Isabella of France, queen consort of King Edward II of England, was born in or before 1295 to King Philip IV "the Fair" and Queen Joan I of Navarre. She was the sixth-born of seven children, the youngest child and only daughter to survive to adulthood.
In her infancy, her father promised her in marriage to Edward, about ten years her senior. The union was arranged to help resolve the conflict over England's possession of Gascony and claims to Anjou, Aquitaine, and Normandy, all continental territories within France.
As early as 1298, Pope Boniface VIII had urged this union of crowns, but negotiations over details of the marriage contract caused delays.
Matters were also complicated by England's King Edward I "Longshanks," the prospective groom's father, and his repeated attempts to break off the engagement. It was only after his death in 1307 that the wedding was able to proceed.
The groom, the seventh king of the Plantagenet dynasty, looked every bit the part. He was tall, athletic, a powerful man, and widely popular at his accession to the throne.
The couple were wed on 25 January 1308, at Boulogne-sur-Mer, France. The bride, only 12 years old or in her very early teens at the time, was called "the beauty of beauties" by Geoffrey of Paris. His description was likely not simply politeness or flattery, as both her father and brother are described as handsome. Isabella was also said to resemble her father, not her mother, who was plump and of high complexion. From this, it can be inferred that Isabella was slender, with pale or fair skin.
During Edward's trek to his wedding, the first of a long line of male favourites, Piers Gaveston, 1st Earl of Cornwall, served as regent in his absence. Gaveston had been a companion of the then-prince from 1300 on, and was known for his entertaining manner, wit, skill at military tactics, and his rudeness.
Though the king was alleged to have been either bisexual or homosexual due to the lavish attention he paid to his male favourites, his queen did bear him four children: Edward III, who would succeed his father to the English throne; John of Eltham, created Earl of Cornwall; Eleanor of Woodstock, who married Reinoud (Reginald) II the Black, Count of Guelders; and Joan of The Tower, who married David II, King of Scots. Isabella also suffered at least one miscarriage.
It was during her pregnancy with their youngest child, Joan, in 1321, that Isabella dramatically begged her otherwise neglectful husband to banish one of his favourites.
Hugh Despenser the Younger, 1st Lord Despenser, was so despised by the queen, and the favours granted him so resented by the nobility, that Edward did banish him. When he recalled his favourite back to England within the same year, Isabella finally turned away from her husband altogether.
Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, was one of those opposed to Edward and the Despensers. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London but escaped to France in August 1323 amidst warrants for his arrest, either dead or alive. Some speculate that Isabella may have aided his escape, since Charles IV was the third, and last, of her brothers to ascend the throne of France.
The following year, anxious to escape her husband, she obtained consent from Mortimer to journey to France as a diplomat to push for peace. It was during this time at the French court that Isabella and Mortimer became lovers and made no secret of their relationship.
At his instigation, she refused to return to England so long as the Despensers were in power and had the favour of Edward II.
Her presence in France became the focus of nobles opposed to Edward and the Despensers. With Mortimer, she gathered an army to fight them.
These actions enraged Edward, who demanded that his wife return. Charles, however, responded, "The queen has come of her own will and may freely return if she wishes. But if she prefers to remain here, she is my sister and I refuse to expel her."
Though Charles publicly supported his sister and her lover, scandal forced the couple to leave France in the summer of 1326.
They went to William I, Count of Hainaut, in Holland, who was married to Isabella's cousin. William's daughter, Philippa, was then promised in marriage to Isabella's son, the future King Edward III, and, in return, William provided eight men-of-war ships.
On 21 November 1326, Isabella, Mortimer, and an army composed mainly of mercenaries landed at Suffolk. Edward II offered a reward for their deaths, and was rumored to have kept a knife concealed in his hose in order to kill his estranged wife, if he encountered her.
In response, she offered twice the reward for the head of Hugh Despenser the Younger. This offer was issued from Wallingford Castle, near the River Thames.
The invasion was successful. Even without battle, the king's few allies deserted him. The Despensers were gruesomely executed and King Edward II was forced to abdicate.
His eldest son, only 14 years old at the time, was crowned King Edward III on 1 February 1327. Because of his young age, Isabella and Mortimer ruled as regents.
According to one legend, the couple plotted to murder the deposed king in such a way that no blame could be cast their way. The order was supposed to have been written in Latin: Eduardum occidere nolite timere bonum est. Depending on the placement of a comma, this could be translated as, "Do not fear to kill Edward, it is good (to do it)," or "Do not kill Edward, it is good to fear."
There is little evidence, however, as to who gave the order to execute the former king, and no evidence exists that this note was ever even written.
In September 1327, Isabella and her son were informed that Edward II had died of a "grief-stricken illness." There is some speculation that Edward II was kept alive in dreadful conditions until 1330 by Mortimer, or that he somehow escaped to continental Europe and lived as a hermit for several years.
On 19 October 1330, the now-18 year old king and his trusted companions staged a coup and took Isabella and Mortimer prisoner. Though she cried out, "Fair son, have pity on gentle Mortimer," Edward had him executed for treason in November 1330.
Isabella's life was spared and she retired to Castle Rising in Norfolk. The legend that she went insane has no basis in fact. In truth, she enjoyed a comfortable retirement with many visits to her son's court where she doted on her grandchildren.
After her death on 22 or 23 August 1358, her body was returned to London. She was subsequently buried at Christ Church Greyfriars, Newgate, in her wedding dress.
Roger Mortimer was also buried at this same church, as was Isabella's youngest child, Joan of The Tower.
The ruins of the church, destroyed in World War II, have since been made into a public garden.
Isabella has been portrayed several times in fiction, with varying degrees of accuracy. One notable version was in Braveheart, where she was played by French actress Sophie Marceau. The movie depicted William Wallace as having an affair with Isabella and fathering her first-born, Edward III.
In actuality, she would have been only 3 years old at the time of the film's events, and 10 when Wallace died, seven years before her son was born.
The appellation "She-wolf of France" was likely never used in her lifetime. The nickname came from Shakespeare's play, Henry VI, and was used in reference to Henry's wife, Margaret of Anjou. It was not until the 18th century that Isabella Capet, mother of Edward III, was called the She-wolf of France.