Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England

By Alison Weir

Ballantine. 487 pp. $27.95

Alison Weir's 10th work of historical biography, Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England, is the first full-length study of Isabella, daughter of Philip IV of France. It is meticulously researched and engagingly written, a highly readable tour de force that brings Queen Isabella vividly to life and proves that Isabella is a match for that other formidable female figure from medieval history, Eleanor of Aquitaine, subject of an earlier, best-selling book by Weir.

In spite of her reputation in her day as a considerable beauty of impressive intelligence, Isabella has been largely overlooked by history. By contrast, her husband, Edward II, King of England, is notorious. He is remembered for his public and passionate homosexual relationship with his court favorite, Piers Gaveston. Besotted with Gaveston to the point of political recklessness, Edward lavished a kingdom's worth of titles and riches upon him and neglected state business. Eventually deposed and replaced by his son Edward III, Edward II met a nasty end -- murdered in his prison cell by assassins who impaled him on a red-hot poker, smothered him with a featherbed and finished him off by placing a table on top of him and stamping on it until he expired.

In Queen Isabella, Weir painstakingly uncovers the private and public life of Edward II's long-suffering wife and consort. Betrothed to Edward at the age of 7, married to him at 12 and neglected by him in favor of his "minion," Gaveston, Isabella nevertheless grew up to become a formidable power within the land. She had been forced to play politics from girlhood in order to protect her position and secure the income and estates to which she was entitled (even before the wedding celebrations were over, Gaveston was wearing the fabulous jewels presented by the King of France and intended for Isabella). By her twenties, she was as adept at manipulating events and policy as any of the warring nobles surrounding Edward.

In his sensational stage version of Edward II's reign, Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare's contemporary, dramatized Isabella's relationship with her husband as a stereotype of the wronged wife:

O miserable and distressed Queen! . . .

Like frantic Juno will I fill the earth

With ghastly murmur of my sighs and cries;

For never doted Jove on Ganymede

So much as he on cursed Gaveston.

Weir's richly documented narrative firmly discards any such simplistic, caricatured version of the royal partnership. Even before Gaveston was murdered by the king's enemies in 1312, she argues, Edward had developed considerable respect for his young wife. She was "tenacious, resolute, strong-willed, and intelligent -- 'all that is prudent, amiable and feminine,' according to one chronicler. . . . Time would prove her to be a capable woman who, in a later age, would have early on obtained recognition for her talents."

"Until the autumn of 1322," argues Weir, "there is no suggestion in any source that Isabella was anything but supportive of her husband, nor that he held her in anything other than high esteem. . . . She had proved herself a loyal and devoted wife, and he had treated her with honor, respect, and generosity." (Presumably she feels we should overlook domestic incidents like the wedding gems diverted to his lover.) Then Edward once again fell under the spell of a personable young man -- Hugh Despenser. This time, according to contemporary chroniclers, the adult Isabella complained publicly about the "intruder" in her marriage: "Someone has come between my husband and myself, trying to break this bond." Relations between the two deteriorated, while Despenser used his increasing influence with the King to undermine and abuse Isabella.

In 1325 the Queen persuaded the king to send her to France to negotiate a peace between her brother (the French king) and Edward. There she started an adulterous affair with Edward's most powerful English enemy, Roger Mortimer, and began openly to solicit support for military intervention to remove her husband from the throne of England in favor of her 12-year-old son. At 29, she was finally in a conventionally heterosexual relationship -- from all accounts she made little attempt to conceal the passionate nature of the attachment, and eventually the pope himself wrote to her expressing his deep disapproval. But Isabella remained resolute. With her young son at her side, she and Mortimer invaded England, easily overwhelming such support as there was for Edward's deeply unpopular regime and taking her husband prisoner. On January 24, 1327, they forced Edward II to abdicate. Since Edward III was still a minor, Isabella and Mortimer -- now Earl of March -- ruled on his behalf.

Weir is not happy with the traditional story of what happened next. The tale of the symbolic and unspeakable murder of Edward II is, she maintains, untrue. Or if it is true, Isabella knew nothing about it. Yet we know that Isabella was present when Edward's lover Despenser suffered a similarly "appropriate" death on the scaffold -- publicly castrated as a sodomite, before the ritual hanging, eviscerating and quartering that were customary punishment for a traitor.

Determined to rescue her heroine from the gossip and disparagement of history, Weir wants Isabella to retain compassion and dignity in spite of her flagrant adultery and probable involvement in her husband's murder. To help her case, Weir revives a now largely rejected story, current at the time, which claims that Edward was not murdered at all but escaped from prison and lived for many years in hiding, eventually dying in obscurity. She bases her argument (which exonerates Isabella from any blame) on a 14th-century letter sent to Edward III by an Italian priest. Her narrative, however, becomes uncharacteristically hesitant here, as the weight of the historical evidence she herself has assembled shows that this version of events is not really plausible.

Isabella emerges in this biography as a politically deft and intelligent protagonist, competent to intervene effectively in affairs of state. Weir makes a strong case for the historical importance of Isabella's decision to seize the English throne for her son, as the country slipped into chaos under her increasingly feckless husband's inadequate command. Though she cannot alter the record to make Isabella good and admirable, she does succeed in giving us an utterly compelling, gripping and believable portrait of a formidable medieval queen. *

Lisa Jardine is director of the Arts and Humanities Research Council Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, and Centenary Professor of Renaissance Studies, at Queen Mary, University of London.

Isabella (corbel in Beverley Minster, Yorkshire)Isabella (right) with her son Edward IIIIsabella sails with her army to England in 1326.