Despite being a less-than average soldier, a weak politician and deeply unpopular in his own time, John of Gaunt has managed to achieve recognition as one of the most significant figures of the English Middle Ages. As the third son of Edward III, Gaunt is best remembered as the founder of the House of Lancaster, a senior cadet branch of England's ruling family, the Plantagenets. Although John never became King himself and never aspired to do so, his son Henry Bolingbroke seized the throne from the increasingly unpopular Richard II in 1399, becoming King Henry IV and establishing the Lancastrian dynasty that would rule England until 1461.
Although the main Lancastrian line was ultimately killed off by the ascendancy of the House of York, another branch of the family begun through John's brothers Lionel of Antwerp and Edmund of Langley, the legacy of John of Gaunt would remain at the forefront of royal affairs for many years to come. Through two of his three wives, Gaunt laid the framework for the royal family line which continues to rule the United Kingdom to this day, surviving in England through its initial years despite political intrigue, usurpations and the chaos of the Wars of the Roses. The ultimate product was the creation of the Tudor dynasty, which united the warring factions under John's descendants. As such, every monarch of England since 1399 and every monarch of Scotland since 1437 (through his granddaughter's marriage to the Scottish King) has been somehow descended from him.
|Family tree showing John of Gaunt's role in the development of the houses of Lancaster, York and Tudor.|
OK so we now know the basics of John's family legacy and I shall go into more detail on that shortly. For now, however, I'll be looking at his life and what he got up to outside the bedchamber. He was born on March 6th 1340 in the Flemish town of Ghent (Anglicised as "Gaunt"), where Edward III's Queen, Philippa of Hainault was staying during her husband's military campaigns in France. Once he had grown up and become a senior member of the royal family, Gaunt played significant military and political roles in 14th Century England and did very well out of his first marriage to his third cousin Blanche of Lancaster. When his father-in-law died in 1361, John inherited half of his lands and became Earl of Lancaster. The following year, Blanche's sister died and the rest of the Lancastrian inheritance went to Gaunt, meaning that he now owned land in almost every English county as well as over 30 castles and estates across England and France. On November 13th 1362, Edward III promoted his son's earldom and proclaimed him Duke of Lancaster.
With all those lands in his possession, Gaunt was now arguably the wealthiest and most powerful man in the kingdom, with 4000 armed retainers at his personal command and an income of around £8000-£10000 annually, millions in today's terms. However, it would seem that money could not buy love for John of Gaunt, at least not from the downtrodden common people of England. As his wealth and political influence grew he began to be increasingly resented by certain sectors of society, especially as English forces were faltering in the Hundred Years War against the French and his father's long rule was becoming unpopular due to high taxation. Unlike Edward III, however, John did not have a successful military reputation to fall back on when times got tough. Despite being a veteran commander in his own right, John had not been able to rack up the victories and, in warrior terms at least, remained firmly in the shadow of his elder brother and heir to the throne, Edward the Black Prince.
In 1376 the Black Prince succumbed to a long and lingering illness, apparently cancer, whilst Edward III finally died the following year. The Black Prince's 10-year-old son ascended to the throne as King Richard II. Despite the efforts of a hostile Parliament to prevent Gaunt from assuming the reins of government by excluding him from Richard's regency council, he was simply too poweful and he ended up his nephew's de-facto regent regardless. Gaunt's further increasing influence on government only served to ramp up the lower orders' resentment towards him and the gossips spread (false) rumours about John wanting to seize the throne for himself. Mistrust of John and many of Richard's other ministers among the population turned to downright hate as they masterminded and imposed a debilitating new poll tax to fund the war with France, which had now gone for some time without an English victory.
Matters came to head in 1381 as popular uprisings in London, Essex and Kent, known to posterity as the Peasant's Revolt, resulted in the deaths of several of Richard's closest advisers and came dangerously close to toppling the regime. John of Gaunt, long suspected of siphoning off tax money for his own use, was right at the top of the rebels' most-wanted list but he managed to escape retribution by fleeing from the capital and laying low in the Scottish Borders throughout the duration of the the revolt. The revolt was defeated after two weeks, thanks largely to the fourteen-year-old King Richard himself. Unfortunately for Gaunt, however, his sumptuous London home at the Savoy Palace, the jewel in the crown of his extensive property portfolio, had been ransacked and its contents destroyed by the rampaging mob.
|London's Savoy Hotel, the site of Gaunt's former palace.|
One of the more significant episode in the life of John of Gaunt was played out abroad. John's second marriage, to the Infanta Constance of Castile in 1371 allowed him to claim the title of King of Castile and Leon by right of his wife. Gaunt took full advantage of this boost to his ego and insisted that other nobles address him as "my lord of Spain". However, his new title meant nothing in practice as the Spanish kingdom was actually ruled by his new wife's half-uncle Henry II. Henry was an illegitimate son of Alphonso XI and had usurped the Castilian throne from his father's legal son and heir, Peter in 1369 after a three-year civil war. As Peter's son-in-law, Gaunt saw himself as the rightful heir to the crown of Castile and desired to act upon that claim.
