Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Isabella of France (1389-1409)

ISABELLA of France (1389–1409), second queen of Richard II, was the second daughter, and the first that survived infancy, of Charles VI, king of France, and his queen Isabella of Bavaria. She was born at the Louvre in Paris on 9 Nov. 1389 (Anselme, Histoire Généalogique de la Maison de France, i. 114; Bibliothèque de l'École des Chartes, 4e série, iv. 477; Godefroy, Hist. de Charles VI, p. 731). On 15 Dec. 1391 she was contracted in marriage to John, eldest son of Peter II, count of Alençon (Wallon, Richard II, ii. 440). Froissart's statement (xv. 164, ed. Kervyn de Lettenhove) that she was affianced to the son of the Duke of Brittany is an error.

Richard II had become a widower in 1394, and was very anxious for a permanent good understanding with France, and had already concluded a short truce with that country. He therefore proposed to marry Isabella, then a child of six. The first commissions to treat of the marriage were issued by Richard in July 1395 (Fœdera, vii. 802). But there were difficulties on both sides which protracted the negotiations. In France Louis of Orleans and in England Thomas of Gloucester disliked the match, and the French council urged that a settled peace or a long truce was an indispensable preliminary of the alliance. But the general desire of both countries to secure a peace triumphed over every obstacle.

Young as she was, Isabella, when visited by Mowbray, the earl-marshal, who was at the head of the English embassy, replied, ‘of her own accord, and without the advice of any one,’ that she would willingly be queen of England, ‘for they tell me that then I shall be a great lady’ (Froissart, xv. 186). The ambassadors brought back to Richard glowing accounts of the precocity, intelligence, and beauty of the child. After a second embassy had been despatched the marriage contract was signed on 9 March 1396 at Paris (Fœdera, vii. 820). By it Isabella received a marriage portion of eight hundred thousand francs of gold, of which three hundred thousand were to be paid down at once, and the rest in annual instalments of one hundred thousand. It was provided, however, that if Richard died before she attained the age of twelve, all that had been actually paid of this sum should be refunded, except the original payment of three hundred thousand. In the same case Isabella was to be allowed to return freely to France with all her property. She was also to renounce all her rights to the French throne. A truce for twenty-eight years, carefully kept separate from the marriage treaty, was signed at the same time (Cosneau, Les grandes Traités de la guerre de Cent Ans, pp. 71–99). On 12 March the betrothal took place in the Sainte Chapelle, before the patriarch of Alexandria, the earl-marshal acting as Richard's proxy (Religieux de Saint-Denys, ii. 412). There were great rejoicings. The new queen Isabella would end the wars which the former queen Isabella had begun (ib. ii. 414). Dispensations were obtained from both popes (Fœdera, vii. 836; Report on Fœdera, App. D, p. 63), and the chief English lords, including Henry of Derby, bound themselves to allow Isabella to return freely to France if Richard died before her (ib. pp. 63–4).

Isabella, provided with an equipment of unheard-of splendour, and followed by her father, was taken through St.-Denis to Picardy (Religieux de Saint-Denys, ii. 450, 452–462, 466; Douët-D'Arcq, Pièces inédites sur le règne de Charles VI, i. 130, Soc. de l'Histoire de France; FROISSART, xv. 304–6; J. Juvenal des Ursins in Michaud et Poujalat, Coll. de Mémoires, 1e série, ii. 404–7; Walsingham, Hist. Anglic. ii. 221–2; Otterbourne, pp. 186–7). Richard was waiting for her at Calais. At the second interview of the kings on 28 Oct. Isabella was handed over by her father as a pledge of peace, Richard loudly proclaiming his entire satisfaction at the marriage. She was entrusted to the Duchesses of Lancaster and Gloucester, who had brought her to Calais in a magnificent litter. The lady of Coucy was the chief of her French attendants. Isabella was married to Richard at St. Nicholas Church, Calais, by Archbishop Arundel. The date is variously given (1 Nov. Froissart, xv. 306; 4 Nov. Religieux de Saint-Denys, ii. 470, which is probably right; 10 Nov. Monk of Evesham, p. 129, which is plainly too late). On 4 Nov., after the ceremony, the first three hundred thousand francs of her portion were paid (Fœdera, vii. 846). After a short stay at Calais, Isabella was taken to Eltham through Dover and Canterbury. On 23 Nov. she made her solemn entry into London (Monk of Evesham, p. 129). On 5 Jan. she was crowned at Westminster by Arundel. Enormous sums were lavished on her reception, and she received many costly presents (Chronique de la Traïson, pp. 108–13).

