Isabella of France: She-Wolf of England

Isabella of France

When Isabella of France (1295-1358) arrived at the church in Boulogne in 1308 for her wedding to England’s Edward II, the idea that she would someday be one of the most reviled Queens in English history never entered her pretty head. After all her groom was everything a King should be, tall, athletic, with blond good looks to match her own.  The youngest surviving child and only surviving daughter of Philip IV of France and Joan I of Navarre, the marriage had been set in motion to end the war between France and England over territory, specifically the province of Gascony. But there were two things that stood in the way of their domestic bliss; Edward didn’t particularly want to be King, and he was in love with someone else.

Piers Gaveston, a native of Gascony, entered the King’s household when they were teenagers. “As soon as the King’s son saw him, he fell so much in love that he entered up on an enduring compact with him.” Edward I banished Gaveston from England, fearing his influence over his son, but as soon as the old King was dead, the new King called his lover back. He made him the Earl of Cornwall and married him to his own niece, making him a member of the royal family. In other words, there were now three people in this marriage and Isabella was the odd one out. When the newlyweds arrived at Dover in England, Edward rushed into the arms of his favorite. He even gave the couple’s wedding presents to his lover. Gaveston had been left behind as Regent while Edward went off to claim his bride. The highest nobility in the land, including the Earl of Lancaster who was related to the King, naturally expected Edward to turn to them for advice, not an upstart who delighted in openly poking fun at them.

The coronation of the new King and Queen in February 1308 turned into a complete fiasco. Gaveston, not Isabella, seemed to be the guest of honor. Tapestries were made with the coat of arms of the King and Gaveston, pissing off the French who considered it to be an insult to Isabella. The leading nobles in England shuddered to discover that Gaveston had been given the honor of carrying the coronation crown. He had also been given the responsibility for planning the coronation, and his organizational skills left a lot to be desired. The food and the banquet was badly cooked and ill-served, it was also long after dark before the banquet got under way. Not that Edward II seemed to mind, no matter what Gaveston did, the King applauded.

Soon Isabella was writing to her father how about how she was being ill-treated. The new Queen might have been only twelve but she knew what was owed to her as a royal princess and now a Queen. Lands that were supposed to be given to the Queen were given to Gaveston instead. She was also broke; no money was allocated to her to set up her own independent household. Having no other choice, Isabella had to suck it up, and figure out a way to live in this foreign court.

Isabella put up with her husband’s relationship with Gaveston for four years, even befriending him and his wife. Despite the sting to her pride, Isabella supported her husband, was loyal to him, which earned her the respect of the people of England. While Isabella might have been willing to put up with Gaveston, the barons were not quite so open-minded. They forced the King to exile his beloved, the first time to Ireland, but Edward soon found a way to bring Gaveston back. Again the King’s reliance on the favorite divided the barons into two camps, those who opposed Gaveston and those who supported the King. Finally the jealous barons had had enough of Gaveston, many of whom had lost their lands and titles to him. They seized him and had him executed.

For a few years after Gaveston’s death, Edward and Isabella were happy. No matter how she might have felt personally about the death of Gaveston, she put it aside to console her husband. After four years of marriage, Isabella soon gave birth to an heir, Edward. Three more children joined the royal nursery in the next ten years as Isabella devoted herself to being a good wife and Queen. Edward made no move to seek out a new favorite. Edward, for his part, finally began to appreciate the woman he married, particularly Isabella’s intelligence. She was a better judge of character than he was and he was happy to seek her advice, and to allow her to mediate in politics. When they were apart, they wrote frequently to each other. They’d managed to forge a working partnership. His trust in her judgment was such that he began to allow her to attend council meetings.

It was around 1319 that Hugh Despenser the younger began to insinuate himself into the King’s affections. Like Piers Gaveston, Despenser was married to the King’s niece Eleanor de Clare, heiress to the Earldom of Gloucester. Unlike his father who had always been loyal to the King, Despenser the younger had supported the barons until he realized he could fulfill his ambitions by sucking up to the King. Soon Despenser was made a council member and Chamberlain of the King’s Household. Despenser was more dangerous than Gaveston. He was smart ruthless and cunning. No one knows for sure whether or not the relationship between Edward and his new favorite was physical or not. But for Isabella and the barons, it really didn’t matter as they watched the King abdicate more and more responsibility to his new favorite.

For Isabella, it must have been déjà vu all over again, only Despenser was a power hungry bully. As the younger Despenser rose in the King’s favor, so Isabella faded from view. Despenser, jealous of Isabella’s influence over the King, convinced Edward to decrease her authority, and her income. Isabella inwardly seethed while outwardly putting on a brave face. But the final straw may been when he attempted to sexually harass the Queen. Nobody knows for sure, but rumors flew that Despenser wanted to possess the Queen as well. In 1321, when she was pregnant with her last child, Isabella begged the King to exile Despenser. Despenser was banished, but the King recalled him the next year.

In 1325, Isabella’s brother Charles IV of France seized the English crown’s territory in France. Isabella, along with her son the Prince of Wales, set sail to negotiate a peace treaty between the two countries. While in France, Isabella renewed her acquaintance with Roger de Mortimer, Baron Wigmore. Mortimer had been one of Edward’s most successful generals, fighting against the Scots in Ireland. Now in his mid-forties, Mortimer had rebelled against Edward when Despenser had made off with some of his land. Arrested and confined to the Tower of London, Mortimer had made a daring escape, rappelling down the walls, and swimming the Thames to freedom.

They became lovers, although they were initially discreet about their relationship. Soon they were making plans to invade England to put her son on the throne instead of his father. Once Edward began bombarding her brother and the Pope with letters, Isabella and Mortimer felt no need to hide their affair. Considering her marriage irretrievably broken down, Isabella began dressing like a widow, and telling anyone who would listen that “Someone has come between me and my husband….I protest that I will not return until this intruder has been removed, but discarding my marriage garment, I shall assume the robes of widowhood and mourning until I am avenged of this Pharisee.” After seventeen years of being a good wife, Isabella was not about to take her husband’s disrespect anymore.

