Isabelle d’Angoulême: A Complicated Queen

Why Isabelle d’Angoulême is hard to love?

Seal of Isabelle d’Angoulême

At first sight, it is easy to have sympathy for Isabelle of Angoulême. When I started researching her for Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, I was expecting to be able to go some way to redeeming her reputation. She was married at a very young age – she was no more than 12 and may have been as young as 10 – to ‘Bad’ King John, the man who would later be accused of murdering his own nephew and left a woman to starve in his dungeons.

Isabelle d’Angoulême was the only child of Audemar, Count of Angoulême and Alice de Courtenay. Her mother 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 related to the royal houses of Jerusalem, Hungary, Aragon and Castile. When John set his sights on her, Isabelle was betrothed to Hugh IX de Lusignan: the chronicler Roger of Howden maintained that Isabelle had not yet reached the age of consent, which was why she was still only betrothed to Hugh, rather than married to him. The marriage between Isabelle and Hugh was intended to put to bed, literally, a long-running, bitter rivalry between the Lusignans and the counts of Angoulême. It would also unite neighbouring regions in Aquitaine, posing a threat to Angevin power in the region. This could have effectively cut Aquitaine in two, jeopardising the stability of the borders of Poitou and Gascony. John could not help but see the threat posed by the impending marriage and sought to put a stop to it. Count Audemar, it seems, was quite receptive to the suggestion that he abandon the Lusignan match if it meant that his daughter would become a queen.

King John

In the early years of their marriage, John appears to have treated Isabelle more like a child than a wife, which she still was, and she was financially dependent on him. When she was not at court with the king, Isabelle spent time at Marlborough Castle 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.

It appears that Isabelle was an unpopular queen, guilty by her association with the excesses and abuses of John’s regime. It was in this light that John’s marriage to Isabelle was seen as the start of England’s woes, with some of the blame falling unfairly on the young queen. Contemporary sources reported that John spent his mornings in bed with the queen, when he should have been attending to the business of the country, casting Isabelle as some kind of temptress, irresistible to the king. The fact that Isabelle did not give birth to her first child until 1207, when she was in her late teens, puts the lie to these sources, suggesting that she and John  did not consummate the marriage in the first few years. After 16 years together, the couple had 5 children; Henry III, Richard of Cornwall, Isabella, Joan and the youngest, Eleanor, who was born in 1215 or 1216.

While her movements were restricted and closely controlled during her marriage to John, the situation did not improve for Isabelle following John’s death in 1216. Their 9-year-old son Henry was now king, but Isabelle was excluded from playing a role in the regency government; her unpopularity in England and lack of political experience were major factors. Moreover, she had had limited contact with her children: they lived in separate households and Isabelle was not responsible for their supervision or education, which added to her isolation. Almost as soon as Henrys crowned, Isabelle started making arrangements to go home, to Angoulême, of which she was countess in her own right. In 1217 she left England.

Isabelle’s son, Henry III of England

Once in her own domains, Isabelle was to arrange the wedding of her daughter, Joan. Joan had been betrothed, at the age of 4, to Hugh X de Lusignan, Count of La Marche and the son of Hugh IX, the man who had been betrothed to Isabelle before John married her. In 1220 Isabelle shocked England, and probably the whole continent, when she scandalously married her daughter’s betrothed herself. Poor 9-year-old Joan’s erstwhile fiancé was now her stepfather! Worse was to come, however, when the little princess was not returned to her homeland, as might have been expected, but held hostage, by Isabelle and Hugh, to ensure Hugh’s continued control of her dower lands, and as a guarantee to the transfer of her mother’s dower, which the English government was withholding against the return of Joan.

Stalemate.

Isabelle wrote to her son, Henry III, to explain and justify why she had supplanted her own daughter as Hugh’s bride, claiming ‘…lord Hugh of Lusignan remained alone and without heir in the region of Poitou, and his friends did not permit our daughter to be married to him, because she is so young; but they counselled him to take a wife from whom he might quickly have heirs, and it was suggested that he take a wife in France. If he had done so, all your land in Poitou and Gascony and ours would have been lost. But we, seeing the great danger that might emerge from such a marriage – and your counsellors would give us no counsel in this – took said H[ugh], count of La Marche, as our lord; and God knows that we did this more for your advantage than ours…’

Ironically, Isabelle had now achieved that which King John had hoped to avoid; the union of La Marche and Angoulême, splitting Angevin Aquitaine down the Little Joan was finally returned to England towards the end of 1220, but the arguments over Isabelle’s English lands continued throughout the 1220s and beyond. Isabelle would not retire in peace and in 1224 she and Hugh betrayed Henry by allying themselves with the King of France. In exchange for a substantial pension, they supported a French invasion of Poitou (the lands in France belonging to the King of England, her son).

