16 October 2008

Isabelle de Villehardouin, Princess of the Morea

A long entry, after two short ones.

Isabelle Villhardouin was a true princess and a lady, but as a princess in the 13th-century Morea, the realities of life did not allow her what a woman of her character and intelligence deserved.

When she was a child in the mid-1260s, her father, Guillaume II of Villehardouin was militarily insecure. To guarantee military backing, he, together with Baldwin II, ex-Emperor of Constantinople, ratified the Treaty of Viterbo with Charles I of Anjou. This meant that Anjou would inherit the Principality of the Morea after Guillaume died, sealed by the betrothal of Isabelle to Anjou's young son, Philippe; and that Anjou would inherit title to the Empire of Constantinople, sealed by the marriage of the Emperor's son Philippe to his very young daughter, Beatrice.

There were about a dozen of these children, young Angevins and their betrothed, all being raised together in the French-Italian court of Naples with a surround of troubadours, manuscripts, and warriors. Isabelle and Philippe were formally married when they were twelve, but the agreement had specified that she be protected from sexual relations until she was older--old enough for a reasonably safe childbirth.

Philippe died in 1277, probably before they got that far: he had always been unwell, and a great deal of the marriage had consisted of trips to healing shrines and hot springs. Isabelle's father died the next year, Charles of Anjou became Prince of the Morea [inherited from his son], and she was retained in Naple's Castel dell'Uovo. She must have felt uneasy there: her aunt Helena, widow of Manfred, had been imprisoned with her son in the Castel since Manfred's defeat and death in 1266, and Villehardouin surely knew something about that when he agreed to the treaty in the following year.

Isabelle's mother, Anna, and Helena, were daughters of Theodora of Arta and Michael Komnenos Doukas. Theodora was later recognized as a saint, and while her vita does not mention these daughters, they were clearly raised with character and with good educations. Theodora's focused intelligence comes through Anna to Isabella and her sister, Marguerite: we have no idea if they were able to keep in touch with their mother after their marriages. They also had their father's focused energy. So much focus brought them frusration and disappointment, again and again.

Guillaume II, Prince of the Morea, died in 1278, and Anjou sent out governors, These were considered harsh and extortionate, but the best we can tell is that they were trying to rationalize taxation and administration in the Morea the way that Anjou's brother, Louis XI, had done in France, to similar objections. Nevertheless, the Morea and Anjou were under great strain for a number of years. Anjou had the Sicilian Vespers, war with the Aragonese. When he died in 1285, his heir, Charles II, was a prisoner of that war.

In 1289 Isabelle married Florent of Hainaut, who was related to the family of the ex-emperor and to the Avesnes family of the conquest of Greece. Whether this was an arranged marriage -- Charles II, though somewhat older, had escorted her to her marriage with his brother, and he might have actually been fond of her -- or whether it was an arranged marriage that suited her admirably, it turned out to be a good marriage. Charles II granted them the titles of Prince and Princess of the Morea on their wedding day, and sent them off to straighten things out in Greece. Which they mostly did, Florent in the north and west out of Andravida, and Isabelle in the south near Kalamata. They had a daughter, Mahaut or Maud, and then in 1297, Florent died unexpectedly. Isabelle continued in Greece.

Then like so many unwillingly single women of her age--she was 40, Isabelle decided to travel. She went to Rome for the Jubilee of 1300, the one about which Dante said, "I had not thought Death had undone so many." In Rome, she met a certain Philip of Savoy. She was far from being the only woman d'un certain âge to be smitten by a younger man: he sent her little presents, he took her on moonlit walks by the Tiber, he admired her sophistication, so unlike the silliness of younger women. Or maybe he didn't. But she was quite overwhelmed by him and they were married.

The bill for the wedding feast of 12 February 1301 still survives. The meats included 2 cows, 12 sheep, 9 pigs, 72 small birds, 8 goats, 24 pheasants, 50 ducks, capons, fowls, doves and egs. That took care of the protein. The bill goes on to list vinegar, rosewater, farina, salt, raisins, bread, fruit, 4 kinds of wine, 200 pounds of almonds, 27 pounds of sugar, 8 pound of pepper, 6 pounds of ginger, 3 pounds of cinnamon, charcoal, firewood, wax and torches,10 men to make sauces, transportation of the food, 31 horses, reeds and herbs for the banquet hall, planks and supports for the tables, payment for three master cooks, and beds for the servants for the nights before and after the banquet.

The romance lasted just about as long as the banquet. Charles II reluctantly sent them to the Morea to continue the Angevin-Villehardouin rule. Philippe took along his friends. Altogether they brought with them a whole new frat-boy layer of arrogance and violence, and the chronicles that admire Florent list Philippe's brutalities in detail. The Andravida branch of the Peruzzi bank of Florence was involved. Philippe also ignored Charles' directions. The Moreote peers rebelled and wrote Charles. The Greek archons were on the verge of rebellion, and this was more serious. Charles recalled Isabelle and Philippe on the technical grounds that she had lost her right to rule for marrying without permission.

Before this happened, in 1305, Isabelle arranged the betrothal of her twelve-year old daughter Mahaut to Guy II de la Roche, Duke of Athens, clearly with an eye on the possibility of the original Frankish families regaining their position. Mahaut was taken to Athens to live with Guy's mother until she was of age for marriage. Trying to go out with heads high, Isabelle and Philippe held a tournament at Corrinth 1307, one attended by 1000 knights and barons from all over Greece and the island, and seven professional jousters from the West who took on all challengers. Guy of Athens performed spectacularly.She left Philippe as soon as she arrived in Italy, ignoring Charles' offers of property and money, taking with her their daughter Marguerite to live in Hainaut on the lands Mahaut had inherited from her father.

Other than always keeping the loyalty of the Moreote Greeks, both for herself and for her family's loyalty to them, that was about it. Isabelle died in 1311, at the age of fifty. Marguerite married a knight of no particular status and died without children.


  1. This is very helpful. The personal/geographical/political connections are so complex; your posting is an excellent way to keep Isabelle's life straight.

  2. I have no idea. I can't remember now even where I found the picture. I think she is Italian. I just needed a picture of a unidentified lady.


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