King John is rather famous for his somewhat ‘droit de signeur’ approach to the wives and daughters of his nobility. Records provide the somewhat incredible information about the woman who paid John a large number of hens to spend one night in her husband’s bed. There’s the rumour of the poisoned egg sent to the woman who spurned his advances. Church describes John as a ‘rake.’ Medieval chroniclers were rather less kind.
This post, however, is about John’s official women. First came Alice of Savoy, daughter of Humbert III of Savoy. John was only seven when a marriage was arranged by his father King Henry II. Henry wanted to provide John with wealth and lands as there was none for him within the Angevin Empire at that point. The marriage would also, of course, extend the territory of the empire to include Savoy and Piemonte – a win-win situation for Henry especially as he was prepared to throw in some castles that had been promised to John’s elder brother Geoffrey but as father and son were at loggerheads Henry felt no compunction about giving them to John who was his favourite son. Alice made the journey over the Alps but died before the marriage could go ahead.
John’s next foray into matrimony was to Isobel of Gloucester. She was the granddaughter of Robert of Gloucester – the natural son of Henry I making the pair cousins, as Henry I’s legitimate daughter Matilda was John’s granny. This gave John room to divorce Isobel because the marriage should have been prohibited within the third degree of consanguinity. The divorce occurred as soon as John had sufficient power- ie when he became king- to end the marriage so Isobel who is also sometimes known as Hawise. Once again Henry had arranged the marriage to ensure that John was in a position of wealth. Isabel’s brother had died leaving Isobel and her two sisters in a position where they would inherit the title and the lands of Robert’s son William of Gloucester. Henry made arrangements that meant that Isobel got the lot and her sisters and their spouses were by-passed. Relations between the two fathers were not good. Bristol Castle which had been in the hands of Earl William was taken by Henry and just for good measure he made the earl a prisoner. The earl died whilst in captivity and Henry II realised that the money from the estates could be enjoyed without the need for any marriages to occur. The Gloucester inheritance found itself under the wardship of the king who took the money. John didn’t actually get married to Isabel until Richard I came to the throne.
And now matters get a bit peculiar to modern eyes. Once John was king he quickly arranged the annulment of his marriage. Isobel of Gloucester found herself without a husband and without her estates. She was still part of John’s establishment. His records show that he supported her household. She lived in his castles – well she had nowhere else to go as she wasn’t permitted to marry anyone else. It even looks as though John’s household was composed for sometime at least of his discarded wife and his new wife Isobel of Angouleme.
Fortune looked up for Isobel in 1214 when John needed money to try and win back his French territories. John essentially sold Isobel and the Gloucester lands with the exception of Bristol Castle to the highest bidder Geoffrey de Mandeville the Earl of Essex. Geoffrey had to find 20,000 marks to be paid in instalments…so Isobel became a sort of hire-purchase bride with a toy-boy groom.
Woman number three was Isobel of Angouleme. Mathew Paris the chronicler described her as a Jezobel and most of the other chroniclers are equally vitriolic. She was twelve when she was married to John who was in his thirties and he had virtually kidnapped her in order to prevent her marriage to Hugh of Lusignan. It is generally accepted that the marriage was one of the triggers that resulted in the war which resulted in John losing most of his French territories. Suffice it to say the marriage was a tempestuous one. John is purported to have been besotted by his young bride but it apparently didn’t stop John taking lovers and Isobel encouraging her admirers. The chroniclers tell some lurid tales including the tale of the man becoming a tad too friendly with Isobel and being hanged over her bed as a friendly warning. The unhappy pair were married for sixteen years. Five children were born of the marriage – two sons and three daughters.
Princess Joan was sent off to marry Hugh de Lusignan but somehow after John’s death Hugh married the mother rather than the daughter when Isobel returned to Angouleme in 1217, perhaps not surprising given that Joan was still a child. In England the regency council was not amused and stopped the queen’s pension. There was eventually a trade off. England got Joan back in 1220 whilst Isobel got her money and dower land.
Isobel and Hugh went on to have a further nine children. She died in 1246.
Church, S.D. King John: New Interpretations