Isabella of England – A secluded Empress

isabella of england
(public domain)

Although she was an empress, Isabella of England spent much of her marriage in seclusion. Although she does not seem to have wielded any power herself, she is seen as an important figure in connections between England and the Holy Roman Empire.

Early Life

Isabella was born in 1214 to King John of England and Isabella of Angouleme. She was the fourth of their five children and the second of their three daughters. She was born during a time of high tension during her parents’ marriage. She never really got to know her father, for he died in 1216 when she was just two. Soon afterwards, her nine-year-old brother, Henry III, became the new King of England. Their mother returned to France and remarried in 1220, and Isabella continued to be raised at the English court. Soon afterwards, Isabella’s older sister, Joan, was betrothed to King Alexander II of Scotland. Since Joan was in France at the time, it was decided that if she were not to make it back to England by 29 September or two weeks after that, Alexander would marry Isabella instead. However, Joan made it back in time and was married to Alexander.

In 1225, a marriage was considered between Isabella and Henry, the oldest son of Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily. However, later that same year, Henry married Margaret of Austria instead. Later, a marriage to Louis IX, King of France, was also considered, but nothing came of this. In 1232, Isabella, still unmarried, had her own household with at least a dozen attendants.


In 1234, Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, sent an embassy to England to propose a marriage to Isabella. Frederick had been twice widowed; his first marriage was to Constance of Aragon, and his second marriage was to Isabella II of Jerusalem. He had two sons, one by each wife. His older son, Henry, had once been a possible match for Isabella. Henry was three years older than Isabella. The possibility of Frederick marrying Isabella was suggested to him by Pope Gregory IX.

In February 1235, Henry III of England agreed to Isabella’s marriage to Frederick. Henry summoned Isabella from the Tower of London, where she lived, to Westminster. The ambassadors were impressed with her and gave her a betrothal ring, proclaiming her as Empress. Isabella and Frederick were betrothed in February 1235, and Isabella was given a dowry of 30,000 marks.

Isabella sailed from England in May 1235. The preparations for this wedding were among the most lavish of the time. Isabella was accompanied by a large retinue and brought a splendid trousseau with her. She landed in Antwerp after a four-day sea journey. Isabella then continued on to Cologne. On the way, a large escort provided by the Emperor protected her because there were rumours that Frederick’s enemies wanted to abduct her. Isabella arrived at Cologne on 22 or 24 May. When Isabella entered the city, everyone wished to see her face, so she removed her veil so everyone could get a glimpse of her.

Frederick receives Isabella (public domain)

Isabella spent six weeks in Cologne waiting for Frederick. Meanwhile, he was dealing with a rebellion led by his oldest son, Henry. After Henry was tried and arrested, Isabella entered Worms, where the wedding was to take place. Isabella and Frederick were married in July 1235. There are three different dates given for the wedding- July 15, 20, or 30. The nuptial festivities went on for four days in a row. After the celebrations ended, Frederick sent costly gifts to the English king and promised to help him against the French. Around this time, Isabella was crowned as Holy Roman Empress and Queen of Sicily.


Soon after the wedding, Frederick sent most of Isabella’s attendants back to England. Isabella spent the first year of her marriage in Germany and gave birth to her first child in late 1236 or early 1237. She was in Italy by August 1337. Throughout the marriage, Frederick and Henry maintained correspondence. In 1237, Isabella received a personal letter from Henry. The personal correspondence between Isabella and Henry seems to have been controlled, and it is possible Isabella expressed disappointment about her marriage to her brother.

In February 1238, Isabella gave birth to a boy named Henry. The exact number of children she had is debated; estimations range from three to five. Her first child is sometimes believed to be her daughter Margaret, who survived to adulthood but is sometimes identified as a daughter named Agnes, who died in infancy. Some also identify her first child as a son named Jordan, who died in infancy. However, all sources agree that Henry was the child Isabella gave birth to in 1238.

Isabella often remained separate from Frederick as he visited his vast domains. She spent most of her marriage in Italy, which was part of the Empire at the time. Isabella was not politically active. In fact, it seems like Frederick preferred to keep her away from any power or influence. In the summer of 1241, Isabella’s second brother, Richard, was returning home from crusade, and stopped in Sicily, hoping to see Frederick and Isabella. However, he was told they were in northern Italy, so he headed there. Richard met Frederick at Faenza. He requested to see Isabella, but Frederick seems to have turned down his request at first. At this time, Isabella was pregnant and was perhaps feeling unwell. Richard waited for a few days and made a formal request. This time he was able to visit her, and brother and sister were presented with a display of jugglers and dancers.

King Henry of England expressed disappointment that his sister did not participate in public ceremonies and was rarely seen wearing a crown. Sometimes, Frederick is said to have kept Isabella, as well as his second wife, imprisoned. While this does seem to be an exaggeration, it seems very likely that he kept them in seclusion and prevented them from being involved in public affairs. This was very different from Frederick’s relationship with his first wife, Constance, who even acted as regent of Sicily when he was away.

Isabella died in childbirth on 1 December 1241. She had just given birth to a daughter; some sources say it was Margaret who survived to adulthood; others say it was Agnes who died soon afterwards. Isabella’s last wish was that Frederick and Henry remain friends, which they did. Isabella was buried in Andria Cathedral alongside Frederick’s second wife. Isabella was deeply mourned by Henry, and he donated alms in memory of her. Frederick did not make another diplomatic marriage after Isabella’s death, but at one point, he married his longtime mistress, Bianca Lancia.1

  1. Sources:

    Alio, Jacqueline; Queens of Sicily, 1061-1266

    Connolly, Sharon Bennett; Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth-Century England

About CaraBeth 61 Articles
I love reading and writing about the royals of medieval Europe- especially the women. My interest was first started by the Plantagenet dynasty, but I decided to dive deeper, and discovered that there were many more fascinating royal dynasties in medieval Europe. Other dynasties I like reading and writing about are; the Capets, and their Angevin branch in Naples and Hungary, the Luxembourgs, the early Hapsburgs, the Arpads, the Piasts, the Premyslids and many more!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.