Blessed Isabella of France: the Princess Who Refused to Be a Queen

Blessed Isabella of France: the Princess Who Refused to Be a Queen


Today is the feast of Blessed (or is it Saint?) Isabelle (or Isabella or Isabel or Yzabeau) of France, who is one of my Isabella’s patron saints. I have a special fondness for Isabel, who was the sister of St Louis, King of France. I think she’s a great patron for a little girl. She is, after all, a princess. Little girls love princesses! But she’s a princess who considered virtue to be more important than beauty. She broke an engagement with a count and then refused a second offer of marriage to the son of the Holy Roman Emperor. She founded a community of Poor Clares and though she never took vows she had a house built for herself on the grounds of the abbey and lived as much according to their rule as she could while being separate from the community.

Bella longs to know more about her patron. A while back I found a book online that is a scholarly work, a translation of a life of Blessed Isabelle written by Agnes of Harcourt, the third abbess of the abbey that Isabelle founded, who had met Isabelle. It is a short work and not terribly rich in detail; but it does have some interesting tidbits. I read most of it to Bella today and she was rapt.

Some of my favorite Isabelle stories:

When she was a child she used to crawl under her blankets at night and pray on her elbows and knees. Once a servant came in to pack up the bedclothes and beds and he didn’t realize she was under there, just thought the blankets were twisted. So he started to pack them up and Isabelle screamed and her maids came running and the servant was terrified.

Once she had sewn a hat and her brother the king asked if he could have it to wear at night in bed and she refused him, saying that as it was her first one she wanted to give it to God. So then he asked if she would make another one for him. Then she secretly gave the cap to a poor, sick woman. The sisters heard about the story and retrieved the cap from the poor woman, paying her handsomely and keeping it as a relic.

Isabelle had beautiful lustrous hair and her maids used to keep all the pieces that came out. When she discovered that they were doing so, Isabelle asked why and they confessed that they were keeping them so that when she was made a saint they would have relics. She thought it was ridiculous but nonetheless those hairs were kept and the Abbess who writes the biography has some of them herself.

Isabelle was the only girl and very beautiful and her mother loved to dress her in fine dresses and jewels. Then she got sick and almost died and her mother wrote to beg a holy woman for prayers. The holy woman responded that Isabelle would get better but her heart would never be for this world. And sure enough she recovered but never more wore rich adornments but instead dedicated herself to prayer and fasting and almsgiving and the religious life.

There are many more wonderful stories. I’d love some day to write them up as a little children’s book for Bella; but I fear I’m not really cut out to write picture books. It is a very hard genre to do really well. Still, Bella was very patient in listening to me read the medieval biography I have of Isabelle. She was so taken by the fact that Isabelle went to confession frequently, sometimes daily, that she began to play at going to confession, going to Dom and telling all the bad things she had done that she could remember like yelling at me when I gave her a dinner she didn’t like and hitting Sophie and not sharing her toys. I suspect we will see more Princess Isabella play in the future.

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  • Bearing,

    I’m not sure I’m able to make the finer distinction between sophomore and senior level reading although I could definitely pin it down to high school level. I don’t think it would be inappropriate for a sophomore but I’m years away from any close experience with that age group. My concern would be more with how it fit into a curriculum.

    I put in more in the history rather than literary end of things. The interest is much more in the historical milieu and details.  It’s not a poorly written novel by any stretch. It does strike me more as popular fiction rather than as a particularly fine example of the novelist’s art.

    The book is very steeped in a Catholic worldview and is interested more in the spiritual struggle than in the political struggle. It is clear that the protagonist has not much sympathy with the conspirators who want to assassinate the Queen. His focus as a priest is on providing the sacraments for Catholics rather than being a freedom fighter. He makes it clear that he dies because he believes that the Catholic faith is “the true Christian Religion revealed by Christ”. And yet the protagonist doesn’t have hatred for his persecutors, he dies asking everyone to pray for the Queen. I can see the persecution resonating with other Christian as long as they don’t have the heebie jeebies about Catholic matters. There are descriptions of the Mass and there is a scene in which a character has a mystical experience, sensing the presence of the recently martyred Edmond Campion. I can imagine some non-Catholics being very uncomfortable with such things but I’m guessing that the fact that they are co-schooling with you means they aren’t strongly anti-Catholic and aren’t adverse to their children encountering elements of the Catholic faith as they are lived in your home.

