Isabella of Valois – The child bride of King Richard II

richard isabella
(public domain)

Isabella of Valois was born on 9 November 1389 in Paris. Her parents were the King and Queen of France, Charles VI and his wife Isabeau of Bavaria. Isabella was the third child to be born to her parents, though her elder siblings both died as infants. A further nine children were born to the couple, including Isabella’s younger brother Charles who succeeded her father as King Charles VII of France.

As a princess of France, Isabella grew up in the public eye, and she was used to the lavish life of the court. However, this does not mean that Isabella had a carefree childhood. Although her father was crowned in 1380, it was not until 1388 that Charles ruled in his own right. Prior to this, his uncles had controlled the country as regents as he had been a child king. This meant that when Charles began his personal rule, he had to try to repair the damage done to France’s finances and suppress widespread revolts. On top of this, France was at war with Burgundy and was in the midst of what would later be known as the Hundred Years War with England. If this was not enough, in 1392, Charles VI of France experienced a traumatic psychotic episode while away on campaign. This was not a one-off, and the King was plagued by periods of severe mental illness for the rest of his life. While Isabella was a young girl, her father often went through stages where he would not even recognise his wife and children. He eventually developed a condition known as Glass Delusion, which led him to believe he could shatter like glass if he was touched. All of these factors meant that Isabella did not have the easiest of starts in life.

charles france
King Charles VI of France (public domain)

We do not usually hear much of the lives of young princesses in this era, but in 1396 there were many records and artworks which mentioned Isabella of Valois. This was because it was in this year that Charles VI tried to make peace with England and bring an end to the ongoing war by marrying his daughter to the English King. Child marriages were not uncommon during the medieval era, but this was extreme. King Richard II of England was a 29-year-old widower, and Isabella was a mere six years old. However, it must be noted that this marriage was not to be consummated while Isabella was still a child, and King Richard II believed he was still young enough to wait to have children with Isabella when she was of age. A young bride was also seen as a good thing as Richard could raise her at the English court, where she would be influenced by English customs and be “moulded” to how the King would like her to be. All of this sounds very disturbing from our modern point of view but was seen as perfectly acceptable for the period.

Before the wedding, English ambassadors visited Isabella, and the Princess told them that if it pleased God and her father, she was glad to be Queen of England. She then practised the role of Queen while she played, and a sign of her age is that alongside her wedding gowns in her luggage were several dolls and toys.

On 9 March 1396, a proxy wedding took place, and a vast dowry was signed over to England from France. However, it was not until November that the official wedding was carried out in person, where it was said that Isabella wore a gold crown and a blue velvet gown. The girl was said to be tearful on this occasion, and she was carried by her uncles. From this point onwards, Isabella was no longer the responsibility of her parents, and she was to move to England, where she would be raised by a French governess in her own court at Windsor Castle.

isabella richard
Wedding of Richard and Isabella (public domain)

Isabella was crowned Queen of England in 1397, but she continued to live in her own household. However, the King did visit her regularly, and the pair developed a bond of friendship. Isabella and her maids eagerly awaited his visits as they found him to be funny and kind.

Maybe if Isabella had come of age and the union with Richard had developed, they could have been happily married, but this was not to be. In 1399, Isabella’s uncle Louis I, Duke of Orléans, seized power in France from her unstable father. He did not wish to continue the peace with France, and so he supported a rival and cousin of King Richard called Henry Bolingbroke in his aim to leave France and take control of England. At this time, King Richard was away in Ireland, so it was relatively easy for Henry Bolingbroke to gain the support of much of the English nobility. During this period, Isabella was moved from place to place and was eventually put under house arrest, a terrifying experience for a child.

By August 1399, King Richard II had surrendered to the rebels, he was swiftly imprisoned, and on 13 October, England had a new king as Henry Bolingbroke became King Henry IV of England. In February of the following year, it was announced that Richard the deposed King was dead; it is still unclear how exactly he died. Young and widowed, Isabella was stuck in England while her fate was decided for her. It was wished by the new King that Isabella would marry his son Henry, but the brave ten-year-old apparently refused this and publicly mourned for her dead husband.

In 1401, Isabella finally returned to France, though her dowry was lost to England. In June 1406, she married again, this time to her cousin Charles who became the Duke of Orléans soon after their marriage. On 13 September 1409, Isabella sadly died in childbirth; she was survived by a daughter named Joan, who was her only child. As Isabella had refused to marry Henry IV’s son Henry, her sister Catherine later went on to marry him instead and became Queen of England when he succeeded the throne as Henry V.1

  1. Sources:
    French Connections in the English Renaissance by (eds) Catherine Gimelli Martin and Hassan Melehy
    The Valois Kings of France by Robert Knecht
    The Sister Queens: Isabella & Catherine de Valois by Mary McGrigor

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