12 July, 2007

Queen Isabella 1330 to 1358

Recently, there's been some debate on an online history community about the fate of Queen Isabella after her downfall from power in 1330. Evidently, some people still believe that King Edward III locked up Isabella, his mother, at Castle Rising, after the execution of Roger Mortimer. She was apparently 'punished severely', and went insane. Her ghost is said to haunt both Castle Rising and the site of Greyfriars Church in London, where she was buried. (Evidently a busy lady even in death.) The image is one of a mad, evil, cackling old woman, locked up with her ghosts and her conscience.

This could not be further from the truth. To put it bluntly, it's absolute nonsense. Queen Isabella was not punished severely. She was barely punished at all. Here's what really happened...

On 19 October 1330, King Edward III, aged not quite eighteen, arrested Roger Mortimer at Nottingham Castle. Mortimer was imprisoned in the Tower of London, given a brief 'trial' before Parliament on 28 November, and executed at Tyburn the following day. He had been charged with fourteen crimes, which give a good indication of the many grudges Edward III held against him. Isabella was mentioned in only one charge: "the said Roger falsely and maliciously sowed discord between the father of our lord the King and the Queen his companion...the said Queen remained absent from her said lord, to the great dishonour of our lord the King and the said Queen his mother..."

Pope John XXII, in Avignon, heard the news of Mortimer's arrest on 3 November. Four days later, the news was confirmed by a group of English merchants passing through Avignon, and on the same day, John wrote to Edward III asking him to treat Queen Isabella leniently (anxious to make sure Edward received the letter, he sent two copies, in case one was lost.)

However, it seems unlikely that Edward ever entertained ideas of seriously punishing his mother. Isabella was taken to Berkhamsted Castle shortly after the seizure of Mortimer, and placed under temporary house arrest. She was treated with respect and consideration, and her household remained with her. On 28 November 1330, the day of Mortimer's trial, John la Zouche was "appointed a purveyor for the household of queen Isabella." On 1 December, Isabella surrendered her vast estates into the hands of her son; however, in January 1331, Edward III granted her an income of £3000 a year: "Grant for life, with the assent of Parliament, to queen Isabella of a yearly sum of 3,000l at the Exchequer to provide for her estate..."

Although this was considerably lower than the ludicrously high income of 20,000 marks (£13,333) Isabella had awarded herself in 1327, as far as I can tell the largest income anyone in England had ever received up to that point, it was in fact higher than her income as reigning Queen. And considering that most people in England earned less than five pounds per year, and forty pounds qualified a man for knighthood, it was still a vast income by any standards. In 1337, it was raised to £4500.

A writ of aid was issued on 21 December 1330 to Thomas Wake, Eubulo Lestrange (husband of Alice de Lacy) and the de Bohun twins Edward and William (Edward II's nephews) "to bring queen Isabella from Berkhampstede to spend Christmas at Windsor." She passed the festive season with her son, and presumably her daughter-in-law Queen Philippa and baby grandson Edward of Woodstock (the Black Prince).

Isabella and Edward III stayed together at Windsor for two months. Isabella then remained at Windsor until March 1332, when a payment was paid to the Constable of the castle for "expenses incurred by him in safe keeping Queen Isabella in that castle for some time by the King's order." This is often presented as a kind of house arrest, and may indeed have been, but large sums of money were paid to a physician for taking care of Isabella, so her long stay at Windsor may have been an enforced one, because of illness, perhaps depression over the death of her lover. [And it's just possible that Isabella had been pregnant by Mortimer, and lost her child, which may be an explanation for her illness.] At Easter, she spent ten days with the court at Peterborough Abbey - Easter Sunday fell on 19 April that year.

However, it's interesting to note that Isabella didn't attend the wedding of her daughter Eleanor in Nijmegen in May 1332. Illness? Ordered to stay away? Edward III's reluctance to let his presumably notorious mother out of the country? Isabella's own reluctance to travel? I can only speculate.

