An unfaithful power-hungry silver-tongued queen, who sleeps with her brother, bears an illegitimate heir to the throne, and acts as regent – who could this be other than Cersei Lannister? Surprisingly, it could also be Queen Isabeau of France (that is, the traditional interpretation of her). Born Elizabeth of Bavaria-Ingolstadt (c.1370), Isabeau (as the French called her) was the queen of France during the Armagnac-Burgundian phase of Hundred Years War. Isabeau is also famous for being the mother of two English queens: Richard II’s child bride, Isabella, and Henry V’s wife, Catherine of Valois.
There appear to be five possible historical influences on the Game of Thrones’ character Cersei Lannister: Margaret of Anjou, Elizabeth Woodville, Isabeau of Bavaria, Anne Boleyn, and at least one more I’ll save for later. This article looks at the historical parallels between a darkly interpreted Isabeau and Cersei ((Admittedly, the parallels between Isabeau and Cersei are more obvious when you look at the traditional depiction of Isabeau. Until scholars recently reassessed her life, historians have traditionally interpreted Isabeau’s behavior through darkest possible lens. The goal of this article is not so much to set the record straight – which is a good deal more complex — as to show the similarities between one perspective on a notorious French queen and Cersei Lannister. )) .
Since George RR Martin created Cersei in the early 1990s, perhaps Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror fired up his imagination. Tuchman’s tale of the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages is certainly a book Martin recommends on his website. A Distant Mirror presents a juicy and somewhat harsh portrait of Isabeau of Bavaria. Since then, historians like Tracy Adams, who wrote The Life and Afterlife of Isabeau of Bavaria in 2010, have disputed such traditional interpretations.
Sold into a Marriage to Cement an Alliance
Both Cersei and Isabeau were sold into diplomatic marriages that hardened military unions. For Tywin’s support during Robert’s Rebellion, Robert Baratheon had to marry Cersei. Likewise, Isabeau became queen because the French Valois king, Charles VI, wanted her father’s support against the English during the Hundred Years War.
Isabeau was born Elisabeth von Wittelsbach in roughly 1370 – the daughter of Stephen III, Duke of Bavaria. She came from the lesser branch of the powerful German dynasty, the House of Wittelsbach, who had ties to the Holy Roman Emperor – and this potential level of military support made Isabeau a highly desirable prize.
When the English marched on Flanders in 1383, Charles VI called upon help to other European rulers. Isabeau’s uncle Frederick responded, a strong alliance formed, and the Valois princes asked if they had a daughter they would like to marry to France to secure the alliance. Frederick did not have one, but suggested Isabeau whom he claimed was quite fetching1 .
Isabeau’s father Stephen III appears to have been fond of her — and, unlike Tywin — Stephen prioritized Isabeau’s feelings over dynastic ambition. He initially refused to send her to France not only because of the distance but also because he didn’t want to see her humiliated.
The French Hundred Years’ War chronicler Jean Froissart imagines Stephen saying, “It [the French kingdom] is very far from here, and the business of choosing a queen… very serious. I would be furious if my daughter were sent to France, only to have her returned to me; she is so dear to me that I will marry her here, close to me, in my own time2 .” How refreshing.
Stephen agreed to send Isabeau to France to meet the king provided it was under a cover story of a pilgrimage to St. Jean of Amiens. Stephen also dictated his daughter would not be paraded about naked for inspection by elderly women as was the French custom.
Charles fell in love at first sight and the pair married three days later.
The Groom Doesn’t Live Up to His Romantic Potential
The world should have been Isabeau’s oyster when she wed. She dodged the humiliating nude inspection, the French king fell madly in love with her, and the young princess was now queen of France.
Like Cersei had at first idolized Robert Baratheon, initially Isabeau might have seen Charles VI as a bit of a martial god. Charles was tall, supposedly golden haired, athletic, honest, mannerly, and passionate – he was known to ride nine courses in the jousting tournaments. But, unlike Robert Baratheon, Charles could also be careless, unsteady, recklessly generous, fanciful, and highly suggestible.
When Charles was thirteen, his hunting party captured a deer wearing a golden collar inscribed with ancient looking characters: “Caesar hoc mihi donavit.” Somebody told Charles that the deer must have lived in the forest since Roman times – a story that so enchanted him he commanded a deer with a crown around its neck be engraved on all the royal plate3 .
Charles was known to fall in and out of love quickly. Happily, however, he was besotted with Isabel upon whom he showered in gifts. He arranged to hold the most extravagant wedding France had seen to date to honor her.
Their wedding night may have been heaven or hell for Isabeau; Charles was known to have an insatiable sexual appetite.
Still, contemporaries thought they made a lusty pair. Regarding their wedding night, Froissart wrote, “And, if they passed that night together in great delight, one can well believe it.” What a propitious beginning for a marriage that would go so badly.
Like Cersei, Isabeau quickly came to loathe her husband – even though, in Isabeau’s case, he remained besotted. Later on, after Charles became insane, Isabeau’s marriage would come to resemble that of Cersei in other ways. Not only was Isabeau’s husband inattentive, sometimes he failed to even recognize Isabeau.
Both Cersei and Isabeau’s power swelled once their husbands couldn’t rule – due to death or insanity – and the queens’ control of the heir made them more influential than they would have otherwise been.
Isabeau first became regent at 23 after her husband’s first outbreak of madness.
King Charles the Mad’s insanity should have been no surprise — he came from unsteady stock. His mother, Queen Joanna of Bourbon, had struggled with madness in 1373. His bloodlines crisscrossed back-and-forth in a fragile web of inbreeding. And, his sisters had all died before adulthood4 .
King Charles floated in and out of his craziness. He tried to rule when he was sane, but all too often he was not. In 1399, he suffered from six attacks of madness. Sometimes he believed he was made of glass and would shatter if touched – he would defend himself from any who attempted it with a sword. Other times, he ran up and down the corridors of his Parisian palace howling like a wolf.
At different points in his reign, she acted officially or unofficially as regent with varying degrees of power. When Charles became temporarily lucid in 1402, he turned the treasury over to her.
Historical records portray Isabeau as a giddy queen who couldn’t care less about her sick husband – relegating him to filth and disregard. (Contemporaries saw Charles’ poor hygiene as a sign, not of his insanity, but that she didn’t tend to him properly during his convalescence.)
Barbara Tuchman describes Isabeau’s behavior through this time as follows, “Frivolous and sensuous, still an alien with a thick German accent, humiliated by her husband’s mad aversion, Isabeau abandoned Charles to his valets and to a girl she supplied to fill her place, a horse dealer’s daughter named Odette de Champdivers, who resembled her and was called by the public, the “little Queen.5 ””
To be continued next week…