John of Gaunt

A retrospective portrait commissioned in c.1593 by Sir Edward Hoby for Queenborough Castle, Kent, probably modelled on Gaunt's tomb effigy. ( Google images )

A retrospective portrait commissioned in c.1593 by Sir Edward Hoby for Queenborough Castle, Kent, probably modelled on Gaunt’s tomb effigy. ( Google images )

John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster, was born on March 6, 1340 to King Edward III of England and Philippa of Hainault. He was called “John of Gaunt” because he was born in Ghent, then rendered in English as Gaunt. He was born a member of the House of Plantagenet. His older brother Edward, Prince of Wales (the Black Prince) was next in line to the throne until his death in 1376 following a ten year battle with recurrent amoebic dysentery. When Edward III died in 1377 and his ten-year-old grandson succeeded as Richard II of England, John’s influence strengthened. However, many people suspected him of wanting to seize the throne himself. John took pains to ensure that he never became associated with the opposition to Richard’s kingship, although to this day it is debated that John was overly influential in the young King’s life, and there were several attempts made to remove his power.

As de facto ruler during Richard’s minority, he made unwise decisions on taxation that led to the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, when the rebels destroyed his home in London, the Savoy Palace. Unlike some of Richard’s unpopular advisors, John was away from London at the time of the uprising and thus avoided the direct wrath of the rebels. Through his children he is related to all subsequent sovereigns of Scotland beginning in 1437 and all sovereigns of England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom from 1603 to the present day. The three houses of English sovereigns that succeeded the rule of Richard II in 1399 — the Houses of Lancaster, York and Tudor — were all descended from John’s children Henry Bolingbroke, Joan Beaufort and John Beaufort, respectively. In addition, John’s daughter Catherine of Lancaster was married to King Henry III of Castile, which made him the grandfather of King John II of Castile and the ancestor of all subsequent monarchs of the Crown of Castile and united Spain. Through John II of Castile’s great-granddaughter Joanna of Castile,
John of Gaunt is also an ancestor of the Habsburg rulers who would reign in Spain and much of central Europe.

Although it is stated by some sources that John received the Duchy of Lancaster upon his 1359 marriage to Blanche by right of union, John received the title “Duke of Lancaster” from his father on 13 November 1362. By then well established, he owned at least thirty castles and estates across England and France and maintained a household comparable in scale and organisation to that of a monarch. He owned land in almost every county in England, a patrimony that produced a net income of between £8,000 and £10,000 a year. The title “Duke of Lancaster” has been held by every monarch since John’s son Henry Bolingbroke, including our Queen Elizabeth II. Queen Victoria was approached regarding the question of female patronage to the title, and responded by declaring that ‘Duke’ was the appropriate title and address regardless of gender of the Sovereign.

After the death in 1376 of his older brother Edward of Woodstock (also known as the “Black Prince”), John of Gaunt contrived to protect the religious reformer John Wycliffe, possibly to counteract the growing secular power of the church. However, John’s ascendancy to political power coincided with widespread resentment of his influence. At a time when English forces encountered setbacks in the Hundred Years’ War against France, and Edward III’s rule was becoming unpopular due to high taxation and his affair with Alice Perrers, political opinion closely associated the Duke of Lancaster with the failing government of the 1370s. Furthermore, while King Edward and the Prince of Wales were popular heroes due to their successes on the battlefield, John of Gaunt had not won equivalent military renown that could have bolstered his reputation. Although he fought in the Battle of Nájera (1367), for example, his later military projects proved unsuccessful.

He had quite a few marriages and one of those would eventually cause problems later. On 19 May 1359 at Reading Abbey, John married his third cousin, Blanche of Lancaster, daughter of Henry of Grosmont, 1st Duke of Lancaster. The wealth she brought to the marriage was the foundation of John’s fortune. Blanche died on 12 September 1368 at Tutbury Castle, while her husband was overseas. Their son Henry Bolingbroke became Henry IV of England, after the duchy of Lancaster was taken by Richard II upon John’s death while Henry was in exile. Their daughter Philippa became Queen of Portugal by marrying King John I of Portugal in 1387. All subsequent kings of Portugal were thus descended from John of Gaunt.

After the death in 1368 of Blanche of Lancaster, in 1371, John married Infanta Constance of Castile, daughter of King Peter of Castile, thus giving him a claim to the Crown of Castile, which he would pursue. Though John was never able to make good his claim, his daughter by Constance, Catherine of Lancaster, became Queen of Castile by marrying Henry III of Castile. Catherine of Aragon is descended from this line. During his marriage to Constance, John of Gaunt had fathered four children by a mistress, the widow Katherine Swynford (whose sister Philippa de Roet was married to Chaucer). John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, the daughter of an ordinary knight, entered into an extra-marital love affair that would produce four children for the couple, the birth of their first son, John Beaufort, in 1373, all of them were born out of wedlock, but legitimized upon their parents’ eventual marriage. The adulterous relationship endured until 1381, when it was broken out of political necessity.

