This book was published in 2005, so I’m not exactly timely with a review. Rather I want to send up a kudos: this is history as it should be written, by a scholar who knows how to research, and a writer who can take a life that is already dramatic by itself and portray it humanely, relatably, in lively, highly readable prose.
England’s Queen Isabella, wife to Edward II and mother of Edward III, became known to history as the She-Wolf of France, which tells you how her (universally male) chroniclers and historians felt about her. What did this ravenous she-wolf do? After a marriage of 20 years to an unreliable, moody king whom she saw fall repeatedly to the manipulation of rapacious favorites, who ignored the tenets of justice, fairness, and common sense in his behavior and who repeatedly ignored the efforts of his nobles to bring him into line, Isabella sailed to her homeland of France, listened to the advice of the declared rebel and traitor Roger Mortimer, gathered an army of mercenaries, sailed to England, and in a nearly bloodless coup deposed to the king, set herself and Mortimer up as co-regents for her son, and did her best to reestablish some sort of judicial system and keep England out of war with both Scotland and France until her son came of age and decided he wanted to rule himself (which required lopping off Mortimer’s head). Even some of her contemporaries could admit that Edward II was altogether a shoddy king and deserved a rebellion, even if they didn’t feel Isabella’s reign was any better.
But the thing for which she seemingly could not be forgiven–more than just rebelling against her husband, lord, and king–was her love affair with Mortimer. Rebellious queens, England had seen before; Boudicca, the empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine come immediately to mind. But a woman who did not have sex with her ecclesiastically-sanctioned partner, that was just beyond the bounds of acceptability in those days. So Isabella, who presumably loved him, was likely to some extent manipulated by him, and we may suspect certainly had a better time in bed with him than with her husband, who tended to prefer male companionship, was reviled as a devouring wolf, to the point that Edward’s mysterious death under guard (a topic discussed at some length in the book) is attributed to her command. Murderess, mistress, and vile betrayer. Just the kind of woman to win my admiration.
Historian and novelist Alison Weir deserves every bit of the acclaim given her. Her novels are a joy to read–if you haven’t read them, do; she’s got two coming out this year, The Marriage Game, about Queen Elizabeth I, a stone-cold warrior queen, and The Lost Tudor Princess due out in the U.S. this fall, about Margaret Douglas.
But I have to admit I prefer history that reads like a novel, and that’s what Weir provides in Queen Isabella. The book is full of notes and bibliography, as well as wonderful pictures and maps, and it’s clear Weir has spent time with the primary sources as well as the most up-do-date scholarly criticism. The book is a virtuoso performance of making a coherent narrative out of available fact, and she needs to rely very little on speculation (though some is called for when considering Isabella’s motives and the fate of her husband, about which there were conspiracy theories and contradicting claims almost from the very start). It is thoughtful, accurate, extremely interest, and above all it treats a fascinating and powerful female with the full and just examination her history deserves. This is exemplary scholarship as well as a really great read.