Damien F. Mackey
“John saw Isabella for the first time there and, according to reports, immediately lusted after her, desiring her as his wife. Isabella was, at most, twelve years old at this visit but she is depicted by contemporaries as a young temptress, fuelling the king’s lust with her beauty and betraying her fiancé, Hugh de Lusignan”.
Text book history will tell us that Isabella was the Queen consort of King John I of England (1200 - 1216 AD, conventional dating), who is portrayed as a villain in the Robin Hood tales. She, whose maternal great-grandfather (it is said) was King Louis XI of France, became Countess of Angoulême in 1202, by which time she was already queen of England.
Her marriage to King John is said to have taken place in 1200, at Bordeaux.
Some of her contemporaries portrayed the Queen as a witch, a sorcerer, a murderess, in short, a Jezebel (Virtuous or Villainess? The Image of the Royal Mother from the Early …, p. 103 ...):
The St Albans chronicler Roger of Wendover [d. 1236], who wrote in the early years of King Henry III's reign, portrayed Isabella as a fitting consort for King John, whom he characterized as one of England's most cruel and unpleasant kings. Wendover painted Isabella as a bewitching seductress in whose company John delighted when he should, instead, have been defending Normandy from the conquering forces of the French king Philip Augustus in 1203. …. Matthew Paris, Wendover's successor at St Albans, famously blackened Isabella's reputation further. In one apocryphal story that Paris included within his narrative, John sent emissaries to the emir of North Africa in the hope of seeking his assistance, only for Robert of London, one of John's agents, to reveal the king's true character to his Muslim host. In doing so, Robert also chose to divulge just how much Isabella hated her husband, before describing the queen herself in the most damning terms as an adulterous woman, whose lovers had been murdered on her husband’s personal orders. According to Paris, Isabella's worst character traits carried on into her later life in France, where her scandalous behavior, most notably her involvement in a plot to murder the French king, led the chronicler to claim she was more deserving of the name of Jezebel, the Old Testament figure who had brought about the deaths of prophets and holy men, than Isabella. ….
According to the following article: https://erenow.com/biographies/she-wolves-the-notorious-queens-of-medieval-england/9.html
Isabella of Angouleme has one of the most grim reputations of any queen of England. She led a tumultuous life that was filled with high drama and intrigue and she was infamous across Europe even during her lifetime. Isabella is remembered today as an adulteress, a disloyal mother and a poisoner. One contemporary writer even went so far as to describe her as ‘more Jezebel than Isabel’. Today, Isabella is considered dishonourable like her mother-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine, but with none of the older woman’s admirable qualities. In short, she is seen as the sort of consort that her husband, King John, deserved. There is no doubt that Isabella was hated and feared but how much she deserved this amoral characterisation is debatable. Isabella was the wife of the disastrous and highly unpopular King John and it is not surprising that much of his bad reputation infected hers. She lived in turbulent times and, as a prominent landowner in her own right, Isabella often found herself at the mercy of the changing fortunes of the English and the French on the continent. Therefore it is not entirely surprising that she sometimes sought to play the two off against each other in an attempt to preserve her lands. ….
… it is likely that Isabella was very young at the time of her marriage to John in 1200.1 She is often described as being twelve years old in 1200 but since this was the legal earliest age for marriage, this may have been an official age. It has been suggested that Isabella was as young as eight or nine in 1200.2
It is often claimed that John’s marriage to Isabella was driven by lust with all the criticism of Isabella that this implies.8 In the summer of 1200 John set out on a progress through Poitou. During his progress he visited the Lusignans at Le Marche.9 John saw Isabella for the first time there and, according to reports, immediately lusted after her, desiring her as his wife. Isabella was, at most, twelve years old at this visit but she is depicted by contemporaries as a young temptress, fuelling the king’s lust with her beauty and betraying her fiancé, Hugh de Lusignan. ….
On 23 August 1200, Isabella was informed by her parents that she was to marry John the next day. Her feelings concerning this are not clear and she must have been bewildered at the sudden change in her fortunes. Both Hugh and John were considerably older than her and she is unlikely to have been emotionally attached to either man. It has been claimed that she wept and protested12; equally, it has been suggested that she greatly desired to be a queen.13 ….
In 1201, trouble broke out in Poitou and John charged the Lusignans with treason. The Lusignans turned to Philip Augustus for support and, in 1202, Philip declared that John had forfeited Aquitaine, Poitou and Anjou and gave them to John’s rival, Arthur of Brittany.16 John seems to have blamed Isabella for the loss of his French possessions and apparently told her this in 1205.17 Sources also blame Isabella, claiming that following their marriage John and Isabella would lie in bed together rather than attend to business, again suggesting that Isabella’s precocious charms kept the king from his proper duties.18 ….