Military business in France and Scotland prevented John from pursuing his Castilian interest for some years. It was not until England entered into a full alliance with Portugal in 1386 that he was at last able to raise an army and mount a campaign there. By this stage, Henry II's son, John I was ruling Castile and was naturally expecting the army of John of Gaunt to invade via Portugal. Unfortunately for Spanish John he was wrong-footed by English John's decision to land not in Portugal but in the restless Castilian province of Galicia. Unfortunately for the Anglo-Portuguese expedition, that was as good as things got. The alliance between the two countries held but the invasion of central Castile turned out to be a complete failure and another black mark on John of Gaunt's military record. The Castilians refused to come out and meet him in battle, instead preferring to sit tight and wait for the invading army's money and food supplies to run out. After returning to the safety of Portugal in June 1387, Gaunt concluded a secret peace treaty in which he and his wife agreed to renounce their claims to the Castilian throne in exchange for the marriage of their daughter to John I's son and heir Henry, Prince of Asturias.
Returning to England and older and wiser man, John of Gaunt became a greater proponent of peace in his later years. His failed campaigns in Brittany and Aquitaine in the 1370s had led him to conclude that the war with France was unwinnable because of that country's vaster supplies of wealth and manpower. After the doomed Castilian campaign he became the brains behind the English efforts to negotiate a halt to hostilities with the French. Those efforts were successfully concluded in 1389 when Richard II and Charles VI of France signed the Truce of Leulinghem. Contrary to what you might expect, however, Gaunt's involvement in the peace negotiations only served to make him even less popular with the majority of the English people, who were unaware of the true nature of the situation and still believed that victory had been within their grasp. King Richard was more appreciative of Gaunt's work and rewarded him with the English-controlled French duchy of Aquaitaine in 1390. It wasn't just peace with France, however, that Richard had John to thank for.
As well as ending the war with France, John also found himself being forced to intervene in a crisis that he found enveloping the English government upon his return from Castile. Ever since he came of age, Richard II's rule had become increasingly tyrannical in the eyes of the nobility and three of them, known as the Lords Appellant, sought to put a stop to it. In 1387 the situation got out of control, dragging in more and more people until the Lords, which included John's son Henry Bolingbroke, had effective control of the King and the country tottered on the brink of civil war. It was only the return of John of Gaunt that diffused the situation as he managed to force a compromise between Richard and the rebellious nobles, allowing Richard to take back control. The King would go on to exact his revenge upon the senior Lords Appellant, ensuring that the bubbling undercurrent of discontent among the nobility would continue to undermine his authority.
The last decade of John of Gaunt's life was marked by a period of relative internal stability and a gradual restoration of both Richard II's authority and Gaunt's battered reputation. The only fly-in-the-ointment was the exile of Henry Bolingbroke after he had a major falling-out with another of Richard's former opponents, the Duke of Norfolk. Both men, their roles in the Lords Appellant crisis counting against them, were banished from the kingdom by Richard in 1398. The absence of Henry meant that his father's vast wealth and estates could end up reverting to the Crown. When John of Gaunt died on February 3rd 1399 at the age of 58, that is exactly what happened. Richard II immediately confiscated all the Lancastrian lands, denying Henry his inheritance and setting in motion the chain of events that would lead to Henry's return to England, the removal of Richard and the establishment of the House of Lancaster on the throne.
The life of John of Gaunt is one long tale of domestic unpopularity and military failure intersperced with moments of political mastery but he he is far better remembered today for the vast and far-reaching family legacy he left behind after his death. John was married three times in all and the descendents from each of those unions played a key role which was felt for many, many years afterwards.
John's first marriage to Blanche of Lancaster lasted from 1359 to 1369 and yielded his senior legitimate male heirs, the Lancasters. This line was established by the only son from the marriage to survive infancy, Henry Bolingbroke. Henry overthrew Richard II to become Henry IV while his son and grandson became Henry V and Henry VI respectively. Henry VI was removed from the throne in 1461 by the Yorkist faction during the Wars of the Roses. He briefly returned in 1470 only to be removed again and killed off for good the following year as was his son Edward, bringing an end to the direct Lancastrian line.
|The three Lancastrian Kings of England and their consorts.|
Blanche of Lancaster died of Plague in 1369. Her and John's eldest daughter, Philippa of Lancaster, married King John I of Portugal in 1387. This union was instrumental in establishing the Anglo-Portuguese alliance in advance of John of Gaunt's Castile campaign. The alliance born out of this marriage has turned out to be incredibly long-lasting and is still technically in effect right now.
