Sunday, October 20, 2013

Isabella: She Wolf or Cream Puff?

by Colin Falconer

Some have called her the She Wolf; playwrights, film makers and novelists have all shone light on her from different directions but all we ever see is a silhouette. Isabella of France continues to polarise opinion.

Was she a femme fatale and arch bitch; or just a misunderstood cream puff?

Those who take Isabella’s side paint her husband, Edward II, as a cruel and despotic monarch. They view her as a tragic figure, a bewitched princess trapped in a loveless marriage to a negligent husband, a passionate and intelligent woman driven to extreme measures by her situation.

Edward II
Photograph: Siebrand
But was Edward cruel and despotic? He was certainly incompetent. But not all kings are born to rule; some are ill suited for their destiny. But to paint him as the villain is surely too simplistic. A TV news style of historical reporting where there has to be a good guy and a bad guy does not give us the true picture.

Edward battled private demons. Although regal and handsome, his inner life was tormented; he had endured a strained relationship with his authoritarian father, ‘Longshanks,’ and had looked for affection elsewhere, usually in passionate attachments to certain 'favourites'.

His relationship with squires like Piers Gaveston led to violent quarrels between father and son, and eventually banishment for Piers.

But when Longshanks died, Edward could do as he pleased - and he did. He recalled Gaveston and made him Earl of Cornwall, a title previously reserved for the nobility, much to the outrage of his barons.

His marriage to Isabella was a political alliance, as all royal marriages were then. Isabella was just 12 years old. Edward was outrageously handsome, and she would grow up to be exceptionally beautiful. They were a Hollywood couple. Today they would have been the new Brangelina.

Perhaps we would have called them Edabella.

She was certainly no she-wolf then, just a bewildered and frightened girl in a foreign court. But she had been trained for her regal duties by one of Europe’s most adept and ruthless kings, and she had a natural talent for politics combined with a passionate heart. It put her and Edward on a collision course.

Historians have prevaricated over his sexuality. But today being gay is not really so shocking - and certainly not unusual. Plenty of gay men marry and have children, because they have to, not because they want to. You don’t have to be a king to find yourself in that situation. But his weakness was in his decision-making not in sexual orientation.

It is possible that Isabella was obedient and long suffering at first. But people change. A proud heart such as hers can take only so much submission.

If she had had a milder nature, perhaps she would have endured in silence all her life, content to remain in the background.

This she did for a while and earned sympathy from her contemporaries for her husband’s behaviour. But a different Isabella appeared later. Her behaviour during her exile in Paris was scandalous and forced even her own brother to distance himself from her.

She finally overthrew her husband with the help of her lover; but did she also collude in her husband’s death? We cannot know the extent of her involvement in the regicide. At the least she looked the other way.

The queen who invaded England was not the same obedient mouse who came to England in 1207 as Edward’s 12 year old bride.

Powder puff or she-wolf? The best way to decide is perhaps to think what we ourselves might have done in her situation.

Would you have been content to stay in the background and embroider with the ladies?

Or would you have had the guts - and the ruthlessness - to have wanted more?

For Isabella, daughter of one of France’s most ruthless kings, cream puff was never an option.


ISABELLA, Braveheart of France, available now from Amazon US and Amazon UK

And also available as POD from Cool Gus publishing.

Colin Falconer’s blog page

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  1. At least we know she didn't have an affair with William Wallace, as in that film! ;-)

  2. Absolutely Sue, she was only 9 when he died! I think Braveheart might have lost some audience sympathy there!


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