Richard showed a remarkable attachment to Isabella. He learnt from her French friends a strong love of display and a keen desire to make himself absolute. Isabella's marriage was the prelude to his successful attempt at despotism in 1397.

Isabella resided at Eltham, Leeds Castle in Kent, Windsor, and other places in the neighbourhood of London. Just before his departure for Ireland (May 1399) Richard got tired of the extravagance of the lady of Coucy, and left orders behind him that she should be dismissed (ib. p. 163). He parted with Isabella after a very affecting interview at Windsor, where great jousts had been given in her honour (Froissart, xvi. 151). Richard promised that she should follow him (Chronique de la Traïson, pp. 163–8). They never met again.

Isabella was ill of grief for a fortnight or more, and was then removed to Wallingford Castle, while her French attendants were dismissed, as Richard had ordered. Great indignation was expressed in France (Religieux de Saint-Denys, ii. 702–5; Juvenal des Ursins, p. 417). Froissart is wrong in making the Londoners expel the French ladies in the interests of Henry of Lancaster (xvi. 189). Henceforward Isabella was left with English-speaking attendants, except one lady and her confessor. On Henry's invasion in July the regent York entrusted her to the care of Wiltshire and Richard's other chief favourites (Fœdera, viii. 83). But she soon fell into Henry's hands, and was placed at Sonning, near Reading. A letter she wrote to her father never reached him (Religieux de Saint-Denys, ii. 720). Richard asked in vain to see her (Creton, p. 117).

The French court would not recognise Henry IV as king, and demanded the restitution of Isabella and the two hundred thousand francs of her portion paid since her marriage. Henry was unable to pay so large a sum, and commissioned ambassadors to treat for a marriage between the Prince of Wales and a daughter or cousin of Charles VI (Fœdera, viii. 108). Isabella was evidently intended (Froissart, xvi. 237; Chronique de la Traïson, p. 106), and it would not have been hard to arrange the union, as her marriage with Richard had never been consummated. But the French would not listen to the proposal, even after Richard's death. They demanded the fulfilment of the treaty of 1396, and Henry, though putting things off as long as he could, did not venture to openly repudiate it. But he set up, as a counterclaim to the demand for Isabella's portion, a request for the unpaid arrears of King John's ransom.

Isabella was still at Sonning when the rebellion of January 1400 broke out. The insurgents, headed by Kent, captured Sonning, and comforted her with hopes of greater success, tearing away Henry IV's badges from her servants (Walsingham, ii. 243–4), but they do not seem to have attempted to take her away with them. After this she was guarded more carefully, and removed to Havering-atte-Bower in Essex. The death of Richard was for a time carefully concealed from her. In November 1400 she was visited by the French ambassadors, who pledged themselves to make no mention of Richard (Froissart, xvi. 220). They had been secretly instructed to urge her not to involve herself in any matrimonial or other engagement (Douët-D'Arcq, Pièces Inédites, i. 171–173). It was feared that Henry would keep her until after her twelfth birthday, when she could contract a legal marriage.

