As the name of a pale, ruddy, yellowish-brown colour, you’re unlikely ever to have heard the word Isabelline unless you’re an animal lover. Once a fairly familiar term in English, the word largely survives today only in the names of various animals and plants, like the Isabelline wheatear (a migratory Asian songbird); the Isabelline shrike (above, found across central Africa, Asia, and the Middle East); and the Isabelline bear, a pale-coloured subspecies of the brown bear, found in various pockets across the Himalayas.
Etymologically, Isabelline unsurprisingly derives from the girls’ name Isabella (which is itself a pet form of Elizabeth that probably developed in southern France in the mediaeval period). But how did this name come to be attached to the colour? Well, as etymological legends go, this is a good one.
Yep, linguistic folklore would have you believe that the colour Isabelline takes its name from the soiled undergarments of Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, the Hapsburg ruler of the Spanish Netherlands, and daughter of King Phillip II of Spain and his third wife, Elisabeth of Valois.
To us Brits, incidentally, Philip II is probably better known as the husband of Mary Tudor—Queen Mary I—the elder sister of Elizabeth I. Mary was the second of Philip’s four wives, and their marriage made him de facto king of England for four years, before Mary’s untimely death in 1558. This particular tale, however, takes place some three years after Philip’s own death, in 1601.
The dying King Philip had made provisions in his will to bequeath rule of the Spanish Netherlands to his daughter Isabella, on condition that she marry (and ultimately jointly rule) with her cousin, Albert VII, the Archduke of Austria. The pair duly married in 1599 and assumed joint control of the Spanish Netherlands—albeit at a particularly tumultuous period in its history.
For decades, the entire region—a sprawling patchwork of disparate territories, extending across much of modern-day Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, northeast France, and northwest Germany—had been embroiled in a bitter conflict that would become known as the Eighty Years’ War, and eventually involve much of western Europe. The Dutch, unhappy with Spain’s rule over the area (not to mention the pervasive spread of Spanish Catholicism that went with it) had begun to rebel, and after an allied Dutch force retook Groningen from the Spanish throne in 1568, war promptly broke out.
Spain was quick to react, and over the next decade reconquered and reasserted its rule over much of the southern provinces in a series of bloody battles and sieges. To survive, the Dutch needed help, and in 1585 they got it. Fearing the threat that a Spanish victory just across the English Channel would undoubtedly pose, Elizabeth I agreed to lend England’s support the Dutch rebels. In response, the so-called Anglo–Spanish War had now begun too—and the Spanish, now essentially battling two powerful military forces, had a fight on their hands. As the conflict rumbled on (and after Spain nearly bankrupted itself with the costly disaster that was the Spanish Armada of 1587), Spanish forces became increasingly desperate to reassert their power over the area, and over England. Soon, all eyes fell on Ostend.
At that time, Ostend was the only Dutch-controlled city remaining in the entire province of Flanders, and so retaking it would prove an immense moral-boosting boon to the Spanish forces. On 5 July 1601, Archduke Albert and a 12,000-strong army duly besieged the city. But there was a problem. In fact, there were several.
Ostend at that time was a little more than a small and impoverished fishing town, home to around 3,000 people. But as the only Dutch enclave still standing in the region, the Dutch had seen fit to bolster (i.e. more than double) the town’s population with some 4,500 Dutch troops. Much of the town’s surrounding walls had been transformed into a series of grand defences too, more befitting a military camp than a sleepy coastal fishing town.
Ostend’s seaside location, moreover, proved equally invaluable. The north-facing side of the town was not quite so heavily defended as the south, but it didn’t need to be: it was surrounded by vast and largely impassable expanses of tidal quicksand, and was connected to the open sea by an easily patrolled and defended channel. During the siege, this connection proved a lifeline for the own, allowing much-needed supplies and military support (mostly from England) to be ferried into the town almost entirely unhindered.
Albert, ultimately, had little option but to concentrate all his Spanish military forces on the more heavily-defended southern side of the town. Victory here, though, would not come quickly. In fact, the Siege of Ostend went on to last for some 1,173 days.
During that time, the siege slowly turned into an exercise in attrition. The town, bolstered by English supplies, proved all but impregnable, and rather than the grand, sweeping victory they had been keen to secure, the Spanish had to be content with breaking down Ostend’s defences in a series of slow, minuscule advances. By the time the Spanish finally retook the town in September 1604, some 100,000 people had been killed; the Spanish treasury had been all but emptied; and, having concentrated so intently on securing victory in Ostend, the equally strategically important Spanish-held port of Sluis had in the meantime fallen to the Dutch and English forces. Spain may have finally taken Ostend, but it had come at enormous cost. With few options remaining, the Spanish called a halt to the war, and an uneasy twelve-year truce commenced.
It was against this embittered battle of attrition that, legend would have believe, Infanta Isabella supposedly refused to wash her underwear, presuming that her husband would easily and swiftly prove victorious in Ostend. After the siege went on to last more than 1,100 days, we can presume that the infanta’s bright pristine whites eventually resembled—well, that bird at the top of the page.
The story of Isabella’s manky unclothes is a fun one, certainly, and it’s memorable and strange enough to often find its way onto lists of the language’s weirdest etymologies, and history’s strangest anecdotes. Unfortunately, the real evidence here simply doesn’t back it up.
We now know that the earliest written record of the colour Isabella dates from 1600, when a “rounde gowne of Isabella-colour satten” was recorded in the wardrobe accounts of Elizabeth I herself. With the word in use at least a year before the Siege of Ostend even began, we can deduce the name has little to do with Infanta Isabella’s underwear, and was probably little more than a suitably glamorous or feminine-sounding appellation given to a colour that was likely fashionable at the time.
The myth about Infanta Isabella’s underclothes, likewise, was probably nothing more than a bit of anti-Spanish propaganda, or just a funny story concocted at a considerably later date.