14 October 2017

The Countess-Not Countess-Countess Almost Queen of England

If not for the extraordinary record of King Henry VIII, his ancestor King John might well be remembered as the most notorious husband among English monarchs. Unlike Henry, whose marital misdeeds were driven largely by dynastic concerns and partly by his libido, John was driven almost entirely by greed. This should come as no surprise as he's best known as the king who was forced to sign the Magna Carta and as the devious Prince John of the Robin Hood tales.

John's first wife died 800 years ago today, on 14 October 1217. But she was no longer his wife by then. She is so little regarded in the history of the time, that even her name is not entirely certain. Various records name her by a wide range of sobriquets from Hadwise to Joan to Eleanor to Isabella. What is certain is that she (whom we shall call Isabella) was herself of English royal descent and the heiress of great amount of territory. As the youngest son of the Angevin King Henry II and his heiress wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, John was called "Lackland" since the great expanse of his parents' English and French lands had already been divided amongst his squabbling older brothers. Henry decided that little John, therefore, needed to marry an heiress. Who better than the daughter of his own cousin, the Duke of Gloucester.

Despite the fact that Gloucester had other daughters and it was traditional to share a patrimony among sisters who had no brothers, Henry declared Isabella the sole heir. When she was about three years old, she was betrothed to nine-year-old Prince John, despite the fact that church law forbade marriages between such close relatives. Henry cared little for church law (you've heard of St. Thomas a Becket, right?) and besides it was easy enough to get a dispensation to overlook their cousinship. A few years later, Isabella's father died and she became Countess of Gloucester in her own right.

The dispensation was never granted. Old King Henry kept Isabella's money for himself. Soon after his death, John married 16-year-old Isabella immediately assumed control of her property. The Archbishop of Canterbury declared the marriage void and placed their territory under interdict, so that their people could not participate in church rites. A papal legate, however, overruled the archbishop and declared the marriage legal...as long as they didn't have sex.

Well, they certainly never had children. John, however, fathered numerous illegitimate offspring during the marriage. And, John was known to have looked about for other even more lucrative brides. Ten years later, John succeeded his older brother Richard the Lionheart as King John but Isabella was never styled as his queen. Almost immediately he set her aside. He received an annulment based on the old grounds that they were too closely related and ran off to marry a French heiress who was technically already engaged to someone else and two was at most 15 and perhaps as young as nine years old.

The divorce settlement was hardly favorable to Isabella, who was forced to give up her rights and riches as Countess of Gloucester. John kept all of that. He did pay for her living expenses but seems to have required her to serve in his new wife's household for a period of time. And, as long as John held on to the Gloucester lands, the still young-ish Isabella was not allowed to remarry. Fortunately for her, John was always looking for ways to make money. Nearly 14 years after the marriage ended, he decided to raise some funds by selling off the right to marry his ex-wife and throwing in the Gloucester lands and title. Isabella was a countess again and married off to the highest bidder, Geoffrey de Mandeville Earl of Essex, who was 16 years younger than she. A year later in 1215, Countess Isabella and her husband joined a widespread rebellion against John--the one which resulted in the Magna Carta. A few months later, Geoffrey was killed in a tournament, but the lands and titles had been left forfeit to the Crown because of the rebellion. Nevertheless, Isabella, now in her forties was more or less in charge of her own life for the very first time.

It was short-lived an unmarried rich woman was a great commodity in those days. After the death of John, the child King Henry III (John's son by his second wife) granted the rebellious Isabella's patrimony to the loyal Hubert de Burgh. Shortly thereafter, he gave Hubert Isabella too and she was married for the third time. She died within a few months, never having had any children. The Gloucester title went to her nephew, but it eventually returned to the crown and is currently held by The Queen's cousin, Prince Richard Duke of Gloucester.

More about Isabella of Gloucester:

Isabella of Gloucester on Magna Carta Trust
Isabella of Gloucester joined the 'never quite making it to Queen' club with she married Prince John on Intriguing History
Isabel of Gloucester, the Lost Queen of England on History...The Interesting Bits
Isabella of Gloucester, Queen of England, Countess of Gloucester and Essex on The Freelance History Writer

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