The Mother of Too Many Sons: Philippa of Hainaut


Philippa of Hainaut had the opposite problem of Henry VIII’s wives. Over the course of her 41-year marriage to Edward III she gave birth to 13 children, eight of them sons. Of those eight sons, five lived until adulthood. That might not seem extraordinary today, particularly in light of the fertility of Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in the 18th century or Queen Victoria in the 19th century, but for the 14th century’s infant mortality rate it was remarkable. Usually, in instances where the monarch had multiple sons they would slowly be picked off through warfare or illness, but the issue remained that several adult princes was both expensive and a liability, for all that it shored up the succession.

In the case of Philippa’s descendants, what it meant was that by the time her husband died in 1377 and was succeeded by his underage grandson, the new child king was surrounded by several adult uncles and male cousins with wealth, land and political experience that could, at best, help protect him, and at worst, jeopardize his control of government.

In reality, Richard II would be deposed in 1399 by his cousin, Henry of Bolingbroke (Henry IV), who would found the royal House of Lancaster. That, in turn, would be knocked down in 1461 when Edward of York deposed Henry VI (grandson of Henry IV), who claimed descent from an older son of Edward III and Philippa than Henry VI could. Thus, somewhat ironically, the very fertility that made Philippa a successful wife and queen consort, would in fact have a legacy that outlived her by well over a century as her grandchildren and great-children fought a civil war that would define the late Middle Ages in England.


But first, who was Philippa?

She was born in Valenciennes to William I, Count of Hainaut and his wife, Jeanne of Valois, a granddaughter of King Philip III of France, in 1314. She was the fourth of nine children; her elder sister, Margaret, married Louis IV, Holy Roman Emperor in 1324 and would eventually inherit their father’s title when their elder brother, William, died without an heir in 1345.

Philippa first crossed paths with the English when she was eight. King Edward II decided it would be advantageous to ally England with the wealthy commercial center of Flanders and sent a courtier to investigate the available princesses. One of his reports exists, however it’s unclear to which daughter he was referring. Some argue it was indeed Philippa, while others maintain it was the older Margaret, who was still unmarried at the time. The description reads:

The lady whom we saw has not uncomely hair, betwixt blue-black and brown. Her head is clean-shaped; her forehead high and broad, and standing somewhat forward. Her face narrows between the eyes, and the lower part of her face is still more narrow and slender than her forehead. Her eyes are blackish-brown and deep. Her nose is fairly smooth and even, save that it is somewhat broad at the tip and also flattened, and yet it is no snub-nose. Her nostrils are also broad, her mouth fairly wide. Her lips somewhat full, and especially the lower lip. Her teeth which have fallen and grown again are white enough, but the rest are not so white. The lower teeth project a little beyond the upper; yet this is but little seen. Her ears and chin are comely enough. Her neck, shoulders, and all her body are well set and unmaimed; and nought is amiss so far as a man may see. Moreover, she is brown of skin all over, and much like her father; and in all things she is pleasant enough, as it seems to us. And the damsel will be of the age of nine years on St. John’s day next to come, as her mother saith. She is neither too tall nor too short for such an age; she is of fair carriage, and well taught in all that becometh her rank, and highly esteemed and well beloved of her father and mother and of all her meinie, in so far as we could inquire and learn the truth.

Whichever sister it was about, the point was moot once England became embroiled in civil war and further political instability. By the early 1320s Edward II was an unpopular monarch, alienating his French wife and his barons by favoring the Despenser family, particularly a man named as Hugh the Younger who many believed to be the King’s lover. In 1322, the year Edward expressed interest in the Flemmish girls, he and Queen Isabelle effectively separated and he began living with Hugh. When she refused to fall in line, Edward removed Isabelle’s children from her, imprisoned members of her household and confiscated her lands.

Isabelle of France and Prince Edward land in England

By the end of 1325, Isabelle had begun an affair with the powerful Marcher lord, Roger Mortimer, and in the summer of 1326 she arrived at the court of Hainaut, seeking aid from Philippa’s father to depose her husband and form a regency government of her own on behalf of her minor son. William agreed, but to secure the alliance Philippa and Prince Edward were betrothed.

Within a span of a few months, Isabelle, with the support of Mortimer, successfully invaded England, forced Edward to abdicate and was widowed when the former king “mysteriously” died in custody. Three months after Edward’s murder, Philippa arrived in Enland, entering London with great fanfare on December 23rd and marrying the new Edward III on January 24, 1328.

