07 May, 2015

Isabella of France: Guest Post by Kyra Kramer

Today I'm delighted to welcome to the blog the excellent historical writer Kyra Kramer, who's sharing with us some of her thoughts on Isabella of France in popular culture.  Over to you, Kyra!


Isabella of France: She-Wolf or Lady of Shalott?

There are many myths about Edward II that live large in popular culture, and one of the most frequently asserted is that his queen, Isabella of France, hated him and plotted his death with the aid of her lover, Roger Mortimer. Such has been the vitriol aimed at Edward that the queen has been largely forgiven for deposing him. However, her act of maintaining power after Edward’s disappearance and her alliance (presumed sexual) with Roger Mortimer also earned Isabella a share of sociocultural condemnation and the eventual moniker “She-Wolf of France”.

Isabella is one of the more famous queens of England, yet like most of the women whom history remembers vividly, she is better known for her transgressions than her accomplishments. One reason for that is – as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said – well behaved women seldom make history.  Well behaved women have traditionally been the ones who didn’t usurp men’s authority and who didn’t have any unsanctioned sexuality. Isabella, in contrast, was naughty; she overthrew her husband and is believed to have taken a lover to help her solidify power.

What is most interesting about Isabella to me is her nearly unique position balancing between support and slut-shaming in the cultural narrative. On one hand, the fear of Edward’s presumed homosexual attachments (and the attending derision heaped upon him courtesy of homophobia) have made Isabella a sympathetic figure. On the other hand, she is condemned as a heartless vamp for allowing Edward II to be murdered in such a foul manner (although evidence suggests he wasn’t murdered at all) and for abetting her lover in his power-grab over her son Edward III.

This dual-narrative means that there is a strong dichotomy between how Isabella is portrayed in history and historical fiction.

Early modern historians and authors disliked Isabella because instead of being the ideal long-suffering wife, she turned on her husband. Her motivations for rebellion were (subtly or overtly) given sexual overtones. The subtext of these depictions is that Isabella’s vexation was the result of Edward’s failures in the bedroom. She was typically sneered at as a cheap and hateful French tart who grabbed power from her husband and teenage son, then squandered it so she could be with the man who rattled her teeth in the way Edward couldn’t. In some accounts it is her lust for Mortimer inspires her usurpation of the throne and she thereafter acts as a kind of dim puppet for her paramour’s ambition. Even the insult “she-wolf” had sexually voracious connotations. A she-wolf (lupa) was the term the Romans used for a female prostitute and Latin slang was the bedrock of European languages and nomenclature.

This sexualization of Isabella was part of a larger pattern. Uncontrollable women who became powerful in their own right and flouted past or present cultural assertions about gendered traits, have usually been configured as sexually deviant and ‘slutty’. Strong queens expose the idea that women are inherently meek and sexually passive as the malarkey it is. Thus women like Isabella were seen as threats to social order and have been slut-shamed (accused of sexual impropriety to denote their status as ‘bad’ women) in order to make them appear to be gender anomalies. Women cannot be as powerful as men unless they are troublesome strumpets and freaks of nature.

In the last few decades, historians and writers frequently began reconfiguring Isabella (even in books that are labeled non-fiction) sympathetically as a wronged and abused wife who turned against Edward II because of his inept kingship and incessant cruelties. The king and his favorites are the clear and distinctive villains of the piece, driving Isabella to desperate measures with their immoral and heartless conduct. In this narrative, it is therefore understandable that she should fall in love with another man. Her presumed affair with Roger Mortimer is not based on mere sexual desire; it is a result of her love for this ultra-masculine and kind counterpoint to her effeminate and vicious husband. To this effect, Isabella emerges as a kind of Lady of Shallot, risking her doom in the hopes of uniting with Lancelot, and her romance with Mortimer is given the Romeo and Juliette veneer of star-crossed lovers. The reality of her love letters to the king and her seething anger toward his favorites for taking away Edward’s attention and affection are usually ignored in favor of the neglected-wife-seeks-real-love scenario.

However, the reimagined Isabella as non-slut is problematic in the same way slutty Isabella is; either depiction is still a manifestation of present beliefs about how each gender should behave overlaid on a historical figure to demonstrate ‘correct’ feminine behavior. Bad Isabella wanted to have sex and power; Good Isabella wants love and only overthrows her husband so she can be happy with Mortimer. Women don’t usurp thrones because they are angry or power-hungry! Women usurp thrones because their feelings are hurt and they want to be with the man they love! That’s why the retelling of the erroneous ‘facts’ that Edward let one of his favorites wear her wedding jewelry and that she was buried with Mortimer’s heart have such staying power; only true love and an evil husband can excuse a woman of adultery and overthrowing a king.

