Femmes Fatales of Yesteryear, Part II

For his classic poem The Ballad of Women of Times Gone By, François Villon rhapsodizes over the snows of yesteryear and the femmes fatales of yesteryear; naturally, he selects his heroines most carefully.
In the first stanza, he singles out two renowned courtesans of the ancient world.
There is Thais who followed her lover, one of Alexander’s generals, on the Macedonian march of conquest; after Alexander’s death, her paramour became Ptolemy I of Egypt – launching the dynasty of the Ptolemies that only ended with Cleopatra.
And there is Flora the Roman beauty – so prosperous in her chosen profession and so magnanimous of spirit that, according to legend, she financed the first Floralia ceremonies in Rome: springtime flower festivals and lusty happenings, annual six day events that lasted long into the Christian era. With the growth of Roman power, these exuberant ceremonies quickly spread throughout the empire – quite understandably since the Floralia “were much appreciated by conquered peoples for their licentious nature,” to translate from a prudish French source.
Things get a bit comic though in this first stanza when Villon references Alcibiades (Archipiades in the text) who was, in fact, a man. Alcibiades was known in his day as the most beautiful youth in Periclean Athens – apparently Villon and his contemporaries took him to be a woman so universal were the paeans to his beauty in classical writings. The less easily befuddled among us today hold Alcibiades more to account for his role in the disastrous siege of Syracuse in the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens.
But then Villon leaps forward to the late Middle Ages invoking Héloïse and Marguerite de Bourgogne – both most worthy of the poet’s attention. The actual story of Marguerite and the scandal of The Tower of Nesle involves other dazzling women – among them are the two other daughters-in-law of King Philippe Le Bel, Jeanne de Bourgogne and Blanche d’Artois both of whom figured in the actual historical events but who were mostly left at peace by the legends and literature that followed. However, the story of The Tower of Nesle also involves Isabelle de France, King Philippe’s daughter who was the one who aroused the suspicions of her father about the future queen Marguerite’s extra-regal activities. And this is the Isabelle known to history as the She-Wolf of France (la Louve de France)! Should she not be there among the femmes fatales of Villon’s poem?
Well here is her story: daughter that she was of the King of France, at the tender age of 12, she was married off to Edward II, the King of England; this was a dynastic marriage arranged to keep the peace between England and France – as the Duke of Aquitaine and Gascogne, the Plantagenet Edward II controlled a large part of France but was in feudal terms a vassal of the King of France. It is also interesting that although the English Court at the time of these scandals was very much French, the French Salic Law never became part of English law: this law was inspired by Marguerite’s story and prevented a queen from being the reigning monarch; on the contrary, in England there were the impressive reigns of Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Anne and Queen Victoria. But the plot thickens: the same Isabelle, who had denounced Marguerite, herself led a successful rebellion against her own husband Edward II aided by her lover Roger Mortimer, baron of Wigmore and descendant of Normans who came with William the Conqueror. Edward II was thus forced to abdicate in favor of the 14 year old Edward III, his son with Isabelle; the deposed king died imprisoned at Berkeley Castle not long after, either by natural causes or on the orders of Mortimer – historians differ. Edward III only being 14 years of age when made king, Isabelle served as Queen Regent and ruled the country – she did well, making peace with Robert the Bruce and the unruly Scots, for one thing. When Edward III did take control at age 18, he promptly saw to it that Mortimer was executed – but Isabelle, though kept away from Court, lived out her days playing the model grandmother in a style befitting the daughter, wife and mother of a king.
As with Marguerite de Bourgogne and The Tower of Nesle, the story of Isabelle de France is too good to have been passed up by the world of letters, Villon notwithstanding. And this time it was Christopher Marlowe himself who seized the occasion.
    BTW, Marlowe’s star continues to rise; the New Oxford Shakespeare now lists him as co-author of all three of the Henry VI  plays – this attribution was made using a sophisticated Artificial Intelligence program which determines authorship by matching phrasings against other works by the writer in question etc – thus pretty well settling at least one question involving Marlowe’s contributions to Shakespeare’s work.
Marlowe, it seems, had a predilection for plots involving close ties between men and, true to form, in his 1592 play Edward II, he develops the story around the close and controversial relationship Edward had with his favorite Piers Gaveston. Like Dumas’ play The Tower of Nesle, Marlowe’s play too has been made into films – most recently there is the 1991 film Edward II by British filmmaker Derek Jarman: here it is Edward’s relationship with Gaveston that triggers Isabelle’s alienation – although historians tend to think that it was Edward’s dalliance with his next favorite Hugh Dispenser the Younger that drove Isabelle to open rebellion – and, indeed, in the end Isabelle did have Hugh Dispenser dispatched in a most ghastly way.
Books too continue to be written on this dramatic chapter of British history; already in this century we have Paul Doherty’s Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II (2003).
And the world of art has been there since the beginning. For a medieval image of Isabelle de France, taken from the original Froissart’s Chronicles, the late 14th Century history of the 100 Years War, click HERE . Admittedly, Isabelle would have been better served by a master painter of the Renaissance but that would only have been possible some 100 or more years later. For a print from Froissart’s Chronicles of the first steps in the execution of Hugh Dispenser, click HERE .
Given all this, Isabelle de France clearly deserves her place in the pantheon of femmes fatales of yesteryear. Did François Villon only overlook her because she was Queen of England and not Queen of France? We will never know, hélas. But a simple way to give her her due is to recreate the lines that are manifestly missing from Villon’s poem, inserting them into the middle of the stanza devoted to Heloise and Marguerite; after all the poem is dedicated to dangerous women of the past, she certainly qualifies and fits in so well with the other two.
There must be a circle in Hell reserved for those who tamper with great poetry (the crime of lèse-poésie or is it lèse-poète), but for Isabelle’s sake a poetic sacrilege is justified here and so we propose that lines be added both to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Victorian translation and to Villon’s original poem.
We note with pride that the quatrains below follow Rossetti’s and Villon’s rhyme. Also like these poets, we have recourse to the language of yesteryear: in this case the arcane word mariticide which denotes the murder of a husband.
Following Rossetti:
And where is the Isabelle so intelligent
That she drove her lover to regicide
Thus becoming the Queen Regent
Thanks to her little mariticide
Following Villon:
Où est cette Isabelle si brilliante
Qui poussa son amant au régicide
Ce qui fit d’elle la reine régente
Grace a son petit mariticide
For the full Rossetti text, click HERE ; for that of Villon, click HERE .
One more treat: for Villon’s ballad sung with classical syllabication by the great French chanteur Georges Brassens, click HERE .

One thought on “Femmes Fatales of Yesteryear, Part II

  1. Hmmm. My interest in English history has always started with Edward III. All the goings-on before seemed to be just too confusing, without any possible of anchoring to some historical theme (is that the Hegelian in me?). I’m really impressed that you can correct renaissance poetry, but I’m not sure that this post changes anything for me. Perhaps it reinforces.

    But, as always, fascinating and impressive.

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