Lusignan, John and Isabella's daughter Joan was promised to him in marriage. But since Joan was still very young, he was sent to Hugh's castle to be brought up there, just as her mother had once done when she was betrothed to him.

King John died on October 8, 1216, and he was succeeded by his ten-year-old son as Henry III. Henry inherited a bankrupt nation on the verge of civil war. Since the royal treasury was greatly exhausted by John's war in France, Isabella had to use her own money to give her son a coronation. Order was restored in England by 1217.

With her son safely on the throne of England and under the care of the reliable William Marshal, Isabella left England and returned to Angouleme to take control of her inheritance. She was only thirty years old and still very beautiful when Hugh de Lusignan saw her again. Since Joan was still merely a child, he naturally preferred her mother. He and Isabella were married on May 1217. However, their marriage was conducted without consent from the King's council as was required for a former Queen of England. As a result, the Council confiscated her dower lands and stopped her pension as Queen Dowager of England. Isabella and Hugh reacted furiously to this treatment and retaliated by keeping Joan, who was promised in marriage to the King of Scotland, with them in France. The English court proposed a bargain: they would pay Isabella's pension if they could have Joan back. Terms were made and agreed on and Isabella was able to receive her money and her dower lands.

While in France, Isabella could not give up her past glittering life as Queen of England. She was summoned to the French court with her husband to swear fealty to King Louis IX of France's brother, Alphonse, who was made Count of Poitou. But Isabella was infuriated; she could not accept the fact that she had to give precedence to other women. Isabella insisted that she was a queen and was annoyed to be the "wife of a man who had to kneel to another". Her overwhelming pride was to be her ruin. She encouraged her husband to rebel against the King, but in the end they had no choice but to give in for Hugh had lost almost all of his possession because of a useless war. Isabella retaliated by conspiring against the King and she was accused of attempting to poison him. She fled to the Abbey of Fontevraud and seeked sanctuary in a secret chamber there. During her stay in the Abbey, Isabella lived the remainder of her life in regret about her past actions and on her deathbed she requested to be buried in a common grave as a penance to the sins she had committed in her life. She was around 60 years old when she died. Hugh survived his wife for three years and he later died during the Crusade.

Tomb of Isabella of Angouleme
at the Abbey of Fontevraud.
When her son King Henry III learned about her mother's common grave, he had her remains transferred on a more suitable and stately tomb in the Fontevraud beside that of his uncle King Richard the Lionheart and his grandparents King Henry II and Queen Eleanor.

Isabella's death was little lamented in England. With little prospect in France, most of her children by Hugh set sail to England after their mother's death. Henry II readily welcomed his half-siblings and he became a willing benefactor for them. However, his extravagance and the lavish favors he granted them caused trouble in England and he nearly lost his throne.


Read about the other queens consort of England:

Matilda of Flanders - consort of William the Conqueror
Berengaria of Navarre - consort of Richard I (the Lionhearted)
Mary of Modena - consort of James II



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