As we know, the Order of the Garter, founded in 1348, remained an exclusive male preserve until the late 20th century. However, in the 14th and 15th centuries, there were more than seventy ladies who were granted Garter robes and so have come to be known as Ladies of the Garter. Most were either daughters or wives of Garter knights, and in some cases both. The last of the medieval ladies to be so honoured was Elizabeth Tudor (died 1495), daughter of Henry VII. After her death, no more Garter ladies appear in the records until the 20th century, when Queen Alexandra was declared a Lady of the Order by special statute in 1901.
One of the earliest Garter ladies was Isabella, eldest daughter of Edward III (1312-77) and Philippa of Hainault (c.1310-1369). She was born at Woodstock Palace, Oxfordshire, on 16 June 1332, the second of the ten surviving children of the royal couple. Isabella was to be her parents’ favourite child and they spoilt her accordingly. As a baby, she slept in a gilded cradle lined with taffeta and covered with a fur blanket. Her gowns were made of imported Italian silk embroidered with jewels. She and her siblings had a whole retinue of servants to attend to all their needs – a personal chaplain, musicians, grooms, clerks, butlers and cooks. Isabella was later lavished with lands and money. Such over-indulgence led her to become capricious and extravagant.
To complicate matters, Isabella became a pawn in the dynastic marriage game, going through several failed marriage proposals. When she was aged just three, her father tried to arrange a marriage for her with Pedro of Castile, the heir to the Castilian throne. Doubtless he had diplomatic gain in mind, but the negotiations came to nothing. In 1351, when she was nineteen, Isabella was due to sail to Gascony to marry a Frenchman, but just before the departure time, she changed her mind and the marriage was called off. Edward III does not appear to have been angry with his favourite daughter though. Some years later he granted her an annuity of 1000 marks, and in 1359, lent her a further 1000 marks to redeem jewels she had pawned.
Dark-haired and dark-eyed, though of a sallow complexion, Isabella entered her thirties without a husband, which was unusual for a royal princess at this time. Then she fell in love with a French nobleman, Enguerrand de Coucy (c.1340-1397), who was seven years her junior. They were married at Windsor on 27 July 1365, and went on to have two daughters, Philippa and Mary (also known as Marie). Enguerrand, who had formerly been a hostage of the English, was now very much in royal favour, and was created a Knight of the Garter and Earl of Bedford in 1366. Isabella herself was granted Garter robes in 1376, 1377 and 1377.
As a Frenchman, Enguerrand was conscious of his conflicting national loyalties, and seems to have spent much time away from Isabella, engaged in fighting in Italy and France. Towards the end of her life, Isabella was living in England with her younger daughter Philippa (who later married the Earl of Oxford). She died sometime before 4 May 1379, aged forty-six, and was buried in the Greyfriars Church, Newgate, in London.
Simon Harrison (Archives volunteer)