It was an uneasy situation upon which to enter. Philippa was queen from the moment she married her husband, but her mother-in-law ruled supreme. Isabelle, with Mortimer beside her, dominated both the court and the government with equal measure. Fourteen at the time of her marriage, Philippa was certainly no mach to take her on, while at 16 Edward was still biding his time.


Initially the new couple lived at Woodstock Palace in Oxfordshire, away from the intrigue and tension of the royal court. Philippa proved herself immediately popular with the people by having brought with her only a small retinue from Hainaut – a marked change from Isabelle who still surrounded herself primarily with Frenchmen. Due, in part, from her mother-in-law’s resistence to promote her or lose some of the prestige of her own position, Philippa wasn’t crowned for over two years, finally going through a coronation on March 4, 1330 at Westminster Abbey. She was six months pregnant at the time.

On June 15th Philippa gave birth to a son at Woodstock, christened Edward after his father and grandfather. It is believed to be this event that spurred the then-18-year-old king into action – on October 19th, Edward staged a coup, captured Mortimer and had him executed. From that moment on, Edward ruled in his own name.

Philippa, meanwhile, carried on with the business of childbirth. Unlike Isabelle, she played a traditional role at her husband’s court, staying out of politics and advocating for mercy on behalf of traitors and prisoners. She patronized the chronicler Jean Froissart and acted as regent for Edward in 1346 when he was abroad, during which time she helped rally English troops a in battle against the Scottish that led to the capture of King David II.

Philippa is pictured beneath the canopy

Two years later the Black Death broke out in England, which led to the death of two of the royal children, Princess Joan and Prince Thomas. In all, Philippa would outlive nine of her children thanks, primarily, to illness.

In 1362 a woman named Alice Perrers joined Philippa’s household as a lady-in-waiting and by the following year she became Edward III’s mistress. Initially, the relationship was handled discreetly. Philippa had maintained her popularity with the court and the English people, and the juxtaposition of the respect with which the middle-aged queen was regarded with the contempt the adolescent Alice would later garner was marked.

In her last years, Philippa was frequently unwell and on August 15, 1369 she died at Windsor Castle, age 55. She is interred in Westminster Abbey next to Edward III, who passed away eight years later on June 21, 1377.


After her death Edward relied on Alice more heavily and their relationship was moved out into the open, scandalizing many. Edward lavished expensive gifts on his mistress, including land and jewels that had once belonged to his wife. This did nothing to endear her to the public, nor to Philippa’s remaining children. Unlike the Queen, Alice thought nothing of trying her hand at politics and she used her influence to raise her friends through the court ranks. More dramatic descriptions even accuse her of essentially governing England through the aging king.

Alice is believed to have had three illegitimate children by Edward between the years 1364-1366. Their son was given the surname “de Southeray” and he would later marry Maud Percy, daughter of Henry Percy, 3rd Baron Percy and Mary of Lancaster.

Edward III and Edward, the Black Prince

In 1375, likely in an attempt to secure her future once the King died, she married Sir William Windsor, whom she convinced Edward to appoint Lieutenant of Ireland. The wedding was conducted in secret and his subsequent Irish appointment kept him out of England, allowing the relationship to be kept from the King. Two years later, after Edward’s death the marriage was made public and they two remained together until William’s death in 1384.

Philippa was lucky that, as of her death, her eldest son, Prince Edward (the “Black Prince”), was still alive. She missed the irony of him pre-deceasing his father and leaving her husband’s successor to be his young grandson, Prince Richard. For all of her success in bearing healthy children, the next reign would be one marked by a minority government and the collaboration of her remaining younger sons.

It would not be as successful a protectorate as the system established for the infant King Henry VI in the 1420s. Within four years of Edward III’s death the Peasants’ Rebellion broke out and court and council would be broken into factions deeply distrustful of each other’s motivations. It would, however, be this rebellion that spurred the young Richard II into adulthood and he emerged from the episode ready to govern. One of his first acts was to marry, taking as his queen consort Anne of Bohemia, daughter of Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor (who had succeeded Louis IV, Philippa’s brother-in-law through his marriage to her sister, Margaret).

Philippa’s legacy is marked by her sons and her grandsons, but her queenship itself offered a template of success for the women that came after her. Indeed, those that followed her model are perhaps lesser known today, but certainly better-loved by their contemporaries. She was, in many ways, the ideal Medieval consort.

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