Monday 3 September 2012

The Uncrowned Queen of Ireland: The Life of Isabel of Gloucester

"And if his name be George, I'll call him Peter;
For new-made honour doth forget men's names."
- From William Shakespeare's King John

Isabel of Gloucester was the first woman since 1066 to marry a future king of England, who never became queen herself. She shares that rather sad honour with only four other women in English history - the aristocratic Mary de Bohun, who died before her husband seized the throne as Henry IV in 1399; the feisty Lady Anne Hyde, the mother of Mary II, who died whilst her husband (the last Catholic King of Britain) was still Duke of York; Sophia-Dorothea of Celle, who was divorced and imprisoned in a grim German castle on grounds of adultery, long before her equally-adulterous husband became King George I in 1714 and, of course, one expects, the late Princess Diana, who was divorced and subsequently died in a tragic car crash when her ex-husband is still heir-apparent.

Isabel of Gloucester has more in common with Sophia-Dorothea and Diana than she does with Mary de Bohun and Anne Hyde. Like them, the reason she never made it onto the consort's throne was because she was divorced, not because she died prematurely. Isabel had no say in her divorce, nor in her life after it. In many ways, Isabel's story is a sad reflection of the stultifying and miserable lives that many medieval women were forced to lead - particularly the women of the upper classes. Although they, theoretically, lived lives of far greater comfort than the vast majority of the population, their bodies were so integral to the merger and acquisition of aristocratic lands and assets that most daughters of the nobility were shuttled around depending on their menfolk's whims and political aspirations. For a very long time, there was a pervasive view amongst male historians that the royal and aristocratic women of the Middle Ages had been nothing more than "animated title deeds." And whilst glamorous or tenacious queens like Eleanor of Aquitaine, Marguerite of Anjou, Matilda of Scotland and Matilda of Boulogne might suggest that this is far too simple a view, the lives of women like Isabel of Gloucester indicate that in many ways it's a grim but horrifically fair assessment of wealthy women's role in medieval society.

For instance, despite the fact that she was one of the greatest heiresses of her generation and married to a future king, we are not even one hundred percent sure of Isabel's Christian name. In part, this was because of the multi-lingual nature of the English empire at the time and the Middle Ages' promiscuous attitude towards spelling, but at various points Isabel is referred to as Isabella, Isobel, Avisa, Joan, Eleanor, Hawise or Hawisa. She was born sometime around 1173, probably on one of her father's vast estates. It was a year of rebellion, in which the elder sons of King Henry II openly rebelled against their father's authority and attempted to carve out political careers for themselves. Henry's wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, sided with her boys against her husband, causing international scandal in the process. Isabel's father, William FitzRobert, Earl of Gloucester, was the King's cousin and he loyally sided with him to oppose the Queen and the princes. 

William, Earl of Gloucester was a grandson of the heroically fertile King Henry I, who had ruled England between 1100 and 1135. Unlike King Henry II, however, the Earl was not descended in the legitimate royal line. His father, Robert, had been one of Henry I's many bastards. (As another sign of how lowly women were esteemed, we have no idea who Robert's mother was - several women from Oxfordshire have been suggested, but so has a racy Welsh princess.) This generous dose of royal blood, coupled with his father's loyalty to Henry II's mother during the great civil war of the 1140s, meant that William of Gloucester stood high in the King's favour and he had managed to expand his considerable aristocratic holdings to become one of the great lords of the realm by the time of Isabel's birth. Through her father, the baby Isabel was not just related to the Royal Family, but also to some of the most powerful players in the Anglo-Norman nobility. Her uncle Roger was the Bishop of Worcester, her aunt Matilda was the phenomenally wealthy Countess of Chester and her late uncle Hamon had died a hero's death at the 1159 siege of Toulouse.

Isabel's mother was born Lady Hawisa de Beaumont, the daughter of the Anglo-French Earl of Leicester, who had served as England's de facto prime minister between 1155 and 1168. A powerful politician and a generous benefactor of the Church, Leicester's service to the King was yet another link between Isabel's family and the royals. Through him, Isabel was the niece of the current Earl of Leicester (earl then being the highest title available to the English aristocracy) and the Countess of Huntingdon and Northampton (whom Isabel may have been named after.) 

