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.
Was that really how it was?
“He is watching some of his lads break in a horse.
She picks him out because he is taller than the others by half a head, otherwise no one might have known him for a king. The way he is dressed, he might have been a smithy or a carpenter.
One of the boys stands on the saddle and pulls a fool’s face. He falls off and makes them all laugh. Edward sends one of his lackeys to give him a sovereign.
They cheer and huddle around. Look how they love him. He has an easy charm with stable boys at least. He glances in her direction and she sees him sigh.
He turns and lopes towards her through the mud. “Your grace. A fine morning. Chill, but blue skies always lift the spirits.”
“I did not expect to find you here.”
“You think I should be at court worrying over Lancaster and Warwick? They are wearisome men, are they not?”
“What are you doing here, Edward? You are facing revolt. You know what they say about you? You are accused of keeping evil counsel …”
“ – They cannot be talking about Perro!”
“ – that you have lost Scotland and that the country’s chief enemy lurks in your chamber. Their words.”
“If they want war with me, they shall have it.”
Her horse snickers and tosses its head. She brings him under control with a sharp tug of the reins and a dig of her heels. She wishes sometimes that Edward was a horse.
“Isn’t this what you want? If they have their way you won’t have to worry about Gaveston anymore.”
“I do not want to see them take your power. You are the king above all else.”
“There is nothing to be done. I know what they want and they shall not have it.”
“You will not forestall them by laughing with stable boys.”
“What else would you have me do? I have asked your father for his support and he sends me letters full of puffery and little else. Perhaps you might shift him.”
“You are king here. Not my father.”
“Just so. Then you should go back to your dolls and leave such matters to men.”
“I am fifteen years old and you will stop treating me as a child.” She stares right into his eyes. “Besides, do I look to you like I have ever in my life played with a doll?”
He stares back. Then he throws back his head and laughs. “No, you do not, your grace.” He bows and she turns her horse’s head.
As she is about to ride away he calls her. He pulls himself up in the saddle and kisses her. “I love your temper,” he says and runs back to the horse yard. The boys cheer him. For all that he infuriates her, she loves him too.
* * * * *
But he loves no one as he loves Gaveston. He is even prepared to go to war for him. The more the barons defy him, the more he goads them by giving his Perro gifts of land and titles and jewels.
The barons make their move. She hears about it first from one of her ladies, old Hugh’s daughter in law, Eleanor. Her brother is the Earl of Gloucester and he has boasted to her about putting his name to a piece of paper he has called The Ordinances.
They wish to castrate their king, not with knives but with rules and restrictions. A select council of twenty one has been appointed to tell the king what he may or may not do. They say it is to uphold the Magna Carta, right the general wrongs of the realm and “reform abuses within the royal household.”
Isabella goes in search of Edward but instead she finds Gaveston, sitting alone in the Great Hall, warming his boots by the fire and drinking spiced mead. He looks splendid on such a grey day, in a tunic of blue velvet trimmed with silk thread and pearls, one of his men rubbing his feet.
“Your grace,” he murmurs and jumps to his feet.
“Where is Edward?”
“He is hunting. There is a great stag in the forest and one of his sheriffs saw it near the lake this morning.” He sips his wine. “I see from your face that you have heard about the new ordinances.”
“How dare they?”
“They are concerned for the welfare of England. So they say.”
“Is my uncle a party to this?”
“All of them, even Richmond, and he would love Edward even if he was Beelzebub. They say they cannot keep faith with a king who does not keep faith with them.”
“You have brought him to this!”
“He does all this for you. Why don’t you leave him be?”
“I could as soon leave him as he could leave me.”
“But if it were not for you, they would not challenge him.”
“You really think things would be different if there was no Piers Gaveston?” He replaces his velvet slippers and sends his man off with a coin for his troubles. After he has gone, he says: “Do you hate me also, Isabella?”
“I do not understand why he would risk everything for you.”
“If he did as much for you, his queen, would you not think him the bravest king in the world? Would the whole world not applaud him for it? But he does it for me, and they call him weak and a fool.”
“Because you are not his queen.”
“I am his best friend.”
“So you say.”
“I am the only one who understands him. Do you know that?”
The words haunt her for months. Edward and Gaveston ignore the council and instead take their army into Scotland to bring the Bruce to heel and the barons back to their side. Such army as it was, for only Gloucester, Richmond and Surrey show up while the rest stay home. Bruce chooses not to fight, and retires into the highlands, destroying crops and taking his livestock with him. Edward’s army starves and has to retreat.
Isabella is summoned to Berwick to spend the long winter with her king and the only man who understands him.”