22 August, 2015

22 August 1358: Death of Isabella of France, Dowager Queen of England

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.


Katarzyna Ogrodnik-Fujcik said...

Rest In Peace!

Anonymous said...

Another RIP for Isabella. This is another great post for you, Kathryn. It's a pity that the myths still get taken so seriously (Joan petitioning to give her husband burial with his family, when he was supposedly having an affair while she was imprisoned? Isabella buried in wedding clothese with husband's heart because Roger was the love of her life? GMAB!


Kathryn Warner said...

RIP, Isabella!

Thanks, Esther! Yes, it's really a shame that the myths have taken hold on the popular imagination. :/ Hope my new book goes a long way to dispelling them :-)

Anonymous said...

Any idea where Ms Strickland got her ideas from - and how did she become one of the "go to" historians of her time? I read - and quite enjoyed - Norah Lofts' "The Concubine" several years ago but have since found out it contained some inaccuracies (e.g. Anne Boleyn had a step-mother and an extra finger blah-de-blah-de-blah) because Ms Lofts used a work by Agnes Strickland as some of her source material and that source material was wide of the mark. Thanks for the article. Unfortunately my own knowledge of languages is not sufficient to be able to study the ancient texts (even if the museums would let me) - I just about scraped a pass in O level Latin and although I studied "Aucassin et Nicolette" and part of "Yvain" many years ago (didn't finish the course for which I had a valid reason) I have quite forgotten the little old French I knew. It is useful to have the likes of your good self to study the primary sources on behalf of a layperson such as myself.

By the way I'm not anonymous I'm Patricia O

Kathryn Warner said...

Patricia, a lot of the time I think she just plucked them out of thin air, though sometimes misread/misinterpreted a source. I wouldn't mind - she did the best she could a very long time ago and of course our knowledge has come on hugely since then - except that her errors and inventions are so often repeated even today. I'm annoyed with modern writers failing to check, not with Strickland herself.

Sami Parkkonen said...

Isabella survived the Great Mortalis, Great Pestilence or as we know it The Black Death too, as that arrived to England in 1347/48.

I find it very moving when I think that she wanted to be buried with her wedding dress and heart of Edward. That moves the romantic in me deeply.

Sonetka said...

Buried in her wedding dress? After four children that's an accomplishment in itself!

Patricia -- Norah Lofts isn't the only one to have used Anne's stepmother as a character, based on Strickland; there are even a few twenty-first century books which use her! What's really odd to me is that Lofts in one of her chapter headers quotes Philip Sergeant, who in his own book demonstrated that Strickland had been wrong (she had misinterpreted some burial records, I believe) and that Anne did not in fact have a stepmother. I wonder if she came across Sergeant when the book was already largely written, or if she just liked the character and decided to keep her in. Anne's stepmother is usually used to humanize Thomas Boleyn in these books and keep him from being a one-dimensional grasping monster, so I kind of like her even though she didn't exist. Strickland's accomplishment was really remarkable (it was also her sister Elizabeth's accomplishment, Elizabeth did a lot of the research) but she got led up blind alleys sometimes and got overly fanciful at others.

Anonymous said...

Oh that's interesting Sonetka. I haven't read all of Norah Lofts' books but of the ones I have, I liked more than I disliked. In all honesty Ms Strickland is not the only person who has been overly fanciful in interpreting history (or Ms Warner would have no reason to maintain this blog). I can pardon a genuine mistake more easily than I can basically untrue - or grossly exaggerated - claims to have discovered something new when interpreting history, though that is not the focus of this post. I liked "Lady Bo", the stepmother character in "The Concubine" too. I don't know very much about Agnes Strickland though these days I can "google" her name and don't even have to go to the library. I am told Wikipedia is more reliable now than in earlier years.

Getting more on point regarding Isabella, I must admit that for a long time I more or less assumed that the story of her being romantically involved with Mortimer was true because one seemed to come across it universally, though thinking about it now it is quite feasible that theirs was no more than a political alliance. I'm probably too old to bone up on my rusty Latin and ye olde frenche (modern French not so bad) to be able to consult - if I had the time - the "primary sources" and I wouldn't know where to start.

Patricia O

Sami Parkkonen said...

I think Roger and Isabella was too good combination left without of any romantic flavor, regardless if there was anything going on or not. When people look and looked into their relationship it is/was just too good platform for a romantic story. One must remember that romantic stories were very much The Pop in medieval times too.

I think we will never know for sure one way or another, but personally I tend to lean towards that there was no liason, at least not any great love story if there was any. There are examples how Isabella reacted to the romances between lesser nobility and royals, how she reacted to adultery etc. to make one suspicious for a love story between these two.

And let us not forget Edward III. If her mother had not only been involved on the de-throning of his father but also slept with the man who upsurped the power of the realm, I think Edward III would have reacted a bit harsher towards her mother than what he did. The political manouvering he could reason but adultery between the queen and a knight, his mother and the lethal enemy of his father who did not personally like him? And Edward III was pretty ruthless guy if need be, more like his grandfather than his own father.

If Isabella and Roger had been having a flaming hot love story from France onwards, Edward the son would have known it for sure. He was practically a prisoner of his mother and Roger, a teenager who was alone among the upsurpers who were also acting in his name. And when he finally caught a whiff that Roger was going to claim the throne and most likely kill him, he took over by a surprise night raid to Nottingham castle at the relative young age, leading personally the small team of his close friends and supporters.

Had his mother been living with lover Mortimer, they would have been caught from the same chamber that night, but they were not. But had they been, it could have ended very much differently for both, for Edward the son would have had no scruples to save neither at that point. But he did, for his own use for later in parliament and trials.

Just a speculation but this is the way I see it.

Anerje said...

I used to spend hours in my local library on a Saturday afternoon reading Agnes Strickland' s 'Lives of the Queens of England' in the reference section. I completely bought into mad Queen Isabella in Castle Rising. Like Patricia, I wondered where Victorian writers got their info from. Jean Plaidy, whose novels I adored, got lots of her info from Strickland. I think Victorian writers didn't think about the consequences of their writings - that many years later historians would use their work as secondary sources. The description of Lady Jane Grey at her coronation was only found to be completely made up a few years ago. It just made a romanticised version of history - just look at all those Victorian paintings.

I know Kathryn is meticulous in her research, and always aims for primary sources and their interpretation - keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Nice posts/ info, folks.
Many thanks.
A short question re one of above comments: When Edward3 burst in on his ma at Nottingham castle, was she alone or with Mr. Mortimer? Separate chambers?

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi, thanks! :) Mortimer was in Isabella's chamber, but that's not nearly as intimate as it might sound: the chamber was a place to hold meetings, and other allies of theirs were present too, including the bishop of Lincoln (who tried to escape down a latrine shaft :), Mortimer's son Geoffrey, Sir Oliver Ingham and Sir Hugh Turplington.