Thursday, March 30, 2017

Finding Love Among the Clauses - a Successful Medieval Marriage

by Anna Belfrage

Marriages in medieval times were rarely about love. Boys and girls born as heirs or heiresses to wealth and large estates had little say in who they married – it was up to their elders to arrange such matters. Marriages were seen as mutually beneficial contracts, and hopefully over time the couple would develop a fondness for each other and find contentment in their union. In most cases, they probably did.

In some cases, what began as a political union blossomed into more than fondness. Today’s post is about one of those love stories, so allow me to take you back to 1326 when a not yet fourteen-year-old boy was betrothed to a girl two years 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 Edward’s mother, Isabella of France, and Count Guillaume, whereby the count placed ships and men at Isabella’s disposal for the latter’s upcoming conquest of England.

There were certain anomalies in this arrangement. First of all, it was Edward’s mother, not his father, who negotiated the marriage. In fact, Edward II had repeatedly written to his son and forbidden him to enter into this marriage contract – or any other, unless approved by the king himself. Secondly, the political purpose of the marriage was not so much to cement the future relationship between England and Hainaut as it was to give Isabella the means with which to oust her husband and his favourite, Hugh Despenser.

In setting his name to the contracts, Edward defied his father’s will – even worse, he unwittingly contributed to his father’s eventual defeat. Not that the adolescent Edward had any choice: his mother would have him sign, and Isabella was not a lady who tolerated disobedience.

For those unfamiliar with the background to Isabella’s rebellion against her husband, Edward II and Isabella had fallen out over a couple of issues, such as the king depriving Isabella of her dower income and exiling her French retainers. Plus, Isabella resented Hugh Despenser’s influence over her husband and worried that the hated Despenser would jeopardise her son’s future ascension to the throne.

Isabella duped Edward II into believing she’d forgiven him for stealing her income and was sent to France to negotiate a peace treaty on Edward’s behalf. Once the treaty was in place, the French king required that Edward II do homage. Not a good idea as per Despenser, so Prince Edward was sent off to do homage in his father’s stead and was warmly welcomed by his mother. Isabella now had what she needed to launch an invasion: her son, heir to the throne. Plus she could now barter his hand in marriage for the wherewithal with which to crush Edward II.

Long before this, Edward II had also toyed with marrying his eldest to one of Count Guillaume’s daughters. He’d even sent his trusted man, Walter Stapledon, Bishop of Exeter, to inspect the goods. A description still survives, but it is unclear whether it refers to Philippa or to one of her sisters. The bishop describes a dark-haired girl with dark eyes, a full mouth and good teeth. All in all, the bishop found her pleasant enough, and one hopes young Edward agreed, that distant June day of 1326 when he first clapped eyes on the girl who was to become his wife.

We have no idea what Philippa looked like, but as she lived in the fourteenth century, she 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. Maybe she was a bit more daring in her youth – maybe there were days when she wore her hair loose and uncovered – but if so, that ended after she’d married Edward. Married women were supposed to keep their hair covered, as it was a well-known fact men went all gaga at the sight of curls billowing in the wind.

Philippa spent most of her childhood in Valenciennes, Guillaume’s principal city, but would also have been regular visitors at Le Quesnoy where Guillaume and his family enjoyed such noble pastimes as hunting and hawking. Her education was geared at preparing her for the role of a royal consort, even more so once the betrothal documents had been signed.

Isabella’s invasion was a success. The hated Despenser was executed, Edward II was imprisoned and forced to abdicate, and in February of 1327, Prince Edward was crowned Edward III. On the other side of the English Channel, preparations began for Philippa’s wedding.

Like many other young ladies of the time, Philippa was married twice: first 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. She was not quite fourteen, he was fifteen.

At the time of the wedding, Edward must have been in the grip of conflicting emotions: he’d recently seen his father buried (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 with Isabella), and Edward was beginning to suspect neither Isabella nor Roger were 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.

