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Essay: Dowager period of Isabella of France

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Isabella’s dowager period followed all standards that was expected for the retirement period of a queen. Like other dowagers before her, her political role was greatly reduced, and cultural and religious benefaction became a central focus of her life and her only appearances of the royal court was at major celebrations. A dowager period tended to provide a sense of freedom to medieval woman as no longer were they under the direct control of men – her estates were her own, and the maintenance of them were her responsibility. However, it was largely reported until recent years that Isabella’s retirement was not one of freedom but instead one of imprisonment. For example, Bond’s article in 1853 displays Isabella’s retirement as one of humiliation and seclusion, presenting the queen as completely removed from any form of political or social influence. This view is supported in select chronicles where Isabella is depicted being “confined in a handsome castle” in which she wasn’t allowed to leave. The image of a recluse Isabella has since been overturned and, instead, the more prevailing idea is of an active and public queen-mother is now accepted. Isabella’s household book presents Isabella constantly moving around the country, not something expected of someone who was supposedly secluded from society. This image is present in numerous chronicles such as the Chronicle of Lanercost which suggests that Isabella, despite the restrictions placed upon her, did not have a life of imprisonment but one of “competent and honourable sufficiency” which she “enjoyed”. While her position had been considerably reduced, her political and cultural impact continued through her relationship with the royal family, her French heritage, and through her interest in cultural and religion.

Isabella established a relationship with her son early on in his life which was essential to maintain political power when he became king. Whether she maintained this relationship solely for this purpose, the effect still existed and allowed her to continue to influence her son from 1330 onwards. Immediately after his coup, Edward III dramatically restricted Isabella’s life as a punishment for her role in the minority government (as discussed in the previous chapter) which would suggest there were some initial strains in their relationship. Her dower which she had gradually increased during her time in power was reduced to £3000 per annum which restricted her life of luxury to one that was merely comfortable. Additionally, Edward placed further restrictions on Isabella’s life and had all of her jewels taken to the Tower of London where they were guarded. These were all drastic measures that were used as an attempt to display his power and distance himself from the reputation of his mother in order to establish himself as a strong king. However, the relationship between the two was quickly repaired as, only a year after his coup, Isabella’s lands were beginning to be returned and by 1334 even her continental lands were restored. This relationship appears to be completely repaired by 1340, as until her death she remained in regular contact with her son and the two visited each other often. One such instance occurred in 1344 when Edward elected to spend his thirty-second birthday with his mother at her residence. Furthermore post 1340, Isabella’s involvement in family affairs increased and she spent multiple Christmases with her family, such as hosting her grandson, the Black Prince, at Berkhamstead in 1354. This integration of Isabella back into the life of her son and his heirs indicate that the damage between Edward and herself had been restored which subsequently allowed her political role in this period to increase. Ormrod proposes that Edward may have calculated this reintegration by noting Isabella’s influence in France due to her heritage and may have been wishing to use this for his advantage in the upcoming peace negotiations. However, her role with negotiations with France was not exploited, leading to the conclusion that Edward partook in such a high number of meetings with his mother due to his fondness of her. Furthermore, Edward’s affection of his mother continued after her death thus suggesting that their relationship was deeper that Edward manipulating her influence. Along with an elaborate funeral, Edward ordered highstreets such as Bishopsgatestrete and Algatestrete to be “cleansed” for her body’s procession as a means to honour his mother’s last journey. Edward likewise spent a great deal commissioning chantry to pray for her soul annually and made donations to various establishments such as Holy Trinity of Aldgate, London, to accommodate these prayers. Thus, due to the money and care put into his mother’s funeral and memory, it is unlikely that her relationship with Edward was based only on political matters.

By traditional standards, Isabella would have been expected to advise the new queen-consort, Philippa, in her new role but, potentially as a result of Isabella’s role in the minority, the two were distant. Rarely in contemporary sources are the two depicted interacting on matters that were not state functions, thus implying that the two were not friends nor political counterparts. Ironically, despite this distance the two have been grouped together by contemporaries due to the two queens living in the same period and dying at similar points in the year. As a result, the queens were often memorialised annually together albeit in separate ceremonies thus linking the two queens together in memory and providing ample opportunities to draw comparisons between the two. Despite their similarities, the two do not appear to have held any ill will towards the other which draws the question as to why communication was absent.

