The Plantagenets – Daughters of King Edward III of England
When it comes to medieval history, we usually hear about the men. What countries they ruled, what battles they fought, what laws they enacted or what misfortunes they suffered. But women still had a very important part to play, even if they usually did not have the power and autonomy of their brothers.
A royal princess, although not as highly valued as a son and heir, was still a very valuable pawn in the struggle for power and a valuable bargaining tool. These days all little girls, influenced by what they read and see in films, want to be a princess, but the reality is that back in the Middle Ages being a princess did not mean you automatically had a happy, easy life.
Although a medieval princess would have lived a life of greater comfort than most of the women of her time and probably have been better educated, she was usually married off at a young age to a man she may well never have met. Princesses were often then sent to live in their new husband’s homeland, where often there was a new language to learn, a new culture to adapt to and a whole new family to get along with.
The main expectation of the new bride would have been to produce a male heir as soon as possible. During the Middle Ages, pregnancy and childbirth was a painful, dangerous affair and being royal would not save your life. Many medieval royal ladies died in childbirth or from the childbed fevers that could strike them down after the baby had been delivered.
Infant mortality was high even among royal families and as children grew there were a whole host of diseases around that could kill them. If a royal daughter was not married off, the only other alternative was a religious vocation. Princesses often joined one of the many abbeys as a nun, not always voluntarily, where a well-born girl with a large enough dowry could have the opportunity of rising through the ranks to become the head of a very wealthy and influential religious house.
The four daughters of King Edward III of England who survived infancy were to be no exception. These Plantagenet princesses were born into a very large, boisterous family, having five brothers who survived into adulthood. Their father was an energetic monarch, who was busy trying to extend his influence on the continent and whose household would have been constantly on the move. His was the reign that was to see the start of the Hundred Years War against France and the arrival of the Black Death in Europe, which brought dramatic changes both to the economy and social structure of the country.
King Edward III and Philippa of Hainault
King Edward III was born on 13th November 1312, the son of King Edward II and Queen Isabella of France. Many of his father’s courtiers thought it was a miracle he had been born at all as it was it was strongly rumoured that the intense relationships he enjoyed with his favourites Piers Gaveston and Hugh de Despenser the Younger were romantic in nature, something that was severely frowned on at that time. He was also not the most dynamic of kings, so Edward III grew up with a weak, vacillating father and a strong, domineering mother who was called, though probably not to her face, ‘the She-Wolf of France’.
The Despensers steadily became more powerful and Queen Isabella began living apart from her husband after a disastrous military campaign in Scotland where she felt the king had abandoned her to the mercy of the Scots as he retreated south without sending troops to protect and help her. She started a relationship with a powerful Marcher Lord called Roger Mortimer and together they put together an army of discontented nobles and invaded England from France. The invasion was successful and the Despenser s were overthrown and executed and the King was forced to abdicate in favour of his eldest son Edward of Windsor, who was crowned King Edward III. Edward II was imprisoned in Berkeley Castle where he died, some saying he was executed by having a red-hot poker inserted into his rectum.
Edward was married to Philippa of Hainault at an early age and it is said he was devoted to her; the chroniclers of the time reporting she possessed a very sweet nature. But as he grew to manhood he became increasingly impatient with being controlled by his mother and Roger Mortimer. In 1330 he finally turned against the avaricious and power-hungry couple, staging a coup that led to the execution of Mortimer and the life-imprisonment of his mother.
Edward III was now king in actuality, not just in name, with all the power and privileges of a medieval monarch at his disposal. As the English king one of Edward III’s primary duties was to secure the succession and his young wife fulfilled her queenly duty just before her sixteenth birthday when she gave birth to a son, Edward the Black Prince. The royal couple suffered the pain of losing several babies in infancy, but they went onto produce their large brood. By all accounts they were doting parents and lavished care and attention on their offspring but, as you will see, this would not always lead to their daughters leading long, happy and productive lives.
Isabella, Lady of Coucy
The first daughter of the royal couple was born on 16th June 1332 and named Isabella. The infant princess was pampered from the moment of her birth and was provided with a huge household to cater to her every whim. Unusually for a medieval princess she seemed to be able to get away with anything she wanted and had her father wound round her little finger. She slept in a gilded cradle, had a wardrobe stuffed full of luxurious Italian silk gowns and ate only the finest delicacies. As she grew older her father would continue to support her financially, giving her lots of gifts and paying her debts when they became pressing.
