This is a post written partly by me and partly by my friend Rachel, who recently found online a statement that Isabella of France's marriage was a "grotesque travesty" and called Edward II her "husband" in inverted commas, which led to much disbelieving snark on our part; the disastrous ending of Edward and Isabella's marriage tends to obscure the fact that their relationship was for many years far more successful than is commonly supposed, and seriously, of all the horrendously dysfunctional and abusive marriages in history, theirs is the one described as a "grotesque travesty"? Edward and Isabella's marriage was no worse than a lot of other arranged marriages and a damn sight better than some, not that you'd know it from the many online articles and published books which portray Isabella as the most cruelly suffering wife and Edward II as the most abusive and neglectful husband who ever lived. That whole 'She-Wolf' thing went out of the window a long time ago; these days, we're far more likely to get Isabella of France: Tragic Neglected And Nobly Suffering Victim Of That Nasty Cruel Gay Edward II And His Horrid Male Favourites.
So Rachel had a brilliant idea: what would happen if Isabella joined a support group for Medieval and Renaissance Queens and Noblewomen with Crap Husbands? Here's what we came up with.
(And please also see our Support Group for People Unfairly Maligned in Historical Fiction.)
Isabella: I had the most grotesque travesty of a marriage EVER!
Blanche de Bourbon: Oh, you poor thing. Well you're among kindred spirits here. Did he beat and torture you?
Isabella: Well ... not as such ...
Anne Boleyn: My husband not only cheated on me with at least two women that I know of, but had me arrested, accused me of cheating on him with five men, one of whom was half my age, and one was my own brother, which is so beyond offensive it defies description. He then had me convicted of plotting his death, had our marriage annulled (how I could have committed adultery in those circumstances is beyond me), bastardised my daughter, and then had me and five innocent men beheaded so he could marry one of my ladies-in-waiting.
Blanche de Bourbon: I hear you ... My husband King Pedro of Castile imprisoned me three days after our wedding and went off with his long-term mistress Maria de Padilla, kept me in solitary confinement for eight years and then had me murdered. I was only twenty-two when I died, the queen of Castile who was never crowned, whom no-one ever saw, who lived in a dungeon. They don't call my husband 'the Cruel' for nothing, you know.
Isabella: I SO understand! That's exactly what happened to me!
Anne Boleyn: Really? What a bastard.
Isabella: Errr ... noooo ... Not so much the imprisoning and murdering thing. We ended up imprisoning him actually. But I didn't murder him! I mean. He wasn't murdered. But even if he was, I didn't do it and anyway, he would have deserved it. But it was still a horrible marriage!
Joan Mortimer: "We"? Just enlighten the other ladies here ... who's "we"?
Isabella: That's ... Never you mind. The point is, my husband liked his lovers better than me! He flaunted them mercilessly.
Catherine de Medici: I feel your pain, Izzy, because I know ALL about flaunting mistresses. My husband Henri II was so infatuated with that cow Diane de Poitiers that he had his letters signed HenriDiane, and everyone treated her as though she was the real queen of France and I was nobody.
Maria of Portugal: Ohhhh, don't talk to me about powerful mistresses. My husband Alfonso XI of Castile kept me a virtual prisoner while his mistress Leonor de Guzman wielded enormous influence at court and had ten children with my husband, seven more than he had with me. My father the king of Portugal even invaded Castile to avenge the insult to me.
Constanza of Castile: Is this the meeting for tragic neglected queens and noblewomen? I was a teenager and beautiful, so everyone said, when I married John of Gaunt, but within months of our wedding he began committing enthusiastic adultery with that horrid Katherine Swynford and had all those kids with her. But rather than being offended on my behalf - me, rightful queen of Castile in my own right! - people hundreds of years later keep going "awwww, John and Katherine are, like, soooo sweet and romantic!" and behave as though I was nothing more than an object in the way of Twu Wuv 4ever who finally did the decent thing by dying because it allowed them to fulfil their romantic destiny and get married.