Edward, on his part, refused to take his wife’s infidelity lying down. He had proved that he could be as ruthless as his father Edward I when he wanted to be. He had waited years, but he had finally taken his revenge against the barons who had killed Gaveston and tried to curtail his royal authority. Edward may have been a reluctant King but no one was going to tell him what to do. Angry letters flew back and forth across the Atlantic, demanding the return of the Prince of Wales, but Isabella would not budge. The Despensers, and by extension her husband, must go.

Armed with foreign troops and the support of the nobles opposed to Edward’s reign, Isabella and Mortimer invaded England. Edward II and the Despensers fled, hoping to rally support, but they were soon captured. Isabella pleaded for the life of the elder Despenser who had always been civil to her. Hugh Despenser the younger she had no pity for. Fearing that he might try to starve himself to death before they got him to London, he was put through a quick trial, and then sentenced to a traitor’s death, to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. Isabella soon showed that she could be as merciless as her father as the King’s supporters were systematically hunted down. Edward II was now deposed and his son crowned Edward III. Since he was only fourteen at the time, Isabella and Mortimer were named regents.

Edward was another story. He was an anointed King although not a very good one, and public sympathy was swinging his way now that the hated Despensers were out of the picture. He would always be a magnet to the disenchanted and disenfranchised. There had already been two aborted attempts to free him. Edward was also still relatively young at forty-two, his father Edward I had lived to the age of sixty-eight. While he might claim to be contrite sitting in his jail cell writing bad poetry, Isabella knew that it was an act. She no doubt remembered Edward had broken his oaths to the barons. The King also had a long memory when it came to those who had wronged him.

Berkeley Castle, where Edward was allegedly murdered

For everyone’s peace of mind, the King had to die. In September of 1327, Edward II died, supposedly by sticking a hot poker through a cow’s horn up his posterior, which left little to no marks on the body. After his funeral at Gloucester Cathedral, Isabella was given his heart in a silver casket. How ironic that the one thing that had eluded Isabella in life, should be hers after her husband’s death.

By 1330, Mortimer had worn out his welcome. He had turned out to be just as greedy and rapacious a tyrant as the Despensers. But the final nail in his coffin was the execution of the King’s uncle Edmund, Earl of Kent. Edward III was now married, eighteen, and a father. It was time for him to take the reigns of power. Supported by the same barons who had deposed his father, Edward III now took steps to get rid of Mortimer. Mortimer was arrested and hanged. It was only due to Isabella’s intervention that he didn’t end up with a traitor’s death like the Despensers. Isabella was so distraught at losing her lover that she may have suffered a nervous breakdown during her two years of house arrest at Windsor Castle. Her son made sure to place on the blame on Mortimer, proclaiming Isabella’s innocence.

Isabella was soon welcomed back at court. A doting mother and grandmother, Isabella spent as much time as she could with them. Always pious, Isabella turned more towards religion in her later years, visiting in particular the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury, perhaps to atone for her sins. When she died after a short illness in 1358, at the age of sixty-two, she was buried in her wedding dress, holding the casket with her husband’s heart. However, she was not buried with Edward II at Gloucester, reunited in death. No, Isabella was buried at Greyfriars church in London where Mortimer’s body had been taken after his death.

Isabella had been a good and dutiful wife until circumstances forced her into leading the most successful invasion of England since William the Conqueror. In her actions she was only following in the footsteps of other English Queens before her. Queens like Eleanor of Aquitaine who waged war against her husband Henry II, or Matilda, daughter of Henry I, who spent seventeen years fighting her cousin Stephan for the throne, until finally conceding her claim to her son, the future Henry II. But Isabella stepped into infamy when she looked away while regicide occurred. For that the chroniclers could not forgive her. Despite being cleared of any wrongdoing, the stain remains on her reputation, further immortalized in Marlowe’s and Brecht’s plays.


Leslie Carroll: Royal Affairs: A Lusty Romp Through the Extramarital Adventures That Rocked the British Monarchy, NAL, 2008

P.C. Doherty. Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II. London: Robinson. (2003)

Eleanor Herman: Sex with the Queen: 900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers, and Passionate Politics, Harper Collins, (2006)

Alison Weir, Queen Isabella: She-Wolf of France, Queen of England. London: Pimlico Books. (2006)



Author:  Sherry Jones
Publisher:  Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster)
Pub Date:  May 8, 2012

What it’s about:
Amid the lush valleys and fragrant wildflowers of Provence, Marguerite, Eléonore, Sanchia, and Beatrice have learned to charm, hunt, dance, and debate under the careful tutelage of their ambitious mother—and to abide by the countess’s motto: “Family comes first.”

With Provence under constant attack, their legacy and safety depend upon powerful alliances. Marguerite’s illustrious match with the young King Louis IX makes her Queen of France. Soon Eléonore—independent and daring—is betrothed to Henry III of England. In turn, shy, devout Sanchia and tempestuous Beatrice wed noblemen who will also make them queens.

Yet a crown is no guarantee of protection. Enemies are everywhere, from Marguerite’s duplicitous mother-in-law to vengeful lovers and land-hungry barons. Then there are the dangers that come from within, as loyalty succumbs to bitter sibling rivalry, and sister is pitted against sister for the prize each believes is rightfully hers—Provence itself.

From the treacherous courts of France and England, to the bloody tumult of the Crusades, Sherry Jones traces the extraordinary true story of four fascinating sisters whose passions, conquests, and progeny shaped the course of history.
My thoughts: I first became acquainted with the story of the four sisters from Provence who became Queens thanks to the historical fiction of Jean Plaidy when I was in high school, so I was very interested when Gallery Books sent me a copy of Sherry Jones’s new book FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS. I had the pleasure of meeting Sherry last year at the Historical Novel Society conference and then again in May when she read at Lady Jane’s Salon here in New York. I was aware of the controversy surrounding her first novel Jewel of Medina thanks to SMART BITCHES, TRASHY BOOKS and I’ve had a copy in my TBR pile, but FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS is the first of her books that I’ve read. Also the book was released on my father’s birthday (he would have been 97 this year), so I was automatically predisposed to liking it.

