John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster, KG (1340 –1399)

AV 5 John (of Gaunt), Duke of Lancaster, K.G..jpg
AV 5 John (of Gaunt), Duke of Lancaster, K.G..jpg

John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster, KG (1340 –1399)

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John of Gaunt, Shakespeare's 'time honoured Lancaster', was the fourth son of King Edward III. Gaunt is an anglicized version of his birthplace of Ghent the accepted form of his name arising from its use in Shakespeare’s Richard II. he exercised a moderating influence in the political and constitutional struggles of the reign of his nephew Richard II. He was the immediate ancestor of the three 15th-century Lancastrian monarchs, Henry IV, V, and VI. Through his first wife Blanche he acquired the duchy of Lancaster and the vast Lancastrian estates in England and Wales. He fought in the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) against France. He formed an alliance with John Wycliffe. Despite his unpopularity, he maintained his position when his nephew, Richard II aged 10, acceded in 1377.  In 1386 John departed for Spain to pursue his claim to the kingship of Castile and Leon but it was a military failure. Meanwhile, in England, war had nearly broken out between the followers of King Richard II and the followers of Gloucester. John returned in 1389 and resumed his role as peacemaker. His wife Constance died in 1394, and two years later he married his mistress, Catherine Swynford. In 1397 he obtained legitimization of the four children born to her before their marriage. This family, the Beauforts, played an important part in 15th-century politics. When John died in 1399, Richard II confiscated the Lancastrian estates, thereby preventing them from passing to John’s son, Henry Bolingbroke. Henry then deposed Richard and in September 1399 ascended the throne as King Henry IV.

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No doubt to the youthful Richard II his uncle John was 'Old John of Gaunt, time honoured Lancaster', yet the cold historical fact is that John was but fifty-eight years old when he died. However, his life was so crowded with activity that he might well have looked older.

As his name suggests, he was born at Ghent. In 1342, when he was but two years old, he was created Earl of Richmond by girding the sword and when he was nineteen he married his third cousin, Blanche, daughter and co-heiress, with her sister Maude, Duchess of Bavaria, of Henry, Duke of Lancaster, great-grand­son of King Henry III. Shortly after their marriage Gaunt's father-in-law died and his wife succeeded to one moiety[1] of his estate, her sister died of the plague on the way to claim her portion and, leaving no issue, Blanche succeeded to all her father's lands and wealth and Gaunt was created Duke of Lancaster.

In 1369 the duchess also died of the plague and two years later John married Constance, eldest daughter and co-heir of Pedro, King of Castile and Leon. These two marriages profoundly affected John's life, for the first brought him great wealth and the second the ambition to take the throne of Castile in the right of his wife. His efforts to become a de facto as well as a de jure king were like most of his military activities, expensive and futile. Eventually, he abandoned his claim for a financial consideration and some years later Katherine, his daughter by Constance, married John's rival, King Henry III of Castile.

Before Edward III died in 1377 much of John's time was spent in campaigns in France, but after the deaths of his eldest brother Edward, 'The Black Prince', and his father in the following year, John, as the eldest surviving uncle of young King Richard, became the most powerful man in the land.

Although John was basically a brave and loyal man, he was an unsubtle politician and a remarkably unsuccessful general. His expensive and disastrous campaigns both in Scotland and France, his own wealth and his anti-clericalism, which found expression in his support of Wycliffe, antagonized all the estates of a realm devastated by the terrible scourge of the Black Death and the misery and poverty it occasioned.

Richard II was glad to see the back of John when he left to pursue his Spanish ambitions in 1386, but he would have been less happy had he known that John's departure was to be the signal for his youngest uncle, Thomas, Duke of Gloucester, the Earls of Arundel and Hereford and others to reassert the baronial supremacy and destroy the Court party. The king was brought to submission but managed to reassert his royal authority.

He then waited until he could wreak vengeance upon his enemies. He welcomed Gaunt's return and, after his marriage to his mistress Catherine Swynford, supported the legitimization of their children, the Beauforts. Then in 1397 Richard struck: Arundel and others were decapitated, Warwick banished and Gloucester murdered. Then, when Gaunt died in 1399, Richard, doubting the loyalty of his son Henry Bolingbroke, seized his estates and for a few brief months was indeed an absolute monarch.

