Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Belgian queens who ruled England

Mathilde of Belgium becomes queen on Sunday and makes history by being the first homegrown consort of her country.  But there have been several Belgian women who have worn a queen's crown before and most of them have ruled England.  And the best known, and longest ruling of them all, has a name that might just be about to write another chapter for itself in British history. Because the bookies think that a princess of Cambridge might just get a name that would honour the patriarch of the current House of Windsor and keep Kate's family happy as well.  As Belgium gets a new queen, could England be about to get another queen called Philippa?

Philip, Duke of Edinburgh is the longest serving consort in British history and could inspire the name of a future Queen Regnant but for centuries the longest serving consort was a Philippa rather than a Philip

Philippa of Hainault
She was queen of England for over forty years, one of the longest consort's reigns in the country's history.  She had thirteen children and her descendants ended up turning on one another in the Wars of the Roses.  She herself was descended from the kings of France, Castile, Aragon and Hungary.  She had a college at one of the world's most presitigious universities founded in her honour.  And in the 21st century she was voted the fifth most influential black person in British history.  There's a lot more to Queen Philippa than sharing part of her name with a tube station.
Hainault on the Central line - the area of Hainault is now in east London and had been named before the arrival of Edward III's wife in 1328
(photo Sunil060902)
Philippa has many claims to fame but the most widely talked about is that she was England's first black queen.  There is some dispute about her ethnicity but one source at the time, describing the young girl chosen as a possible royal bride for an audience that couldn't rely on twitpics and selfies for updates, talked about her dark hair, dark eyes and dark skin.  History records her son as The Black Prince and historians have long claimed this is because of the colour of his armour but other experts point to the nickname some French courtiers gave him before he was old enough to have his own breastplate.  He was 'Le Noir' and other English records describe him as either very dark or black when he was young.  In 2003 in a poll run by Every Generation the medieval queen was voted as one of the most influential black people in the nation's life.  But why was Philippa so important?
Philippa of Hainault was described as black by some of her contemporaries but in this portrayal of her coronation she is shown as white with blonde hair
In part it's due to the influence she had over politics and the way the kingdom was governed.  She acted as regent for Edward III on a number of occasions and often accompanied him on his expeditions including his early forays in Europe in what would come to be known as the Hundred Years War.  But the other thing that made Philippa such a successful queen was her compassion.  She came hard on the heels of Isabella of France, known as the She-Wolf, who had deposed her own husband and ruled for Edward III for three years before he in turn deposed her.  Philippa's kindness and generosity were often cited in contrast to the harshness of the later years of Isabella. 
Philippa, in the best seat on the boat as befits a queen consort in the 14th century, was a popular and well respected monarch and often compared favourably with the woman who had worn the consort's crown before her, Isabella, She-Wolf of France
Her most famous act as queen came as part of the Hundred Years War.  In 1347 the people of Calais were facing starvation after their town was besieged by Edward.  They had been holding out for a year and could take no more.  Edward offered to feed them if they surrendered and he demanded that six of their leading men bring him the keys of the town with nooses round their necks.  The six men approached him but their lives were spared after Philippa begged the king for mercy on their behalf.
A statue of the Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin, displayed in the town
(photo ChrisO)
She loved the arts and left some illustrated manuscripts among her possessions.  In 1341, The Queen's College, Oxford was founded in her honour by her chaplain, Robert d'Eglesfield. 
But the main task for queens at Philippa's time was to secure the succession and while she may have won the battle on this one, in the end she helped make a war that plenty of people lost.  When Philippa died in 1369 she left her king with an heir in The Black Prince and plenty of spares, among them John of Gaunt .  The Black Prince had two sons, Edward and Richard, and John had one son, Henry.  And yet within thirty years the succession was far from secure.  The Black Prince never became king, dying the year before his father.  His own eldest son, Edward, was already dead and the crown passed to the youngest of his children, Richard.  This boy king grew into a nervous man who lost his throne to that other grandson that Philippa knew - Henry became Henry IV.  And very soon Philippa's endless supply of children had produced an endless supply of descendants who all had claims to be king.
The fact that they resorted to war to sort it out was hardly Philippa's fault. But her kindness and compassion and common sense seem to have been in short supply among some of her descendants.  Queen Philippa, our Belgian queen, made a pretty big mark on England's history.
Philippa of Hainault with her army - her own descendants plunged England into civil war as they fought to claim a crown they all felt belonged to them
Our other Belgian queens
We've had two other queens with links to Belgium.  Adeliza of Louvain married Henry I in 1121 when she was 18 and he was 53.  She was meant to provide an heir to the throne but unlike Philippa, she never had a baby with her royal husband. 
But Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the Conqueror and first modern queen consort of England, did fill her royal nursery.  Ten children, four of them sons, arrived after her marriage to the then Duke of Normandy in 1051.  Almost a thousand years after she became queen, another Belgian Matilda will become a European consort.

Matilda of Flanders was queen of England from 1066 - 1083

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