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 Isabella (c.1188–1246), tomb effigy Isabella (c.1188–1246), tomb effigy
Isabella [Isabella of Angoulême], suo jure countess of Angoulême (c.1188–1246), queen of England, second consort of King John, was the only child of Audemar, count of Angoulême (d. 1202), and his wife, Adalmues or Alice, widow of Guillaume, count of Jouy, and daughter of Pierre de Courtenay, a descendant of Louis VI of France. Isabella was about twelve years old at the time of her marriage to , and so cannot have been born much before 1188. John had divorced his first wife, Isabella, countess of Gloucester, soon after his accession, and on 24 August 1200 he married Isabella of Angoulême. The chroniclers suggest that John had unexpectedly become besotted with the young girl, but in reality his decision reflects less romantic, political considerations. The counts of Angoulême controlled a wealthy and strategically significant province lying between the Plantagenet strongholds of Poitiers and Bordeaux. Earlier in 1200 Isabella had been betrothed to Hugues, count of Lusignan, who had recently been awarded the neighbouring lordship of La Marche by King John. The betrothal threatened to establish Hugues as lord of Lusignan, La Marche, and Angoulême, and hence as a dangerous rival to the Plantagenets. To counter this threat John stepped in to claim Isabella for himself. Following their marriage at Angoulême on 24 August Isabella accompanied John to Chinon and thence to England, where on 8 October 1200 she was crowned and anointed in Westminster Abbey.

John's actions caused uproar in France. Deprived of Isabella, his promised bride, and her inheritance, Hugues defected to the French king, Philip Augustus. In response to his complaints Philip pronounced a sentence of forfeiture against John, which over the next three years was to serve as the pretext for a campaign of conquest in which the French drove John from Normandy and much of his continental inheritance. To this extent John's marriage with Isabella was directly responsible for his expulsion from the Plantagenet lands in France. In 1204, following the death of the king's mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella was promised Eleanor's dower lands in England and Normandy, including the towns of Exeter, Wilton, Ilchester, and Malmesbury, the honour of Berkhamsted, the farm of Waltham in Essex, and the county of Rutland together with Rockingham. In addition, shortly after her marriage in 1200, she had been promised dower in Anjou and Poitou, consisting of the lordships of Niort, Saintes, and six other towns. During her husband's lifetime, however, she appears to have controlled no marriage portion of her own, her expenses being met by occasional payments from the king, and, perhaps, from the revenues of queen's gold, an additional levy charged upon fines with the crown.

In spite of stories of recrimination and infidelity retailed by some chroniclers, it is clear that, though Isabella was rarely in John's company after 1205, she continued to command his trust. She gave birth to five of John's legitimate children: the future king, , , , , and . And in 1214 she crossed with her husband to Poitou, where John was able to establish control over her inheritance in Angoulême. During the ensuing civil war in England, she was kept in relative safety in the west country. The death of John and the accession of Henry III in October 1216 were followed by the release of Isabella's dower, from which, within the following six months, she made awards to the monks of Malmesbury and St Nicholas's, Exeter, in memory of her late husband. For the rest of her life she continued to use her title and her seal as queen of England. None the less, following John's death, she appears to have been excluded from the inner circle of the new royal council. Denied possession of the castles of Exeter and Rockingham, supposedly part of her dower, and refused payment of 3500 marks which she claimed to have been willed by John, in July 1217 she effectively abandoned her children in England in order to take up her family inheritance in France. Within the next three years she established her lordship over the city and county of Angoulême, despite resistance from the officials whom King John had appointed to administer the county in 1214, and in April or May 1220 she married for a second time.

