13 August, 2022

No, Isabella of France Was Not a 'Pawn'

There's a tendency among a few modern writers of history to describe medieval women, or at least certain medieval women, as 'pawns' because their marriages were arranged. Anne Neville, queen of Richard III, is one, though people inevitably fail to point out that her own father was himself married to her mother when he was six and she was eight.

The presenter of a BBC documentary a few years ago featuring Edward II's queen Isabella of France moaned that Isabella was 'little more than a pawn in the power-play between England and France', and 'little more than a decorative accessory to a diplomatic alliance'. Isabella herself would have laughed to scorn the notion that she was a pawn in a power game played by men that had nothing to do with her, and as the daughter of the king of France and the queen regnant of Navarre, there was no one else in Europe she'd rather have married than the king of England (except perhaps the king of Castile and Leon). Do people honestly think she'd have preferred to marry Roger Mortimer, a baron of middling rank? She'd have considered that a deadly insult! Edward II himself was betrothed for the first time at the age of five and was subsequently betrothed to another three girls or young women, the last of whom was Isabella, by the time he was fourteen. No one would dream of whining that he was 'a pawn' or a 'decorative accessory'.

Let's take a look at how Isabella herself viewed royal marriages. She purchased the marriage of twelve-year-old Philippa of Hainault from Philippa's father Willem, count of Hainault and Holland, in August 1326, in exchange for Willem providing troops and ships for Isabella's invasion of England. The third daughter of a mere count was hardly a great match for Isabella's son Edward III, son of a king and grandson of two more kings. As for poor Philippa, she got to be exchanged for ships and mercenaries. Is it possible to have a less romantic start to a marriage, albeit one that ended up being very close and loving? It's hardly any wonder that, later in life, Philippa herself told the chronicler Jean Froissart that Edward III chose her as his future wife from among her sisters. Froissart repeated this pleasant little tale uncritically as though it were gospel truth, as have numerous later writers, but it's nonsense on stilts, and represents Queen Philippa decades later looking back on her early life through rose-coloured spectacles. Philippa's older two sisters Margaretha and Johanna had both married in February 1324 - a double wedding in Cologne with two German bridegrooms, Ludwig of Bavaria and Wilhelm of J[]lich - and the only other Hainault sister alive in the summer of 1326, Isabella, was little more than a toddler at the time. She was obviously far less suitable as a bride for the nearly fourteen-year-old Edward of Windsor than twelve-year-old Philippa was, but if anything had happened to Philippa before her and Edward's wedding, he would indeed have married Isabella instead. If anything had happened to both Hainault sisters, the replacement would have been their cousin [], daughter of the count of Hainault's younger brother Jehan de Beaumont. If anything had happened to Edward III before he married Philippa, she would have married his younger brother John of Eltham instead. To imagine that the whims and choices of adolescents had anything to do with power politics at this level, and with the supremely hard-headed and unromantic negotiations between the queen of England and the count of Hainault, is frankly absurd.

When Isabella negotiated a peace treaty with Robert Bruce, king of Scotland, in 1328, she married off her youngest child Joan of the Tower, who had just turned seven, to Robert's four-year-old son and heir David, to seal the settlement between the two kingdoms. At just seven, Joan was sent to live in a country she'd been raised to think of as her country's enemy; yet the people who a few chapters earlier in their books were wailing about Isabella's suffering at being betrothed to Edward at age three or so and being sent to live in England at age twelve remain silent on Joan's feelings. Instead, Isabella is lauded for being so amazing as to make a peace treaty with Scotland.

Does any of this make Isabella sound even remotely like a woman with a romantic view of royal marriages, who'd have whined to her father 'But I don't love Edward, it's not faaaaaaaaaaair'? I really do not understand why Isabella of France is treated as so incredibly special and unique that things which were entirely normal in her world, and happened to every royal child, make so many modern writers froth with indignation when they happened to her, or why the woes of her two daughters, whose marriages were arguably more troubled and unhappy than hers, are completely ignored by people who drone on and on about Isabella's terrible suffering.

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