Philippa of Lancaster (1360-1415) - A tale from the History of Portugal Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Philippa of Lancaster (1360-1415) - A tale from the History of Portugal

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In many medieval tales the handsome prince falls desperately in love with a beautiful woman, with disastrous consequences, but the story of João and Philippa is of dynastic marriage that formed a mutual bond and became the foundation of a long lasting alliance.


Philippa was the eldest child of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster, and thus grand-daughter of King Edward III of England. Born on 31 March 1360, her early childhood was spent in the many palaces and castles of her famous father, now Duke of Lancaster, and the Royal Court. She had two full siblings who survived the perils of birth and childhood disease; Elizabeth, three years younger; and Henry, six years younger, who was later to depose his cousin King Richard II of England and thus gain the throne.

In September 1369 plague struck the Ducal Household, who were staying at their castle of Bolingbroke; the Duchess Blanche, famed for her beauty and grace1, succumbed to the pestilence.

The wife of one of the Duke of Lancaster's Household knights, Katherine Swynford2, was employed as Governess to the two girls a year later. This led to a certain amount of scandal as Katherine had become John of Gaunt's mistress after the death of Blanche.

Philippa was remarkably well educated. She had studied under the Flemish poet Froissart, the foremost chronicler of medieval courts. Another of her tutors was Friar John, a very learned man, who was a pioneer in physics and chemistry. Geoffrey Chaucer, brother-in-law to her governess, was a very firm friend of the family. Her father's confessor was the reformer John Wycliffe, Professor of Philosophy at Oxford and the first translator of the Bible into English. All these wise men ensured that the young girl was well informed, tolerant and of an inquiring mind.

Teenage Years

In 1371, John of Gaunt took as his second wife Constança of Castile, only six years older than his daughter. This marriage was made with a view to gaining John the crown of Castile, for Constança was the daughter of the recently deposed King Pedro of Castile. Katherine continued her duties as governess, and also as mistress, as she gave birth to a son, John, within weeks of Constança producing another half-sibling, Catalina.

On reaching sixteen Philippa was considered to have reached marriageable age and was hawked around Flanders, Hainault and Milan, but there were no takers. She was gaining a reputation as a quiet and devout young woman, of no particular beauty or talent. Prospects were fairly limited, as England was engaged in The Hundred Years War with France, and there were few royal or ducal families 'on the right side' with young sons. Being the eldest daughter, a dynastic alliance was keenly sought.

A few years later, the still single young woman, having been turned down by the Duchy of Luxembourg, was even proposed as a bride to her cousin, 9 year old Richard II. Her sister Elizabeth, now 16, had been married to the even younger John Hastings and was now Countess of Pembroke. Her brother Henry Bolingbroke, himself only 13, had been hand-fasted3 to the heiress Mary de Bohun, aged 8.

The household was still increasing. Although Constança had had no more children, Katherine Swynford had produced two more half-brothers and a half-sister, Henry, Thomas and Joan, and her children were granted the surname Beaufort4. During the intervening years no more is known of Philippa's marriage prospects.

Philippa's Marriage

Matters in Iberia seemed to be in a state of great flux. The inheritance of the kingdom of Portugal had been fought over between Juan of Castile, on behalf of his wife Beatriz; and João, the Master of Aviz, who eventually defeated the Castilians at the battle of Aljubarrota. João and his close companion, Nuno Alvares Pereira, had followed the tactics of the Black Prince at the battles of Poitiers and Crécy to win this victory and João, although the illegitimate son of King Pedro I of Portugal, had been elected king, the election reinforced by popular acclaim and his victory over the 'invaders'.

This had been of great interest to John of Gaunt, for if the usurping line of Castile could be defeated his daughter Catalina, whom he considered to be the true heir, would be the Queen of Castile. With this in mind, the Duke set out for Portugal.

King João I of Portugal first met with John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, on the Ponte de Mouro near Monção; and, discussing how to seize the inheritance of Castile, the two men soon reached an accord. At their second meeting, João asked for the hand of John of Gaunt's daughter Philippa, and they were promptly married by Proxy5.

On 2 February 1387, King João confirmed his marriage with Philippa of Lancaster, in the palace of Oporto. João was thirty years old, but his bride was only a couple of years younger.

The Groom was not exactly ardent; and many of his entourage were a little apprehensive about this marriage to a lady, now getting on in years, who had been brought up by the governess Katherine Swynford. Her father, considered among the most dissolute men of his age, was openly living with Katherine as his mistress, although married to Constança of Castile.

