Seductive. Cunning. Dangerous. Isabeau of Bavaria was a powerful queen in an age of obedient women, and she allowed no man—not even her own unhinged husband—to control her. From her tragedies to her courtly schemes, there was often little difference between Isabeau’s life and an episode of Game of Thrones. A really bloody one.
Isabeau of Bavaria was from the noble House of Wittelsbach. Silly name, but big flex. Isabeau was directly related to a Holy Roman Emperor, and her mother Taddea Visconti married into the family with a massive 100,000-ducat dowry. Basically, these people were Lannisters—and they definitely had the drama to prove it.
Because of the absolute turmoil in her life, Queen Isabeau of Bavaria has gone down as one of the greatest villainesses in history. By the end of her reign, so much, scandal, revenge, and death had happened around her, people even whispered that she was actually a sorceress. What's the truth behind the vicious legend? Well, see for yourself...
Isabeau adored putting on enormous displays of fashion as well as wealth, which didn’t make her any more loved by the French people. She and her equally extra sister-in-law Valentina wore dresses dripping in gems, coiled their hair into massive braids, and wore hats so big the palace had to renovate doorways to allow the women through them.
If you thought your family was embarrassing, get a load of Isabeau’s parents. Her mother Taddea was the favorite child of her wealthy parents and spent most of her life pampered and protected. Meanwhile, her father Stephen’s nickname was “The Fop” because of his extravagant tastes. Somehow, as we’ll see, Isabeau managed to be even more attention-seeking.
In 1383, Isabeau’s uncle started scheming to marry her off to the next King of France, the handsome and vivacious Charles VI. He was 17 years old at the time—and if that sounds young for a prince to even think about getting married, consider that Isabeau was only 13 or 14. Ick. And that’s not even the creepiest part.
Envisioning his little girl as the Queen of France, Isabeau’s father Stephen sent her over to Charles so he could get a sneak peek—you know, like a free sample. Except Stephen didn’t tell Isabeau what was actually going on and made the teenager believe she was going to France on a religious pilgrimage instead. We’ll see how that went.
Isabeau was actually born “Elisabeth” of Bavaria but took on the name “Isabel” in France. This eventually turned into “Isabeau,” which some historians suggest was a pet name from her ladies-in-waiting.
Even from a tender age, it was clear to anyone who saw her that Isabeau was going to be a looker. She apparently may have inherited her mother’s dark “Italian” features, which gave her a mesmerizing beauty in an era that preferred blondes. And don’t worry, Isabeau made sure to use her femme fatale looks to their full effect.
When Isabeau met Charles for the first time, she had to go through a mortifying ordeal. The customs of the time forced her to get physically “inspected” by the prince and his advisors. Usually, men stripped the bride's clothes off to do this, but “lucky” for Isabeau, her father refused this part of the tradition, and she got to endure the ritual fully clothed.
This whole “inspection” went about as grossly as you’d expect. Upon seeing her famed beauty, the young prince reportedly “greatly desired to gaze at her and possess” the now-16-year-old girl. Take note: This is what every woman wants to hear as a proposal. But Charles was so revved up, things only snowballed from there.
Isabeau was a tiger mother first and foremost, and she would do anything to protect her sons and daughters. She insisted they travel with her and, even more unusually for the time, demanded that her sons live in her household. When she was away, she frequently bought them gifts and continually wrote them letters.
Charles was so excited to marry Isabeau, he fast-tracked the process and insisted on a wedding just three days later. According to sources from the time, their July 16, 1385 nuptials were a bash to end all bashes, with guests carousing late into the night. It was a success, but Isabeau wouldn't understand the nightmare she just walked into until much later.
Isabeau and Charles had an undeniable physical attraction, and multiple sources from the time comment on how bangable they looked on their wedding night. However, that was all they had. At the time she married Charles, Isabeau still couldn’t even speak French, and she kept a heavy German accent for the rest of her life.
Isabeau and Charles’s honeymoon period didn’t last long. Just a day after their nuptials, Charles went off on a campaign, and Isabeau got carted away to live with his step great grandmother, Queen Blanche of Navarre. Blanche was a traditional battleax if there ever was one, and she whipped Isabeau into shape as a true Queen of France.
To many of her enemies at court, Isabeau was a luxuriating and extravagant woman. One source claims she had so many pregnancies because she loved the gifts that came with expecting a new heir to the throne, while another depicts her living “on the delights of the flesh". Haters gonna hate, she was living her best life.
Charles and Isabeau’s royal wedding was lavish, sure, but Isabeau’s coronation blew it right out of the water. It had all the esteemed guests acting like right fools: Isabeau’s sister-in-law Valentina Visconti escorted herself across the Alps with 1,300 knights, and all the noblewomen in the coronation arrived in litters. The procession alone lasted all day…and then Isabeau made the best entrance of all.
Isabeau soaked up her moment like a goddess, and I mean that literally. You should probably read these next lines slowly because they are A LOT. As Isabeau crossed the bridge to Notre Dame Cathedral, an “angel” descended from the church and placed a crown on her head. No one is extra like Isabeau was extra—but it gets better.
