Philippa of Guelders was born on November 9, 1467. Her father was Adolf of Egmond, Duke of Guelders and Count of Zutphen and her mother was Catharine of Bourbon. Philippa had a twin brother Charles and they were born at Graves, Netherlands and were the only children of their parents. The duchy was named after the town of Geldern which is now located in Germany. The present province of Gelderland in the Netherlands occupies most of the area of the former duchy.
Duke Adolf was in debt and to raise funds, he mortgaged his duchy to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Philippa’s mother died when she was five years old and she and her brother were sent to live with one of their aunts, Catherine of Guelders, the younger sister of Duke Adolf. Catherine gave the children a very religious education. Philippa became well-read, upright and debout. She grew up to be a celebrated beauty adopting the emblem of thistle and chestnut leaves with the motto “Do not touch me, or I will prick”.
When Duke Adolf died in 1473, Philippa and her brother were sent to Ghent to complete their education at the court of Burgundy, under the guardianship of Charles the Bold’s wife, Margaret of York. When Margaret of Austria went to France to marry King Charles VIII, Philippa went with her entourage and lived at the court of one of her other relatives, Anne de Beaujeu, Duchess of Bourbon and regent of France. Anne arranged a marriage for Philippa with René II, Duke of Lorraine which took place on September 1, 1485 in Orléans. Phillipa and René were to have at least 13 children.
• Charles, born in 1486, died young
• Francis born 1487, died shortly after birth
• Antoine, Duke of Lorraine born 1489, died 1544
• Nicholas, born 1493, died young
• Claude, Duke of Guise, born 1496, died 1550, the first Duke of Guise
• John, Cardinal of Lorraine and Bishop of Metz, born 1498 and died 1550
• Louis, Count of Vaudémont, born 1500, died 1528
• Francis, Count of Lambesc, born 1506, died 1525
• Anne, born 1490 and died 1491
• Isabelle, born 1494, died 1508
• Claude and Catherine, twins born 1502 and died young
Her children were born in several locations, demonstrating that Philippa traveled from castle to castle with her husband. When they stayed in Nancy, they lived in the ducal palace, which they renovated and enlarged. The duchy became renowned for its intellectual life as Rene indulged his interest in literature, humanism and the fine arts and patronized many poets and painters.
Philippa loved hunting and music and weaving of church ornaments. Her piety and charity were an integral charactistic of her personality. She aided the poor and orphans, visited the sick in hospitals and, with the help of her husband, worked to relieve the miseries of the people in the course of a terrible famine in 1502 and during a plague epidemic which decimated the population between 1503 and 1506. When her husband was away on business, Philippa governed in his place.
King Louis XII and his queen, Anne of Brittany, summoned Philippa to court in Lyon where she was well received. The king and queen convinced her to turn over her eldest son Antoine to be brought up at court. In 1508, Rene fell ill after wolf hunting in Fains, Normandy, and died on December 10, aged fifty-seven. Philippa kept possession of the principal castle of Joinville, to the west of Nancy, which had been settled on her when she married. Appointed guardian for all of her children, Philippa ran their estates with determination and vigor.
In Rene’s will, he named his son Antoine as his sole heir and Philippa as regent. She tried to undertake the duties of regent for Antoine, the new Duke of Lorraine but it was agreed he was old enough to rule on his own, (he was nineteen.) After her husband’s death, Philippa was the supreme head of the family and would oversee the government in Nancy, while Antoine followed King Louis XII to Italy and lived at the French court.
When her son Claude had a daughter Marie on December 2, 1515, Philippa was present and the child would spend a lot of her childhood with her grandmother. Marie of Guise married King James V of Scotland, and their daughter was Mary Queen of Scots. In 1519, at the age of fifty-two, Philippa’s health was in decline. She suffered from headaches, dizziness and dropsy and told her children she was going to stay for a week or two at the convent of the Poor Clares in Pont-à-Mousson, north of Nancy.
Shortly after arriving at the convent, she decided she wanted to retire and spend the rest of her life there. Her children were stunned, knowing the Poor Clares lived in poverty and under strict guidelines. The children begged her to go to a less severe establishment and argued they needed her to guide the family. She held fast to her decision and on December 19, 1519 she was inducted into the order while all her offspring and their spouses watched. She gave her blessing to everyone and retired to the cell which would be her home for the rest of her life. A year later she joined the order as a novitiate.
Her duties included cooking, weeding the garden and doing laundry. She slept on straw on bare boards, wore coarse and simple clothing and ate plain food. Her children would continue to visit her, asking for her input when in need. Even when King Francois I was having political troubles, he would come to Pont-à-Mousson to ask her advice. Philippa gained a reputation as a visionary, foretelling various events, including the death of her son Francois at the Battle of Pavia in 1525.
She used part of her income to fee the poor, help those in hospitals and to pay for religious instruction for poor students. From 1540, she suffered from attacks of hepatic colic, which forced her to stay in bed all day while she kept her eyes on the crucifix. She died on February 28, 1547 at the age of seventy-nine and was buried at Pont-à-Mousson, her resting place decorated with a recumbent figure scuplted with a recumbent figure sculpted by Ligier Richier. The sepulcher was vandalized in 1792 and her bones scattered. After restoration work, they transferred the tomb to the Cordeliers church in Nancy.
Further reading: “Marie of Guise” by Rosalind K. Marshall, “Scottish Queens” by Rosalind K. Marshall, “In the Shadow of Burgundy: The Court of Guelders in the Late Middle Ages” by Gerard Nijsten, “The Brood of False Lorraine: The History of the Ducs of Guise (1496-1588), Volume 1” by H. Noel Williams, “Alsace and Lorraine From Caesar to Kaiser, 58 B.C.-1871 A.D.” by Ruth Putnam