I’m going to interrupt my series of posts on the six wives of Henry VIII, or “King Henry teh 8” as he is known to Googlers. I must write about Queen Isabella, because the necklaces I named for her have just been finished.
Isabella, a daughter of Philip the Fair of France, was born in 1292. She has become known as “Isabella, the She-Wolf of France.” Shakespeare invented the She-Wolf title for Margaret of Anjou, but in the 18th century an English poet used it for Isabella and she’s been stuck with it ever since. I feel the sobriquet is unfair, yet I couldn’t resist the image. I’d seen necklaces where a wolf etched into a wolf’s claw. I thought a fang was sexier. A big giant fang that didn’t have to be pried from a real wolf (they hate that)! So with apologies to the queen, I present the Isabella Wolf-Fang Necklace in 18K gold.
Photo by SquareMoose
Besides She-Wolf, Isabella has been called (by men, of course) a Jezebel, a harridan, “unnatural,” “evil,” “inconstant,” yada yada yada, for betraying her supposedly saintly husband.
Isabella got into this mess when she married King Edward II of England. While the couple had four children, Edward was notorious for directing most of his romantic energy, much of the treasury and a big chunk of English land to his male favorites. Isabella remained faithful through years of neglect, abuse and outright abandonment. She eventually became convinced that her husband planned to murder her. At that point, she wangled a trip back home to France to visit her brother, King Charles IV.
“My, what a big, pointy hat you have!”
Image from Hereford-Heritage.com
Ah, Paris. It’s so romantic. Isabella fell for Roger Mortimer, a disgruntled Welsh noble (and one of the few people ever to escape from the Tower of London). The relationship was hot and heavy and all the other nobles were walking around thinking, “Get a room, please!” Okay, I made that up. But it is true that the relationship was obvious. It was also scandalous because kings get a free pass on adultery and queens do not. The sexy couple became the Rogerbella of the French court. At home in England, Edward, egged on by his man-friend, Hugh le Despenser, refused to cooperate with Parliament. The fact that he had lost expensive and humiliating battles with England’s longtime enemy, Scotland, didn’t do much for his popularity either (Braveheart is about the earlier days of that ongoing war.). Civil war threatened.
Isabella Necklace © Wendy Brandes 2007-2008
Photos by SquareMoose
Rogerbella ultimately led an invasion of England, overthrew and jailed Edward, and set themselves up as regents for Isabella’s son (another Edward). They executed Hugh le Despenser in a perfectly acceptable 14th century way: they dragged him through the streets, stripped him, hanged him, cut him down before he died, chopped off his penis and testicles, threw his manhood in a fire, cut him open, threw his heart and entrails in the fire, and cut him into four pieces. Then they had a party. Good times! Here’s a delightful rendering of the event.
Hugh le Despenser was the son AND the father of men named Hugh le Despenser. Confusing!
This was considered appropriate justice as well as quality entertainment, and the populace loved Rogerbella. But, as Lord Acton said centuries later, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Roger became as greedy and murderous as Despenser, if not worse, and Isabella deferred to him. When the imprisoned Edward II died, the rumors flew that he was murdered (and years later, the story was embellished to an unseemly murder with a red-hot poker). With his death, Edward’s reputation improved and Rogerbella’s declined, until the latter were overthrown by Isabella’s son in 1330. Roger was dragged through the streets, stripped and hanged. Legend says Edward III locked his mother up until she lost her sanity, but in reality he was a doting son. Blaming everything on her bad boyfriend, Edward graciously kept Isabella in the lifestyle to which she’d become accustomed. She had plenty of palaces, visitors, clothes and, most importantly, jewels until she died in her 60s. Her son threw her a wonderful funeral.
If you’ve gotten to this point in the post, you’re probably thinking there is nothing more to say about Isabella. Wrong! There is so much more … more books, films and television series than I can list here. These are just a few reading recommendations:
- Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England by Alison Weir. This non-fiction book is fascinating. There are colorful quotes from the important players, including the hilariously self-pitying letters that Edward sent in the medieval equivalent of a blast email as he tried to lure Isabella back from France. I was convinced by Weir’s arguments against the iconic murder-by-poker story. I am not persuaded by Weir’s theory that Edward could have escaped and lived out the rest of his life as a humble monk in Europe. Edward had many good qualities that I couldn’t fit in this post. You’ll learn about them here.
- I love Isabel the Fair by Margaret Campbell Barnes. The novel is sympathetic to Isabella. Historical fiction is ruined for me when the author tries to make the protagonist lovable when the real person was no saint, but this book gets inside her head without losing touch with reality.
- The Traitor’s Wife by Susan Higginbotham was a great idea that didn’t work for me. Eleanor de Clare is the wife of the title and she thinks Hugh le Despenser is the perfect husband and father. Yes, it is possible for the wicked to come home from a hard day of torturing people and roll around on the floor with the kids. But I felt this book was too kind to a man whose misbehavior is well-documented. He even stole land from his wife’s family. When Eleanor spies on Isabella (as she did in real life), it’s justified because Isabella is a shrew who deserves it. Humph. On the plus side: homoeroticism!
- The Accursed Kings by Maurice Druon is a series of seven books. It is very difficult to buy a complete set in English but I got one on eBay. The books start with the reign of Isabella’s father, Philip IV, and continue through John II. The fifth book is “The She-Wolf of France,” but Isabella appears as a major troublemaker from the start of the series. Ironically, she exposes her sisters-in-law’s adultery, which later has a major impact on the succession. A lot of the action is set in motion by a nobleman, Robert of Artois, who thinks he was cheated out of his inheritance. The books abound with torture and poisonings. Even I was disgusted! You’ll have new appreciation for your own family after reading about these lunatics.
- I haven’t read The Greatest Traitor, a biography of Roger Mortimer by Ian Mortimer. It’s gotten great reviews, and I will definitely read it in the near future, after I finish dealing with some Chinese empresses. Teh interweb tells me that the author is a descendant of Roger Mortimer … and also that he is not. I will have to get the book to find out.
There will be a test on this next week. Please bring a No. 2 pencil.