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La Dame Sans Merci – oops, la Dame de Coucy

We tend to believe that medieval rulers had a lot of time for their sons, not so much for their daughters. Leaving aside the fact that medieval kings (and queens) did not exactly sit around and act the doting parents – little princes and princesses were often set up in their own household albeit frequently visited by their proud papas and mamas – today’s post goes to prove that even the most bellicose and manly of kings could love one of his daughters best.

Edward III is a king mainly remembered for a) having been very young when he became king, this as a consequence of the rebellion his mother led against his father b) having started the Hundred Years’ War against France when he claimed the French crown through his mother, Isabella of France c) having been happily married to Philippa of Hainaut. Okay, okay, so this is an extreme simplification: others may remember him for his gifted (and ambitious) son, John of Gaunt. Or for the mistress he took in his twilight years, that terribly rapacious Alice Perrers. (Although, IMO, Alice worked with the opportunities given to her. She was like forty years younger than Edward and likely was not in a position to say no when he lured her to his bed, this while Philippa was still alive, albeit very sick)

Edward was relatively young when he became a father as well. In 1330, when he was not yet eighteen, his Philippa presented him with a son, named Edward after his father. Great rejoicing everywhere – well, maybe not everywhere – and some say the birth of baby Ned is what drove Edward to stage the coup in the autumn of 1330 whereby he dethroned his dear mama and her lover, Roger Mortimer, from their position a his regents. It is said Edward feared for his life, and now that there was a baby prince through which his regents could rule it was best to pull the claws and teeth of those particular beasts ASAP.

Personally, I don’t hold with the theory that Mortimer and Isabella ever countenanced killing Edward. Isabella was to proud of her son, Mortimer was too fond of Isabella—and, I believe, of Edward. Whatever the case, at the end of 1330 Mortimer was dead, Isabella was in house arrest and Edward ruled the roost all by himself – which he would do for the coming forty years, give or take.

In 1332, Philippa gave birth to a daughter. The little baby was named Isabella, and this from the moment he first saw her, Edward was like putty in his baby daughter’s hands. He adored her, spoiled her, spent ridiculous amounts on the linen for her cradle, on her ladies-in-waiting. As was the custom, Isabella and her older brother Edward were brought up ina separate household, even if they do seem to have spent a lot of time at court. Some years later, they were joined by yet another little princess, Joanna, and their father ensured his children had everything they might need, be it minstrels or chaplains or tailors or cooks or…You get the picture, right?
Now, a medieval monarch had a need of children. Not only to inherit his crown, but also to forge alliances with other realms. So the moment Isabella was born, her daddy started considering just what advantageous match he could make for his baby girl.

Edward’s first choice was Pedro of Castile. He has gone down in history as Pedro the Cruel (or Pedro the Just, depends on which chronicle you read) but at the time of those initial discussions, Pedro was just Pedro, the only legitimate son of Alfonso XI who much preferred the company of his mistress Leonor de Guzmán and her children to that of his legally wedded wife and his heir. So while Pedro’s illegitimate siblings grew up at court, Pedro spent his childhood with his (understandably) bitter mother. In the event, Pedro’s childhood trauma would not have any impact on Isabella’s life. Somewhere along the way, Edward replaced Isabella with Joanna as Pedro’s intended. Why? No idea, but as Joanna succumbed to the plague while travelling to Castile Pedro would never know the joys of a blushing English bride. His daughters, however, would in the fullness of time marry two of Edward’s sons, namely John of Gaunt and Edmund of Langley. I’ve already written about John’s Castilian union, and the somewhat more convoluted story involving his brother and the very lively Isabel of Castile will have to wait for another day.

Back to our Isabella. After discarding Pedro as a match for his favourite girl, Edward toyed for a while with the notion of betrothing her to the Duke of Brabant, a widower 32 years Isabella’s senior, but that fell through due to consanguinity – the Duke of Brabant was a grandson of Edward I. Instead, Isabella was to become a pawn in the power struggle over Flanders.

Flanders was a region which depended on English wool to feed their textile industry, something Edward III did his best to leverage when he sought Flemish support for his campaigns in France. In the late 1330s, Edward’s efforts were scotched by the the then count of Flanders, Louis I, who was loyal unto death to his French overlord, the Valois king Philippe VI. So loyal was this Louis that he died at Crecy in 1346, and so Flanders was left somewhat rudderless, as Louis’ heir, yet another Louis who has gone down in history as Louis of Male, was only fourteen. In the subsequent upheaval, Edward’s man in Flanders was assassinated by a mob and to appease the English king (and ensure a steady supply of wool) the burghers of Flanders proposed a solution: their new count, Louis of Male, should marry Princess Isabella. Edward liked this idea. What Isabella may have thought of it, I have no idea. But one who definitely didn’t like it was the prospective bridegroom. Young Louis had been raised in France, was a scion of the House of Capet and was not about to pledge himself to the English king—or his daughter.
“Tsk, tsk,” said Louis’ counsellors. “You must do as it benefits us and marry the wench.”
“No way,” said teenaged Louis which resulted in the Flanders worthies locking him up and applying quite some pressure until the boy finally came to his senses and agreed to marry the English princess.

