In 1326, a not yet fourteen-year-old boy was betrothed to a girl two years or so his junior. He was Edward, soon-to-be Edward III of England. She was Philippa, one of Guillaume of Hainaut’s four daughters. The betrothal cemented the alliance between Isabella of France and Count Guillaume, whereby the count placed ships and men at Isabella’s disposal for the upcoming conquest of England. It is said that the bride-to-be took an immediate liking to her prospective groom, weeping bitterly when he left.
In setting his name to the contracts, Edward openly defied his father’s will – King Edward II had repeatedly written to his son and told him that under no circumstances was he to enter into a marriage contract without his, the king’s, agreement – but what choice did the adolescent boy have? His mother would have him sign, and he was with her, under her daily influence.
Edward II opposed the marriage precisely because it gave Isabella access to the fighting men – and the ships required to transport them – she required to invade England. Not that Isabella would be captaining these men, that job fell to her partner and lover, Roger Mortimer.
However, prior to the events that led to Isabella openly challenging her husband, Edward II had also toyed with marrying his eldest to one of Count Guillaume’s daughters, had even gone so far so as to have his trusted man, Walter Stapledon, Bishop of Exeter, travel over to inspect the goods, so to say. A description still survives, but it is unclear whether it refers to Philippa or to one of her sisters. Whatever the case, the bishop describes a dark-haired girl with dark eyes, a full mouth, good teeth – well, at least some of them. All in all, the bishop found her pleasant enough to look like, and one hopes young Edward agreed, that distant June day when he first clapped eyes on the girl who was to become his wife.
To be quite honest, we have no idea what Philippa may have looked like, but seeing as she lived in the fourteenth century, poor Philippa was burdened with a hairdo that is decidedly unflattering. If you look at her effigy in Westminster abbey, what you mostly see are those heavy arrangements of braids framing her face. Mind you, that effigy depicts Philippa as an adult woman, so maybe she was a bit more daring in her youth – maybe there were days when she wore her hair loose and covered by a sheer veil. Probably not – and definitely not after she’d married Edward. Married women were supposed to keep their hair firmly under control – i.e. covered, as it was a well-known fact men went all gaga at the sight of curls billowing in the wind.
We know little of Philippa’s youth. Her father married Jeanne of Valois, a cousin to Isabella of France, and assuming Jeanne’s father, Charles Valois, was as great a believer in education as Isabella’s father (and Charles’ brother), Philippe IV, was, Jeanne was literate and well-educated, something she surely passed on to her many daughters. Whatever the case, the Hainaut children spent most of their time in Valenciennes, Guillaume’s principal city, but would also have been regular visitors at Le Quesnoy – of WWI fame for ANZAC soldiers – where Guillaume and his family enjoyed such noble pastimes as hunting and hawking.
Due to Edward and Philippa being related – they were second cousins through their mothers – no wedding could take place without a papal dispensation. Not that Count Guillaume had any hurry in securing the dispensation. After all, should the invasion backfire, chances were Edward II would punish his eldest son by having him imprisoned or even executed.
In the event, the invasion was a success. Capably led by Mortimer, Isabella’s forces soon had England under control. Edward II was imprisoned at Kenilworth Castle, his hated favourite Despenser was executed, and next on the agenda was to make Prince Edward King Edward, which was achieved by forcing Edward II to abdicate. So in February of 1327, Edward III was crowned, and on the other side of the English Channel, preparations began for Philippa’s wedding.
As many other young ladies of the time, she was actually married twice: the first time by proxy, i.e. Edward sent over a man to stand in his stead, the second time in January of 1328 in York – this time the real thing in the half-finished cathedral with her young and handsome husband at her side.
Without any surviving diaries or letters, it is of course difficult to assess just how successful this marriage was, but by all accounts Edward III was faithful to his wife, and the regular appearance of more babies indicate they enjoyed each other’s company behind the bed hangings. Mind you, it took some time for baby number one to arrive – but this may have been due to consideration. Philippa was not quite fourteen when they wed, and in general consummation with such young brides was not encouraged.
At the time of their wedding, Edward must have been in the grip of conflicting emotions: he’d recently seen his father buried after his death back in September (some people say Edward II didn’t die, but let us bypass that for now), his mother had awarded herself a huge income which seriously depleted the royal coffers, Roger Mortimer was effectively in charge of running the country (albeit together Isabella), and Edward was beginning to suspect neither Isabella nor Roger would be all that keen on stepping down from their position of power. So what did that make him? A leashed lion? For a young man determined to become a perfect king, that was not an option.
