On 24 September 1326 Isabella of France, the estranged queen of Edward II, landed on the Suffolk coast. She arrived at the head of a force of 1,500 mercenaries, there to enforce her audacious plan to take the English throne from her husband in favour of the couple’s son, Edward of Windsor, the future Edward III. She had also sworn to destroy her husband’s powerful, detested and despotic chamberlain, Hugh Despenser the Younger.
Isabella succeeded. Within two months, a man the king had elevated to the status of his co-ruler had been executed – a term that hardly does justice to the grotesque humiliations he endured on the day of his death. Despenser was dragged through Hereford by horses, hanged, cut down, disembowelled, castrated and finally beheaded. In January 1327, meanwhile, Edward II was forced to abdicate and probably followed Despenser to the grave at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire in September 1327 – though almost certainly not via the red-hot poker of legend.
But there was a price to be paid for mounting this coup, both in hard coin and in human terms. Isabella had come to an agreement with Willem, Count of Hainault (in modern-day Belgium), Holland, and Zeeland in the Netherlands. In return for the count aiding her invasion financially, Isabella promised that her son Edward would marry Willem’s third and eldest unmarried daughter, 12-year-old Philippa of Hainault, and that the girl would become the Queen of England.
Philippa was, in effect, exchanged for ships and soldiers so that her mother-in-law could invade England – the most unromantic beginning to a marriage imaginable. To make the girl’s situation even more undignified, when Isabella requested a dispensation from Pope John XXII for Philippa and Edward of Windsor to marry, she referred to Philippa merely as “a daughter of the count of Hainault” and did not even use her given name.
Philippa of Hainault’s alabaster effigy on her tomb in Westminster Abbey, London, England. (Photo by Alamy)
A “much spoken-of marriage”
Yet despite this unpromising start, it is beyond doubt that Philippa of Hainault and Edward III formed one of the great royal marriages of the Middle Ages, and that Philippa went on to become one of the most beloved and successful queens in English history. So who was Philippa, and how did this teenage bride grow up to make such a success of her situation?
Her family connections reveal someone at the heart of Europe’s aristocracy. She was born around February 1314, probably in her father’s capital of Valenciennes. Her mother was Jeanne de Valois, the sister of King Philip VI, the first of the Valois dynasty, who ruled France from 1328–1589. Philippa’s younger brother, Willem, was their father’s successor as Count of Hainault, Holland and Zeeland.
Philippa arrived in England at Christmas 1327, 11 months after the forced abdication of Edward II and several days after his funeral in Gloucester. On 25 January 1328, she married Edward III in York. He was 15 and she was almost 14. After the turbulent years of Edward II’s disastrous reign, the people of England looked forward to a brighter future, and there are references in Exchequer records to Philippa and Edward III’s “much spoken-of marriage”.
But the first few years of the young queen’s life in England were difficult. Her mother- in-law, Isabella, and Isabella’s favourite and suspected lover, Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, dominated the government. Controlling the royal purse strings, they treated the king and queen in a way the young couple found suffocating and infantilising. The queen mother refused to cede any ground to her daughter-in-law, and Philippa was neither crowned nor granted any lands or independent income until February 1330. Indeed, Philippa hardly appears in the records during Isabella and Mortimer’s regime.
A portrait of King Edward III. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)
Despite these slights, the relationship was flourishing. Edward III had found in his wife a loving, supportive partner. After a 16-year-old Philippa gave birth to their first child, Edward of Woodstock (later known as the Black Prince), on 15 June 1330, the teenage king found the courage and will to overthrow his mother and to have the detested Roger Mortimer executed – hanged at Tyburn, where his body was left to swing for two days and two nights. Edward’s mother was held under house arrest and relieved of the vast estates and income she’d granted herself, then pushed aside to enjoy a lengthy and pampered retirement until her death in 1358. Edward had taken control of his kingdom. This, in turn, meant that in late 1330, almost three years after her wedding, Philippa of Hainault finally became queen in more than name.
She learned from her mother-in-law’s mistakes. Isabella of France wielded power to which she was not entitled, but Philippa acted more discreetly and within a more conventional framework, and cleverly exercised a considerable measure of influence. For four decades, she regularly interceded to her husband on behalf of others, opened parliament when the king was absent overseas, and helped to negotiate her children’s marriages to benefit both her children themselves and her husband’s foreign policy.
She was less adept at handling money. After Isabella kept her son and daughter-in-law humiliatingly short of cash during the couple’s regency, Philippa went rather too far in the opposite direction. She spent huge sums on lavish garments and jewels, so much so that one chronicler commented sarcastically on “King Edward and Queen Philippa, who first invented clothes”. Philippa accrued enormous debts, and by 1360 owed almost £6,000 – a few million in modern terms – to tailors, furriers, embroiderers and jewellers.
In fairness, she used much of her huge expenditure to promote her husband’s vision of regal magnificence – medieval royals were expected to live extravagantly and to look the part. The queen also gave generously to charity: she was the patron of the hospital of St Katherine near the Tower of London, and in 1341 her almoner founded the Queen’s College at Oxford University in her honour.
In Edward’s dealings with continental powers, Philippa was called on to side with her husband against members of her mother’s family after he claimed the French throne in 1337. Edward’s argument was that, as the only surviving grandson of Philip IV, he had a better right to the throne of France than its incumbent, Philippa’s uncle Philip of Valois. Philip had become Philip VI of France in 1328 when his cousin Charles IV died without leaving a son and heir.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the various claims, the scene was set for decades of conflict between Philippa’s husband and uncle – the first phase of what would become known as the Hundred Years’ War. At the battle of Crécy in 1346 – a great victory for her husband and their 16-year-old eldest son, Edward of Woodstock, over the French – Philippa’s uncle the Count of Alençon and her cousins the King of Bohemia and the Count of Blois were among those killed.