Despite her father's loyalty to the King during the princes' rebellion, for some reason Henry II began to regard the Earl of Gloucester with suspicion. Desperate to recover royal favour and to prove his loyalty to the regime, the Earl gave Bristol Castle (below) as a gift to the middle-aged monarch, when Isabel was about two years old. Of course, it says something for the Gloucesters' wealth that they were able to part with a castle and still remain one of the most affluent families in the empire. The gesture obviously worked, albeit temporarily, because a few years later Isabel's father accompanied the King on his journey to arbitrate a dispute between the kings of Navarre and Castile. There is some evidence, though, that he fell out of favour again and he was deliberately detained on the King's orders when the princes once again rebelled against their father. Whether this was because of the King's paranoia or because Gloucester had actually done something to justify his suspicions is hard to say.

We know very little about Isabel's childhood or her relationship with her parents, but it is safe to hazard the guess that she would have come as a disappointment to them. Isabel's only brother, Robert, had died before she was born and without a male heir, Lord Gloucester had been forced to negotiate a deal with the King, which would see all of the Gloucesters' vast wealth devolve to the Crown once the Earl passed away. Henry II's youngest, and favourite, son was Prince John, later enshrined as a villain in the Robin Hood legends. With the eldest son due to inherit his father's kingdoms in England and Normandy, the second set to inherit the Queen's ancestral duchy in the Aquitaine and the third married off to the heiress to the duchy of Brittany, King Henry was anxious to provide an inheritance for his youngest son, who was already being cruelly nicknamed "Lackland" by snickering courtiers. The Gloucester inheritance was perfect, because it would turn Prince John into a great magnate in his own right. The agreement hammered out between the King and the Earl therefore prepared the way for John to inherit everything when the Earl died, in return for marrying one of the Earl's three daughters - Mabel, Alice or Isabel.

Why Isabel was picked over her sisters to marry Prince John is anybody's guess, but the two were engaged when Isabel was only about three years-old. Isabel was quite probably the eldest of the three girls, since it is hard to believe that anything like her looks or personality would have influenced the royals in what was, essentially, a balance transfer. Her father died when she was about ten years old, leaving the lion's share of the inheritance to the de facto male heir, Prince John. Mabel later married the Seigneur de Montfort and Alice married the Earl of Hertford.

Worn out by work and heartbreak, Henry II died in July 1189 and his son Richard ascended the throne to go down in royal legend as "Richard the Lionheart." In the time since Isabel's father died, two of the King's other sons - Henry and Geoffrey - had also died, meaning that in 1189 the only two left were now King Richard and Isabel's husband-to-be, Prince John. If Richard did not produce a son, and there may have been reasons why John knew this was likely, then there was a very good chance that John would be the next King of England. However, John was fearful that he might be passed over in favour of Arthur, son of his late brother Geoffrey. It was vital therefore that he locked-down his position as a great power player, so that when the time came he would have the connections and resources necessary to defeat Arthur's claim. To this end, he married Isabel in a hasty ceremony at Marlborough Castle on 29th August 1189. He was twenty-two; she was about sixteen. 

Like most areas of Prince John's private life, his marriage to Isabel of Gloucester caused an immediate scandal. The two shared a common great-grandfather, in the form of King Henry I, and as such they were second cousins, which put them within the prohibited degrees of affinity. They could not legally marry one another without a dispensation from the Vatican. The Archbishop of Canterbury's heckles were raised and he demanded that John appear before an ecclesiastical court to justify himself; John, who had little to no respect for the Church, refused. The Pope, Clement III, was also less than impressed, but the Church's attempt to force John to recant for not going through the proper channels petered out when the Archbishop of Canterbury died before the court could convene.

Isabel's husband has been described as "cruel, miserly, extortionate, duplicitous, treacherous, mendacious, suspicious, secretive, paranoid and lecherous" by one of his most recent biographers. Unfortunately, there's very little to query in that assessment. John does seem to have been an unrelentingly awful human being, who used and discarded everyone around him. His treatment of Isabel was typical of his calculated selfishness. Curiously for a man who had ignored or bullied so many of his other, talented, children, the late King had adored John and done everything in his power to give him the kind of royal career that he was neither morally nor intellectually equipped for. The plans to make him the next Earl of Gloucester, through Isabel, had only been one stage of that plan. Henry had also made John Count of Mortain in Normandy, but he had been thwarted twice in giving him a kingdom of his own. In 1183, the same year as Isabel's father died, Henry had wanted to make John ruler of the Aquitaine. But this was vehemently opposed by both Prince Richard, who knew the Aquitaine well, and by John's own mother, who was its hereditary ruler. Two years later, with the English conquest of Ireland rapidly drawing to its conclusion, Henry had toyed with the idea of making John king of a semi-independent Ireland. 

