23 September 2013

The End of An Era: The 12-Year Old Girl Who Started a 100-Years War

You cannot blame a hundred years war on a 12 year old girl.

But you could perhaps blame William the Conqueror. When he took over the English throne in 1066 he retained possession of the Duchy of Normandy in France. Under feudal law, this meant that he and all future English kings owed homage to the king of France for their lands on the other side of the Channel.

The situation was always going to be a stone in the shoe of both monarchs.

Two hundred and fifty years later, Isabella’s marriage to Edward II of England was an effort to resolve the problem. Instead, it made it much worse.

Born in 1295, Isabella was the only surviving daughter of the wonderfully named Philippe the Handsome of France. At 3 years old, she was already being proposed as the bride for the King of England’s eldest son, Edward, to smooth negotiations for the Anglo-French truce of 1299.

Phillipe was not just a pretty face - he was thinking ahead; his own dynasty was secure - after all, he had three healthy sons. And if his daughter married England’s son, then his grandson would be King of England one day.

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Edward was ten years older than his bride when they married. He was the youngest of fifteen children and his mother had died when he was 6. He had endured a miserable childhood and his father, the formidable Longshanks, had taken little interest in him.

But with exquisite irony, Edward was the only son to survive.

He lived in his father’s shadow then and always would. For despite his strapping good looks he just wasn’t king material. In fact he has been described by some historians as one of the most unsuccessful kings ever to rule England.

He was certainly outfoxed by Isabella. In 1325, she left England to conduct delicate negotiations with France over Gascony. She returned with a mercenary army and threw him off the throne.

By then her father was dead and two of her brothers soon after him. Some blamed the curse laid at her father’s door by Templar Grand Master Jaques Molay when Phillip burned him alive outside Notre Dame cathedral.  When her other brother Charles died as well in 1328 there was no clear successor to the throne of France. All three had died without a male heir.

Isabella transferred her claim to the throne to her eldest son, Edward, and actively encouraged him to pursue it as the closest living male relative of the late King Charles and the only surviving male descendant of the senior line of her father’s Capetian dynasty. By the English interpretation of feudal law, it made Edward III the legitimate heir to the throne of France.

But the French didn’t see things this way. Under France’s Salic law, males descended through the female line were disqualified from the succession. Besides, the French didn’t want an English king. So they crowned the dead king’s cousin, Charles of Valois, as their new monarch.

Though Isabella’s reign as regent of England was short - her son removed her and executed her lover when he was just eighteen - she continued to have great influence at court and kept up a healthy correspondence with all of Europe’s leading figures. She persuaded Edward to pursue his claims with full vigour. In 1337 Edward refused to pay homage to the French king for his lands in Aquitaine - so the French confiscated them. In modern parlance hostilities escalated from there.

The dispute led to the Hundred Years War - although the name is actually a later invention of historians, as it was actually three separate wars divided by periods of truce. From it grew the legends of Joan of Arc, Agincourt and the Black Prince.

The war had consequences Isabella could not have foreseen for her beloved France. The country was devastated by the war - it lost half its population - and spurred the growth of nationalism on both sides. It also brought about the fall of the French language in England, which had served as the language of the nobility and trade from the time of the Norman Conquest.

Yet it had all started with a marriage that was supposed to bring a lasting peace.

It was inevitable really, from that day in 1066 when Harold caught the arrow in his eye. Or was it Jacques de Molay’s curse?

It was only ironic that a woman who so prided herself on being a daughter of France so much should bear the son who started the war that brought her country to its knees.

ISABELLA, Braveheart of France, available now from Amazon US and Amazon UK

And also available as POD from Cool Gus publishing.