In 1381, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster was not a popular man. The third son of the deceased Edward III and the uncle of the current king, the 14-year-old Richard II, he was a prince as well as a politician and wealthy magnate, and he had many enemies. That summer, John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace – the “fairest manor in the kingdom” – was destroyed by furious rebels during the Peasants’ Revolt, in which a vast rebel army ransacked the Tower of London, burned palaces and murdered government officials.
The uprising demonstrated the hatred that people felt towards John of Gaunt – regarded as the manipulative, scheming, usurping uncle of King Richard II – and no other royal figure was targeted in such a manner. But to understand his unpopularity fully, we perhaps need to go back to one of the most significant moments in domestic politics of the 14th century: the Good Parliament in 1376.
A crown losing control
By 1376, Edward III’s long reign was beginning to draw to a close. The king had begun a war with France and won a significant amount of land and property. Throughout his reign, he was vivacious, ambitious and politically astute; however, in later life he had begun to lose control of his hard-won lands in France and had seemingly given up on ruling the country as he once had. Now, his attentions were largely occupied with his mistress, the “unscrupulous whore” Alice Perrers, a lady-in-waiting of his dead queen, Philippa of Hainault.
- 7 things you (probably) didn’t know about the houses of Lancaster and York
- Royal sibling rivalry: Henry VIII, Richard III and other monarchs whose fate was determined by their brothers and sisters
King Edward’s son and heir, Edward the ‘Black Prince’, was ravaged by illness, and mostly kept himself away from the politics at court. He spent most of his time at his palace in Kennington with his wife, Princess Joan, and his own son and heir, Richard. This left the king’s third son, John of Gaunt, [the king’s second son, Lionel, had died in 1368] as the true authority, acting as a go-between for the king and his council. The king, once revered and celebrated, had become something of a liability –and so, by 1376, tensions were high in anticipation of a catalogue of grievances from the Commons.
On 28 April, parliament – made up of two factions: the knights and burgesses (the lower chamber) and the lords and clergy (the upper chamber) – gathered in the King’s Chamber at Westminster Palace. Edward III soon made himself scarce, for he was acutely aware of the tension that had come to surface, and that would be directed his way. Instead of facing the inevitable backlash over his actions and those of his councillors, he left John of Gaunt as his representative, as “lieutenant of the king to hold parliament”. In his narrative poem Piers Plowman, writer William Langland characterises Gaunt as “the cat of the court”, echoing the popular belief that he was devious, self-interested and untrustworthy. This parliament would prove to be a test of his loyalty to the crown, his family and his diplomacy. With all of these factors at odds with each other, he was doomed to make enemies.
King’s advisors accused
After the opening session of parliament, members were reminded of their duty; essentially, to assist the king in his war against the French. The Commons were then separated from the Lords and were given the chapter house at Westminster Abbey to conduct their discussions. The lords and clergy were granted the White Chamber.
The Commons concluded that, had the king not been so poorly advised, he would not have come to be in such a compromised financial position that he needed further funding for his campaigns. All eyes were quickly turned to his closest advisors, those they considered deceitful, corrupt and a bad influence.
In order to represent their views, the Commons chose the best man they could think of among them, a figure who would be able to withstand the intense pressure and scrutiny exerted by the nobility. They chose Peter de la Mare, a Knight of the Shire for Herefordshire and a steward for the Earl of March. Peter de la Mare became the first ever speaker of the House of Commons.
The Commons made their way from the Chapter House at Westminster to the palace, where the general assembly was to be held. When they arrived, they were shocked to discover that the ageing king was nowhere to be seen, but in his place sat John of Gaunt. Nonetheless, Peter de la Mare did not lose his nerve and stepped forward to accuse four of the king’s closest advisors of crimes against the crown. William Latimer, the king’s chamberlain; John Neville of Raby, the steward of the household; and Richard Lyons, warden of the mint, were all accused of deceit and fiddling with the crown’s finances. In addition to this, the king’s mistress, Alice Perrers, was accused of extracting a shocking sum from the king’s purse.