John and Isabella’s personal relationship also does not seem to have been a success. John is known to have had several illegitimate children with at least two born to noblewomen.24 In 1214 John abducted the noblewoman Matilda FitzWalter, forcing her to become his mistress.25 It is likely that this action both aroused Isabella’s jealously and stirred up baronial opposition to John in England. Sources also refer to John’s ‘lady friends’, one of whom he sent roses to in June 1212.26 It seems probable that John took mistresses throughout his marriage to Isabella, something that a woman as strong-willed as Isabella cannot have accepted easily. For her contemporaries of the opposite sex however male infidelity was acceptable and Isabella would have been expected to simply ignore John’s conduct. The only reason he was chastised for his affairs was his preference for abducting noblewomen, the implication being that he could have relations with women of lower status with impunity. However as is the norm for the medieval period, there was one standard for men and quite another for women. Although John has largely escaped censure for his affairs, a great deal of Isabella’s poor reputation stems from her supposed infidelity. A contemporary, Matthew Paris, described her as guilty of adultery, sorcery and incest.27 One suggested lover is Isabella’s own half-brother, Peter de Joigny, and this would account for the accusation of incest. Peter visited England in 1215 and possibly 1207 so Isabella and her brother may have formed a close relationship with each other.28 ….
A further story grotesquely narrates how John had one of Isabella’s lovers strangled and his corpse suspended over her bed.29There was probably little affection between John and Isabella. She was not mentioned in his will and, after his death, Isabella issued three perfunctory charters for his soul then never mentioned him again.30 She may also have taken lovers during their marriage; if so, she was no more at fault than her husband but because of her sex, such accusations were enough to damn her.
Isabella had little contact with her children by John. It is unclear whether this was her choice or not but she never seems to have built a relationship with them. ….
Isabella was never given the opportunity to be a mother to her children in their formative years. These early separations and, perhaps, dislike of their father, may have been major factors in Isabella’s subsequent conduct towards her children.
The last few years of John’s reign were racked by civil war in England. It has been suggested that Isabella was imprisoned by John during these years but it is more likely that this refers to her being guarded for her own protection.33 Isabella was one of the most unpopular figures in John’s regime and under considerable threat from the people of England. Isabella spent the last years of John’s reign in the relative safety of the West Country.34 ….
In early 1216 John’s relations with his barons took a turn for the worst when they held a council in which they decided to elect the Dauphin, Louis of France, as king.35 Louis landed at Thanet on 20 May 1216 and quickly took Rochester Castle. He was received with joy in London and by autumn 1216, controlled most of southern England.36News of Louis’ progress must have filled Isabella with dread as she waited in Bristol. In the midst of this chaos, John died on 18 October 1216 and was buried at Worcester.37
When news reached Bristol of John’s death, Isabella immediately showed the strength of character that would underpin her widowhood. Isabella travelled at once to Gloucester where her nine-year-old son, Henry III, had been brought. He was hastily crowned on 28 October, with one of Isabella’s gold collars.38 Despite this decisive action, Isabella was not given a position in the regency and William Marshall was appointed regent at a council the following day.39 This must have been galling for her but it is, once again, a measure of her unpopularity in England and a demonstration of her inability to build a political party of her own during her time as Queen of England. Certainly, Isabella’s position in England following John’s death does not appear to have been good. Denied any political role, Isabella also seems to have had trouble securing her property.40 This explains Isabella’s decision to return to Angouleme in June 1217, leaving her children in England.
Isabella’s behaviour on her return to Angouleme in 1217 illustrates her forceful and independent character. She quickly established her lordship in Angouleme, gaining control over Cognac even, a region which had been lost to Angouleme in the 1180s.41 The English minority council seem to have expected Isabella to govern Angouleme for the benefit of Henry III, but, in 1220, Isabella once again demonstrated her self-direction, marrying Hugh de Lusignan, son of her former fiancé and the man betrothed to her own daughter, Joanna. Isabella appears to have had no qualms about robbing her daughter of her fiancé and she may have reasoned that the same had happened to her when she was a young girl and that, after years of a loveless marriage to John, she deserved a little happiness. ….
Isabella would also have known that her marriage would not be looked upon favourably in England and her letter to Henry III, explaining her actions, provides a strong indication of her character:
We hereby signify to you that when the Counts of March and Eu departed this life, the lord Hugh de Lusignan remained alone and without heirs in Poitou, and his friends would not permit that our daughter should be united to him in marriage, because her age is so tender, but counselled him to take a wife from whom he might speedily hope for an heir; and it was proposed that he should take a wife in France, which if he had done, all your land in Poitou and Gascony would be lost. We, therefore, seeing the great peril that might accrue if that marriage should take place, when our counsellors could give us no advice, ourselves married the said Hugh, count of March; and God knows we did this rather for your benefit than our own.42
The reasons Isabella gives to explain her marriage seem implausible. It is clear that it was Isabella’s own desire to marry Hugh and her excuses were merely an attempt to avert Henry’s anger and try to persuade him that she was actually acting in his best interests. By marrying Hugh, however, Isabella created the very political crisis that John sought to avert by marrying Isabella in 1200. It is possible that, in her second marriage, Isabella also allowed herself to enjoy a little revenge at John’s expense and, certainly, she had never been well treated in England. It is therefore easy to see why she might not have proved loyal to a country where she had been so unhappy.
