Isabel of Gloucester is a shadow in the pages of history. I could find no pictures of her. No one even seems certain of her name; in the history books she has been called Isabel, Isabella, Hawise, Avice – probably due to different language interpretations and translations. However, Rich Price, who has done extensive research on primary sources from King John’s reign has clarified that The Close Rolls definitely name her as ‘comitissa Isabella’ and ‘Isabella filia Willielmi comitis’, so we’ll stick with Isabel.
Isabel was the youngest daughter, and co-heiress, of William, 2nd Earl of Gloucester and his wife, Hawise, daughter of Robert de Beaumont, 3rd Earl of Leicester. Although her date of birth has been lost to history – most sources say between 1173 and 1176 – she was betrothed in 1176, possibly whilst still in her cradle, to Prince John.
The youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, John was 9 years old at the time of the betrothal. However the wedding did not take place until 1189, when John was 21. Baldwin, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, opposed the marriage as the couple were related within the prohibited degrees, both being a great-grandchild of Henry I. John promised to seek a papal dispensation, in order to overcome Baldwin’s objections – although it appears this was never obtained.
John and Isabel were married on 29th August, 1189, at Marlborough Castle, Wiltshire. Although they were married for 10 years, it is possible they never, or rarely lived together. They never had any children and it is during this time in his life that John’s illegitimate children were born.
John succeeded to the throne on the death of his older brother Richard I – the Lionheart – on 6th April 1199. John was crowned on 27th May 1199; the fact that Isabel was not crowned alongside him, suggests that John was already looking for a way out of the marriage. Isabel would never be styled Queen.
Possibly as early as 30th August 1199, but certainly by 1200, John had obtained a divorce on the grounds of consanguinity; the bishops of Lisieu, Bayeux and Avranches, sitting in Normandy, provided the required judgement.
Keeping his hold on the substantial Gloucester lands, John detained Isabel in ‘honourable confinement’ for the next 14 years. He eventually arranged a new marriage for her, to a man who was over 16 years her junior.
In 1214 she was married to Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex, who had paid the considerable sum of 20,000 marks to become her second husband and Earl of Gloucester ‘jure uxoris’ (by right of his wife). Just 2 years later, in 1216, de Mandeville died from wounds he’d received in a tournament.
One of the Magna Cart sureties, de Mandeville was in a state of rebellion, against the crown, when he died; as a result, all his lands and titles – including the earldom of Gloucester – were forfeit to the crown.
It was not until 17th September 1217, that Isabel’s lands were returned to her. At about the same time – or shortly after – Isabel was married for a third and final time, to Hubert de Burgh, Earl of Kent. De Burgh had become Chief Justiciar of England in 1215 and would rise to be Regent during the minority of Henry III.
This final marriage was, sadly, very short-lived and Isabel was dead within months – possibly only a few weeks – of her wedding day and almost exactly a year after the death of her first husband, King John.
In spite of 3 marriages, Isabel never had children and was succeeded to the Earldom of Gloucester by her nephew, Gilbert de Clare.
She was laid to rest in Canterbury Cathedral, Kent.
My book, Heroines of the Medieval World, looking into the lives of some of the most fascinating women from medieval history, will be published by Amberley on 15th September, 2017. It is now available for pre-order in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.
©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly
Further Reading: Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225; Dan Jones The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made England; The Plantagenet Chronicle Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Maurice Ashley The Life and Times of King John; Roy Strong The Story of Britain; Oxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley British Kings & Queens; David Williamson Brewer’s British Royalty; Rich Price King John’s Letters Facebook page.
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia.