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...