Sunday, 2 March 2008

The Countess of Gloucester's "pregnancy"

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:

  1. 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).
  2. She wasn’t pregnant but deluded herself that she was.
  3. She suffered from a false pregnancy, or an illness that imitated pregnancy (it does happen, Mary I is a historical example).
  4. She was pregnant, but suffered a miscarriage or stillbirth, and she couldn’t accept it.
  5. She was pregnant, but the baby died soon after birth and she couldn’t accept it.
  6. 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…

Number 1:

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.

Number 2:

This may sound silly, but people can delude themselves into believing the most unlikely things…

Number 3:

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.

Number 6:

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!

12 comments:

Alianore said...

I've sometimes wondered if Ed II persuaded Maud to keep pretending she was pregnant, because he was keen to keep the de Clare lands (Eleanor's share of them, that is) out of Despenser's hands as long as possible - before Despenser became Ed's chamberlain, Ed didn't like or trust him at all.

Ruthless as Despenser undoubtedly was, I'd be very reluctant to accuse him (or anyone else for that matter) of doing such a nasty thing to Maud without some hard evidence. Yes, he deprived his sisters-in-law of some lands, but that's a far cry from, basically, murdering an unborn child.

Carole said...

That's a good point, Alianore, about Ed being behind the charade to a certain extent...

Re Despenser, I would never say that he did do it, only that its one possibility in a very long list!

It's such a strange story that you have to consider even the most remote possibilities in an attempt to explain it! Chances are the true explanation is something nobody will ever think of!

Lady D. said...

It is always good to see different theories put forward for a historical happening, as it certainly exercises the mind into examining evidence available and putting forward a best fit theory.

In some ways I tend to agree with Alianore in that it was Ed II who helped Maud keep up the pretense. I'm not sure though that it was because of Despenser at that time, altho I certainly agree that Ed did not like him much then. Personally I think there must have been some other advaantage to Ed to have the lands in limbo, so to speak. It probably beneiftted Maud too, financially.

As to Despenser poisoning Maud, it is an interesting theory but I feel the others that you put forward have far more likelihood. If this had occurred later in his career then yes, I would have said that he had developed the position, wealth and influence both to carry out and get away with such a thing (although whether he would have stooped THAT low is another issue). But in 1314 he was still a nothing, a zero, and I really doubt he would have had the means or the access. I also don't think he'd yet developed his later Machiavellian underhanded politics - if you recall, his answer in 1315 to the land problem was to go and besiege Tonbridge - Castle - the action of a hot-head rather than a thinker. And little good it did him!:-)

Carole said...

The fingers pointing at Ed are certainly mounting!

You may be right about Despenser being a novice in politics in 1314/15, Lady D. I had to include that one to make the discussion as broad as possible. Which of the others do you think most likely - Ed might have encouraged Maud to continue with the pretence, but the original declaration was probably hers - or do you think Ed might have come up with the suggestion in the first place (I don't think that's very likely to be honest)...

Alianore said...

There's also the point that if Maud had been pregnant, Ed could have kept the Gloucester lands and revenues himself (or the Crown, rather), which were vast, around £6000 a year, until the heir turned 21. I don't see how the pretence would have benefited Maud financially - she was entitled to her dower, a third of Gloucester's lands, whether she was pregnant or not. So what she gained from it, I can't imagine. Maybe she thought she was pregnant, or genuinely was and miscarried, and Ed seized on the idea. But again, why did Maud play along? If he was paying her, there's no evidence of it that I know of.

I don't think the idea of Despenser force-feeding Maud pennyroyal is even a remote possibility, to be honest.

Carole said...

It's one of those imponderables of history - you know people's actions, but not their motivations. This whole thing makes Maud look deluded - which she might have been, but she might not have been, and its tragic if she wasn't, and yet people believe she was...
Re Despenser: you are right, it's unlikely he poisoned Maud, and it's a good thing for him that he didn't - he gave himself enough to answer for when he reached the golden gates post 1318!

Susan Higginbotham said...

I'm inclined toward #3 myself. Maybe Maud convinced herself that she was a medical oddity . . .

Lady D. said...

Or maybe she liked the attention and a bit of pampering ;-)

Alison said...

Sorry for changing the subject, but just popped in to say hello as an Edward I and Eleanor supporter myself :)

Carole said...

Hi Alison - thanks for popping by!

Melisende said...

Carole,

There's nothing wrong with sounding out (aloud) any theories - I tend to do that myself - you know the old "put myself in her shoes" type thing.

In medieval politics I have found the truth is never black and white but quite a lot of grey.

Love the Blog!

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