One of the most powerful and influential people ever to live on the Isle of Wight was a woman still commonly called the 'Queen of the Wight'. This honoured title does not refer to Queen Victoria, who lived in Osborne House in East Cowes. Nor does it mean her daughter Princess Beatrice, Governor of the Isle of Wight from 1896 to 1944. Nor even Queen Eleanor, wife of Henry II, who was imprisoned in Quarr Abbey and is said to be buried beneath it in a golden coffin1. Instead it refers to Isabella de Fortibus, the last of the de Redvers family, rulers of the Isle of Wight between 1100 and 1293.
The de Redvers
Following the Norman Conquest, the Isle of Wight regained a degree of independence when Henry I seized the throne of England after his brother, William II Rufus, had been killed in an act of God. He gave his loyal ally, Richard de Redvers, the lordship of the Isle of Wight in 1100, to rule as freely as the King himself held the realm of England. The Island was an autonomous fiefdom; the Island's nobles owed loyalty to the de Redvers family, who were the Lords of the Island. The de Redvers family were subjects of the king of England through their possessions in Christchurch and later Devon, but on the Isle of Wight they ruled supreme.
More importantly, they ruled well. They allowed the Island's towns and villages to grow, founding the towns of Newport, now the Island's capital, and Yarmouth2. They imported rabbits, or 'coneys', from Spain. As these had no natural predators on the Island, they became a much-valued food source, and were traded as far away as London. Fish farms and water mills were developed, new agricultural methods and salt farms were introduced and the Island enjoyed a period of prosperity largely isolated from the trouble ravaging the mainland. The efficient agricultural system that the de Redvers were able to establish would change little until the 19th Century.
In 1107 Richard de Redvers was succeeded by his son Baldwin. The throne of England was seized by King Stephen, resulting in a civil war known as 'The Anarchy' between Stephen and Henry I's daughter, Matilda. Baldwin de Redvers remained loyal to Matilda. For the only time in the de Redvers rule, the Island became involved in English politics3. In 1136 the forces of King Stephen laid siege to Carisbrooke Castle and Baldwin de Redvers surrendered when the castle's only well in the shell keep ran dry4. His loyalty to Matilda's cause was rewarded, however. On the death of King Stephen, Matilda's son Henry became Henry II, and granted the de Redvers family the Duchy of Devonshire.
In 1262, another Baldwin de Redvers, the fourth of that name, died childless having been poisoned by his brother-in-law. His sister Isabella inherited.
Isabella de Fortibus
Isabella was born in 1237, the daughter of Baldwin III, ninth Lord of the Wight, and Amicia de Clare. She married William de Fortibus, a wealthy northern aristocrat with lands in Cumberland and Yorkshire, while still in her teens. They had four children: two sons, Thomas and William, and two daughters, Aveline and Cecilia. Her husband died in 1260 when she was only 23, and Isabella inherited his land, wealth and titles.
Isabella's father had also died, and her brother Baldwin IV had inherited the Island, becoming tenth Lord of the Wight as well as eighth Earl of Devon. England was again facing a potential threat: Simon de Montfort and many nobles threatened the weak King Henry III. Baldwin IV supported Richard de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, who was attempting to maintain peace, but both Baldwin and Gloucester were fatally poisoned by Baldwin's brother-in-law in 1262. As Baldwin died childless, Isabella inherited much of her brother's estate, becoming Duchess of Devonshire, Countess of Albermarle5 and Lord of the Wight at the age of 25, although her brother's castle at Christchurch, Dorset was inherited by his widow, Margaret of Savoy. Isabella was commonly called the Island's 'Queen', and was the richest woman in England, a country which had not yet been ruled by a queen unchallenged at a time when a woman's role was largely limited to being a wife, daughter or nun.
On the Isle of Wight, Isabella had more power than the King of England and ruled in all but name as queen of the Island. She renovated and restored Carisbrooke Castle, where she had the first glass windows in the British Isles installed, as well as a vast fish tank, new kitchens, a Great Hall and stables. She lived there in comfort from 1269.
King Edward I, Hammer of the Scots6, was jealous of her wealth and power, and especially of her ownership of the Isle of Wight. He repeatedly attempted to buy the lordship of the Island from her, but Isabella consistently refused. Edward was determined to rule the whole of the British Isles, later building a ring of castles with which to subdue Wales as well as campaigning against Scotland.
Sadly, having lost her husband and her brother, Isabella also outlived all her children. Only two survived into their teens. Her son Thomas died at the age of 16 in 1269. Isabella allowed her 11-year-old daughter Aveline to marry King Edward's younger brother Edmund Crouchback, Earl of Lancaster and King of Sicily, the second son of Henry III, in 1270. Aveline died in 1274 at the age of 15, four years into her marriage. Isabella had no close relatives left, other than her sister-in-law Margaret of Savoy.
In 1281, Edward summoned Isabella to court, asking her to prove her right to rule the Isle of Wight, control its legal system, claim wreck of the sea and taxation. Despite the court being biased against her, Isabella triumphed. Frustrated and still determined to gain possession of the Island, Edward turned his attentions to easier prey; in 1284 he confiscated the Bishop of Winchester's property on the Island. This included the town of Newtown, then known as Francheville, meaning 'Free town', as well as property at Swainston, Calbourne, Brighstone and Binstead. Edward also fined the Bishop 4,000 marks for the privilege.
Margaret of Savoy died in 1292, leaving Isabella her lands including Christchurch Castle.
In 1293, Isabella was now 56. At Easter, she was again asked by Edward to sell the Isle of Wight, but once again refused. Over the summer, her health deteriorated, and she chose to make a pilgrimage to Canterbury. On her return she travelled via her house in Stockwell, terminally ill. When Edward heard that Isabella was on her deathbed, he ordered three men – the bishops of Durham, Coventry and Lichfield – to travel directly to her house. They had one important task – to persuade Isabella to sign a charter selling Edward the Isle of Wight at any cost; failure was not an option.
The Death of Isabella
The Bishops were admitted, alone, to her room and were the only witnesses to Isabella's alleged last act, made in the very instant of her death – agreeing to sell the Isle of Wight to Edward I for the pitiful sum of 6,000 marks and nominating him as her heir. As heir, he inherited the title of Lord of the Wight, and incidentally also inherited back the sum of money.
Although Isabella did not actually sign the charter granting the Island to the King, she did apparently in her dying moments touch the Bishop of Durham's gloves. As the Bishop had been holding the Charter, the King declared that this gesture could only possibly be interpreted to mean that Isabella was agreeing to sell him the Island for 6,000 marks and was declaring him to be her heir.
In 1296, shortly after his confiscation of the Island, Edward declared war on France and Scotland. He demanded that the Island's knights come to Scotland, to fight for him in one of his attempts to hammer Scotland that he was famous for. The Island's knights all refused, stating that they were not bound to the King's service beyond the Solent7. Perhaps as a consequence of this defiance, it was not until 1584 that the Isle of Wight was represented in Parliament.