A Carisbrooke Castle story

When a wealthy relative dies, it can totally change your fortune. In the case of Isabella de Fortibus, she had three wealthy relatives who died in quick succession before she had turned twenty-six. This certainly changed her fortune. How many people do you know who could say they own an island?

Born in 1237, Isabella was the daughter of the 6th Earl of Devon, she married young. It was her brother Baldwin who inherited the Earl’s lands and title; but one after the other, her father, husband and brother all died, and she became sole heiress.

Isabella emerged as the wealthiest woman in England, and with such a vast amount of money came a level of independence that was notably rare in this period.

Isabella decided to take her family (by ow she had already six children) and move to the Isle of Wight which was part of the lands she now owned. She turned Carisbrook Castle into her primary residence. In her day, the Isle of Wight was considered a principality, and the people of the isle owed their loyalty to Isabela’s family. With all this power and wealth it was no surprise that many people considered her to be the Queen of Wight.

When you visit a medieval ruin, it is always easy to classify it as a fortress, but it would be wrong to do so. In those days every castle had to be able to defend itself against raiders of all sorts, but many places like Carisbrooke were actually more like palaces than fortresses, and with an annual income that was the equivalent of £40M today, she had the means to renovate her castle to the grandest level.

The work began immediately after she moved in. She built new halls and new kitchens. She even had the first glass window in the British Isles installed in her great hall. This window has survived (without the glass) and is still named after her. She even created a road to and from the castle to make it easier for building materials to arrive.

Isabella did not live in Carisbrooke all the time. With lands that stretched from Southampton to the North of England, she was always on the move making sure her empire was running smoothly. She also had to repel almost every influential man in the land who wanted to marry her or match her with his son.

One of her suitors was Simon De Montfort junior. He was the son of the man who led the baron’s revolt against King Henry III. Due to the fact that his father controlled the King, young Simon acquired a royal decree to marry Isabella (nobody asked for her permission of course).

His next step was to try and abduct her, and she was forced into hiding.  She hid in several places and went as far as Wales to avoid her potential husband.

Luckily for her, the King’s son, the future Edward I’st,  who was also captured by De Montfort, had managed to break free from captivity. He raised an army against the Baron and killed both father and son. Unfortunately, King Henry III, now free to rule, did not allow her to enjoy the fresh air of freedom for very long. He granted her to his young son, Prince Edmund, the Earl of Lancaster. Isabella managed to avoid this marriage by suggesting her daughter Aveline instead (who was only 10 years old). The wedding took place in 1270, but Aveline died shortly afterwards.

By now it was the reign of King Edward I’st, and he still wanted Isabella’s island. He even took her to court over the matter in 1281. Although the court was apparently under the King’s control, she still managed to hold on to her ownership of her island.

Eventually, all of Isabella’s children died before her, leaving her without any heirs. At the age of fifty-six, she decided to go on a pilgrimage to Canterbury but fell sick on her way back. When Edward heard the news, he sent the Bishop of Durham on a mission to force Isabella on her deathbed to sell him the island, and name him as heir. This was a neat trick because it would not matter how much he paid for the island, as her heir, he immediately be reimbursed. This time, Isabella was too sick to refuse; she was even too weak to sign the contract and just marked it with a cross. In 1293 the last independent lord of the Isle of Wight died, and the island finally fell into the hands of the crown.

The people of the Isle were as stubborn as Isabella and would not easily give up their heritage and rights. Three years after her death, when Edward summoned them to join his army in one of his many battles against the Scots they  refused to go, claiming their loyalty was to their island only, and to its defence…

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