I was intrigued from the get-go as Beatrice of Savoy, their mother, introduces their story, detailing how she raised her four daughters more like sons, even calling them ‘boys.’ All four siblings were incredibly well educated for the time which turns out to be both a blessing and a curse. They are also encouraged to always remember their family ties, but that becomes more difficult as time goes on. The book raises interesting questions, where does one’s loyalty lie, with your birth family or with the family that one forges through marriage and friendship. Throughout the book those loyalties constantly come into question.

Both Marguerite and Eléonore (who marries Henry III of England) make incredibly advantageous marriages. Marguerite also has to contend with the mother-in-law from hell, Blanche of Castile (who threatens to take over the book), who fought hard to gain power during her son’s regency and is very reluctant to let go of it when her son marries. Eléonore has to contend with the xenophobia of the English court and a marriage to a man who is much older than she is. Both women have husbands who both resent their strength and intelligence but who also rely on it.

The book is told from the points of view of all four sisters, and moves pretty swiftly from Marguerite’s betrothal at the age of 13 to Louis IX of France through to deaths of Sanchia and Beatrice. It’s told in third person present tense which took me some getting used to, I didn’t think it was necessary and seemed more of an affectation. However, the writing is lyrical and haunting in places, it evokes the time and place without sounding archaic. While the book detailed the intense political climate of the times, the wars between England and France, the rebellion of the barons under Simon de Montfort, the botched crusade of Louis IX and the incessant fight for who is going to rule Sicily, the book is at its best when it focuses on the dynamic between the four sisters. Anyone who has a sister or even a sibling will find it all pretty familiar. Marguerite and Eléonore as the two oldest and the closest in age have the tightest bond while Beatrice is the spoiled baby, their father’s favorite which has unforeseen consequences later in the book. Caught in the middle is Sanchia, the most beautiful of the siblings and the most emotionally fragile. Her story is the most tragic out of all four sisters. Marguerite and Beatrice have the most contentious relationship as the oldest and the youngest sisters.

Ultimately I had a hard time sympathizing with some of the sisters. The quarrel between Beatrice and Marguerite comes across as petty and small. Marguerite’s bitterness and hardness as the years go by make her harder to like. Eléonore was more of a cipher than the other sisters. I was unsure what to make of her. Only Beatrice seems to live a happy life with her husband. Unlike her sisters, she puts his needs first before the needs of her family. All four sisters struggle with what the traditional roles for women were and their own upbringing.

My one quarrel with this book is that the book feels too small to contain their stories. I wish that the story had been split into at least two books so that we had a chance to really savor what was going on. I had a hard time at certain points in the book keeping track of what was going, particularly in England with Simon de Montfort’s struggles with Henry III. I felt as if I was getting the Cliff Notes version. Jones has clearly done her research, and she manages to juggle all four narratives, giving each sister a distinct voice.

Verdict: A riveting look at the lives of four medieval women who struggle with the bonds of family and loyalty versus personal ambition.

The Glamorous Gunning Sisters Part Two: Lady Betty Hamilton

Scandalous Women is pleased to present part two of Deborah Hale's series on the Glamorous Gunning Sisters.  Part two could almost be called "The Next Generation"

During the mid-18th century, the Gunning sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, parlayed their beauty and celebrity into brilliant marriages. Somehow they managed to tread the fine line between celebrity and notoriety without slipping into the latter.
Elizabeth's eldest daughter and Marias youngest were not so prudent. Both became figures of scandal in the latter part of the century.
Lady Betty Hamilton, daughter of Elizabeth Gunning and the 6th Duke of Hamilton, was born in 1753, less than a year after her parents hasty, clandestine marriage. Two brothers followed before her father died when she was only five years old. Her mother wasted no time in remarrying another Scottish nobleman, the Duke of Argyll, by whom she had four more children.

Portraits of the period show that Lady Betty inherited her mothers beauty. When she came out, the lovely young lady attracted the ardour of the equally attractive John Frederick, Duke of Dorset. An avid sportsman with a passion for cricket, Dorset possessed a great fortune and one of the finest estates in the kingdom. He was smitten with Lady Betty, but not enough to settle down before hed had some fun. Instead of proposing, he headed off to Europe on his Grand Tour with celebrated courtesan Nancy Parsons in tow.

In spite of her heartbreak, Lady Betty could not afford to wait for Dorset to return. She had to secure a husband of wealth and title before the bloom went off the rose. Fortunately a new suitor presented himself. The Earl of Derby was not as handsome or high-ranking as the Duke of Dorset, but he was every bit as rich and possessed a more constant temperament.

Recognizing the makings of a good husband, the Duchess of Argyll pressed her daughter to secure the earl. Lady Betty was said to have accepted his proposal in a note stained with her tears, but Derby threw a lavish fete champêtre to celebrate their engagement that cost £5000. The couple were married in June 23, 1774 and divided their time between his Yorkshire estate, Knowsley, his country house in Surrey and his London mansion on Grosvenor Square. Lady Betty dutifully bore her husband an heir, followed by a daughter.

Then the Duke of Dorset returned from Europe. Casting off Nancy Parsons, he took up with another celebrated courtesan, Mrs. Armistead. Because he and Lord Derby were of similar age and rank, they became part of the same social circle. In June of 1777, the two men arranged a cricket match at Lord Derbys Surrey estate, The Oaks”. During the event, Lady Betty organized and played in the first womens cricket match ever recorded. If she was trying to reignite Lord Dorsets passion for her, she could not have done better than engage in his favourite sport. Later that summer, Dorset and the Derbys were guests at Howard Castle. By fall, gossip about Lord Dorset and Lady Derby was running rife. But that was nothing to the tattle when it was learned her ladyship was pregnant! Wagers were laid on whether the child been sired by Lady Bettys husband or her lover.

The earl turned a deaf ear to the gossip until after the child was born. But when his wife went off to the seaside resort of Brighthelmstone to recover from the birth. it may have been the last straw. Who went to the south coast of England when a combined French-Spanish invasion was expected any day? It was clear the proximity of Brighthelmstone to Lord Dorsets estate, Knole, had been the chief factor in her ladyships choice. When he returned from militia camp in the fall, the earl confronted his wife with evidence of her infidelity and she moved out of their London home.

