History Blog

Almost Queens: Isabel Marshal

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The “Almost Kings” blog series showed that on occasion a younger son can end up King due to the unfortunate early death of the eldest. Maybe this was a consideration for Isabel Marshall, but she certainly couldn’t have foreseen missing out on the title “Queen of the Romans”.

Isabel was born to one of England’s greatest knights and his wealthy heiress wife. William the Marshal married Isabel de Clare the Countess of Pembroke in August 1189. Despite the 26-year age gap their marriage was successful. Isabel brought her husband extensive properties in England and Ireland, and William trusted her judgement when the political situation took him away from their lands. At her birth on 9 October 1200 the younger Isabel was their seventh child, with one sister and five brothers all ahead of her. She would be followed by three more sisters, bringing a total of ten children to the marriage (all of whom survived infancy).

Isabel was born shortly after King John claimed the throne. No doubt she would have felt the impact of the King’s suspicion towards her father. William came in conflict with King John over lands in Ireland, and two of Isabel’s brothers had to be handed in to the King’s custody as surety for his good behaviour. Given John’s treatment of members of the de Braose family, who starved to death in his custody, there must have been some question over whether the Marshals would see their boys again.

King John’s death in 1216 transformed William Marshal’s fortunes. He was now responsible for looking after the underage King Henry III, and helped come to a settle with the invading French forces.

As one of the daughters of the famous Marshal, Isabel was now a desirable match. A number of important English nobles were captured by her father’s side at the Battle of Lincoln, including Gilbert de Clare. Gilbert was twenty years older than Isabel, a smaller age gap than her own parents, and was a distant cousin of her mother. Possibly to help align Gilbert to the Marshall family (and thus the Royal cause), the pair were married on 9 October 1217, Isabel’s seventeenth birthday, at Tewkesbury Abbey. They had six children, three daughters and three sons. Sadly for Isabel her father died just two years after her wedding, but the length of his final illness meant that the family had time to gather and say their farewells. The biggest shock must have been the loss of her mother a year later in 1220. The older Isabel was only forty eight at the time of her death, which is attributed to the loss of her husband.

Isabel’s life would have followed the pattern of other English noblewomen. She would have managed the family lands on Gilbert’s behalf when he was away (twice he joined in fighting the Welsh), raising their children and moving between various family properties. In 1229 Gilbert joined an expedition to Brittany. At some point during that same year Isabel gave birth to their sixth child – a boy named Gilbert after his father.

Gilbert senior died in Brittany in October 1230. Isabel was suddenly left as a thirty year old widow with six children, the eldest may have been around twelve years old and the youngest couldn’t be more than eighteen months. As a widow and a young woman she was incredibly vulnerable. She was still capable of having more children, but with her father dead she would have been dependent on her brothers to arrange her next marriage. Her own boys were technically wards of court, who could be entrusted to other families for their upbringing. A disreputable man who wanted to get his hands on her property could easily kidnap her and force her to marry him.

With all this in mind Isabel remarried with almost indecent haste, but with a considerable amount of common sense, just five months later in March 1231. Her chosen groom was Richard, Earl of Cornwall, second son of King John and brother of King Henry III. She was nine years older than Richard, and the marriage was carried out without the King’s permission, which infuriated Henry. Her Marshal brothers had very little in common with their father when it came to loyalty to the crown, and Richard himself was hardly the most dedicated of siblings. Henry feared that his brother combined with the Marshal family could cause significant problems.

At the time of her second marriage there was still the possibility that Isabel could become Queen of England. Richard was Henry’s only brother, and the King was still unmarried and had no legitimate heir (male or female). If a serious illness or a battle had ended the King’s life then Richard would have been King Richard II of England, and Isabel would be Queen. This may not have been the key factor in her decision, simply marrying the King’s brother gave plenty of scope for wealth and influence, but it couldn’t have hurt the decision.

Despite this Henry doesn’t seem to have been in any real rush to marry – he eventually walked down the aisle with Eleanor of Provence in January 1236. By this point Isabel had given birth to three more children; John, Isabella, and Henry. But unlike her first brood, who all seem to have survived infancy, both John and Isabella died before their second birthdays. This must have been a significant blow to both Isabel and Richard, who had the children buried at Reading Abbey.

In 1239 Richard (and by extension his and Isabel’s surviving son Henry) was finally knocked down a step in the line of succession when Eleanor of Provence gave birth to a son named Edward. Isabel herself was pregnant with her tenth child at the time, while Richard was preparing to go on crusade. With nine successful childbirths so far Isabel and Richard may have been quietly confident that all would go well with this one. But it wasn’t to be. A son named Nicholas was born on 17 January 1240 at Berkhampsted Castle. Both he and his mother were dead within hours. Richard was now a widower with a four year old boy as his only heir.

Richard was reportedly devastated at Isabel’s death. Although she had previously requested that she be buried next to her first husband at Tewkesbury Abbey (burial site of several generations of de Clares), Richard instead arranged her to be buried at Beaulieu Abbey, with baby Nicholas. The reason isn’t particularly clear, especially as Richard himself ended up being buried several counties away at Hailes Abbey in Gloucestershire. Perhaps he’d always had a jealousy towards her first husband.

Although Richard’s expectations towards the English crown had not been realised, in the end he still got the title of “King”. In 1256, after a hefty amount of bribery, he was granted the title “King of Germans”. It was a bit of a hollow crown, and he never made a permanent move to the region, but it did mean that he got a nice coronation in the city of Aachen in 1257. By his side, graciously receiving the title “Queen of the Romans”, was his second wife Sanchia – the younger sister of Eleanor of Provence. Had she lived it could have been Isabel.

Last month's "Almost Queen" was Maria Anna Victoria of Bavaria.


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