Isabella of Angoulême
Queen of England, 1200-1216
"A queen of high ambition and strong passions"
At fourteen, already a beauty, Isabella, daughter of the Count of Angoulême, was betrothed to Hugh IX de Lusignan, a powerful French noble. But in a last-minute switch that was probably engineered jointly by her parents and King John of England, she was wed to him instead. She was persuaded that it was far more exciting to be a queen than a countess.
Isabella gloried in the trappings and privileges of queenship. At first, she and John were infatuated with each other. Some of his subjects accused him of neglecting his kingly duties in order to lie abed with his wife. But in time Isabella became disillusioned by John's cruelty and infidelities. Love turned to distrust, then accusations of adultery and betrayal. After an increasingly stormy sixteen-year marriage and the birth of five children, John died in 1216.
Isabella looked forward to a long and controlling regency during the minority of her nine-year-old son, Henry. But she was far from popular with the English, who blamed her for many of the kingdom’s woes. The king’s council, fed up with her high-handed ways, sent her back to France.
At thirty-one, still strikingly beautiful and ever ambitious, she was far from ready to give up her position of power. She married Hugh X de Lusignan, son of the man she'd turned down twenty years ago. With her Angoulême and his extensive holdings, they controlled more of France than the king of France. The couple became obsessed with their desire to not only keep their joint realms intact, but to enlarge them. With every child born, they felt more secure in the continuity of their line.
They went into battle, now against the English, now against the French, always with the aim of consolidating their own power. Isabella was not afraid to take on King Louis of France himself. She induced her husband and her son Henry, now king of England, to join her in a disastrous rebellion against the superior French forces. Ignominy followed.. According to legend if not fact, her next plot was to poison the king. If there was such a plot, it failed.
Most of the contemporary chroniclers were highly critical of the countess, who still called herself a queen. More and more unpopular, and with Hugh less and less willing to cooperate in her audacious schemes, Isabella turned against her long-suffering husband. Possibly relieved, he went off to join the Crusade.
Isabella retired to Fontevraud Abbey, often a refuge for highborn ladies who wished to live out their lives in comfort and without worldly cares. One of the few people who remained devoted to her was her son, Henry III of England. And though the English continued to call her "John’s Jezebel," in France she came to be admired for her beauty and spirit. Henry saw to it that she was buried in Fontevraud next to her royal in-laws: King Henry, Queen Eleanor and King Richard the Lionheart.
Her effigy wears the crown of a queen of England, just as she would have wished.
Learn more about Queen Isabella:
Isabelle d'Angoulême, Comtesse-Reine, by Jean François Castaigne. Angoulême, 1836.
The Marriage and Coronation of Isabelle of Angoulême, by H. G. Richardson, in The English Historical Review, September 1946.
The Lusignans in England, 1247-1258, by Harold Snellgrove, in University of New Mexico Publications in History, #2, 1950.
Isabelle d'Angoulême, Reine d'Angleterre, by Sophie Fougère. Edit-France, 1998.