Fully expecting Lord Derby to divorce her, Dorset declared he would marry Lady Betty as soon as she was free. But the lovers had not reckoned with the fury of a gentleman scorned. The Earl of Derby vowed he would never seek a divorce from his wife. Why should he? His wife had provided him with an heir. For female companionship he had taken up with Lord Dorsets former mistress, Mrs. Armistead. His decision left Lady Betty in the lurch. As an adulterous wife, her reputation was ruined. She would not be permitted to see her children, nor could her female friends continue to see her without risking their reputations. But without a divorce she could not rehabilitate herself by marrying the duke.

For a time, she and Lord Dorset remained together, hoping the earl would relent, but in the end the handsome duke moved on to become ambassador to France, where he charmed Queen Marie Antoinette. Lady Betty drifted off to the Continent, where she would not be quite such an outcast, but after a few years she returned to England, her spirit and health broken. She finally died in the winter of 1797, at the age of forty-four, leaving Lord Derby free to marry actress Elizabeth Farren. It was said that the Duke to Dorset met her funeral cortege and asked whose it was, only to be told the deceased was the woman whose heart he had broken…twice.

Stay tuned for Part Three next week:  Lady Anne Coventry



The Glamorous Gunning Sisters Part 1

Scandalous Women is pleased to welcome back historical fiction author Deborah Hale with another fabulous post about some of the 18th century's most Scandalous Women.

In December of 1750, a pair of Anglo-Irish beauties took London by storm! When they were presented at the Court of St. James, their celebrity was such that some of highest-born aristocrats climbed up on chairs and tables in an effort to glimpse the glamorous Gunning sisters.
On their mother’s side, Maria and Elizabeth Gunning were granddaughters of Viscount Mayo, but the family was relatively poor and there were several other children. Mrs. Gunning decided her daughters beauty might be the family meal ticket, so she put the girls on stage at Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin when they were quite young. At that time, acting was not considered a respectable profession for a lady since so many actresses were also sought-after courtesans. It was almost unheard of for a parent to urge their offspring into the theatre.

But acting did provide the girls an entrée into better society. In 1748, when they were fifteen and sixteen, the Gunning sisters were invited to a ball at Dublin Castle, hosted by Viscount Petersham. Unfortunately, like a pair of Cinderellas, they had no gowns fit to wear to such a grand occasion. The situation was saved by theatre manager, Thomas Sheridan (father of playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan) who allowed the girls to borrow costumes from the green room. Dressed as Juliet and Lady Macbeth (one assumes the ball must have been a masquerade!) Maria and Elizabeth were presented to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Their mother traded on the acquaintance to procure a pension from his lordship so she could afford to take her daughters to England.

Maria, Countess of Coventry

They were soon the toasts of the West End and Vauxhall. So many admirers flocked to the stage door that they had to hire guards to protect them. Shades of the 21st century celebrity entourage! Their portraits were painted and engravings circulated with poetic inscriptions: “Hibernia long with spleen beheld

Her Favorite Toasts by ours excelled.

Resolved to outvie Britannia's Fair

By her own Beauties,sent a pair.”

Not everyone was smitten, however. Waspish social commentator Horace Walpole carped, “Two Irish girls of no fortune, who make more noise than any of their predecessors since the days of Helen, and who are declared the handsomest women alive.” Of course, he might have been peeved because the Gunnings rivalled his favourite niece. The royal presentation of Maria and Elizabeth in 1750 set the seal on their celebrity, while also lending them an air of respectability. Not for them the career of notorious courtesans. If they were to trade their favours for fortune, it must come with the security of marriage.

Their conquests of eligible noblemen were no doubt stage-managed by their mother, who had married beneath her and did not want her daughters making the same mistake…or worse! A year after their presentation at Court, Elizabeth wed the Duke of Hamilton in a precipitous clandestine wedding with a bed curtain ring for a wedding band! Hamilton was no great prize in a personal sense (Elizabeth Chudleigh had jilted him) but at least he was relatively young. Within the next four years, the Duchess presented her husband with two sons and a daughter.

Elizabeth, Duchess of Hamilton

Meanwhile Maria had hopes of the Earl of Coventry, but he had been stringing her along for months, perhaps hoping she would yield to him without having to make her his wife. Her sisters marriage seemed to give Coventry the push he needed. A month after Elizabeth became Duchess of Hamilton, Maria became Countess of Coventry. The earl whisked his bride off to Europe, where she was besieged by gawkers. Maria did not care for France since she did not know the language and her husband objected to her wearing fashionable cosmetics. Once at a banquet, seeing she was wearing rouge, he forcefully wiped it off with his handkerchief, much to her humiliation. Why a beautiful girl of twenty felt she needed to wear heavy, toxic make-up, is a mystery.

Part of her motivation may have been insecurity for she soon learned her husband was keeping celebrated courtesan Kitty Fisher as his mistress. There is an anecdote about Maria complimenting Kitty on her gown and asking how much it cost. Kitty boldly suggested Maria ask her husband, since it was he who had purchased the gown. As titillating as people might have found Kittys impudent answer, they were likely scandalized that the wife of an earl would commit such a breach of propriety by speaking to a woman of ill-repute.

Maria bore her husband two daughters and son. She continued to use lead and mercury-based cosmetics in spite of her husbands disapproval, until she died of their effects at the age of twenty-seven. By that time, Elizabeth had been widowed and remarried. After Hamiltons death in 1758, she was briefly engaged to the Duke of Bridgewater but finally married the Duke of Argyll in 1759. Horace Walpole was practically apoplectic, painting her as a black widow: "Who could have believed a Gunning would unite the two great houses of Campbell and Hamilton? For my part I expect to see Lady Coventry Queen of Prussia. I would not venture to marry either of them these thirty years, for fear of being shuffled out of the world prematurely, to make room for the rest of their adventurers.”

Another portrait of Elizabeth, Duchess of Hamilton

Elizabeth went on to have four more children by her second husband. She served as Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Charlotte for over twenty years and survived her sister Maria by thirty. Though the glamorous Gunning sisters drew more than their share of gossip by rising from obscurity to wed three of the highest-born men in the kingdom, they managed to avoid outright scandal. That would be left to the next generation their daughters, the notorious Countess of Derby and Lady Anne Foley!

