Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Isabella: She-Wolf of France, Queen of England

by Alison Weir - 3 stars

When it comes to my historical education, I’m finding myself drawn again and again to Alison Weir, who has a real talent for making lives led long ago pulse with real vitality. In this outing she sets out to not only tell us about the life and times of Isabella, one of our most notorious queens, but to rehabilitate her image. She’s not entirely successful – while she succeeds in imparting a lot of information on this deeply interesting woman, I didn’t feel that the rehabilitation part went so well. 

Long thought of as one of history’s femmes fatale thanks to overthrowing her husband, King Edward II, and making her lover unofficial ruler of England, Weir seeks to paint Isabella as a woman trapped by circumstance and a victim to her times, whereas I saw her as an enormous hypocrite with an insatiable lust for wealth and power, whose tyranny and corruption equalled (if not dwarfed) her husband’s. Whether or not she was involved in Edward’s death (Weir thinks not – and in fact also points to evidence that Ed wasn’t murdered at all but fled abroad and was later even possibly reunited with Edward III) didn’t affect my opinion anywhere near as much as her blatant grabbing of lands, wealth and titles for herself and Roger Mortimer (disinheriting people wherever needed) and I also felt that Weir was actually guilty of double standards; the very offences that Edward is guilty of – excessive lavishing of wealth, power and titles to his favourites and turning a blind eye to their crimes (which were indeed many) – and for which he is condemned within the book are the very same crimes that Isabella is guilty of, only in the latter case Weir shifts the blame from Isabella to Mortimer. 

In my book, if Ed was responsible for the excesses of his favourites and deserved deposition for it, so did Isabella. In fact, I feel that by shifting the responsibility from her to Mortimer, she’s actually being robbed of her agency. Whilst I am well aware that women in the 14th century were the property of men, I find it hard to believe that a woman who managed to overthrow the reign of her husband was entirely at the mercy of and a victim to the whims her lover, when he only wielded the power that he did through her. The fact that she didn’t even attempt to curb his behaviour and continued to lavish more wealth and power upon him – even joining him in bullying her son, the young King Edward III, into compliance with his wishes – shows me that she wasn’t a helpless victim but a partner-in-crime. None of this makes Isabella any less interesting in my eyes, in fact it makes her more so, and I’d rather have seen Weir revel in her bad behaviour than try to whitewash it.

Contrary to what seem to have been Weir’s intentions, I also felt incredibly sorry for Edward II. It’s believed his relationships with his favourites, Piers Gaveston and Hugh Le Despenser, were homosexual in nature (many of the chroniclers of the time made allusions to this, and generally whipped themselves into such a froth that I can only believe that, like modern homophobes, they secretly got off on imagining in great detail the ‘wicked and forbidden sex’ that they thought Ed was having). If this was indeed the case, it must have been unimaginably awful for him to live in a society where homosexuality was viewed as such a vile sin that its practitioners faced a brutal death, complete with their genitals being cut off (while they were still alive) and thrown to the dogs (as was the case with Le Despenser). If anything, the only thing that I feel Ed was guilty of here was appalling taste in men (he seemed to have a thing for bad boys. But then, who doesn’t?)

With regard to everything else, once again I was struck by how our country has always been prey to the whims of the ruling class, who have always been an insanely greedy, duplicitous, ruthless and vicious shower of shits loyal only to their own wallets and ambition. I doubt this will change over the next 1000 years, either.

So, in conclusion, whilst I enjoyed this book enormously (anything that can teach me so much in such a short space of time has to be applauded), I felt that it failed in its stated aim, hence the 3 stars.

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