On the English side there were also reservations. This King had been born on the wrong side of the blanket, and already had a ten-year old son; Afonso, Count of Barcelos. Young Afonso was the son of the daughter of de Mendo da Guada, whom João had met in Vieiros. He had taken her to the Convento dos Santos in Lisbon. Her father, furious at the liaison, vowed never to cut his beard, thus gaining his nickname 'Barbadão', Big Beard. He even attacked João once, when the latter was riding in company through Vieiros, but was thwarted in his murder attempt.

Philippa was not considered a beauty. She was a blonde and blue-eyed Plantagenet, with a good, gentle, grave and serene disposition; which was not to say that she was weak. Her strongly rooted sense of right led her to be extremely passionate in her defence of the just. This did not change King João's expansive temperament, but her gravity and virtue were transmitted to her children and she had a profound influence on the character and customs of the court.

The wedding itself was a political event, the rituals taking place in the brief period of time between military manoeuvres. On the eve of the wedding the King arrived in Oporto with his close companion, Nuno Pereira, irritable and uptight. There were more important matters to attend to, such as fighting the Castilians. Calming down, they spent the night in the monastery of São Francisco.

The wedding morning dawned and they proceeded in all haste to Bishop Rodrigo's palace, where they greeted the bride. The betrothed couple were then mounted on a pair of white horses caparisoned in gold, and led in a procession (which included the King's ten-year-old bastard son) to the cathedral. The Archbishop of Braga, the famous Dom6 Lourenço de Lourinhã, heard Mass after the marriage ceremony and then they all returned to the Bishop of Oporto's palace for the wedding feast, ball and official bedding.

As soon as the ceremonies and festivities were over the Groom, Best Man and Father of the Bride went off to their military pursuits, leaving the new bride in the sole company of the churchmen and some of the twelve retainers that had come with her from England.

The Sala das Pegas, in the palace of Sintra, is said to have been decorated with the magpies (some say they are blackbirds) on the ceiling after Philippa discovered her husband 'saluting' one of her maids of honour there, whilst presenting her with a rose. When admonished by her, he said, 'It is for good, my Lady.' He then had the room closed, and satirised the court scandal by having the birds painted with Philippa's motto 'Por Bem'7 in their beaks, and a rose in their claws. It is believed that King João was completely faithful to her. She was the force that turned this purely dynastic marriage of convenience into a lasting partnership.


On 13 July 1388, the Infanta8 Dona Branca was born, named after Philippa's mother, Blanche. The couple had decided that their children would be named alternately after members of their respective families. The baby's life was short for the little princess died, within a year, at eight months old. Perhaps Philippa consoled herself with becoming more involved with affairs of the kingdom. It is certain that she consulted with her husband over the initial plans for the Royal Monastery at Batalha, for the construction, started around this time, shows her influence.

Next a son, the Infante Dom Afonso9, named after the first king of Portugal, was born on 30 July 1390. Philippa continued to become more involved in the civil aspects of ruling. She introduced many customs and traditions from England and Flanders and ensured that commerce with her home country was profitable for both countries.

On 31 October 1391 a second son, the Infante Dom Duarte - Edward, after his maternal grandfather and uncle - made his appearance at Viseu. 9 December 1392 saw the birth of Infante Dom Pedro, named after his paternal grandfather. At some time during his infancy he became seriously ill. His recovery was put down to a miraculous cure effected when he was placed on an altar dedicated to Saint Michael. He later took Saint Michael as his patron saint.

On Ash Wednesday, 4 March, 1394, a fourth son, the Infante Dom Henrique - named after Philippa's brother Henry - was born in Oporto. His birth chart saw Aries ascendant in the House of Mars with an exalted Sun on an axis accompanied by the Sun. Mars in Aquarius, which is the House of Saturn. The Sun in the House of Jupiter. This was believed to be an excellent horoscope for the new prince.

English tutors had been engaged to teach the children. The country was settled. The Royal family was growing apace, but there were still some pockets of discontent.

Philippa had news from home, and wrote to congratulate her father's new bride. On the death of Constança, John of Gaunt had finally married his mistress, Katherine Swynford, and their brood of Beauforts were legitimised.

On 11 February 1397 the Infanta Dona Isabel was born. The intervening years since the birth of Henrique had been dogged by a series of miscarriages. The year 1400 started with joy, as after three childless years, on 13 January, the Infante Dom João was born, but the year was to end in tragedy, as the heir to the throne, the Infante Dom Afonso, the eldest prince, died on 22 December. He was ten years old. His body lies in a small sarcophagus in the Cathedral of Braga.

