Nearly everyone knows that Henry I’s daughter Matilda, Lady of the English, was Holy Roman Empress as the wife of Holy Roman Emperor Henry V. What is less well-known is that, almost 70 years after Matilda’s death, her great-granddaughter followed in her footsteps.
Isabella of England was born in 1214; she was the 4th of 5 children born to King John and his 2nd wife Isabella of Angouleme. She had 3 older siblings, Henry, Richard and Joan, and a baby sister Eleanor. Born at a time when her father’s strife with his barons was at its height, her early childhood was turbulent, to say the least. John died just 2 years later, in October 1216, leaving 9-year-old Henry as king of a country in the midst of civil war while fighting off an occupying French army.
Even before her father’s death, Isabella’s older sister Joan (born in 1210) had left England, to be raised by the family of her intended husband, Hugh de Lusignan. However, by 1220, amidst great scandal, Hugh had repudiated Joan and married her mother in her stead, whilst still holding Joan as hostage in order to gain Queen Isabella’s dower.
Whilst Joan was still in the hands of the Lusignans, her marriage to Alexander II of Scotland was negotiated, with an added clause that Isabella could be substituted for her older sister, should Joan not make it back to England in time. In the event Joan returned in time and Henry III looked elsewhere for a husband for Isabella.
Becoming part of his policy of continental diplomacy, Henry looked at several possible husbands, such as Henry VII, king of the Romans and Louis IX of France. After some prompting by Pope Gregory IX, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (father of Henry VII) sent an embassy to England to pursue his own suit for the English princess to become his 3rd wife.
Within 3 days of the Sicilian embassy’s arrival Henry was agreeable to the match, which complimented his keen interest in the Holy Roman Empire. He had Isabella brought from the Tower of London to Westminster to be interviewed by the ambassadors. They were so impressed with her that they hailed Isabella “Vivat imperatrix! Vivat!”
The marriage contract was signed on 22nd February 1235, with Henry giving Isabella a dowry of 30,000 marks. Although Isabella already had her own fine chapel silver, Henry gave her a magnificent trousseau, which included a service of gold and silver plate. The English people were irritated by Henry’s demand for a substantial marriage aid, but Henry saw the marriage as adding to his personal prestige, and a possible alliance against Louis IX of France.
On 11th May 1235 Isabella set sail from Sandwich, escorted by the bishop of Exeter, the archbishop of Cologne and the duke of Brabant; she arrived at Antwerp 4 days later. With a substantial escort, to guard against kidnap threats from Frederick II’s enemies, Isabella arrived in Cologne on 24th May. She made a processional entry into the city, to the cheers of a 10,00 strong crowd, endearing herself to the noble ladies by throwing her veil back.
She was to spend 6 weeks in Cologne waiting for Frederick, who was dealing with a rebellion by his oldest son, Henry VII.
By July 1235, however, they were together in Worms where, on Sunday the 15th, they were married in the cathedral by the archbishop of Mainz. Isabella was crowned Holy Roman Empress at the same time. Four days of wedding festivities followed, with guests including – according to Matthew Paris – 4 kings, 11 dukes and 30 counts and marquesses.
Frederick, it seems, put great store by astrology; in 1228 Michael Scot had completed his encyclopedia of astrology while at Frederick’s court. And it was on the advice of the emperor’s court astrologers that the marriage was not consummated until the 2nd night.
Isabella was the emperor’s 3rd wife; his 1st, Constance of Aragon, had died of malaria in 1222 and his 2nd wife, Queen Isabella-Yolanda of Jerusalem had died in childbirth in 1228. Frederick was 20 years Isabella’s senior and expended all his energy on war, travelling and ceremonials in order to maintain his authority throughout his vast empire.
Frederick was delighted with his bride; she was beautiful and popular. He sent 3 leopards to Henry III in England as a sign of his appreciation. However, following the celebrations he also dismissed the majority of Isabella’s English attendants; she was allowed to retain only her nurse, Margaret Biset – who and been with her since her early childhood – and a maid, called Kathrein.
Isabella travelled with Frederick’s slaves to his palace at Hagenau, where Frederick spent the winter with his new empress. Their first child was probably born around 1237/8, although there does seem to be some confusion over how many children there were, and when they were born. What is certain is 2 children survived childhood; Henry, King of Jerusalem, died unmarried in his teens in 1254 and Margaret married Albert I, Margrave of Meissen and Langrave of Thuringia and Misnes, in 1256.
Isabella travelled extensively through her husband’s lands, residing in Apulia, Lombardy, Noventa between 1238 and 1239. Frederick was always close by, despite his battles with the papacy, and arrived in southern Italy shortly after his wife’s arrival in February 1240.
Isabella was expected to live in some magnificence, but Henry III was irritated that she was only rarely allowed to appear in public. There were rumours that Frederick kept his wives in a harem, although these were probably unfounded and arose from the seclusion that firstly Isabella-Yolanda and then Isabella lived in.
When Richard Earl of Cornwall visited the Emperor in 1241, he didn’t immediately see his sister, although this was probably down to court protocol, as the Empress was pregnant at the time. When they did meet the brother and sister were treated to a lavish court entertainment, being delighted by a magnificent display of jugglers and Muslim dancers.
Following Richard’s visit, Frederick II returned to war. He was besieging Faenza in northern Italy when his wife died in childbirth on 1st December 1241; the baby died with her. Before his departure on campaign, Isabella had urged Frederick to stay on good terms with her brother Henry III, who was leaning more and more towards the papacy.
She was buried at Andria, Sicily, alongside the emperor’s 2nd wife, Isabella-Yolanda. Isabella had been married for just over 6 years and was only 27 years of age.
Through her daughter Margaret, Isabella is the ancestor of Queen Victoria’s beloved husband, Prince Albert.
Isabella’s story features in greater detail in my forthcoming book, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England which will be published by Pen & Sword on 30 May 2020.
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia
Sources: The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Plantagenets, the Kings who Made England by Dan Jones; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Plantagenet Chronicles Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings by Robert Bartlett; http://www.britannica.com; oxforddnb.com.
Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword, Amazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.
Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:
Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Available now from Amazon UK, Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.
Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.
©Sharon Bennett Connolly 2016