While at Windsor, in January 1332, Isabella wrote to her "very dear sovereign lord the King" regarding some compensation she was due from two of her manors. Far from being insane, she was clearly in possession of all her faculties. On 11 July 1331, Edward III had granted her the castle and town of Hertford, and the records of 1331 are full of grants, pardons and requests made on her behalf, many to her servants, " for service to Queen Isabella". The list of her lands can be seen here and here. (15 November and 20 November 1331; scroll down the second page, and it's the last entry)

It was probably in 1332 that Isabella took up residence at the castle most often associated with her, Castle Rising. She had purchased it in 1327, and it seems to have been her favourite residence. She had a large household - many dozens of people - and was visited two or three times a year by Edward III. He also wrote to her often, and sent her presents such as wine, barrels of sturgeon, wild boar and other game, a falcon and a pair of love birds (which were fed on hemp seed and kept in her bedchamber). Isabella made several pilgrimages to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, and to Canterbury, which she had often visited with Edward II; both of them revered St Thomas Becket. She also often travelled to her other residences, such as Eltham, Havering-atte-Bower, Leeds, Sheen, Hertford, etc.

In 1337, Edward III gave Isabella permission to make her will, leaving her possessions to anyone she chose. (She left most of them to her eldest grandchild Edward of Woodstock, to whom she was very close.) From the 1330s, her name often appeared as a witness on state documents, and she handled her affairs with her usual aplomb and dedication to her own interests - such as requesting that her stewards sit on judicial commissions "to save and maintain our right and that which pertains to us." None of this suggests a woman suffering from insanity or any kind of mental illness.

In June 1338, she was present with the King and court at Pontefract, and in December 1340, was in London to witness Edward III's handing over of the Great Seal to the new Chancellor. The previous month, she had been at the Tower to welcome her son on his return from the Continent, and spent his twenty-eighth birthday with him (13 November). In January 1344, she attended the King's Round Table feast at Windsor and watched some of the jousting, and in November that year, once again celebrated her son's birthday with him, at Norwich.

In 1344, Isabella granted land to the Guild of St John the Baptist at Bablake, Coventry, on which to build a chapel for two priests to sing daily masses for the souls of Edward II and their younger son John of Eltham, Earl of Cornwall, who had died at the age of twenty in 1336. Edward is called "her dear lord Edward".

It's sometimes stated - for example, by Paul Doherty - that Isabella showed little compassion or remembrance for her late husband, but the foundation of Bablake suggests otherwise. It's true that Isabella isn't known to have ever visited Edward II's tomb at Gloucester, but the records are fragmentary, and we can't definitely say that she didn't. I could also point out that there's no direct evidence that she ever visited Roger Mortimer's tomb, either - though if he remained buried at Coventry, it's probable that she did, as she held lands in that area. (Mortimer's widow Joan de Geneville petitioned for his body to be removed to Wigmore, but it's unclear whether it was ever moved or not.)

In 1348, Philip VI of France suggested that Isabella and Jeanne d'Évreux, the widow of Isabella's brother Charles IV, act as mediators between England and France in the hope of reaching a peace settlement (in the early years of the Hundred Years War). Edward III was having none of it, and sent the Earl of Lancaster instead. Whether Philip's offer was a genuine one, demonstrating that Isabella was now viewed as a respected elder stateswoman, or was a joke because of her poor reputation, I don't know. It's worth pointing out, however, that Jeanne d'Évreux was also replaced as a mediator, by the Count of Eu.

After this, Isabella rarely appears in the records - perhaps unsurprisingly, as she was well into her fifties. She spent Christmas 1354 at Berkhamsted with her grandson Edward of Woodstock, and visited him again there the following year. On 29 September 1356, Edward captured King John II of France (son of Philip VI) at the Battle of Poitiers, and took him to England in May 1357; John often visited Isabella, his first cousin once removed, during his honourable captivity.

In 1356, Isabella ordered renovations of her palace of Sheen; she was evidently still active and interested in her environment. Her Household Book for 1357/58 is still extant, and reveals much of her activities in the last year of her life. She was visited by: her son, who came four times between October 1357 and May 1358; her grandson Edward of Woodstock on 26 October 1357 and 6 April 1358; her grandson Lionel of Antwerp on 2 March; her grandson John of Gaunt on 1 February; her granddaughter Isabella of Woodstock on 29 April; her first cousin the Duke of Lancaster (Henry of Grosmont) on 19 April.

