One of the most intriguing relationships of the Magna Carta story is that between Isabella of Gloucester and Isabelle d’Angoulême, the two wives of King John.
Isabella of Gloucester is a unique individual in the story of Magna Carta. She is, in many ways, a shadow in the pages of history, and yet she held one of the greatest earldoms in England. There are no pictures of her, not even a description of her personality or appearance. At one time, no one even seemed certain of her name; she has been called Isabel, Isabella, Hawise, Avice – but Isabella is how she appears in the Close Rolls.1
Isabella was the youngest daughter and co-heiress of William, second Earl of Gloucester, who was himself the son of Robert of Gloucester, an illegitimate son of King Henry I and Empress Matilda’s half-brother and stalwart supporter during her war against King Stephen. Earl William’s wife was Hawise, the daughter of Robert de Beaumont, third Earl of Leicester. Isabella’s only brother Robert had died in 1166, making Isabella and her two sisters co-heiresses to the earldom of Gloucester. Although her date of birth has been lost to history, it seems likely she was born in the early 1160s.
We know very little of Isabella’s childhood, although, considering her social status, as the daughter of one of England’s wealthiest earls, it is likely that she was given the education expected of a high-ranking noblewoman and taught to run a large household, as well as the social graces of singing, dancing and needlework. Her parents’ marriage appears to have been a successful one. Isabella’s mother, Countess Hawise, was a regular witness to her husband’s charters and was mentioned in several of them, especially in the pro amina clauses of grants made to religious houses that sought spiritual benefits for those named.
Isabella’s father, although a first cousin of Henry II, had a complicated relationship with the king, especially after Henry had taken Bristol Castle from the earl; the castle had been held by William’s father before him. Despite remaining loyal to Henry II during the rebellion of the king’s sons in 1173–74 and agreeing to the marriage of his youngest daughter to Prince John, Earl William’s loyalty remained suspect and he was arrested and imprisoned in 1183. The unfortunate earl died whilst still a captive, on 23 November 1183.
Isabella was betrothed, in 1176, to Prince John, the youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. John was 9 years old at the time of the betrothal, while Isabella was probably a few years older. Under the terms of the marriage agreement, Earl William recognised John as heir to the earldom of Gloucester, effectively disinheriting Isabella’s two elder sisters. The marriage was to be a way for Henry II to provide for his youngest son. After the Earl of Gloucester’s death in 1183, his entire estate was passed to Isabella, who had been made a ward of the king.
Isabella’s older sisters were both already married; Mabel was the wife of Amaury of Évreux and Amicia was married to the earl of Hertford. On their father’s death they had both been explicitly excluded from the estate to prevent the division of the comital inheritance and they received annuities of £100 each in compensation. Taking Isabella into wardship, Henry II therefore seized all the Gloucester lands and made the income from them available for John’s use, as Isabella’s future husband. The king, however, appears to have kept his options open and had not finalised John’s marriage to Isabella by the time of his death; in case a more suitable alliance came along.
King Richard I, on the other hand, thought it expedient to get his brother safely married, on his own accession to the throne in 1189. The wedding took place at Marlborough Castle in Wiltshire on 29 August 1189; John was 21 and Isabella may have been approaching 30. Baldwin, the archbishop of Canterbury at the time, opposed the marriage as the couple were related within the third degree of consanguinity; they were second cousins, both being great-grandchildren of Henry I. John had to promise to seek a papal dispensation and, even then, the couple were ordered, by the archbishop, not to sleep together.
Although Isabella and John were married for ten years, their marriage was neither happy nor successful. They spent some time together in the first years of their marriage as they issued charters together during a visit to Normandy around 1190–91.2 However, they appear to have spent less and less time together as the years went on. They never had any children and it is during this time in his life that John’s illegitimate children, including Richard of Chilham and Joan Lady of Wales, were born; a further suggestion that the couple were not close. In 1193, as part of his plotting with Philip Augustus, John promised to marry the French king’s half-sister, Alice, who had previously been betrothed to John’s own brother, Richard. Nothing eventually came of the marriage proposal, but it was an implicit rejection of Isabella as his wife.
John succeeded to the throne on the death of his older brother, Richard the Lionheart, on 6 April 1199. He was crowned, alone, on 27 May 1199; the fact that Isabella was not crowned with him suggests that John was already looking for a way out of the marriage. Poor Isabella would never be styled ‘queen’ and it was possibly as early as August 1199, but certainly by early 1200, that John obtained a divorce on the grounds of consanguinity, the very objection for which he was supposed to have obtained a dispensation when he married Isabella in 1189. The bishops of Lisieux, Bayeux and Avranches, sitting in Normandy, provided the required judgement. One chronicler said of John that ‘seized by hope of a more elevated marriage, he acted on wicked counsel and rejected his wife.’3
Keen to keep his hold on the substantial Gloucester lands, John took Isabella into wardship, again, holding her in ‘honourable confinement’ for the next fourteen years. Little is known of her day-to-day life, although she does appear to have remained on civil terms with King John. John met the expenses of Isabella’s household and staff and sent her numerous gifts, including wine and cloth. Things may well have been a little awkward at times, especially after John found himself another wife.