Seal of Hugh X de Lusignan

Hugh and Isabelle were reconciled with Henry in 1226 and Isabelle met her first-born son for the first time in more than twelve years in 1230, when Henry mounted a futile expedition to Brittany and Poitou. Isabelle and Hugh, however, continued to play the kings of France and England against each other, always looking for the advantage, though this was probably as much by necessity as self-interest. They did, after all, live in France and their relationship with England complicated things. In 1242, for example, when Henry III invaded Poitou, Hugh X initially gave support to his English stepson, only to change sides once more, precipitating the collapse of Henry’s campaign. Isabelle herself was implicated in a plot to poison King Louis IX of France and his brother, only to be foiled at the last minute; the poisoners claimed to have been sent by Isabelle. There is no evidence of Isabelle denying the accusation, but she never admitted her guilt, either.

Isabelle’s second marriage proved even more unstable than her first, shaken by Hugh’s frequent infidelities and threats of divorce. Isabelle enjoyed greater personal authority within her second marriage; where she had issued no charters whilst married to King John, as Hugh de Lusignan’s wife, the couple issued numerous joint charters. Her difficult relationship with France added to Isabelle’s marital problems. In one instance, Isabelle was offended by the queen of France when she was not offered a chair to sit, in the queen’s presence, regardless of the fact she herself was a crowned and anointed queen. Following this insult, in 1241, Isabelle castigated Hugh de Lusignan for supporting a French candidate to the county of Poitou, ahead of her son, Henry III. In retaliation, Isabelle stripped Lusignan Castle of its furnishings and refused to allow her husband into her castle at Angoulême for three days.

Despite the rocky relationship, Isabelle and Hugh had nine children together, including Aymer de Lusignan and William de Valence. Many of his Lusignan half-siblings would later cause problems for Henry III, having come to England to seek patronage and advancement from their royal half-brother.

Tomb effigy of Isabelle d’Angoulême, Fontevraud Abbey

In 1244 the two royal cooks admitted the attempted poisoning of the French king, and that they had been paid by Isabelle. Before she could be arrested, Isabelle retired to Fontevraud Abbey, where she died on 4 June, 1246. The dowager queen of England was buried in the abbey’s churchyard. However, when Henry III visited his mother’s final resting place, he was shocked that she was buried outside the abbey and ordered that she be moved inside. She was finally laid to rest in the abbey church, beside Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

As contemporaries described her as ‘more Jezebel than Isabel’, accused her of ‘sorcery and witchcraft’, Isabelle of Angouleme’s reputation as a heartless mother and habitual schemer seems set to remain. Married to King John whilst still a child, she was castigated as the cause for the loss of the majority of John’s continental possessions and the subsequent strife and civil war; one could easily sympathise with her lack of love for England. That Isabelle apparently abandoned the children of her first husband within months of his death, and her supposed willingness to betray her son for her own ends would go some way to destroy the compassion one may have felt for her. However, we have to remember that nothing is ever black and white and we have to consider that Isabelle was balancing the interests of her two families – one French and one English – which were, unfortunately for Isabelle, irreconcilable due to the politics of the time.

One thing is for sure, Isabelle d’Angoulême is a fascinating character!

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Images:

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources:

Rich Price, King John’s Letters Facebook group; Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225; Dan Jones The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made EnglandThe Plantagenet Chronicle Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Maurice Ashley The Life and Times of King John; Roy Strong The Story of BritainOxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley British Kings & Queens; David Williamson Brewer’s British Royalty; Ralph of Diceto, Images of History; Marc Morris, King John; David Crouch, William Marshal; Crouch and Holden, History of William Marshal; Crouch, David, ‘William Marshal [called the Marshal], fourth earl of Pembroke (c. 1146–1219)’, Oxforddnb.com; Flanagan, M.T., ‘Isabel de Clare, suo jure countess of Pembroke (1171×6–1220)’, Oxforddnb.com; Thomas Asbridge, The Greatest Knight; Chadwick, Elizabeth, ‘Clothing the Bones: Finding Mahelt Marshal’, livingthehistoryelizabethchadwick.blogspot.com; Stacey, Robert C., ‘Roger Bigod, fourth earl of Norfolk (c. 1212-1270)’, Oxforddnb.com; finerollshenry3.org.uk; Vincent, Nicholas, ‘William de Warenne, fifth earl of Surrey [Earl Warenne] (d. 1240)’, Oxforddnb.com.