Isabella's daughter Queen Joan of Scotland stayed with her from April, and she entertained many French visitors. Roger Mortimer's daughter Agnes, Countess of Pembroke, was yet another of the visitors who came at the rate of two or three a day. [I wonder if Agnes ever visited Isabella before her mother Joan de Geneville's death in October 1356? "Mum, I'm off to visit Dad's mistress. You don't mind, do you?"] Agnes' nephew Roger Mortimer, second Earl of March, made three visits in one month to the lady who had been his grandfather's lover.

In addition, Isabella received many gifts: barrels of bream, boars' heads, wine, and - oddly - copper quadrants, which were used for navigation. She bought jewellery in mind-bogglingly huge quantities: in this, the last year of her life, she spent £1400 on it, hundreds of years' wages for most people in the country, including a "large brooch containing a thousand pearls". She also frequently exchanged letters with the King and Queen, her daughter Queen Joan, King John of France, the Duke of Lancaster, and many others. (Over sixty years old, twenty-eight years after Mortimer's death, and still showing no signs of mental illness!)

On St George's Day (23 April) 1358, she was present at her son's jousting tournament at Windsor, one of the greatest events of his fifty-year reign, which was attended by knights from all over Europe. Edward of Woodstock declared the King of France to be the winner. This splendid event was to be Isabella's last public appearance.

She and her daughter Queen Joan stayed at Leeds Castle in Kent from 13 June to 2 July. By early August, the two women had returned to Hertford Castle, where Queen Isabella died on 22 August 1358, aged sixty-two or sixty-three.

Isabella's embalmed body lay in the chapel at Hertford until 23 November, while her funeral was arranged, watched over constantly by fourteen 'poor persons'. The Bishop of Lincoln, the Abbot of Waltham, and the Prior of Coventry all came to celebrate Requiem Mass in the chapel. In the meantime, Edward III had the London streets swept clean, and had gravel strewn along Bishopsgate and Aldgate "against the coming of his dearest mother, Queen Isabella". On 27 November, Isabella's body was conveyed in great state through the streets, and she was buried in the centre of the choir at the Greyfriars Church in Newgate. Isabella's aunt Queen Marguerite had been a benefactor of Greyfriars, and was also buried there in 1318. Unfortunately, the tombs disappeared after the Dissolution, and the church was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. Rebuilt by Christopher Wren as Christ Church, it was destroyed again by bombs during the Second World War.

It's a romantic myth, still often repeated today, that Isabella chose to be buried at Greyfriars because Roger Mortimer had also been laid to rest there. In fact, Mortimer was buried at the Greyfriars in Coventry.

At her own request, Isabella was buried wrapped in her wedding cloak, which she had kept for just over fifty years, since 25 January 1308. Edward II's heart was placed on her breast, in a silver casket.

For the remaining nineteen years of his life, Edward III honoured his mother's memory, and marked the anniversary of her death with reverence. Every year, he paid for three cloths of gold to be placed on her tomb, for three hundred wax torches to burn around it, and for five pounds of spices. He distributed alms and observed the occasion with prayers and intercessions. In February 1359, Edward ordered the construction of a superb tomb for Isabella, with an alabaster effigy. Unusually, the tomb was made by a female sculptor, Agnes Ramsey, daughter of William Ramsey, Surveyor of the King's Works.

To say that Edward III treated his mother leniently is a massive understatement. He treated her with the utmost respect, honour, and affection. Admittedly, there were political reasons for leniency, given that his claim to the throne of France came through her. Having said that, Edward could have kept her at Castle Rising, on a reduced income, never visited her, never allowed her to visit court or see her grandchildren, never had her mentioned in prayers or granted any of her requests and petitions, done nothing more than preserve her life and grant her some estates to live on, and this would still be pretty lenient, if he'd believed that she was responsible for the murder of his royal father. If Edward III was angry or resentful towards his mother, it doesn't show up in any records. If anyone viewed her as a notorious, evil, insane regicide and husband-murderer, a 'she-wolf', it doesn't show up in any records.

It's true that Isabella had little political influence after 1330, and probably Edward III held her responsible for at least some of the disasters of her and Mortimer's regency. He may also have been offended at her treatment of his wife Queen Philippa - there's no doubt that Isabella usurped her daughter-in-law's rightful position between 1328 and 1330 - and he was quick to take her excessively vast estates back into his hands. But he allowed Isabella to live a life of luxury and comfort, an entirely conventional life for a dowager queen or noblewoman. Isabella enjoyed hunting, hawking, listening to her minstrels, and reading -or being read - romances; the inventory of her possessions taken after her death shows that she owned several.

