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By Professor. Louise J. Wilkinson, Canterbury Christ Church University

Isabella, first wife of King John (d. 1217)

In 1176, the English king Henry II put in place arrangements for a highly advantageous marriage for his youngest son, John. The bride-to-be was Isabella, the third and youngest daughter of Earl William of Gloucester by Hawise de Beaumont, the daughter of Earl Robert of Leicester[i]. The premature death of Isabella’s brother Robert in 1166 had left the earl without a legitimate son to succeed to his estates. This meant that Isabella and her sisters each stood to inherit a third of the lands attached to this great earldom as co-heiresses when Earl William eventually died. Yet, under the terms of the marriage agreement negotiated by King Henry II, not only did Earl William betroth Isabella, his only daughter who was still unmarried, to the king’s son John, but he also recognized John as his heir to the earldom of Gloucester. Isabella’s sisters, Mabel, the wife of Amaury of Évreux, and Amicia, the wife of the earl of Hertford, were thus excluded from their expected shares of their father’s lands and compensated with annuities of £100.[ii] There was, however, one serious obstacle to the long-term success of this match – Isabella and John were related to one another. They shared a great grandfather, King Henry I (d. 1135), in common, and were therefore related in the third degree of consanguinity, that is within the degrees of blood relationship prohibited by canon law.[iii] If the pope refused to sanction Isabella’s marriage to John on these grounds, King Henry II agreed with Earl William that he would arrange another match for Isabella.[iv] Isabella’s kinship with John cast a long shadow over their future together.    

Although frustratingly little is known about Isabella’s education and upbringing as the daughter of one of England’s wealthiest earls, we do know that the marriage of Isabella’s parents was successful in personal terms. Countess Hawise regularly witnessed or was mentioned in her husband’s charters, most notably in the ‘pro anima’ clauses of grants addressed to religious houses that sought spiritual benefits for those named.[v] Unfortunately for Isabella, her father Earl William enjoyed an uneasy relationship with the crown, especially after Henry II took possession of Bristol castle, which had been held by Earl William and his father Earl Robert. Although Earl William remained loyal to Henry II during the great rebellion of 1173-4 and later made arrangements for Isabella’s marriage to the king’s son, he was suspected of disloyalty in 1183 and arrested.[vi] The earl of Gloucester was still a royal captive when he died on 23 November 1183.[vii]    

On Earl William’s death, King Henry II preferred to take Isabella and the Gloucester lands into royal wardship, rather than ensuring that her marriage to John was finally celebrated. The pipe rolls, a form of Exchequer record, suggest that the old king was satisfied instead with enjoying the revenues of the earldom himself.[viii] It was not until after the accession of John’s older brother, Richard I, in 1189 that John and Isabella of Gloucester were finally married at Marlborough, took possession of the earldom, and finally lived together as man and wife. Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury expressed his anger at the match for violating the Church’s prohibition of marriages between close kin.[ix] When John disregarded the archbishop’s summons to appear before him, his lands were placed under an interdict, whereupon John successfully appealed against this sentence to an ecclesiastical council.[x]    

Unlike the marriage of Isabella’s parents, Isabella’s marriage to John as countess of Gloucester and Mortain was neither a successful nor particularly happy one. Although the couple initially spent time in one another’s company and appear to have issued charters together during a visit to Normandy in or around 1190-1,[xi] Isabella did not bear John any children. In fact, John already harboured intentions to set aside Isabella as his wife in the early 1190s in favour of an alternative, French royal bride, Alice, the sister of King Philip Augustus and the rejected bride-to-be of King Richard I.[xii]    

