Today is the 657th anniversary of the death of Isabella of France, dowager queen of England, widow of Edward II and mother of Edward III, at Hertford Castle on 22 August 1358.
Isabella was probably sixty-two years old at the time of her death, born in late 1295 or thereabouts. There are a few silly myths told about the last twenty-eight years of her life following her son Edward III's coup d'état on 19 October 1330. She did not go mad after Roger Mortimer's execution and thereafter suffer periodic episodes of insanity, she was not immured in a nunnery, and she certainly was not imprisoned at Castle Rising, as demonstrated by the fact that she died at Hertford Castle. The myth of her incarceration at Castle Rising and her madness turns out, like so many other historical tall tales often repeated to this day, to have been invented by Agnes Strickland in the nineteenth century. Following a period of two years or less spent under comfortable house arrest at Windsor Castle after October 1330, Isabella lived a purely conventional life as a dowager queen, travelling round her estates, entertaining guests and spending vast amounts of money on clothes and jewels. Her lands were restored to her in November 1331.
Isabella's household accounts fortuitously survive for the last few months of her life, and record her visitors and letters and the gifts she made to others. Her son the king and her eldest grandson Edward of Woodstock, prince of Wales, visited her a few times, as did her second grandson Lionel of Antwerp (b. 1338), earl of Ulster and later duke of Clarence. Other visitors included her first cousin Henry of Grosmont (c. 1310-1361), first duke of Lancaster, son of her uncle Henry, earl of Lancaster, and the countess of Pembroke and the comes de la March, who as I pointed out recently were not Roger Mortimer's daughter Agnes and grandson Roger Mortimer as often romantically assumed but Marie de St Pol and Isabella's second cousin Jacques de Bourbon, the French count of La Marche. Isabella spent just under 1400 pounds, a truly staggering sum, on clothes and jewels, but also - she tended to be bookish - plenty of money on having new books made and illustrated for herself. She left her large book collection to her two surviving children, Edward III, king of England, and Joan of the Tower, queen of Scotland, who lived with her mother for the last few months of her life and received a gift of a black palfrey horse with saddle and embroidered gold fittings (spiffy!) from her mother. Sadly, Isabella outlived two of her four children: John of Eltham, earl of Cornwall, died in 1336, and Eleanor of Woodstock, duchess of Guelders, in 1355.
Isabella seems to have been ill for some months before she died: she sent a man to London three times in February 1358 to buy medicines for her and also paid her physician Master Laurence for attending her and her daughter Queen Joan for a month, though she was well and fit enough in June that year to travel to Canterbury on her last pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket, whom both she and Edward II venerated for many years. Isabella generally was fit and healthy: she outlived all her siblings by many years (the last of them, Charles IV, had died in 1328, three decades earlier) and also lived much longer than her parents had (Philip IV of France died at forty-six, Joan I of Navarre in her early thirties).
The dowager queen's body remained in the chapel of Hertford Castle for three months until 23 November 1358; a long delay between death and burial was entirely usual in the royal family. Isabella was buried, not next to her husband Edward II in St Peter's Abbey, Gloucester, not in Westminster Abbey with her parents-in-law Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, but in the church of the Greyfriars or Franciscans. her favourite order, in London. I don't know if this was her own choice or her son Edward III's. Her aunt and her husband's stepmother Marguerite of France, queen of England, had been buried there in 1318, and the heart of her husband's grandmother Eleanor of Provence, queen of Henry III, also lay in the Greyfriars' church in London. Isabella's daughter Joan of the Tower would also be buried there four years later.
Isabella was not buried next to Roger Mortimer, as numerous novels and even works of non-fiction continue to state. He was buried at the Greyfriars church a hundred miles away in Coventry, and his body may have been moved to Wigmore to lie among his ancestors, according to two petitions from his widow Joan Geneville to Edward III. Isabella was buried with Edward II's heart in a casket on her chest, and with the clothes she had worn to their wedding fifty years before. Sadly, her tomb was lost during the Reformation, and the Greyfriars church was destroyed during the Great Fire of London in 1666, rebuilt and then destroyed again during the Blitz.