1292 - 1358
King Henry the Sixth: Act 1
"She-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of France,
Whose tongue more poisons than the adder's tooth!
How ill-beseeming is it in thy sex
To triumph, like an Amazonian trull,
Upon their woes whom fortune captivates!
But that thy face is, vizard-like, unchanging,
Made impudent with use of evil deeds,
I would assay, proud queen, to make thee blush.
To tell thee whence thou camest, of whom derived,
Were shame enough to shame thee, wert thou not shameless.
Thy father bears the type of King of Naples,
Of both the Sicils and Jerusalem,
Yet not so wealthy as an English yeoman.
Hath that poor monarch taught thee to insult?
It needs not, nor it boots thee not, proud queen,
Unless the adage must be verified,
That beggars mounted run their horse to death.
'Tis beauty that doth oft make women proud;
But, God he knows, thy share thereof is small:
'Tis virtue that doth make them most admired;
The contrary doth make thee wonder'd at:
'Tis government that makes them seem divine;
The want thereof makes thee abominable:
Thou art as opposite to every good
As the Antipodes are unto us,
Or as the south to the septentrion.
O tiger's heart wrapt in a woman's hide!
How couldst thou drain the life-blood of the child,
To bid the father wipe his eyes withal,
And yet be seen to bear a woman's face?
Women are soft, mild, pitiful and flexible;
Thou stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless.
Bids't thou me rage? why, now thou hast thy wish:
Wouldst have me weep? why, now thou hast thy will:
For raging wind blows up incessant showers,
And when the rage allays, the rain begins.
These tears are my sweet Rutland's obsequies:
And every drop cries vengeance for his death,
'Gainst thee, fell Clifford, and thee, false
Entre chien et loup"
Queen Isabella wasn't always the "she-wolf" that she later came to be called by a disgruntled British populace. By all accounts she was said to have been fair in appearance, a competent mediator and an accomplished diplomat. Her recent portrayal as William Wallace's love interest in "Braveheart" was amusing but highly unlikely. The film takes place in 1305 and Isabella did not arrive in England until 1308 when she was barely twelve.
Isabella was the daughter of King Philip IV of France and Joanna of Navarre. She was the sister of three French Kings: Louis X, Philip V, and Charles IV. In 1308, when Isabella was twelve years old, her father, King Philip IV of France, married her to King Edward II of England, who was twice her age. This was her bad luck.
Newly crowned King Edward II of England had been raised strictly by the terrifying figure of his father; Edward I, who was the greatest and most feared warrior in the Plantagenet line. When Edward I died at 69, his son was 23, and ready to enjoy himself. As a teenager, Edward had fallen in love with Piers Gaveston, a handsome, slightly older knight from Gascony. Unfortunately, Edward wanted nothing more than to give everything he had to Gaveston. Although Edward was tall, golden-haired and attractive, he was not prepared to pay much attention to his young wife. Edward I had prevented his son's infatuation with Gaveston by banishing him, but when Edward II became king, he immediately brought Gaveston back, made him Earl of Cornwall, and gave him his niece in marriage. Gaveston became Edward's principal advisor and "closest" friendno doubt a profitable position.
Before sending her off to her new home in England, Isabella's father, Phillip, gave her a sumptuous wedding present consisting of jewelry plus gold equal in value to the revenue of two French counties. Isabella's first introduction to Gaveston and England took place at Dover, where her husband was said to have strewn her wedding jewelry at his lover's feet. The humiliation she endured would not easily be forgotten and from that day forth Isabella's hatred of Gaveston was surpassed only by the fury of the English barons once they discovered what Edward had done.
The barons were furious and indignant. They wanted their share of the king's gifts and were of the opinion that only nobly born Englishmen-themselves-should have the honor to advise the king. They disliked Frenchmen and they absolutely detested Piers who made a show of the king's obvious favoritism at every turn. His dashing appearance coupled with his beautiful clothes, style and elegance made him a powerful figure at court. Worst of all, however, Gaveston was an experienced and skillful knight that few could best. The barons wanted desperately to beat him at tournaments, but instead Gaveston was always victorious and went as far as to laugh and humiliate the defeated nobles.
Isabella detested Gaveston and her indifferent husband. She wrote to her father, "I am the most wretched of wives," and told him that the King was "an entire stranger to my bed." When the poet Marlowe wrote a play about her husband 300 years later, he has her moan "... the king regards me not, but doats upon the love of Gaveston." Still, there was little Phillip could do.
Edward increasingly antagonized the English nobles over his choice of company and it was during such times that Isabella acted as a mediator between Edward and the barons. Eventually, however, even Isabella's charismatic attempts to soothe the nobles fell on deaf ears. The barons united against Gaveston, and demanded that he be banished from England. Edward did so, twice, but each time called Piers back as soon as the lords stopped nagging him. In 1312 the nobility finally lost their patience with the king's lack of action and took matters into their own hands resulting in Gaveston's execution.
Despite their estranged relationship, the royal family rebounded after Gaveston's death. That same year Isabella gave birth to an heir to the throne, later to be Edward III. Between 1312 and 1321 four children were born and although "happiness" is not a term that would apply to their marriage, there was, at least, a semblance of stability in their private lives. Unfortunately, their frail peace was too good to last and 1321 found the king chasing not one, but two men!
