Philippa of Lancaster did not marry until she was twenty-six years old, quite late for a princess of her rank. Her father, John of Gaunt, arranged a splendid marriage for her in conjunction with an alliance with King Joao I of Portugal. Philippa and King Joao had a large, well-educated and accomplished family that came to be known as the “illustrious generation”.
Philippa was born on March 31, 1360 at Leicester Castle, the first child of her parents. Her father was John of Gaunt, one of the many sons born to King Edward III of England and his revered Queen, Philippa of Hainault. Princess Philippa was named after her grandmother. Philippa’s mother was Blanche, the daughter of Henry of Grosmont, Earl of Derby who distinguished himself at the naval Battle of Winchelsea in 1350 by saving John of Gaunt and his brother the Black Prince as their ship was sinking. Edward III awarded him by giving him the title of Duke of Lancaster. When Henry of Grosmont died of the plague ten days after receiving his title, Blanche inherited his wealth and John of Gaunt became the Duke of Lancaster.
Many of Grosmont’s castles went to Philippa’s parents. She was to spend a great deal of time at the Savoy Palace on the Thames in London as well as the castles of Hertford, Tutbury, Kenilworth and Bolingbroke. She had her own nurse named Maud. When she was three and a half, a sister named Elizabeth arrived. When Philippa was six years old, Geoffrey Chaucer married one of the Queen’s ladies, Philippa de Roet and began to work in the Lancaster household. Philippa de Roet had a sister named Katherine who also worked for the Queen. Katherine was to marry Sir Hugh Swynford and would come to have an immense influence on the life of Philippa of Lancaster. When Philippa was seven, her brother Henry was born.
John of Gaunt had gone to Spain to fight. While he was gone, the Black Death swept England. Blanche of Lancaster moved her children and household to Bolingbroke Castle in Lincolnshire in hopes of avoiding the disease. Unfortunately, Blanche succumbed to the Black Death on September 12, 1369. On the day she died, Katherine Swynford was there to visit Blanche. Katherine immediately took charge of Blanche’s three children. John of Gaunt returned to England in November. He had Blanche’s body transported to London and she was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Before she died, Blanche herself had begun to teach her daughters to read and write. Geoffrey Chaucer began to improve on these lessons. Chaucer had a deep interest in science, astrology and navigation. He even wrote a treatise on the astrolabe and taught Philippa how to use it. He also wrote an elegiac poem honoring Philippa’s mother. In addition to the teachings of Chaucer, she was taught poetry by Jean Froissart and philosophy and theology under John Wycliffe.
By 1371, Katherine Swynford had become the mistress of John of Gaunt. She was officially appointed governess to Philippa and her sister that same year. As governess, Katherine would have been responsible for teaching the girls courtly accomplishments and the ability to administer their own households. She probably taught them dancing, singing, conversation, good carriage and games. Many offers for marriage were considered for Philippa but nothing ever came of them.
John of Gaunt was acutely aware he would never inherit the crown of England so he sought a crown of his own. He contracted a marriage with the Infanta Costanza, the rightful heiress of the crown of Castile in September of 1371. From the day of his marriage he and Costanza were called the “King and Queen of Castile”. Within a year, Costanza had a daughter named Catalina.
In June of 1376, the Black Prince, heir to the throne died and in June of 1377, King Edward III died. The Black Prince’s son Richard became king at the age of ten. The Lancaster family was present at the coronation on July 16th. John of Gaunt was to take a large role in the government of the young king. That same summer, Philippa, her sister Elizabeth and her stepmother were all elected to the Order of the Garter and took part in the induction ceremony.
In 1381, the reign of Richard II was not going well and the people rose up against the government, with John of Gaunt being the object of their anger. An irate mob burned down his magnificent Savoy Palace in London. It was after this that John of Gaunt broke off relations with his mistress Katherine Swynford. Philippa lost her governess and significant change began in her life. She became closer to her stepmother and stepsister Catalina.
