Isabella of Angoulême, Queen of England

by Susan Flantzer

Isabella of Angoulême’s effigy; Photo Credit – Wikipedia

Isabella, Duchess of Angoulême (in her own right) and Queen of England (wife of King John) was born around 1188, probably in the County of Angoulême, today in southwest France. She was the only child of Aymer III, Count of Angoulême and Alice of Courtenay, a French noblewoman of the House of Courtenay and a granddaughter of King Louis VI of France.

When Isabella was 12 years old, she was betrothed to Hugh de Lusignan, the heir of Hugh IX de Lusignan, Count of La Marche. This marriage would have joined La Marche and Angoulême, and the de Lusignan family would then control a vast, rich and strategic territory between the two Plantagenet strongholds, Bordeaux and Poitier. To prevent this threat, King John of England decided to marry Isabella himself.  John had become king upon the death of his brother King Richard I in 1199. The same year, John had his ten year, childless marriage to Isabella, Countess of Gloucester (in her own right) annulled. Isabella of Angoulême’s parents had no objection to the marriage with the 34-year-old John.  After all, he was a king and their daughter would be a queen. Isabella and John were married on August 24, 1200, and then Isabella was crowned Queen of England on October 8, 1200 at Westminster Abbey.

Isabella and John had five children:

A 13th-century depiction of John and his legitimate children, (l to r) Henry, Richard, Isabella, Eleanor, and Joan; Credit – Wikipedia

King John of England; Credit – Wikipedia

Isabella’s father died in 1202, and she succeeded him as Countess of Angoulême in her own right. However, her title was largely empty because John denied her control of her inheritance. John appointed a governor, Bartholomew de Le Puy who conducted most of the administrative affairs of Angoulême until John’s death in 1216.

King John died on October 18, 1216, leaving his eldest son Henry, a nine year old, to inherit his throne in the midst of the First Barons’ War (1215–17), in which a group of rebellious barons supported by a French army, made war on King John because of his refusal to accept and abide by the Magna Carta. Because a large part of eastern England was under the control of the rebellious barons and the French, it was thought that Henry should be crowned as soon as possible to reinforce his claim to the throne. Therefore, Henry was crowned on October 28, 1216 at Gloucester Cathedral with a golden circlet belonging to Isabella as the royal crown had recently been lost in The Wash, along with the rest of King John’s treasure.

In July of 1217, Isabella left her son, King Henry III of England, in the care of his regent, William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, and returned to France to assume control of her inheritance, the County of Angoulême. There, she once again met her jilted fiancé Hugh de Lusignan, now the 10th Count of La Marche. He had never married, and previously a betrothal between him and Isabella’s 10-year-old daughter Joan had been arranged. Upon seeing Isabella once again, he decided that he preferred Joan’s still beautiful mother. Isabella and Hugh married on May 10, 1220 and they had nine children.

In 1242, Isabella and Hugh were implicated in a plot against the life of King Louis IX of France (Saint Louis), and they were both called before the court of inquiry. Isabella remained on her horse at the door of the court, and when she heard that matters were likely to go against her, she left in a terrible rage. Before she could be taken into custody, she sought refuge at the Fontevrault Abbey in Anjou, which was associated with King John’s family, and remained there for the rest of her life. Her husband and a son were able to take care of the legal issues with King Louis IX.

Isabella died on May 31, 1246 at Fontevrault Abbey and was initially buried in the common graveyard there at her request. In 1254, her son King Henry III visited Fontevrault and he personally supervised the reburial of his mother’s remains in the abbey church next to the tombs of his grandparents King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Her remains at Fontevrault Abbey are believed to have been scattered by Huguenots in 1562 when they sacked and pillaged the Abbey. However, her effigy, a wooden sculpture of a reclining figure, can still be seen in the abbey church.

Effigy of Isabella of Angoulême at Fontevrault Abbey; Photo Credit – Wikipedia

Wikipedia: Isabella of Angoulême