Isabelle of France used her position as a royal princess, and sister to King Louis IX, to realise a specifically Franciscan vision by establishing a house for women at Longchamp near Paris.
The Lady Isabelle lived from 1225 to 1270. She most probably remained a laywoman until her death, but resided in a house on the grounds of Longchamp as the foundress and lay patron of the convent.
Like her brother Louis, she was always a devout person. Both Louis and one of her ladies-in-waiting tell of her as a child deep in her devotions under the bedclothes and being gathered up with the laundry.
As king, Louis surrounded himself with a mixture of mendicants and Cistercians. His confessor was a Dominican. Isabelle, on the other hand, was thoroughly Franciscan. Her advisers were Franciscans, and included Bonaventure, the Brothers’ seventh Minister-General.
She gathered Bonaventure and other worthy Franciscans to help plan Longchamp and to assist in writing its Rule. The official name of the house was The Humility of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Isabelle wanted the sisters to be called “Lesser Sisters” (Sorores Minores), to parallel the Lesser Brothers (Fratres Minores), but the Vatican had banned this terminology. Isabelle successfully used her political skill not only to gain the title for her Sisters in the second revision of the Rule, but also to have her Rule approved for other houses.
The Longchamp model of Lesser Sisters spread through France, Belgium, Italy, Spain and England, and were the most numerous of the Franciscan houses for women, being destroyed in France only by the Revolution and in England by Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.
As well as her active political work in founding Longchamp, Isabelle was a model of Christian faith and devotion. Like her brother King Louis, she was told to moderate her discipline, and by our standards her prayer-regime was extreme. Her contemporaries, however, came to see her as a healer and miracle-worker.
No doubt she organised her life so that Longchamp would become a place of pilgrimage with her body as a locus of power and healing, but there are no reasons to doubt her sincerity that this was God’s will for her and the House she founded.
As a Franciscan, her central insight into Francis was that the key to Christianity is the way of littleness. Humility, not poverty is the foundation on which to build Franciscan spirituality. Whether you are born to the highest station in the land or the least, serving God is putting the Other – and others – before self.
Her adviser, Brother Gilbert of Tournai OFM, taught her that desire for God would bring a “burning desire carrying one into the loved one, entering and penetrating and going over into the loved one itself.” Losing oneself in God is part of the way of littleness leading to ultimate recognition that all creation is a path back to God.
Isabelle of France may not have joined other Franciscan women Elizabeth of Hungary or Agnes of Prague, or even her brother Louis IX, as a Saint of the Church, but she is blessed because she enabled many others to find the way of littleness that lead them to God.
Questions for mulling over or discussion:
- Why would the French royal family, the Capets, put such store on the saintliness of the whole family? How important was the connection between the perception of holiness and its reality?
- Speculate! Guess! Why did Isabelle want the Sisters in her monastery to be called Little Sisters? For whose benefit would they be given this privilege? How would the Sisters live up to the title?
- In the end, Isabelle was as concerned about lay spirituality as she was about the spirituality of religious sisters. What lessons can we take as secular Christians from her efforts?
Isabelle’s story is told in Sean L. Field, Isabelle of France: Capetian Sanctity and Franciscan Identity in the Thirteenth Century, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. [Capet was the family name of Isabelle and Louis, hence ‘Capetian Sanctity’.]