Isabella's new husband, Hugues, count of La Marche, was the son of her former fiancé, repudiated in 1200 in order that she might marry King John. As a result, in 1220 the younger Hugues succeeded to precisely the combined lordship over Lusignan, La Marche, and Angoulême that John had been so anxious to disrupt twenty years before. In addition, via Isabella, he acquired a claim to Isabella's dower lands in England and the lordships of Saintes and Niort, assigned by John as part of her dower in France. The council of Henry III was in no position to resist the marriage, and Hugues was allowed possession of Isabella's English estates. However, disputes soon arose. The English estates of Isabella and Hugues were briefly seized in 1221, and confiscated for good after June 1224, when he joined in alliance with the French king, Louis VIII, effectively paving the way for a French invasion of Poitou. In 1226 a reconciliation was effected with the English court, and in 1230 Isabella met her son, Henry III, for the first time in more than a dozen years, during Henry's ineffective expedition to Brittany and Poitou.

However, Isabella and her husband continued to play a double game. In 1241 she is said to have persuaded Hugues to reopen negotiations with England, when French lordship in Poitou looked likely to become over-oppressive. At vast expense Henry III crossed to Poitou in 1242, but Hugues promptly abandoned him to rejoin Louis IX, and Henry's expedition collapsed in disarray. Isabella's marriage, too, proved unstable, shaken by Hugues's infidelities and by threats of divorce; Isabella and her second husband nevertheless had nine children (including and ) among whom the family estates were divided. She then retired to the great Plantagenet abbey of Fontevrault, where she died on 4 June 1246, having been veiled as a nun on her deathbed. Although her relations with Henry III had been badly soured by her desertion of him in 1217, and then by Hugues's treachery in 1242, her obsequies were celebrated in England, with royal gifts to the canons of Ivychurch in Wiltshire, the endowment of chantry chapels at Malmesbury and Westminster, and a feast for the poor scholars of Oxford and Cambridge. In 1254 Henry visited Fontevrault, and personally supervised the removal of his mother's body from its resting-place in the chapter house to a site within the abbey church, close to the tombs of his Plantagenet ancestors.

Isabella appears to have been a forceful character, capable of imposing her own rule in Angoulême after 1217, but apparently lacking in affection for the children she had had with John. Neither of her husbands was faithful to her, and this, combined with the fact that she was barely out of infancy when she married, may have contributed to the harshness of character attributed to her by some chroniclers.

Nicholas Vincent

Sources  

Chancery records · Pipe rolls · Paris, Chron. · F. Michel, ed., Histoire des ducs de Normandie et des rois d’Angleterre (Paris, 1840) · M. Bouquet and others, eds., Recueil des historiens des Gaules et de la France / Rerum Gallicarum et Francicarum scriptores, 20–21 (Paris, 1850–55) [chronicles of William de Nangis and St Denis] · A. Teulet and others, eds., Layettes du trésor des chartes, 5 vols. (Paris, 1863–1909) · cartulary of St Nicholas Exeter, BL, Cotton MS Vitellius D.ix, fol. 65r–v · J. S. Brewer and C. T. Martin, eds., Registrum Malmesburiense: the register of Malmesbury Abbey, 2 vols., Rolls Series, 72 (1879–80) · Fontevrault obituary notices, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, MS latin 5480 pt 1, 1 · F. Marvaud, ‘Isabelle d'Angoulême ou La Comtesse-Reine’, Bulletin de la Société Archéologique et Historique de la Charente, 2nd ser., 1 (1856) · H. G. Richardson, ‘The marriage and coronation of Isabella of Angoulême’, EngHR, 61 (1946), 289–314 · F. A. Cazel and S. Painter, ‘The marriage of Isabelle of Angoulême’, EngHR, 63 (1948), 83–9 · H. G. Richardson, ‘King John and Isabelle of Angoulême’, EngHR, 65 (1950), 360–71 · F. A. Cazel and S. Painter, ‘The marriage of Isabelle of Angoulême’, EngHR, 67 (1952), 233–5 · P. Boissonnade, ‘L'ascension, le déclin et la chute d'un grand état féodal du centre-ouest; les Taillefer et les Lusignans, comtes de la Marche et d'Angoulême’, Bulletins et Memoires de la Société Archéologique et Historique de la Charente, 43 (1935) · H. S. Snellgrove, The Lusignans in England, 1247–1258 (1950)

Likenesses  

seal · tomb effigy, Fontevrault, France [see illus.] · tomb effigy, replica, V&A