Having discarded Isabella, John began to look elsewhere for a new wife; he sent ambassadors to the Iberian peninsula to investigate the possibilities of a match with the daughter of the king of Portugal. However, any such plans were hastily abandoned when John set his sights on Isabelle d’Angoulême.
Isabelle was the only child of Audemar (or Aymer), Count of Angoulême and Alice de Courtenay. Alice was the daughter Peter de Courtenay, lord of Montargis and Chateaurenard, and a cousin of king Philip II Augustus of France. Through her Courtenay family connections, Isabelle was also related to the royal houses of Jerusalem, Hungary, Aragon and Castile. There was one tiny problem, however, Isabelle was already betrothed to Hugh IX de Lusignan. The marriage was intended to end the bitter rivalry of the two families but would also be a threat to Angevin power in the region, effectively splitting Aquitaine in two, with the Lusignans controlling the centre.
John therefore suggested to Count Audemar that he marry Isabelle himself. The count jumped at the chance of seeing his daughter become queen of England. Isabelle and John were married on 24 August 1200; Isabelle was no more than 12 and may have been as young as 10, John was 33 or 34.
When John remarried in 1200 to Isabelle d’Angoulême, he housed his new wife with his ex-wife, which could have been rather awkward for both women. Queen Isabelle was still very young, probably no more than 12 years old on her marriage. Despite the chroniclers claiming Isabelle was a temptress and kept John in bed when he should have been ruling the kingdom, in the early years of their marriage, the king appears to have treated her more like a child than a wife; which she, of course, was. Her independence was severely limited by John keeping personal control of her finances.
When she was not at court with the king, Isabelle spent time at Marlborough or in the household of John’s first wife, Isabella of Gloucester, at Winchester. Isabella’s allowance was raised from £50 to £80 a year, to pay for the extra expenses incurred by housing the queen.4 The young queen remained in Isabella of Gloucester’s household until the birth of her first child, Henry, in 1207; in that year Isabella of Gloucester was moved to Sherborne before the queen gave birth. And now that she no longer had the care of the queen, Isabella’s allowance was reduced back down to £50 a year.
One may imagine this was quite awkward for Isabella of Gloucester, the discarded wife being forced to host her former husband’s young bride. On closer reflection, however, it may also have been a comfort to her. The teenage queen would probably have been lively company for the 40-something countess who had never been blessed with children. She may have felt protective and motherly to the girl, especially knowing John as well as she must have done.
Following the birth of her first son, Henry, Isabelle gave John four more children; another son, Richard, born in 1209 and daughters, Joan, born in 1210, Isabella, born in 1214 and Eleanor, who was born in either 1215 or 1216, and married the famed Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, as her second husband. Following John’s death in 1216, Isabelle returned to France, to her county of Angoulême, where, in 1220, she married Hugh X de Lusignan, the son of her former betrothed.
Isabella of Gloucester was finally allowed to remarry in 1214; a letters patent issued by John on 28 January 1214 informed all the knights and tenants of the honour of Gloucester that ‘we have given Isabella, countess of Gloucester, our kinswoman’ in marriage to Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex.5 Mandeville had to pay the massive sum of 20,000 marks for the privilege of marrying the king’s first wife; an amount he could never hope to repay. He was one of the barons who rose in rebellion during the Magna Carta crisis of 1215.
1 Rich Price, King John’s Letters Facebook group; 2 Louise Wilkinson, Isabel of Gloucester, wife of King John, magnacarta800th.com; 3 Ralph of Diceto, Images of History; 4 Lisa Hilton, Queen’s Consort: England’s Medieval Queens; 5 Louise Wilkinson, Isabel of Gloucester, wife of King John, magnacarta800th.com
Rich Price, King John’s Letters Facebook group; Louise Wilkinson, Isabel of Gloucester, wife of King John, magnacarta800th.com; 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; Robert B. Patterson, Isabella, suo jure Countess of Gloucester (c. 1160-1217), Oxforddnb.com; Ralph of Diceto, Images of History; Lisa Hilton, Queen’s Consort: England’s Medieval Queens; Marc Morris, King John; Elizabeth Norton, She-Wolves: The Notorious Queens of England; Louise Wilkinson, Isabella of Angoulême, wife of King John, magnacarta800th.com
Courtesy of Wikipedia, except Winchester Cathedral is ©2020 courtesy of Anne Marie Bouchard, Westminster Abbey, ©2020 courtesy of Daniel Gleave and Canterbury Cathedral which is ©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly.
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