It's fascinating to conjecture what might have happened had Henry II got his way in 1185 and made John the first king of a unified and (theoretically) independent Ireland. Isabel might have become its first queen. Preparations were already underway when John was given the title "Lord of Ireland" and sent over to the island with three hundred knights. His visit, like his life, was an unmitigated disaster. Not for the last time in Irish history, the arriving English authority managed to annoy everyone. John offended the old Gaelic aristocracy by laughing at their long beards, language and clothes; he ticked-off the new Anglo-Norman settlers by interfering in a very delicate political situation; he tried to play both types of aristocracy off against one another; he riled the English viceroy, the Lord of Meath, by blaming everything on him and he generally managed to irritate, or outage, everybody around him. No-one in Ireland can have been too devastated when Pope Lucius III refused to condone the King's madcap and sentimental scheme. 

Ireland was, however, still technically John's and not King Richard's when John became king in 1189. It was not his kingdom, but it was his fiefdom and if John had not eventually become king of England and merged them, it is interesting to surmise what might have happened to Ireland in the long run. 

For most of Isabel's early married life, she was technically the second lady in the kingdom. Pride of place still went to her seemingly-immortal mother-in-law, Eleanor, but with Richard's queen, Berengaria, having joined him on Crusade in the Holy Land, Isabel, as wife to the heir-presumptive, was the highest ranking woman in England after the Queen Mother. Yet despite her exalted status, she still remains curiously anonymous. She is mentioned in almost none of the surviving sources. John evidently had absolutely no regard for his wife and there is the quite sinister possibility that he had deliberately married Isabel without waiting for a dispensation from Rome because it was his long-term plan to get his hands on her inheritance and then to ditch her for a more advantageous marriage once he became king. After all, throughout the Middle Ages, the Vatican proved itself to have the supple flexibility of a practised gymnast when it came to the holy sacrament of marriage. Until they unexpectedly and disastrously dug their heels in about Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, the Papacy had facilitated hundreds of uncanonical marriages across the western European continent. There is absolutely no reason to suppose that Clement III would not have done the same for John and Isabel, if he had only been given the time. Viewed in this light, it seems quite clear that Prince John actually wanted there to be a question mark over the legality of his marriage to Isabel, which he could then exploit as and when he felt like it.

Signs that this was his ultimate plan first reared their head four years after the marriage, when John apparently considered divorcing Isabel in order to marry a younger sister of the King of France. John was currently intriguing with the French to exploit his brother's long absence from England and a match with Princess Alys would have further united the two scheming malcontents in their mission to eviscerate Richard's empire. Isabel's position as a member of the Royal Family was probably only saved when Richard unexpectedly return to England with his mother's help and publicly humiliated his brother by referring to his treasonous espionage as nothing more than the actions of a "child". All of John's lands and revenues were temporarily taken from his as punishment, with the exception of Ireland. Isabel remained Lady of Ireland by marriage and Countess of Gloucester by right of birth.

John's chance to ditch his pliant and wealthy bride came in April 1199, when King Richard was killed on military campaign in France. After a feverish scramble, John solidified his hold on the English throne at his nephew Arthur's expense and commenced his disastrous seventeen-year reign. One of the first things to go was Isabel, who had only been denied the crown of Ireland by the actions of the Pope but who was now  denied the crown of England by the actions of her own husband. John consulted with three compliant Norman bishops, who agreed with him that his marriage to Isabel had never been legal in the eyes of the Church. The new pope, the fiesty and autocratic Innocent III, was less than impressed that after a decade of marriage in defiance of Holy Church, the new King of England had all of a sudden decided to express his moral qualms. Isabel, however, either as the result of bullying or bribery, did not contest her husband's appeal and the Pope could do nothing to stop the annulment. By the end of August, she was no longer John's wife.

But even now, he would not let Isabel go. If he did, he let her lands go with her and this was something he did not want to do. Since she was technically an unwed, aristocratic female orphan, it was the monarchy's job to find a protector for her. Quite incredibly, John now appointed his ex-wife as his new ward. As her legal guardian (she was twenty-six), he would be able to continue managing (and exploiting) her estates. She also continued to live under John's eye, having been ignominiously shunted to one side to make way for a new queen.