At the time of these endless coronation festivities—which lasted a full five days—Isabeau was actually seven months pregnant. Seven months pregnant. During the first day of the coronation, she nearly fainted from the heat, and then had to continue on for the next four. This was a warning sign: Don’t mess with Isabeau, because she will survive. Yet a tragic plot twist was on the horizon…
In 1392, Charles VI suffered an infamous episode that changed his reign forever. He had a total mental breakdown while campaigning, and turned on his men, slaying four of them in a fit of paranoia. Immediately after the outburst, he fell into a coma. Suddenly, Isabeau had gone from hot trophy wife to one of the only people who could hold Charles’s reign together.
At the time, the French court was sure Charles’s bout of insanity was divine intervention; why else would the perfectly healthy king turn so suddenly horrific? But the modern diagnosis is even darker. According to many historians, King Charles was most likely suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. In other words, it was only going to get worse.
For all that Isabeau was naturally a bit of a glory hound, historians suggest a more disturbing reason for her extravagance. With her husband’s violent mental illness and the upheaval at court, experts believer her wild fashions and attention-seeking ways were Isabeau’s way of coping with her raw deal, as well as a ploy to distract courtiers away from the king. Smart girl.
When Charles started to recover from his coma, his doctor suggested he put his feet up, relax, and take part in some fun activities. Following this advice, Charles decided to crash the party Isabeau was throwing for her newly-married lady-in-waiting. The plan was to disguise himself and his friends as “wild men” and invade the ballroom. Does that sound like a bad idea? Well, it was.
The incident has now gone down in history as the notorious Bal des Ardents. In it, a desperate Charles tried to cut it up happily on the dance floor with five of his attendants, only for his brother Louis, the Duke of Orleans, to knock over a torch and start a massive, raging fire. Turns out, this was one of those “oops” moments where everything was not going to be OK.
In the chaos, shadows, and smoke of the fiery room, Isabeau could only look on in horror as the dancers went up in flames, knowing her husband was among them. She was apparently so terrified, she fainted on the spot—and this was a woman who kept it together through her five-day coronation. When the smoke cleared, the awful truth came out.
The king had survived the blaze, but four of his companions perished.
The aftermath of the ball had dire consequences. Though everyone blamed the Duke of Orleans’ slip of the hand, they also criticized Isabeau’s extravagance in having the ball in the first place, and the Queen grew increasingly unpopular with the French court. Unfortunately, this would only be the Duke and Isabeau’s first scandal together.
By the time Charles was very far gone into his mental illness, Isabeau was only 22 years old, and the royal couple already had three living children together. Eventually, she would give birth to a mind-boggling 12 children—but as we’ll see, there seemed to be a curse on the house of Bavaria, and Isabeau was in for immense tragedy.
Isabeau was understandably upset that her husband went insane, and her reaction was, well, not that great. The queen eventually removed herself from the royal palace during the worst of his illnesses, attracting bitter criticism from the court for her abandonment of her king. But Isabeau also came up with a scandalous plan to help him.
Since Charles would no longer see her in his bedchamber, Isabeau did the super progressive thing and…gave him a mistress. Yes, really. With the queen’s approval, the court tracked down Odette de Champdivers, the buxom daughter of a horse-dealer, to keep the king satisfied even in the throes of his schizophrenia. That's right, Isabeau started this whole Sister Wives thing.
Maybe it’s no surprise Isabeau accepted Odette as Charles’s mistress. Odette reportedly shared an uncanny resemblance with Isabeau, earning her the nickname “the little Queen". Yet since Odette was a “mere” horse-dealer’s daughter, Isabeau knew her high position in court was on lock-down. Besides, she was no saint in the bedroom either...
As Charles’s madness grew more pronounced, rumors started swirling that Isabeau developed a wandering eye—for the worst person imaginable. According to some sources, she took up with her own brother-in-law Louis, the Duke of Orleans. Yeah, the guy who nearly burned everyone alive in the Bals des Ardents. But that wasn’t even the worst part.
Because Louis was King Charles VI’s brother, their relationship was considered highly inappropriate. Of course, it could have all been propaganda, but it was not a good look. The nobles were repulsed and indignant, and when Isabeau and Louis formed an alliance in court, it only seemed to prove the affair. Sadly, her lover was doomed to a heartbreaking end.
By all accounts, Charles VI was a generous husband, at least at the beginning—you know, before everything changed for the absolute worst. For a New Year’s gift during their first year of marriage, he gave her a red velvet saddle embroidered with their initials, and continually showered her with jewelry, clothing, and most exciting of all, tableware.
For all that she was still a teenager when she became Queen of France, Isabeau quickly proved she was intelligent, cunning, and powerful. In the 1390s, Charles even made her the official guardian of their son and heir, the Dauphin. He also allowed her to negotiate peace treaties—but all this power put a terrifying target on Isabeau’s back.
With Charles incapacitated pretty much all of the time, Isabeau’s influence grew in court, and her enemies grew along with it. Her absolute nemesis was Charles’s cousin, John the Fearless, and let’s just say you don’t get that nickname without earning it. Jealous of Isabeau and the Duke of Orleans’ joint power, John plotted a disturbing act of revenge.
