Earl of Richmond (1342-1372)
Earl of Lancaster (1361-1399)
Earl of Derby (1361-1399)
Earl of Lincoln (1362-1399)
Earl of Leicester (1362-1399)
Steward of England (1362-1399)
Duke of Lancaster(1362-1399)
Duke of Aquitaine (1389-1399)
Titular King of Castile and Leon (1372-1388)
Born 1340 Died 1399
John was the fourth son of Edward III born in March 1340 at St Bavon’s Abbey in Ghent in Flanders and thus known as John of Gaunt. Although it seems that apart from a brief period during his childhood, he was never known by that name by his contemporaries and we really have William Shakespeare to thank for popularising the name by which he is now universally known thanks to the appearance of the character of John of Gaunt in his play Richard II.
At the age of two on the 29th of September 1342 John was created Earl of Richmond by his father, and at the age of ten in August 1350 was on deck Edward at the battle of Winchelsea when the English navy defeated the Castillian fleet.
In 1357 he was granted the lordship of Liddle in Cumberland, presumably to give him experience in northern affairs; at the time his father was busy negotiating with David II of Scotland regarding the question of the succession to the Scottish throne and there was a real prospect that John might be nominated as the heir to Scotland.
Thus it seems that John was being groomed for kingship and it was likely in pursuance of this objective that at Reading Abbey on the 19th May 1359 that John was married to Blanche of Lancaster, one of the two daughters and future co-heiressess of Henry of Grosmont the Duke of Lancaster.
Henry of Grosmont was the largest landowner in the kingdom after the crown and a man of some considerable power and influence in the north. John stood to inherit half of his father-in-law's lands which would have stood him in good stead had anything ever come of his Scottish ambitions.
In the event Henry died in 1361 and as John's childless sister-in-law Maud died of the plague in 13621, he scooped the lot, gaining himself the titles of Earl of Derby, Lincoln, Lancaster and Leicester, as well as the hereditary office of Steward of England making him by far the greatest magnate in England. Being granted the title of Duke of Lancaster in 1362 was merely the icing on this particular cake.
His early military career
In 1366 John was in Aquitaine with his older brother, Edward, the Black Prince, in the following year was with the English army sent to Spain in support of the claims of Pedro the Cruel to the kingdom of Castile and Leon. John fought at the battle of Najera on the 3rd April 1367, where the English victory ensured the restoration of Pedro to the throne.
English intervention in Spain naturally raised fears in France of an Anglo-Castillian alliance. (Although as it happens Pedro dumped his English allies as soon as he thought he had secured the throne). The long running Hundred Years War had been in abeyance since the Treaty of Bretigny of 1361, but now the French began preparing an invasion of England.
John was given the task of frustrating the French invasion plan and on the 26th July 1369 landed in France with an army that spent most of the following month ravaging northern France. Although he succeeded in the major objective of distracting the French and persuading them to disband their invasion fleet he was accused by Thomas Beauchamp, 3rd Earl of Warwick, of timidity in failing to bring the French to battle. An accusation that was to haunt him for many years thereafter.
In 1370 and 1371 he was in Aquitaine with his brother Edward and was present at the sack of Limoges. When ill health forced Edward home, John was left in charge of Aquitaine where he continued the war, much of which he financed out of his own pocket.
Sadly for John his wife Blanche had earlier died in the autumn of 1369 whilst he was otherwise occupied in northern France, but this now left him free to pursue new dynastic alliances. One now presented itself, as Pedro the Cruel of Castile had been overthrown and killed by a rival named Henry of Trastamara, and Pedro's eldest daughter Constance of Castile had consequently fled to safety of Boulogne. The now widowed John seized the opportunity of courting the exiled princess, and in 1372 he married Constance and boldly assumed title of king of Castile and Leon. He was to spend much of the next sixteen years vainly pursuing the ambition of making this claim a reality.
France 1373 and the Good Parliament
In the meantime however the Spanish scheme had to wait as John was given the task of commanding the English army which invaded France in 1373.
In July of that year he landed at Calais with a force of some 6,000 men and proceeded to make his way across northern France in the direction of Paris. Charles V of France however avoided battle and for some reason rather than move against Paris, John decided to march south to Aquitaine. By the time he reached Bordeux at Christmas some months later, half the army had been lost through disease, desertion and harassment by French forces.