(Watch for The Glamorous Gunning Girls, Part 2)


Every Woman's Encyclopaedia. The Two Beautefuil Misses Gunning, 1912
Genest, John. Some Accounts of the English Stage 1660-1830, 1832
Marshall, Dorothy. Dr. Johnsons London. John Wiley and Sons, 1968
Toynbee, Mrs. Paget. The Letters of Horace Walpole, fourth Earl of Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1903-1925
White, T.H. The Age of Scandal, Putnam, 1950
Willing, Thomson. Some Old Time Beauties, Joseph Knight Co, Boston, 1895  

The Real Housewives of Windsor

It’s hard to believe that it has been 13 years since Sophie Rhys-Jones walked down the aisle at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor and walked out as HRH, The Countess of Wessex. From the beginning, Sophie seemed determined to do things differently than previous Windsor Wives and for a while it looked like she might succeed. She was going to be a working wife, continuing to pursue her career in PR, while fulfilling royal duties as needed. She even talked of putting of having royal offspring while she and Edward enjoyed married life. Over the past 13 years, Sophie has weathered a host of storms including infertility, racy photos, questions about her business and a tabloid scandal that rocked the monarchy but Sophie came through relatively unscathed and has even taken the former Kate Middleton under her wing to teach her the ropes.

When her relationship with Prince Edward was first revealed to the public, Sophie was often compared to Princess Diana. Both were tall, leggy blondes with short hair and English rose complexions, close in age (Diana was born in 1961, Sophie in 1965), but the resemblance was only on the surface. While Diana came from an aristocratic background, Sophie came from a decidedly middle-class one. Her father, Christopher, was a successful retired tire salesman, and her mother Mary was a secretary. Sophie’s mother even took in typing at home to help send her and her brother David to Dulwich Preparatory School and then to West Kent College.

While Diana used to joke that she was “thick as a plank,” Sophie obtained 8 O-levels and 2 A-levels in English and Law. Diana’s parents famously split up when Diana was little; Sophie’s parents were happily married until her mother’s death in 2005. Before her marriage, Sophie trained as a secretary and had a successful career in public relations, while Diana flitted from one low-paying job after another. Diana was a very immature 20 years old when she married Prince Charles after a short courtship. Sophie was a mature woman of 34 who had dated her prince for over five years before she walked down the aisle at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. Diana and Fergie’s family had royal connections stretching back centuries, Sophie’s only connection was that she was descended from the 1st Viscount Molesworth, a 17th century diplomat with links to the Stuart Kings of England and the Queen Mother, making Sophie and Edward cousins of sorts. While Diana had to contend with the continued presence of Camilla Parker-Bowles in her husband’s life, Sophie had to contend with rumors that Prince Edward was gay.

Sophie even met her Prince like other modern couples, through her job. The couple met at a strategy meeting to discuss The Real Tennis Challenge, an event to raise funds for the Duke of Edinburgh’s scheme in 1993. Sophie later ended up standing in for Sue Barker for the photo-call with Edward, her hand resting lightly on his shoulder. She expressed interest in the game of ‘real tennis’ (the version that Henry VIII would have played) which was Edward’s sporting passion. Intrigued, Edward asked her out. Somehow they managed to keep the relationship secret for three months before the tabloids found out.

To the royal family, Sophie must have seemed like a breath of fresh air. They were under pressure when she came on the scene. The monarchy was facing criticism from over everything from the Civil List, whether the Queen should pay taxes, as well as the disastrous marriages of the royal children. Sophie was neither a compassionate fashion icon like Diana nor a loose cannon like Sarah Ferguson. “You wouldn’t notice her in a crowd,” the Queen was overheard telling the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. Sophie was seen to be unthreatening, a mixture of solid middle-class conventionality mixed with media modernity. Colleagues from work described her as always game for a laugh and down to earth. The editor of OK! Magazine, one of her clients, said “She’s not a girl of extremes and that’s essential to her character. She’s a person who can cope.” Together Sophie and Edward seemed as sexy and exciting as bread pudding. Sophie got along with most of the Royal Family especially Prince Philip but also Princess Anne who had never befriended either of her two previous sisters-in-law. Princess Diana allegedly called Sophie, “little Miss Goody Two Shoes,” behind her back.

The couple announced their engagement their engagement in January of 1999. At the press conference, the couple held hands affectionately as they showed off Sophie’s ring. Unlike his older brother Prince Charles, who famously declared, ‘whatever in love means,’ Edward said, “We are the best of friends and we happen to love each other very much.’ When asked if she found the prospect of joining the Royal Family daunting, Sophie answered honestly, ‘It is slightly nerve-racking in many ways. But I am ready for it now and I am fully aware of the responsibilities.’ Sophie had time to get a good look at royal life over the past several years. She’d been invited to join the Queen for family holidays at Windsor, Balmoral and Sandringham. A blind eye was turned when Sophie spent the night with Prince Edward at Buckingham Palace. She was even given her own pass to come and go as she pleased. She became well acquainted with the “men in grey” who had made Diana and Fergie’s lives as Royals so difficult. Both Diana and Sarah were jealous that Sophie was getting special treatment they had been thrown to the wolves. Prince Edward had even taken the step of sending an open letter to the press asking that they back off of Sophie. Sophie seemed almost too good to be true.

Three weeks before wedding, the first scandal hit the headlines. London's biggest tabloid, The Sun, printed a topless picture of Sophie. What should have been a tempest in a teapot became a national uproar in the wake of Princess Diana's death, which was widely blamed on Fleet Street's disregard for royal privacy. The outcry was so enormous the tabloid Sun actually issued a groveling apology. The 11-year-old snapshot showed Sophie gallivanting with radio disc jockey Chris Tarrant during a 1988 business trip to Spain. At the time, Sophie was working for Capital Radio as a PR executive. The picture showed Tarrant pulling up a laughing Sophie’s bikini top, exposing one breast. The photographer, Kara Noble, was paid £40,000 for the photo but in the backlash after their publication, she was sacked from her job as a disc jockey. While the scandal was tame compared to the pictures of a topless Fergie having her toes sucked in the South of France, the publication signaled the end of the honeymoon between Sophie and the Press.