I imagine he found a confidante in Philippa, someone as firmly in his own corner as he himself was. Philippa might initially have been unfamiliar with the power games at court, and I guess she was quite intimidated by her mother-in-law, who still went by Queen Isabella, when in fact she should have been the Queen Mother Isabella. Thing is, Philippa was as yet uncrowned, and Isabella showed little interest in ensuring she was. From where Isabella was standing, England was better off with one crowned king – her son – and one crowned queen – herself.
In 1330, Edward pushed through the coronation of his wife, by then pregnant with their first child. In an act of defiance, he swept his arms wide and told Philippa to go wild and crazy when it came to her coronation outfits, and she definitely did, changing from one precious combo to the other during the festivities. Mama Isabella was probably not entirely pleased at being upstaged, but public opinion was moving in the direction of Edward and Philippa, and after the little queen proudly presented her husband with a son and heir in June of 1330, Isabella should have realised power was slipping through her fingers. Edward III now had every reason to act – and act quickly – so as to retake control of his country. Which he did – or rather his friends did, which is how Mortimer ended up dead and Isabella ended up marginalised.
Philippa was now queen not only in name but also in fact – and she did a good job of it, the perfect medieval consort who advised her husband in private, interceded on behalf of the weak and needy, and oversaw the raising of their large and mostly happy family. She was his pillar of strength, the companion from his youth that became his companion through life, the person he could always trust to have his, Edward’s, interests at heart.
Philippa was also a patron of the arts, was held in high regard by men such as Jean Froissart, and owned and commissioned several illustrated manuscripts, some of which are still around. Over a period of 25 years, she gave birth at least thirteen times, which means she was just sixteen when the first baby was born, over forty when the baby of the family, Thomas of Woodstock, saw the light of the day. Edward clearly enjoyed her company – and vice-versa – which explains why she accompanied her bellicose husband on various of his campaigns – both to Scotland but also to France, where she forever earned the reputation of being a gentle and good queen when she begged Edward to spare the burghers of Calais.
I remember the first time I heard this story. My teacher, Mrs Miller, had a stochastic approach to the Hundred Years’ War, so that we went from Sluys to Agincourt and then back to Crecy, mainly because she had all these lovely Jean Froissart posters that she used for inspiration and tended to get them mixed up. At the time, I was seriously confused: one moment, we’re talking about Edward III and his naval victory over the French (Sluys, 1340), the next we’re at Agincourt (and yes, Shakespeare was quoted) with Edward III’s great-grandson Henry V, then we’re back to Edward III at Crecy, now accompanied by his young, just as bellicose, son Edward (whom Mrs Miller never called anything but The Black Prince, which really had me wondering if he was a bad guy. I was ten, okay?)
Anyway, after more or less annihilating the French at Crecy in 1346, in September of that same year Edward turned north – to Calais. At the time, this town was protected by impressive walls, and no matter how many men Edward threw at the town, the defences held. Months of this did not improve Edward’s temper, but he was determined to win Calais, so in February of 1347, he effectively closed off all lines of supply into the town. The siege of Calais had begun.
The stubborn townspeople refused to give up, hoping their king would come to their aid. Philippe of France did show up, but he was still smarting after the loss at Crecy, and he was severely outnumbered and “outstrategised” by Edward, which made Philippe decide it was best to retreat and fight another day. Abandoned by their king, in August, Calais gave up.
By then, Edward was seriously pissed off with the town for holding out for so long – it sort of put a dent in his calendar. Plus, he had hoped to force the French king into a decisive battle outside Calais, but Philippe had evaded that trap. So when Calais finally surrendered, I reckon Edward was seriously tempted to do unleash his men on the town. But as Edward was in France claiming the French crown, he realised this was probably not a good way of endearing himself to his French subjects, so instead he offered the people of Calais a way out: if six of them would come before him and offer him the keys of the city, give themselves up unconditionally, he would spare the rest.
Death. Those six Calais burghers had no illusions as to what fate awaited them – especially as Edward ordered that they wear nothing but their shirts and a noose round their neck – ready to hang, if you will. They prostrated themselves before the smouldering Edward and begged for their lives. He ordered their heads to be cut off – ASAP.
