25 August 1200, Angoulême.
On this day King John married Isabella of Angouleme. She was about 12 and he was 33. At that time it was canon law that a girl could be married at 12, and often they were, and even younger. But the marriages were not consummated until puberty was reached. John and Isabella were married in the cathedral at Angoulême, by the Bishop of Bordeaux and then the royal party rode north to see Eleanor of Aquitaine in Fontevraud, to seal some charters giving Isabella lands and towns as part of her dowry in France. Except these never materialised. John treated Isabella very badly, denying her any real influence or a court of her own. And he had in fact stolen her away from a man to whom she was betrothed, the Lord of Lusignan.
The cathedral at Angoulême has a façade and carvings at the main entrance, which show Roland defeating the Arab invaders at the Roncesvalles pass in the Pyrenees. His amazing sword is supposed to be part of the rocks of Rocamador. And then there is his Oliphant horn, which he blew to summon help. The whole song of Roland is a great French myth, powerful stuff and sung by a minstrel as William led his troops into battle at Hastings in 1066.
Here is an extract from the chapter in Isabella of Angoulême, The Tangled Queen Part 1, which describes the marriage scene and the aftermath.
The mass of people thronged about the entrance to the cathedral, some taking in the carvings around the door: hunting scenes alongside the blessed and the damned, and the brave cavalry charge of Roland at Roncesvalles. The great wealth of Angoulême was the reason for this building, finished three decades ago, and a triumph of stone to match the castle on the hill.
From the castle with its two towers came Isabella, walking slowly, her blue dress moving weightily around her.
John stood in the warm morning sunshine, still for a moment before speaking quietly to the captain of his guards.
‘Make sure you have all arms ready, you and the men. If there is trouble I want to be prepared.’
Then he took Isabella’s small, pale, bare hand, and placed it over his black-gloved fist, and they made their way through the crowd who quickly stood aside. Alice and Ademar followed, Agnes a little way after them.
‘Marry me to this woman, make her my wife.’
The Archbishop trembled slightly as he looked at John, at the rough circle of armed men. He was not sure in his own mind if this was legal. Was John really divorced from that wife back in England? Was Isabella not legally and in every other way betrothed to Hugh Lusignan – in fact had the betrothal not taken place here, before this altar? But he realised very quickly that to resist this command was useless.
‘What are we waiting for?’
The words were stammered, the ceremony rapid and finished with haste.
Ademar whispered to Alice as they left the cathedral and began the walk back.
‘He has given me La Marche in gratitude for Isabella.’
Alice stopped and gripped his arm. ‘La Marche? For you? For us?’
She was astounded: this was welcome news, but dangerous too. The Lusignans would have humiliation and insult in such depth now, that their call to arms or a call for justice would be difficult for any to ignore.