The lack of known hostility between the two despite their low number of interactions suggests that the reasons for this absence was not a result of malice between the two women. After the peace negotiations with France in 1358, Philippa was one of the first to inform Isabella of the news and the following day the two had a celebratory dinner together. Thus, judging from this interaction alone, there must have had a cordial relationship at the very least for Philippa to prioritise informing and celebrating with Isabella at such an important time in the royal court. Similarly, Philippa was contacted by Pope John XXII in 1330 and asked to intercede between the damaged relationship of the queen-mother and her son as a result of the Nottingham Coup. Thereby, the Pope perceived that Philippa was considerate enough towards Isabella that she might be of help and also that Philippa held some influence over Isabella that would not have occurred if the two loathed one another. Benz convincingly dismisses claims that Philippa despised Isabella for the power she held over her son as, while Isabella’s recorded intercessions in the minority period far outnumbered Philippa’s, after the minority Philippa’s intercession count did not improved which continued after Isabella’s death. Instead, it is more probable that the reason for this distance was a means to protect Philippa’s reputation as queen. As mentioned in chapter one, a queen’s reputation was crucial especially as they were only represented as two different types of women – the ideal pious and submissive wife or the opposite, the adulterous Jezebel. After her affair with Mortimer and her role in the minority period, Isabella had acquired a negative representation thereby in order to protect her own reputation it is likely Philippa intentionally kept her distance thus explaining the absence of both animosity and communication.

Isabella’s role within politics was considerably reduced after the minority period but her influence in the country was still present and this allowed her to indirectly impact politics throughout her retirement. Initially, Isabella’s movement was greatly restricted by Edward when she was housed at Berkhamstead and Winsor for two years. For Edward, his mother was his prisoner and he made sure not to associate with her, especially in political circumstances such as on the Rolls of Parliament. However, after 1334, her financial and social situation vastly increased allowing her to move freely around the country and therefore allowing her to influence domestic politics. While the amount which Isabella manipulated this opportunity is debated, Isabella undeniably took an interest in political events and was well informed of developments in both domestic and foreign matters. As she was queen-mother and spent time with her son each year, she will have been informed of information in confidence as she was still considered a good source of advice for the king. Likewise, Isabella kept in close correspondence with the rest of her family and this regular correspondence allowed her to keep up with political events. For example, after the peace negotiations with France of 1358, Isabella received the news from three different sources – Queen Philippa, John Winwick and the marshal d’Audrehem. Due to three separate people feeling compelled to inform the queen about the negotiation outcome, Isabella was considered by others to be politically significant and thereby needed to be informed. Furthermore, when she received these messengers, she gave £6 13s to the messenger from Winwick and the same to the messenger from Queen Philippa. Such a sum was uncommon, even from a queen-mother, and this amount indicates that Isabella was grateful and happy to receive the information. However, Isabella’s political role extended further than merely receiving news of political events and, instead, was an active and influential political figure during her retirement.

While Edward initially restricted Isabella’s movement, Edward evidently had a change of heart in terms of his mother’s political and social role within the country. It is widely mentioned in chronicles that Edward relied on Isabella for ‘superiority by hereditary right’ to the French throne so it is probable that after the succession crisis in 1328 and the beginning of the Hundred Years War Edward decided to allow Isabella back into politics to fulfil a diplomatic purpose. Whether by her son’s influence or not, Isabella regularly made contact with her French relatives and entertained them during the peace negotiations and whenever they visited the England. Isabella hosted both the captal de Buche and the comte de Tancarville regularly placing her in a position to influence the negotiations on the side of the French. Reflecting on the officious character of Isabella prior to her retirement, it is implausible that Isabella would entertain key diplomats without attempting to influence their opinions. Furthermore, Isabella’s importance in Anglo-French negotiation is observed by diplomats when, according to Strickland, the French monarch proposed that the queen-dowager of France and Isabella should be the ones to negotiate peace between the two countries. Likewise, while Isabella died before it came into fruition, in 1358 Edward chose Isabella to advise final treaty negotiations with the French.

Moreover, Isabella also influenced internal politics as well as negotiations with France. Various petitions to the king mention the queen-mother, including one by William Bateman complaining of violations of rights conducted by ministers of the queen-mother. These petitions infer that Isabella was operating in domestic politics and to such an extent that people chose to mention her in official protests to the crown. Furthermore, Isabella was not restricted to minor affairs but likewise manipulated greater domestic political decisions. For example Benz suggests that Isabella was influential in the marriage of her daughter Eleanor to the count of Guelders in 1332. While Isabella was not directly involved in these negotiations, she participated in the formation of Eleanor’s entourage and donated some of her servants to help with the journey thus it is apparent that Isabella did influence in the marriage alliance partly. Thereby, Isabella may have had a reduced role within English politics but she was still influential in both foreign and domestic affairs. Yet, while her meddling in domestic politics may be credited to her headstrong personality, her foreign influence was a result of her heritage that was only allowed to be applied when she was considered useful by the king.

