On this day, in 1344, a little girl was born to a famous king and queen. She entered the expected role of a royal daughter from birth as her future husband, an important political ally, was already living in the regal nursery she would call home. This royal baby spent her life preparing to marry and make an alliance that would strengthen her father’s power and she is best known to history through her wedding dress. Meet Mary of Waltham, daughter of Edward III and a bride at birth.
Little Mary was born on October 10th 1344 at Bishop’s Waltham in Hertfordshire. Her father was Edward III who had been King of England for fourteen years and who was already embroiled in the conflict which would become known as the Hundred Years’ War. Her mother was Philippa of Hainault, a royal bride whose own important connections in northern Europe were instrumental in bolstering her husband’s power. Mary was their ninth child and fourth daughter but despite being way down the pecking order in this numerous family, she was a very useful political tool. Like many a royal woman across Europe she was to marry to make links that would enhance the power, prestige and standing of her family. And from the moment she arrived in this world, her parents knew just who her husband would be.
For waiting in the royal nursery for news of a new companion was a boy called John of Brittany. He was about five years old and had been taken into the care of Edward and Philippa two years earlier as his parents fought for the title he would eventually call his own. This Duke of Brittany in the making was considered ideal marriage material for baby Mary.
She was also a good catch for him for although the Duchy of Brittany was powerful, rich and illustrious it was also in the middle of a succession war. Young John’s parents scored a political coup of their own by winning the hand of the newborn English princess for their son. They were fighting claimants who had the support of the King of France and had managed to get Edward III on board in their own campaign as he wanted Brittany as an ally in his own bid for the French crown. This was a power partnership formed in the nursery and it had the potential to change the course of a whole country’s destiny.
Not that the baby girl born in Waltham had any idea of that. Mary and John grew up together – ultimately he would become Duke of Brittany but at a great cost. His father, John de Montfort, died in 1345 while his mother, Joan, developed serious mental health problems and was confined to Tickhil Castle in Nottinghamshire. Their son was raised by Edward and Philippa in the same household as the girl who was lined up to be his wife.
That wasn’t such an unusual situation in the Late Middle Ages and in this case it allowed the young pair to develop a friendship that would stand them in great stead. Mary had several siblings close to her in age but several more who were older and who married while she was still a child. The brief accounts of her upbringing that have come down to us show that it was a very ordinary for a royal, spent at the famous palaces of the time, and quite sheltered. And all around, her father’s ambition unfolded as he plunged into the conflicts of the Hundred Years War and rebuilt England’s economy following the troublesome reign of his own fathr, Edward II.
Mary’s wedding date was set for July 1361. She would be sixteen, not that young at all for a medieval royal bride, and her husband would be twenty one. Their wedding was to be held at Woodstock Palace, that bastion of royal power in the Middle Ages which has long since melted into history. And what the chroniclers of the time wrote down were the details of her dress.
Even by royal standards, it sounds spectacular. Mary, daughter of a king, wore two types of cloth of gold to wed the duke who had been her companion since birth. They were sewn into a dress and a mantle, the latter made of ’45 ells’ of fabric – an ell was around 45 inches so there was a lot of cloth of gold in this sumptuous outfit. The wedding gown was trimmed with 60 minivers – the white fur of an ermine which doesn’t include its black tail. The teenage bride would have truly glittered as she finally completed the marriage lined up for her since that day in October 1344.
Mary of Waltham was now Duchess of Brittany for while her new husband would still have to fight for his title the tide was turning in his favour. His wife, however, wouldn’t see the final victory that would secure his inheritance. Just a few weeks after her wedding, in the dress that stunned all who saw it, Mary developed what was described as a ‘lethargic’ disease. She died in the early part of September 1361, aged just sixteen, and was buried in Abingon. Her closest sister, Margaret, died not long after her and was buried with Mary.
John was heartbroken by the loss of the woman who had been his wife for just weeks but his companion for a lifetime. He called her ‘my late dearest companion’ and settled into the role of widower at the age of twenty one. He finally won his Duchy decisively in 1365 and would marry twice more. His last wife, Joanna of Navarre, gave him the heir he needed in 1389 and worked hard to ensure her son’s power when John died in 1399. Her mission accomplished she married for love and power in 1403 to a nephew of Mary’s. His name was Henry and he had recently claimed the throne of England from another of her nephews, the tragic Richard II.
Mary had died before either of these two kings had been born. By the time her husband’s last wife became Queen of England she had faded into history. But those history books still tell her story through the splendor of her wedding dress. Mary of Waltham, royal daughter and duchess in the making, made her mark in her sixteen short years.