Philippa of Lancaster was born at Leicester on 31st March 1360. She was the eldest daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and 4th son of Edward III, and his first wife Blanche of Lancaster, great-great-granddaughter of Henry III. her father was one of the richest men in the country – and one of the most powerful.
Her life as a child would have been one of luxury and privilege, with a glorious dynastic marriage awaiting her in the future. Philippa was raised alongside her younger sister, Elizabeth, who was born in 1363, and her baby brother, Henry of Bolingbroke, born in 1367.
The children shared a household for some of their childhood and were given the best education available. The reformer John Wycliffe, 1st translator of the Bible into English, was among their tutors.
The children lost their mother when Blanche died at Tutbury on 12th September, 1368, more likely from the complications of childbirth than from the plague, as a daughter, Isabella, who did not survive, was born around the same time.
The children’s father was with Blanche when she died but departed on campaign to France soon after; it is doubtful the children’s care was interrupted. The Lancaster household was well-organised and by 1376 the girls had been appointed a new governess; Katherine Swynford, who was by this time also mistress to their father, John of Gaunt.
As with most high-born women of the time, Philippa’s marriage was in the hands of her father. John of Gaunt planned for her to contract a dynastic match which would benefit and complement his own dynastic ambitions. In 1374, Philippa was betrothed to Gaston, Count of Foix, but nothing came of it. In 1381/2 she was offered in marriage to Jean de Blois, claimant to the duchy of Brittany; and in 1383 her prospective husband was Count William of Ostrevant, the heir to Hainault, Holland and Zeeland.
In 1385 and 25 years old Philippa was still unmarried. However, in the following year her father took her on his military expedition to Spain, hoping to claim the kingdom of Castile in right of his 2nd wife, Constance. Philippa’s marriage to John – or Joao – I of Portugal was agreed as part of an alliance made between the 2 Johns at Ponte do Mouro in November 1386.
Philippa was married to King John at Oporto on 2nd February 1387, before they had even received the required papal dispensation. The British Museum has a beautifully illuminated manuscript (above) which depicts the wedding, with John of Gaunt and his wife, Constance, looking on. Philippa was 26 – about 10 years older than the average age for a princess to marry. John was 3 years her senior and had been king for just short of 2 years.
Philippa became known as ‘Dona Fillipa’ in Portugal and would be one of the country’s best-loved queens. Her natural disposition to austerity and piety was endearing to the Portuguese people. Philippa reformed the court and encouraged courtly games among her ladies. French poet Eustace Deschamps characterised her as the chief patron of the order of The Flower of England, casting her at the centre of the court and the May Day celebrations.
A patron of literature, Philippa was sent a copy of John Gower’s poem “Confessio amantis“, which was translated into Portuguese by Robert Payn, an English canon of Lisbon Cathedral.
Philippa had been made a Lady of the Garter in 1378 and was instrumental in fostering links between England and Portugal, a practice helped by the mixture of English and Portuguese servants in her household. She was on good terms with both Richard II and his successor – her brother, Henry IV.
In 1399 she wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, asking him to intervene with Henry on behalf of her friend, Bishop Henry Despenser of Norwich, who had angered the new king by defending Richard II at the time of Henry’s invasion of England and seizure of the throne.
Philippa also had a hand in persuading Henry to arrange the marriage of her stepdaughter, Beatriz (John’s illegitimate daughter) to the earl of Arundel in 1405.
Almost immediately after the wedding John returned to the war. In July 1387 Philippa miscarried their first child while visiting John at Curval, where he lay seriously ill. However, after what appears to have been a bumpy start, the couple seem well-matched. John had had 2 illegitimate children before his marriage, but was demonstrably faithful to Philippa after the wedding.
In fact when court gossip reached the queen that he had been unfaithful, John went to great lengths to convince Philippa of his innocence. He even went so far as to commemorate the event by having a room in the royal apartments at Sintra decorated with chattering magpies – he must have had a great sense of humour, and confidence in his relationship to be so bold.
Philippa and John were to have a large family, which they brought up with great care. Of their 9 children, 5 sons and 1 daughter survived infancy and would later be known in Portugal as ‘the Illustrious Generation’. Their eldest surviving son, Edward, was born in 1391 and would succeed his father as King of Portugal in 1433. Peter, Duke of Coimbra, was born in 1392 and would act as regent for his nephew, Afonso V, following Edward’s death in 1438.
Their most famous son was Prince Henry ‘the Navigator’, Duke of Viseu, who was renowned for financing and researching great explorations – though he never undertook expeditions himself.
Their next youngest son was John, Duke of Beja and Constable of Portugal, who married Isabella, the daughter of Alfonso I, Duke of Braganza.
The baby of the family was Ferdinand, Grand Master of Aviz. He was born in 1402 and was later known as ‘the Saint Prince’ following his death as a prisoner of the Moors. Ferdinand had been held as a hostage for the return of Ceuta following the Disaster of Tangier, a siege led by his brother Henry. Ferdinand was held in increasingly severe confinement when it became apparent no ransom would be forthcoming, until he finally died in 1443.
John and Philippa’s one daughter, Isabella, was born in 1397 and would go on to marry Philip III the Good, Duke of Burgundy; and become the mother of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy.
By 1415 Philippa’s oldest sons were itching to prove their martial prowess. Scorning their father’s offer to hold a magnificent tournament for them, they persuaded him to mount an attack on the port of Ceuta in North Africa. As they were about to set sail Philippa fell ill.
She had contracted plague and died at Odivelas, near Lisbon, on 18/19th July 1415. She was 55. On her deathbed she gave her 3 eldest sons, each, a jewel encrusted sword, in anticipation of their impending knighthoods, and a piece of the true cross. Giving them her blessing for the forthcoming military expedition she exhorted “them to preserve their faith and to fulfil the duties of their rank”¹.
The expedition sailed just 5 days after her death and Ceuta fell after only 1 day of siege, becoming Portugal’s 1st African possession.
Described as pious, charitable, affable and obedient to her husband, Portuguese historian Fernao Lopes, secretary to Philippa’s son, Fernando, held Philippa up as a model queen. Her piety was renowned; in later life she was said to regularly read the Book of Psalms.
Queen Philippa was buried in the Dominican Priory at Batalha Abbey, which had been founded by her husband. King John arranged for a magnificent tomb to be built in the Capela do Fundador. Constructed between 1426 and 1434, it is topped by their effigies, clasping each others’ hands. King John himself was laid beside her after his death in August 1433.
Their sons, Ferdinand, John, Henry and Peter, were laid to rest along the south side of the same chapel.
Footnote: ¹ Edgar Prestage, The Portuguese pioneers.
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia
Sources: The Plantagenets, the Kings who Made England by Dan Jones; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson; englishmonarchs.co.uk; oxforddnb.com; annvictoriaroberts.co.uk.
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Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword, Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.
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