Arthur of Brittany, Count of La Marche, Henry III of England, Hugh IX of Lusignan, Hugh X of Lusignan, Isabella of Angouleme, Isabella of Gloucester, King John of England, King Philippe II of France, Richard I of England
Isabella (c. 1186/ 1188 – June 4, 1246) was Queen of England, as the second wife of King John of England, from 1200 to 1216, and Countess of Angoulême in her own right from 1202 until her death in 1246.
Isabella was the only daughter and heir of Aymer Taillefer, Count of Angoulême, by Alice of Courtenay, who was a sister of Peter II of Courtenay, Latin Emperor of Constantinople. Alice and Peter II were grandchildren of King Louis VI of France through their father Peter I of Courtenay.
Isabella became Countess of Angoulême in her own right on June 16, 1202, by which time she was already queen of England.
When King Richard I of England died, his younger brother John, claimed the throne as the son of King Henry II of England. The other to claim the throne of England was Arthur I, Duke of Brittany, nephew of John and the son of John’s older brother. Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany.
Neither side was keen to continue the conflict, and following a papal truce the two leaders met in January 1200 to negotiate possible terms for peace. From John’s perspective, what then followed represented an opportunity to stabilize control over his continental possessions and produce a lasting peace with Philippe II of France in Paris.
John and Philippe II negotiated the May 1200 Treaty of Le Goulet; by this treaty, Philippe II recognized John as the rightful heir to Richard in respect to his French possessions, temporarily abandoning the wider claims of his client, Arthur of Brittany.
John, in turn, abandoned Richard’s former policy of containing Philippe II through alliances with Flanders and Boulogne, and accepted Philippe II’s right as the legitimate feudal overlord of John’s lands in France. John’s policy earned him the disrespectful title of “John Softsword” from some English chroniclers, who contrasted his behaviour with his more aggressive brother, Richard.
In order to remarry, John first needed to abandon his wife Isabella, Countess of Gloucester; the King accomplished this by arguing that he had failed to get the necessary papal dispensation to marry the Countess in the first place—as a cousin, John could not have legally wedded her without this.
It remains unclear why John chose to marry Isabella of Angoulême. Contemporary chroniclers argued that John had fallen deeply in love with her, and John may have been motivated by desire for an apparently beautiful, if rather young, girl.
On the other hand, the Angoumois lands that came with her were strategically vital to John: by marrying Isabella, John was acquiring a key land route between Poitou and Gascony, which significantly strengthened his grip on Aquitaine.
Isabella, however, was already engaged to Hugh IX of Lusignan, an important member of a key Poitou noble family and brother of Raoul I, Count of Eu, who possessed lands along the sensitive eastern Normandy border.
Just as John stood to benefit strategically from marrying Isabella, so the marriage threatened the interests of the Lusignans, whose own lands currently provided the key route for royal goods and troops across Aquitaine. Rather than negotiating some form of compensation, John treated Hugh “with contempt”; this resulted in a Lusignan uprising that was promptly crushed by John, who also intervened to suppress Raoul in Normandy.
King John officially married Isabella, Countess of Angoulême on August 24, 1200.
As a result of John’s temerity in taking her as his second wife, King Philippe II of France confiscated all of their French lands. War recommenced in the aftermath of John’s decision to marry Isabella of Angoulême.
At the time of her marriage to John, the blonde-haired blue-eyed Isabella was already renowned by some for her beauty and has sometimes been called the Helen of the Middle Ages by historians. Isabella was much younger than her husband and possessed a volatile temper similar to his own.
King John was infatuated with his young, beautiful wife; however, his acquisition of her had at least as much to do with spiting his enemies as romantic love.
It was said that he neglected his state affairs to spend time with Isabella, often remaining in bed with her until noon. However, these were rumors spread by John’s enemies to discredit him as a weak and grossly irresponsible ruler, given that at the time John was engaging in a desperate war against King Philippe II of France to hold on to the remaining Plantagenet duchies. The common people began to term her a “siren” or “Messalina” for her allure. Her mother-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine, readily accepted her as John’s wife.
On October 1, 1207, at Winchester Castle, Isabella gave birth to a son and heir, the future King Henry III of England, who was named after his grandfather King Henry II. He was quickly followed by another son, Richard, and three daughters: Joan, Isabella and Eleanor. All five children survived into adulthood and made illustrious marriages; all but Joan produced offspring of their own.
Isabella had five children by the king, including his heir, later Henry III.
When King John died on October 19, 1216, Isabella’s first act was to arrange the speedy coronation of her nine-year-old son at the city of Gloucester on October 28. As the royal crown had recently been lost in the Wash, along with the rest of King John’s treasure, she supplied her own golden circlet to be used in lieu of a crown.
The following July, less than a year after his crowning as King Henry III of England, she left him in the care of his regent, William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, and returned to France to assume control of her inheritance of Angoulême.
In the spring of 1220, Isabella married Hugh X of Lusignan, “le Brun”, Seigneur de Luisignan, Count of La Marche, the son of her former fiancé, Hugh IX, to whom she had been betrothed before her marriage to King John. It had been previously arranged that her eldest daughter Joan should marry Hugh, and the little girl was being brought up at the Lusignan court in preparation for her marriage.
Hugh, however, upon seeing Isabella, whose beauty had not diminished, preferred the girl’s mother. Joan was provided with another husband, King Alexander II of Scotland, whom she wed in 1221.
Isabella and Hugh X of Lusignan, Count of La Marche, had another nine children.
Isabella encouraged her son, King Henry III in his invasion of Normandy in 1230, but then did not provide him the support she had promised.
Some of Isabella’s contemporaries, as well as later writers, claim that Isabella formed a conspiracy against King Louis IX of France in 1241, after being publicly snubbed by his mother, Blanche of Castile, for whom she harbored a deep-seated hatred.
In 1244 two royal cooks were arrested for attempting to poison the King Louis IX; upon questioning they confessed to having been in Isabella’s pay.
After the plot had failed, Isabella was accused of attempting to poison the king. Before Isabella could be taken into custody, she sought refuge in Fontevraud Abbey, where she died two years later, on June 4, 1246. However, none of this can be confirmed.
By Isabella’s own prior arrangement, she was first buried in the abbey’s churchyard as an act of repentance for her many misdeeds. On a visit to Fontevraud, her son King Henry III of England was shocked to find her buried outside the abbey and ordered her immediately moved inside. She was finally placed beside Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Afterwards, most of her many Lusignan children, having few prospects in France, set sail for England and the court of Henry, their half-brother.