Returning to England in April 1374, John was summoned to the presence of his father the king and given a thorough dressing down for his failures. He spent the next few months in the relative seclusion of his northern estates, during which he came to the conclusion that peace with France was the only suitable course to take. He met the Dukes of Anjou and Berry at Bruges in 1375 and eventually agreed the Treaty of Bruges under which a truce was agreed until April 1377.
Military failure abroad was however not popular at home and their was much discontent as a result of the failure of the 1373 expedition, which wasn't helped by the tales, many of which were true, of profiteering and corruption by members of the king's government. This discontent surfaced at the so called Good Parliament of 1376, and since by this time Edward III was old and sick and his son Edward, the Black Prince scarcely in better health, John found himself in the position of bearing the brunt of the attack on the administration as the foremost representative of the government.
These attacks, led by Peter de la Mere and William of Wykeham the Bishop of Winchester, eventually led to the impeachment of a couple of ministers and the banishment of Alice Perrers, the king's mistress - she was regarded as a bad influence. As soon as the Good Parliament was dissolved John had both de la Mere and the bishop arrested and made sure that the next Parliament of 1377 was more subservient and reversed most of the Good Parliament's actions.
With his elder brother Edward having died in 1376, John was now effectively in charge of the government and ensured that one of his supporters, a fellow northern landowner named Henry Percy was appointed to the office of Marshal of England on the 31st December 1376. He also proposed that the authority of Henry as Marshal be extended over London in place of the Mayor, a suggestion that was much opposed in London. His unpopularity in London was compounded by his support for the reformer John Wycliffe, who preached against corruption and other abuses in the established church. When the Church decided to charge Wycliffe with heresy, John stepped forward to frustrate the trial. The end result was a minor insurrection in London in which both John and Henry Percy only narrowly escaped being lynched. In the end John had to abandon his plans for London2, as the city dignitaries managed to extract a promise from king Edward to uphold the city's privileges.
The Reign of Richard II
Everything changed on the 21st June 1377 with the death of Edward III. Although he had been accused of aiming at the throne for himself, John displayed a commendable loyalty to his nephew Richard, son of Edward, the Black Prince and ensured that there was a smooth transition of power. As Steward of England he took on the task of organising the coronation of Richard II but otherwise stood aside from the business of government.
Richard was only ten years old when he succeeded to the throne and the Scots naturally sought to take advantage with the customary raiding and ravaging of English holdings in the north. They briefly seized Berwick and generally made a nuisance of themselves. In February 1379, John was appointed as the King's Lieutenant in the Marches and essentially placed in charge of the defence of the north. This was to cause a falling out with his former ally Henry Percy who resented John's interference in what Henry considered to be his patch. John was therefore absent in the north during the Peasants Revolt of 1381 and wasn't present when the rioters burnt down his Savoy Palace in London.
As was frequently the case, disorder in the north proved difficult to control, and was particularly unsettling as there was a fourteen year truce with Scotland that formally expired in February 1384. Since Robert II of Scotland had entered an alliance with the French under which the French promised to provide troops, further trouble was to be expected.
In 1384 and against his better judgement, John was ordered to invade Scotland, an expedition that brought little in the way of results as John contented himself with holding Edinburgh for ransom. Richard II himself decided to invade Scotland in 1385, but with no greater effect. Although the reluctance of the Scots to do battle persuaded the French that their presence was a waste of time and they left in disgust. Abandoned by their French allies, the Scots eventually decided to renew the truce.
Richard who was by now a young man was allowing himself to fall under the influence of a number of court favourites who resented the wealth and authority commanded by John. John was blamed for the failure to crush the Scots and persistent rumours began circulating that John was conspiring against his nephew, which escalated into full blown accusations from time to time. Nothing came of these accusations, if only because there were not the slightest truth in such tales, but they served to underline John's unpopularity.
The Spanish adventure
John had never given up on the idea of making good his claim to the throne of Castile and Leon; on a number of occasions attempted to persuade Parliament to finance an expedition to Spain but without success. Circumstances now however made this dim possibility more realistic as king John I of Portugal had recently defeated the Castillians, with English help, at the battle of Aljubarrota. The prospect of a Portuguese alliance, together with his domestic difficulties, persuaded John that an attempt to unseat king Juan of Castile3 might now succeed.
