QotW#76: 13 May 2019

bird fights snake
“… though she be but little, she is fierce”  A Midsummer Night’s Dream (III,ii)

Poor Isabella.

Not just married to Edward II.  Not simply denounced by history as the ‘She Wolf of France‘.  As if all that wasn’t enough, she was relegated to a footnote in last week‘s QotW.

It’s her turn.  Be afraid.

The catalogue of crimes against Isabella is many and varied.  My best recommendation for the newcomer is to take a look at the wonderful Rejected Princesses treatment of what they call ‘one of the most powerful, reviled and tragic women in European history‘.

Before Isabella really gets into her stride, let’s turn the clock back to 08 December 1325 – yes I CAN be this specific, thanks to Kathryn Warner.  Pesky Piers Gaveston, the object of Edward’s attentions since before her marriage, is safely despatched, only to be replaced by Hugh Despenser.  In this winter of her discontent she finds herself in France, isolated and poor.  She takes the drastic step of donning mourning clothes to advertise that in her eyes the marriage is dead, and her husband may as well be.  She writes to the Bishop of Exeter in the following unequivocal terms:

I feel that marriage is a joining together of man and woman maintaining the undivided habit of life, and that someone has become between my husband and myself trying to break this bond [a]

This feels like the dangerous turning point – all bets are now off.  In full Sex & The City mode, she’s got herself a new wardrobe, and in no time at all she’ll be back on social media with a new man, new (and incidentally very well-armed) friends, and be reclaiming the places she and Eddie used to hang out …

98, 99, 100: Ready or not, here I come …

Despenser doesn’t stand a chance.

And so to Froissart, a remarkably readable chronicler of the Middle Ages, thanks no doubt in part to Geoffrey Brereton in this version.  It’s safe to say that the hapless Hugh’s end was a powerful deterrant to anyone else who fancied, perhaps literally, getting in the King’s good books:

‘After the feast this same Sir Hugh, who was not loved in those parts, was brought before the Queen and the assembled nobles.  All his deeds had been written down and were now read out to him, but he said nothing in reply.  He was condemned by the unanimous verdict of the barons and knights to suffer the following punishment.  First, he was dragged on a hurdle through all the streets of Hereford, to the sounds of horns and trumpets, until he reached the main square of the town, where all the people were assembled.  There he was tied to a long ladder, so that everyone could see him.  A big fire had been lit in the square.  When he had been tied up, his member and his testicles were first cut off, because he was a heretic and a sodomite, even, it was said, with the King, and this was why the King had driven away the Queen on his suggestion.  When his private parts had been cut off they were thrown into the fire to burn, and afterwards his heart was torn from his body and thrown into the fire, because he was a false-hearted traitor, who by his treasonable advice and promptings had led the King to bring shame and misfortune upon his kingdom and to behead the greatest lords of England, by whom the kingdom ought to have been upheld and defended; and besides that, he had so worked upon the King that he, who should gave been their consort and sire, had refused to see the Queen and his eldest son, but rather had expelled them from the realm of England, at the hazard of their lives.’ [b]

plantagenet cosmo
iimage credit

We’ve talked in class about whether or not Isabella is a feminist icon; in this sense the  unilateral declaration that her marriage was dead was a great display of empowerment.  That said, we’ve also talked about how she effectively transferred her ‘ownership’ in this patriarchal society from Edward to Mortimer.  And there seems little to suggest she did anything for women generally (except by violent example).  The truth, as ever, probably lies somewhere in between.


What’s your view?


[a] Kathryn Warner, Edward II:  The Unconventional King (Amberley Publishing:  Stroud, 2015)

[b] Froissart, Chronicles (ed. Geoffrey Brereton), (Penguin: London, 1978)

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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