In truth, Edward was not cruel to Isabella and there is strong evidence she loved him. There is no evidence of a ‘great love affair’ between Isabella and Mortimer. Isabella was a fertile woman in her mid-30s when she was theoretically sleeping with Mortimer (who had 13 children with his wife), but she was never became pregnant (except in rumors) during the time of their supposed lovemaking. Were they physically intimate? Or were they just good allies? Or allies with benefits? No one knows for sure. Nonetheless, the excuse for Good Isabella’s bad actions are always situated in a passionate attachment to Mortimer.

What irks me the most is that in both the story of the Bad Isabella and the Good Isabella, she is falsely said to have been crushed by her cannier and stronger son and then driven insane by the punishments he inflicted and/or because he killed Mortimer. Either way, Isabella isn’t just pushed aside by her son – whom she had made sure was crowned king as soon as her husband was deposed – she suffers implied karmic retribution for being a women who dared enter into a power struggle. If she hadn’t been either 1) sexual or 2) in the sexual thrall of a man then she would have stayed safely ‘in her place’ and not been broken on the wheel of fortune. This is, of course, hogwash. When Edward III took over the responsibilities of the crown and executed Mortimer, the queen was given a fat living stipend and spent the rest of her life traveling among the various castles and manors her son gave her. She also visited her son and his wife reasonably often for the time period. The only consequence of the coup against Edward II that Isabella ever suffered was a long, full life with lots of jewelry.

Historical veracity is an explanation in and of itself, but does it really matter how Isabella is characterized in historical fiction? Yes, actually it does. Gender ideology, the understanding of the way men and women are supposed to act according to their biological sex, is significantly defined by both official history and historical narrative. Historical representation matters because history is a lens through which people view the world. The images of Isabella, either as a scheming harlot or as a desperate housewife, elide the truth and obscure historical fact in favor of reinforcing of gender ideology. The narratives of her life send several messages; that bad women are easily-manipulated sluts who get what they deserve when they try to keep power away from their heterosexual sons; good women are driven by their emotions and incapable of rational decisions if it means their lover would be denied something; women are axiomatically unable to hold the reigns of power if a man (in this case the teenage Edward III) is man enough to take it away from them; men who are suspected of loving other men are de facto weak and easily overpowered by recalcitrant women; heteronormative sexual behavior will save your life and crown. None of these messages, however, reflect the historical reality.

The only sociocultural messages we can really glean from Isabella’s life are that people are complex admixture of good and bad qualities, that privilege has its pleasures and its price, and that being the daughter, wife, and mother of a king will usually work out for you in the end. Those messages, however, aren’t nearly as dramatic or interesting as the idea of a she-wolf or an ill-fated beauty.


Thanks so much, Kyra!  On this topic, don't miss Kyra's great new book The Jezebel Effect: Why the Slut Shaming of Famous Queens Still Matters, and there's also her last one Blood Will Tell: A Medical Explanation of the Tyranny of Henry VIII.  Her website was linked above, and here's her blog too.


Anerje said...

Very interesting guest post!

Chris Klein said...

Great post! Thank you!

Sami Parkkonen said...

Good stuff thank you!

Jerry Bennett said...

I found this a very interesting post, and it confirmed much of what I privately believed about Isabella. Can I give my opinion on a point raised in this post (and often before) about her relationship with Roger Mortimer?

There is nothing in history, of which anyone seems to know, that definitely confirms that they were lovers. But given Mortimer's behaviour from 1329 onwards, you have to wonder if he would not have been slapped down by Isabella if the relationship was only a platonic, business-like one. The relationship between Isabella and the young Edward III seems to have been close, so could she really have tolerated some of Mortimer's actions if they had also not been close themselves?

Finally we have her reaction to the events in Nottingham when Mortimer was finally overthrown and her appeal to Edward. "Please my son, spare gentle Mortimer" or words to that effect.

These are only a couple of examples, but in trying to read between the lines of history, I personally believe there was some sort of love affair between them. But it is supposition only, based more on a rough and ready understanding of human nature than on any historical fact.