Isabella de Angouleme

There are plenty of English Queens with a great history. Isabella de Angouleme deserves a place on the list because of her unique story and the impact she had on one of the most successful Kings in our history, her son Henry III.

Isabella’s story starts somewhere between 1188 and 1191 in south-west France. She was the daughter of Alice Courtenay and Count Aymer Taillefer. Her noble birth earned her good looks and the right to rule the lands of Angouleme.

Promise

As with lots of noble girls in this period, her parents looked to find Isabella a good husband. Not needing to search too far their neighbour, Hugh of Lusignan, was originally chosen. However, the marriage had to wait until Isabella came of age. This delay also gave her father the chance to look for better offers.

The best opportunist offer came from John of Anjou, the youngest son of Eleanor of Aquitaine and brother to Richard, destined to become King of England. John’s goal was to gain a wife with lands to control. His marriage to Isabella de Angouleme went ahead on 24th August 1200, as John had succeeded Richard on his death in 1199, that made her Queen Eleanor of England. Embarrassing as there also existed two dowager queens of England. John and Richard’s father’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine was still active in the affairs of state, and Richard’s wife, Berengaria was also in the picture.

Answering the insult

Naturally Hugh of Lusignan was not pleased with John’s move. He made an appeal to the King of France about the matter. Philip II chose to confiscate John’s French lands.

What originally looked like a wise move from John now seemed like an opportunity to far. While he did gain the lands of Angouleme, he lost his own ancestral lands, a domain that was much larger. This began the break up of the Angevin Empire.

The Blame

John took a lot of the blame for the marriage and losing the lands. However, Isabella de Angouleme was also blamed. Rumours even began to spread that the 12 year old bride had used witchcraft to bewitch John.

Isabella de Angouleme – Queen of England

The relationship between John and Isabella was an interesting one. At first the royal couple led very separate lives. Isabella even lived with John’s former wife, Isabella of Gloucester, who he dumped in favour of the younger girl.

Isabella de Angouleme conceived her first child, Henry, six years after the couple wed. He was born on 1st October 1207. Amazingly, during the pregnancy John showed a different side of his character and doted on his wife. He even tried to reconcile the relationship between his wife and her half-brother. These actions are in stark contrast to John’s reputation as a villain.

After Henry, Isabella went on to have four more children. The first, Richard, came in 1209. The queen then had three daughters – Joan (1210), Isabella (1214) and Eleanor (1215). The children meant that John’s line was secure.

While family life was going well for the King, there were problems elsewhere. The loss of his French lands was a big blow. Added to other missteps, including with the Magna Carta, and it plunged England into war. John lost his life during the war in October 1216 after suffering with dysentery.

Amazingly, Isabella de Angouleme was not quite 30 when her husband died. More surprising, John did not mention her in his will and did not choose to give her a role in the government for their nine year old son, the new King Henry III.

The Embarrassing Mother

While she was Queen of England Isabella did not have power or money of her own. John’s decision not to give her a role in government meant her prospects as Queen Mother did not look any better.

Incredibly, in 1217 while England was still at war, Isabella chose to sail home to France, leaving her son in England with his advisors. She took her eldest daughter Joan with her, planning to have her marry Hugh of Lusignan, Count of La Marche, the son of the neighbour she was initially betrothed to as a child.

Isabella’s story took another twist in 1220 when she married Hugh du Lusignan instead of Joan. Her reasoning was that she wanted to save her daughter from the perils of early marriage and childbearing, something she had firsthand experience in. However, Isabella chose to bargain with the English government for Joan’s return. She got a financial settlement and her daughter returned home.

As you can see, Isabella de Angouleme has an amazing story. What is even more astonishing is that even though he was left without a mother at such a young age, Henry III became one of the longest reining kings in English history. He had the perfect advisors in William Marshal, Peter Des Roches, and Hugh de Burgh.

If you want to pay respects to Isabella you can visit her tomb at Fontevraux Abbey in France. The picture above is her effigy.

Read on

If you want to read more incredible stories about some of these characters, pick up Wars of the Magna Carta by Austin Hernon today. In addition, keep your eyes out for new books in the future where Henry III will be a central character.