Prior to her widowhood, Katherine had borne at least two, possibly three, children to Lancastrian knight Sir Hugh Swynford. The known names of these children are Blanche and Thomas. (There may have been a second Swynford daughter.) John of Gaunt was Blanche Swynford’s godfather. In 1386 John left England to seek the throne of Castile, claimed in Jure uxoris by right of his second wife, Constance of Castile. However, crisis ensued almost immediately in his absence, and in 1387 King Richard’s misrule brought England to the brink of civil war. Only John, on his return to England in 1389, succeeded in persuading the Lords Appellant and King Richard to compromise in order to usher in a period of relative stability. During the 1390s, John’s reputation of devotion to the well-being of the kingdom was largely restored. Constance died in 1394.

On 13 January 1396, two years after the death of Constance of Castile, Katherine and John of Gaunt married in Lincoln Cathedral. The children bore the surname “Beaufort” after a former French possession of the duke. The Beaufort children, three sons and a daughter, were legitimised by royal and papal decrees after John and Katherine married. A later proviso that they were specifically barred from inheriting the throne, the phrase excepta regali dignitate (“except royal status”), was inserted with dubious authority by their half-brother Henry IV. From the eldest son, John, descended a granddaughter, Margaret Beaufort, whose son, later King Henry VII of England, would nevertheless claim the throne. Queen Elizabeth II and her predecessors since Henry IV are descended from John of Gaunt.

Modern interpretation of the arms of John of Gaunt (Google images)

Modern interpretation of the arms of John of Gaunt (Google images)

Children of John of Gaunt:

By Blanche of Lancaster: Philippa (married King John I of Portugal), John (died young), Elizabeth (married (1) in 1380 John Hastings, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, annulled 1383; (2) in 1386 John Holland, 1st Duke of Exeter (1350–1400); (3) Sir John Cornwall, 1st Baron Fanhope and Milbroke), Edward (died young), John (died young), Henry IV of England (married (1) Mary de Bohun ; (2) Joanna of Navarre), Isabel (died young)

By Constance of Castile: Catherine (married King Henry III of Castile), John (died young)

By Katherine Swynford (née de Roet/Roelt), mistress and later wife (children legitimized 1397): John Beaufort, 1st Earl of Somerset (married Margaret Holland), Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester and Cardinal, Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter (married Margaret Neville), Joan Beaufort (married (1) Robert Ferrers, 5th Baron Boteler of Wem and (2)Ralph Neville, 1st Earl of Westmoreland)

By Marie de St. Hilaire of Hainaut, (his mistress and lady-in-waiting to his mother, Queen Philippa) one daughter: Blanche (married Sir Thomas Morieux).

John died of natural causes on 3 February 1399 at Leicester Castle, with his third wife Katherine by his side. John of Gaunt was buried beside his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster, between the choir stalls of St Paul’s Cathedral. Their magnificent tomb had been designed and executed between 1374 and 1380 by Henry Yevele with the assistance of Thomas Wrek, at a total cost of £592. The two alabaster effigies were notable for having their right hands joined. An adjacent chantry chapel was added between 1399 and 1403. The grave and monument were destroyed with the cathedral in the Great Fire of London in 1666. A modern monument in the crypt lists John of Gaunt’s grave as among the important ones lost.

*Extra Info*
John of Gaunt was a friend and sponsor of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales).  For more information on Chaucer, please see this post http://www.historynaked.com/geoffrey-chaucer/   Near the end of their lives, Lancaster and Chaucer became brothers-in-law. Chaucer married Philippa (Pan) de Roet in 1366, and Lancaster took his mistress of nearly 30 years, Katherine Swynford (de Roet), who was Philippa Chaucer’s sister, as his third wife in 1396. Although Philippa died c. 1387, the men were bound as brothers and Lancaster’s children by Katherine – John, Henry, Thomas and Joan Beaufort – were Chaucer’s nephews and niece. There continues to be scholarly debate on the extent of the relationship between John And Chaucer, with some maintaining that no favouritism was shown to Chaucer over other squires within the Gaunt retinue, and that any annuities Chaucer received in regards to his role as poet under John’s patronage were in line with payments made to other squires.

Adela and Phoebe