Why Isabelle d’Angoulême is hard to love?
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
Courtesy of Wikipedia
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 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; 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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Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:
Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword, Amazon, Bookshop.org and from Book Depository worldwide.
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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, Amberley Publishing, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.
Alternate Endings: An anthology of historical fiction short stories including Long Live the King… which is my take what might have happened had King John not died in October 1216. Available in paperback and kindle from Amazon.
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