The eldest daughter of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault was born at the royal palace of Woodstock on June 16th 1332. She was named Isabella after her paternal grandmother, Isabella of France.
Isabella was the second of her parents’ many children and a first half-cousin once removed of Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent. She would have treated Joan as a kind of older sister as they spent their childhood together.
On the day of her mother’s “churching”, baby Isabella lay in the state cradle – a magnificent gilded affair, adorned with the shields of England and Hainault and lined with silk. She wore a rich robe of Lucca silk, edged with fur and trimmed with four rows of garnitures, and keeping her warm was a coverlet made of 670 skins (of what?).
Her early years were spent in the royal nursery alongside her brother, 2-year-old Edward and her father’s half-cousins Joan (5) and John (2). From the beginning she was provided with her own damsel (Joan Pyebrook), a rocker (Joan Gambon) and a tailor (John Bromley) who were all paid £10 per year.
In 1334 Isabella was joined in the nursery by her sister, little Joanna (the names Joan, Joanne, Johane, Joanna, Johanna, Jeanne, Jehane all have the same root and are somewhat interchangeable. I have always preferred to call Isabella’s sister Joanna to distinguish her from Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent.)
At the age of 8 Isabella had her own chaplain, her own minstrel, Gerard de Gay, 3 damsels, chief amongst them Alexis de la Mote and a valet de chambre (Thomas de Bastenthwaite) who would lead her palfrey when she journeyed between London and Westminster. Isabella shared the other members of her household – the cooks, butlers, valets, grooms etc – with her sister. The girls were served on silver dishes and slept in a bed covered with green silk and hung with green velvet. There is mention of robes made of green cloth cut in the German fashion and edged with fur, and of “scarlet hosen” (red stockings).
As well as journeys between London and Westminster there were outings across the Thames to the gardens on the other side of the river and parties at Christmas with games and entertainments arranged by their father. Both girls were given a penny a day for offerings in church and were encouraged in the art of giving. There is mention of gifts “bestowed by their own hands”.
Although the sisters had their own household and were frequently apart from their parents they were in no way unloved. The king and queen were known to be indulgent parents and Edward III seems to have been particularly fond of Isabella.
Isabella was the only one of Edward and Philippa’s five daughters to reach the age of maturity:
Joanna died at the age of 14 in 1348 on her way to be married to the son of Alfonso, King of Castille.
Blanche, born in 1342, died shortly after birth.
Mary, who married John, Duke of Brittany, died at the age of 17 in 1361
Margaret, who married John Hastings, Earl of Pembroke, died at the age of 15 in 1361
Isabella was betrothed many times during her childhood to the sons of various continental rulers. In 1348, taking a break from his besieging of Calais, Edward III took his family to Berghes, a little cloth-making town in Flanders. The purpose of the visit was to celebrate the betrothal of 16 year-old Isabella to Louis de Male, the new count of Flanders. The young man’s father had been killed nine months earlier at the battle of Crécy and it seemed that Louis was not as enamoured with the idea of an English marriage as his countrymen were. Although he was kept under close guard by the de facto rulers of Flanders he managed to escape and flee to France, jilting poor Isabella in the process.
Isabella’s next brush with matrimony came in 1351. She was now nineteen years old and her father had betrothed “our very dear eldest daughter whom we have loved with special affection” to Bernard, heir of the Gascon lord of Albret. Everything was ready but at the last minute, with five ships loaded and ready to transport the bride and her wedding party to Gascony, Isabella changed her mind. She declared she would not go through with the marriage. Oddly, her father did not hold this capricious act against his daughter but later gave her annuities and rewards and often kept her with him.
Isabella finally made it to the altar on 27th July 1365 at the ripe old age (for that time) of 33 when she married Enguerrand de Coucy, one of her father’s hostages from the wars in France. Enguerrand was seven years younger than the dark-haired, dark-eyed Isabella.
Was it love at long last? Whatever it was, Engurrand’s heart lay not in England but in France and despite being loaded with honours by his father-in-law and having 2 daughters with Isabella, the couple eventually separated. Enguerrand went off to fight in Italy and Isabella remained in England at her father’s court where she carried on leading her extremely extravagant lifestyle.
Her father continued to lavish gifts on her and at his death in 1377, gave to his “very dear daughter” Isabella, an income of 300 marks per year until her daughters were married.
She died on an unknown date before 4th May 1379.
Sources: Philippa of Hainault and her Times by B C Hardy
The Perfect King, the life of Edward III by Ian Mortimer