He found a confidante in Philippa, someone as firmly in his own corner as he was. Philippa might initially have been intimidated by her mother-in-law, but she had every reason to side with her husband, starting with the fact that Queen Isabella showed little interest in ensuring her daughter-in-law was appropriately crowned. 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. Mama Isabella was not entirely pleased, but public opinion was moving in the direction of Edward and Philippa, and when 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. He 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, the perfect medieval consort who advised her husband in private, interceded on behalf of the weak, and oversaw the raising of their large 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 interests at heart.

Over a period of 25 years, Philippa 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.

A little background: In 1337, Edward III claimed the French crown, this based on the fact that his mother was born a French princess. The French king obviously disagreed, and so began the Hundred Years’ War. After crushing the French at the battle of Crecy in 1346, Edward turned north – to Calais.

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, so in February of 1347, he effectively closed off all lines of supply into the town. The siege of Calais had begun.

The Siege of Calais

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 of 1347 Calais surrendered.

By then, Edward was seriously angry with the town for holding out for so long – it put a major 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. I dare say Edward was tempted to unleash his men on the town, but as Edward was in France claiming the French crown, he realised this would not endear him to his French subjects. Instead he offered the people of Calais a deal: if six of them would come before him and give themselves up unconditionally, he would spare the rest.

Those six brave 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.

Philippa begging for the life of the burghers

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, as she feared God would otherwise rob them of the child presently in her womb. Edward was not happy - at all. But he was fond of his wife, and was so touched by the sight of her on her knees that he reluctantly 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 and replaced by Edward’s men. Neither did Philippa’s baby. A son, Thomas of Windsor, was born in 1347 but died within a year.

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 believe theirs was a happy and fulfilling marriage, one in which they enjoyed spending time together, sharing their thoughts with each other. In Philippa and their children Edward found 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 and honoured her.

All good things come to an end. In the 1360s, Philippa fell ill, a wasting disease that had her growing weak and him desperate. This is when Edward began his association with Alice Perrers, his only known mistress, but his devotion for his wife and his distress at her continued illness were evident.
In July of 1369, Philippa sent for her husband. He rushed to her side 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 never recovered from her death. Soon enough, he fell under the spell of Alice Perrers, even more so as his mind deteriorated, but in his heart I believe Philippa ruled uncontested – as she had always done.

All pictures in public domain and/or licensed under Wikimedia Creative Commons


Had Anna Belfrage been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exist, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing.

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The first book, In The Shadow of the Storm was published in 2015, the second, Days of Sun and Glory, was published in July 2016, and the third, Under the Approaching Dark, will be out in April 2017.

When Anna is not stuck in the 14th century, she's probably visiting in the 17th century, specifically with Alex(andra) and Matthew Graham, the protagonists of the acclaimed The Graham Saga. This is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him.

More about Anna on her website or on her blog!


  1. Great post Anna! Philippa is one of my favourite queens. Amazing woman.

  2. This was a wonderful post. I learned so much. I'm glad they had a fulfilling marriage (having read of so many royal couples in history who did not.) Being so young when they married, it's almost like a Romeo and Juliet story that ended well.

    1. Thank you! Yes, it is rather nice to read about the good marriages.

  3. Lovely post. I've always admired Philippa.

  4. It's a shame so little is known about Philippa, other than her extravagance. She must have been very loyal to capture Edward's heart. I hope she stood up to Isabella at least once.

    1. It always annoyed me that Isabella and Mortimer got a load of dirt thrown at them for extravagance when Philippa did too. In fact so many Kings and Queens have done so, especially Henry 111 and his wife Eleanor.
      However I do like Philippa

  5. I imagine there were multiple opportunities to stand up to Isabella after October of 1330. :)

    1. After October 1330 I don't think Philippa would have stood up to Isabella. She seemed very kind to her. The poor woman was out of her mind with grief so I am sure Philippa would have been very gentle with her. Isabella was in a difficult situation but she should not have been so quick to marry Edward off as this lead to demands for more such as Philippa's crowning. In other regencies, the Kings married much older - Henry 111 didn't marry until he was 29 and Henry vi also in his 20s.
      I don't think Isabella thought a lot of things through properly.


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