The nuptials of Sophie and Edward on June 19, 1999 were a much more low-key affair than his siblings’ weddings, which took place at Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Since all three of those weddings ended in divorce, perhaps Prince Edward was hedging his bets by getting married at Windsor. Whatever the reason, Edward and Sophie had made it clear that their wedding was not to be a state occasion. On his wedding day, he was created The Earl of Wessex. Sophie’s new title would be HRH The Countess of Wessex. Eventually the plan was that after the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh’s death, Edward would inherit his father’s title. The wedding was attended by 560 guests and an estimated 200 million viewers around the world. Some commentators called it the “people’s wedding,” and 8,000 people were picked at random and invited into the castle grounds.

Unlike the over-the-top 80’s confections worn by Diana and Sarah, Sophie wore a simple dress made of hand-dyed silk organza and silk crepe, with long sleeves and the detail consists of rows of pearls and crystal beading around the neck, sleeves and train, with further beading down the back and front of the dress-coat. 325,000 cut-glass and pearl beads were sewn on the dress, which was corseted, with a V-neck. To accompany the dress, the bride also wore a black-and-white pearl necklace, interspersed with white gold rondels, and a matching pair of black-and-white pearl drop earrings, designed by Prince Edward and made by Asprey and Garrard as a wedding gift from Edward. Sophie wore a diamond tiara, from the Queen's private collection, consisting of three open-work scroll motifs, designed and re-modeled by the Crown Jeweler, David Thomas, and Asprey and Garrard.

Soon after their wedding, it was announced that the royal couple would be balancing their professional lives with their royal duties. The Queen was said to be behind the couple’s decision. The couple took a 150 year lease on the 57 room Bagshot Park in Surrey, paying £5 million pounds for a property that on the open market would be worth at least 6 times as much. It is one of the largest Royal homes; even Prince Charles’s beloved Highgrove is not as big. Prince Edward went back to work at the moderately successful production company that he’d started in 1993, Ardent Productions while Sophie continued on with her PR firm RJH. But from the beginning there were questions about whether royalty and commerce should mix. Even before the wedding, Sophie was accused of using her relationship with Edward to drum up business. The longer her romance with Edward continued, the more her career seemed to flourish.

Her critics said a big “I told you so,” when in 2001, an undercover reporter for the tabloid News of the World, Mazher Mahmood, posing as an Arab sheikh, recorded Sophie making disparaging remarks about Cherie Blair as "absolutely horrid, horrid, horrid" and criticized the prime minister's leadership style as "too presidential". It was also claimed that she boasted that she was the Royal family’s savior and calling the Queen ‘the old dear.’ It also appeared that Sophie was using her royal connections to drum up business. The story was picked up by the Daily Mail and other media outlets, humiliating the Countess. Although Buckingham Palace issued a statement suggesting that the reported comments were ‘selective, distorted and in several cases, flatly untrue,’ the damage was done. Sophie herself issued a statement that read, that she regretted the embarrassment she had caused after being taken in by the reporter's scheme. “I am deeply distressed by the carrying-out of an entrapment operation on me and my business but I also very much regret my own misjudgment in succumbing to that subterfuge.” For a supposedly smart and savvy business woman, it never seems to have occurred to Sophie to check out her new potential client. Landing such a lucrative account seemed to outweigh her common sense. Unlike Fergie who could at least claim alcohol as an excuse, Sophie drank nothing but mineral water during the meeting.

The news brought back memories of ‘Squidgygate’ and ‘Tampongate’ when the Wales’s phone calls were taped and then published in the tabloids. Sophie compounded her error by sending personal letters of apology to Blair, Hague and Prince Charles. The tabloid turned over the tapes to Buckingham Palace in exchange for a 5 page interview with Sophie, in which she discussed IVF & Edward’s sexuality. Instead of being a breath of fresh air, Sophie was in danger of been seen as no better than her predecessors. Her partner resigned but Sophie was hoping to ride it out but clients began to leave, outraged by publicity. Later that fall, Prince Edward got into trouble for filming at St. Andrew’s University as his nephew Prince William matriculated for a documentary. In 2002, both the Prince Edward and his wife announced that they would quit their business interests to focus on royal duties full time and to aid the Queen during her Golden Jubilee. To take some of the sting out having to give up their careers, the Queen increased the annual allowance to £250,000, essentially paying them not to work.

Sophie, by all accounts, was devastated at having to give-up the business that she had worked so hard at developing for a life of ribbon-cutting and garden parties at Buckingham Palace. She had founded RJH in 1996 with her business partner Murray Harkin, and had been a dedicated career woman before her marriage. The company had a prestigious client list that included the Lanesborough Hotel in London, Boodles & Dunthorne, Thomas Goode China, DFS Furniture chain, Rover Cars, and the Banyan Tree Hotel in Phuket, Thailand. According to an article in London’s The Daily Mail, the company was in talks to sell the business for £3.5 million (8 years later the company folded owing £1.7 million). However devastated she might have been, she also seemed resigned that if she wanted her marriage to work, she would have to make a success of her life as a royal instead. There were some who took great delight in her downfall, who felt that Sophie had developed a case of ‘red carpet fever’ when she married the Queen’s youngest son, that she got caught up with being a member of the Royal Family. She’d once remarked that she was the ‘second lady of the land’ and apparently had the attitude that went along with it.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Sophie also had problems conceiving. In December of 2001, Sophie was brought to King Edward VII Hospital after complaining that she didn’t feel well. It was soon discovered that she was suffering from an ectopic pregnancy. She lost both the baby and an ovary. Two years later, she went into premature labor, resulting from a placental eruption, giving birth to a daughter Lady Louse on November 8, 2003. Sophie had to have a caesarian, and it was touch and go for a while for both mother and daughter. She lost a considerable amount of blood, and was said to be 20 minutes away from death. And then their daughter, Louise, was born with extropia, an eye condition that left her with one eye turning outwards. Longing for a second child, the couple went through a number of unsuccessful IVF treatments, before conceiving their son James, Viscount Severn (born December 17, 2007), naturally after almost four years of trying. It was an emotionally devastating time for Sophie, who had to watch several women on staff at the Palace give birth, while she struggled to conceive. Neither children will either have or use the style HRH at their parents’ request. Both Sophie and Edward wish for them to have as normal an upbringing as possible.

