Echoes from the lair of the ‘She-Wolf’
- Credit: IAN BURT
East Anglian Treasures: Ian Collins looks at magnificent Castle Rising castle, and its most famous resident - the 'She-Wolf of France'.
Every late February since 1614, up to 11 needy spinsters from Castle Rising's Hospital of the Holy and Undivided Trinity have donned pointed black hats and crimson capes for a thanksgiving service in the Norman parish church.
The worthy ladies from the lovely Jacobean almshouses are a far cry from a medieval dowager who ended her days hereabouts wearing a Poor Clare habit beneath her royal robes.
More than poverty, the Poor Clares practised penitence, and Isabella, late Queen Consort of Edward II, certainly had bad habits to repent.
Whether the 'She-Wolf of France' was barking at the finish, as legend alleges, is now unclear.
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But look closely at the mighty keep of Castle Rising – the Norman fortress where this particular Queen Mum spent her final years honoured and largely hidden. What a palatial prison.
This daughter of a French king, and sister of three more, married Edward in 1308 when she was aged around 12, and he was an ancient of 23.
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While fathering a family on whom he doted, Edward was openly and very perilously homosexual – favouring first Piers Gaveston (murdered in 1312) and then Hugh Despenser, whose family came to run the kingdom.
When a dispute arose with France, the Despensers confiscated the queen's estates and took three of her
children into custody. Her patience snapped with a vengeance.
Forming an intimate alliance with Roger Mortimer – a baron jailed after a revolt of 1321 – Isabella and
her lover fled to France. When her eldest boy went to pay her homage he was detained either by a loving mother of by an ousted queen in need of a pawn.
Raising a mercenary army, Isabella and Mortimer landed in Suffolk and swept through England. So much for an island supposedly uninvaded since 1066.
Edward, captured as he tried to flee Wales by ship, was imprisoned and then murdered horribly in 1327 - allegedly via a red hot poker.
Even by the bitter standards of divorce, that blow takes some beating. Shortly before his death the defeated king was forced to abdicate in favour of his 13-year-old son, Edward III. Isabella and Mortimer named themselves regents.
But the barons soon revolted and, in 1330, the young king and a band of friends took the conspiring couple captive. Mortimer was executed, Isabella pensioned off and ultimately removed amid much pomp to Castle Rising.
Walking today through the single doorway into a monolithic block with walls set eight-feet thick amid a surround of massive earthworks and trenches, we can imagine why the dowager's mental state may have wobbled over 27 years in which, amid every comfort, she enjoyed all the freedom of a queen bee.
There were outings and an official campaign to clear her name by a son who in public blamed everything on Mortimer. She was even treated like an elder stateswoman, but the wily monarch liked mummy best when closely guarded and at arm's length.
The death of Isabella's brother, Charles IV of France, gave Edward III the strongest claim to the French throne – but the Gallic barons wouldn't tolerate an English ruler. They backed the nephew of an
earlier king and so began the Hundred Years War.
Robert Brandon was made Earl of Suffolk as he prepared invasion plans in 1336 – playing a leading role in the sweeping victories at Crecy and Poitiers in 1346 and 1356.
Professing herself an undying fan of marriage, Isabella was buried, at 63, in her wedding cloak – and with her late husband's heart on her breast like a trophy.
History has not told her story kindly. Beside the tosh of Mel Gibson's Braveheart, she is said to return as a wolf howling on the battlements every full moon.
Modelled on Norwich, Castle Rising had been built from 1138 by Anglo-Norman knight William de Albini II. It marked his marriage to another English queen – Alice of Louvain, widow of Henry I.
After Isabella's death, Edward III gave it to the Black Prince, Edward Duke of Cornwall, who had
commanded his army at Poitiers, decreeing it must be owned by the Dukes of Cornwall forever.
But Henry VIII gave it to his uncle Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, in whose family it remains to this day though it's run by English Heritage.
Prince Charles, current Duke of Cornwall, has yet to a lodge a claim. He can almost see his lost property from the attics of Sandringham.