As the eldest daughter of the English king, the search for a suitable husband for the princess started early, although it was not destined to be an easy quest. When she was only three, she was promised to Pedro of Castile. These negotiations fell apart, although the Castilian king was later betrothed to her younger sister Joan. The next suitor chosen was a son of the Duke of Brabant and when this too fell through she was taken to Flanders by her parents where it was arranged she would marry Count Louis de Male. However, the Count was to prove a very unwilling suitor as he held a grudge against England as his father had been slain at the Battle of Crécy. He was held in virtual imprisonment, but managed to escape to the court of King Philip IV of France who welcomed him with open arms and promptly married him off to another lady.
The next suitor singled out for Princess Isabella was Charles IV of Bohemia and when this too fell through, at the age of nineteen a marriage was arranged for her with a gentleman called Bernard d’Albret in the French province of Gascony. Lavish preparations were made and five ships were fitted out to take her to her wedding. However, at the last minute the capricious princess decided she didn’t want to go through with it and called it off. She then prevaricated over suitors until she was thirty three, which was very old for a medieval princess to marry.
To the dismay of most of her family and the court, she fell in love with a much younger man called Enguerrand VII, Lord de Coucy who had been imprisoned as a hostage in England in exchange for the freedom of King John II of France. Somehow, she managed to get permission for the match from her father and the newly married couple spent much of their time in France. Isabella gave birth to two daughters; Marie, who married Henry du Bar, and Philippa, who married Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford. After the accession of her nephew Richard II to the English throne in 1377, her husband Enguerrand de Coucy relinquished all his English titles and lands and announced his fealty to the French king. Isabella returned to England to live with their daughter Philippa and lived apart from her husband until her death in either 1379 or 1382.
Joan of England
The royal couple’s second daughter Joan of England was born in December 1333. She was as pampered as her elder sister and when she sailed from England in 1348 to marry her betrothed Pedro of Castile, she had a separate ship just to carry her trousseau which was said to include a portable chapel, bedding, curtains and silk and velvet gowns. The flotilla of four ships headed for Bordeaux. Even though they were warned there was plague in the city, the ships berthed and the royal party took up residence in the castle. They realised their mistake when the head of the expedition, Robert Bourchier sickened and died on August 20th. The rest of the party fled the city for the rural village of Loremo, but they took the plague with them and tragically the young princess died on 2nd September before she could ever become a bride.
Mary, Duchess of Brittany
The third daughter of Edward III and Queen Philippa was born in 1344 and called Mary. This young princess was not destined to be married to a stranger as she grew up alongside her future husband John V of Brittany. The pair was betrothed when Mary was ten in 1355 and their wedding took place at Woodstock Palace on 3rd July 1361. Sadly, the Duchess was destined to never set foot in her youthful husband’s lands, although she did come to know her sister-in-law Joanna of Brittany.
Tragically, within a couple of years of her marriage Mary sickened and died at the age of eighteen. This was a very sad time for the Plantagenet’s as Mary was buried alongside her sister Margaret, who had died only a few short weeks before, in Abingdon Abbey. She did not have any children and her husband went on to marry her cousin Lady Joan Holland, the half-sister of King Richard II, and then Joanna of Navarre, who later married her nephew King Henry IV.
Margaret, Countess of Pembroke
The last daughter was born in 1346 in Windsor, but despite her exalted and privileged upbringing she was destined to only live for fifteen short years. As was usual with royal princesses at this time, negotiations with foreign powers for her marriage began almost as soon as she was born. Her first proposed suitor was the heir of Albert III of Austria but when this fell apart she was betrothed to John of Blois, whose father Charles of Blois was vying with John V for control of Brittany. This match foundered too as her elder sister Mary was married John V, which would have made both the family and the country’s politics very complicated.
Eventually she was married to John Hastings, Earl of Pembroke. The children had been raised in the same household, so although young, probably were good friends or at least knew each other well. But the marriage was not to last long or produce any children, as in 1361 Margaret died and was buried next to her elder sister. We do not know what caused her death and her husband later married a lady called Anne Manny who gave him a son.
Would you like to have been a medieval princess?
So of four royal sisters, given the best start in life the medieval world could offer, only the eldest Isabella lived long enough to grow to full adulthood, have children and place her stamp on the world. Her three younger sisters all died childless at a very young age; leaving behind young husbands and suitors who later went on to marry new wives to get the alliances and heirs they needed. These Plantagenet princesses might have had the beautiful clothes, jewellery and position at Court that modern little girls now dream of, but they certainly did not enjoy love everlasting. Their marriages were not love matches but political alliances arranged by their family based on the acquisition of wealth, lands and prestige. Unlike today, medieval parents looked to the material advantages of any match and the happiness of their children would have been a secondary consideration, if it had been considered at all.
© 2014 CMHypno