One of the weirdest episodes in English history happened in the period 1314 – 1317. After Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and Hertford, died at Bannockburn on 24 June 1314, his widow, Maud, daughter of Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster, claimed to be pregnant. It is unlikely many people would have doubted her claim… at first. However, as the months dragged by and there was no baby, people must have wondered what on earth was going on. Eventually, the months turned into years, and people realised there was going to be no baby… and even if Maud had produced a child, there was no way it could be Gilbert’s, not after March 1315. Finally, in 1317, Parliament lost patience and partitioned the lands between Gilbert’s three sisters Eleanor, Margaret and Elizabeth.
But what on earth was Maud thinking, claiming to be pregnant for three years? I’ve come up with several possibilities:
- She wasn’t pregnant, and just wanted to cause trouble for one or all of her sisters-in-law and/or Eleanor’s husband Hugh le Despenser (both Margaret and Elizabeth were widows at the time of their brother’s death).
- She wasn’t pregnant but deluded herself that she was.
- She suffered from a false pregnancy, or an illness that imitated pregnancy (it does happen, Mary I is a historical example).
- She was pregnant, but suffered a miscarriage or stillbirth, and she couldn’t accept it.
- She was pregnant, but the baby died soon after birth and she couldn’t accept it.
- She was pregnant, but the baby was born deformed or had a disability caused by a difficult birth…
Most of these probably could have happened – I accept the last is unlikely, but as it crossed my mind I thought I might at as well mention it with the other ideas.
Some discussion of some of the ideas…
Personally, if this was the case, I think it was a result of some personal quarrel with one, two or maybe all three of her sisters-in-law, and she was trying to delay them getting their lands in revenge for some real or imagined petty wrong they had done her. I don’t think it had anything to do with Despenser – in 1314 he was a nonentity.
This may sound silly, but people can delude themselves into believing the most unlikely things…
This is probably more likely than no 2, but this too must have involved an element of Maud deluding herself, when the “pregnancy” went beyond nine months…
Numbers 4 and 5:
These, I think, are the most likely explanations. It would mean that Maud was telling the truth at first, and that her later pretence was a result of her being unable to deal with her loss. In a way, these are also the reasons which are the most understandable, and the ones which make it easiest to sympathise with Maud.
This is nothing but a theory that crossed my mind, and is extremely unlikely. The theory goes like this: faced with a baby who would be disabled for life, Maud couldn’t decide what was best for him. A disabled child/adolescent/man would find it very difficult to cope with an earldom, but even if she hid him from the world, his claim to the earldom would not go away. If they found out, those who inherited the lands would see him as a threat, and would almost certainly want him dead. Faced with such a difficult choice, she may have hesitated, not certain whether to tell the world about the baby, or tell everybody he had died at birth and hide him away. She may have even wanted to wait, see how his disability affected him as he grew from baby to toddler. And what if she that Hugh le Despenser had bribed the midwife to try and maim or kill the child? It would have made the decision even harder.
I am not suggesting that number 6 did happen, but as it had occurred to me, I thought I might as well mention it. But one thought that it raises is worth examining closer – the idea that Maud was pregnant and Despenser was responsible for her losing the baby. The idea of him bribing the midwife may be unlikely, but what if he bribed a retainer to slip pennyroyal into Maud’s wine? His later career shows how ruthless he could be when his own interests were at stake, and how much is the aborting of an unborn child have likely to troubled his conscience, even if the child was his wife’s unborn nephew or niece? His later career shows that he had little or no regard for the well being of Eleanor’s family.
And if Maud found out that he was responsible for her losing the baby, she may well have been determined to keep Eleanor’s share of the Gloucester lands from him as long as possible.
All of this is speculation of course – we do not even know whether Maud was pregnant at any stage, and if she was, there is no way of knowing whether nature or an agent of Hugh le Despenser was responsible for her losing the baby.
Regardless of what actually happened, it is interesting topic on which to speculate!