It was only after John took the English throne on Richard I’s death in 1199 that he finally obtained the annulment of his marriage to Isabella of Gloucester on the grounds of consanguinity. The dubious validity of the match in the eyes of the Church, for John had never secured a papal dispensation to sanction his marriage to a kinswoman, worked entirely in the new king’s favour.[xiii] Isabella was not, however, entirely free of her former husband; both her person and most of her estates remained in the keeping of the crown. Admittedly, not a great deal is known about the pattern of her daily life, but she does seem to have managed to remain on civil, if at times awkward, terms with her former husband. Not only did King John meet the expenses of Isabella’s household and its staff, but he also made her a series of gifts of wine and cloth. Even so, Isabella’s personal situation was undoubtedly uncomfortable, especially during 1205-6, when she was quite possibly in residence with John’s new wife, Isabella of Angoulême, whom John had married in 1200.[xiv]    

In 1213, Isabella of Gloucester drew up a will to dispose of her moveable goods, which King John confirmed when he was at Bristol on 14 March.[xv] Then, almost without warning, Isabella’s personal circumstances were transformed. Anxious to raise money to fund military operations to recover his lost territories on the Continent, King John finally decided to sell the rights to Isabella’s remarriage, together with the earldom of Gloucester. John’s intention was made public on 28 January 1214, when he issued letters patent addressed to all the knights and free tenants of the honour of Gloucester, informing them that ‘we have given Isabella, countess of Gloucester, our kinswoman’ in marriage to Geoffrey de Mandeville, earl of Essex.[xvi] King John charged Geoffrey 20,000 marks, a vast sum of money, for the privilege of marrying his former wife and taking possession of her estates, with the exception of Bristol castle. As part of the deal, John imposed stringent financial terms on Mandeville, who was expected to pay off his debt reasonably swiftly or risk the confiscation of the Gloucester estates, as Isabella’s new husband found to his cost when he failed to observe the agreed rates of repayment.[xvii] Although John later offered to place the matter of Geoffrey’s debt before the judgment of the king’s court, this experience helps to explain why Isabella and her new husband were among those who rebelled against the king in 1215.[xviii]    

Isabella’s brief, second marriage appears to have been a reasonably contented one. She regularly issued charters jointly with or alongside her husband.[xix] We also have a visual representation of Isabella that survives from this time in the form of the seal that she used to authenticate documents, upon which she was depicted as a standing, female figure, wearing a long, flowing robe, girt at the waist. The countess was shown facing forwards, with a fleur-de-lys or flower in her right hand, and a bird in her left hand. On her seal legend she continued to style herself as ‘Isabella, countess of Gloucester and Mortain’, the titles she had used during her marriage to John.[xx]    

Geoffrey de Mandeville’s death from wounds sustained in a tournament on 23 February 1216 left Isabella a widow.[xxi] The independent authority and control of her estates that she enjoyed in widowhood, and for the first time in her life, found expression in a whole flurry of charters that she issued in the years 1216-17, many of which confirmed earlier gifts by her natal kin to religious houses.[xxii] The size and wealth of Isabella’s lands, however, proved too tempting to potential suitors, especially as the civil war over Magna Carta drew to a close in England. In August 1217, Hubert de Burgh, one of the leading figures of the minority government of the new boy king Henry III, was awarded seisin of Isabella’s estates and in the autumn, following Isabella’s return to allegiance to the crown, Hubert took her as his wife.[xxiii] Isabella did not live long enough to experience life with her third husband; she died on 14 October 1217, soon after this new marriage was celebrated, and was buried at Canterbury.[xxiv]
Louise Wilkinson is co-investigator of the Magna Carta Project ( For more information, click here.

[i] For more detailed accounts of Isabella of Gloucester and the earldom of Gloucester, see Earldom of Gloucester Charters, ed. R. B. Patterson (Oxford, 1973), introduction, esp. pp. 5-9; R. B. Patterson, ‘Isabella, suo jure countess of Gloucester (c.1160–1217)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2005), available at, accessed 28 Oct 2014.

[ii] Earldom of Gloucester Charters, p. 5.

[iii]>Isabella’s paternal grandfather, Earl Robert of Gloucester, was an illegitimate son of King Henry I.

[iv] Earldom of Gloucester Charters, p. 5.