The threat of an invasion of Guienne facilitated Isabella's restoration. On 27 May 1401 a treaty was signed at Leulinghen that she should be sent back with her jewels and belongings in July, on her pledging herself to abstain from all intrigues in England. The question of her portion was to be considered later on. Great preparations were now made for her restoration with a pomp not unworthy of her reception. On 27 June the Earl of Worcester conducted her to Westminster. She was taken before Henry, but in his presence she hardly spoke, remaining sullen and morose, and clad in deep black (Adam of Usk, p. 61). Next day she was taken through the silent crowds of Londoners on her way to the coast. She was kept nearly a month at Dover, and crossed the Straits on 28 July. On 31 July she was handed over by Worcester to the Count of Saint-Pôl at Leulinghen, and Isabella took leave of her English ladies amid much weeping and lamenting. She signed at Boulogne the required bond, and was taken to Paris, being received with great rejoicings in every town. On her arrival at Paris she was made to issue a declaration that she had never acknowledged Henry as her husband's successor. Her mother now took charge of her. Henceforth she lived in less state, but was still attended by ladies of high rank (Religieux de Saint-Denys, iii. 4). Common fame said that she was never happy after her return from England (Chron. Anonyme in Monstrelet, vi. 192).

Partisans of Richard II in England still looked to Isabella or her friends for help. In 1403 it was believed she was about to land in Essex, and in 1404 the French invaders of the Isle of Wight demanded tribute in her name and that of the false Richard, hidden away in Scotland. But Isabella's friends never recognised the impostor in any way, though repeated applications had failed to extract any of her marriage portion from Henry IV, and Louis of Orleans, Henry's special foe, was predominant in her father's counsels. In June 1404 she was contracted in marriage to her cousin Charles, count of Angoulême, afterwards famous as a poet, and the eldest son of Louis of Orleans (Douët-D'Arcq, Pièces Inédites, i. 260), who gave her as dower six thousand livres a year, and all the profits of the châtellenie of Crecy-en-Brie (Report on Fœdera, App. D, p. 146). In 1406 another proposal to marry her to Henry, prince of Wales, was rejected (Monstrelet, i. 126), and she was married to Angoulême at Compiègne on 29 June 1406 (Religieux de Saint-Denys, iii. 394; Monstrelet, i. 129; Anselme, i. 208). Isabella wept bitterly during the ceremony which united her to a boy two years her junior (Juvenal des Ursins, p. 438, who says the marriage was at Senlis). Isabella became Duchess of Orleans, on the murder of her father-in-law, on 23 Nov. 1407. With Valentina Visconti, her husband's mother, she went to Paris, and throwing herself at Charles VI's feet, demanded justice on the murderers.

On 13 Sept. 1409 Isabella gave birth at Blois to her only child, Joan, and died a few hours after. She was buried at Blois, in the chapel of Nôtre Dame des Bonnes Nouvelles, in the abbey of Saint-Laumer. Charles of Orleans gave her rich robes to the monks of St.-Denys, to be made up into chasubles and dalmatics (Religieux de Saint-Denys, iv. 252). In 1624 her body was transferred to the Orleans burying-place in the church of the Celestines in Paris (Anselme, Hist. Généal. i. 208). Her daughter Joan married in 1424 John II of Alençon, and died without children in 1432. A portrait of Isabella as the bride of Charles of Orleans is engraved in Miss Strickland's ‘Lives of the Queens of England.’

[Most of the facts of Isabella's life are collected, in a readable, if not very critical way, in Strickland's Lives of the Queens of England, i. 428–54, ed. 1889. Anselme's Histoire Généalogique de la Maison Royale de France, vol. i., corrected by M. Vallet de Viriville in Bibliothèque de l'École des Chartes, 4e série, iv. 473–482. Wallon's Richard II and Wylie's Henry IV best summarise the political aspects of Isabella's life. The chief original sources include Froissart, ed. Kervyn de Lettenhove; Chroniques du Religieux de Saint-Denys (Doc. Inédits); Monstrelet (Soc. de l'Histoire de France); Jean Juvenal des Ursins in Michaud and Poujoulat's Collection des Mémoires, 1e série, t. ii.; Walsingham's Hist. Angl. (Rolls Ser.); Monk of Evesham and Otterbourne, both ed. Hearne; Chronique de la Traïson et la Mort de Richart Deux (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Creton's Metrical Chronicle in Archæologia, vol. xx.; Rymer's Fœdera, vols. vii. and viii., and Report on Fœdera, App. D; Nicolas's Proc. and Ord. of Privy Council, vol. i.; Godefroy's Hist. de Charles VI.]

T. F. T.