French princess Isabella was only 12 years old in 1308 when she sailed into the court of English king Edward II as his wife. And he, the 24-year-old freshly crowned monarch, was very much in love … just not with her. The person Edward was in love with was a young knight named Piers Gaveston. That Edward had a lover wasn’t shocking, nor was it a big problem that his lover was a man. The problem, as the English court saw it, was how “immoderately” Edward loved the glamorous, arrogant Gaveston— enough to risk his entire kingdom and the lives of thousands of soldiers. When Gaveston was around, Edward was worse than useless, barely able to hold a conversation, much less govern. When Gaveston wasn’t around, Edward was a wreck.
While Edward and Isabella were married in France, Gaveston stayed in England with his own child bride, Edward’s 15-year-old niece. Less than a month later, Isabella witnessed firsthand just how deep the man’s hooks went into her husband’s heart. During the ceremony at Westminster Abbey investing Isabella with the title of queen, it was Gaveston who held the crown. At the coronation feast afterward, he sat next to the king under tapestries that depicted not the emblems of Edward and Isabella but the arms of Edward and Gaveston. And just to turn the dagger a bit more, Edward handed over the wedding gifts from Isabella’s father— jewels, warhorses, the whole lot— to his one true love. Isabella’s uncles, who had attended the coronation, returned to France in a frothy rage. Which was bad news, given that France and England were perpetually squabbling and barely maintaining an uneasy truce. England was already embroiled in a conflict with Scotland and didn’t need another front to open up. England’s powerful magnates— the lords and earls who really ruled the land— decided that Gaveston was too great a distraction for the king and needed to be removed. But attempts to exile the king’s favorite proved futile. Edward would send Gaveston away and then, a few months later, call him back.
Their frustration with Edward reached a boiling point in 1312; civil war was in the making. Edward and Gaveston traveled the countryside, trying to keep ahead of the lords baying for the latter’s blood, but they couldn’t run for long— England is only so big. On May 19, Gaveston surrendered to the king’s enemies at Scarborough Castle, where Edward had left him ensconced with a battalion. Just over a month later, Gaveston was executed, brutally and without a trial. The king swore he’d have his revenge.
Isabella, meanwhile, was biding her time. She’d become an adult while following Edward and Gaveston around the country; at the time of Gaveston’s execution, she was pregnant with her husband’s son and heir. On November 12, 1312, the 17-year-old queen gave birth to a healthy baby boy. She’d done her duty to crown and husband, and her position was secure. She had also accumulated enough political acumen to manage her useless husband and try to keep the nation from civil war. Edward and his warring lords patched things up long enough to sign a peace treaty, which got them through the first few months of 1313 without killing one another. With Isabella’s mediation, the lords swore fealty to Edward once again, but it was a tenuous peace. The Scots were hammering England’s defenses to the north, and Edward’s most powerful earl (and the man responsible in part for Gaveston’s murder), a man named Lancaster, refused to aid him. Worse, Lancaster was actively plotting against Edward while England was left rudderless, without a real leader.
Isabella remained at Edward’s side, his confidante and advisor. That is, until about 1318, when Edward again became infatuated with a young man in his company. Unlike the foppish Gaveston, Hugh Despenser was shrewd, cruel, and paranoid. He used the royal relationship to seize his rivals’ lands and treasuries. As Despenser hoarded more gold and more land, more and more lords began defecting to Lancaster’s side. Isabella worked to maintain peace between her husband, his magnates, and an irate France, but they all demanded that Despenser be exiled. In July 1321, Edward gave the order; ever the sly one, Despenser went only as far as the English Channel, where he and his father turned to pirating merchant ships while awaiting word from Edward. Meanwhile, the king’s struggles with Lancaster came to a head. Lancaster found himself on the losing side of the battle; he was arrested and executed as a traitor. Edward had his revenge.
Edward may have won a battle, but he was about to lose the war. Triumphant after Lancaster’s death, he hastily called the Despensers back to England and made Hugh his chief advisor. Ever the opportunist, Hugh then started to make moves on Isabella’s property and that of her children. Bad decision.
Hell hath no fury like a woman whose children’s birthright is in danger. Now a seasoned political manipulator, Isabella waited for just the right moment to act, and in 1325 opportunity finally landed in her lap. By then, England’s relationship with France had frayed over land that both claimed to rule. It was decided that Isabella was ideally suited to work out a solution with her relatives back home. So the queen (who had likely planted the idea with Edward and Despenser) made her way back to France, where she spent several restorative months in the bosom of her family. Six months after landing in Calais, she was followed by her son, 12-year-old Prince Edward, on the pretext that relations between France and England would be softened if he were made duke of Aquitaine. And just like that, 27-year-old Isabella held the trump card: the heir to the English throne.
