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Isabella, the she-wolf of France, ordered Edward II’s murder

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty on Friday, 31 January 2014

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This edited article about Edward II and Isabella first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 535 published on 15 April 1972.

Arrest of Mortimer,  picture, image, illustration

Young Edward III and his men seized Mortimer at Nottingham Castle in a coup witnessed by the devious Queen Isabella, by C L Doughty

Some kings have left their mark so heavily on history that to the casual reader all the men around them in their age were puppets, eclipsed by the greatness of their monarch. Other kings who were weak have thrown into sharper relief the men around them, and the reigns of a few of these weak rulers who married strong-willed women, are remembered not for themselves but for their queens.

Such a reign was that of King Edward the Second of England. If ever there was a monarch more blessed with misfortune it was he; if ever there was a royal marriage that was wrong from the start, it was his.

And if ever a woman made an unforgettable impact on her times, it was poor Edward’s strong-minded Queen Isabella.

She was 26, the mother of Edward’s four children, and seething with discontent at the years of injustice her husband had done to her when the event happened that caused one of England’s most lurid royal scandals.

At the time Isabella was living in the Tower of London – that fortress which then served as a home for royalty and a dungeon for royalty’s prisoners. One such prisoner was Roger de Mortimer, eighth Baron of Wigmore, serving a life sentence for rebellion. Among the many unscrupulous rascals who lived in the 14th century, Mortimer held high place; although he was still young he had crowded enough cruelty and ambition into his life to satisfy 100 mediaeval men to whom cruelty was second nature.

Did they meet, this disaffected Queen and her husband’s wretched prisoner, in the Tower? No one can be sure. But it seems probable that as Mortimer was moved about within those walls for questioning, his dark eyes, sunk in a handsome face made pallid by confinement, met those of the lovely Isabella, called by many men the most beautiful princess in Europe. What happened next makes that probability seem a certainty.

On the night of August 1st, 1323, while his guards slept in a drugged stupor, Mortimer crawled from his cell through a hole which had been previously dug, escaped to the Thames and a waiting boat, rowed across to the other side where horses waited, and got clean away to France. This otherwise impossible feat could have been achieved only by inside help, and help from a very high person.

The following year Isabella persuaded her husband that she should go to France to act as a peacemaker between him and the French King Charles, her brother. Edward, tired of her continual hostility to himself and his friends, must have gladly let her go. Gladly, too, must Isabella have gone, for she was French; the court was in Paris and so, too, was Mortimer. Within weeks of her arrival, the scandal was public knowledge in England as well as France.

Edward, bristling, wrote frantic letters to Charles of France: “We beseech you, dearest brother, both for your honour and ours, but more especially for that of our consort, that you would compel her to return to us with all speed; for we have been ill at ease for the want of her company, in which we have much delight, and if our safe conduct is not enough, then let her come to us on the pledge of your good faith for us.”

While such vain pleas were in the post, the English King had time to reflect upon the situation which had come to pass. He had been betrothed to Isabella when she was eight; at 13 she married him. No sooner had she given him her dowry of £18,000 and other fine wedding presents, than the feckless Edward gave them all to his favourite, the haughty courtier Piers Gaveston, while the new Queen and the English nobles smouldered with rage.

Gaveston was the greedy Adonis of the court and upon him the King heaped everything he had, emptying his treasury while his young wife stamped her foot. The barons, at least, did more. Rising en masse, they captured the young favourite and after a sham trial cut off his head at Blacklow Hill, near Warwick.

The foolish King wept like a child, while things in England went from bad to worse. A series of disastrous wars in the north was followed by three years of the worst famine ever known in the land. The barons deeply mistrusted their feeble king, and Isabella was the only link that kept them from civil war.

The unstable Edward soon broke that link. In need of flattery and wit, he had taken on two new favourites, Hugh le Despenser, Earl of Winchester, and his handsome son, Hugh the younger. Greed drove these two men to greater and greater influence over the King until at last the barons rebelled. It was then, to be safely away from the fighting, that Isabella had gone to live in the Tower, there to meet her admirer Mortimer.

In France, with their love an open secret, Isabella produced another artful ace. Understanding perfectly the indecisive character of her husband, she proposed that she should invest their teenage son and heir, the future Edward the Third, with two territories in France and send him to perform homage for the territories to the King of France. King Edward, never suspecting her guileful intentions, agreed, and within a few weeks Isabella had the Prince of Wales safely in her hands.

“We can’t go back to England,” the tricky Isabella told the King of France, who was getting worried by all these goings-on. “If we do, the Despensers will have us killed. That is the hold they have over my feeble husband.”

While the French king thought about this, Isabella worked to recruit armed support from the soldiers of fortune and banished lords who peppered the Continent. On September 24th, 1326, she landed with this army, 2,757 strong, on the East Coast. They had a stormy passage and the wind blew, but it did not ruffle the high spirits of Roger Mortimer as he rode beside the Queen and the Prince – invaders of their own land.

When the news was brought to the King, he is said to have looked about him with a blank face. “A thousand pounds for the head of the traitor Mortimer,” was all he could think of. The jubiliant Isabella countered: “Two thousand for the younger Despenser!”

There was no doubt where the hearts of the English lay. Sick of Edward’s weak rule, they welcomed Isabella with open arms. In Bristol she captured the older Despenser and was so eager to see him dead that she hanged him in his armour. His son was hanged on a gallows 50 feet high, then drawn and quartered.

In Wales, Isabella’s army captured the King. Edward was stripped of his title, locked up in a castle, and the crown was given to his 15-year-old son Edward. But the real power in England now belonged to Queen Isabella – “the she-wolf of France,” her disgraced husband had called her – and to “King” Roger Mortimer, whom Isabella called her prime minister.

What, now, of her unfortunate husband, Edward the Second – or Sir Edward of Caernarvon, which was the only title he was permitted? A deposed King still living was, in mediaeval times, always an embarrassment. His fate was solely in the hands of his wife, who was now to show herself as artful, ambitious and vindictive as Edward had been stupid.

Exactly one year after her successful invasion, Isabella gave her mandate for Edward’s murder. It was brutally accomplished in Berkeley Castle, in Gloucestershire, and it was said that the dying king’s screams could be heard more than a mile away from the castle.

Six months later Isabella ordered the execution of her brother-in-law, the Earl of Kent, and then gave most of the dead earl’s lands to Mortimer’s son. And while Isabella was thus increasing the hatred in which she was now held, Mortimer strutted the land like a peacock, whose pride and insolence were doomed for a fall.

Mortimer knew that time had to run out for him, for the young King Edward the Third was growing to manhood. Here was no faithful reflection of his unstable father, but a young man whose will was iron hard, who promised to be the most spectacular of the Plantagenets. So Edward watched and waited, and finally he pounced.

Edward and his friends seized Mortimer in a brief torchlight coup at Nottingham Castle. They brought him to London in chains and a couple of days later accorded him the distinction of being the first man to be executed at Tyburn.

By this swift act Edward made himself King, in fact, as well as in name, and having struck, he determined there would be no more of his mother Isabella in the councils of the realm. Indeed, had not the Pope intervened, it was likely that Edward would have put his mother on public trial.

Instead, he sent her to Castle Rising, in Norfolk where she lived for another 28 years. Before her death at 63, Isabella chose the church where the remains of Mortimer had been buried for the place of her internment and, carrying her characteristic hypocrisy even to the grave, she was buried with the heart of her murdered husband on her breast.

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