Cynthia has a degree in History and Business Economics. She loves archaeology and would happily spend every holiday exploring ancient sites
When it comes to medieval history, we usually hear about the men. What countries they ruled, what battles they fought, what laws they enacted or what misfortunes they suffered. But women still had a very important part to play, even if they usually did not have the power and autonomy of their brothers.
A royal princess, although not as highly valued as a son and heir, was still a very valuable pawn in the struggle for power and a valuable bargaining tool. These days all little girls, influenced by what they read and see in films, want to be a princess, but the reality is that back in the Middle Ages being a princess did not mean you automatically had a happy, easy life.
Although a medieval princess would have lived a life of greater comfort than most of the women of her time and probably have been better educated, she was usually married off at a young age to a man she may well never have met. Princesses were often then sent to live in their new husband’s homeland, where often there was a new language to learn, a new culture to adapt to and a whole new family to get along with.
The main expectation of the new bride would have been to produce a male heir as soon as possible. During the Middle Ages, pregnancy and childbirth was a painful, dangerous affair and being royal would not save your life. Many medieval royal ladies died in childbirth or from the childbed fevers that could strike them down after the baby had been delivered.
Infant mortality was high even among royal families and as children grew there were a whole host of diseases around that could kill them. If a royal daughter was not married off, the only other alternative was a religious vocation. Princesses often joined one of the many abbeys as a nun, not always voluntarily, where a well-born girl with a large enough dowry could have the opportunity of rising through the ranks to become the head of a very wealthy and influential religious house.
The four daughters of King Edward III of England who survived infancy were to be no exception. These Plantagenet princesses were born into a very large, boisterous family, having five brothers who survived into adulthood. Their father was an energetic monarch, who was busy trying to extend his influence on the continent and whose household would have been constantly on the move. His was the reign that was to see the start of the Hundred Years War against France and the arrival of the Black Death in Europe, which brought dramatic changes both to the economy and social structure of the country.
King Edward III and Philippa of Hainault
King Edward III was born on 13th November 1312, the son of King Edward II and Queen Isabella of France. Many of his father’s courtiers thought it was a miracle he had been born at all as it was it was strongly rumoured that the intense relationships he enjoyed with his favourites Piers Gaveston and Hugh de Despenser the Younger were romantic in nature, something that was severely frowned on at that time. He was also not the most dynamic of kings, so Edward III grew up with a weak, vacillating father and a strong, domineering mother who was called, though probably not to her face, ‘the She-Wolf of France’.
The Despensers steadily became more powerful and Queen Isabella began living apart from her husband after a disastrous military campaign in Scotland where she felt the king had abandoned her to the mercy of the Scots as he retreated south without sending troops to protect and help her. She started a relationship with a powerful Marcher Lord called Roger Mortimer and together they put together an army of discontented nobles and invaded England from France. The invasion was successful and the Despenser s were overthrown and executed and the King was forced to abdicate in favour of his eldest son Edward of Windsor, who was crowned King Edward III. Edward II was imprisoned in Berkeley Castle where he died, some saying he was executed by having a red-hot poker inserted into his rectum.
Edward was married to Philippa of Hainault at an early age and it is said he was devoted to her; the chroniclers of the time reporting she possessed a very sweet nature. But as he grew to manhood he became increasingly impatient with being controlled by his mother and Roger Mortimer. In 1330 he finally turned against the avaricious and power-hungry couple, staging a coup that led to the execution of Mortimer and the life-imprisonment of his mother.
Edward III was now king in actuality, not just in name, with all the power and privileges of a medieval monarch at his disposal. As the English king one of Edward III’s primary duties was to secure the succession and his young wife fulfilled her queenly duty just before her sixteenth birthday when she gave birth to a son, Edward the Black Prince. The royal couple suffered the pain of losing several babies in infancy, but they went onto produce their large brood. By all accounts they were doting parents and lavished care and attention on their offspring but, as you will see, this would not always lead to their daughters leading long, happy and productive lives.