Joan Mortimer: I know the feeling too ... MY husband moved his mistress into MY castle. Oh wait, Izzy, you already know that. Don't you?
Isabella: Joan, honey, if you'd been able to satisfy Roger properly, you wouldn't have lost him to me, would you? Because obviously Roger only had a relationship with me because he truly loved me and not at all because he needed me and my son as figureheads so that he could invade England and avenge himself on my husband, or because he got the chance to rule England through me and my son for nearly four years and make himself earl of March and the richest man in the country. All of that was just a total coincidence. And Constanza, honey, my grandson John is straight, and hetero adultery is romantic, OK? Like me and Roger. Get with the programme. In fact, Katherine Swynford, Mary Boleyn and I are holding a workshop later called "Female Empowerment Through Shagging Married Men" so maybe you'd like to sign up for that and learn something rather than whinging about being a wronged wife, hmmmm? And ladies, you're all missing the main point: your husbands may well have flaunted their lovers in front of you, but at least the lovers were female! My husband's favourites were men!
Catherine de Medici: Oh, well that makes all the difference. I suppose he had rampant orgies with hundreds of young men in front of you?
Isabella: Errr ... no.
Anne Boleyn: Oh. Well, he must have been an incorrigible paedophile, then - couldn't keep his hands off prepubescent boys?
Isabella: Umm ... no. His male favourites were adults. But there were *two* of them.
Anne of Denmark: Oh PLEASE! You should have seen the way MY husband carried on. You'll have to do better than that.
Elisabeth Charlotte, duchess of Orleans: Mine too! My husband Philippe paraded an endless succession of male lovers in front of me, and allowed them to humiliate and belittle me in public. He did exactly the same thing to his first wife, Minette.
Isabella: Well, Edward ... um ... took my children? Set them up in separate households?
Eleanor of Aquitaine: Isn't that normal procedure? My kids grew up all over the place. And are you saying that you were the only queen in the entire Middle Ages and for long afterwards who was the full-time primary carer of her children?
Isabella: Well ... yes, it's normal procedure and I didn't see the kids that much anyway, but ... but ... aha, here's one way the bastard made me suffer! He wasn't interested in me at all at our wedding or for ages afterwards, even though I was officially The Most Beautiful And Desirable Woman In All France!
Eleanor of Aquitaine: Ummm, you were twelve when you married, weren't you, and Edward was in his twenties? Why would he be interested in a pubescent? Did he refuse to have sex with you later when you'd matured?
Isabella: Yes! Oh, OK, no, not exactly. We conceived our first child four years after we got married.
Eleanor of Aquitaine: Honey, I was older than you when I got married, and my first child was born eight years after the wedding. But then, I married Louis VII, who should have been a monk. Later I married Henry II who gave me lots of children, though there was that whole imprisoning me for sixteen years thing as well, of course, and I was only released because Henry died and my son Richard let me out. Henry would gladly have seen me die in prison.
Berengaria of Navarre: That would be my husband Richard, whom in eight years of marriage I almost never saw and who may or may not have had sex with men and who had prostitutes brought to him on his death-bed?
Alais of France: The same Richard who was betrothed to me for more than twenty years but who publicly refused to marry me and claimed that I had been his father's mistress? Can you even begin to imagine the humiliation?
Eleanor of Aquitaine: *Sticks fingers in ears* Lalalalalala my son Richard is perfect lalalalalalala I can't hear you. By the way, Izzy, how long did Edward imprison you for, did you say?
Isabella: Ummmm. He didn't, as such. But he gave our wedding gifts to his first favourite Piers Gaveston!
All: Oh, that is soooo unacceptable.
Isabella: Well, in fact he only sent them from Boulogne to Gaveston, his regent back in England, to store in a safe place for us, and Gaveston didn't actually keep them. But one chronicler thought he kept them, so that totally counts. And Edward let his other great favourite Hugh Despenser rule the country although he had no right to, and take whatever lands he wanted, and Edward just plain ignored me. Me, his faithful and supportive wife!
