Mary de Bohun, Countess of Northampton and Derby

Depiction of Mary de Bohun from the Psalter of Mary de Bohun and Henry Bolingbroke

The family of de Bohun could trace their heritage back to the time of William the Conqueror and they were the foremost patrons of book production in England by the fourteenth century. Humphrey de Bohun, 7th Earl of Hereford and his wife Joan Fitzalan, a daughter of Richard Fitzalan 10th Earl of Arundel and Eleanor of Lancaster, would have two daughters, Mary and Eleanor. These two women were destined to inherit the substantial wealth and possessions of their father.

Mary de Bohun was born c. 1369/70 and grew up in the family home under the care of her mother. There is strong evidence she received a good education. Her father died in 1373. At this time, several of King Edward III’s sons who were looking for brides and the de Bohun girls were prime candidates. Eleanor de Bohun became the wife of Thomas of Woodstock, 1st Duke of Gloucester, Edward III’s youngest son. There is evidence of a claim that Gloucester pressured Mary, who was around ten years old, to enter a convent so he could inherit the entire de Bohun fortune, rather than just half. This story may be an invention but it is clear Gloucester, John of Gaunt and his son argued over the de Bohun inheritance.

Gloucester’s elder brother, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster would not allow Mary to become a nun. Gaunt’s son and heir, Henry, Earl of Northampton and Derby and known by the courtesy title of Bolingbroke, had probably known Mary de Bohun since their childhood. Gaunt purchased the right for Henry to marry Mary for five thousand marks (£3333), a sum which King Richard II owed him for his services overseas. The marriage was arranged for economical reasons but it also has the appearance of being a love match.

Gaunt obtained the license to marry in June 1380. The latest possible date for the wedding is February 1381 (possibly on the 5th), when Mary was about twelve and Henry fourteen or fifteen, and taking place at Mary’s home of Rochford Hall in Essex. Henry’s two sisters, Philippa and Elizabeth, gave Mary a silver-gilt goblet. John of Gaunt gifted a diamond in a clasp and a great ruby which he had made into a ring, along with an additional diamond ring to his new daughter-in-law. Minstrels in the employ of Henry’s uncle Edmund of Langley, Earl of Cambridge, performed at the wedding.

Donor portrait of Mary de Bohun with Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary and Child in so-called Bohun Psalter (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Auct. D. 4. 4, fol. 181v)

In celebration of the marriage, two psalters were commissioned by the de Bohun family, one for Mary and one for Henry. Both Mary and her sister Eleanor would continue to commission illuminated manuscripts after marrying. Mary’s husband would also purchase valuable books, indicating the couple shared an interest. Mary returned to her mother after the wedding and Gaunt gave her cash for her upkeep. When she turned sixteen, Mary and Henry began to cohabit and consummated the union. John of Gaunt’s mistress, Kathryn Swynford, who helped raise Henry Bolingbroke, joined Mary’s household in 1386 to aid in her education.

Mary gave birth to her first surviving child, the future King Henry V, on September 16, 1386 at Monmouth Castle, one of her husband’s possessions. Thomas, Duke of Clarence, was born in London in the autumn of 1387. A son John, Duke of Bedford was born in June, 1389 and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester in the autumn of 1390. Blanche was born near Peterborough in the spring of 1392 and Philippa in the summer of 1394. The steady birth of these children, six in eight years, indicates the couple traveled and lived together. There is no proof Henry had any illegitimate children during the marriage and historical records show the couple regularly exchanged gifts. This evidence implies they were a loving and happy couple.

Mary was in charge of feeding, clothing and educating her children. Her accounts record purchases of clothes, shoes, cloth, furs and beds for the children and their nurses. Wet-nurses were used by women of the upper nobility to breast-feed and take care of the infants. Mary arranged choirs, sung and played the cither or harp. Her account book has an entry for the purchase of a tuning fork in 1388. Both Mary and Henry shared a love of music. She washed the feet of poor women in celebration of Maundy Thursday, giving them alms, gowns and hoods, a public demonstration of her strong spiritual faith.

On March 10, 1386, the royal council confirmed Henry’s custody of his wife’s inheritance. Henry was frequently away at court and events from 1386 to 1388 saw a marked deterioration of Henry’s relationship with his cousin, King Richard II. In the fall of 1388, Mary was very ill and a physician was summoned to Kenilworth Castle to treat her. Henry left to go on military campaign and crusade in Lithuania from August 1390 to April 1391.

Upon his return, Mary and Henry spent time together. They listened to musicians and Henry sent Mary a gift of one hundred apples and one hundred and fifty pears. The family spent Christmas with John of Gaunt at Hereford. For New Years, Henry gave Mary a jewel in the shape of a golden hind, covered in white enamel with a golden collar around its neck. Henry left England again in July, 1392, traveling to Prussia, Italy, Burgundy and on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, returning in July 1393.

During that summer, a rebellion arose against the increasingly tyrannical rule of King Richard II. John of Gaunt was attempting to make peace with France and to get the king to acknowledge his son Henry Bolingbroke as his heir, according to the entail endorsed by King Edward III shortly before his death. With his father fighting the rebels in August, Henry returned to his family in Peterborough. Mary became pregnant again. The entire family spent Christmas together. In January, he left to attend Parliament, giving Mary gifts of oysters, mussels and sprats (a type of herring.) The king failed to recognize Henry as his heir.

Mary died at Peterborough giving birth to her last child, her daughter Philippa. Her possible date of death is July 4, 1394. She was buried in the collegiate Church of the Annunciation of Our Lady of the Newarke, Leicester, a church founded by Henry’s maternal grandfather, Henry of Grosmont, 1st Duke of Lancaster. Henry went into mourning for a year. In October 1396, Henry accompanied his father to France for the magnificent marriage celebrations of King Richard II to Isabella de Valois, daughter of King Charles VI. It was during these festivities Henry met his future wife, Joan of Navarre, Duchess of Brittany. In the fall of 1399, Henry led a rebellion to depose Richard II. At the request of Parliament, he was crowned King Henry IV.  

Further reading: “The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England’s Self-Made King” by Ian Mortimer, “Henry V: The Life of the Warrior King & the Battle of Agincourt 1415” by Teresa Cole, “Women in England in the Middle Ages” by Jennifer Ward, “The Last Medieval Queens” by J.L. Laynesmith, “Women of the English Nobility and Gentry 1066-1500” by Jennifer Ward, Henry IV [known as Henry Bolingbroke] entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National biography written by A.L. Brown and Henry Summerson