Isabella, Lady of Coucy
The first daughter of the royal couple was born on 16th June 1332 and named Isabella. The infant princess was pampered from the moment of her birth and was provided with a huge household to cater to her every whim. Unusually for a medieval princess she seemed to be able to get away with anything she wanted and had her father wound round her little finger. She slept in a gilded cradle, had a wardrobe stuffed full of luxurious Italian silk gowns and ate only the finest delicacies. As she grew older her father would continue to support her financially, giving her lots of gifts and paying her debts when they became pressing.
As the eldest daughter of the English king, the search for a suitable husband for the princess started early, although it was not destined to be an easy quest. When she was only three, she was promised to Pedro of Castile. These negotiations fell apart, although the Castilian king was later betrothed to her younger sister Joan. The next suitor chosen was a son of the Duke of Brabant and when this too fell through she was taken to Flanders by her parents where it was arranged she would marry Count Louis de Male. However, the Count was to prove a very unwilling suitor as he held a grudge against England as his father had been slain at the Battle of Crécy. He was held in virtual imprisonment, but managed to escape to the court of King Philip IV of France who welcomed him with open arms and promptly married him off to another lady.
The next suitor singled out for Princess Isabella was Charles IV of Bohemia and when this too fell through, at the age of nineteen a marriage was arranged for her with a gentleman called Bernard d’Albret in the French province of Gascony. Lavish preparations were made and five ships were fitted out to take her to her wedding. However, at the last minute the capricious princess decided she didn’t want to go through with it and called it off. She then prevaricated over suitors until she was thirty three, which was very old for a medieval princess to marry.
To the dismay of most of her family and the court, she fell in love with a much younger man called Enguerrand VII, Lord de Coucy who had been imprisoned as a hostage in England in exchange for the freedom of King John II of France. Somehow, she managed to get permission for the match from her father and the newly married couple spent much of their time in France. Isabella gave birth to two daughters; Marie, who married Henry du Bar, and Philippa, who married Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford. After the accession of her nephew Richard II to the English throne in 1377, her husband Enguerrand de Coucy relinquished all his English titles and lands and announced his fealty to the French king. Isabella returned to England to live with their daughter Philippa and lived apart from her husband until her death in either 1379 or 1382.
Joan of England
The royal couple’s second daughter Joan of England was born in December 1333. She was as pampered as her elder sister and when she sailed from England in 1348 to marry her betrothed Pedro of Castile, she had a separate ship just to carry her trousseau which was said to include a portable chapel, bedding, curtains and silk and velvet gowns. The flotilla of four ships headed for Bordeaux. Even though they were warned there was plague in the city, the ships berthed and the royal party took up residence in the castle. They realised their mistake when the head of the expedition, Robert Bourchier sickened and died on August 20th. The rest of the party fled the city for the rural village of Loremo, but they took the plague with them and tragically the young princess died on 2nd September before she could ever become a bride.
Mary, Duchess of Brittany
The third daughter of Edward III and Queen Philippa was born in 1344 and called Mary. This young princess was not destined to be married to a stranger as she grew up alongside her future husband John V of Brittany. The pair was betrothed when Mary was ten in 1355 and their wedding took place at Woodstock Palace on 3rd July 1361. Sadly, the Duchess was destined to never set foot in her youthful husband’s lands, although she did come to know her sister-in-law Joanna of Brittany.
Tragically, within a couple of years of her marriage Mary sickened and died at the age of eighteen. This was a very sad time for the Plantagenet’s as Mary was buried alongside her sister Margaret, who had died only a few short weeks before, in Abingdon Abbey. She did not have any children and her husband went on to marry her cousin Lady Joan Holland, the half-sister of King Richard II, and then Joanna of Navarre, who later married her nephew King Henry IV.
Margaret, Countess of Pembroke
The last daughter was born in 1346 in Windsor, but despite her exalted and privileged upbringing she was destined to only live for fifteen short years. As was usual with royal princesses at this time, negotiations with foreign powers for her marriage began almost as soon as she was born. Her first proposed suitor was the heir of Albert III of Austria but when this fell apart she was betrothed to John of Blois, whose father Charles of Blois was vying with John V for control of Brittany. This match foundered too as her elder sister Mary was married John V, which would have made both the family and the country’s politics very complicated.