Through it all, the Queen has been a huge supporter of Sophie. They share a strong bond and an interest in military history, and horses. Sophie is reportedly the first of The Queen’s daughters-in-law with home she has enjoyed a permanently warm relationship. While The Queen’s relationship with Camilla has thawed, they will never truly be close, and so far Prince Andrew has declined to remarry after his divorce from Fergie. The Queen even went so far as to pay a secret visit to Sophie when she was in the hospital after the traumatic birth of Lady Louise which was unprecedented. They became even closer after Sophie lost her mother to cancer in 2005. The Queen and Sophie take regular horseback rides around Windsor Great Park, and the Queen has even been known to pop around for tea at Bagshot Park unannounced. In 2010, Sophie was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order. Honorees are chosen by the Queen personally for this honor rather than recommended by the Prime Minister.

Now 47, Sophie has proved to be a valuable member of the Royal Family. Unlike the Duchess of York who keeps making the same mistakes over and over again, but expecting a different result, Sophie learned from her earlier mistakes, and has not put a foot wrong since. She has even stepped it up fashion-wise in recent years, showing off a trimmer figure, and more stylish wardrobe of tall hats, and platform shoes. Articles in such diverse publications as Hello Magazine, The Telegraph and Majesty Magazine have all remarked on her transformation over the years. Another sign of how well thought of Sophie now is, she volunteered to take Kate Middleton under her wing, to show her the royal ropes after her engagement. She’s also become good friends with Princess Charlene of Monaco. Over the years, Sophie has been able to use her PR skills to good use to help the charities she’s patron of, including Born in Bradford research project, which investigates the causes of low birth weight and infant mortality.

Edward and Sophie are now the Queen’s go to Royals to represent her on overseas trips and at royal weddings. In 2011, they attended the wedding of Prince Albert II of Monaco to Charlene Wittstock. To celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, they traveled to the Caribbean as well as a controversial trip to Gibraltar. As the Queen and Prince Philip cut back on their engagements, Sophie and Edward will no doubt continue to have a high profile until Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge become full-time royals.




Léa Seydoux as Sidonie Laborde
Diane Kruger as Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France
Virginie Ledoyen as Gabrielle de Polastron, duchesse de Polignac
Xavier Beauvois as Louis XVI
Grégory Gadebois as Louis, comte de Provence
Francis Leplay as Charles, comte d'Artois
Noémie Lvovsky as Jeanne-Louise-Henriette Campan
Vladimir Consigny as Paolo
Julie-Marie Parmentier as Honorine
Michel Robin as Nicolas Moreau
Lolita Chammah as Louison
Marthe Caufman as Alice
Jacques Boudet as Monsieur de la Tour du Pin
Martine Chevallier as Madame de la Tour du Pin
Grégory Gadebois as Comte de Provence
Jacques Nolot as Monsieur de Jolivet
Serge Renko as Marquis de la Chesnaye
Anne Benoît as Rose Bertin
Dominique Reymond as Madame
Jean-Chrétien Sibertin-Blanc as Monsieur de Polignac
Jacques Herlin as Marquis de Vaucouleurs

Synopsis:  1789, at the eve of the Revolution, Versailles' occupants still live happily, unconcerned by the increasing turmoil in Paris. When news about the storming of the Bastille reaches the Court, aristocrats and servants desert the Palace, leaving the Royal Family alone. But Sidonie Laborde, a young servant who reads to the Queen, refuses to flee. She feels secure as she is under protection of the Queen of France. She does not yet know these are the last three days she would spend by her side.

My thoughts:  Since yesterday was Bastille Day, I thought it highly appropriate to see the new film FAREWELL MY QUEEN, starring Diane Kruger as Marie Antoinette and Lea Seydoux as Sidonie Laborde, the young reader to the Queen, a minor office but one that gives her a certain prestige amongst the other servants and access to areas of Versaille that others do not have.  The highlight of this film for me was seeing Kathleen  Turner standing on the line to see the movie.  I knew going in that I probably was going to be disappointed but I had no idea how much.

This film was BORING, vapid, and uninspiring, did I mention it was also BORING? The running time is about 90 minutes, but it felt like it took four hours to get through this film, there were moments when I was nodding off in my seat, it was that dull. The French Revolution took less time and was more interesting than this film. Despite the fact that the movie was filmed at Versaille, it looked like the budget was about 50,000 Euros.  I'm also no expert on 18th century costume, so I can't accurately state whether or not the clothing in this film is historically correct for 1789, but I welcome comments to that effect.  The film also seemed to be edited funny, scenes would end with almost a cliffhanger but then the next scene had nothing to do with the previous scene, it was as if scenes had been cut out in the diting process.

The movie is based on a novel by Chantal Thomas, who also co-wrote the screenplay.  Thomas also also written a well-regarded work of non-fiction detailing how Marie Antoinette was demonized by the pamphleteers of the time. The director claims that he was inspired by Thomas's feminist take on the story of Marie Antoinette.  That probably explains the lingering shots of nudity of both Madame de Polignac and Sidonie in the film.  I found it particularly shocking that Thomas, who did so much to disprove the lies about Marie Antoinette, particularly the rumors that she was a lesbian, would be part of a film that does nothing but perpertrate those same lies.  Seriously, WTF?

Lea Seydoux, who plays Sidonie, spends most of the film looking either sullen or petulant when she's not eavesdropping on private conversations.  The audience keeps being told how devoted Sidonie is to Marie Antoinette but we never learn why or really see it.  Most of the time, she looks put upon. The film also intimates that Sidonie's feelings for Marie are of the sapphic variety.  Can someone tell me when did feminist and lesbian become the same thing? Diane Kruger, ironically, actually impressed me as Marie Antoinette, although physically she doesn't resemble the Queen at all. I've never been a huge fan of Diane Kruger, apart from the National Treasure films, for the most part I think the roles that she's played have required her to do nothing more than look pretty (see Troy). To me she's been just another model turned actress, one who shows up at premieres looking fabulous but that's about it. However in this film, there was actual acting going on.  I felt for her when she was telling Sidonie about her feelings for Madame de Polignac, and her good-bye scene with her love, even though inwardly I cringed.