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9 thoughts on “Isabelle d’Angoulême: A Complicated Queen

  1. dlindad 22/01/2022 / 14:48

    Just reading of your account of Isabelle’s life boggles the mind. Children today are playing with dolls not giving birth to them and to be used by “noble men” would either cause me to hate them murder them, or use them for my own end. Medieval women of all levels of society obviously had no control over their lives if they had a living father or older brothers. For Example: Eleanor of Aquitaine–I’ll just mention her time as Henry II’s queen. Did he ever love her or what she had brought to the marriage? Suffice it to say, that a women of her wealth, talents and background just to name a few of her attributes, suffered mightily at the indignities at the hands of her bestial and perverted husband. I cannot blame her for siding with her sons’ attempts to overthrow him He could not let go of an inch of his power even as he grew older.
    But I stray from my original point, even as a modern women with my character and personality I would have had one hellava time living as a medieval female of any societal rank.
    Thus I will end with a bit of 21st century knowledge: I am 92 years old and grew up in New York City. After graduation from high school, my plan was to attend college but needed to get a job and save money for tuition. I was one of seven children and after World War II, girls just worked until they got married and had a family. To me that meant raise kids, marry them off and then die.
    If you DID attend college, your choices were to be a teacher or a nurse, but if you were well connected or came from a wealthy family you had other options too involved to discuss here. Before I got carried away with some similarities through the ages, I would like to say that I have enjoyed reading your books as well as other female authors of the medieval period. I have often asked myself the question, “Do women authors write differently from men? Is their slant more physical, warlike or politically oriented than women?” (I think I will concentrate on that.)
    My very best wishes for 2022 and may you continue enlightening readers with your excellent works opening their minds to another world with knowledge, accuracy and flair.

    Doris Davidson

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 22/01/2022 / 15:11

      Thank you Doris, that is so kind of you to say – and lovely to hear. I often think i wouldn’t have got on well in medieval times, because of the way they treated women. However, i think we sometimes give medieval women to little credit. I doubt they were very different to its. They were privacy just as intelligent, sensible and practical as we are now. Yes, they had to live in a society which constrained their actions because of their sex. But I can’t help but think that they found their own subtle ways to control situations and events. After all, when the king or Lord left his counsellors at the end of the day, it was his wife who could whisper advice as his head hit the pillow – she had the last word on the subject or events of the day! Best wishes, Sharon xx

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  2. Justin Arscott 22/01/2022 / 23:33

    Hello it would be nice to know about Isabella of Angoulême’s family (Taillefer) counts of Angoulême, Ivo Taillefer all the way up to now as they are known as Burlace, I’m aware of the family name change in 1300 and changed it fully to burlace in around the 1350s. And that Isabella is my 1st cousin 26xremoved through my 2nd great grandmother who’s surname was Burlace, the family moved to Devon and eventually some moved on to be sheriff of buckingham and centuries on Newport south wales. I would appreciate any info you have with the family thank you.

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    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 23/01/2022 / 07:11

      I’m sorry, Justin, i don’t know anything. It’s not something I’ve looked into. As far as I know the family name changed to Valence for the early of Pembroke, but I haven’t followed the other family lines, it’s not really my area of interest. Best wishes, Sharon

      Like

  3. giaconda 23/01/2022 / 08:57

    Reblogged this on Giaconda's Blog and commented:
    Fascinating post on one of our less well-known or regarded medieval queen consorts. I think anyone who was married to King John was going to have a rough deal and Isabelle has been unfairly judged for events beyond her own control.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. eseimeara911 02/04/2022 / 23:58

    I always wondered did Isabella really abandon her children by King John? Personally I got the feeling that she was pushed out. If I remember correctly DA Carpenter makes the point that she could have been snubbed. She wanted to be on the regency council but they had a ship waiting 3 months in advance for her he argues. And that to me makes sense, while its hard to say what she felt for her children, one has to wonder why if she wasn’t forced to go why leave voluntarily when she could have been regent?

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    • Sharon Bennett Connolly 03/04/2022 / 07:43

      I think it’s somewhere between the two. She wasn’t forced out, but at the same time, she wasn’t encouraged to stay. There was no chance of her being regent – that was already settled – and she didn’t have the experience to rule a country, let alone rule a country at war. So it was the right decision to give the tendency to William Marshal. That didn’t mean, however, that she would have had no role as the king’s mother if she hadn’t stuck around and pushed for it. But she had no allies in England. John had kept her isolated, so she probably thought her best option was to leave. And the English were happy to see her go.

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