Monday, June 8, 2015

Isabel of Gloucester--John's Poor Kept Woman or Independent Countess?

Picture of a Roman woman, but I like to think 
Isabel may have looked something like this.


For the most part, the historical record of western civilization up until the last fifty years or so has been overwhelmingly written by men, so that we might call it "exclusively" written by men.

This matters for a lot of reasons. And many people have pointed this out already.

It is inevitable that we carry our preconceptions with us when we interpret a long-ago person's motives or priorities based on the scant evidence available to us. Given the battle women still fight today to be taken seriously by our government when we discuss violence against women or discrimination in the workplace, by our colleagues when we speak at a conference or publish a book, it is not unreasonable to wonder whether a female-dismissing perspective on women's lives in history might not be subject to contemporary social norms and assumptions about women more than actual historical evidence.

Let's look at Isabel of Gloucester, the first wife of Prince John. As I have researched this woman, hoping to do her story justice in the sequel, I have been repeatedly struck by the dreary assumptions made by historians and writers who have considered the few established facts of her life. Over and over, I read about how she was a victim of the crown, how tragically empty of love her life was, how she lost everything only to die shortly after finding real love.

Here's what is known about Countess Isabel. As part of a deal between her father and Henry II, Henry disinherited Isabel's two older sisters, and her father agreed that she would be betrothed to John when she was only three years old (around 1176). With significant holdings in both England and the Welsh Marches, Countess Isabel of Gloucester was quite the loaded heiress. John Lackland made good on his father's promise of marriage as soon as Henry II died and Johns older brother Richard had the crown (and no one has accused John Lackland of being a "gold-digger," that I've come across so far).

However, no sooner was the ceremony completed than Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury, declared the marriage void for consanguinity and placed all of Isabel's (now John's) lands under interdict (essentially, the churches and people were cut off from the body and recognition of the larger church whole). Resourceful John took the matter up on appeal (so to speak) with Pope Clement III. The pope found a way to settle all matters by allowing the marriage to continue, provided that Isabel and John never entered into sexual relations.

After this, Isabel's life is full of murk and shadow. We know that John gave her an allowance and set her up in housing in Winchester. John had his marriage with Isabel annulled after ten years, in 1199, when he succeeded Richard to the throne. John then kept Isabel under the crown's "guardianship" so that he got to hold onto her lands, of course, although he ended up giving them to her sister's son, anyway. We also know that Isabel was required to look after John's second and much younger wife during John's disastrous reign. Her lands were restored to her by her nephew's death without issue in 1213. After that she married twice before dying in 1217 at the relatively young age of 44 (cause of death unknown).

That's a lot of gaps and unknowns.

This is where writing historical fiction-fantasy gets fun. I see no reason to assume that Isabel led a lonely and unsatisfactory life. Women's lives are full of secrets, off-the-record negotiations, and connections and friendships that are disregarded by the record-keepers as immaterial to the great flow of history. But what if Isabel's life was full and more influential of events than anyone gives her credit for? What if...Isabel had secretly bribed Pope Clement III to forbid sexual relations between her and her husband because she found the man so utterly detestable? What if...Isabel was a stunning beauty who enjoyed a discreetly managed romantic relationship that the gossips and court recorders politely ignored? What if...Isabel and her sisters (one of whom was married to the extremely well-connected Third Earl of Hertford, Richard de Clare) stayed close throughout their lives and supported one another with affection and strings pulled as needed? What if her third and final husband, the one she got to choose herself, who happened to have also been John's chamberlain, had been her lover all along, during all those years of guardianship?

What do you think? Are there other women from history who you suspect may have been more in control of their destinies than history gives them credit for?

There is no reason to assume that these possibilities could not also be true, and this is just one case of many. Stay tuned for the next installation in Unsung Women of the Middle Ages: Matilda de Braose.

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