Within weeks, Isabella showed her hand. “I feel that marriage is a joining together of man and woman … and someone has come between my husband and myself trying to break this bond,” she said in a statement. “I protest that I will not return until this intruder is removed.” Edward was gobsmacked. “On her departure, she did not seem to anyone to be offended,” he supposedly remarked. Isabella’s plan was ingenious and subtle. Her husband was a useless king, but she couldn’t say so without looking like a traitor. So she cleverly shifted the blame to Despenser and cast herself as the dutiful wronged wife. Isabella also knew that Edward was unlikely to be a worthy leader even if Despenser were removed. Lucky, then, that she happened to have an alternative ready to roll and under her control: her son, the prince.
Isabella had spent the last six months getting all her ducks in a row. Not only did she have France on her side, she had also won the loyalty of a faction of disaffected Englishmen to legitimize her rebellion. They were led by Roger Mortimer, one of the nobles who had led the revolt against Edward. Two years earlier, Mortimer had made a daring escape from the Tower of London and turned up in the French court. He and Isabella met up in Paris; he became not only her captain, but her lover as well.
To get her son on the throne, Isabella needed military might, so she and Mortimer engineered a marriage between young Edward and the daughter of a French count. In late September 1326, Isabella and Mortimer set sail for England with her daughter-in-law’s dowry— 700 soldiers— along with a pack of mercenaries paid for by Isabella’s brother, the king of France. Isabella was, without a doubt, at the head of this operation; one fourteenth-century image shows her leading the troops while clad in shiny armor. Popular support for her as a romantic, righteous figurehead had been growing since word of her rebellion spread; that support, and her ranks, continued to swell after she returned to English soil. Edward had fallen out of favor not only with his lords and magnates but also among his people, who had suffered famine and war while he was occupied with avenging his lover’s death.
The end came swiftly. On November 16, the king and his companion were caught trying to make it across open country in Wales. Hugh Despenser was brought before the queen and her lords and sentenced to death. He was dragged through the streets, stripped naked, and hauled 50 feet in the air by his neck. He was then disemboweled while alive and castrated— punishment, it was rumored, for his intimate relationship with the king. As if all that wasn’t enough, he was beheaded, too.
The king was confined to Monmouth Castle as a prisoner of Henry of Lancaster, brother of the rebellious earl whom Edward had executed four years before. But Isabella and Mortimer still had one problem: with Despenser gone, the dynamic duo no longer had reason to challenge Edward’s fitness to rule. So, clever Isabella argued that, by fleeing to Wales, Edward had abandoned England and his right to rule it. Prince Edward was, therefore, the rightful king. The relieved bishops and lords of England agreed. Now all that remained was to convince Edward to resign the throne in favor of his son. Faced with overwhelming opposition, he agreed, and Prince Edward, just 14 years old, became King Edward III on February 1, 1327. Isabella, as the mother of the underage ruler, and Mortimer, as leader of the deposing army, now held authority in England.
The situation was unprecedented— it was the first time the country had ever had a living ex-king. And there was also the issue of Isabella’s marriage: Edward may have been an ex-king, but he was not her ex-husband. With Despenser gone, she had no legitimate reason not to return to him. Moreover, Edward’s very existence posed a threat to the new regime, especially since it appeared he wasn’t completely without supporters. Indeed, by September 1327, three plots to free him had been foiled. So the queen and her captain hit upon a more traditional means of ridding themselves of this troublesome ex-king: murder.
The story is probably apocryphal, but later chroniclers morbidly insist that Edward II was murdered by the violent application of a red-hot poker up his backside. However death occured, on the night of September 21, 1327, the 43-year-old relatively robust former king conveniently died. He was buried with all the ceremony accorded to a dead monarch, his wife and son weeping and kneeling before his gilded hearse.
But young King Edward III, it seems, had learned a trick or two at his mother’s knee. Though Isabella and Mortimer were content to run things in England indefinitely, Edward wasn’t about to sit idly by and watch them do it. In late 1330, just three years after Isabella and Mortimer seized power, the 18-year-old king outflanked them. Mortimer was arrested as a traitor by a group of nobles loyal to the crown; he was hung on November 29, 1330. Isabella had but one choice: accept the death of her lover and an enforced retirement, surrendering her vast estates to her son. Ever the realist, she did so within a week of Mortimer’s execution. Isabella lived the rest of her life in quiet obedience to her son, dying in 1358. The “She-Wolf of France,” as she came to be called, was buried as she requested: with a silver vase containing the heart of her husband, the man she’d kicked off the throne and probably murdered.
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