History Blog

Almost Queens: Isabel of Gloucester

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If becoming Queen of England was contingent on marrying King John, would you do it? Isabel of Gloucester didn't really have much choice in the matter, although to be fair at the time there was no suggestion that John would actually become King. It didn't matter in the end either as Isabel never got to be Queen!

Isabel was the youngest daughter of William Fitz Robert, Earl of Gloucester, and Hawise de Beaumont, a daughter of the Earl of Leicester. Her date of birth isn't known, and while Wikipedia suggests she was born sometime around 1173, other history bloggers state it was around 1160. Given that her brother Robert seems to have been born around 1151, a year of birth of 1173 seems like a huge age gap between them. However 1160 may also be inaccurate, as her older sister Amice may have been married in 1172. The legal age of marriage for girls was 12, so the earliest year that Amice was born would have also been 1160. The theory that Amice married young may be supported by the fact that her first child was born around 1180, perhaps suggesting that her age meant she and her husband didn't sleep together for several years until she was considered old enough to have children. Perhaps Wikipedia is about 10 years out and Isabel was born around 1163.

Whatever her birth year, in 1166 her only brother Robert died. With two older sisters, Mabel and Amice, it might have been fair for Isabel to look towards a relatively quiet future, perhaps married to a suitable nobleman if one was available, or committing her life to a convent.

Marrying fourth in line to the throne

Instead in 1176 Isabel was given a royal match. Prince John, the youngest son of King Henry II, was in the unenviable position of being the youngest of four surviving sons. His older brothers were all provided for; Henry would become King of England and Duke of Normandy, Geoffrey's marriage meant he would be Duke of Brittany, and Richard was going to inherit his mother's duchy of Aquitaine. There wasn't a great deal left for young John, despite being his father's favourite, which led to him being given the nickname “Lackland”.

To try to counter this Henry looked for heiresses to marry his son, so he could enjoy substantial lands even if they weren't inherited from his own father. He was originally betrothed to the heiress of the Duke of Savoy, but her death ended that hope. With few options in Europe, Henry turned his attention to his own nobles, and landed on the daughters of the Earl of Gloucester. Mabel and Amice were probably already married by this time, so that just left Isabel.

However there was one problem that even Henry acknowledged as likely to cause issues; Isabel and John were too closely related for the Church to automatically allow the marriage to go ahead. Isabel's paternal grandfather was Robert of Gloucester, one of King Henry I's many illegitimate children, and an uncle to King Henry II. This meant that John and Isabel shared King Henry I as a great-grandfather, so permission would need to be requested for them to be allowed to marry.

As part of the betrothal Henry agreed that if the Pope refused the marriage then he would find a suitable groom to marry Isabel in John's place. He must have been fairly sure that the Church would agree, as he also disinherited Mabel and Amice and made Isabella the sole heir to the Gloucester estates, thus giving John an even greater inheritance than he should have had. What any of the women involved thought of all this isn't known.

By August 1189 Prince John was 23 years old, and Isabel's age was anywhere between 16 and 26. Isabel's father had died in 1183, and King Henry had been dead for several weeks, but the new King Richard gave permission for the marriage to go ahead that month. She and John were married at Marlborough Castle, but there was one big problem – permission from the Pope hadn't been granted. The Archbishop of Canterbury was quick to intervene and placed the Gloucester lands under interdict, which meant that religious rites and services couldn't be performed for the people living on those lands.

An application was made for permission for them to marry, but while the Pope agreed he added a clause banning Isabel and John from having sex, presumably as punishment for not getting permission to marry in the first place. This time the couple appear to have toed the line, or maybe John wasn't very keen on the marriage in the first place and used it as a reason to keep away from his wife. He and Isabel had no children together, but John did have an illegitimate son in 1190, and an illegitimate daughter in 1191, and other mistresses as time went on. He also appears to have agreed to marry Alys of France, who was originally betrothed to his older brother (and now King) Richard, suggesting that he thought Isabel could be put to one side quite easily.