In 1402, Philippa again became pregnant. The doctors were gravely concerned as her health had been greatly at risk during the previous pregnancy, when she had lost the child. She was now 43, and they were so concerned that they offered her an abortion. This she steadfastly refused and on 29 September the last child of John and Philippa, the Infante Dom Fernando, was born.

All six children now surviving were to play their parts to the full in later years.

The Children

Afonso, the Count of Barcelos, now 30, was in Chaves, where his wife Beatriz was dying in childbirth. He had been legitimised some ten years earlier, after the death of the Crown Prince Afonso ' without prejudice to my children Duarte, Pedro, Henrique, Beatriz, Branca and any other children I may have with my wife, Philippa......20/10/1439 (1410 AD)10.

In October 1411, a Peace Treaty was at last signed with Castile, which terminated the conflict started over the succession that had commenced in 1383, although it was not to be ratified until twenty years later.

A Grand International Tournament was planned, at which the three eldest boys were to be knighted. The Royal Princes saw little glory or valour in this, and refused the privilege. They protested that this would be an exorbitant expense to little purpose. What little money there was could be better spent on conquering somewhere and the merchant fleets could be confiscated to provide a fleet. Prince Henrique was particularly keen on his mother's idea of attacking Cueta.

The two younger boys, John and Fernando, were still under the care of their mother. The King, at 55, was starting to feel his age. Five years ago he had been bitten by a mad dog, and had spasmodic fainting fits, which were attributed to this misfortune. However, these could have been the result of a high blood pressure or cardiac problem.

The Crown Prince Duarte fell ill with anaemia or dyspepsia and became a hypochondriac. His doctors counselled him to drink unwatered wine, sleep with women and forget all cares.

Something in the Air

Nearly 15 years after the earliest discussions on expanding the Portuguese influence the first preparations were made for the conquest of Cueta. It was Philippa who had first proposed sending an armed expedition to North Africa for she thought that they could reach the kingdom of the fabled African Christian ruler, Prester John. Philippa believed that an alliance with him would give Portugal access to the Indian sources of spices and oriental products, thereby destroying the monopoly of Egypt and Venice over the spice trade. Her spies in Cueta had also reported that the source of Arabic gold came from the south across a vast desert. Portugal was very short of gold and needed to expand her trade routes.

The Infante Dom Henrique and his half-brother, Dom Afonso, Count of Barcelos, started recruiting.

At the beginning of 1415 the plague was reported to be in the suburbs of Lisbon, so the court moved to Sacavém.

Meanwhile the plans for an attack on Cueta went ahead. The Infante Henrique was busy in Oporto, gathering troops. The Infante Dom Pedro recruited in Lisbon and the centre of the country. Messengers were sent to Philippa's aged father, John of Gaunt, to see if he would join them. Their success was very mixed as it was a hot Spring, with a lot of fevers around as well as the plague.

One rumour was that these preparations were afoot in order to escort the Princess Isabel, now 16, to England or Flanders to marry. Another was that the Infante Dom Pedro was going to Sicily to meet his intended bride. A third was that the King was preparing to go on Pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

There was a meeting at Sintra with the Prior of the Knights Hospitallers11, where favourable portents were foretelling the fall of Cueta. It was imperative that the Queen and the Constable, Nuno Perreira, be the first to be informed of the decision. The Court was at Santarem; the Constable was at Arraiolos and the Queen and princesses hunting at Montemor-o-Velho. They all had to be gathered together to gauge the Constable's reaction to the proposition. The Cortes12, held at Torres Vedras, confirmed that an attempt would be made to take Cueta.

By July, Dom Henrique's preparations were ready, and he brought his men and the fleet down from Porto into the river Tagus. There they met with the Infante Dom Pedro and the southern levies.

As if she had a premonition that shortly she would fall ill and die of the plague, Queen Philippa, although so important in the councils, had retired to Odivelas. She called her eldest sons to her. There she gave her blessings to Dom Duarte, Dom Pedro and Dom Henrique, and presented them with the swords, encrusted with jewels, that she had already ordered for them, knowing that at 24, 23 and 21, her sons would be shortly be given their knighthoods, and brought into the government.

Less than a fortnight later, on 17 July, Philippa did indeed die of the plague and was buried the same night.

The Expedition goes ahead

There was an eclipse of the sun.