In 1405, John the Fearless invaded Paris with a terrifying phalanx of 1,000 knights. Then he one-upped himself and actually kidnapped Isabeau’s young son Louis, the heir to the throne. Yeah, dude was a real jerk. He eventually returned the little boy back to Paris under an armed guard of his own men, just to send a message. But Isabeau’s reaction to all this was legendary.
Isabeau ate men like John the Fearless for breakfast, and she was unfazed at his insecure display of strength. John’s actions pushed France to the brink of war, with different factions fighting about how to respond to the insult. Isabeau, however, just took her son back and then calmly smoothed over the dispute, cool as a cucumber. Sadly, though, that was just the beginning of the nightmare.
At the height of Charles’s madness, he couldn’t even recognize Isabeau, and would even order her out of the room in a rage if she came to visit his bedchamber. One of his deranged responses was so disturbing, it’s impossible to forget. During a certain instance, he whispered feverishly to his attendant, “Who is this woman obstructing my view? Find out what she wants and stop her from annoying and bothering me". Ouch.
In 1407, John the Fearless performed his most despicable act yet: He ordered the assassination of her rumored lover, the Duke of Orleans. And uh, he did not do it with mercy. According to reports of the time, John’s hired assailants chopped Orleans into pieces and left him in a gutter. Then “the Fearless” dealt Isabeau a final knife twist.
After a coy period of denying the hit, John eventually proudly and publicly admitted to it. Then, to rub salt in the wound, he claimed he had actually done it for “the Queen’s Honor” as a way to silence all the nasty rumors about her affair with Orleans. Well, that’s that then, right? Oh no—we’re just getting started.
With all this infighting, it was only a matter of time before civil conflict raged in France between various relatives of the (yep) still-insane King Charles—with Isabeau right in the middle, desperately trying to protect her children. In 1411, the so-called Armagnac-Burgundian conflict erupted, and the horrors went all the way to Queen Isabeau’s doorstep.
At one point, a group of rebels broke into Isabeau’s home and kidnapped 15 of her ladies-in-waiting. But the deepest terror was yet to come.
Starting in 1415, with civil conflict still raging around her, Isabeau suffered an unspeakable horror. Late that December, her son the Dauphin Louis passed suddenly when he was just 18 years old. Less than two years later, her next eldest son John perished. Look, Cersei Lannister had absolutely nothing on this woman.
People who saw Queen Isabeau couldn’t make up their minds about whether she was hot or not. Though she was most likely “small and brunette,” other sources say she was “tall and blonde". Even more confusingly, some said her beauty was “hypnotic,” while others said she was “obese” with an illness called dropsy. Keep on drinking that haterade, guys.
Throughout these uncertain times, Isabeau did everything she could to survive and to keep the royal line intact. This often meant switching sides to whoever was in power at the time, leading many to accuse her of disloyalty. Her survival instinct was so strong, she even eventually allied with her old nemesis John the Fearless.
After watching the demise of two of her children in short succession, Isabeau passed the inheritance to her youngest son, the 14-year-old Charles. Unfortunately for Isabeau, Charles would deal her an utterly cold-hearted betrayal. The boy was staunchly against her new ally John the Fearless—and one day, the pimply-faced teen punished him to the nth degree.
In a case of poetic justice, Charles lured John to a public bridge and then had him hacked to pieces, just like the Duke of Orleans. Bad, Charles! Bad boy!
The young Dauphin’s brutal case of teenage rebellion had drastic effects on both Isabeau and France. King Charles VI and the queen immediately disowned their son, and the Dauphin’s cruel act undid decades of Isabeau’s political and maternal work. Instead, the King and Queen were forced into one of the most infamous acts of the 15th century.
As you might guess, France was in absolute shambles by this time. After all, while the civil conflict raged internally, the country was still fighting English forces on its borders—and losing badly. With little bargaining power and zero eligible heirs left, the king and queen had to sign the notorious Treaty of Troyes, which handed over much of France to (gasp) a king of England, Henry V.
As per usual, Isabeau got the short end of this deal. Because Charles was too ill, she was the one who actually signed the contract. Forever after, she was known as the woman who had “sworn away France,” and decades—even centuries—later, people still blamed Isabeau for the fall of the mighty empire. Right, right, it was all her fault.
After signing the Treaty of Troyes and the death of King Charles VI in 1422, Isabeau wisely retreated from any political meddling, living out the rest of her days in relative peace. In October 1435, she died at the ripe old age of 65—an absolutely astronomical number when you think about how much she had to go through to get there.
In the depths of his madness, Charles would often tear apart his clothes, urinate on his furniture, and throw his possessions into the fire. Well, I can’t blame Isabeau for keeping her distance. Not a great vibe to be around.
King Charles VI’s malady didn’t just make him weak and incapacitated—it could also make him incredibly cruel. According to some sources, Isabeau established a country getaway in a farmhouse in Saint-Ouen and took up a local lover. When Charles found out about it during a lucid period, he reportedly drowned the man in the Seine.
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