Eventually she was married to John Hastings, Earl of Pembroke. The children had been raised in the same household, so although young, probably were good friends or at least knew each other well. But the marriage was not to last long or produce any children, as in 1361 Margaret died and was buried next to her elder sister. We do not know what caused her death and her husband later married a lady called Anne Manny who gave him a son.
So of four royal sisters, given the best start in life the medieval world could offer, only the eldest Isabella lived long enough to grow to full adulthood, have children and place her stamp on the world. Her three younger sisters all died childless at a very young age; leaving behind young husbands and suitors who later went on to marry new wives to get the alliances and heirs they needed. These Plantagenet princesses might have had the beautiful clothes, jewellery and position at Court that modern little girls now dream of, but they certainly did not enjoy love everlasting. Their marriages were not love matches but political alliances arranged by their family based on the acquisition of wealth, lands and prestige. Unlike today, medieval parents looked to the material advantages of any match and the happiness of their children would have been a secondary consideration, if it had been considered at all.
Abingdon Abbey image Geograph project Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution - ShareAlike 2.0
Sources: Wikipedia, BBC History
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.
© 2014 CMHypno
CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on June 29, 2014:
Thanks for reading the hub Nellieanna. The Plantagenets ruled England in medieaval times until 1485 when Richard III was killed at Bosworth. Many of our aristocracy do have ancestors who were Plantagenets and our current royal family are descended from this prolific family through Elizabeth of York who married Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch. Henry Tudor also had Plantagenet genes as his mother was Margaret Beaufort, descended from the illegitmate Beaufort line of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster who was a son of Edward III and brother to the ladies discussed in this hub
Nellieanna Hay from TEXAS on June 29, 2014:
I'm a history buff but confess I had little idea who the Plantagenets were, except through hearing that the present generations of them are 'tops' in British nobility outside of royalty, or at least, that's the impression I've had. There is even a reference to them in "Downton Abbey", I believe; and one of my British Hubpage friends writes droll pieces about an aristocratic old-folks' home, mentioning the Plantagenets by naming a character by their surname. Now I am inspired to learn more about them.
CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on April 01, 2014:
Thanks for reading the hub grand old lady. If you read a lot of history books you could be forgiven for thinking that women weren't invented until the 20th century lol!
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on March 29, 2014:
It was nice to hear about the Plantaganet women for a change. Wow, looks like the phrase, "There's no place like home" does not apply to a castle home. Or perhaps it does in a bleaker, darker sense. Great hub.
CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on March 07, 2014:
Thanks for dropping by and reading the hub Frank. Glad you enjoyed it. We do tend to forget about the women in medieval times and the more ordinary people in general. Because their lives were not documented, we know so little about them
Frank Atanacio from Shelton on March 07, 2014:
I too enjoy reading about historical events during the medieval times... and there is very little attention on women great hub.. very well prepared...:)
CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on March 02, 2014:
Thanks for reading the hub Alicia and leaving a comment.. I tend to think people have an overly romantic view of the Middle Ages and personally I'm glad I live in the age of central heating, washing machines, TV and equality for women
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on March 01, 2014:
This is another very interesting and enjoyable look at history, Cynthia. I love reading about medieval times. I'm glad that I didn't live in that period, though, because life would have been so difficult.
CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on March 01, 2014:
Thanks Nell. I started out writing on all the children of Edward III but the hub just grew and grew, so I split it into sons and daughters and decided to go with the girls first - not often a medieval princess would have been put before her brother!
Nell Rose from England on February 28, 2014:
Hi, this was fascinating. I don't really think I have ever known the names of the Plantagenet women before, history always centers on the men all the time, so this was something new for me, and great reading, nell
CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on February 28, 2014:
Thanks for reading the hub aingham86 and the heads up about the typo. Women had a very important role in the Middle Ages, but apart from the very famous ladies such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, not so much tends to known about them.
Alexandria Ingham from Canada on February 28, 2014:
You're right in that history rarely focuses on the women. My research hasn't gone as far back as Edward III in detail--just his connection to the Wars of the Roses and the Tudor dynasty--so I didn't know much of that about the royal princesses.
Just a comment about Joan of England...I think her birth was 1433, not 1933. Darn those typo gremlins coming in and changing things after publishing a hub ;) I really wish I could find a way to message you privately about that.