Joan Mortimer: You mean like you let your great favourite Roger Mortimer otherwise known as my husband rule the country although he had no right to, and take whatever lands he wanted, and Roger just plain ignored me? Me, his faithful and supportive wife!
Isabella: Well, obviously that's entirely different. Did you not hear the parts about hetero adultery being romantic and women who sleep with married men being empowered, dearie? Honestly, do keep up. And here's more of my shockingly awful suffering: Edward confiscated my lands in September 1324 when he was at war with my brother the king of France because he claimed there was a danger of a French invasion, and lowered my income from £4500 to £2613 a year! Have you ever heard of such appalling abuse??
Philippa of Hainault: Remind me again, mother-in-law dearest, how you treated your son and me financially during your regency? You know, your son who was the king of England? How much money did you allow him to have, while you granted yourself the largest income anyone in England received during the entire Middle Ages and gorged yourself on lands and took for yourself all those piles of money Robert Bruce gave England in exchange for your desperately unpopular peace treaty? Did you give him lots of money, or really in fact not lots at all and a pitifully, humiliatingly small amount? Remember how you inherited £78,156 from Edward II's treasury and left your son a rather less than enormous £41 only four years later? What happened to the other £78,115 and the £20,000 from Bruce?
Isabella: Those questions are beneath my contempt, Pippa, sweetie. Run along and push out a few more kids, and just you remember who the real queen of England is round here. I still say that my marriage was utterly appalling. OK, maybe Edward didn't kill me or torture me or beat me or imprison me, but I am The Tragic Suffering Wife Par Excellence!
Eleanor of Woodstock and Joan of the Tower: Oh really? Don't you remember us, Mum? Eleanor's husband tried to repudiate her on the grounds that she had leprosy but really because he was just fed up with her, and Joan's husband gave his mistress Katherine Mortimer so much power at court that a group of his Scottish nobles had her murdered in disgust!
Alice of Norfolk: And what about me? My husband Edward Montacute beat me up so badly I died of my injuries, and my first cousin Edward III, your son, didn't lift a finger against him. And I'm the granddaughter and niece of kings! But you're right, Izzy, your husband reducing your income, even though you were still one of the richest people in the country, is an indication of true suffering that puts mine and all the other women's here into perspective. *Rolls eyes*
Isabella: Pfffft, Ally, you don't know the meaning of true marital suffering. Your husband may have beaten you to death, but at least he didn't lower your income. He didn't try to annul your marriage either, but That Awful Edward sent the friar Thomas Dunheved to the pope to do just that to me!
Katherine of Aragon: You poor thing, how I feel for you. My husband spent years trying to get me to admit that our marriage had never been valid and that I'd basically been nothing more than his mistress for twenty-odd years, and that our beloved daughter was a bastard. Me, a Spanish infanta and child of two great sovereigns! And all so he could marry one of my ladies-in-waiting. *Glares at Anne Boleyn* He packed me off to live in a cold damp castle in the middle of nowhere with a minimal staff, and wouldn't let me see my daughter even when I was dying. Did Edward do something similar to you?
Isabella: Well, in fact the annulment thing was just a rumour flying around England in 1325 like lots of other silly untrue rumours and Edward actually sent Thomas Dunheved to the pope to complain about the archbishop of Dublin, and two chroniclers got the wrong end of the stick. Come to think of it, they weren't even in the right wood. But it still counts because Edward might have tried to annul our marriage if he'd been even remotely willing to risk the pope declaring our children illegitimate, which obviously he wasn't because he was arranging marriage alliances for them in Spain at the time. But anyway, I beat you all in the battle of Most Tragic Neglected Wife In All Recorded History, and you know why?
Isabella: Because numerous books, and articles on something called the internet, will be written in the early twenty-first century declaring that I had the most appallingly abusive and horrible husband ever and that my marriage was "unendurable" and a "grotesque travesty" and also that every tiny little thing I ever did wrong wasn't at all my fault because I was such a tragically abused victim of nasty unscrupulous men. So HA!