ISABELLA AND THE STRANGE DEATH OF EDWARD II by Paul Doherty (Review)

England, 1296-1332

By the end of 1311 Isabella was still only fifteen years of age but nevertheless a Queen in her own right, a powerful landowner and a lavish patron. She had a household of over 200. Her tailor, John Falaise, employed sixty seamstresses to maintain and repair the Queen’s robes. Falaise also supervised the Queen’s treasury in the Tower of london – huge iron-bound coffers containing Isabella’s jewels, plates and precious cloths, which were supplemented by gifts from the King. She was given rich wardships and the control of lands whose owners had yet to come of age. The manors of Bourne and Deeping, as well as the royal manor of Eltham, with additional lands in Kent, were added to her estates. She attended her husband, graced the state occasions and made royal tours, such as her pilgrimage to Becket’s shrine in Canterbury, being awarded £140 to defray the costs …

This was the first non-fiction Doherty I ever read and, for those of you out there who enjoy historical fiction but can’t cope with straight history (too much like school), I recommend it: this will open your eyes and change your mind. This is how history can and should be written.

The first half just gives us the facts, a brief biography, of the early life of Isabella of France, daughter of the notorious Philip IV (le Bel), a great queen, a second Eleanor of Aquitaine, but who unlike Eleanor always had a bad press. And always has had, till now.

The heart of the book is in the second half, when Edward II is deposed and dies (is killed?) and is buried in Gloucester Cathedral, Isabella and her paramour Mortimer hold the reins of power until 1330; then the boy king Edward III seizes power and has Mortimer executed. Beneath these few short dramatic years, there lies a mystery. What really happened to Edward II? Did he die as a result of ill treatment and the bad conditions of his imprisonment? Was he murdered, at Isabella’s (or Mortimer’s) orders? Or had he in fact already escaped or been freed by his supporters? If the latter, then the story of his death would have been a cover-up so that when he eventually surfaced, Isabella could claim he was an imposter.

There is not enough evidence to prove conclusively that Edward II did escape, and Fieschi’s letter to Edward III cannot be taken literally, but there is certainly enough evidence to cast serious doubt on the traditional story of his death as depicted in Marlow’s play Edward II.

But read Doherty and see: it is a real “detective” story that reminds me of some of the books about Richard III (Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, for instance). If “truth is the daughter of time”, then it is certainly high time the truth about Isabella and Edward came out into the open.

I particularly like the thought that what happened to her and Edward was all part and parcel of the “Templars’ Curse” put on Philip IV and his family by the dying Jacques de Molay. As Doherty observes,

Isabella’s war-like grandson, the Black Prince, turned France, Spain and Northern Europe into a battleground, ravaging her home country and destroying the massed might of French chivalry at the battles of Crecy and Poitiers. She, the last Capet, saw her father’s great dream crumble into dust. Isabella must have wondered about the curse of jacques de Molay, screamed from the flames as he burnt to death on an island in the Seine. After all, Isabella was supposed to have brought a lasting peace between England and France by her marriage to Edward II. Instead, her brothers had all died without male issue, leaving Edward III with a claim to the French throne. Isabella had, in effect. brought about a war that would last one hundred years.

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