In the Show
Played by Sabrina Bartlett in season one, and Genevieve Gaunt in season two, Princess Isabella, is the most celebrated woman in France. The daughter of King Philip and Queen Joan, she has inherited her father’s famous good looks (there’s a reason why he’s known as “The Fair”), and this fact – along with her status as the king’s offspring – makes her the most eligible lady in the land.
The crucial question is, who will she marry? This isn’t just a matter of courtly romance. While Isabella has her eyes on the Prince of Catalonia, her father Philip favours a more tactically advantageous match with Edward II of England. This would be a powerhouse union of two titanic European nations, but how will Isabella deal with being used as a political pawn by her own father? And what will be the consequences for Europe
Watch Isabella closely, because her historical inspiration was one of the most spectacular monarchs in British history. She was only a child when she was betrothed to Edward II (several years younger than her Knightfall incarnation), and was thrust into a marriage which would be dramatic, bloody and see queen turn violently against king.
The signs were worrying from the start. The young, pampered princess expected to be treated with all the gushing adoration that was her due. Instead, Edward’s passion was reserved for a man, Piers Gaveston, who was very likely his lover. The strutting, preening, cocky Gaveston revelled in his status as the king’s favourite. Even during the joint coronation, which should have been Isabella’s moment of glory, all eyes were on Gaveston, who was reputedly dressed so extravagantly that he “more resembled the god Mars than an ordinary mortal.”
It was effectively a marriage with three people in it. Some whispered about the “sinful” nature of the king’s love for Gaveston, while barons resented the serious political influence which Gaveston had over the court. It’s clear Edward was sexually interested in his wife to at least some extent. They did have children together, including the future Edward III. But Gaveston was his overwhelming obsession.
This love was almost the king’s undoing. Things came to a head when the resentful barons rose up against Edward, forcing the king, Isabella and Gaveston to literally go on the run. Edward’s reign was preserved, but Gaveston was not so lucky, being captured and executed. Despite the king’s immense fury and anguish, all-out civil war was somehow averted, and Isabella looked set for a more “normal” marriage now that Gaveston was out of the way.
Instead, things became even more turbulent when Edward formed an attachment to a new favourite – Hugh Despenser the Younger, who was more power hungry than Gaveston ever was. Edward and the Despenser dynasty crushed the revolting barons, confiscated their lands and persecuted their families. Isabella personally detested Hugh Despenser, and finally made the fateful decision to rise up against both him and Edward. Embarking on a diplomatic mission to her native France, with the young, future Edward III alongside her, Isabella shocked her husband by refusing to return to England.
Instead, she plotted an invasion, gathering a mercenary army and forming a political and sexual allegiance with Roger Mortimer, an exiled enemy of the king. This wasn’t just treason. This was a ruthless betrayal of the king by his own, openly adulterous wife. It was a shocking, unprecedented turn of events, and worse was yet to come for Edward. The invasion was a success, swathes of the king’s subjects turned against him.
The much-hated Hugh Despenser was captured and executed in the bloodiest and most humiliating way. According to contemporary accounts, his body was scrawled with Biblical verses, his genitals were mutilated and he was disembowelled. Edward II was himself later killed, probably on orders of Isabella. Nobody knows how it happened, but according to grisly legend he had a hot poker stabbed up deep inside his backside.
As Edward III was still a child, Isabella and her lover Mortimer ruled the nation as regents, and swiftly proved as greedy and ruthless as Edward and the Despensers had been. Eventually, the young Edward rose up against Mortimer, having him arrested and executed.
As for Isabella, being Edward III’s mother saved her from Mortimer’s fate. She was, instead, put into pampered retirement, and has been remembered ever since as the queen who deposed her king, the English monarch who invaded England, the “She-Wolf of France”.
Watch Knightfall Tuesdays at 9pm