What happened to Isabel during the next ten years is a bit of a mystery. Presumably she lived and travelled around her Gloucester estates, and possibly visited her sisters. John was busy causing mischief against Richard, first while he was on Crusade and then when he was imprisoned. Isabel doesn't appear to have followed him to Normandy when he went to meet Richard and apologise for his trouble making. While John used the title Earl of Gloucester, and no doubt used the income from the lands for his living expenses, it may have been Isabel who managed the estates. After all their tenants knew her, and she would have known how her father used to manage things, it would have been easy for her to take the reins and run things herself.

Queen uncrowned and unacknowledged

And then on 6 April 1199 things changed for Isabel. Or at least, they should have done. King Richard I breathed his last after an arrow wound led to gangrene, and John became King of England and Duke of Normandy. In theory Isabel was now Queen Isabel of England.

But she would never use that title. John was crowned 7 weeks after his brother's death but Isabel wasn't part of the celebrations. We don't even know if she attended as part of the crowd. She certainly never not a Queen's title, or the estates, or a crown. A year later John managed to get the marriage annulled on the grounds that they were too closely related. To add insult to injury John then kept Isabel's inheritance, and declared her to be his “ward” - he would decide who and when she could remarry. Which of course meant that if anyone asked, he had the right to say no.

Poor Isabel had to live in limbo for fourteen years. She was under the control of her ex-husband, and had to watch another Isabel become Queen of England in her place when John married Isabella of Angouleme. Maybe she was relieved to be free from marriage to John, she might have been as unhappy with the marriage as he appears to have been.

And then in 1213 someone who was either very brave or very stupid stepped up to the mark. Geoffrey de Mandeville was at least two decades younger than Isabel. His wife Matilda had died, and while he had the Earldom of Essex it appears he fancied having a go at the title of Earl of Gloucester as well.

In return for the immense payment of 20,000 marks John agreed that Geoffrey could marry Isabel and claim the Gloucester inheritance. Isabel was at least in her early 40s by this point, so if Geoffrey was expecting an heir and a spare from her then he was almost certainly going to be disappointed. The large age difference between them and the huge sum of money that was expected has led to some suspicion that Geoffrey was compelled by his cash-strapped King to marry her, which would hardly have made for a happy marriage. And of course, no one cared what Isabel thought about all this.

In the end though it was a short marriage. In February 1216 Geoffrey was killed in a tournament accident, and Isabel was suddenly a widow. Without an heir Geoffrey's Essex estates went to his younger brother William, but the Gloucester estates went back to the crown and this time John didn't even bother to try to look after Isabel. Or maybe there wasn't any time to pay attention to Isabel, John was at war with his own barons, and then died nine months later in October 1216. With the French holding London and a nine year old sitting as King Henry III, who had the ability or time to champion the cause of a childless middle-aged (by the standards of the time) widow?

Third time's a charm

And then Isabel suddenly had a third chance at happiness. Hubert de Burgh was a widower with children, and may have been roughly the same age as Isabel. Maybe he hoped to claim her estates, or maybe he needed a step-mother for his children. Whatever the motivation the pair were married in September 1217.

Once again though fate meant that any happiness was short lived, but this time it was Isabel's death that curtailed a short marriage. She died on 14 October 1217, possibly at the abbey of Keynsham in Somerset. The Abbey had been in her family for years, possibly after being founded on the request of Isabel's dying brother. Maybe she had been visiting her lands when she was suddenly taken ill, or maybe she had been sick for a while and wanted to be cared for at a place that reminded her of her family.

She was buried in Canterbury Cathedral, and the Earldom of Gloucester went to Gilbert de Clare (whose wife Isabel Marshal was another Almost Queen), the son of her older sister Amice, who had been disinherited in Isabel's favour. 


Last month's Almost Queen was Margaret of Burgundy.


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