Behind Every Great Man Stands A Great Woman: Philippa of Hainault, Queen of Edward III

Kathryn Warner

6 mins

23 Sep 2019

Philippa was born in c. February or March 1314. She was the third daughter of Willem, count of Hainault, Holland and Zeeland in modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands; and Jeanne de Valois, a granddaughter of Philip III of France, niece of Philip IV and sister of Philip VI.

Philippa’s eldest sister Margaretha of Hainault married Ludwig von Wittelsbach, Holy Roman Emperor, king of Germany and Italy and duke of Bavaria, and her other older sister Johanna married Wilhelm, duke of Jülich, a region now partly in Germany and partly in the Netherlands.

The sisters’ younger brother Willem, born c. 1317, succeeded their father as count of Hainault, Holland and Zeeland in 1337, and their maternal uncle Philip de Valois succeeded his cousin Charles IV as Philip VI of France in 1328, the first king of the Valois dynasty who ruled France until 1589.

Marriage to Edward III

Philippa of Hainault was betrothed to her second cousin Edward of Windsor, son and heir of King Edward II of England, on 27 August 1326.

Edward II’s queen Isabella of France was determined to bring down her husband’s powerful and loathed favourite, Hugh Despenser the Younger, and came to an agreement with Count Willem of Hainault that his third and eldest unmarried daughter Philippa would marry her son and become queen of England if Willem aided Isabella’s invasion of England.

This venture proved successful: Isabella had Despenser executed in November 1326, and a few weeks later her husband was forced to abdicate his throne in favour of his fourteen-year-old son Edward of Windsor, who became King Edward III in January 1327.

King Edward III, Philippa’s husband.

Exactly a year after his accession, the young king married Philippa of Hainault in York. He was now fifteen and she was, according to the Flemish chronicler Jean Froissart, thirteen going on fourteen.

Trouble with her mother-in-law

The first few years of the young couple’s marriage were difficult ones.

During Edward III’s minority, his mother the dowager queen Isabella ruled her son’s kingdom, and refused to cede any ground to her daughter-in-law, who was granted no lands and no income until February 1330 two years after her wedding.

That same month, Philippa was finally crowned as queen of England in Westminster Abbey, when she was already five months pregnant with her eldest child Edward of Woodstock, prince of Wales, known to posterity as the ‘Black Prince’.

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Having secured the succession to his throne, Edward III, not quite eighteen years old, overthrew his mother and her chief counsellor Roger Mortimer in October 1330, and began to rule his own kingdom.

Finally, almost three years after her wedding, Philippa of Hainault became Queen of England in more than name only.

A devoted royal couple

Philippa and Edward would be married for over forty years, and there is every reason to suppose that their marriage was a strong, affectionate and mutually supportive one. It was certainly fertile: Philippa gave birth to twelve children, five daughters and seven sons, between June 1330 and January 1355, though she outlived seven of them.

A comparison of the royal couple’s itineraries reveals that Philippa and Edward spent most of their time together, and on the rare occasions when they were apart, they sent each other letters and gifts. Edward addressed letters to his wife as ‘my very sweet heart’.

It was not the custom in England to appoint the queen as regent during the king’s absence from his realm, and so Philippa’s sons but not Philippa herself were elected to that role while their father was overseas.

However, there is evidence that Edward III trusted his wife and allowed her to exercise a great deal of influence behind the scenes. Philippa sometimes opened parliament when the king was not in England, helped to negotiate their children’s marriages, and often interceded with her husband on behalf of others.

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Divided loyalties?

In 1337, Edward III claimed the throne of France, believing that as the only surviving grandson of King Philip IV he had a better right to it than the incumbent, Philip VI, the first cousin of Edward’s mother Queen Isabella and the uncle of his wife Queen Philippa.

The English king thus began a long conflict between England and France which much later became known as the Hundred Years War.

For Philippa of Hainault, this meant that her husband went to war against her mother’s family, and at the Battle of Crécy in August 1346, Edward III’s great victory over the French, Philippa’s uncle the count of Alençon and her cousins the count of Blois and the king of Bohemia were killed.

The Battle of Crecy, a crucial episode of the Hundred Years War.

The queen, however, loyally supported her husband against her maternal family, and in 1338 sent a minstrel to Paris to ‘investigate secretly the actions of Lord Philip de Valois’ for forty days on her behalf. As minstrels routinely travelled throughout Europe, sending one to spy on her uncle was unlikely to arouse much suspicion, and this was a clever choice by Philippa.

The merciful queen

Philippa stayed with her husband near Calais for much of 1346 and 1347 while Edward III besieged the port, and Calais was the scene of probably the most famous story told about Queen Philippa.

Two Flemish chroniclers relate that Edward was determined to hang the mayor and a group of burghers of Calais as punishment for the town holding out against him for many months, but Philippa dropped to her knees before her husband and implored him to spare the men’s lives.

Moved by her passionate entreaties, Edward relented and agreed not to execute them.

Philippa interceding for the burghers.

Although it is often assumed that the queen genuinely did save the burghers’ lives, it is far more likely that Edward had no intention of executing them and had already decided to spare them, and, with his wife’s help, created a piece of theatre so memorable it is still often related nearly 700 years later.

A surviving correspondence

Few of Queen Philippa’s letters still survive, but one which does dates to December 1368 eight months before her death, and reveals her involvement in her husband’s foreign policy even at the end of her life.

Philippa’s third son John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, had been widowed in September 1368, and the queen wrote to Louis, count of Flanders regarding a possible future marriage between John and Louis’s only child and heir, Margarethe of Flanders.

As it turned out, Margarethe was already betrothed to the king of France’s youngest brother the duke of Burgundy, but Count Louis’s courteous reply to Philippa reveals his great respect for the queen, and his acceptance that she had the right to conduct marital negotiations and to act on her husband and her son’s behalf.

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Philippa’s death and legacy

Philippa fell from her horse while hunting with her husband in 1358 and broke her shoulder-blade, and spent the last few years of her life in pain.

For most of the 1360s, she could only travel by litter, if at all, and appears to have believed as early as 1362 that she might die at any time; numerous grants she made from that year onwards include the wording ‘in case the queen dies’ or ‘in case [the grantee] outlives her’.

She passed away at Windsor Castle, her husband’s birthplace, on 15 August 1369, probably aged fifty-five, and was buried on 9 January 1370 in Westminster Abbey, where her tomb and effigy still exist.

Queen Philippa had made herself much loved in England and elsewhere, and was widely mourned across Europe. The St Albans chronicler Thomas Walsingham called her

‘the most noble woman’,

while Flemish chronicler Jean Froissart wrote that she was

‘the most courteous, noble and liberal queen that ever reigned”,

and 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.’

Although Edward III outlived his queen by eight years, and died on 21 June 1377 at the age of sixty-four, he fell into a decline after his wife’s death, and the last few years of his previously glorious reign were sad ones.

14th century historian Kathryn Warner is a biographer of Edward II, Isabella of France, Hugh Despenser the Younger and Richard II. Her most recent book, Philippa of Hainault: Mother of the English Nation, will be published on 15 October 2019 by Amberley Publishing.