As part of The Tudor Tracker‘s Alternative August programme of talks, I had a nice long chat with Catherine Brooks about the history behind Magna Carta, King John and some of the remarkable women I wrote of in Ladies of Magna Carta.
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, 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
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.
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.