Isabella of France: The Rebel Queen by Kathryn Warner

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Isabella of France: The Rebel Queen by Kathryn Warner

Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A thorough biography which gets to the heart of the personality of Queen Isabella, much-maligned consort of King Edward II of England. The author clears her way through several centuries of gossip, innuendo and lurid embroidery of stark facts and offers us a painstakingly-presented portrait of a medieval life that will surely render many earlier biographies redundant.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: March 2016
Publisher: Amberley Publishing
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781445647401

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Ask almost anyone what they know about Isabella, Queen of King Edward II. The chances are that they will tell you she was ‘the she-wolf of France’ who was so infuriated by her gay husband’s propensity for disastrous favourites that she took a lover and they conspired to depose him, then have him murdered in captivity. The truth is somewhat different. To use an old cliché, if you throw enough mud it will stick. A good deal has adhered to this seemingly much-maligned couple over the years.

Sifting fact from fiction about people who lived and died in the fourteenth century is obviously difficult, and requires considerable evaluation of such contemporary chronicles and other sources as still exist. As Ms Warner points out, some appear reliable enough, while others are tainted by prejudices against one character or the other. Some of them portray King Edward as an abusive husband, who only loved ‘caricatured moustache-twirling baddies’, and Queen Isabella as a murderous, vicious and scheming whore. Others would have us believe that she was the leading lady in a tawdry melodrama, married to a useless husband while she seeks true love forever and eventually (cue orchestra) succumbs to the embraces of a strong, lusty adventurer as if she was the heroine of a 1950s Mills and Boon bodice-ripper. Without any diaries or private letters left by the leading figures, we may know what they did and when, but can only speculate why they did it.

Those are the caveats as argued forcefully in the book’s introduction. What follows is a life chronologically divided into three parts. First we have the French princess, daughter of King Philip IV, who marries the King of England. For the first few years her existence is overshadowed by his dependence on the incompetent, hated Piers Gaveston, who may or may not have been his lover. After Gaveston had been twice exiled abroad and secretly, defiantly returned, the other barons decided the only way to get rid of him was to capture and execute him. What Queen Isabella’s attitude was towards him – whether he genuinely came between husband and wife, or whether he was just a nuisance whose day she assumed would soon pass - there is no way of knowing.

Throughout the nineteen years of the King’s reign, the course of events is told well, with the birth of several children to the couple against a background of war with Scotland, then a campaign against France, and difficulties between the various nobles, an ever–recurring theme in English medieval history. Ms Warner produces plausible evidence to suggest, if not confirm beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Edward was a strong man, not the effeminate nonentity of popular legend, and that for much of his reign he and his wife enjoyed a ‘good marriage’. Only when the Despensers, father and son, both named Hugh, arrived on the scene, did the crisis begin. The King was apparently infatuated with the younger Hugh, and while they may or may not have enjoyed an intimate relationship, the general verdict is that the latter was far more dangerous than Gaveston had ever been, wanting to become the de facto ruler of England. From around 1322 the marriage was in trouble, although the final stage did not begin until three years later when the Queen went to France to negotiate an Anglo-French peace settlement with her brother King Charles IV.

Enter her husband’s enemy Roger Mortimer. Whether the relationship between him and the Queen was merely a political alliance or anything more has been obscured by the imagination of writers ever since. Separating facts from fiction as far as possible, the most likely course of events was that they decided King Edward must be deposed – something then unprecedented in English history – in favour of his eldest son Edward, still a minor, while his mother and Mortimer governed the country between them until he came of age. The dethroned ex-sovereign would be kept in ‘comfortable captivity’. Now forget that time-honoured tale about him being done to death in Berkeley Castle after sudden enforced contact with a red-hot poker, for this was almost certainly just another invention. Edward might have died from grief, starvation, natural causes, or from being suffocated. As in the case of another King Edward who was dethroned and kept in captivity, admittedly for very different reasons, the truth of the mystery will never be known. He had a magnificent funeral at Gloucester three months later - or was an unknown man killed and buried in his place? Some of the nobles believed that he was still alive, and two years later one was executed for trying to help him escape. When King Edward II reached the age of eighteen and seized control of his kingdom Mortimer was hanged, but the Dowager Queen was allowed to live out the rest of her days in comfort, with all her material needs provided.

This diligently-researched book gets to the heart of her personality, and of those closest to her, friends and enemies, as it is possible to do so when putting the lives of people who lived so long ago under the spotlight. The author hacks away at several centuries of thickly encrusted innuendo and lurid embroidery of stark facts and offers us a painstakingly-presented portrait of a of a medieval life that will surely render many earlier biographies redundant. The text is usefully supplemented with genealogical tables, a glossary with a few lines on the more important contemporary European royalty and the English earls, and sixteen pages of plates, mostly of relevant castles and places of worship.

For a life of the Queen’s father-in-law, A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris is recommended, as is Katherine Swynford by Alison Weir, the life of another woman from English royal history from the next generation.

Buy Isabella of France: The Rebel Queen by Kathryn Warner at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Isabella of France: The Rebel Queen by Kathryn Warner at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Isabella of France: The Rebel Queen by Kathryn Warner at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Isabella of France: The Rebel Queen by Kathryn Warner at Amazon.com.


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