Isabella of Gloucester, the Lost Queen of England

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King John

Isabella of Gloucester is a shadow in the pages of history. I could find no pictures of her. Until recently, no one even seemed 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 Isabella.

Isabella 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; and therefore a great-granddaughter of Isabel de Vermandois. 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, and ordered that they should not live together as husband and wife.

John promised to seek a papal dispensation, in order to overcome Baldwin’s objections – although it appears this was never obtained. Nonetheless, John and Isabella were married on 29th August, 1189, at Marlborough Castle, Wiltshire. Even though 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 most of 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. He was crowned king on 27th May 1199; the fact that Isabella was not crowned alongside him, suggests that John was already looking for a way out of the marriage. Isabella would never be styled Queen of England.

coat_of_arms_of_geoffrey_de_mandeville_earl_of_essex_and_gloucester
Coat of arms of Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex and Gloucester

Within months of his succession, possibly as early as 30th August 1199 (the day after their 10th wedding anniversary), 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.

However, in order to keep his hold on the substantial Gloucester lands, John detained Isabella in ‘honourable confinement’ for the next 14 years. When John remarried, to Isabelle d’Angouleme, his new, young wife (she was no more than 12 on her wedding day and possibly a year or two younger) was lodged with Isabella of Gloucester, her allowance raised from £50 to £80 to cover the extra expenditure that comes with housing a queen. John’s wife and ex-wife were housed together until a few weeks before the birth of Isabelle’s first child by John, the future King Henry III, who was born in 1207.

The king eventually arranged a new marriage for Isabella, to a man who was over 16 years her junior. In 1214, although possibly past child-bearing age – certainly safe child-bearing age – 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 in London.

One of the Magna Cart sureties, de Mandeville was in a state of rebellion against the king when he died; as a result, all his lands and titles – including the earldom of Gloucester – were forfeit to the crown. Isabella was now a widow and although virtually penniless appears to have revelled in her first taste of freedom, styling herself on one charter ‘Countess of Gloucester and Essex in my free widowhood’. It was not until 17th September 1217, almost a year after the death of King John, that Isabella’s lands were returned to her.

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Hubert de burgh

At about the same time – or shortly after – Isabella was married for a third and final time, to Hubert de Burgh. Hubert De Burgh had become Chief Justiciar of England in 1215 and would rise to be Regent during the minority of Henry III. It was only several years after Isabella’s death that he would be created Earl of Kent.

This final marriage was, sadly, very short-lived and Isabella was dead within 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, Isabella 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.

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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.

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly

18 thoughts on “Isabella of Gloucester, the Lost Queen of England

  1. karrrie49 27/02/2015 / 19:08

    Reblogged this on karenstoneblog and commented:
    Thanks Sharon poor woman what a sad life indeed. As usual beautufully researched

    Like

      • Isabella Buniyatova 30/08/2019 / 08:28

        Most exciting and motivating to read more the Medieval women. The latter is the subject of my book, Gernanic Women in early Middle Ages I am working at.

        Like

  2. Talia 13/05/2015 / 10:39

    Names were a little more fluid in the middle ages and even into the 18th century, and particularly would be altered to use the common form in the language being used. Isabel, Isabelle, Isabella all are the same name and would have been used interchangeably, depending on the language of the text (for example, a Latin document would say Isabella, a French one would say Isabelle, an English might use any of the three possibilities as all are valid, though Middle English would have pronounced Isabelle and Isabella almost identically.) Hawise and Avice are also different spellings of one name — though how that would get confused with Isabel is unclear. That might have been a genealogical error (for example, if her parents had an earlier child who died in infancy and then later scholars confused the two girls as being one.)

    Like

    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 13/05/2015 / 15:43

      That is so true, Talia – and Isabelle could also be a variation of Elizabeth in France. As you say, it doesn’t help that the people of the time were using several languages at once, either (such as French, Latin and, sometimes, English), nor that there wasn’t a uniformity in spelling. It makes for some very interesting deciphering when trying to work out who was who. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. Sharon

      Like

  3. numatic machines 24/11/2015 / 23:22

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  4. Rich Price 20/04/2017 / 14:58

    This was posted on my King John’s Letters Facebook page today, thank you very interesting! The Close Rolls, however, definitely name her as ‘comitissa Isabella’ and ‘Isabella filia Willielmi comitis’, so Isabelle/Isabella seems to be clearly attested as her official name.

    Like

    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 20/04/2017 / 15:05

      Thanks Rich, that’s good to know. I have seen so many different names in the history books. I’ll edit that info into the post. Best wishes, Sharon.

      Like

  5. Isani 10/09/2018 / 12:18

    I always feel Isabella had some peculiarities in her character which even king john can’t intimidate , She never questioned the divorce and everything else can be interpreted this way , may be she was someone always gave john a feeling of unreachable or some kind of a strong personality .

    Like

    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 10/09/2018 / 13:43

      To be honest, I don’t think we know enough about Isabel to get a really good impression of how she felt. John kept her a virtual prisoner for years after the divorce. She may have been happy to no longer be married to John – it certainly wasn’t a love match – but I doubt she was happy to be denied her access to her lands and property.

      Like

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