That queen was initially expected to be one of the young daughters of King Sancho I of Portugal - most probably the Infanta Sancha. The pious Infanta was spared the undoubted trial of being John Plantagenet's wife when diplomatic circumstances closer to home forced him to abandon the proposed match. (Sancha joined a convent and was beatified, along with her elder sister Theresa, in the eighteenth century.) Determined to stop an alliance between the great aristocratic families of de Lusignan and d’Angoul√™me which would threaten his possessions in France, John resorted to kidnapping and, quite possibly, rape. The young daughter of the Comte d’Angoul√™me, Isabelle, was betrothed to Hugh de Lusignan family, but the marriage had not yet taken place because Isabelle was below the age of consent. Heedless of such sexual and moral concerns, John kidnapped Isabelle before she could marry Hugh and married her himself. The resultant outrage was so enormous that it eclipsed any of the concerns regarding incest which had greeted Isabel's wedding ten years earlier.

Having horrified most of his contemporaries with his second marriage, John then continued to raise more eyebrows by requiring his first wife to take care of his second. After the divorce, Isabel had been given her own household in Winchester, seventy miles outside London, and an annual allowance of eighty pounds per year. It was a generous allowance, but Isabel must have been humiliated to be asked to act as chaperone to her own replacement. When the new Queen finally fell pregnant six years later, Isabel had well and truly ceased to be useful to her ex. She and her servants were shipped off to Dorset and her allowance was cut back to fifty pounds. There, Isabel languished in forgotten obscurity, whilst she entered her thirties - too old to remarry and produce children by the standards of her era - and Queen Isabelle produced an heir to the throne, Henry, his brother Richard, and three princess, Joan, Isabella and Eleanor. 

Finally, in 1214, fifteen years after her first marriage had ended, King John finally found a replacement husband for his wife-turned-ward. He needed money and he coerced the Earl of Essex into parting with the enormous sum of twenty thousand marks in order to buy Isabel's hand in marriage. (This was another lucrative way in which the adoptive parents of orphaned aristocratic wards could make a proverbial killing.) Isabel was about thirty-seven years old by this stage and so it is laughable to suggest that Essex married her in the hope of producing children. Expanding his estates through hers was certainly the motivating factor, but even here John conspired to cheat his ex-wife. After she became the new Countess of Essex, he refused to sign over her most valuable manor, Bristol, which was a major part of her estate's income. 

By this stage, John's loathsome personality and political idiocy had combined to plunge the monarchy into the nadir of its respectability. The baronial class and the Church, the two stalwarts of monarchical rule, had turned against it and they were so sickened by John's shameless manipulation and embezzlement of them that they wanted to formally codify their rights in relation to the Crown's. The resultant document, the Magna Carta, was to become the foundation of future British democracy by establishing a firm contract between government and the governed. At the time, few seemed to be aware of its significance and it was preceded by an en-masse aristocratic rebellion against John's rule. Isabel and her new husband sided with the rebels.

The magnificently-named Geoffrey FitzGeoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex and now Earl of Gloucester suo uxoris, was about eighteen years younger than Isabel, which makes it even less likely that theirs was a love match. However, he does seem to have treated her more companionably than John ever had (admittedly, that wouldn't have been difficult.) They both seem to have been outraged by the King's refusal to hand-over Bristol to them. This was exactly the kind of overstepping of the law that the rebellion was trying to stop and it is therefore unsurprising that the Essexes supported it. Perhaps it is not too fanciful to hope that, after having seen her entire adult life wasted to suit John's monstrous selfishness, Isabel was able to take some pleasure in the humiliating ceremony at Runnymede, where John was forced to sign the Magna Carta in front of his triumphant subjects.

A year later, after only two years as a married woman again, Isabel became a widow when her husband Geoffrey was killed in a jousting tournament. Eight months later, King John died in Nottinghamshire at the age of forty-nine. His body was taken to the Cathedral of Christ and Blessed Mary the Virgin of Worcester, where Isabel's uncle had once held sway as bishop. He was succeeded on the throne by his nine year-old son from his second marriage, Henry III. Legend has it that he was so dainty that he had to be crowned with one of his mother's bracelets.

After a decent mourning period, Isabel married again. From this we might surmise that, left to her own devices, she would have followed her heart's inclination into matrimony long ago, if only John had not come into her life. Then again, that may be romantic supposition and Isabel's decision to marry again in 1217 may have been nothing more than a prudent desire by a wealthy aristocrat to find herself a male protector in an uncertain environment. Her third husband was Hubert de Burgh, the future Earl of Kent, and a man who had just been made Chief Justiciar of England. It was a job roughly comparable to that of the present-day prime minister and it was a post that Isabel's late grandfather, the Earl of Leicester, had held under Henry II. 

