So in "Braveheart" (never a way I was expecting to start an article, but here we are nonetheless), Isabella of France is introduced in a scene taking place in the British Court; men argue, discuss the events taking place in Scotland and show off for good measure. Her husband, Edward II, is seen as dandy, egotistical, cruel and feminine (an obvious allusion to his same-sex romantic encounters, though there is no historical evidence of him acting anything other than “masculine," whatever that means).
Although, by all accounts, Edward II was an ineffective king; he was never reported as being needlessly cruel. This portrayal makes sense, whether fair or not; this movie has cast him as the villain. Isabella of France, seeing the foolishness of her husband, runs out of the throne room, only to be comforted by her handmaiden. She cries, “I wish my husband was dead."
And then she falls in love with Mel Gibson -- I mean, William Wallace. I mean -- why? It’s not like this is historically accurate; Isabella was 9 at the time of Wallace’s death, and they never met. Why do they make Isabella of France a crying, romantic lead at all? This is especially inexplicable considering that by all historical record, Isabella of France was far from ‘sweet.' Rather, she was fierce. She was so fierce, in fact, that William Shakespeare himself did not use the moniker, “Isabella the Fair” that was popular in court at the time. He called her “Isabella, the She Wolf of France.”
Isabella of France was born in 1295 in Paris, and died at the age of 63 in Hertford Castle, England, in 1358. She was the daughter of a French King, and was married to Edward II at the age of 14, making her the Queen of England. By all accounts, she was pretty, but more interestingly was that by most historical accounts, she was charming, diplomatic and highly intelligent.
During this era, very few noted the intelligence of female royalty, but intelligent she was. After quickly realizing that her husband prefered his male courtiers to her, she worked with her husband and his favourite, Piers Gaveston, to maintain a diplomatic relationship between England and France to solidify her own power within the court, and positioned her son Edward III to be the future King of England. Unfortunately, her husband's new war, and a period of internal repressions, lead to Isabella's drastic action by 1335, when she abandoned her husband and began an affair with Roger Mortimer. Together, with a mercenary army deposed Edward II, Isabella became the regent on behalf of her son. She ruled with Mortimer for four years until Edward III executed him; Isabella was sent away from court where she lived in luxury for the rest of her life.
'She Wolf' might be an apt moniker. Why choose Isabella of France to be the, for lack of a better term, soft character in "Braveheart"? Why was she the sweet, the oppressed, the victim in this tale? (God, I know this is an unpopular opinion, but I can’t stand "Braveheart.") It all goes back to the politics of doing history -- we are more comfortable with a woman who was shackled by a patriarchal society than a woman who used the role she was born to and wielded it for her own, sometimes selfish, gain. We are uncomfortable with women who fit outside our set narrative.
I find myself considering what narrative Isabella of France belongs to, not after learning about her in a history classroom, however, but after finding out that we are related -- Isabella is my 25th great grandmother. My uncle’s (thanks, Robert Grey!) genealogy project not only unearthed this knowledge, but also that our family tree is dotted with semi-famous “dangerous” women.
My 28th great grandmother is Dangereuse de L'isle Bouchard, born in 1079 and died in 1151 (who easily has my favourite name of all time). She was a mistress to the King William IX , who quietly secured stability not only for herself, but for all of her children in the famously tumultuous landscape of Middle Ages British Court.
Sigrid the Haughty, born in 955 and died in 1014, is my 31st great grandmother; she is famous in Norse Sagas, when, as a widow of Eric the Victorious, was courted by multiple suitors and responded to one offer of marriage, where she would have to convert to Christianity: “I will not part from the faith which my forefathers have kept before me.” When the man, Olaf, struck her because of this, she said, “This may some day be thy death.” She was right; she remarried and allied her Sweden with Denmark, and after some political maneuvering, he was defeated in the Battle of Swold.
My ancestors were no doubt categorized as dangerous women, but I am more interested how they are portrayed today, how these three women are either simply femme fatales or victims, but always as supporting characters in someone else's story.
Why can’t we talk about the mistresses, the political players, the unhappy and unfaithful wives as heros of their own narrative? Isabella, Bouchard and Sigrid were smart, savvy, angry, bitter, brave, sexual, and imperfect beings. They deserve to have their stories told, not watered down as “love interests,” “temptresses” or even as “she wolves,” but as the fascinating figures that they are.
Isabella, Bouchard and Sigrid's experiences and personalities can shed new light on the Middle Ages in Europe, and should be explored. Their stories complicate a narrative that women were simply oppressed, or woebegone victims of circumstance. My ancestors show that women have always and will always be resourceful and savvy -- creating space for themselves in a world that tells women to be small and quiet.
I hope that I can be a bit like my ancestors -- to have the resolve of Sigrid, the charm of Dangerous, and the intelligence of Isabella. I hope that I can use my privilege to make waves, even when there are systematic obstacles in my way. I hope that I don't shrink, that instead I stand tall and stand my ground.
I won’t forget their stories, and I hope you don’t either.