Great Englishwomen - M. B. Synge

Philippa of Hainault (1313-1369)

Philippa, afterwards Queen of Edward III. of England, was born in the province of Hainault in Belgium, in 1313. Her mother, the Countess of Hainault, was a wise and good woman, devoted to her husband and her four little daughters, of whom Philippa was the second. Her uncle, Sir John, was a very powerful man, and fought for England when Edward was king. Now, on one of their many visits abroad, the young Prince Edward and his mother came to Hainault, and stayed at Count William's house.

The story runs, that the future King of England took a great fancy to Count William's daughter Philippa, who was about his own age. They had long talks together, and spent a very happy fortnight, and the pretty little Philippa missed her companion very much when he and his mother were obliged to return to England.

On the death of Edward II. his son Edward was crowned king, and it was thought advisable for him to marry. Now it so happened that it would be to the benefit of England to have the Flemings as allies; for the people there were ready to help Edward against the French, and to trade with England; so "a daughter of William of Hainault" was to be selected for the young king. A bishop was accordingly sent over to choose which daughter should be queen.

Happily for both parties, he chose the tall and pretty Philippa, who started joyfully for England to marry the young king. She received a hearty welcome, and, with her uncle and numerous attendants, went up to York, where Edward and she were married in the winter of 1328, at the ages of fifteen and sixteen. Then they went for the summer to the beautiful palace of Woodstock, while Edward's mother, and Mortimer, a bad and tyrannical man, governed the kingdom.

It was at Woodstock, in 1330, that Philippa's first son was born, the future hero, the Black Prince. To celebrate his birth, a grand tournament was held in London, and a tower was erected and filled with seats, so that the queen and all her ladies might see it. But they had scarcely taken their seats, when, with a crash, the boarding gave way, and all fell to the ground. No one was hurt, but all were very much frightened. When the young king saw the peril of his wife, he flew into a violent passion, and vowed that all the careless carpenters should be put to death. But the gentle Philippa, still trembling from the effects of her fall, threw herself on her knees before him, and pleaded for pardon so hard, that Edward forgave the men.

When Edward was seventeen, he determined to govern the kingdom for himself, and throw off the restraints of his mother and Mortimer, so he shut his mother up in a castle, and Mortimer was sent to the Tower, and sentenced to die, as he deserved. Then Edward began to reform many abuses; many good laws were made, and trade was encouraged with other nations. Philippa, too, knew how well the people in her own country wove wool, so she sent for some of them to come and teach the English. First she made a little colony of weavers at Norwich, and had them taught, often going herself to look after them, and encourage their work.

During all the early part of his reign Edward was fighting in Scotland, and Philippa went with him whenever she could. Once Edward had been up in Scotland, and had arranged that Philippa should meet him at Durham. Having welcomed him and supped at the priory, she retired to bed. Scarcely had she undressed, when the monks came to her door in a great state of excitement, to say that it was against rules for any lady—even a queen—to sleep at their priory. Queen Philippa was very much distressed, and, not waiting to dress, fled in her nightgown to the castle close by, where she was allowed to pass the night in peace.

Up to this time Philippa's father had supplied Edward with money to carry on war with Scotland; on his death Edward became so poor that he had to pawn the queen's crown in Germany. Soon after the English people sent their woollen manufactures to Germany, and, instead of receiving money, so the story says, they redeemed their queen's crown.

In 1340, a fourth son was born to Philippa at Ghent, and called John of Gaunt—Gaunt being the old English way of saying Ghent.

Now Edward had entered on a war with France, which had made him poorer than ever. Again the queen's crowns and jewels were pawned, and Edward was getting into so much trouble, that one night he took his wife and baby, and with a few trusty servants crossed to England secretly. The ship was small, the weather cold, the wind was high, and at times their lives were in great danger. However, about midnight they arrived at the Tower in London, to find it unguarded and only occupied by the three royal children and nurses. Edward was in a fury, and had it not been for the gentle Philippa at his side, the guards on their return would have come off very badly. Not only was Queen Philippa a faithful wife, always ready to calm Edward's fits of passion and to encourage the industry of the country, but now we find her ruling his kingdom for him and leading his army to battle.

