Queen Isabella–Alison Weir

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I love history. I was a history minor in college, in fact. And I love Alison Weir, who writes really engaging, compelling nonfiction that reads almost like fiction (she’s moved into historical fiction, as well, so be aware of which one you’re choosing if you’re picking up one of her books) but is full of actual historical data.

I feel like I might have read this book many years ago but apparently a lot didn’t sink in because much of this felt new when I re-read it recently.

You probably know of Isabella already–she was the French princess in the Braveheart movie–but almost all of what they showed you in the movie was ridiculously inaccurate. For example, she didn’t even land in England until after the old king died, and she was only 12 at that time, making her longstanding affair with William Wallace an impossibility.

However, the general concepts of Isabella as presented in the movie are more or less on point. She was a fierce woman, for sure. Her husband was not a strong leader or a good king, and his favorite/likely lover was indeed murdered, although not by his father.

In essence, what you had was a situation where Isabella, raised in the most powerful empire in the world, whose father and brothers were all strong leaders, was sent to England and forced to defer to a man with no leadership skills and frankly HORRIFIC judgement. She made the best of the situation, because she was a clever and resourceful woman, and supported him through his many issues. She, along with everyone else in the kingdom, hated his boyfriend/favorite. The king showered his favorite with land and titles, and allowed him to act like a royal himself. Eventually, of course, the nobles had enough and captured and illegally executed him. The king was angry but not powerful enough to do anything about it.

Then there was a brief period of relative peace and prosperity.

Until the king found a new favorite. Then it was the same story all over again, only this time the king was showering his favorite and his favorite’s father with prizes and the favorite managed to talk the king into stripping Isabella of her property. The property is what provided her income, with which she paid for her food, clothes, attendants, and so on. No property, no money, no food. It was a terrible situation.

But then the king got involved in a dispute with France, where her brother was on the throne. Unbeknownst to the king, she’d been smuggling letters to France for months, complaining about her situation. Her brother suggested that the king send her to negotiate a truce, and the king–with his TERRIBLE judgement–thought that was a solid idea.

Wait! There’s yet more terrible decisions coming along. Part of the deal she struck with France involved the king having to swear loyalty to the French king for the lands he owned in France. The king would have to go to France to do that in person. But the Despensers, his favorites, were strongly opposed to this idea, because they remembered what happened to the last favorite and didn’t want to be alone in England for any period of time. Ask yourself, what is the single worst choice the king could make here? Answer: send his 12 year old son and heir to France to swear fealty in his stead.

Now we have a situation where Isabella, thoroughly pissed off, is sitting in the most powerful court in the world, with the backing of her brother who is the most powerful ruler in the world, and she has in her possession the heir to the throne of England.

The king tried to salvage the situation by sending scolding letters to her, her brother, and their son. And she said, get rid of the Despensers and everything is cool. Clearly the smart move would be to do what she wanted. Just as clearly, the king refused. Because he was an idiot.

In the end, she raised her own army and invaded England, overthrowing the king and putting her son on the throne with her and her new paramour (for which she took ALL KINDS of crap from basically everyone, considering the medieval stance on adultery) acting as the power behind the throne.

Unfortunately, they went a little wild and crazy with the power and eventually her son deposed her boyfriend and made her sit quietly for a few years until he was sure she was done involving herself in politics.

She’s taken a lot of heat in the past for being aggressive and adulterous, but I think that invasion was a solid idea. They were willing to essentially let her starve to death, but she managed to outmaneuver them and replaced a terrible king with what turned out to be a good king. And it’s not like she was ever going to go back to live with her husband after he was deposed. If she lived today she’d have gotten a divorce and no one would even blink at the boyfriend.

If you like history and aren’t opposed to non-fiction, this is an interesting and fun read.

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