To me, Edward's treatment of his mother is a very strong indication that he didn't believe she had anything to do with his father's death. Either because he held Roger Mortimer and his associates completely responsible, or because he didn't believe that Edward II had been murdered at all...

31 comments:

Carla said...

Good point. Edward III probably couldn't have punished his mother harshly even if he thought she deserved it, both for political reasons and because of the importance of family ties - cruelty to his mother, however deserved, would have marked him as an unnatural son. But as you point out he could safely have been a lot less generous. Either Isabella was innocent or she got off very lightly.

He may have bought in to the idea that as women were weak (ha!) she couldn't possibly have had any control over events and Edward II's death was therefore all Mortimer's fault. Or it might have been too painful for him to contemplate the possibility that his mother had a hand in murdering his father, so he just swept it under the carpet and blamed Mortimer because that was easier for all concerned. Or perhaps it was a pragmatic recognition that bygones were going to have to be bygones if he was going to have any chance of ruling the country successfully, and as anything he did wouldn't bring his father back there was just no point in being nasty to Isabella, whereas if he was generous to her she might yet be useful.

If he believed Edward II was still alive, wouldn't that be a strange and fascinating situation? Even if Edward II was quite happy being a garden-digging monk or whatever and didn't want his throne back, I'd wonder whether Edward III would still be worried that someone else would find Edward II and use him as a threat. I wonder how he'd have dealt with that? I look forward to your next post on the subject :-)

Alianore said...

Thanks, Carla - you make some very interesting points. I have wondered sometimes if Ed III was 'in denial' over his mother's involvement in his father's murder - it strikes me that that would be a painful thing to face. And Mortimer certainly was a very useful scapegoat. But I also find Ed III's treatment of the men who were at Berkeley in Sept 1327 puzzling, if he believed that his father had been murdered. He let Lord Berkeley lie before Parliament about his whereabouts in Sept 1327, for example, and didn't punish him in any way. And John Maltravers was never even accused of complicity in Ed II's murder.

After all, however Ed III might have felt about his father personally, even if he despised him (which I don't think he did), as a king himself, it does seem odd that he would be so remiss about punishing the murderers of an anointed king.

But I don't know, it's all so fascinating and mysterious. ;) I am planning a series of blog posts about what happened in Sept 1327.

Ian Mortimer, in his biogs of Roger Mortimer and Ed III, has some interesting theories on why, even in the 1330s, a very much alive Ed was in no position to claim back the throne, even if he'd wanted to.

Somehow, Ed III's enormous affection and even reverence for his mother seems to go way beyond merely being pragmatic and acknowledging that punishing her would be difficult and ultimately pointless, into something more like 'not punishing her because there was nothing to punish her for'. IMHO. :-)

Gabriele C. said...

But the cackling madwoman is the logical consequence of poor maligned and mistreated Isabella while still married to Ed, and victim of Mortimer's manliness later. She was never normal to begin with. :)

I think Edward III took quite a risk to give her enough money to rise an army. I'd have put her away in comfort but not excessive luxury somewhere.

Maybe he though she was sufficiently unpopular not to find one. ;)

Susan Higginbotham said...

I suspect that Edward III probably didn't want to think too closely about his mother's complicity in his father's murder. It would have been too painful, psychologically, to do otherwise, and with the Pope advising lenience and Mortimer himself having apparently not said anything to incriminate the queen, it was probably easier just to cast all of the blame on Mortimer. That, and thinking about his mother's guilt might have also brought up the question of Edward III's own passivity, which was quite understandable in light of his young age but was still something he probably didn't want to contemplate too closely.

Alianore said...

Thanks both for your comments! Fascinating to contemplate what was really going on - why can't someone invent time travel so I can go back and learn the truth! :-)

Susan Higginbotham said...

Isn't that the truth!

I can also imagine Isabella getting into a real hand-wringing, tear-gushing scene where she fiercely denied having anything to do with Edward II's murder (assuming, of course, there was a murder). Edward III might have believed her out of sheer exhaustion!