    I went to a public high school and thus I was never exposed to the Catholic version of events of the Protestant Reformation. All standard textbooks seem to slant a little unconsciously to the Protestant version of history. I didn’t really have a sense that there were Catholic martyrs in England, for example. My personal feeling is that it would be good for non-Catholics to be exposed to this perspective; but neither would I strongly object to my high schoolers being exposed to a strongly Protestant version of history as long as we read and discussed it and I was able to explain why we saw things in slightly different way.

    I hope that helps.

  • I love Benson, and although I’ve read CRCR in the past, I’ll be downloading it to my Kindle. Have you read Lord of the World? An amazing futuristic novel about the antichrist.

  • I really love this book, and I’m so glad you mentioned it here, Melanie!  Your comments about it are spot on.  Renaissance England was my area of interest in graduate school, and like you, I never had any knowledge of the terrible persecution Catholics endured during that period through my public school education—I only encountered that in my college-level reading.  The trials Catholics endured during that period were incredible, and this book really portrayed them unabashedly, I think.  I agree with you that it’s more a historical novel than a literary one—though it is not poorly written by any means, it did feel stilted at times, and many of the characters lack complexity.  That said, I would still recommend it without reservation for high schoolers and adults.  I especially loved that the protagonist and St. Edmund Campion were depicted as true warriors for the Faith—so inspiring for young male Catholics.  My husband doesn’t read fiction at all, but I told him that if he were ever to read a novel, this is the one I would recommend to him.  He is as fascinated by the period and inspired by the English marytrs as I am.

    By the way, I just finished The Doomsday Book after reading Blackout/All Clear last year.  Loved it.  I can’t believe I took so long to get around to it!

  • Daria, This was the first Benson I’ve read; but Amazon has a free bundle of 13 of his works, titled The Essential Works of Robert Hugh Benson. Lord of the World is included, so I’ll be getting to it eventually. (Come Rack Come Rope is also included, by the way.)

    Yes, I want to hand this book to my nephews and other young Catholic men I encounter.

    I’m glad you enjoyed The Doomsday Book.

  • I have seen this novel recommended in Catholic homeschooling guides as a high school literature selection.  I have three schooling-related questions about your opinion of the novel.

    What is your opinion of the grade level it is appropriate for?  (leaving sensitivity aside – does this strike you as a sophomore’s novel or a senior’s novel?)

    Would it be more appropriate (not that we have to stick in such categories) as a literature supplement to a world-history/English history/church history curriculum, or as part of a literature curriculum? Which is a way of saying, is it “literary?”

    Finally, in your opinion is this work mainly going to be of interest to Catholic families, or could it be used comfortably in a group of mixed Christians (assuming that none of them are huge fans of Henry VIII)?  As I write this, I am thinking it is actually a silly question, because the group of people I co teach with belong to faiths that have been persecuted at one time or another by the “established” or mainstream ones, so I am betting it would resonate.

  • This is one of my favorite books! This made such an impression on me! You just made the total case for reading living books for history, instead of the dry texts that are often used.

  • I always had the impression this might be a kind of dry book, but as my older boys are getting lazy in their reading, I need some good suggestions. I recently printed out a list of 100 books to read before going to college, but at least half of them I hesitate to recommend to them, even though I read a number of them in high school, too (Madame Bovary, Dr. Zhivago, The Awakening, Catcher in the Rye). I wonder if I’m being too protective, or if I need to face up to accepting that they are old enough that need to address some of these “mature themes” with them – or find books like this one that are less fraught with moral complexity.

    • It’s harder to pinpoint for blesseds because they don’t have an official feast on the universal Roman calendar. But I posted this piece on Feb 26 and at the time I thought that was her feast day, as best as I could determine. It’s been a few years so I no longer remember the source of that date. Sorry I can’t be more precise. But I’d say Feb 26 is as good a day as any to celebrate.