This is when Philippa stepped forth from the shadows of history to hog the limelight. Heavily pregnant, she kneeled before her husband and begged him to show mercy. Mrs Miller tended to embroider this bit: the queen, all in white, sank to her knees before her seated husband and approached him on her knees, repeatedly asking that he spare the burghers as otherwise she feared God would rob them of the child presently in her womb. Mrs Miller tended to get emotional here, a hand drifting down to her very flat abdomen (Mrs Miller was well past childbearing at the time).
Edward was very fond of his wife, and, according to Mrs Miller, never had she looked more beautiful to him than she did as she kneeled abjectly before him. Hmm. I hope she had. Whatever the case, he was so touched he spared the six burghers and everyone lived happily ever after. Except that they didn’t – at least not the citizens of Calais who were evicted out of their town by Edward and replaced by his men. Neither did Philippa’s baby. A son, Thomas of Windsor, was born in 1347 but died within a year.
Anyway, after the events at Calais, Philippa went back to being the mild wife she’d always been, never questioning her husband in public, however much she may have argued with him in private. Not that I think they did argue. I think they had a happy and fulfilling marriage, one in which they enjoyed spending time together, sharing their thoughts with each other. Edward found in Philippa and their children the family he’d lost as a child when his mother and father ended up on opposite sides of a battlefield. In her, he had a loyal and devoted spouse. In him, she found a man who cherished her and honoured her.
In the 1360s, Philippa fell ill. A wasting disease that had her growing weak and him somewhat desperate. Yes, this is when Edward also began his association with Alice Perrers, his only known mistress, but his devotion for his wife and his distress at her continued illness was evident.
In July of 1369, Philippa sent for her husband, presently preparing for yet another campaign. He rushed to her side at Windsor and found her wan and pale in her bed. They held hands as she had him promise that once he died, he’d be buried beside her. Edward wept and gave her his word, gripping the hand of the woman who’d been his mainstay through life.
Philippa was all of fifty-five when she died, and had lived through the misfortune of seeing nine of her children die before her. Her husband was devastated and never quite recovered from her death. Soon enough, he would fall under the spell of Alice Perrers, even more so as his mind deteriorated, but in his heart Philippa ruled uncontested. Of that I am sure.
In my latest release, Days of Sun and Glory, I have included a first meeting between the adolescent Edward and a girl who still climbs trees and wears her hair in braids.
After supper, the count and Lord Mortimer retired to discuss military matters with the men. Prince Edward scowled as the men left, but when Countess Jeanne invited him and the queen to her apartments, generously including most of Queen Isabella’s retinue as well, he bowed politely and accepted, throwing smouldering looks at his mother.
Entertainment came in the shape of a troubadour, who sang them a selection of verses from the Roman de la Rose, which made Prince Edward shift on his seat while the three unwed Hainaut daughters blushed and tittered.
Fortunately, the troubadour had an ear not only for music, but also for his audience, and he changed to livelier tunes, accompanied by a man on a vielle and an old lady on a guimbarde, and Philippa rose to her feet and danced, graceful and lively. Her sisters followed suit, but it was Philippa the prince followed with his eyes, and when the young girl approached him, he took her hand and allowed her to lead him out to dance.
Afterwards, a flushed prince retired to sit on the window seat.
“Does she please you, my lord?” Kit joined him. The potential future Queen of England was standing on the opposite side of the vaulted room, dark braids framing her face. The child had the most remarkable eyes: large and somewhat almond-shaped, they were the colour of ripe hazelnuts and seemed to glow from within when she looked at the prince.
“What does it matter what I think?” Prince Edward said morosely.
“Your mother is bartering your future for weapons and men,” Kit said with asperity. “It seems only fair that you should end up with a bride you feel some affection for.”
Edward shrugged. “I am a prince. Princes do not marry for love.” He gave her a pained look. “My father never loved my mother. She was a child and he was a man.”
“But you and Lady Philippa are of an age – a far better foundation for a good marriage, don’t you think?” Kit nudged him in the ribs. “She’s quite pretty.”
Prince Edward went the colour of a boiled lobster, while muttering that aye, he thought she was. “She is so…uncomplicated, so sunny,” he continued. “I could do with a sun in my life.”
Kit was tempted to hug him. Poor lad; not quite fourteen and already so disillusioned.
“Well, we all need someone to brighten up our days, don’t we? Tell your mother you want Philippa. Let her sort out the practicalities with the count.”
As you can see – and surely it is not much of a surprise by now – I do believe in love at first sight, even if in this case it was probably more of a puppy love 🙂