John was buried in St Paul's beneath a magnificent alabaster tomb which had been made during his lifetime at enormous expense, but which was destroyed by the great fire of 1666.

His effigy, illustrated here, shows him in a fine harness of armour such as he might well have worn. It illustrates the advances made in the use of plate armour which now almost completely covers the mail. The coif[2] has been replaced by a piece of mail attached to the inside edge of the bascinet[3]. This is called the camail[4], or avantail. Gaunt's bascinet, like that in the extant effigy of his brother 'The Black Prince', is decorated with a gold circlet or coronet, a symbol of his rank. The long surcoat has been replaced by a tight jupon embroidered with the arms, and the sword belt is simply a straight decorated cincture worn round the hips. To this can be attached both the sword and dagger. This latter weapon is called a 'misericord'[5] as its purpose was to give the coup-de- grâce to a wounded adversary and so bestow upon him the mercy of eternity.

The mail mitten gave way to the plate gauntlet, attached to a lining glove, in the middle of the century. The magnificent pair worn by Gaunt is not unlike those of 'The Black Prince' which are still preserved and will be seen at Canterbury[6] in 2019. The fourteenth century also saw the development of the crest. From the simple fan crest, possibly decorated like that shown in the effigy of Humphrey de Bohun, evolved the moulded leather crest as depicted on Gaunt's great helm[7]. They are of such a size that it is unlikely that they were worn in battle, their use being confined to the tournament. The crest was usually either environed by a wreath of twisted strands of material, as in the effigy of Earl Rivers, placed within a coronet like that of the Earl of Warwick, or, like Hotspur's crest, placed on a cap of estate. Attached to the back of the helm is a short mantle, the origin of which is obscure, although it is probable that the peacock complex was responsible and that it was no more than a decorative accretion.

Gaunt's arms and crest are those borne by his father, but 'differenced' with an ermine label of three points. In 1340 Edward III claimed the throne of France. To demonstrate his claim he styled himself 'Rex Angliae et Franciae' (a conceit which was not abandoned until 1801) and adopted the arms of France. Since the reign of Richard I the royal arms of England had been three golden lions 'passant guardant', that is, walking along and looking outwards, on a red field; they were anciently styled 'leopards' but this was because of their position, not their genus, as their flowing manes demonstrate.      The French arms were Azure semee-de-lys (a blue shield strewn with golden fleurs-de-lys) and Edward quartered these with the arms of England; that is, he divided his shield into four and placed the French arms in the first and last quarters and those of England in the other two. There has always been much speculation as to why the arms of France were given pride of place on his shield; it was probably because France was the senior kingdom, but it may have been a way of underlining Edward's claim; certainly it must have provoked the French king beyond measure.

Records show that Gaunt also used a shield of arms in connection with the Duchy of Lancaster, showing France and England quartered, but with a blue label charged with nine fleurs-de-lys. This label had first been used by his wife Blanche's great-grandfather, Edmund 'Crouch back', Earl of Lancaster. Her Majesty the Queen still uses this label on her arms as Duke of Lancaster.

 

[1] A half, one of two equal parts.

[2] A close-fitting cap covering the top, back, and sides of the head.

[3] A small, light, steel headpiece, in shape somewhat globular, terminating in a point raised slightly above the head, and closed in front with a ventail or visor.

[4] A piece of chain-mail armour attached to the basinet or head-piece and protecting the neck and shoulders.

[5]  A dagger with which the coup-de-grâce was given.

[6] They are currently in conservation, but it is planned that they will return to exhibition in spring 2019.

[7] The great helm or heaume, also called pot helm, bucket helm and barrel helm, is a helmet of the High Middle Ages which arose in the late twelfth century in the context of the Crusades and remained in use until the fourteenth century. The barreled style was used by knights in most European armies between about 1220 to 1350 AD and evolved into the frog-mouth helm to be primarily used during jousting contests.