Friday, December 23

Isabella of Angoulême: Families, Fairies & Fish- Guest post by Erica Lainé

I would like to bet that not many readers of this blog have had the experience of being brought together by King John-- on Twitter. But that is how I came across historical novelist Erica Lainé. Both Erica and I have written about John in our novels: in mine, he is the eighteen year old sent by his father Henry to sort out medieval Ireland. (Spoiler: he doesn't. Or may be not a spoiler. He is John, after all.) In the first in Erica's The Tangled Queen series, we meet the very young Isabella of Angoulême who was abducted by John in 1200. Isabella became his second wife and queen consort, aged 12.

Yes- it's King John on Twitter. #unexpected
Both Erica and I are followers of (and are followed by) the man himself @JohanSanzTerre. John aside, Erica and I developed a mutually supportive relationship on Twitter. As with many online relationships, they remain just that. But at the Historical Novel Society's Oxford conference in September, fate intervened. The main dinner on the Saturday evening saw rain that was bouncing off the pavement and a mad scramble for seats and dryness. It may also have been the sniff of drink: historical novelists tend to drop all decorum when that's mentioned. In the random assembling, a woman dropped into the seat next to mine. Of course we introduced ourselves: historical novelists like to find out just who we're fighting for that bottle. And of course it was Erica. And of course we tweeted King John.

Erica & I at our serendipitous meeting!
Our dinner companions were at that point wondering just what was in that bottle but we explained- I think. Better than that, we talked all things John and writing and as happens at many HNS conferences, a lovely new friendship was formed. As her research provides another fascinating view of John's life through his relationship with Isabella, Erica very kindly agreed to write a guest post on Isabella's life and the mythology surrounding her family. So without further ado, I hand over to Erica's capable hands from hereon in.

Isabella of Angoulême
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
No one knows for sure when Isabella of Angouleme was born but it was probably about 1188 as her parents were not married until 1186. She had good connections across Europe; her mother was the daughter of Peter of France who was the son of King Louis V1. Her maternal uncle was Peter de Courtney the Latin emperor of Constantinople. Her great uncle was Louis V11 who had been married to Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Eleanor later became Isabella’s mother in law. Isabella, a tangled Queen indeed! Isabella was an heiress in her own right, Countess of Angoulême suo jure and therefore a good marriage could be expected for her.

Battle scene at sea from Roman de Mélusine by Jean d'Arras c. 1450
Public Domain via British Library
Her father was Ademar, Count of Angouleme, and a Taillefer. His ancestors had been put into Angouleme in the mid-9th century by Charles the Fat, a great grandson of Charlemagne, to repulse the Vikings as they raided all the rivers of France. They came up the Charente to Angoulême three times and three times were driven back. What was once a wooden fort on a rocky promontory became a stone castle with commanding views.

Knights in Combat from Roman de Mélusine
Public Domain via British Library
The counts, lords and dukes of early medieval south west France were independent, fierce and not very loyal. Any king who lived north of the Loire had a difficult time keeping their fidelity. Oaths of fealty were easily broken. Near Angoulême, close to Poiters, was Lusignan and over the centuries the Lords of Lusignan and the Counts of Angoulême had quarrelled, fought, become allies, intermarried and quarrelled again.

Detail of miniature from Roman de Mélusine depicting Raymond
accidentally killing his uncle while hunting in the forest.
Public Domain via British Library
Lusignan and the Lusignans had a wonderful history of how their castle came to be built. Raymond the count of Lusignan had been hunting and after a hunting accident that killed his uncle, he was wandering through the forest at night, feeling desolate and guilty. He came to the Fountain of the Fays where he met Melusine a fairy spirit who entranced him. By dawn they were planning marriage but she, as all fairy spirits do, had conditions, he was never to seek for her on Saturday nights. He promised. They were married and she offered him much help.

The marriage of Melusine and Raymond.from Roman de Mélusine.
Public Domain via British Library
Everyone marvelled at the speed in which she built a strong beautiful château. Melusine definitely used magic. ‘A mouthful of water and two handfuls of stones’ were all she needed.

Melusine supervises the building of a fortified chateau in Roman de Mélusine.
Public Domain via British Library
The couple had several children and lived together happily but Raymond broke his promise and spied on Melusine to discover her in her bath with a serpent’s tail or dragon tail. He blurted out the truth in the Great Hall and betrayed her. She flew away lamenting and weeping, returning only to fly above the turrets and towers for the death or birth of a Lusignan.

Melusine discovered, circa 1450 and circa 1500
Anonymous (, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Isabella aged about 12 was betrothed to Hugh le Brun of Lusignan and living there when King John saw her, and with her father’s connivance, kidnapped her and married her in Angoulême on 24 August 1200. It was a mixture of politics and passion. He did not want the two domains linked by marriage; he did want the beautiful Isabella, considered a medieval Helen of Troy.

The Angevins also had a story of being descended from Melusine. Indeed many families claimed water spirits as their beginning including the French royal family, hence the Dauphin or dolphin.

Miniatures of dolphins and a scorpion in Roman de Mélusine.
Public Domain via British Library.
Isabella was destined to be part of that watery story, for after John’s death she returned to France in 1217 and married the son of Hugh le Brun. He was Hugh or Hugues the X, altogether there were 13 Lusignans called Hugh, which makes life tricky for the writer.

The castle in Lusignan burnt down in 1250; a violent fire destroyed it all. But it was rebuilt and is shown in the 1416 Book of Hours belonging to the Duc de Berry with Melusine flying overhead.

Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry Folio 3, verso: March.
Limbourg brothers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Some say that the logo for Starbucks is based on Melusine so in our very modern life we are reminded of water fairies dating back thousands of years. 
Many thanks Erica for a delightful post- I'm sure King John enjoyed it, too!
Images: Isabella, Melusine discoveredTrès Riches Heures du duc de Berry are in the Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Roman de Mélusine Images are in the Public Domain via the British Library.

Erica Lainé was born in Southampton in 1943 and originally studied for the theatre at the Arts Educational School in Tring. She worked as a library assistant in London and trained as a speech and drama teacher before moving with her family to Hong Kong in 1977. Here she worked for the British Council for 20 years as a teacher and educational project manager. Since 1997 she has lived in South West France where she became interested in all sorts of historical research and writing, as President of the Aquitaine Historical Society.

This led to a focus on Isabella of Angouleme and her life and times. The Aquitaine region is rich in English and French history and Isabella is a person who was woven into both. Erica has begun writing Part 2 of The Tangled Queen which will show how Isabella played all sides against each other and how her intrigues became part of the beginning of the 100 Years War.

Find her on Facebook as An Aquitaine Historical Society and Isabella of Angouleme the story. She's on Twitter @LaineEleslaine. Isabella of Angouleme (The Tangled Queen Part 1) is available on and

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