In the summer of 1386 John landed at Corunna, and initially achieved some success, capturing Galicia during the autumn of that year. In the following spring, together with his Portugese allies 4 he invaded Castile but without much success. In the end it was decided to conclude a peace at Bayonne in 1388, where John of Gaunt agreed to surrender his claims on the Castillian throne to his daughter Catherine (by Constance of Castile), who was betrothed to Henry, Prince of Asturias, the heir-apparent to the Castillian throne.5
After the lack of success in Spain, John went to Aquitaine where he spent the next eighteen months and did not return to England until November 1389. He therefore missed all the excitement at home with the Lords Appellant and the Merciless Parliament and was thus well placed to smooth over some of the differences between Richard II and the opposition (amongst which was numbered his son Henry). He therefore found himself in relatively good favour with the king on his return and the king created him Duke of Aquitaine, with the intention of transferring the responsibility for the government of Aquitaine into John's hands.
However opposition to this idea both in Aquitaine and at home (there was a minor revolt in Cheshire) forced Richard to eventually drop the idea, which at least left John to negotiate a more permanent peace with France. In 1396 it was agreed that Richard II would marry Isabella of France in return for a large dowry and a remarkable twenty-eight year truce.
The last years of John's life were to prove a disappointment as Richard II became increasingly unstable and pursued a vendetta against those opponents who had earlier embarrassed him. Ill health and an inability to comprehend Richard's capacity for duplicity was leave John unable to take any action to prevent the exile of his son Henry in 1398, or the murder of his brother Thomas of Woodstock. His health subsequently deteriorated; it appears he was suffering from some venereal disease and reportedly made sure that his nephew Richard had a good view of the effects in order to warn him of the perils of a sinful life.
He died on the 3rd of February 1399, at the Bishop of Ely's Palace in Holborn and in accordance with his will was buried at St Pauls Cathedral, next to the remains of his first wife Blanche.
The highe prince of Gaunt
Indeed John appears to have been genuinely fond of his first wife Blanche every year, almost without fail, on 12th September he attended a memorial ceremony at her tomb in St Pauls Cathedral and he paid large sums to employ priests to daily chant masses in her name.
In contrast his marriage to Constance of Castile was a matter of politics and shortly after that marriage John took a mistress in Katherine Swynford6 who bore him a number of children. After Constance of Castile died in 1394, John took the opportunity to marry his long term mistress and persuaded Richard II to pass an Act of Parliament of 9th February 1397 legitimizing his children by Katherine. These children bore the name of Beaufort and were to feature strongly in events of later reigns.
Throughout his life he was staunchly loyal to the crown, but never quite achieved anything remarkable. He spent a great deal of his life at war but never seems to have won a battle and his pretensions to a Spanish crown only served to attract resentment in England where such foreign entanglements were viewed with suspicion. His Spanish ambitions came to nothing, and his interventions in both France and Scotland ultimately achieved little; although it also to be said, neither did he ever fail in a particularly spectacular fashion. As one commentator put it he was "an honest man of very average ability who never transcended his aristocratic upbringing"7.
The judgement of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica was that "John was neither a great soldier nor a statesman, but he was a chivalrous knight and loyal to what he believed were the interests of his family. In spite of opportunities and provocations he never lent himself to treason."
It is worth contrasting the behaviour of John, Duke of Lancaster, uncle to Richard II, with that of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, uncle to Edward V in very similar circumstances, to understand how much of a temptation he successfully resisted.
Of course the most important thing about John of Gaunt was that he was the father of a certain Henry Bollingbroke, who had a less developed sense of loyalty, a more acute sense of ambition and became king Henry IV at the expense of Richard II very shortly after John's death.
1 There were naturally rumours that Maud was poisoned, presumably at the instigation of John since he had the most to gain, but there appears to be no truth the allegation.
2 He also eventually abandoned his support for John Wycliffe.
3 The son and successor of the Henry of Transtamare who had earlier dispossessed Pedro the Cruel, and ruled Castile as Henry II.
4 An alliance strengthened by the marriage of his daughter Philippa to the Portuguese king John I.
5 The descendants of Catherine and Henry continued on the Castillian throne until the end of the seventeenth century.
6 Katherine was the daughter of Sir Paine Roet, and the widow of Sir Hugh Swynford; she is therefore known as both Katherine Roet and Katherine Swynford although the latter is most common (cf Elizabeth Woodville) - her christian name also appears as either Catherine or Katherine according to taste.
7 Gerald Harris, see SOURCES below.