Philippa of Hainault – The Quiet Achiever

Philippa from Queens of England 1894We have all heard the saying – ‘behind every great man stands a great woman,’ and in the case of Philippa, wife of Edward III, there can be no better illustration.

Philippa was born in Valenciennes, county of Hainaut, in the Low Countries, and was one of eight children born to the Count of Hainaut, Holland and Zeeland, and Joan of Valois, the granddaughter of Philip III of France.

She first laid eyes on her future husband in 1326, when as a young prince, Edward III escorted his mother Queen Isabella to Hainaut in the hope that Count William would throw his support behind her bid to dispose her husband from the throne of England. The betrothal was announced as part of the agreement; however special dispensation was sought from the Pope as Philippa and Edward were second cousins.

Philippa sailed to England in 1327, aged only 13 and arrived in the midst of a family crisis. Her future mother-in-law was engaged in an illicit affair with Roger Mortimer and both, acting as Regents, controlled every aspect of her future husband’s life, even after he had ascended the throne.

On 24 January 1328, Philippa, now aged 15, married Edward at the York Minister and the two retired to live at Woodstock Palace in Oxfordshire. It is recorded that she did not retain large numbers of her foreign retinue, but instead elected to integrate many of the wives of her husband’s friends to her inner circle, thus attracting the lifelong respect and loyalty of many powerful women within the English court.

At the age of 15, only 3 months after her coronation, she gave birth to her first son, Edward, the future Black Prince. When the babe was only 3 months old, her husband staged a coup and ordered the arrest of his mother, Queen Isabella and Mortimer, with the latter executed for treason.

Philippa 1

Philippa often accompanied Edward on his expeditions to Scotland and Europe and is referred to as a kind-hearted and caring woman, an example of which being her supposed intervention in 1347, when she persuaded her husband to spare the lives of the Burghers of Calais, whom he had planned to execute as an example to the townspeople following his successful siege. It is has been suggested that she was, at that time, in labour with the future Prince Thomas of Windsor and broke her confinement in order to elicit her husband’s compassion.

She was also an avid rider and enjoyed the entertainment of the joust. It was in about 1358 that she had a fall from her horse, whilst hunting with Edward. Though her exact injuries are not recorded, it is not unrealistic to assume that she suffered either a hip or leg injury which resulted in severe edema, a condition that would eventually lead to her death in 1369.

The relationship shared by Philippa and Edward was not common and though it was accepted practise for the King to entertain mistresses, Edward did not appear to do so until his wife was no longer able to share in or enjoy his past times. In fact, it is believed that it was as a result of Philippa merging her household with her husband’s that Edward met Alice Perrers, with whom he developed a destructive and volatile relationship.

So, what did Philippa achieve? She may not have been responsible for the many decisions made exclusively by her husband, but she certainly influenced the outcomes. She also provided the support that saw him win many campaigns, including the 100 Years War and provided England with fourteen royal heirs, she herself outliving nine of them.

There is no doubt that until Philippa fell into ill health, Edward was a much more focused and stable ruler, a theme that will be explored at length in ‘The Roar of the Lion’, Book 4 in the Lions and Lilies series.

Tomb effigy of Philippa of Hainault, Westminster Abbey.

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