[v] For examples, see Earldom of Gloucester Charters, nos 5, 7, 21-6, 30, 34-8, 44, 47, 49, 51, 52, 54, 65-6, 69, 71, 77, 87-90, 99-104, 106, 111, 113, 116-18, 120, 127-36, 155, 168, 177, 180, 182-3, 186-9, 191, 284-7. Isabella’s mother also issued charters jointly with her husband, as well as her own separate charters during her marriage: ibid., nos 39, 86.

[vi] Earldom of Gloucester Charters, pp. 3-4.

[vii] ‘Annales Monasterii de Waverlei’, in Annales Monastici, ed. H. R. Luard, 5 vols (Rolls Series, 1864-9), ii, p. 243; Earldom of Gloucester Charters, p. 5.

[viii] Earl William’s lands were worth more than £580 per annum: The Great Roll of the Pipe for the Thirtieth Year of the Reign of King Henry II, The Pipe Roll Society, xxxiii (London, 1912; reprinted 1929), pp. xxviii-xxix, 109-12.

[ix] The Chronicle of the Reigns of Henry II and Richard I, 1169-1192, known commonly under the name of Benedict of Peterborough, ed. W. Stubbs, 2 vols (Rolls Series, 1867), ii, p. 78.

[x] Patterson, ‘Isabella, suo jure countess of Gloucester (c.1160–1217)’.

[xi] Earldom of Gloucester Charters, nos 163-4.

[xii] The Chronicle of the Reigns of Henry II and Richard I, ii, p. 236; W. L. Warren, King John (London, 1961), p. 66. John plotted with Philip Augustus against Richard during the king’s absence from the realm.

[xiii] For a discussion of this annulment and the sources relating to it, see D. L. D’Avray, Dissolving Royal Marriages: A Documentary History, 860-1600 (Cambridge, 2014), chapter 5.

[xiv] Discussed in N. Vincent, ‘Isabella of Angoulême: John’s Jezebel’, in S. D. Church (ed.), King John: New Interpretations (Woodbridge, 1999), pp. 165-219, at pp. 196-7 and footnote 114. See also Warren, King John, p. 139.

[xv] Rotuli Litterarum Patentium in Turri Londinensi Asservati, Vol. I. Pars I., ed. T. D. Hardy (London, 1835), p. 97b.

[xvi] Rotuli Litterarum Patentium, p. 109b.

[xvii] Rotuli de Oblatis et Finibus in Turri Londinensi Asservati Tempore Regis Johannis, ed. T. D. Hardy (London, 1835), pp. 520-1; Earldom of Gloucester Charters, p. 8.

[xviii] Rotuli Litterarum Patentium, p. 141; Earldom of Gloucester Charters, p. 8

[xix] Earldom of Gloucester Charters, nos 4, 9, 64, 93, 139, 140.

[xx] Earldom of Gloucester Charters, pp. 24-25; S. M. Johns, Noblewomen, Aristocracy and Power in the Twelfth-Century Anglo-Norman Realm (Manchester, 2003), pp. 132, 138, 214.

[xxi] ‘Annales Prioratus de Dunstaplia’, in Annales Monastici, iii, p. 45

[xxii] Earldom of Gloucester Charters, nos 76, 114, 141-50. For Hubert and Isabella, see Rotuli Litterarum Clausarum in Turri Londinensi Asservati, Vol. I, ed. T. D. Hardy (London, 1833) pp. 319b, 322; ‘Annales Prioratus de Dunstaplia’, in Annales Monastici, iii, p. 45; ‘Annales Monasterii de Waverlei’, in Annales Monastici, ii, p. 289.

[xxiii] King Henry had succeeded to his father’s throne in October 1216 after John’s death.

[xxiv] ‘Annales Prioratus de Dunstaplia’, in Annales Monastici, iii, p. 45; ‘Annales Monasterii de Waverlei’, in Annales Monastici, ii, p. 289.

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