So in 1347, Edward, his wife, his daughter and a sizeable entourage made their way to Flanders. The young count was no longer locked up but was allowed to take air, even to do some hawking. He was also obliged to go through a grand betrothal ceremony and set his seal to the marriage contracts. I imagine he did this with a brave smile, poor boy… However, Louis had no intention of going through with the wedding—he was just biding his time. The wedding approached, things went into a final frenzy and in the week just before the wedding Louis went hawking as usual. And upon releasing his hawk, he set off in pursuit of the bird, followed by his bored falconier who suddenly saw his young master clap spurs to his steed and set off at speed towards the French border. At the age of not quite fifteen, Isabella was thereby an officially jilted bride. I don’t think she liked it much.

Yet again, Edward went husband-hunting. For a while, there were discussions with Charles of Bohemia, the Holy Roman Emperor, but that also fell through. By now, Isabella was seventeen and fast approaching her best-before-date. So it was with some relief that Edward finally found her a willing husband. It was 1351, Isabella was nineteen and the lucky groom was one Berard d’Albret, a major lord in Gascony and Edward’s chief lieutenant there. Now, if we’re going to be honest, this marriage was a huge step up for dear Berard, not so much for Isabella, who must have thought she would one day marry a king.

Edward must have been aware of this. He awarded Berard a huge annual income and further sweetened things by giving Isabella a sizeable wedding portion and her own annual income. His favourite daughter was to wed in style, and so huge was her entourage, so rich her robes and accessories that five ships were commissioned to carry her across the sea to her eagerly waiting groom in Bordeaux. Except, of course, that at the last minute Isabella changed her mind. She never boarded the ships. Instead, the jilted princess did some jilting of her own, returning home with her brand new wardrobe and her new annual income while poor Berard was so hurt by all this he resigned his offices and took holy orders instead. Well, according to one version of events. Another has him marrying elsewhere.

Was Edward angry with his daughter? Not so you’d notice. Instead, he happily paid her debts when she spent too much, awarded her fiefs and manors, wardships and offices. In Edward’s eyes, Isabella could do no wrong—an opinion I suspect Isabella totally agreed with. As to Isabella herself, she enjoyed life as a single empowered woman. What? I hear you say. “Empowered in medieval times?” Well, if you were sufficiently high-born—and rich—yes. And Isabella was both, taking her place in a court with its share of beautiful (and probably amorous) ladies. Did Isabella discover carnal pleasures while unwed? We do not know. I sort of hope she did.

Isabella was not destined to remain unwed forever. In 1360, a certain young Frenchman came to England as a hostage. This was when Edward had the French truly whipped for a while, and their king, Jean II, was his prisoner. Young Enguerrand de Coucy came with other nobles to remain as hostages so that their king could return to France (which did not quite work out as planned, but that is neither here nor there for the sake of this post). De Coucy was rich, he was handsome, he was brave, he was…well, in brief, he was everything a 14th century knight should be. He was also eight years younger than Isabella, but this does not seem to have bothered her unduly. Whether it bothered him we don’t know. But by consenting to marry the English king’s daughter Enguerrand was released from captivity, was restored to his English lands and gained a royal bride.

In 1365, Isabella was finally wed. She was thirty-three and Papa probably heaved a sigh of relief. His favourite baby was not only safely wed, her husband was one of the richest and most powerful men in France, fully capable of supporting Isabella’s lavish ways. It also gave Edward something of a power base in France – the Coucy stronghold was one of the most impressive castles in France, looming somewhat threateningly over the landscape close to Paris. Perfect, Edward probably though, just perfect. Whether Isabella and Enguerrand fully agreed we do not know – but according to one chronicler Isabella had vowed only to marry for love.

Isabella and Enguerrand were to have two daughters. She predeceased him by two decades or so, he married again and then went on to die a Turkish prisoner in the aftermath of the Battle of Nicopolis. But that was as yet very much in the future, that July day in 1365 when a resplendent Isabella vowed to love, honour and obey that great chevalier, Enguerrand de Coucy.

4 thoughts on “La Dame Sans Merci – oops, la Dame de Coucy”

      1. Hi Anna, no I don’t hold with the theory that Mortimer and Isabella were going to kill Edward either. That is complete and utter nonsense. Even sillier is the theory that if Edward hadn’t acted, Roger could look forward to at least 18 years in power through the Black Prince. No one can say how long they’ll be in any job and they might not be alive! And politics is and was a dirty game with people elected in and out or rather bumped off at times in those days. And if he was unpopular as many writers claim how could he bet on 18 years or even a year more in power? Even if he had lived he would have been 61 – old by medieval standards and might died long before that. And regents can change several times.

        But the crucial point is as you have said elsewhere, Isabella had no claim. Roger a weak one( he was a second cousin of Edward 11) but there is no way the barons would have accepted him as king. I don’t think Isabella would either especially as there was a huge queue ahead.
        If Mortimer and/ Isabella or were planning on killing Ed, they’d have done it long long before. Why leave it until Edward had married and had children? Much harder to get rid of. I doubt Isabella would have approved and she’d have dumped him. And still risky even in 1326/7 he’d have alienated the barons.
        As you have said Edward was expendable all along- John of Eltham was around.
        Like you said elsewhere its unlikely they would have put an illegitimate child on the throne and killed Edward. That child would never have been accepted. Not while there were so many heirs.
        Having said that, I think Mortimer was executed for dishonouring the queen, there could have been a threat of excommunication ( but we’ll never know)
        Edward was probably afraid that the illegitimate child could inherit the throne later on if others died of natural causes.
        And I agree, Mortimer was fond of Edward( sad that Edward didn’t feel the same) and he certainly did protect the king.

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