As a ruler, Philip was authoritarian, despotic, efficient, and feared by his subjects. He was a resolute defender of the royal prerogative and obsessed with the acquisition of wealth. Being perennially short of money, he resorted to drastic measures to get it. He dispossessed the Jews in his realm of vast sums, confiscated much of the property of the Lombard bankers, taxed the Church heavily, sold peerages to commoners, and, notoriously, debased the coinage several times. His daughter Isabella inherited his obsession with money, and his avarice.
In 1284, Philip had made a brilliant marriage with Jeanne, Queen of Navarre, who had succeeded in infancy to the throne of that northern Iberian kingdom. The acquisition of Navarre and Jeanne's counties of Champagne and Brie further strengthened Philip's power. It was a love match, on her part at least, for the couple had been brought up together at the château of Vincennes, after Jeanne's mother had seen fit to place her fatherless daughter under the protection of the King of France.
Jeanne was no beauty. Plump and plain, she was a dignified, pious, and intelligent woman, eminently capable of managing her domains, although she tactfully adopted her husband's French reforms as her administrative model. Twice, and with great vigor, she successfully defended her territories, notably against the combined might of the Spanish kingdoms of Aragon and Castile.
Philip and Jeanne had seven children. Four lived beyond childhood: the heir, Louis, born in 1289, Philip, born around 1292-3, Charles, probably born in 1294, and Isabella, the sixth child. As the only surviving daughter, she was much favored by her father. According to the chroniclers Guillaume de Nangis and Thomas Walsingham, she was twelve years old at the time of her marriage in January 1308, which suggests that she was born in 1295. Twelve was the canonical age for marriage and, in June 1298, the Pope stipulated that she should marry Prince Edward as soon as she reached that age. In the same document, he described her as being "under seven years," while the Treaty of Montreuil (June 1299) provided for her betrothal and marriage to take place when she reached the respective canonical ages of seven and twelve. Therefore, she must have reached seven before May 1303, and twelve before January 1308.
France at that time was at the hub of European culture, and Paris the intellectual center of Christendom. Philip was a generous patron of the arts, and Jeanne set a high cultural standard at court. In her retinue she kept minstrels and trouvères, who provided sophisticated musical entertainment. In Paris, in 1304, she founded the College of Navarre (also known as the Hôtel de la Reine Jeanne) as a cultural center for the city's flourishing university. Her mother's career seems to have impressed itself upon Isabella, who may consciously have emulated her example.
Marguerite and Isabella spent their childhoods in the royal palaces of Paris, at the Louvre, then a moated château built in the twelfth century, and the Palais de la Cité, which was rebuilt by Philip IV; the Palais de Justice now occupies the site. Very little is known of the girls' early years. Isabella evidently became attached to her nurse, Théophania de Saint-Pierre, Dame de Bringuencourt, who was to accompany her to England, remain with her for many years, and, in time, care for her children. The princesses would have become familiar with the formalities and ceremonial of royal life and been taught the courtesies. Great importance was attached to table manners and clean fingernails.
Marguerite and Isabella grew up in an age in which society regarded women as inferior beings. "We should look on the female role as a deformity, though one which occurs in the ordinary course of nature," stated a thirteenth-century edition of Aristotle's Generation of Animals. "Woman is the confusion of man, an insatiable beast, a continuous anxiety, an incessant warfare, a daily ruin, a house of tempest and a hindrance to devotion," fulminated Vincent de Beauvais. In 1140, the canon lawyer Gratian had asserted that "women should be subject to their men. The natural order for mankind is that women should serve men and children their parents, for it is just that the lesser serve the greater."
In a world that regarded chastity as the ideal state, women were seen as the wayward descendants of Eve, who had led Man to destruction in Eden by tempting him to eat the forbidden fruit. This view was endorsed by the Church and by society. In law, women were regarded as infants, and had few legal rights. They were viewed as assets in the marriage market, chattels in property deals and alliances, or prizes in the game of courtly love, and their roles were narrowly defined.
The education of princesses would have been structured to increase their desirability in the royal marriage market and equip them to be the ornaments of courts. The Church encouraged female education to foster devoutness and piety. Marguerite and Isabella would have learned from infancy to say their prayers; they would have been taught stories of the saints and to observe the holy days, of which there were about 150 a year. They would have been made aware of the joys of heaven, the horrors of hell, the seven cardinal virtues, and the seven deadly sins.