It has always amazed me that so little is known of the princesses of England, daughters of the kings. The lives of their fathers and brothers are, in the most part, well documented; but the Princesses are often shadowy figures, hidden in the background.
Many of these ladies were married off to foreign courts or dedicated to convents, their lives and futures decided by the king, their father.
Isabella of Woodstock is, to some extent, an exception. She appears to have been very close to her parents, and spent most of her life at the English court. The eldest daughter and 2nd child of Edward III and his queen, Philippa of Hainault, Isabella was born in June 1332 at the royal Palace of Woodstock.
Edward and Philippa had a large family, with at least 12 children (possibly more) of whom 9 survived infancy. They maintained a close relationship with their children often travelling with them; the older children, including Isabella, were with Philippa, in Antwerp, when their baby brother, Lionel, was born.
From her infancy, Edward was making plans for Isabella’s marriage: in 1335 negotiations were opened for her to marry the son of the Count of Flanders; in 1344 it was a son of the Duke of Brabant and in 1349 it was Emperor Charles. But these plans came to nought.
In 1351, aged 19, Isabella pointedly refused to embark on the boat waiting to take her to Gascony to marry Bernard, heir to the Lord Albret. Edward III does not seem to have been too ‘put out’ by this. He continued to support Isabella and described her as ‘our very dear eldest daughter, whom we have loved with special affection.’
Edward indulged Isabella, she was with him almost constantly – more than any of his other children. In 1348, during a tournament in Lichfield, she was one of the ladies given blue and white robes – to match those of the knights – by the King. In 1354 Edward paid for a new balcony to be built outside Isabella’s suite of rooms at Woodstock, so that she would have a better view of the park.
By late 1361 Isabella was her parents’ last surviving daughter. Her sister, Joan, 18 months her junior, had died, in 1348, of plague in France whilst on her way to her marriage in Castile. And her younger sisters Mary and Margaret, just teenagers, died within a short time of each other in 1361.
Isabella finally married in 1365, at the rather late age of 33, in what appears to have been a love match. Her husband, Enguerrand VII Lord of Coucy, was 7 years her junior, and a hostage for the fulfilment of the Treaty of Bretigny. On marrying Isabella he was released, without ransom. In the hope that Enguerrand and Isabella would remain in England, Edward made Enguerrand Earl of Bedford in 1366 and, later, Count of Soissons.
Two daughters followed quickly, in 1366 and 1367. Mary was born at the Chateau of Coucy, France and would later marry Henry of Bar; and Philippa, who was born at Eltham, and would later marry Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford and Duke of Ireland.
Enguerrand’s service with the King of France saw the couple experience frequent separations. Enguerrand left England for the continent and went on to fight in Italy; he renounced all his English titles following Edward III’s death.
Isabella appears to have returned to England and remained at her father’s court, with her daughters. Edward’s will gave to his ‘very dear daughter’ Isabella, an income of 300 marks per year, until her daughters were married.
Isabella had had a greater control over her own life than most English princesses, before and after her. She died, probably in 1379 – although 1382 also has been suggested – and was laid to rest at the Greyfriars Church in Newgate, London.
Further reading: Ian Mortimer The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III; Alison Weir Britain’s Royal Families; WM Ormrod The Reign of Edward III; Paul Johnson The Life and Times of Edward III; Roy Strong The Story of Britain.
Pictures: courtesy of Wikipedia.
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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly