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?
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.
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.
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.