Philippa was the second daughter born to William I, Count of Hainaut, and his wife, Joan of Valois, Countess of Hainaut. A lot of historians, and websites, list her birthday as 24 June 1314, but this incorrect. As Ian Mortimer’s meticulous research explains, the misinformation all started when King Edward II of England sent Walter Stapeldon, Bishop of Exeter, to Hainault in 1318 to negotiate a marriage between William’s eldest daughter, Margaret of Hainault, and the Prince of Wales, the future Edward III. William wrote to the Pope asking for a dispensation to marry Margaret to Prince Edward 10 December 1318. It was Margaret who was born on 24 June, not Philippa. Thinking that Margaret would be the future queen, it is also Margaret whom Bishop Stapeldon described as being “brown of skin all over, and much like her father”.
Because Margaret was the potential bride, very little was recorded about Philippa. We don’t even know her exact birthday. She was 14 when she married Edward III, so the day of her birth can only be narrowed down to sometime between 25 January 1314 and 24 January 1315.
However even in this official portrait there are hints of a heritage other than purely Northern European. and if her sister was “brown all over” there is no reason why Phillipa should not also be “brown all over”.
Despite a somwhat uncertain history it is possible that the original version of the traditional song “the nut brown Maiden” was inspired by Phillipa. Could her genealogy give us any clues?
Phillipa, although only 14 years old, showed a great deal of good sense in adjusting to her new family and adopted country. She wisely did not “alienate the English people by retaining her foreign retinue upon her marriage or by bringing large numbers of foreigners to the English court”, and didn’t make a fuss when Isabella (perhaps jealous of her status as Queen?) put off new her daughter-in-law’s coronation for as long as possible.
Edward, seems to have given ample evidence of his love for his new bride by waiting until she was the more ‘reasonable’ age of 15 to consummate the marriage. Unsurprisingly, she got pregnant very shortly after Edward began visiting her bedchamber, which pushed the issue of her coronation to the forefront. Philippa was crowned the new queen on 4 March 1330 at Westminster Abbey.
Happily for Philippa, her first infant was an ever-desired male heir, a baby boy born on 15 June 1330 and christened Edward like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. She would go on to give her husband an additional 13 offspring, for a total of 5 sons and 4 daughters who survived infancy. It is also claimed that Philippa breast-fed her children herself, eschewing wet nurses in favor of a hands-on mothering, uncommon among nobility.
Queen Philippa was even better at monarchial duties than she was at childbearing, believe it or not. She was not just Edward III’s spouse; she was an advisor and a trusted co-ruler. She “accompanied Edward on his expeditions to Scotland, and the European continent in his early campaigns of the Hundred Years War,” and she served as regent of England in 1346. When King David II of Scotland (aided by the French) attempted to invade England in Edward’s absence, the queen summoned the troops and personally rallied the English soldiers before the battle of Neville’s Cross, reputedly from the back of a white charger, leading to a resounding English victory and the capture of King David.
Philippa also used her knowledge of international commerce to convince Edward to expand England’s economic interests in the cloth industry of the Low Countries, until the wool trade accounted for more than half of the crown’s tax revenue. She also convinced her husband to bring a Flemish weaver and his apprentices into Norwich in 1331, to jumpstart cloth manufacture in England. She not only supported the fledgeling textile industry financially, she encouraged it by frequently visiting the weavers to see how they were getting on.
“Under her guidance, Norwich grew into an important manufacturing center, from which the technology of cloth production spread to other English cities.
In time, English cloth became as famous as anything produced in Bruges, and it was all thanks to Queen Philippa’s forward thinking.
The queen did more than bring weaving to England; she also opened a coal mine on her estates in Tynedale and Coal had been mined in England and Wales since the Bronze Age, but Queen Philippa was one of the first to capitalize on it for modernization.
Philippa was born before the Golden Age of the Netherlands (which included the county of Hainault) but even in the 14th century Dutch technology was the best in the Western world. Dutch cities not only produced superior textiles, they also manufactured “glass, bricks, tiles, ceramics and clay pipes” as well as “refined salt and sugar, bleached linen, boiled soap, brewed beer, distilled spirits and baked bread”. Every one of these manufacturing processes needed thermal energy, but the Low Countries had been deforested. What to do with no wood to burn? The Dutch turned to wind, peat and coal as an energy source. English coal “quickly became a wanted fuel for specific industrial processes, particularly for blacksmithing and lime manufacturing” in the Netherlands, and Philippa saw the value of exporting it to the energy-hungry Low Countries.
Moreover, the clever Dutch had figured out a newfangled device called a “chimney” built of brick or stone that allowed coal to heat an entire house. This Dutch technology was expensive and secretive, so it really didn’t make become common in England until the middle of the Tudor era, but there is a 14th century chimney in the keep of Conisbrough Castle in Yorkshire, which was controlled by Edward III’s son Edmund of Langley, the Duke of York, from 1347 until 1402. Edmund would have had access to Dutch chimney-builders through his mother’s relatives and his own travels into the Low Countries.
Queen Philippa also opened a lead works in Derby. Lead had been mined in prehistorically England and Wales, and the country was a significant source of lead for the Romans, so the lead industry itself wasn’t novel. The problem was refining the ore to get purer lead out of it. You needed heat – a lot of heat – to do that. That’s where coal and Dutch technology came into it. The Dutch came up with ways to mine more deeply, by pumping out water from the mining shafts. Philippa had access to these cutting-edge techniques and the engineers who could implement them. With coal she mined on other estates, the lead from Derby could be purified faster and more cheaply. Considering that lead was needed to render gold and silver (obviously big commodities in the High Middle Ages) as well as for many other industrial purposes, including medieval weaponry, lead was a key component to economic and military success. Philippa knew this, and acted accordingly.
Edward III was constantly cash-strapped due to wars in France and Scotland. Philippa’s savvy industrial investments and mining practices may have been the fiscal boat that kept the kingdom afloat.
Edward III’s reign owes a great deal to his wife..
Philippa was also a patron of the arts and education, supporting Geoffrey Chaucer and appointing the Hainault-born chronicler Jean Froissart as her secretary, poet and scribe. She acquired several illuminated manuscripts for the royal library, and encouraged her husband to make English the “official” language of the country 1363, moving away from the Francophone legacy of the Norman conquers and recognizing the importance of the native tongue. The Queen’s College, Oxford was founded by one of her chaplains, Robert de Eglesfield, and named for her in recognition of her encouragement of scholarship.
On 15 August 1369, Philippa died at Windsor Castle from an illness resembling dropsy. On her death bed she reportedly said to Edward:
“We have, my husband, enjoyed our long union in peace and happiness, but before we are forever parted in this world, I entreat you will grant me three requests.” “Lady, name them,” answered Edward, “they shall be granted.” “My lord,” she whispered, “I beg you will pay all the merchants I have engaged for their wares; I beseech you to fulfill any gifts or legacies I have made to churches and my servants; and when it shall please God to call you hence, that you will lie by my side in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey.” As she passed, the king was in tears. “Lady,” he said, “all this shall be done.”
She was buried at Westminster Abbey, and when Edward died 8 years later, he was interred by her side.