Philippa of Hainault was the wife and queen of King Edward III of England (reigned 1327-77). A highly intelligent and resourceful woman, she was also noted for her compassionate nature and for being the mother of sons whose own progeny would play leading roles in later conflicts in England.
Her early life
Philippa was the second daughter of Count William of Hainault and Holland and Countess Jeanne. She was probably born at Valenciennes on 24th June 1314, although some historians have speculated that she may have been born at any time between 1310 and 1315. Hainault was a province of the Holy Roman Empire that occupied part of what is now western Belgium and northern France.
There has been speculation that Philippa was dark-skinned and therefore counts as England’s “first black queen” – the idea being that she had Moorish blood in her. However, the evidence for this is not strong, and can therefore be doubted.
A marriage is arranged
The prime mover behind the marriage of Edward and Philippa was Edward’s mother Queen Isabella, who was keen to depose her husband, King Edward II, and place her son on the throne with the real power remaining in her own hands and that of her lover, Roger Mortimer.
Isabella regarded Hainault as a likely source of military support, given that Philippa’s mother was Isabella’s cousin. Isabella originally tried to arrange a marriage between her son and Philippa’s older sister, but when this plan came to nothing she turned her attention to Philippa.
Edward and Philippa met in Paris in December 1325, each being accompanied by their mothers. A marriage contract was drawn up in August 1326, despite opposition from Edward’s father, who could clearly see what his wife was up to. A suitable dowry was agreed, as was a date for the wedding to be within two years.
The wedding ceremony took place in York on 28th January 1328, which was after Edward had been declared king following his father’s removal from the throne. At the time of the marriage Philippa would have been 13 years old and Edward would have been 15. Her first child (who would be known to history as Edward the Black Prince) was born on 15th June 1330 when she was still not quite 16 years old.
Philippa becomes queen in reality
Edward was king only in name before October 1330, which was when he felt strong enough to overthrow Roger Mortimer, who was de facto ruler of England through his influence over Queen Isabella. Mortimer was swiftly executed and Isabella forced into retirement although she was able to live out her days (until her death in 1358) in some degree of luxury and with freedom of movement.
Edward’s assumption of power also brought Philippa into a prominent position, as well as improving her wealth and status due to much of Isabella’s property falling into her hands. However, her financial situation was often precarious, due in part in poor management of her estates by her officials. Eventually, in 1360, her household affairs were merged with those of the king, although she continued to be in debt for several years afterwards.
Philippa the compassionate queen
Philippa seems to have had a keen sense of justice, which she revealed on several occasions by coming to the aid of people in trouble.
Her first demonstration of this trait came as early as 1328 when she secured a pardon for an 11-year-old girl who had been convicted of a robbery at York. In 1333 a pregnant woman who had stolen a coat and some money was pardoned at the queen's request. In March 1365 at Nottingham a pregnant woman condemned to be hanged for stealing was shown clemency after Philippa intervened.
The best known such example of Philippa’s compassion occurred in 1347 during King Edward’s siege of the French town of Calais. Six prominent citizens of the town were captured and were about to be hanged as a warning to others not to oppose Edward, but Philippa pleaded with her husband that they be spared. Such was his respect for her that he agreed so to do.
Philippa the campaigning queen
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Edward and Philippa were deeply devoted to each other, which is why they never wished to be apart, even when Edward was on campaign.
Philippa therefore accompanied Edward to Scotland and the Low Countries, despite being pregnant on several such occasions. This is the reason why some of her children were born outside England, most notably her son John who was born at Ghent in March 1340 and is therefore known to history as John of Gaunt.
One reason for Edward’s military adventures in the Low Countries was to protect Philippa’s interests there, although he risked destabilising the whole political balance of the region. Philippa was split between loyalty to her husband and to her relatives in the Low Countries, which is probably why she preferred to relinquish her personal claims in favour of furthering the interests of her son Edmund by means of arranging a marriage with the daughter of the count of Flanders, although this did not come to pass.
In political terms, she was of most use to her husband as a negotiator, including writing letters to Pope Clement VI, who was notably pro-French, in attempts to make him more amenable to Edward’s cause.
Philippa as wife and mother
As mentioned above, Philippa was a devoted wife to Edward throughout their 40-year marriage, and there was never any hint of extra-marital dalliance on either side until late in their marriage when Edward became infatuated with one of Philippa’s young ladies-in-waiting.
Philippa probably had fourteen children in all (eight sons and six daughters), although five of her children did not live to adulthood. Three of them were victims of the Black Death in 1348.
She remained on good terms with her children as they grew up and there appear to have been very few family disagreements, either between parents and children or among the siblings. It would be later generations of this family who would come to blows and tear the nation apart in civil war.
Philippa was a highly-cultured woman who brought the artistic and literary interests of the Hainault court to England. She became the patron of a new college at Oxford University (founded in 1341) that has been known ever since as The Queen’s College.
Death and burial
Philippa was evidently in poor health from 1365 onwards. She died at Windsor on 15th August 1369 at the age of 55, thus leaving Edward as a widower for the remaining eight years of his life, although he continued to lavish favours on Alice Perrers, the former lady-in-waiting mentioned above.
Philippa was buried in Westminster Abbey in a tomb that was later shared with her husband. There is also a wooden effigy of Philippa at Queen’s College, Oxford.
Many people in the upper echelons of British society can trace their ancestry back to King Edward III via one of his many surviving children. They can therefore, of course, also trace a link back to one of England’s most highly-respected queen consorts, Philippa of Hainault.
© John Welford