In 1385, the English Parliament approved the sending of an army to Portugal to support King Joao I and to enforce the claims of John of Gaunt to the kingdom of Castile. He took his family to await the arrival of the Portuguese fleet to transport the English army overseas. They sailed in July and arrived in Portugal and King Joao came to meet them. Joao and John admired each other immensely. Discussions ensued on the terms of the armies helping each other to attack Castile. They also discussed a marriage of Joao to one of Gaunt’s daughters. Most of the nobles were promoting Catalina as the wife of King Joao. But Catalina had ties to Portugal’s mortal enemy, Castile. Gaunt left the decision up to Joao to choose between Catalina and Philippa. He chose Philippa.
Philippa said goodbye to her family on November 10, 1386. She had to wait until papal dispensation arrived which it did on February 2, 1387. The marriage ceremony took place at Oporto on February 14th. The marriage was to be successful although Joao had mistresses. He left to fight in Castile and Philippa proceeded to organize her court. She had an impact immediately. She was described as discreet, pious and modest, walking with her eyes lowered and her neck covered. She had a profound sense of duty. Many writers admired her behavior, if not her beauty. She was praised for her fair skin, blonde hair and blue eyes.
As far as possible, Philippa and Joao went everywhere together. They put forth the image of a loving and happy family. They agreed to name their first born child a Portuguese name if it were a boy and an English name if it was a girl and then alternate names, irrespective of sex. Their first child, born in 1388 was named Blanche after Philippa’s mother. They are recorded as having a total of nine children of which six survived childhood. These were the “illustrious generation”.
Edward Duarte was born in 1391. He was a writer and intellectual who succeeded his father as King. Peter was born in 1392. He was the first Duke of Coimbra and a well-traveled man who served as Regent during the minority of his nephew Afonso V. Henry the Navigator was born in 1394. He became the first Duke of Viseu and guided Portugal through the great era of The Discoveries. Isabella was born in 1397. She married Philip III, Duke of Burgundy and was one of the most powerful and admired women in Europe. John was born in 1400 and became the Constable of Portugal. The final child, Ferdinand, was born in 1402. He was known as the “Saint Prince” and died as a prisoner of the Moors.
Philippa supervised the education of all her children and Joao taught them riding, hunting, hawking and the art of the tiltyard. Philippa made an effort to be a friend to the common people and no part of the kingdom was too small for her to visit. Joao relied on her to administer his kingdom when he was away. In 1396, John of Gaunt finally married Katherine Swynford and their children were legitimized. In February of 1399, John of Gaunt died and Philippa traveled to England for the funeral. In September of that same year, Philippa’s brother deposed King Richard II and became King Henry IV. In August of 1400, King Joao was elected to the Order of the Garter, probably as a reward for being one of the first to recognize Henry as King of England.
The middle years of Joao’s reign were years of consolidation and growing prosperity for Portugal. In 1409, Philippa and Joao visited England. Peace was concluded with Castile in 1411. Philippa began to encourage her husband to act against the Moors. Joao was inspired to attack the fortified town of Ceuta, across from Gibraltar on the African continent. He discussed it with his sons and they all agreed to the expedition.
Ships were being readied to carry the troops in the hot summer of 1415 when plague broke out in Lisbon and Oporto. Philippa had succumbed to the disease. Joao had Philippa moved to the convent of Odivelas, high in the hills to the north of Lisbon in hopes she might recover. Philippa had three jeweled swords made. Her most cherished wish was for her husband to knight her three elder sons in her presence. She soon realized this wouldn’t happen. She made Joao promise he would knight them and presented the swords to her sons herself. She blessed them all. She called Isabel to her side. Isabel kissed her mother’s hands and received her blessing. The King arrived and sat by her side. On July 18, 1415, Philippa died at the age of 55. She was the first and only English Queen of Portugal.
Because of the extreme heat, the children advised that Philippa be buried immediately and secretly. She was temporarily buried in the convent of Odivelas and a funeral was held the next day. The whole Portuguese nation mourned their Queen. Joao and his sons sailed to Ceuta and easily conquered the town.
On August 14, 1433, King Joao passed away in Lisbon. He was seventy-seven, had reigned for forty-nine years and survived Philippa by 18 years. His will stated he wanted to be buried next to Philippa in the Monastery of Batalha where a specially prepared mausoleum had been built. A year later Philippa was exhumed and they were both re-buried in the Founder’s Chapel at Batalha with splendid effigies over them.
Further reading: “Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster” by Alison Weir, “Philippa: Dona Filipa of Portugal” by T.W.E. Roche