By Lane Sobehrad
Matthew Paris (d.1259) said in one of his chronicles of the history of England that, “she ought to be called a wicked Jezebel, rather than Isabel.” In the often moralizing medieval histories of the Victorian age, Agnes Strickland called her a “Helen of the Middle Ages.”
These rather provocative claims suggest that Isabelle of Angoulême is a remarkable historical figure, and I think that she is, but like many medieval women she has been overlooked by scholars both because of lack of evidence providing us details about her life and the difficulty in corroborating what evidence there is.
This is curious indeed, because she participated in or had an influence on a number events important to English and French medieval history. Her first husband, John, King of England (r.1199-1216) lost a significant amount of territory in continental Europe to Philip Augustus, King of France (r.1180-1223) during his reign. Isabelle accompanied him during most of these campaigns, and some chroniclers blame her for John’s failures because she allegedly kept him in the royal tent until noon everyday.
In fact, some chroniclers place England’s diplomatic struggles during John’s reign entirely on Isabelle’s shoulders. As a girl, she was betrothed to Hugh IX, Count of Lusignan (d.1219). However, when John was touring Lusignan after his coronation in 1199, he saw Isabelle and was immediately smitten by her beauty. John was the type to ignore political contracts when it suited his needs, and so he whisked her away to Angoulême where the couple was quickly married before returning to England for a formal crowning and anointing ceremony at Westminster. Hugh did not like this and complained to Philip Augustus about this breach of contract.
When John refused a summons to the French royal court in 1202, in part to answer Hugh’s complaint, Philip Augustus declared that the English had broken the treaty of La Goulet which had established peace between the English and French crowns two years prior. Whether or not Philip saw this as a good excuse to attack the English within the bounds of diplomacy is a reasonable counterargument in this series of events. But there was nothing explicit that suggests this was the case to medieval writers, and so history has placed Isabelle into the same category as Helen of Troy, who also started a war by breaking a marriage contract.
Early in his reign, John’s status as King of England was somewhat in question due to claims by his nephew Arthur of Brittany (d.1203?), son of his elder brother Geoffrey of Brittany (d.1186). A number of chronicles claim that it was Isabelle who convinced John to kill Arthur and remove him as a threat, though the circumstances of his death and disappearance are mysterious in and of themselves. John later exiled William de Braose, who had been guarding Arthur the night he disappeared, on the claim that he had failed to pay his debts to the crown.
But it was not a simple tax issue. John sent armed parties in an attempt to capture William after his wife was overheard claiming to a group of noblewomen that John had killed Arthur. Matthew Paris suggests that John was led to make bad decisions like this due to the feminine wiles of Isabelle, who like Jezebel in the Old Testament story convinced her husband, the King to abuse his royal power and kill those who stood in his way. It was Isabelle who convinced John to try one more time to retake Normandy, resulting in the disastrous Battle of Bouvines in 1214.
Similarly, during the reign of her son, Henry III, King of England (r.1216-1272) Isabelle wrote letters urging him to support his stepfather, Hugh X, Count of Lusignan (son of Hugh IX, who she was betrothed to as a girl) in his revolt against Louis IX in order to retake their continental holdings in Normandy and Poitou. This ended disastrously, too, when Hugh switched sides shortly after Henry’s forces arrived. Henry was surrounded by French forces at the Battle of Taillebourg in 1242 and barely made his escape.
Afterwards, Isabelle sent the children from her second marriage to live at court with their half-brother. These half-siblings and their associates were given large estates and allowances, and they were blamed for a number of the perceived missteps Henry III took during his reign that eventually resulted in the Second Baron’s War. More than that, her youngest daughter Eleanor had secretly married Simon de Montfort, who led the barons’ rebellion against Henry III.
Isabelle’s experiences and those of her children are a testament to the convoluted nature of medieval noble families and politics in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries — a prime example is that not only did Isabelle marry the son of the man she had previously been betrothed to, but Hugh X was betrothed to Isabelle’s daughter Joan prior to their marriage. One has to wonder if Isabelle purposefully sought out marriages that were to her personal advantage and used them to pursue her own goals, an idea made even more intriguing by a frustrating lack of evidence. She was, after all, the sole heir to her father’s estate in Angoulême, located within the duchy of Aquitaine. John’s mother Eleanor had died in 1204, leaving the duchy to him. The headlinegrabbing question is, then, did Isabelle use her husbands (both John and Hugh) and children in an attempt to exert greater influence in the region, albeit unsuccessfully?
It is not clear whether Isabelle was the scheming manipulator described in the chronicles, or if she was used as an easy scapegoat because the authors did not want to lay all of the blame on their king. There is simply not enough evidence to make a reasonable conclusion. However, she was a member of the de Courtenay crusader family, who had ruled the county of Edessa. She was also a second-cousin to Philip Augustus. This made her a pretty good marriage prospect for any medieval nobleman.
At the same time, her betrothal to Hugh IX was potentially problematic to the English crown’s interests in the region. Hugh and his family had revolted against the English at least seven times in the last fifty years, and adding Angoulême to their territory would have seriously jeopardized English trade routes south into Gascony and their overall control of the duchy of Aquitaine.
At the same time, almost universally, contemporary writers were unabashed in their criticisms of John, so perhaps his wife’s criticisms warrant a begrudging acknowledgment. At the least we should take Nicholas Vincent, Isabelle’s biographer in the Dictionary of National Biography seriously that, “Historians of the reign of King John and of his son, Henry III, would do well to…accord Isabella, John’s Jezebel, the respect that is properly her due.”
Lane Sobehrad is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Texas Tech University