Hubert de Burgh was older than Isabel, rather than significantly younger as her second husband Geoffrey had been. This again suggests that she had little, or no, say in her second choice of husband and that the whole thing had been arranged by John to suit his own financial needs. De Burgh had established a reputation for military heroism whilst on Crusade with King Richard; he also already had two sons from his first marriage to the late Lady Beatrice de Warenne. About fifty-seven at the time he married Isabel, who was about fifty, the two were of roughly the same age, class and wealth. With Henry III being so young and the beauteous Queen Mother excluded from politics, Isabel found herself, for the second time in her life, married to one of the de facto rulers of England and Ireland.

Whether the marriage to Hubert would have proved happy in the end is unknowable. Isabel sickened shortly after the wedding and she died a month later on 14th October 1217, four days to a year since the death of King John. She was buried in Kent, her third husband's home county, in the great Canterbury Cathedral, which was rapidly becoming one of the largest pilgrimage site in England because it housed the bones of Thomas Becket, an archbishop slain by blasphemous knights during the reign of Henry II. Hubert outlived her by a quarter of a century, dying in his eighties, and holding on to his post as Chief Justiciar until 1232. He subsequently married a Scottish princess, called Margaret, by whom he had a daughter in his old age.

Isabel has lain in Canterbury Cathedral for the last eight centuries. The descendant and wife of kings, her great wealth and royal ancestry ironically reduced her to nothing more than chattel to be shunted around to suit other people's agenda. Her entire adult life was stolen from her by the selfish and duplicitous man she had the terrible luck to be engaged to at the age of three. When she married John, he was the technical ruler of Ireland and, because of his brother's absence in the Holy Land, one of the most powerful men in England; her third husband, Hubert de Burgh, wielded similar power during the youth of John's son, King Henry III. And yet, for all her proximity to power, we know almost nothing about Isabel. We don't know what this woman looked like, what her interests were, how she felt, whom she loved, what she wanted from life. Of all the women who married into the British royal families, none is more silent nor more enigmatic than poor Isabel. She might have been the first Queen of England to be born in England since before the Conquest of 1066. She might have been the first Queen of Ireland. She might have been the mother of future kings.

And perhaps that should be the sad epitaph not just of Isabel but of thousands of aristocratic women like her: she might.


  1. Did you decide to stop writing this series? It is absolutely fascinating :)

  2. I believe SHE is the mysterious mother of Joan of Wales (supposedly "illegitimate daughter of King John). It only makes sense - if she had Joan, and was unable to have any more children, John, needing an heir, had the marriage annulled. The annulment would have then made Joan illegitimate. But the Pope (because the catholic church annulled the marriage ) later legitimized Joan. She had no other children after that even though she was still young and remarried.

  3. I have recently visited Canterbury Cathedral and could find no evidence of her tomb or anyone who know of one?

  4. Hi Zoe,

    That's unfortunate, but not necessarily unusual. Isobel would have been listed there as Isobel or Isabella de Burgh, Countess of Gloucester or countess of Essex, when she was buried there in 1217 and all accounts of her internment specify that she was buried at Christ Church Cathedral, Canterbury, despite dying allegedly at the Augustinian abbey at Keynsham near Bristol. It is of course possible that all these sources are wrong, and I must stress that there is no alternate place of burial raised in any subsequent account that I have seen, but it is also possible that her tomb lay in the abbey of the cathedral and was thus destroyed or lost during the Dissolution or, less probably, during the civil war.

  5. Hi, this was an extremely interesting article and the most information I've found about Isabel! I am writing a report about King John and I wanted to include one thing you said about Isabel – how she had to chaperone Isabella – but I wanted to ask where you found that out? Not to imply that you invented this idea or poorly researched it, or anything of that sort, but I've found so little information about Isabel that nothing else confirms (or denies) that. So I wondered what sources you've found that say she was Isabella's chaperone?

    1. Hi, thanks for your comment and I'm glad you found the article interesting!

      Isabel maintained Isabella as a chaperone at her household, which was based at Winchester, until about 1206/1207. Until then, Isabel was paid £80 a year by the King, but the income was then cut and Lisa Hilton argues that the extra income in 1205 and 1206 was for Queen Isabella's upkeep. The evidence for the young Queen living in the household of her husband's ex-wife is expanded upon in chapter 7 of Lisa Hilton's book, "Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens." Hope this helps!


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