Part of the blog tour for The Queen and the Mistress: The Women of Edward III.
Learn more about Philippa of Hainault for the release of the new book The Queen and the Mistress: The Women of Edward III!
Monarchs throughout history have used legends, stories and propaganda to boost their image. In the medieval period, mythological origin stories became popular: the House of Luxembourg claimed descent from a mermaid named Melusine, who made their castle magically appear from a rock, whilst from the 12th century onwards, the English monarchy made the legendary King Arthur one of their ancestors. Myths and legends could be made in real-time, and sometimes they were not always dramatic and magical. Sometimes stories of events were embellished or changed to portray a monarch in a certain light, and queens were no exception to this.
Philippa of Hainault was the daughter of a powerful European Count and related to various royal families across the continent. As a young teenager, she was married to the equally youthful King of England, Edward III, to seal a political alliance made between her father and Edward’s mother a few years prior. Though the marriage was not based on a romantic start, the couple quickly grew a strong bond, and theirs became one of the most successful marriages in English royal history. Philippa was seen as a model medieval Queen by her subjects, who admired her for being unpolitical, for supporting the church and education, for generously rewarding her servants and for being a fertile mother and fiercely loyal wife. With a reputation so strong, contemporary chroniclers decided she needed a place in the annals of history, and sometimes this place meant a little bit of embellishment to make her seem even more extraordinary.
One of the most famous legends of Philippa’s lifetime took place during the Hundred Years War. Edward had been besieging the French port of Calais for almost a year when the citizens – starved and dying – finally surrendered. Though medieval sieges often took months, the siege of Calais had been particularly long and inconvenient for King Edward, and the people of Calais knew that he had a right to claim all they had, including their lives. The ordinary citizens left all of their belongings behind in their homes for the English soldiers to take for their own, but six of the most prominent men of the city, known as Burghers, came out of the city with nooses around their necks. They expected Edward to claim his right to punish them for their insolence with their lives.
Edward’s men were filled with sorrow to see the tragic sight of emaciated, broken men offering themselves up to die. They pleaded with Edward to show mercy, but he was determined to teach them a lesson. Only after the last pleas from Edward’s knights had been ignored did another voice make itself heard: that of his wife, Queen Philippa. Philippa, who was heavily pregnant, fell to her knees before the King. She wept so severely that the men present could not bear to see it. She pleaded with Edward to save the lives of the men, recounting how she had followed him across the seas in his wars, placing herself in danger, and had never yet asked him for anything in return. Edward, of course, had his heart melted by seeing his pregnant Queen in such a state. He gave Philippa custody of the men to do what she wished with, and she immediately ordered clothing to be found for them.
The story is dramatic and heartfelt, and it strikes a chord with us centuries later. But we are not actually sure that the events happened this way. Only two chroniclers who were writing at the time recorded the events this way, whilst other writers said that Edward showed mercy on his own accord. So what is the truth, and why would chroniclers say that Philippa acted this way?
Well, it was indeed an expected duty of a medieval Queen to intercede on behalf of the needy with the King. At numerous points across a year, she may find a pardon for a criminal sentenced to death or persuade the King to appoint a particular official to a position. The Queen was expected to be a mediating force on the King, not someone who would, or could, overrule him, but someone who could open up a path for more merciful kingship at a time when mercy might be seen as weakness. Edward had been greatly inconvenienced by having to besiege Calais for so long, and forgiving its citizens could encourage other French towns to hold out against him during his war. But he also wanted to be seen as a compassionate Christian King and also ensure mercy for his own subjects when they might be caught by his enemies. By having Philippa publicly plead for mercy, he could show benevolence without seeming weak.
The appearance of Philippa as heavily pregnant in the story, moreover, held important weight for medieval audiences. Medieval writers enjoyed tropes and symbolism in their writing in order to portray their message more potently. For medieval people, a pregnant queen was a very powerful image. She was carrying life, future heirs, and fulfilling her greatest duty as a consort. She was vulnerable but powerful at the same time, and a pregnant Queen was one who could ask for intercessions as important as the one Philippa was asking for. Although surviving records mean we know now that Philippa could not have been heavily pregnant during the fall of Calais, it did not matter to the medieval audience whether she truly was pregnant at this time or not. It just made a great story even better.
Philippa of Hainault was an exceedingly successful medieval Queen. She knew exactly how to behave, and her subjects loved her for it, eulogising her and greatly mourning her after her death. Her reputation was so powerful that chroniclers built her up even higher in their writing so that future generations could know how great she was. Even though some of the stories about her we can now disprove with other records, what is important is that her contemporaries did not necessarily care that these stories were completely accurate, just that she was great enough that they could be true.
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