Isabella’s excuses convinced no one and her marriage caused anger in Henry’s minority council, who responded by confiscating Isabella’s dower. In retaliation, Isabella refused to release her daughter Joanna, Hugh’s jilted fiancée, until her rights were reinstated, essentially keeping the girl as a hostage.43 The dispute dragged on until October 1220 when Henry III finally agreed to reinstate Isabella’s dower. Hugh then escorted Joanna to La Rochelle where she was taken back into English custody.44 The negotiations following Isabella’s marriage show her to be a shrewd negotiator. The incident was also the first indication of the troubled and manipulative relationships Isabella would have with her English children and it is clear, from her behaviour, that she saw Joanna as a bargaining chip in her attempts to get what she wanted. Again, however, she had also never been allowed much contact with her English children and she may well have reasoned that they could fend for themselves without their mother, as they had always done. In any event Isabella’s relationship with Henry’s minority council was tense; in 1224 she and Hugh defected to the French and Isabella was granted a pension in return for her dower lands forfeited in England. In 1230 Isabella entered into another agreement with France at Henry’s expense, increasing the size of her pension.45 There is evidence that, from 1228, Henry III’s government were petitioning the Pope to annul Isabella’s marriage to Hugh. This, however, came to nothing.46
It is likely that Isabella’s second marriage was more satisfying than her first. She and Hugh enjoyed a more equal relationship, issuing charters together.47 Isabella also had a great deal of influence over Hugh. For example in June 1241 Hugh swore fealty to the French candidate for Count of Poitou, a title to which Henry III also laid claim.48 This enraged Isabella, who had also been slighted by the Queen of France when she attended court at Poitiers; she was not inclined to make any further agreements with the French crown.49 Furious at her husband’s conduct, Isabella stripped Lusignan Castle of its furnishings and returned to her own castle at Angouleme with Hugh’s possessions. Hearing of his wife’s activities, Hugh followed, but Isabella would not admit him to the castle for three days, forcing him to sleep in a building in front of the castle.
When Hugh was finally admitted, Isabella abused him for supporting an alternative Count of Poitou to her son Henry.50 This obviously had an effect – at Christmas 1241, Hugh declared himself against the French and persuaded Henry to join a military expedition to Poitou.
The English army, led by Henry III and his brother Richard, sailed on 9 May 1242. No evidence survives of Isabella’s reunion with her two English sons. It seems likely that it was a tense meeting given the twenty-five years since she had last seen them and her political activities during that period. Certainly Henry and Richard are likely to have turned against their mother during the campaign, when Hugh deserted them for the French. The English campaign was a disaster and Henry barely escaped with his life, returning to England defeated. Henry’s disastrous campaign opened Isabella’s eyes to the reality of the political situation in Europe and she resigned herself to the fact that her sons could not defeat the French for her. Isabella therefore decided to take matters into her own hands and, in 1244, assassins were captured in the royal kitchens trying to poison Louis IX’s food. When questioned, the men confessed that they had been sent by Isabella and there is no evidence that Isabella ever attempted to deny this charge.51Isabella would have known that a military campaign against Louis was no longer a possibility without English backing and she may have considered that the death of Louis would enable her to hold her lands more securely. Poisoning, however, was a grievous sin and Isabella would have realised that with the crime discovered she would be hunted down. When Isabella was informed of the arrests she threatened to kill herself with a dagger before being restrained.52 She then fled to Fontevrault Abbey, seeking sanctuary from her pursuers. Isabella spent her last years safely immured in the Abbey and died there on 4 June 1246.53
In England, news of Isabella’s death was met with a brief display of mourning. ….
Isabella of Angouleme is not the most ill-famed of English queens but she is remembered as among the worst. Bad King John and Isabella of Angouleme were described in the sources as a well-matched couple – both were portrayed as devious and self-interested figures. Isabella of Angouleme’s legacy is so disreputable that it is now difficult to see the real woman behind this characterisation. There is no doubt that Isabella often acted in a self-interested way, sometimes at the expense of her own children ….
There is no doubt that Isabella was hated and whatever the truth of her life, to the chroniclers and later writers she had few of the redeeming features of her daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Provence, who although notorious, is noted for her devotion to her family, or her granddaughter-in-law, Eleanor of Castile, who enjoyed a remarkably happy marriage. Although these women were attributed with dubious morality, neither suffered the iniquitous image borne by Isabella.