27 February 2015

Lovers: The Princess and The Hostage

By Blythe Gifford

King Edward III of England had a total of nine children who lived to adulthood, and he worked hard to make sure they made marriages that would serve his medieval kingdom well.  For the most part.  But he had a soft spot for his eldest daughter, Isabella and although many matches were proposed for her, at age 28, she was still unwed.  Most historians suggest this was by her own choice and that she was content to remain at home with her parents, their favorite daughter, living in comfort, luxury, and with all the royal status of her rank.

Her parents provided her with enough lands and holdings to give her an independent means of support.  And when that did not suffice (often, it did not, for Isabella was known as a profligate spender), the king covered her debts.  She settled into a comfortable, if unorthodox life for the time. “The Exception Who Proves the Rule,” as historian Jessica Lutkin called her. 

Then, in 1359, England captured the king of France in a major battle, which entitled England to demand an enormous ransom for his return.  As part of the resulting complex treaty, a number of French noblemen were sent to England, to be held hostage until the money was paid.

Chateau de Coucy, France
One of these was Enguerrand, Lord de Coucy.  A powerful French lord, he had inherited his title at a young age and began his career on the battlefield at 15.  By the time he was 18, he was commanding men to suppress an uprising of French peasants.  When he arrived in England as a hostage, he was only 21, seven years younger than Isabella.

According to the rules of chivalry, these French hostages were treated more like guests than prisoners and treated to a succession of feasts and celebrations throughout their captivity.  (For my post on this see:  )  De Coucy, in addition to his prowess in war, excelled at the courtly arts.  According to Jean Froissart, recorder of all events of King Edward’s reign, "...the young lord de Coucy shined in dancing and caroling whenever it was his turn. He was in great favor with both the French and English..."

What woman could help but notice such a man?

History does not record when or how Enguerrand and Isabella met.  Did she admire him in the dance and call him over?  Did he present himself with a flourish?  Did their eyes meet and then…

Sadly, Froissart recorded none of this.  And so, when I wrote WHISPERS AT COURT, I was forced to create my own explanation.

But the spinster princess was obviously taken with the young Frenchman.  It is difficult to believe that the relationship could have developed without her active encouragement.  Was she suddenly thinking, as she reached 30, that she wanted a family of her own? 

Isabella had nearly wed at 19, a man of her own choosing, who was also a Frenchman, but one allied with the English.  Her parents had agreed and settled on the details, providing her with a huge and extravagant trousseau.  Five ships were loaded and waiting to whisk her away to Gascony, where the ceremony was to take place.  Then, at the last minute, Isabella refused to go. 
Why?  No one seems to know.  While they describe her trousseau in great detail (the silk mantle, lined with ermine, stitched in silver and gold embroidery, the robes of cloth of gold and crimson velvet), they do not record why a young woman who had chosen her own husband would turn back at the docks at the last minute.

So the aging princess who met the charming French hostage had a history of getting what she wanted, no matter what the cost.  Did she pursue him?  Some have said she married for love alone.  Others have suggested her father nudged her along.  Though England and France were, for that moment, at peace, having a key nobleman as part of the family could help balance the French king’s supporters.

And what of de Coucy?  Perhaps he the hunter.  And if so, what drew to this woman?

De Coucy's English arms as Earl of Bedford
Upon their marriage, he did have restored to him some English lands his family had once held.  He received an English title and had his ransom forgiven.  Those things were not trivial, but they hardly seemed to equal his life in France, where he had one of the grandest chateaux, dominion over vast lands, and was widely respected position as a leader of men.
But married they were, in July, 1365, at Windsor Castle in a lavish ceremony.  The amount spent on their wedding far exceeded that for Edward’s other daughters, yet more evidence that Isabella was, by far, his favorite.  Once again, history tells us more about the couple’s possessions than their emotions.  Apparently, the groom, as well as the bride, was given a crown. 
She was 33.  He was 25.

A few months later (was it reluctantly on her part?), Isabella and Enguerrand left for France, with official word from the king that “that all children, male or female, who at any time may be born to them abroad, shall be considered capable of inheriting lands in England, and shall be as fully naturalized as though they were born in the realm, all ordinances, establishments, customs, or usages .of the kingdom, notwithstanding.”

There were children.  Two daughters were born to them in France, but for Enguerrand and Isabella, there was no lifelong happy ending.  When Edward III died in 1377, de Coucy gave up his English title and lands and returned his loyalty to the French king.  Isabella, who had traveled back to England frequently, returned home for good with their two daughters, and the couple lived apart for the rest of her life.  She died in 1382.  After her death, Enguerrand remarried, another Isabelle, this one the daughter of a French duke.  They also had a daughter, who did not live to adulthood.

De Coucy spent the rest of his life in wars and fighting, finally dying of the plague in 1396, after being taken prisoner while on crusade in Turkey.

And their children?  Marie de Coucy, born nine months after their wedding, married a French nobleman.  Philippa de Coucy married an English lord.  Somehow, seeming to prove that England and France had not, perhaps could not, be fully reconciled.  Even by love.

After many years in public relations, advertising and marketing, Blythe Gifford started writing seriously after a corporate layoff. Ten years and one layoff later, she became an overnight success when she sold her first book to the Harlequin Historical line.  Since then, she has published ten books, primarily set in England and on the Scottish Borders, most revolving around real historical figures and events.  WHISPERS AT COURT, which revolves around the romance between Isabella and Enguerrand, will be released in June, 2015. For more information, visit www.blythegifford.com

Author photo Jennifer Girard

Illustration credits: "Sir Enguerrand de Coucy, 1st Earl of Bedford, KG" by Rs-nourse - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sir_Enguerrand_de_Coucy,_1st_Earl_of_Bedford,_KG.png#mediaviewer/File:Sir_Enguerrand_de_Coucy,_1st_Earl_of_Bedford,_KG.png

"Dessin Château-de-Coucy Rempart 011" by Collectionneur: Destailleur, Hippolyte (1822-1893) - Bibliothèque nationale de FranceCote : BNF Richelieu Estampes et photographie Rés. Ve-26j-Fol. DestailleurProvince, t. 5 , n. 1281 . microfilm A031428Identifiant: 07741283(Originally uploaded at fr.wikipedia; description page is/was here.). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dessin_Ch%C3%A2teau-de-Coucy_Rempart_011.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Dessin_Ch%C3%A2teau-de-Coucy_Rempart_011.jpg