Philippa of Hainault, a Most Excellent Queen

One of my personal historical favorites is Queen Philippa of Hainault, the wife and consort of King Edward III.


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.

So how did Philippa, the second daughter, become Edward III’s bride? Apparently the young prince fell ass over tea-kettle in love with her when he went with his mother, Isabella of France, to Hainault in the summer of 1326. Isabella was there to ask Count William to support her bid to depose her husband and put the prince on the throne in his place, and to reassure the Count that she was totally 100% behind a match between one of his daughters and the future King of England.

Why was the daughter of a twee little territory in the Low Countries such good catch?


Well, their mother was the granddaughter of Philip III of France and both their father was descended from Louis VII of France, so their blood was nicely blue, and at the time Hainaut was a big deal, vis-à-vis international trade and politics. A big, fat, WOOLY deal. English wool, “particularly from the Welsh Marches, the South West and Lincolnshire”, was a valuable commodity and England’s main economic export. The fuzzy sheep-shavings were sent to specialist cities in the Low Countries, France, and Italy, which used “the pedal-driven horizontal loom and spinning wheel, along with mechanised fulling and napping,” to produce superior textiles.

Various wars had interfered with the Anglo-Flanders wool trade under Edward I of England, so he had negotiated a trade deal with Italian merchants, who quickly began to dominate the field. Capitalizing on the opportunity, “the Riccardi, a group of bankers from Lucca in Italy, became particularly prominent in English taxation and finance”. This became a problem. Wool trade needed to shift back to the Low Countries, where Hainault was sitting pretty with cities specializing in cloth production. Thus, it was a very astute economic move for King Edward II to marry his son to a daughter of Hainault.

Queen Isabella of France and her main ally/advisor, Roger Mortimer, were bright enough to embrace this plan even after they had deposed Edward II and were acting as regents for the newly-crowned boy-king. Moreover, they wouldn’t have cared which of William’s daughter King Edward III married, because any of them would have come with a huge dowry and connection to the wool trade and textile industry. Isabella and Mortimer were desperate to pay for the troops needed to fight in Scotland and on the continent, but they needed to raise funds while avoiding the use of the word “tax”, which made the common man grumble and wield pitchforks in vexation. They arranged a “levy” on exported wool as a “loan” from merchants, and to get the maximum benefit from this, they needed English wool to move away from the Riccardi and Italy and back toward the Low Countries.

Philippa married Edward first by proxy, exchanging vows with the Bishop of Coventry at  Valenciennes in October of 1327 before setting sail for England with her courtiers and her uncle, John of Hainaut. They reached England in late December, and Philippa entered London just before Christmas, where a “rousing reception was accorded her”. She and her young groom were remarried in person on 24 January 1328 at York Minster, after which the young couple went to Woodstock Palace in Oxfordshire to live.

Philippa, 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, in spite of all the raging hormones of a teenager, seems to have given ample evidence of his love for his new bride by cooling his jets and 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. Although Isabella probably looked like she had sucked on a pickle, Philippa was crowned the new queen on 4 March 1330 at Westminster Abbey.

Philippa_of_Hainault coronation

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 fledgling 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. Textile production would soon become one of England’s most important sources of revenue, and lead them early into the proto-industrial age.

In time, English cloth became as famous as anything produced in Bruges, and it was all thanks to Queen Philippa’s forward thinking.

Ypres Weavers 14 century

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.

On a personal front her charity and her concern for her people was celebrated far and wide. Philippa was hailed by medieval writers as “a very good and charming person who exceeded most ladies for sweetness of nature and virtuous disposition”, and the “most gentle Queen, most liberal, and most courteous that ever was Queen in her days.” One famous instance of Philippa’s mercy came in 1331, during her mother’s visit to England with the final installment of Philippa’s ample dowry. At one of the tournaments to celebrate the Countess’s visit, some shoddy carpentering resulted in the collapse of the platform on which the ladies were seated. No one was hurt, but Edward was livid with 1) the thought his queen could have been hurt and 2) embarrassment that English workmanship failed in front of his MIL. He was all set to hang the carpenters, including an apprentice of only 14 years old, but Philippa went down on her knees in public to beg the king to spare their lives. Moved, Edward forgave them, and Philippa’s kindness became legendary.


In fact, for the 40 years that she and Edward were married, she spent a great deal of her time trying to modify his ruthlessness, which was necessary in a medieval king but hard cheese nonetheless. A renowned example of her kindness on the international stage was her efforts to convince her husband to spare the lives of the Burghers of Calais in 1347 after he besieged and captured that city. When the burghers were brought before the king, the “pregnant Philippa came forward on her knees, weeping … She said she had asked for nothing since joining him in Calais but she was now asking the King to take pity on these poor men and for the love of her, to spare them.” Her pleas worked, in spite of Edward’s extreme anger toward the Burghers, because his love for his wife was even greater than the force of his impulsive temper. Without Philippa’s constant modifications on Edward’s snap judgments, he would have probably been remembered more for brutality than kingship.

philippa begs for men of calais

Edward III’s reign owes a great deal to his wife, really.

Added to all these things, 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. 

effigies of edward iii and philippa of hainaut

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