Book Review: “Isabel of Burgundy” by Aline Taylor

The subtitle of this book is “The Duchess Who Played Politics in the Age of Joan of Arc, 1397-1471”. I have to confess, I read this book a few years ago while doing some research. Recently, in reading the four volume series of books on the Valois Dukes of Burgundy by Richard Vaughan, I completed the one on Philip the Good and felt like I needed to revisit the life of Isabel in the context of her husband’s life and decided to re-read it.

It is unfortunate there is no definitive biography of Isabel and this book is not meant to be an academic recounting of Isabel’s life. It is a combination of historical fact with a bit of fiction. This is really unfortunate as the author has an academic background and is the former editor of three academic journals and could obviously have done better. Despite the unorthodox style, I found the book enjoyable because Taylor highlights the personal side of Isabel’s life.

Isabel is somewhat exceptional for a medieval woman of royalty. She was the daughter of King John I of Portugal, the first king of the House of Aviz. Her mother was Philippa, the eldest daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and son of King Edward III of England. Although there were many possible marriages discussed for her, she didn’t marry until she was in her early thirties. She would be the third wife of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. Philip married her for her royal birth, ties to England and Portugal and for her ability to have children.

Isabel fulfilled her childbearing duty and would have three sons, of which only one, Charles, survived. However, Philip got a lot more than he bargained for with Isabel. She was highly intelligent. Her parents had educated her along with her numerous brothers and she was especially adept at accounting and negotiating and arbitration. These excellent skills were put to good use by Philip. He allowed her to negotiate peace and trade treaties for the duration of their marriage. Isabel’s English and Portuguese background would influence her efforts at mediation and facilitate good relations between Burgundy, England and France. Her greatest accomplishment may have been the triumphant marriage of her son Charles with the sister of King Edward IV of England, Margaret of York.

Taylor’s narrative in this book emphasizes Isabel’s accomplishments. There are many twists and turns to this era in Burgundian history, the most significant being the fact that Isabel’s husband sent her on many missions while working behind her back to make alliances and war with France. It’s hard to imagine what kind of tension this brought to Isabel’s marriage but it certainly makes an appealing story. The book is not written in chronological order. There are some footnotes which appear at the end of each chapter but there is no bibliography which is disappointing. Although this is an interesting read, a well written and researched biography remains to be written about this fascinating medieval princess.