Gorgeous. Defiant. Looks great in a skirt.
But enough about Mel Gibson – let’s talk about Sophie’s Marceau’s character in Braveheart, the beautiful French princess who is also Edward Longshank’s daughter-in-law. In the film she has an affair with Mel and then gets pregnant to him, breaking the royal English line.
It is a tale of adventure, romance and terrible butchery – with English and Scottish history being mutilated beyond recognition.
But who was the REAL Isabella of France?
She was born in 1295, so she was ten years old and still living in France when Mel Gibson – William Wallace – was executed, so she certainly never met him, or have an adulterous affair with him.
The facts of her life are far more spectacular.
Isabella in fact succeeded where Wallace didn’t; she raised an army, invaded England and deposed Longshank’s son, Edward II, and ruled as regent for four years.
So why doesn’t history remember her as Braveheart?
Isabella’s father was Philip IV of France – Phillip the Fair.
Yes, she was beautiful, but she was royal, and raised to be more than Mel Gibson’s love interest.
She was highly intelligent and had great diplomatic skill.
At 12 she was married to Longshank’s son, Edward II, as part of a political alliance.
But Edward soon became notable for his lack of aptitude for kingship – as well as his lack of interest in women.
That doesn’t make him the bad guy in the story either – but for a bright and politically astute woman, it was a terrible match.
Roll the clock forward fifteen years …
Isabella is starved of affection and has been sidelined in the political arena by her husband’s “favourites”. Were men like Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser the Younger just his advisers – or were they more than that?
Whatever the truth, by the time she was thirty, she faced a stark choice; retire to the country and spend the rest of her life with her needlework – or rebel.
She chose: Freedom!
When I went to school in England, I was told the last person to invade England was William the Conqueror in 1066. This was actually not true.
In 1326 Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer, raised a mercenary army in the Low Countries – by marrying her oldest son off to a the daughter of the Count of Hainaut.
As invasions go, it wasn’t quite D-Day.
The fleet got lost and landed miles from where she and Mortimer had planned.
Not that it mattered; by then, her husband Edward was so deeply unpopular that the barons of England welcomed her and Mortimer with open arms and the invasion became more of a bloodless coup.
She named herself Queen Regent and she and Mortimer assumed the rule of England – and not once did she have to wear a kilt and paint herself blue.
But it didn’t last.
Four years later Mortimer was himself deposed by Isabella’s own son and she was retired to Castle Rising in Norfolk and lived on for many years in considerable style, until her death in 1358.
Poor Sophie Marceau. History has repeatedly painted her as a beautiful ‘femme fatale’ – cruel and manipulative, and calling her The She-Wolf of France.
The movie, “Braveheart”, was really the final insult.
And Edward II? Although he was an accomplished warrior – if not a very able tactician – he has similarly been portrayed as weak and effeminate.
History sometimes likes to treat people from the past as modern news channels treat current affairs stories; there always has to be a villain and a victim. But when I read the history of Edward II and Isabella I saw something much more nuanced, more complex and ultimately, more poignant. Was I right or wrong? Here’s a free excerpt (a four minute read).
If you love medieval fiction, you may be interested in other books in the series, as below.