Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Isabella, the Magna Carta queen

Behind the scenes of the Magna Carta was probably a right royal carry on. We may not know exactly what all the main players got up to away from the public eye as King John ceded to his barons but it won't have been pretty. And his consort, given her reputation and the way history has painted her, probably wasn't on hand to soothe and console her beleaguered husbad. For eight hundred years ago, England had a very cunning queen. Isabella of Angouleme might have been a young bride when she arrived as the wife of King John but she had an old head on her lovely shoulders.  John was already unpopular - little did he know that however much everyone hated him in 1200, things were only going to get worse - and his choice of wife didn't win him any friends or influence many people at all.  In fact, his obsession with Isabella - well charted, even at the time - became a stick with which to beat him.  Some queen consorts have made their husbands shine brighter.  Isabella helped him destroy his reign.

Isabella of Angouleme, Queen of England, managed to shock just about everyone she met during her time as consort

Isabella was very beautiful and about as crafty as they came.  She married John in 1200 when she was about 12 - a reasonable age for a royal bride by the standards of the day.  She did what all queen consorts were obliged to do and gave her husband first one son and heir and then a spare, not to mention 3 daughters who all made great marriages.  So far, so good for this gorgeous lost queen. But whether she tempted him away from his duties or whether she just placated the temper of a notoriously fickle and cross man, Isabella was held responsible for many for the king neglecting his duties to be with her instead.  But then given King John's reputation as a strategist and administrator - a very bad reputation - perhaps it was for the best that the king and queen kept away from court. Perhaps without Isabella, John's disastrous reign would have collapsed into the total mess it became even sooner.

Lea Seydoux as Isabella of Angouleme in Robin Hood

But probably not.  Because from the moment they met, the calamitous start to the king's rule became even more chaotic.  He annoyed the king of France, Philip II, so much by marrying Isaballa (who was meant to be marrying a French lord, Hugh de Lusignan) that the French monarch took away all John's holdings in the country starting yet more warfare.  And when John was dead and Isabella had her son, Henry, safely on the throne of England she came back to France and married Hugh de Lusignan - the son of the Hugh she was meant to have married all those years before and a man who was already promised to one of her own daughters.  How Isabella's reputation has survived through eight centuries without more of a savaging is a mystery.

No wonder he looks glum - King John's reign is widely regarded as one of the most disastrous in English royal history

Perhaps the reason is that she died with a huge cloud over her head and any more digging into her past would only have frayed relations between England and France further.  Isabella, having won herself a king then a kindgom for her son then a second handsome husband at the expense of her own daughter, decided that the mother of the French monarch wasn't being nice enough to her and became embroiled in a plot that eventually led to allegations she was trying to poison the ruler of France. Isabella fled to the abbey of Fontrevauld and died two years later ending the remarkable story of a young girl who should, by the standards of the day, have married well and enjoyed a comfortable life in her French lands but who took the advantages handed to her with both hands and cut a swathe through two kingdoms that no one else has managed since.  The Magna Carta queen takes some beating for excitement and cunning.

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