By Ian Mortimer
Adapted from Edward III, The Perfect King (Jonathan Cape, 2006)
Introduction: The register of Walter Stapeldon, Bishop of Exeter, contains a delightful description of a daughter of the Count of Hainault, dated 1319, which has long been thought to refer to Philippa. Bishop Stapeldon writes that the girl was, according to her mother, aged ‘nine on the next Nativity of St John the Baptist’ (24 June). He mentions that her hair was ‘between blue [i.e. blue-black] and brown’, her eyes were ‘brown and deep’, her forehead large, and her nose was ‘large at the tip’ but not snubbed, and ‘her neck shoulders and all her body and limbs of good form’. Many historians (including the author of Philippa’s article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) have accepted that this relates to Philippa, and have assumed as a result that she was slightly older than her husband, Edward III, who was born on 13 November 1312. However, this is demonstrably wrong.
How can we be certain? The answer lies in treating contemporary documents, created by people who had direct contact with the individuals concerned, as possible eyewitness testimonies, and testing the veracity of each one against the others. If they all tally in some regard, and there is no evidence to the contrary, you possibly have the makings of a historical certainty. (The theory is outlined in the methodological introduction to my book Medieval Intrigue.) In this case we have first hand evidence that the girl was not Philippa from four different contemporary sources who were directly connected with the arrangements. The only evidence to the contrary comes from someone who was not a first-hand witness, not in Hainault, and not writing until the next reign.