Another aspect of Isabella’s influence during her dowager period was her cultural and religious patronage which impacted the culture within the royal court as well as a means to control her reputation. Culture in particular, was essential to queen dowagers as a means to display their social status and to exhibit the impact they had within society. Thereby, by presenting herself as a premium member of society through culture, a dowager queen could assert influence over the country once more. Isabella was particularly interested in French romances and was in possession of various romances such as King Arthur, Tristian and Isolde and other books on the knights of the Round Table. Johnstone proposes that Isabella may have been heavily influenced by these books and suggests that her love of the genre influenced her to have an affair with Mortimer like Genevieve with Lancelot. Yet, as it is uncertain whether Isabella was well acquainted with these books, it cannot be known how much they influenced her politics but her loaning of the these books to other nobles such as King Jean of France and Quean Joan of Scotland ensured that she was influencing the culture of others. Her influence over the culture of the court was so large that after her death and the subsequent death of her French daughter-in-law, Philippa, there was a large cultural rift left in their stead. Along with literature, Isabella enjoyed jewellery and music, notably making numerous payments to minstrels throughout her retirement. In particular, Isabella appears to be fond of Italian paintings and had three in her possession at the time of her passing.

Moreover, Isabella, like other noble dowagers, took a great interest in religion and charity work, and spent considerable amounts buying religious texts, decorating her chapel, and giving alms to various religious institutions. The journey of her soul in the afterlife would have been a cause of concern for Isabella following her various digressions and religious benefaction was believed to be a way of ensuring one’s soul avoided a long purgatory. As someone who suffered from a damning reputation, it was essential for Isabella to display herself as a pious, charitable queen to attempt to repair this unfavourable status. Upon her death, some of the most impressive items in her collection were a psalter wrapped in silk, an Apocalypse in French, and a bible so large that it was split in two. During her retirement, her household paid for thirteen people to be fed every day as well as many more at various festivals a feast days throughout the year. Bond calculates that during the last couple years of her life, Isabella donated £298 to various religious houses and this excessive amount indicates that benefaction was one of her high priorities. Furthermore, Isabella undertook various pilgrimages throughout her life including numerous trips to Canterbury with her last pilgrimage being only a few months before her death with her daughter Joan. Therefore, culture and religion was central to Isabella’s retirement and she used this to influence others and thereby aid her reputation by being seen as pious and sophisticated.
Thereby, Isabella’s dowager period displayed aspects both expected of her and aspects where she manipulated her role to its very limits. Like dowagers previously, Isabella spent much of her retirement donating to the poor, benefiting religious institutions, and engaging in various aspects of culture such as reading and music. Isabella’s only major diversion from the traditional role of the dowager queen was her lack of relationship with her daughter-in-law, Philippa of Hainault. Traditionally, dowager queens were expected to guide the new queen in her transition to her new role, but it is evident from a lack of correspondence between the two that Isabella and Philippa did not partake in this. This lack of a relationship is likely a result of a need to preserve Philippa’s reputation in order to stabilise her power as queen as by being perceived as being close to the ‘she-wolf’ Isabella, she would become suspect to contemporaries. Yet, Isabella displayed an uncharacteristic amount of political power for a dowager queen as concluded as chapter one, thereby separating her from her predecessors with the only other queen dowager experiencing a similar amount of power being Eleanor of Aquitaine a century earlier. Much of this extended power came naturally to Isabella as she maintained a strong relationship with her son despite it becoming extremely damaged at the beginning of her dowager period. Likewise, she became incredibly valuable during this period due to the start of the Hundred Years’ War and her connections to the French monarchy as Isabella was a vital instrument for both sides in negotiations of peace. Thus, Isabella’s dowager period displayed both tradition expectations of her and expanded versions of these limitations making her dowager period unique without exceeding her role.


