16 June 2016, The Tablet

Queen of hearts


Isabella of France: the rebel queen

Medieval English kings had a ­penchant for French princesses, fetching them willy-nilly to our chilly island from the sunnier realms of Aquitaine, Angoulême and Provence. King Edward II did even better than his forebears by securing the hand of the beautiful Isabella, daughter and sister of the Kings of France. She was only three when that hand was given; Edward was her only husband, the father of her four children and, in all likelihood, her only lover.

Kathryn Warner sees that sense of her own dynastic importance as the ruling principle of Isabella’s life. Yet she is consistently careful to insist that, after 700 years, we can never be certain of anyone’s motives and emotions: we know what they did, but very seldom why. The facts of Isabella’s life can be simply told. She married Edward in January 1308, went to France on a diplomatic mission in 1325 and returned three years later to overthrow her husband and to rule, along with Roger Mortimer, as regent for her son. In 1330 that son, Edward III, overthrew and executed Mortimer and began his own successful reign, at which point Isabella went into rather a cheerful retirement for 28 years. Always devout, she went on regular pilgrimages, taking her portable altar with her. She moved between palaces, seemed unable to resist buying glamorous clothes and jewels, and enjoyed a good deal of reading, music and dinner parties with family and friends until her own, peaceful death, in 1358.

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