Alison Weir’s Queen Isabella (Ballantine Books, 2007) is an engrossing work of history that reads like a novel. This is to its credit, as many readers never really knew anything about Queen Isabella of England (1292-1358) except for some rather outdated legends. Isabella was originally from France, and had been sent to England to cement the peace when she was only twelve years old; over time, she became a wife and queen in more than name only, and if her husband, Edward II, had only been a better king and husband, none of the slanderous words which came down through history about her would’ve been written.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Queen Isabella was known for her wisdom and was called a “peacemaker” in her time for her intelligence, strength of vision, and because she was able to mitigate the worst of the damage caused by her husband, Edward II. Edward, you see, was either homosexual or possibly bisexual, and he had male favorite after male favorite, which caused great problems in England due to favoritism and worse. Yet Isabella was far too canny, even in her youth (remember, she went there when she was only twelve), to show how upsetting this was — we only know she was upset because of the correspondence between Isabella and her father, Philip IV of France — and she went out of her way to be kind to Edward’s favorites while moderating the worst of Edward’s favoritism toward them. Because of the morality of the day, women in general — even queens — were viewed as lesser people, weaker due to being born female, and Isabella had to work within this framework in order to get anything done. It is to her credit that England was stable and prosperous during much of this time despite some of Edward’s ill-conceived notions.
Over time, though, Isabella grew increasingly frustrated. After her father’s death, Edward often withheld the money and provisions Isabella needed in order to live because he was weak and easily led by his male “favorites,” who, to a man, seemed extremely jealous of Isabella. And even those who weren’t “favorites” could cause trouble for Isabella merely for political gain, which seems to have been why the Despenser family was so vindictive and cruel toward Isabella.
It was because of this reason, the narrowing-out of her life, that Isabella fled to France with her son (and Edward’s heir), Edward, to the court of her brother Charles IV, who’d succeeded their father Philip. Charles IV was horrified at how Isabella had been treated, and backed her at least as far as helping her maintain the lifestyle expected of a queen in exile. But it was obvious to all that Edward II was a failed king, someone who did not deserve to rule; something had to be done.
And it wasn’t just the nobility that were frustrated over Edward II’s lack of kingship. The people in England were very upset at excessive taxation, not to mention the obvious favoritism shown to the entire Despenser family regarding taxation and everything else. Many of the nobles were outraged because of the excesses of the Despensers, several of whom were known to be ruthless and cold. Yet Edward couldn’t rein them in; he didn’t even seem to believe it was a problem, which showed he was completely out of touch with his own people — and showed his lack of kingship in full measure.
This is why Isabella, in 1325, was in France gathering support to overthrow her husband in favor of her son, while her husband was powerless to stop her and for the most part didn’t seem to even realize what she was doing. It took her over a year of planning, but she eventually returned to England and made Edward abdicate.
At this point, you might be wondering, “OK, Barb, where is the scandal here? There’s been incompetent rulers before, even homosexual ones who granted his favorites excessive liberties. Where’s the story?”
Well, Isabella, for all her good qualities — and it appears she had many — was a woman like any other, and she was now in her thirties. She was one of the most beautiful, sought-after women of her day, and yet her husband was not attracted to her (or possibly any other woman); she was ripe for a love affair, and unfortunately, one found her. I say “unfortunately” because the man she ended up having the affair with was Roger Mortimer, who was a good man to have around if you needed to go fight a war, but someone who was as disastrous in his own way to Isabella’s well-being as her husband Edward had been.
The epithets thrown at Isabella long after she went to dust — the “she-wolf of France,” “Isabella the Mad,” or “one of the most beautiful, and depraved, women of her time” — are shown by Ms. Weir to be inaccurate. It is clear from reading this book that Isabella was a very good queen and ruler; her only crime, if there was one, was that she fell in love with the wrong man at the wrong time — it’s possible that had Mortimer never laid eyes on Isabella in 1325 (and into 1326) that history would’ve been written differently.
The truth of the matter was, Isabella herself was a good ruler, and was apparently hampered by the two men who were supposed to love her — her husband, Edward II, and Roger Mortimer, the man she had an adulterous affair with because of what seems to be helpless physical passion from this far remove. We in the modern, Western world know that a woman who is not well-matched to her husband, especially physically, is likely to have an affair, and that does not make her a bad woman — or a bad queen in this case — but in that day and age, Edward III was able only to keep the worst of it from his mother’s shoulders, and Mortimer, of course, was doomed.
The end of Isabella’s life was quiet; she was respected by her son, the King, and by other rulers of the day for her quick mind and her excellent grasp of what we’d now call realpolitik. She did her best to make peace with her inner demons — having that affair was probably as big of a shock to her as it was to anyone else — and died quietly, in her favorite castle, with her favorite possessions willed to others (something highly unusual in that time, as women usually were not allowed to exert their will and testament after death — but no one was going to stop Isabella).
Queen Isabella is fast-paced, like a novel, and reads easily and well. This is an unflinching look at history, and it is both engrossing and honest — Ms. Weir did a superlative job here in bringing the large cast of characters to life and shining a spotlight onto a long-dimmed area of English history.
I leave you with only two sentences: read this book! You’ll be glad you did.
Reviewed by Barb