Daphne said...

Someone should write the hand-wringing, tear-gushing scene. I"m sure in the right hands it will be quite entertaining! (hint, hint).

Alianore said...

I'm sure I wrote a fictional scene like that, once - Ed III and Isabella's first meeting after Mortimer's arrest. But I can't find it, unfortunately. :(

Liam said...

Good post! I agree with those who say Edward III was most likely 'in denial' about his mother's complicity in Edward II's death. It wouldn't be easy for anyone, king or not, to face up to the idea that their mother was an associate in the murder of their father. He probably just pushed it to the back of his mind and convinced himself that in her 'womanly weakness' Isabella had been easily ensnared by Mortimer's machinations. I wonder if Isabella made any kind of protest about how Mortimer was treated? Somehow I doubt it!

Alianore said...

Thanks, Liam! Wouldn't it be great to find out what Ed III and Isa said to each other after Mortimer's execution? Oh, to be a fly on the wall...;)

There's a theory that Ed III spared Mortimer hanging, drawing and quartering because of Isa's influence, or at least so as not to 'exacerbate her terrible distress', to quote Alison Weir. That's possible, but Ed III had spent most of the previous 5 years with Mortimer, and may have balked at inflicting that on a man he knew so well. And Mortimer's execution was designed to be deeply humiliating (he was treated as a common criminal and hanged naked), so Ed can't have been trying to spare his mother's feelings that much.

Carla said...

"Wouldn't it be great to find out what Ed III and Isa said to each other after Mortimer's execution? Oh, to be a fly on the wall...;)"
That's what historical fiction is for - we'll never know, so you can fill in something plausible :-)

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know where the inventory of Isabella's belongings at death cane be found?

Anonymous said...

Maybe Edward 111 was in possession of facts that remain unwritten and undocumented that Isabella was in fact the one who arranged for her husband's 'escape'. In medieval times religion held more sway than we in the 21st century can ever imagine. It would not be beyond the realms of possibility that Isabella acted to save her husband's life, and in so doing, saving the soul of Mortimer from eternal damnation. That is why her son included her into the inner circle of his family. It may answer a lot of speculation - for even if he did not wish to face the fact that Isabella could have been a merciless mother, he would not have allowed his son and future king to be in anyway influenced by her - surely?

Anonymous said...

I often wonder how Isabella felt having a beloved son execute the only man she had truly loved and who had undoubtedly saved her from the clutches of the vicious Despencer the younger.
Did she really ever forgive him?
And what were her true feelings towards her husband?
I can't help but find it somewhat bizarre that she was buried in her wedding dress holding her husband's heart given how their relationship had ended.

Anne said...

Hello -- this is a comment about Edward III 'ordering' Isabella's tomb in February 1359. According to F. D. Blackley, that date for a quit-claim from Agnes de Ramesay, where she acknowledges final payment "for making the tomb of the queen by a certain agreement made with me by the council of the queen in her lifetime." So Edward didn't order his mother's tomb -- she did, or someone in her administration.

Kathryn said...

Thanks a lot for the info, Anne!

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathryn,
Did you see BBC4 prog. on 'The She Wolves' by Dr. Helen Corser or are you familiar with her work?
I was quite interested that she stated that Isabella's jewels were given to Gaveston and that Edward and Gaveston were undoubtedly lovers but Despencer was not!!! Not the views held by Prof. Seymour Phillips and odd she never mentioned any doubt over Edward's death.

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi! No, haven't seen it yet as am not in the UK, but hope to soon. I wasn't terribly impressed with the chapter in her book about Isabella - it's not bad and I've read far worse, but I've also read far better. I've been told she reported the red-hot poker death - that and Isabella's jewels, gah - that's two myths she's repeated on prime-time TV already. :-( Would love to know how she 'knows' about Edward's sexual relationships!

Laura said...

Hi Kathryn

Just rereading this interesting post about Queen Isabella's latter days. I've been wondering about something and wonder what you think!

Though the Countess of Pembroke was her most frequent visitor in 1357/8, as in E A Bond's "Notice of the Last Days", can we be certain this was Mortimer's daughter Agnes? The reasons I would question it is because in the CCR Agnes is referred to as "late wife of Lawrence de Hastings Earl of Pembroke", e.g. on Feb 24 1358; and on other occasions in the CCR, e.g. on Feb 15 1358, Marie de st Pol is referred to as the Countess of Pembroke.

