The Countess Margaret of Henneberg and her 365 children

The Countess Margaret of Henneberg and her 365 children

By J. Bondeson and Arie Molenkamp

Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Vol.89:12 (1996)

Abstract: According to an obscure medieval legend, the Countess Margaret of Henneberg, a notable Dutch noblewoman, gave birth to 365 children in the year 1276. The haughty Countess had insulted a poor beggar woman carrying twins, since she believed that a pair of twins must have different fathers, and that their mother must be an adultress. She was punished by God, and gave birth to 365 minute children on Good Friday, 1276. The Countess died shortly after, together with her offspring, in the village of Loosduinen near The Hague. The Countess and her numerous brood were frequently described in historical and obstetrical works. To this day, a memorial tablet and two basins, representing those in which the 365 children were baptized, are to be seen in the church of Loosduinen.

In May 1660, Samuel Pepys was visiting the Netherlands. He travelled to the village of Loosduinen, which did not impress him greatly: it was ‘a little small village’ and at the tavern were ‘a great many Dutch boors eating of fish in a boorish manner’. Samuel Pepys had come to Loosduinen to see a monument so justly famous that many thousands of people have made the same pilgrimage to the sleepy little Dutch village. In the church, he saw a wooden tablet with an inscription relating the story of the unfortunate Countess Margaret of Henneberg, who had given birth to 365 children on Good Friday in the year 1276. Samuel Pepys also saw the two basins in which the male and female children had been baptized. Although the church of Loosduinen has changed its appearance since the time of Samuel Pepys, the basins and wooden plates commemorating the Countess Margaret and her strange birth of 365 children can still be seen, hanging on the church wall. As in Samuel Pepys’ time, the church of Loosduinen is visited by several thousand people interested in the legend of the Countess Margaret and her 365 children every year, henceforth referred to as the legend. There has been much speculation about the tradition’s origins, and whether the legend might contain a grain of truth.

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Take a look at our Medieval Magazine

There is no doubt that Margaret of Henneberg was a historical person. She was born in 1234, the daughter of Count Floris IV of Holland. In 1249, she was married to Count Herman of Henneberg. She was deeply religious, and after the death of her son Herman in 1250 she spent much time with the nuns in the Loosduinen convent. On Good Friday 1276, the Countess Margaret, who was then staying at Loosduinen, was taken ill and died. Count Floris V, Margaret’s nephew, visited her when she was very ill, and wrote a letter at her request, distributing various gifts and bequests to two ladies-in-waiting. The original documents quoted in these accounts did not mention any miraculous birth. The Countess was buried in the church of Loosduinen Abbey, but the exact location of her tomb is unknown.

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