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Edward II, Part II: The She-Wolf of France

British Queen Isabella overthrows husband and King Edward II when he likes an advisor, Hugh le Despenser, a little too much

Edward II of fourteenth-century England frittered away large sums of money and land on undeserving wretches who managed to worm their way into his favor. For them, this was a good deal, except in the end they usually ended up dead... most likely killed in some gruesome fashion, often at the hand of Edward's wife. Her personal life suffered as a result of the dalliances; she learned to fight tooth and nail when cornered. Hubby Edward, as we'll learn, wasn't exempt from her fury either.

The first of these groupies was an obnoxious upstart named Piers Gaveston, as well detailed last time. Gaveston was subsequently murdered by annoyed nobility and, for a short time, peace returned to Edward's kingdom and household. Despite a chilly relationship with the queen following this episode (understandable, given that Gaveston, Edward's lover, was seen in public with her wedding jewelry), the royal family rebounded. Four children were born, and, as historian Caroline Bingham put it, "Between 1312 and 1321 their marriage, if not happy, was at least not wholly unsuccessful."[1] Considering what their union had been through, we can't call praise even that faint anything less than an indication of resounding victory. It was too good to be true, or at least too good to last.

Things soon came to a grinding halt when a certain emotional hole in Edward's character, the one reserved for sycophants, was filled. Stepping up to the plate was a father-and-son team, both named Hugh le Despenser. These two did not tug on young Ed's sexual heartstrings, but instead brownnosed fiercely and soon found themselves awash in gifts of cash and land. The Queen was immediately suspicious, and she wasn't alone. Hugh the younger actually waded through Edward's many financial and administrative difficulties and shored them up, but rather than being lauded for his efforts he incurred the nobility's wrath because he cashed in on his status as a favorite. Jealous, the irked nobles banned the family Despenser from England for a spell in 1321. Disgruntled barons also burned the Younger's property and looted twelve hundred cows and calves, two thousand hogs, five hundred and sixty horses, twenty-eight thousand sheep, a thousand oxen, "six hundred bacons, eighty carcasses of beef and six hundred muttons."[2] As the enormous volume of meats they owned demonstrates, they were absurdly rich. They were also wildly unpopular.

Problems With The French, As Usual

As the Despensers wormed their way into royal favor, troubles were on the horizon. France had rightfully built a small, fortified town on the border of some land owned by England (England had possession of Gascony and Ponthieu at this point). An English nobleman idiotically attacked the city and hanged its French sergeant, touching off an international brouhaha. Edward's first emissary, the young earl of Kent, bungled the diplomatic mission so badly that France annexed Gascony and Pointhieu in disgust. The earl of Pembroke, an old friend of Edward's, was sent in as damage control, but died of an illness upon arrival.

Queen Isabella was French. Indeed, her brother, Charles IV, was presently King of France. This gave the Despensers some interesting ammunition with which to curtail her independence: they speculated loudly that she might be a double agent, and insisted that she be kept under closer watch. Lady Despenser (the younger one) was installed as Isabella's "housekeeper"; she spent much of her time reading the queen's correspondence. Hugh the Younger was rumored to have been seeking a papal annulment of the marriage.

However, because nobody else seemed to have a whit of common sense when it came to dealing with foreign affairs, Isabella suggested that perhaps she could bend her brother's ear and get the two pieces of property back. The land was extremely important: Gascony, in particular, "yielded a revenue greater than that of the English crown."[3] Thus, in a move that wildly underestimated her cunning and ample disgust for her husband, Isabella was allowed to go to France.[4] She was most likely planning to use this opportunity to escape her husband, and perhaps do something drastic. She did both.

Adultery 1, Loyalty to the Crown 0

In France, she encountered and was swept off her feet by Roger Mortimer, an exiled noble who had led the mob that burned Hugh's property. In no time at all Queen Isabella, who at this point was 29 and had been married to the bumbling Edward for seventeen years, found herself in love. She had dealt with her husband's dalliances and shifting loyalties for almost two decades, and was ready for passion. Not only that, but she frankly discussed the dismal situation in England, and announced to the French that she was going nowhere until the Despensers were out of the picture. She managed to get Gascony and Ponthieu returned to England, and convinced Edward to send their son, Prince Edward (the future Edward III) to pay a little homage.[5] Once Prince Edward arrived, the queen was going nowhere. She insisted that the Despensers get lost and refused to return.

A Treatise with Entreaties

Edward wrote several pleading, pathetic letters in an effort to get Isabella to return. Rather than acceding to her wishes, or threatening to cut her off entirely, he wasted all of his ink defending his loser friends:

[Hugh the younger] has always procured from us all the honor he could for you, nor to you has either evil or villainy been done since you entered into our companionship.

Edward cravenly called the younger Dispenser "our dear and faithful nephew," and wrote Isabella's brother Charles IV that

Never in the slightest instance has evil been done to her by him.[6]

As one might well imagine, these entreaties didn't work. In fact, they didn't work so much that Isabella started amassing an army so she could go back to England and overthrow her husband.