Listen to historian Rémy Ambühl discuss his new research into the fate of captives during the era of the Hundred Years’ War:
It is beyond doubt that Philippa faithfully supported her husband, and in 1338 she sent a minstrel to Paris to “investigate secretly the actions of Lord Philip de Valois” for 40 days. Minstrels aroused little suspicion as they routinely travelled all over Europe, so sending one to spy on her uncle’s movements was a shrewd choice, while Philippa’s refusal to recognise Philip as King of France reveals where her loyalties lay.
In the wake of Crécy, Edward III led an 11-month siege of the French-held port of Calais, and Philippa stayed with her husband and some of their children nearby. Calais finally surrendered in August 1347, and two chroniclers relate what happened next. The king, furious with the townspeople for resisting him, decided to have the mayor of Calais and five other burghers beheaded in revenge, and none of his advisers was able to dissuade him. It fell to Queen Philippa, in the most famous individual incident in her life, to kneel before her husband and to implore him, “for love of Our Lady’s son”, to show them mercy. Moved by her passionate entreaties, Edward relented and spared the men’s lives.
It’s worth noting that this famous tale – narrated by chroniclers Jean le Bel and Jean Froissart – may not be accurate. (They claim the queen was “heavily pregnant” at the time, which she was not.) Although Philippa did often persuade Edward to help others and had a kind, compassionate personality, it is likely she did not genuinely save the burghers’ lives but that Edward had already decided to spare them and, with Philippa’s help, created a piece of theatre to showcase his clemency to an impressed public. As the story is still told even today, the royals’ ruse clearly worked.
The burghers of Calais surrender to King Edward III in 1347, as depicted in Jean Froissart’s ‘Chronicles’. In an infamous incident that may have been staged, Philippa begged Edward to spare their lives. (Photo by Shutterstock)
A hands-on mother
In siding with her husband over the French succession, Philippa showed that family was central to her life. Her 41-year marriage to Edward proved a fertile one, producing a dozen children between June 1330 and January 1355. Five of their seven sons survived infancy, and the couple inadvertently brought about the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century as their descendants battled for the English throne. The queen was a loving mother to all her children and created a happy family environment. The couple’s fecundity stood in sharp contrast to that of their grandson Richard II, Edward’s successor on the throne, whose marriage to Anne of Bohemia produced no children.
Edward of Woodstock, as heir to the throne, lived in his own household almost from birth, but in November 1342 Edward III granted custody of their younger children to Philippa herself. In an age when the nurture of royal and noble children was almost always outsourced to others, Philippa’s desire to take charge of her children’s upbringing and education stands out. Her fifth son, Edmund of Langley, remained in her custody until he was 13, a long time in an era when high-ranking boys were sent to other households at age seven or earlier, while Philippa’s eldest daughter, Isabella of Woodstock, still lived with her mother in 1351 when she was 19, and perhaps later.
Listen to Richard Barber describe the life and career of one of England’s most successful medieval kings, Edward III:
Philippa also often demonstrated her affection and concern for her children’s spouses – for example by looking after Blanche of Lancaster, the wife of her fourth son, John of Gaunt, during Blanche’s first pregnancy in 1359–60. Unlike many other medieval English kings, Edward III retained the love and steadfast loyalty of all his sons until his death, and Philippa, by raising her children in a loving environment and teaching them to respect and admire their father, was to a great extent responsible. Sadly, though, she experienced much bereavement, outliving seven of her 12 children, including all but one of her five daughters.
The end of Philippa’s reign came prematurely. She fell from her horse while hunting in 1358 and broke her shoulder blade. She spent the remaining 11 years of her life in considerable pain and often immobile. Despite this, she retained her desire to participate in her husband’s government, and Edward retained his trust in her abilities.
In December 1368, eight months before her death, the queen sent an envoy to Flanders to negotiate a marriage between the recently widowed John of Gaunt and the Count of Flanders’ daughter and heir, Margaret. Even though her efforts were not successful – Margaret of Flanders was already betrothed to the Duke of Burgundy – the count’s courteous reply to Philippa tellingly conveys his genuine respect for the queen.
Philippa died at Windsor Castle, her husband’s birthplace, on 15 August 1369, aged 55. Her husband and their youngest child, the 14-year-old Thomas of Woodstock, remained with her until the end. She was buried in Westminster Abbey, where her effigy can still be seen, on 9 January 1370, and the solemnities lasted six days. King Edward, who had taken a mistress, Alice Perrers, for the last few years of his wife’s life when Philippa was ill and often unable to move, outlived her by eight years, and was succeeded by their 10-year-old grandson, Edward of Woodstock’s son, Richard II, in June 1377.
The fact that Richard would be deposed by his cousin, Henry IV, only emphasises England’s comparative stability during Edward’s 50-year reign. Philippa of Hainault played a key role in this, as contemporaries acknowledged. The St Albans chronicler Thomas Walsingham called Philippa of Hainault “the most noble woman”, while Froissart wrote that she was “the most courteous, noble and liberal queen that ever reigned”. The chancellor of England stated: “No Christian king or other lord in the world ever had so noble and gracious a lady for his wife as our lord the king has had.” The girl who was exchanged for ships and soldiers had overcome the odds and blossomed into one of England’s finest and best-loved queens.
Kathryn Warner is a historian and the author of Philippa of Hainault: Mother of the English Nation (Amberley Publishing, 2019)
This article was originally published in the January 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine