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3. A Mother to her Son: Isabella of Angoulême and King Henry III

By Emily Ward | @1066unicorn

How did Isabella of Angoulême, queen of England, greet her son, King Henry III, when she wrote to him in the years following the nine-year-old boy’s succession to the throne in 1217? A desire to answer this question, and to resolve two conflicting modern transcriptions of a letter sent from Isabella to Henry in 1218/1219, led me to The National Archives. Letter SC 1/3/181 opens, quite traditionally, with a greeting. Isabella addresses Henry as ‘her dear son, by the grace of God illustrious King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Anjou

For me, the document’s significance hangs on the subsequent two words. Although concealed slightly by a tea-coloured stain, with the aid of a lamp it was evident that the Latin reads ‘et Engol’ (not simply ‘ego’ as the nineteenth-century historian W. W. Shirley mistranscribed). A minor discovery? Perhaps. But titles are important and even slight details can convey larger meanings. Queen Isabella was writing from Angoulême, the county to which she was the sole heiress, addressing her son as ‘Count of Anjou and Angoulême’. In doing so, Isabella implied that she viewed Henry as her heir, emphasising that her son needed to be as concerned for the county’s security as she was. The letter thus preserves a very particular moment of the mother-son relationship at which Isabella was concerned to stress her son’s dynastic responsibility to the county of Angoulême. This moment swiftly passed. A later letter from Isabella in 1220 (SC 1/3/182) cuts Henry’s title off at Anjou, no longer evoking any association between him and Angoulême. SC 1/3/181 is a fascinating and pertinent archival reminder that sometimes all it takes is a word or two to alter our perceptions of a document and, consequently, influence our impression of a person.

Image: Fontevraud Abbey, gisant of Isabella of Angoulême (and, behind her, Richard I of England) https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2d/Fontevraud_Abtei_Gisants_Isabel.jpg.

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