Medieval Showdown: The King vs The She-Wolf

Edward II, Piers Gaveston, Isabella of France, She-Wolf, Hugh Despenser

On the 25th of January 1308, 12 year old Isabella of France married 23 year old Edward II. She was the daughter of Philip IV and Joan of Navarre.  He was the crown prince of England, son of Edward ‘Longshanks’, the Hammer of the Scots. It should have been a match made in mediaeval heaven, however Isabella would spend most of her marriage fighting for the attention of her husband from other men.

A month after their wedding the pair were crowned king and queen of England. In the beginning, Edward didn’t take much notice of his young wife. He was preoccupied with a young nobleman by the name of Piers Gaveston. The pair had been together for many years and Isabella was unlikely to come between them. Much to Isabella’s horror, Edward even gave Gaveston jewels he’d received as a wedding gift. He made Gaveston Earl of Cornwall and arranged a prestigious marriage for him. Edward also appointed Gaveston regnant when he was out of the country.

Edward II, Piers Gaveston, Isabella of France, She-Wolf, Hugh Despenser
Edward II & Piers Gaveston; Marcus Stone

Edward’s clear favouritism towards his companion didn’t just upset his queen, it created friction between the king and some of his barons. His behaviour also caught the attention of his father in law, King Philip IV of France. Philip was annoyed with Edward’s treatment of Isabella.  Seeing how precarious things were becoming, Edward was forced to exile Gaveston to France.

Through careful politicking, Edward was able to appease his barons and Gaveston was allowed back in the country. The king’s relationship with Gaveston continued for several years but by 1312, the barons were once again upset over Gaveston’s influence over the king. This time they didn’t wait for the king to send his lover away. Instead, they had him assassinated.

By this time, Isabella was pregnant with their first child, the future Edward III.  Without Gaveston in their lives, Edward and Isabella’s relationship flourished and they had three more children. Despite there being other ‘favourites’ (both male and female), the marital bliss between Isabella and Edward lasted around 10 years.  By all accounts the couple were infatuated with each other. One particular night Edward saved his wife’s life when a fire broke out in their tent. The king was seen carrying Isabella to safety, both completely nude.

Edward II, King, Isabella, She-Wolf, Hugh Despenser, Piers Gaveston
King Edward II; National Portrait Gallery

Unfortunately, the love affair wasn’t to last.  By 1322 Edward had another lover, Hugh Despenser the Younger.  Unlike Piers Gaveston, Despenser actively positioned himself between the king and queen, diminishing Isabella’s influence on Edward. It wasn’t just the queen who felt pushed aside for Despenser, the barons were once again feeling left out.

After war with France, which resulted in Edward confiscating Isabella’s lands, she was sent to negotiate a peace deal with her brother, Charles IV.  While there, an unhappy Isabella convinced Edward to send their son, Edward of Windsor, to join her.  Once the queen had control of their son she used him to try to force Edward to see reason.  Isabella demanded that her husband get rid of Despenser, return her lands and agree to continue their relationship as husband and wife.  Under the influence of Dispenser, Edward refused.  This decision would prove to be a huge mistake.

A few years before, Isabella had met Roger Mortimer when he was locked up in the Tower of London. He eventually escaped and fled to France where the two once again ran into each other. Although their relationship started out platonic they eventually became lovers. Mortimer had a longstanding grudge against Hugh Despenser and was willing to help the queen get rid of him, even if that meant removing Edward from his throne.

Isabella and Mortimer arrived in England and chased the king and Despenser out of the London. The barons played their part by rising up against Edward and his lover. Despenser was caught and executed and Edward was forced to abdicate, handing the throne over to his 14 year old son.

Edward II, Piers Gaveston, Isabella of France, She-Wolf, Hugh Despenser
Illustration of the execution of Hugh the Younger Despenser, from a manuscript of Froissart

Since Edward III was still underage, Isabella and Mortimer effectively ruled England for him.  However, their greed made them just as unpopular as the previous king.  Isabella was given the respect due to a queen and was sent to live under house arrest, giving up most of her exorbitant income.  Roger Mortimer didn’t fare so well.  In November 1330, Mortimer was hanged.

Edward II lived out his days away from court.  His cause of death and even the date is unknown. For centuries it was believed that Edward died a gruesome death, ordered by his wife.  It was said that a horn was shoved up his backside and a red hot poker inserted, burning out his insides. However, there are accounts of his activities long after he was meant to have died. As far as Isabella’s part in his death, she was known to have sent him gifts shortly before his supposed murder, hardly the behaviour of someone plotting the death of her husband.

All Isabella had wanted was a real relationship with her husband and to rule beside him as a true queen.  Even after suffering the humiliation of having to share Edward with other men, she still only asked to be allowed to live with him as his wife. Blinded by the influence of Gaveston and then Despenser, he had refused and it had cost him his throne.  As a scorned woman, the She-Wolf of France defeated a king.