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Philippa of Lancaster: An Unusual Woman for Her Time

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Sandra, a hobby writer that loves creating essays about everything inside her head full of knowledge.

Philippa of Lancaster

Today I thought I'd write about one of my favourite female persons in history, Philippa of Lancaster. Depicted in the Padrão dos Descobrimientos in Belém, Lisbon, she is the only female in this monument, which cherishes Portuguese navigation and exploration. But who was she? And what's so special about her?

Well, it is actually because of her that the monument exists today; she was the "pusher" behind the start of the Portuguese exploration.

Phillipa of Lancaster at the Padrão dos Descobrimientos, Lisbon.

Phillipa of Lancaster at the Padrão dos Descobrimientos, Lisbon.

Born an English Princess

Philippa was an English princess, born in Lancaster, England, on the 31st of March, 1360. She was the eldest of her siblings, and grew up with a younger brother and sister.

For her time period, she was a very "unusual" person. To start with, she was literate, something that was not common during these days, neither among women, nor in nobility. (The nobility had the minimal effort idea of where they thought "why should I learn to read when I can have it done for me?")

But Philippa was different. She loved reading, and she is said to have been incredibly intelligent, grasping complex concepts of theology and science. One of her favourite things to read about was the famous "knights tales", stories about foreign countries, customs, food and fashion.

Marrying Her Dreams

The day that they told her she was going to get married to the Portuguese King John I must have been the happiest day of her life. The marriage was (as many marriages back then) a union to seal the Anglo/Portuguese union, that still exists today, and is the oldest existing trading and friendship union, in the world.

As mentioned before, this day must have been one of the happiest of her life, as she would have been excited to finally go south, to a lot more sunshine and great food. Also, as Portugal was next to Africa, supposedly an exotic world that was unknown for many northern Europeans, this made Philippa like the idea even more.

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Arriving in Lisbon

But when coming to Lisbon, the court was waiting for her, situated in the Castle of St George. She was more or less “trapped“ in the castle. There was not much else for her to do, except for continuing to read and waiting for her big dream in life to come true.

As she was a woman, she could not just join a boat and sail away, which would probably have been something that Philippa would have loved. So the only thing that she could do, was to turn her desire for exploring onto her sons. And who were they? Her youngest son was Prince Henry the Navigator. She used Henry, the “educated” son, to explore her dreams and make them come true.

Castle of St George. Phillipa's home in Lisbon.

Castle of St George. Phillipa's home in Lisbon.

Dreams Coming True

Finally, mother and son convinced the father, John I, how advantageous it would be if they expanded their territory over northern Morocco. In 1415, under much insistence, John I ordered a fleet to built, a fleet that was going to be under command of his son Henry, and was to conquer the city of Ceuta. And now you can imagine who wanted to come along—Philippa.

She firstly went to her husband to make him take her along on the journey, but he said no, then she went to the son, Henry, but he also said no, and she was a bit heartbroken about the whole situation. But after a lot of "persistence" (some would say nagging) John and Henry gave in to her and said she could come, but only this time. Philippa now was the happiest person alive, she saw herself travelling to Ceuta, in Africa! Finally, her dream was going to come true.

Preparing for the Voyage

During the following days, the hours became eternal for Philippa. When her son, Peter, that was involved in church, heard that she was going to go on this trip, he told her that if she was really doing this, she had to have God with her. Philippa listened to him and started praying, and devoted long hours to her religion. She spent many hours praying and daydreaming from the castle windows. She started fasting (only eating during dark hours), and as she was not eating regularly, her body became really vulnerable. This debilitated her to a level such that, sadly enough, she died 10 days before the fleet was about to set sail. Henry was heartbroken when his mother died, but decided to sail away anyway.

His way of cherishing his mother was to bring a Lisbonian flag with him, and the first thing he did when having conquered Ceuta was to put the flag down into the ground in her name. Even till today, the flag of Lisbon and the flag of Ceuta are identical.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Liz Westwood from UK on May 29, 2020:

This is a fascinating article. I had no idea of her involvement in the explorations from Portugal.

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