John's second marriage to Constance of Castile lasted from 1371 to 1394 and produced only one surviving child, a daughter named Catherine. It was Catherine who John agreed to marry off to the Castilian heir Henry as part of the peace terms that saw an end to his ambitious efforts in Spain. As was the case with Philippa in Portugal, Catherine's marriage ensured the presence of English blood in the Castilian and later Spanish royal line for a long time to come. Most significant among Catherine's immediate descendants was her granddaughter, Queen Isabella I who ruled Castile from 1474 to 1504. It was Isabella's marriage to Ferdinand II of Aragon that set the foundations for a united Spanish kingdom while their daughter Joanna's marriage to Philip of Burgundy initiated the prosperous period of Habsburg rule in Spain which lasted until 1700 when the line finally inbred itself out of existance.
Despite having already founded a whole new royal dynasty in England and planted his seed in Portugal and Spain, it was John's final marriage that turned out to be the most significant of all. Had the main Lancastrian line not drowned in the bloodbath of the Wars of the Roses, the results of this union might have turned out to be just another forgotten page in history.
John of Gaunt's long-term mistress and eventual third wife was a widow named Katherine Swynford, the daughter of a herald and sister-in-law of Canterbury Tales author Geoffrey Chaucer, of whom John was an enthusiastic patron. Katharine began an affair with John sometime before his marriage to Constance of Castile, a relationship which would last for the rest of their lives. Historians often wax lyrical over the significance of Katherine Swynford because she was the first high-profile commoner (meaning not of royal or noble blood) to marry into senior English royalty. Her relationship with John is also often cited as a rare Medieval example of a genuine love match. What is definitely significant, however, is the line of descent this illicit union sprouted.
|Henry Tudor, later King Henry VII|
The reason why the children of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford are so important is because they form the basis of claim to the throne later made by an obscure Welshman who had been exiled to Brittany by the ruling House of York. Henry Tudor was a direct descendant of John and Katherine through his mother, giving a clear if somewhat dodgy claim to the throne. He also had strong Lancastrian credentials as his father was the son of Lancastrian squire Owen Tudor and King Henry V's widow, the French princess Catherine of Valois. By the 1480s Henry Tudor was the last male Lancastrian claimant remaining and his descent from John of Gaunt made him the ideal candidate to fly the banner for the Lancastrian faction against the Yorkists but there was one crucial factor that counted against him.
Having already had two children by her deceased first husband, the knight Sir Hugh Swynford, Katherine had four children by John of Gaunt. The problem that would go on to threaten Henry Tudor's claim is that John did not marry Katherine until 1396 and all four children were born while she was still his mistress, making them illegitimate. The children were given the surname Beaufort as a nod to their father's Beaufort lordship in the Champagne region of France. Despite being legally barred from claiming the throne, the children benefited massively from their influential father and were compensated with titles, marriages and top jobs. The second son, Cardinal Henry Beaufort joined the church and became Bishop of Winchester while the third, Thomas Beaufort was made Duke of Exeter. The only daughter, Joan married the Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland and their daughter, Cecily Neville married Richard Plantagenet, the head of the House of York. This meant that John of Gaunt was a great-grandfather of the Yorkist Kings Edward IV and Richard III, the latter of whom would be defeated and overthrown and killed by Henry Tudor at Bosworth in 1485.
The most significant of the Beaufort children was the eldest son, John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset as it is his line of descent that leads us to Henry Tudor. John Beaufort's daughter, Joan married King James I of Scotland whilst his son, also named John, had the daughter who became the mother of Henry Tudor, Lady Margaret Beaufort.
The four children of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford were eventually legitimised by letters patent issued by Richard II in 1397 and the act was confirmed by Henry IV ten years later. However, Henry IV made abundantly clear that the children and their descendants were still barred from inheriting the throne. Considering that the children were legitimised by act of Parliament, the legality of Henry IV's decision to bar them from the succession is doubtful but it would nonetheless go on to weaken Henry Tudor's claim to the throne. It was only a mixture of good fortune and the fact that he was the right man at the right moment which carried him home to victory.
So there you have it. Although he was remembered in his day as one of England's wealthiest magnates and a hated power-behind-the-throne, the legacy of John of Gaunt was truly established through his various lines of descent. Within a century of his death his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and beyond had spread his genes not only into both the houses of York and Lancaster but into Scotland, Spain and Portugal as well. Henry Tudor did indeed take the throne based upon his blood claim to John and founded the Tudor dynasty in England on the back of that claim. When that dynasty ended the Stuarts of Scotland united Britain for the first time under a single monarch. Although his descendant lines in Europe have since been overthrown or died out, the descendants of John of Gaunt continue to reign in Britain to this day. Not bad considering that he was only the third son.