Also, Agnes' second husband John Hakelut may well have been one of that old Herefordshire family, so if her home was in that county it surely would have been difficult for her to pop to see Isabella in Hertford frequently. Whereas the other Countess of Pembroke had homes in London and Hertford...

I know it adds a piquancy when we read of Isabella's last days to think that she had the devotion of one of Mortimer's daughters, but to me it doesn't ring true. Though a friendship with Marie de St Pol hasn't been proved, I think it more likely she was the visitor, being of a similar age to Isabella, as was her other great friend the Countess of Warren.

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Laura! Thanks for the great comment! I think you're absolutely right, and wow, this had never even occurred to me before. I'd just read in Doherty that it was certainly Agnes, but of course I should have realised that it's impossible to trust anything he says :/. (Especially when he comes up with mawkish nonsense like 'Isabella and Agnes became great friends and hardly ever parted'.) It makes far more sense for it to be Marie, part of that generation born in the 1290s/early 1300s, and certainly Marie was great friends with Elizabeth de Clare. I seem to remember Elizabeth's biographer Frances Underhill mentioning Marie, and perhaps Isabella too, later on in Elizabeth's life - must check. Thanks for leaving the comment and letting me know!

Laura said...

Shame really if that's the case, as the Agnes Mortimer connection makes it more interesting!

Anonymous said...

Have you read Ian Mortimer's book on Roger? The Greatest Traitor? He goes into great detail about the discussion of what to do with Edward after his abdication and Isabella's involvment. According to Mortimer there is evidence that Isabella did not want Edward dead and still cared for him. Chapter 13, page 196. (remember she did once say she was going to return to him when she was in France but Mortimer quashed it).

As for EIII and his relationship with his mother, when EII ordered him home from France he refused to go and told his father he was going to stay with Isabella because of her distress. Obviously he cared deeply for his mother.

Kathryn Warner said...

He cared for his father too. He was only 13 when Isabella kept him little more than a prisoner in France (as Ian Mortimer points out in his Perfect King) and not operating under his own agency.

Unknown said...

Hi Kathryn, in this post you wrote that "In 1337, Edward III gave Isabella permission to make her will, leaving her possessions to anyone she chose. (She left most of them to her eldest grandchild Edward of Woodstock, to whom she was very close.)" Where is this documented - are you referring to the 1358 inventory? Thank you!

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi, sorry for the delay in replying! I was overstating it with 'most' but some of Isabella's lands reverted to her grandson the prince of Wales - it's in Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem 1352-1360. Actually, now I'm looking at Isabella in greater detail for my bio of her, I'd probably rewrite quite a lot of this post, but anyway...:-)

Unknown said...

Thanks! I've requested that volume. I know what happened to her books, but am working now on other objects like reliquaries and tapestries etc. I think it was your use of the term 'will' that surprised me as I did not know that a proper will had survived.

Kathryn Warner said...

It hasn't, unfortunately. My goodness, I really should go back and edit some old posts when I have better info and knowledge. :) Edward III is solemnly called Isabella's heir in her IPM, 'Sir Edward, now king of England...' :-)

Good luck with your research! I must write a post sometime about Isabella's books and so on.

Unknown said...

You and your audience will be interested to know that there is a lot going on right now with regard to her material belongings, which is fun. Another question for you - Did Edward have a will? I had been working on the assumption that he did not, yet, and that everything essentially was disposed by Isabella and her advisors after his death. I haven't found a mention in the published sources but I am an art historian, not a historian, so I am not always confident!

Kathryn Warner said...

That is really excellent news! I'd love to know more!

Edward II, sadly, died intestate. His father made one on Crusade before his accession to the throne in 1272 and never updated it, interestingly enough.

Steve Allen said...

Is Isabella s grave still there if so is it marked! Did any other graves survive..curious and fascinated Steve

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Steve! No, unfortunately the Greyfriars church was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, rebuilt then destroyed again during the Second World War. Isabella's grave is therefore lost. Edward II's still survives at Gloucester Cathedral, and Hugh Despenser the Younger's at Tewkesbury Abbey.