One thing the film does well is to give the audience a glimpse into what it was like backstairs at Versailles compared to the aristocracy.  We witness the servants in their small rooms upstairs in the attics of the palace to their downstairs lives in the dining rooms and corridors in the lower levels of the palace.  We see the intrigues, the romances and hear the gossip about those who live above stairs. Sidonie and Madame de Campan apparently each have only one dress which they wear daily, Sidonie has to contend with mosquito bites and the poor sewage at the Palace.  We also see the rooms of the minor nobility compared to the luxurious apartment of Marie Antoinette.  However, unlike the synopsis of the film on Wikipedia, we don't really see aristocrats and servants deserting the palace.  We do however hear a lot of talk about what is going in Paris with the fall of the Bastille.  In the end though it didn't matter, because for the life of me, I couldn't figure out what the point of the film was.

After the movie, I walked over to Cafe Boulud to have a nice glass of rose and a chocolate eclair to help wipe away the memory. I think the final word on this film can be summed up by what I overheard another audience member say on the line in the ladie's room, "What a waste!"

Lucy Worsley presents Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: A Girl's Guide to the 17th Century

So it's been wicked hot here in New York, too hot to do much of anything but lay around near the air conditioner and watch TV.  My new favorite is Harlots, Houswives and Heroines presented by Dr. Lucy Worsley which was orignally shown on BBC 4 in the UK. Lucy is the Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity looking after The Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace State Apartments, the Banqueting House in Whitehall, and Kew Palace in Kew Gardens, so she really knows her stuff. She's also the author of the fabulous books Courtiers and If These Walls Could Talk (also available on You Tube).

I must confess that I have a bit of a girl crush on Lucy Worsley ever since I watched the programme on Henry VIII on National Geographic that she presented. I suspect that she would be loads of fun to have a drink with.  She seems equally fun in the programmes that she's presented for BBC4.  In fact my dream evening would be to have dinner and drinks with Lucy, Hallie Rubenhold (who also pops up in the series), Amanda Vickery, Amanda Foreman and Kate Williams. This series is after my own heart.  Not only is it set in one of my favorite centuries, but it is filled with fun Scandalous Women. Many of them have appeared on this blog including Barbara Palmer, Nell Gwynn and Catherine Sedley. But I've also been introduced to some fabulous women that I'd never head about such as Margaret, Duchess of Newcaste and Elizabeth, Duchess of Lauderdale (you can expect posts soon on these two women!).  There are also loads of dishy portraits of Charles II, who is my favorite King of England.

Thanks to Evangeline Holland of Edwardian Promenade, we can watch all 3 episodes on YouTube as well as Lucy's other programme on The Regency era. I wish that someone would do an American version of this.  It would be fascinating to learn about some of the personalities living in the colonies during this period such as Anne Hutchinson, Elizabeth Winthrop and Pocahontas. Are you listening to me History Channel?

Equal of the Sun: A Novel by Anita Amirrezvani

Title:  Equal of the Sun - A Novel

Author: Anita Amirrezvani

Publisher:  Scribner (Simon & Schuster)

Pub Date:  June 5, 2012

Pages: 431

What it's About:  Iran in 1576 is a place of wealth and dazzling beauty. But when the Shah dies without having named an heir, the court is thrown into tumult. Princess Pari, the Shah’s daughter and protégé, knows more about the inner workings of the state than almost anyone, but the princess’s maneuvers to instill order after her father’s sudden death incite resentment and dissent. Pari and her closest adviser, Javaher, a eunuch able to navigate the harem as well as the world beyond the palace walls, are in possession of an incredible tapestry of secrets and information that reveals a power struggle of epic proportions.

My thoughts:  Equal of the Sun is very different from most of the historical fiction that I read. I was very excited at getting a chance to read about a powerful woman who wasn't a Tudor or Queen Victoria.  Historical fiction nowadays tends to be very Eurocentric, focused primarily on 100 years of history.  It's a rare treat that readers get to enter a world that is not familiar. Equal of the Sun is an intriguing look behind the scenes of 16th century Iran or Persia. Before reading this book, I had only been familiar with the Ottoman Empire thanks to the historical romance novels of Bertrice Small! Anita Amirrezvani pulls back the curtain to reveal the manueverings and jockeying for position that takes place after the death of the previous Shah. Her descrip­tions of the ancient tra­di­tions and the cul­ture of Iran is one of most cap­ti­vat­ing aspect.

While the inside cover of the book indicates that the novel is about Princess Pari Khan Khanoon Safavi, the book is really more about her eunuch Javaher.  He narrates the story of what happens during this pivotal year.  I found this to be both one of the books strengths but also it's weakness.  We never really get to know Princess Pari because Javaher never really gets to know her.  He's her servant as well as her eyes and ears in the outside world. I felt that by focusing on Javaher so much, and not at least having the book narrated by Pari at least in part, the reader is kept at a distance, as male visitors are kept by the lattice when they come to speak with Pari. What the readers does get to know about Pari is fascinating. Here you have a dynamic, intelligent woman who because of the culture and traditions of her country is never able to fully use her talents.  It's clear that Pari would have made a most excellent Shah if it had been possible for women to rule. She's also stubborn, and is always convinced that she is right, which is one of her less attractive qualities.

Javaher is a unique character.  Unlike most of the eunuchs at the Palace, he chose to become one, at the late age of 17. While he is intensely loyal to the Princess, he also is not afraid to tell her things that she might not want to hear. I quite enjoyed reading his take on all the politics and the royal family.  The book is filled with excerpts from Persian poetry which I also found quite enjoyable.

Amirrezvani is a mesmerizing story-teller, I was enthralled by this new world from page one. While I was never bored while reading the book,  I did however become increasingly frustrated because the book revolves a great deal around Javaher as well as his quest to find out the truth of his father's murder. There's also a great deal of background concerning the various tribes that took up a great deal of the book. I found myself constantly flipping to the front of the book to remind myself who the various characters. However, the strengths of the book far outweigh the weaknesses.

For anyone who loves historical fiction and wants a change of pace from European settings and characters, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of this book. Hopefully this book will give readers more of an insight and knowledge into the country of Iran.