Mary de Bohun was the wife of one king and the mother of another, but she never knew it. Her premature death in her mid-20s meant she missed the usurpation of 1399 that brought the House of Lancaster to the throne, but even so her short life was a notable one, which illustrated well the trials and tribulations of young heiresses in the 14th century.
Mary was born in roughly 1370 to Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and Joan Fitzalan. She joined in the nursery an older sister, Eleanor, and was followed by a third daughter, Elizabeth, who died young. Fortunately for Mary and her sister, their parents failed to produce a son and heir, thus, when Humphrey died in January 1373, his estate was divided between his two surviving daughters.
In 1376, Eleanor was married to Thomas of Woodstock, youngest son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainaut. Still a child herself, she was brought to live in Pleshey Castle in Essex alongside Mary, where the two were brought up under Thomas’s protection. Thomas’s goal, as the younger son in need of his own land and wealth, was to seize the whole of the Bohun estate via his wife, while pushing Mary towards a religious life. Once inside a convent, she would be forced to renounce her worldly goods, which would set up Thomas and Eleanor to enjoy the lot.
Luckily for Mary, the girls’ paternal aunt, Elizabeth de Bohun, was married to Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, one of the most powerful men in the country. She conspired with Thomas’s older brother, John of Gaunt, to arrange the marriage of Mary to Gaunt’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby. As such, Mary was secretly ferreted out of Pleshey and brought to Arundel Castle on the pretense of a visit to see her aunt. It’s unclear whether Mary desired the marriage, though she and Henry would have known one another, or what she thought of a future in the Church. The wedding took place in the early weeks of 1381, likely somewhere in Essex.
By one account the marriage was immediately consummated on the grounds that it would be more difficult for Thomas to have it dissolved, however legally Mary was still considered underage. It’s impossible to say for certain and not out of the realm of possibility that the marriage was consummated once before the couple was separated.
In the spring of 1382, Eleanor, 16, gave birth to her first child, a son named Humphrey for her father. It’s not known for certain where Mary spent these early years, however since she had not yet taken up a public role alongside her husband, she likely spent considerable time at Pleshey with her sister and her children. Eleanor had two more daughters in 1383 and 1384: Anne and Joan.
Traditional accounts of Mary’s life state that she and Henry defied orders that they remain apart and in fact conceived a child who was born in 1382, the year in which Mary was 12. There is no reliable evidence for this and per Amy License in her history of Lancastrian women, “[T]he proposed date, April 1382, indicates that it is more likely that one sister had been confused with the other.” Henry, 15, was still living with Gaunt.
Mary was confirmed to be “of age” in December 1384 and it was around this time that she joined her husband’s household. Given Henry’s lifestyle and his attachment to Gaunt’s household, it’s likely that she spent considerable time with her in-laws, but she may also have followed Henry to London where he continued to play more and more of a political role in Richard II’s government.
Henry and Mary spent Christmas of 1385 in Leicester with Gaunt and the family would have known by then that the couple was expecting their first child. Mary gave birth to a son, Henry, at Monmouth Castle at some point in 1386, though experts differ on which month is likeliest. The favored contenders are April or September. This child, of course, would end up becoming Henry V, the victor of Agincourt and the only English king to successfully “conquer” France. There would have been little indication of that at the time of his birth, though – born in a remote Lancastrian castle to an Earl, no one considered him a potential king.
A notable twist to Gaunt’s family was that there were two leading women in his life – his wife and his mistress. In the summer of 1386, he and his wife, Constance of Castile, were preparing to travel to the continent and as such, his mistress, Katherine Swnyford, was left behind. She reportedly spent some of her free time staying with Mary – as a mother of at least six in her 30s, Katherine had considerable wisdom to bestow. There is evidence that Katherine helped oversee Mary’s confinement, bringing with her her daughter by Gaunt, Joan Beaufort.
The following year, as Henry, Gaunt and Thomas (now Duke of Gloucester) found themselves increasingly mired in political opposition against the King, Mary gave birth to a second son, christened Thomas.
According to License, Mary may have miscarried in the summer of 1388, however it’s impossible to say with certainty – what we do know is at least one half of the Derby couple required medical attention. Regardless, Mary conceived again that September and gave birth to a third son, John, in June 1389. Though Henry continued to attend Parliament and spend large swathes of time in London, increasingly Mary lived in the country, where Henry would occasionally join her. This followed a typical pattern for noble women during childbearing years – given the tenor of Richard II’s court, Mary likely preferred the comfort and quiet of their homes outside London and the company of the women in her own family.
In November 1389, Gaunt returned to England after an absence of three years. The extended family spent Christmas together at Hereford Castle and once Gaunt and Henry left for London in January, Mary and her household traveled to Kenilworth. Around this time Henry decided he wished to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, thus he and Mary took leave of one another that summer. After his departure, in October, Mary gave birth to a fourth son, named Humphrey for her father.
Henry returned safely to England in the spring of 1391 and the couple spent most of the summer and early autumn together at Kenilworth with their children. When Henry left for London to attend Parliament, there is record of him sending his wife a shipment of fresh apples and pears. By then, unsurprisingly, she was in the middle of her fifth pregnancy. That spring she delivered her first daughter, named Blanche for Henry’s long-deceased mother. Her husband, meanwhile, was in Calais with his father.
Though he returned for a few months, he was soon planning his next adventure, this time to Prussia, Prague, Vienna, Venice and Jerusalem. While we don’t know Mary’s opinion, we do know that Gaunt was supportive and provided funds for the trek. With Henry gone for roughly a year, Mary spent this time living as she usually did, quietly and with her children.
Henry returned to England in June 1393, but it’s unclear if he had a spare moment to see Mary before he was off with Gaunt to help put down a rebellion up north. The first certain evidence we have of the two together is by that September, but that’s only because Mary would have then conceived her sixth and final child. Once more, Henry was in London for most of the pregnancy, though records show he sent through mussels and oysters to his wife.
By the end of March, the family would have been reacting to news that Gaunt’s wife, Constance of Castile, was dead. Just a few weeks later, Mary entered her confinement and that June, she gave birth to a second daughter who she named Philippa after Henry’s grandmother, the consort of Edward III.
Sadly, Mary would never leave her confinement. It’s unclear on what day she died or what the specific cause was, but she was laid to rest on July 6 in Leicester, one day after her mother-in-law.
As we know, she died before her husband deposed King Richard in 1399, but had she lived then she would have been yet another of England’s queen consorts. Only the Countess of Derby during her life, the idea would likely have seemed laughable. We don’t know very much about Mary’s relationship with Henry, but given the rate at which the two produced children, in addition to the amount of time they spent together when Henry was able to leave London, they were seemingly friendly, if not loving. All signs indicate that the two had a happy home life with their young children.
And while we don’t know how Henry responded to Mary’s death, perhaps there is something to glean from the fact that he declined to remarry until 1403. Though Henry was close to his daughters it was a remote affection – both were married into foreign courts during childhood. As for his sons with Mary, he favored Thomas over the rest and in his last years, sparred with Henry as each led opposed political factions. By then, of course, Mary likely wouldn’t have recognized the House of Lancaster.