A bishop who had accompanied her to France but was still loyal to Edward escaped and fled through the countryside in disguise (we're sort of interested in what kind of disguise a bishop would wear). He arrived in England, and warned Edward that an army headed by the Queen was heading his way. She had made a public pronouncement that went something like this:

I protest that I will not return until [Hugh Despenser] is removed, but, discarding my marriage garment, shall assume the robes of widowhood and mourning until I am avenged.[7]

With that, the gauntlet was thrown. Edward traveled all over England seeking assistance, either in the form of barons to add to his army or agreements from various cities not to admit Isabella's forces. Unfortunately, she enjoyed quite a bit of local popularity, having been painted as the long-suffering wife of a ne'er-do-well schmuck. In fact, her popularity was so strong that she was able to hop from city to city with a fully equipped foreign army and still manage to get locals to take up her cause. She arrived in London, and took the Tower with troops and an unruly mob. By this point, the king had fled west, seeking support and not really finding it wherever he went.

Hell Hath No Fury as a Queen Scorned

Edward, panicking, offered a reward of one thousand pounds for Mortimer's head. Isabella one-upped him and offered two thousand for the younger Despenser's. The older Dispenser fled to Bristol, which promptly gave up the city walls to the queen's army. She embraced her daughters, who had been deposited there for safety, and then she sent old Dispenser straight to the gallows without even stripping him of his armor.

Edward and the younger Hugh sped across the country with an ever-diminishing number of supporters. They jumped from castle to castle, looking for help but finding none. They were captured on November 16, 1326, and the younger Hugh was immediately delivered to the queen. The accounts of his death are myriad and gruesome. In one report, the presiding judge at Hugh's trial sentenced him to emboweled and your bowels burned; and so go your judgment, wicked traitor.[8]

In another, Hugh's

...member and testicles were first cut off, because he was a heretic and a sodomite, even, it was said, with the King.[9]

As for Edward, he had to suffer the indignity of having the crown rent from his incapable hands. In a fancy-pants ceremony, he wore black and watched the steward of his household break his staff of office, an act only done if a sovereign was deposed or died. Edward marched off, crying, but at least took temporary solace in the fact that his son was crowned Edward III. To further rub salt in the removed king's wounds, Isabella and Mortimer quickly pointed out that he was

A mental deficient and probably a changeling.[10]

It Only Went Downhill From There

Mortimer went crazy giving himself titles and lands and awards while Edward wasted away in the Tower. The former king managed to even escape once, but was quickly recaptured. He was subjected to a variety of indignities, such as nauseating food and a consistently damp cell and clothing. When he wanted to shave, he was presented with cold muckwater from the moat to do it with.[11] He was roughed up often. His cell was above the prison's morgue, and the odors choked him. Edward's life was miserable, but at least it didn't last.

On September 21 Edward was killed in prison, likely with a nod from the Queen. The only account was published some thirty years after his death, but it's spectacular. It reads, "Cum veru ignito inter celanda confossus ignominiose peremptus est," which means, "He was ignominiously slain with a red-hot spit thrust into the anus."[12]

Rough gig. Edward should have taken heart: his son Edward III overthrew and killed Mortimer a scant four years later, and sent Isabella, forever after known in history as the "She-Wolf of France", away from Court with a stipend but a stern watch. As for his future, Edward III had a rough go at sovereignty because he had to deal with the Black Plague, but at least he didn't stand for loser hangers-on at his court. Three Kato Kaelins were more than enough for Britain's Plantagenet line of emperors in the fourteenth century.


  1. Bingham, p.158
  2. Costain, p.192. But what to do for lunch?.
  3. Hutchison, p.124. Go feudalism!
  4. Costain suggests that Isabella had been so bitchy up to that point that her departure would have brought a sense of relief to Ed and his cronies (p.210).
  5. King Edward was planning to offer said homage himself, but the hated Despensers were terrified of what might happen to them if he wasn't around.
  6. Costain, p.212
  7. Bingham, p.170
  8. Costain, 224
  9. Bingham, p.179
  10. Hutchison, p.140
  11. This ditchwater bit was recorded by chronicler Geoffrey le Baker, who tended to err on the side of the sensational. Take heed.
  12. Bingham, 197. An alternate translation offered by Hutchison is, "with a hoote broche putte thro the secret place posterialle". It probably goes without mentioning that this account may be apocryphal, but it's all we've got to go on.


  1. Caroline Bingham. The Life and Times of Edward II. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973.
  2. Thomas B. Costain. The Three Edwards: A History of the Plantagenets. Doubleday, 1962.
  3. Harold F. Hutchison. Edward II: The Pliant King. Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1971.
  4. Kenneth O. Morgan, ed.. The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain. Oxford University Press, 1996.

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