Sunday, May 06, 2007

Quickie Comment: Queen Isabella, by Alison Weir

Last night I finished reading a biography of Queen Isabella, a 14th century English queen. Isabella was a French princess who married King Edward II in 1308. She was 12 and he was 24. It's no surprise that Edward wasn't too interested in his child bride until she turned 16 or 17. They probably had little in common to talk about. Besides, notwithstanding the fact that they had four children, Edward's presumed homosexuality was not an asset to their marriage. As Isabella matured, she became a shrewd diplomat. Unfortunately, Edward did not share her skills. He became an incredibly awful ruler who let his allies run amok. Corruption and greed were the rules of the day during Edward's reign. Edward's international policies were as dismal as his domestic ones. Consequently, as relations between England as France deteriorated, Isabella traveled to France on a diplomatic mission to renew peace between the two nations. She also felt safer in France than she did in England, where she was at odds with Edward's powerful allies, and she extended her stay there as long as possible.

In France, Isabella became politically and sexually involved with Roger Mortimer, a member of the English nobility who was also in exile. Isabella and Mortimer invaded England, overthrew Edward II and had Isabella's teen-aged son, Edward III, proclaimed king. Since Edward III was still a minor, Isabella and Mortimer ruled as regents in his stead. As things turned out, Mortimer grew as greedy and corrupt as Edward II's cohorts. He even seems to have plotted the murder of Edward II, who was being held prisoner in a English castle.

Tradition has held that Edward was gruesomely disemboweled, but there is evidence that he may have escaped his prison, fled to the Continent and spent his remaining few years in various monasteries. Just before Edward III reached the age of majority, he overthrew Mortimer, who was tried and executed for his crimes. Isabella, fortunate to have avoided the gallows herself, spent her remaining years in retirement in England. She was closely guarded for the first couple of years, but the restrictions were gradually lifted. By the end of her life, she enjoyed cordial relations with her children and grandchildren and occasionally served as an advisor to Edward III, who is regarded as one of England's best kings.

Historians (primarily men) generally have judged Isabella very harshly. Well, it's easy to see why: she was smarter than her husband, she refused to let the men in her life abuse her, she possibly was sexually frustrated and did something about it, and she successfully planned and executed an invasion of England and the deposition of a king. She didn't stay barefoot in the kitchen, that's for sure. She was colorful and spunky, to say the least. If I could meet any historical figures, she'd be on my list, as would Eleanor of Aquitaine and Elizabeth I. England certainly has had some interesting queens!

I've read several of Alison Weir's books and she's definitely one of my favorite authors. She's a great historian/biographer and a wonderful writer whose books read like novels. If you don't think a history book or biography can be a page-turner, you have to read Weir's work. Queen Isabella is a good one with which to start.

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