Less than a week after her death, on 23 July, a Wednesday, the fleet of 200 ships containing an army of 20,000 fighting men supported by at least 30,000 rowers, sailors and servants, upped anchor from the Tagus, destination unknown. The bets were on Cueta or Gibraltar, both of them in a strategic position.

Cueta fell on 21 August. Philippa would have expected nothing less of her menfolk than the completion of her dreams.

Philippa's Monument

Philippa's coffin was moved to rest in the choir of Batalha.

The Royal Dominican Convent of Batalha, dedicated to Santa Maria da Vitoria, had been founded in gratitude for the victory granted at Aljubarrota. Here Philippa lies to this day, now in the Founder's Chapel of the abbey church, with a book in one hand, the other clasped in that of her husband and surrounded by some of her children.

Philippa's Legacy

Philippa is remembered in Portugal as the mother of 'The Illustrious Generation'. These were:

  • Dom Duarte I, King of Portugal. Duarte's health had improved dramatically in the last month or so, probably due to the fresh air and exercise he had taken on his endless journeys between Odivelas and Sacavem to be at his mother's bedside. He married Leonor of Aragon. Afonso was their eldest son. He also is remembered as the first great prose writer in the Portuguese language.
  • Dom Pedro, Duke of Coimbra; traveller, ambassador, writer and Regent to his nephew, King Afonso V. He married Isabel of Urgel, and their daughter, Isabel, was to marry the young Afonso. Another writer in the family, the instructions in his letters to his young charge can be read as handbooks on various aspects of a young man's medieval lifestyle; How to look after your horse; The etiquette of falconry; Treatment of the fairer sex and many similar.
  • Dom Henrique, Prince Henry the Navigator, Governor of the Algarve13, Master of the Order of Christ14, initiator of the Portuguese voyages of discovery. Single all his life, he amassed a fortune, his income being eight times larger than the income of the kingdom. He is probably the most internationally renowned man of his generation.
  • Dom João, Grand Master of the Order of Santiago15
  • Dona Isabel became Duchess of Burgundy on her marriage to Philip 'the Good', Duke of Burgundy, in 1430. The bed, constructed for their coucher officiel16 ceremony, in Bruges, Belgium, still holds the Guinness World Record as the largest functional bed at 12'6" by 19'0" (3.81m by 5.79m).
  • Dom Fernando the Martyr. On the defeat of the Portuguese in the battle of Tangiers in 1437, on a Friday the thirteenth, Fernando volunteered to remain as a hostage until the king could be consulted. His ransom was never agreed, despite the return of Cueta to the Moroccans, and he died in 1443, still imprisoned in Fez.

Of the two first children, Dona Branca had died at 8 months, and Dom Afonso at the age of 10. Little is known of Dona Beatriz, a later child, who also died in infancy.

This Royal Princess and her happy marriage confirmed the Treaty of Windsor (1373), which has led to the longest alliance in Western Europe, that of England and Portugal.

References and Acknowledgements

  • Murrays Handbook to Portugal. 1875 3rd Edition. Rev.J.M.Neale
  • Breve História de Portugal. José Hermano Saraivo 1979
  • They Went to Portugal. Rose Macauley
  • Katherine. Anya Seton. (Fiction)

BBC Links

1Geoffrey Chaucer wrote 'The Book of the Duchess' in memory of this Lady.2The sister of Philippa de Roet, the wife of Geoffrey Chaucer.3Their parents had agreed on a pledge of marriage: betrothed.4The Beauforts were to be the ancestors of the Tudor Kings and Queens of England.5A solemn promise of marriage was given by John of Gaunt on behalf of his daughter.6 Portuguese honorific equivalent to Lord. 7'Por Bem' means 'For Good'. The full Heraldic Coat of Arms of a noble or knight included supporters for the shield, a helm or crest above and a motto of their own choosing below.8Royal Princess.9Royal Prince.10This document was written when the years were still counted according to the Julian (Era of Caesar) calendar and was later adjusted to 'Anno Domini' (Gregorian Calendar)11A religious military order dedicated to St. John.12Royal Council13On 30 August 1406, it was declared that the Algarve no was longer a separate Kingdom, but the southernmost province fully incorporated into Portugal.14The Order of Christ was the knightly order that was instigated in Portugal to take over the properties and wealth of the Knights Templar on their dissolution.15Another religious military order dedicated to St. James.16The required bedding ceremony of royal newly-weds in the Middle Ages.

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