In 1346, Philippa said farewell to her husband and to the Black Prince, the darling of her heart, who at sixteen was off to the French war with his father. She and Lionel, a child of eight, were left to govern England.

But no sooner had Edward gone, than the King of Scotland invaded England. Philippa did not spend long in wondering what was to be done—she went quickly to Newcastle, where she awaited the English army. When the King of Scotland heard she was there, he sent to say that he was ready to fight! Philippa sent back word, that she was ready too; adding, "My barons will risk their lives for the realm of my lord the king!"

The queen's army drew up at Neville's Cross, and Philippa, on a white charger, so runs the story, was among them. She begged them to do their duty, and to defend the honour of the king; then leaving them to the protection of God, she rode away. She would not stop to fight; her nature was too womanly to stay and see the carnage which was going to take place; she had done all a great queen could do by cheering and encouraging her men; now she would go and pray for victory while the battle raged.

When she heard it was over, she mounted her white horse and rode again to the battle-field, where she heard that not only had a victory been won, but the King of Scotland had been taken prisoner. He was taken on a tall black war-horse through the streets of London, and put in the Tower. The next day Philippa sailed for Calais, and her royal husband held a grand court to welcome his victorious queen. The terrible siege of Calais was going on; the French had defended it bravely, till at last they were so much reduced by famine that they were obliged to surrender. Everything was eaten, even the cats, dogs, and horses; there was no corn, no wine, and the unhappy people were fast dying.

So the governor of Calais came to ask Edward on what terms they could surrender. Edward was very angry at having been kept waiting so long, and refused to spare the people unless the six chief men of Calais would come out bareheaded and bare-footed, with ropes round their necks and the keys of Calais in their hands, ready to die for the rest of the people. The governor returned sad and sick at heart, and calling the people together he gave them the king's message. There was silence for a moment among the feeble few. Then the hero Eustace de St. Pierre cried:

"Oh! never be it said,

That the loyal hearts of Calais

To die could be afraid!

I will be the first, I will willingly give myself up to the mercy of the King of England." Then five others followed his brave example, and the willing captives came before the angry king. They knelt and pleaded for mercy. But in vain. In vain the lords around him begged him to restrain his anger,—he only thundered:

"Strike off their heads, each man of them shall die; I will have it so!"

Then gentle Philippa stepped forth and knelt at the feet of her royal husband:

"My loving lord and husband," she cried, "I have crossed the stormy sea with great peril to come to you—I have been faithful to you all our wedded life—do not deny my request, but, as a proof of your love to me, grant me the lives of these six men!"

The king looked at her in silence, "Lady, I would you had not been here," he cried at last, "I cannot refuse you, do as you please with them."

Then Philippa joyously arose, took the men, fed them, clothed them, and sent them back to their wives, friends, and children.

Soon after Philippa and Edward returned to England. The same year a terrible disease called the Black Death broke out in England, and Philippa's second daughter, a girl of fifteen, died of it. She was just going to marry the Infant Pedro of Spain, and had crossed to France, where he was to meet her, when she was taken very ill with the plague, and died in a few hours. And on the very day appointed for her wedding the little princess was buried.

In 1357, the Black Prince returned to England after his victories of Crecy and Poitiers, and proudly presented his royal prisoner King John to his mother, as well as John's little son, a boy of fourteen, who had fought to the end by his father's side, and had been at last captured terribly wounded. The first day, when at dinner with the king and queen and his captive father, the boy started up, and boxed the servant's ears for serving Edward, King of England, before his father John, King of France.

Philippa, instead of being angry, only smiled at the boy's spirit, and she treated him as one of her own sons as long as he remained with her.

The following year Philippa, her husband, and four sons went to France, leaving Thomas, a child of five, guardian of the kingdom. There she saw her eldest son married.

She did not live to see the sad change which made the last years of her son's life so unhappy; she did not live to see her husband, with a mind once so mighty, sink into helpless old age, but she died in 1369, at Windsor.

When she was dying, she called the king: "We have, my husband, enjoyed our long union in peace and happiness, but before we are for ever 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 fulfil 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."

She ceased speaking. The king was in tears. "Lady," he said, "all this shall be done." And Philippa the queen died.