Born into a wealthy Devon family; married at twelve years old; widowed at twenty three having borne six children, Isabella de Forz outwitted both the king and Simon de Montfort to remain resolutely a widow and manage her own affairs. She became one of the great medieval landowners and one of the richest noblewomen in England.
Isabella was the daughter of Baldwin de Redvers, 6th earl of Devon and Exeter and Lord of the Isle of Wight. As such she was accustomed to life in a wealthy noble family and understood the expectations held of her particularly in relation to her marriage- an alliance aimed at increasing wealth, power and influence.
At twelve, she was married to William de Forz, the Count of Aumale who was twenty years her senior. He was a loyal supporter of the king, Henry III and was often away on the king’s business. As a result, Isabella, despite her youth, became deeply involved in supervising the management of her husband’s considerable estates in France and the north of England.
In 1260, William died whilst abroad leaving Isabella a young and rich widow when her dower lands reverted to her. Two years later Isabella’s brother died and she became, in her own right, the heiress to the family estates and all at a time when the politics of the country were in turmoil.
In brief the nobles of England, rich and influential, were dissatisfied with the king, Henry III. They wanted more say in the governing of the country and were not at all happy with the favours bestowed on his wife’s (Eleanor of Provence) relatives. After several failed attempts to resolve the barons’ grievances, matters came to a head with Simon de Monfort leading the Baron’s War against the King. (1264-7). Isabella’s husband William de Forz remained a staunch royalist and close adviser to Henry. Whilst her husband lived Isabella followed his royalist lead. After his death however, she trod circumspectly between the two warring factions in an attempt to protect what was rightly hers. Throughout her life she maintained strong personal links between Henry and Eleanor and their son Prince Edward, later Edward I. Equally she remained in contact with Simon de Montfort’s wife, another Eleanor.
Isabella developed a taste and an aptitude for managing her own life as an independent woman rather than as the wife of a nobleman. She put in place a competent team – her affinity – to see to the day to day management of the estates and to advise her. She ran her fiefdom mainly from Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight –Isabella’s family home where she extensively remodelled the Castle turning it into a sumptuous private residence and styled herself as the Lady of the Isle.
However as a wealthy an influential widow she was a fine catch for any noble. Simon de Montfort, after seizing control of the country saw this very clearly and sold the rights to Isabella’s remarriage to his eponymous son. Isabella was having none of this. During the year 1264/5, She was chased the length and breadth of the country by Simon the younger in an attempt to abduct her and force her into marriage. She hid in Brearmore Abbey in Hampshire but the Abbot revealed her whereabouts to the would-be husband. Later, apparently after suitable gifts, the Abbot helped her escape and she took herself off to Wales to lie low. After the battle of Evesham in 1265, described as ‘murder of Evesham for battle it was none’ both de Montfort elder and junior were killed and Henry held the reins of the country again. The question of Isabella’s marriage raised its head once more. This time Henry sold the rights to her marriage to his second son, Edmond, Duke of Lancaster. In that way the wealth and influence she had amassed would eventually accrue to the crown. However, instead of taking flight, this time Isabella negotiated with the king to arrange the marriage of her daughter and heir Aveline to Edmond and thus eventually the crown would inherit. The plan was thwarted by the death of Aveline and the estates reverted to Isabella.
Although Isabella’s vast estates were enticement enough – she held land and property in more than half the counties of England – it was her possession of the Isle of Wight that worried Henry and Prince Edward. The island held the status of a semi-independent feudal fiefdom with Isabella’s family, the de Redvers, ruling from Carisbrooke Castle. The Isle was considered to be of great strategic importance particularly in times of war with France. When Isabella inherited her family estates she took up residence in Carisbrooke and ruled there almost as a queen in her own right, outside of royal jurisdiction.
However, Isabella managed her relationships with Henry and Edward with intelligence and acumen. She was not cowed by either of them, standing up for what she saw as her rights. She is said to have possessed a copy of the laws of England which she used in her many legal spats with the king, other nobles and tenants. Even family members were not exempt from her insistence on her rights. There was a long-running dispute with her mother concerning the income of Isabella’s northern lands. The monks at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight were said to have “an unwholesome fear” of her because of her claims to rights and lands previously held by the Abbey. She stoutly defended her rights to the wrecks of the seas around the Isle which often had high value. Attempts by Henry and Edward to claim these rights were given short shrift by Isabella.
Her relationship with Henry seems to have been one based on mutual mistrust. Perhaps Henry believed her sympathies to lie with the Barons. When she inherited her estates from her brother she was slow to come to court and swear homage to him, ignoring one summons and responding to the second summons only after Henry appointed the sheriff of Hampshire to take charge of her English lands. For Isabella’s part she appeared to mistrust Henry’s promises and at periods when the threat of war with France loomed she formally negotiated detailed terms with him by which he could garrison the Isle of Wight, such garrison to be withdrawn when the crisis was over. This was also probably part of her strategy to demonstrate her loyalty to him.
Her relationship with Edward, once he became king, was quite different. Edward, always careful of royal rights appeared to be equally solicitous of Isabella’s. Whilst carrying out his own review of the appropriation of royal property and rights, he discovered a number of cases where manors had been illegally taken from her. These he restored to her. However Edward was not averse to putting pressure on Isabella and constantly sought to persuade her to sell the Isle and her other estates. When she was at her most vulnerable after the death of her daughter, Aveline, he was quick to draw up deeds of sale of her lands. However grief stricken she was, she held firm and the sale came to nothing.
In 1293, when she was fifty six years old and after thirty three years of widowhood and independence Isabella was taken ill on her way to Canterbury. She had outlived all her children and so, on her deathbed, she finally agreed the sale of the Isle of Wight to Edward for about six thousand marks (c. four thousand pounds).
Isabella’s Seal reads “Personal seal of Isabella de Forz, Countess of Devon and the Isle”
Edward later claimed that Isabella had made him her heir and so he immediately inherited the money he had just paid out. The transaction later had to be defended by Edward’s son since it was regarded as highly dubious. Isabella was buried in Breamore Abbey in Hampshire.
In many ways Isabella acted as a conventional noblewoman. Managing her estates, interceding for her tenants and employees, giving grants and gifts of land to those of her affinity, religious patronage – these were normal areas of activity for noblewomen. However she went beyond these local responsibilities and acted on equal terms with the other barons. As one of the wealthiest noblewomen in England (at her death her fortune was around two million pounds in current value) she had influence and authority. The extent of her estates and particularly the Isle of Wight and her need to defend them against the encroachment of others brought her into the highest level of society where she gained the respect and confidence of the other nobles. She had a clear sense of self and what she was owed, a strong will and the intelligence to pick her way through the politics and allegiances of these troubled times to guard ‘her own’.