This time it was a father and son team, both barons, both named Hugh Despenser from the Welch Marshes that caught Ed's frivolous eye. Although the Despensers did not have an amorous relationship with the king, they managed to worm themselves into royal favor through copious flattery and brownosing. They were greedy and grasping; thirsty to amass wealth and importance and some said that they led the king "like a cat after a straw." Edward lavished upon them gifts of gold, jewels and property and to everyone's dissatisfaction, eventually let them run the government. Hugh and his father ran the government capably to benefit themselves first and the kingdom second. They even fired Isabella's French servants to save money for themselves. By 1321 the barons were urging Edward to banish the Despensers of whom they were wildly jealous. He did for a short time, but then recalled them when the pressure was off.
The Despensers disliked Isabella as much as she disliked them. They gossiped that she might be a French spy and worked hard to keep her on a very short leash. They watched her everywhere she went and after firing her servants installed Lady Despenser as her "housekeeper" who spent much of her time going through Isabella's mail and personal belongings. Apparently they didn't watch her close enough, because Isabella found ample time to have a love affair with a major enemy of the King, a Welsh baron, Roger Mortimer of Wigmore.
Mortimer was a prisoner in the Tower of London, which at this time was the principal residence of the royal family. In 1323 Mortimer made a spectacular escape from the Tower. He dug a hole through the wall of his room, passed the guards (who had been drugged), went over the wall with a rope ladder, crossed the moat, and went off to France on a boat which waited for him on the Thames. Since most prisons do not offer the prisoners holes in their walls, drugged guards, and rope ladders, many historians surmise that the Queen had lent a helping hand, but her infatuated husband was blind to this possibility. Instead, Edward was preoccupied with a series of events that endangered British territory.
France had built a legitimate fortification on the border of land owned by the British. An English noble, acting out of his own volition made the grave mistake of attacking the French fortification and hanging the French commander causing an international standoff. Edward sent the blundering Earl of Kent as an emissary to soothe the French, but the diplomatic mission went so bad that France annexed the two lands in question (Gascony and Ponthieu). Gascony in particular yielded a revenue greater than the English Crown and Edward was not about to just "give" it to the French. The Earl of Penbroke was sent in to negotiate with the French but he was struck by a sudden illness upon arrival and Edward's chances of reacquiring the two French counties seemed bleak.
The King of France, called upon Edward to come to France immediately and do homage for the French possessions of the English crown, but Edward did not want to leave England. If he left his favorites, the Despensers, to run the country, he was afraid of what the barons would do to them; if he took the Despensers, he was afraid of what the barons would do to the country. It was at this time that his wife, in a move that underestimated her cunning, suggested that she could coerce her brother, the present King of France, to return the two counties back to England. Since no one else seemed to have a better idea, and since the lands were crucial to England's monetary situation, Edward accepted Isabella's suggestion that she go as his ambassador: he had no use for her in England anyhow.
Isabella went and asked Edward to send their son so that he could do homage in his place. When the Prince arrived, Isabella managed to return Gascony and Ponthieu to England but refused to go back herself until Edward got rid of the Despensers. After two decades of putting up with her husband's infidelities, Isabella was tired. She was 29 and passionately in love with Mortimer with whom she reunited with in France. Edward wrote a series of pleading but insincere letters in an effort to convince Isabella to return. Then he changed his tactics and wrote more letters defending the Despensers and threatening to cut her off entirely. This was not a wise move. Isabella began to muster an army.
Edward sought assistance from all corners of England and practically begged nobles not to admit Isabella's army but the disgruntled populace turned the other cheek. In 1326 Isabella and her foreign troops landed in England 3000 strong. Isabella enjoyed quite a bit of popularity. She was seen as the long-suffering wife of an adulterous and weak minded king who's choice of company had been frowned upon by his people from the very beginning. Her popularity was so strong that she marched right on through from city to city amassing more and more locals on the way. By the time she arrived in London, the king fled west with Hugh Despenser (the younger) along with an ever diminishing set of supporters. He offered a reward of one thousand pounds for Mortimer's head but Isabella kicked it up a notch and offered two for Hugh Despenser's.
On November 16, 1326, Edward and Hugh were captured. Some accounts of Hugh's execution are pretty gruesome. Some say he was disemboweled and others speculate that his testicles were cut off. The older Despenser was captured in Bristol and thrown in the gallows. As for Edward, the crown was ripped from his incapable hands in a humiliating ceremony and given to his son. Soon afterwards Isabella and Mortimer declared that the king was mentally ill and used this excuse to throw him in the gallows of Berkley Castle where he was subject to all forms of indignities. He was given rotten food in a damp cell above the prison's morgue where the smell of rotting corpses would nauseate him. His strong Plantagenet body withstood all abuse and Mortimer began to fear that the dethroned king might become a figurehead for rebellion. In 1327 Edward was murdered by his jailers who thrust a red-hot poker through his anus. They were under orders from the Queen.
After Edward's death, Mortimer's power was unquestioned. Even Edward III,
the nominal king, could not prevent Mortimer from executing one of his uncles.
But in 1330 young Edward planned to rid himself of the arrogant Mortimer.
After Edward's death Isabella's popularity dwindled and she was resented by
many. Her son used this resentment to gather supporters against Mortimer.
In a brazen move, Edward and his friends entered Nottingham Castle, where
the Royal household was staying, through a secret tunnel and captured Mortimer.
As they wrenched him from the bedroom the Queen cried, "Have pity on
the gentle Mortimer." Others had never found him gentle, and so they
executed him. Edward III did not kill his mother, but she was forced to leave
the court. The last 28 years of her life were spent in quiet seclusion in
the English countryside under stern watch. And she was known forever after
as the She Wolf of France.
She-wolf of France, with unrelenting
That tearst the bowels of thy mangled mate.'
Gray: The Bard.