This essay has provided an insight into the dowager period of Isabella of France allowing investigation into the extent of her political power and her uniqueness as a queen dowager. With an evaluation of the role of a dowager queen, Edward III’s minority government and her retirement period have been focused upon in order to evaluate her life and compare it to what may be established about the expectations of a dowager queen. As there is a lack of documentary evidence for what was expected for a queen, this dissertation was forced to speculate when necessary. However, the documentation that does survive concerning Isabella allows for a cohesive assessment of her dowager period to be made.

Dowager queenship is complicated to define as there is little surviving evidence of what a dowager’s routine was expected to be thus, defining Isabella’s individuality as a dowager is hard to do. Queen dowagers were expected to lead a life of religion and seclusion with their only public appearances being major tournaments or royal feasts, yet it is evident that Isabella did not pertain to this and instead had an active role within the country. Comparison to Margaret of France is invaluable do to Margaret being the direct processor of Isabella to the role of queen dowager. Margaret, aunt to Isabella, led a much different retirement than her niece, choosing instead to live a private life and maintaining the reputation as an innocent passive woman. Thus, it may be concluded that Isabella’s interpretation of the role of a queen-dowager was much different and, with the closeness in time these two women performed these roles, it is probable that these differences were a result of different personalities instead of different limitations. Furthermore, queens were represented in media in one of two ways – as a jezebel or a pious advisor to the king, and these representations reflected the reputation of these women. Isabella unfortunately had received the reputation as a wicked, immoral woman which limited the amount of influence she could bestow upon the king. Therefore, while it may not be conclusively determined that Isabella was unique as a dowager queen, it is evident that she at least broke the boundaries expected of her.

Her role in the minority government of Edward III (1327-1330) caused much distrust between herself, her son, and the country and, as a result, Isabella spent the first two years of her retirement as a prisoner in her own home. During this period, she shared power over the government with her paramour, Roger Mortimer, leading to numerous debates in regard to who in this couple was truly in power. This dissertation determines that the two were equally responsible for the country despite only Mortimer being charged for their crimes as Edward couldn’t try his own mother due to her link to the French throne as well as an emotional attachment towards her. Likewise, if Isabella had been solely manipulated by Mortimer she would not have been punished by her son immediately after his coup and neither would she have received the lasting reputation of being a ‘she-wolf’ that remains to the present day. Additionally, Isabella is described in chronicles as ruling for Edward III and its presented as instigating the deposition thereby it seems unlikely that Mortimer would have held the entire power within the government. Furthermore, queen dowagers were expected to fulfill a leadership role in a minority government as they were considered great advisor to the king and less of a liability than male relatives who may have had their own claim to the throne. Thus, Isabella’s governance over the country in this period may not be considered unique.

After the Nottingham Coup of 1330, Isabella was reported to live a life of embarrassment and imprisonment yet, from her household records and her presence of her in Rolls of Parliament, it is evident that these reports were untrue. Like other dowagers, Isabella invested much time and money into culture, religious institutions and charity work. Such benefaction was importance for her own religious beliefs and interests but moreover as an instrument to heal her damaged reputation. Alternatively, Isabella and Philippa never had a close relationship as was traditional between queens, but this distance was likely the result of Philippa wishing to remove herself from Isabella’s reputation as the two do not seem to have any malice between them. Moreover, Isabella defied expectations by playing a role within the politics of the country (albeit heavily reduced since her role in the minority government). The damage done to her relationship with her son during the minority period was quickly repaired, leading to a cordial relationship between the two and allowed for her to influence politics as she had done before. In foreign matters, she aided Edward in discussions with her family in France, thus becoming a useful asset for her son to use in peace negotiations in the latter years of her life. Isabella likewise interfered in domestic politics with her name being mention on various petitions towards the king yet, like with foreign diplomacy, this influence was greatly abridged from before. Thereby, in some ways Isabella complied to what was expected of her as a dowager, but she evidently extended these boundaries without exceeding her role.

Isabella of France was a formidable, manipulative woman who used her own wit to further the power the role of a dowager queen traditionally had. When given the opportunity, Isabella commandeered the minority government with her paramour and ruled the country for three years only to be removed by a coup from the king himself. Furthermore, Isabella managed to rebuild a relationship with her son after he had punished her so heavily, allowing her to reenter the world of politics and impact major peace treaties. Thus, as Hilton aptly states, Isabella was ‘she was rather a magnificent queen’ who, as this dissertation presents, maintained a presence within society despite committing the faux pas of overthrowing a king, committing adultery and abusing her power as a leader of a minority period. Such actions could only be conducted by someone with impressive strategic and social skills and thereby Isabella is clearly one of the most remarkable and competent queens within British history.


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