Latimer and Lyons were blamed for selling illegal shipping licences to merchants, as well as taking a cut of loans arranged between the crown and the Exchequer. More seriously, however, they were accused of committing war crimes in France by plundering land and conspiring with the French, actions that would result in loss of English territory. The last accusation caused such a consternation in parliament that the accused – William Latimer – was challenged by a knight who had once owned part of the land that Latimer had lost in France.
Initially, Gaunt tried to cooperate with the Commons, adhering to their requests and grievances. He agreed to the imprisonment of Lyons; the stripping of land and title from Latimer; and the exile of Alice Perrers. However, the proceedings in parliament had spilled from Westminster and had attracted public attention. The king’s relationship with Alice Perrers became a source of gossip – and that thrust John of Gaunt’s affair with his own mistress, Katherine Swynford, into the spotlight. While Alice had been removed from the king’s side, Gaunt continued to be involved with Katherine. And so he was painted as an adulterer and hypocrite.
- 12 things you (probably) didn’t know about the Wars of the Roses
- The Peasants’ Revolt: did Richard II side with the rebels?
Did John of Gaunt try to usurp his nephew?
Where Gaunt was becoming increasingly unpopular, the Black Prince, “the flower of chivalry”, continued to command the admiration and love of the people from his sickbed. He had little involvement in the Good Parliament – but did make a personal effort to see that Alice Perrers was removed from the side of the king, who, it was claimed, was being “drawn downward with lechery and other sins”. The Black Prince set about having Alice investigated, subsequently ‘discovering’ – with the help of a necromancer – that Alice was guilty of witchcraft.
In the middle of proceedings, on 8 June, the Black Prince died at Westminster Palace. He had finally lost his battle with the illness that had plagued him for the last eight years. It is uncertain exactly what killed him. It was claimed that he suffered from a “bloody flux”, commonly known as dysentery, which left him weak and often in and out of consciousness. However, this is unlikely. Death by dysentery is fast and agonising, whereas the Black Prince suffered for nearly a decade. It is possible that a form of cancer was the cause of his death.
Edward III was devastated at the loss of his eldest son, and quickly left for his countryside residence at Havering, leaving John of Gaunt to continue the Good Parliament. The impact of the death of the Black Prince on Gaunt cannot be underestimated. They had lived together, fought together and John was trained in war, chivalry and duty by his brother – they were literally brothers in arms.
Despite this, John of Gaunt continued with his role in parliament, shrouded in the ongoing suspicion that he was a usurper. Soon after the prince’s death, the Commons requested that Prince Richard be endowed with the title ‘Prince of Wales’. This move was clearly designed to wound Gaunt but, for all that, Gaunt was hugely loyal to his brother. At the Black Prince’s bedside he swore to oversee Richard’s succession.
Seeds of future unrest
Parliament finally broke up on 10 July, but over the months that followed, John of Gaunt’s actions became increasingly feckless, rushed and ill-considered.
In November 1376, the king took a turn for the worse, possibly suffering a minor stroke. To the horror of the Commons, Alice Perrers was permitted to return to his bedside; John of Gaunt had revoked her banishment. At the same time, the Speaker of the Commons, Peter de la Mare, was imprisoned in the cold, dark cells of Nottingham Castle; he had been arrested on John of Gaunt’s orders.
Gaunt’s intention was to undermine the Commons and restore the dignity of the crown. His enemies stated that he was “under pretence of responsibility which he bore for the realm”. But Gaunt was under no pretence; he was simply the only member of the royal family who was truly able to reinvigorate the monarchy’s authority. His attempts to do so would shatter his reputation.
In the New Year, another parliament was held. This one implemented a Poll Tax and, in celebration of the king’s jubilee, extended a general pardon to all those who had committed criminal offences. The only person in the realm to whom the pardon did not apply was William Wykeham, bishop of Winchester and former chancellor of England.
After the Good Parliament, William Wykeham had been appointed into the Royal Council and was given the position of chancellor to replace the impeached Lord Latimer. However, as part of John of Gaunt’s modifications, he was soon charged with financial mismanagement and relieved of his position. The post was then returned to Lord Latimer – a move that infuriated Wykeham’s fellow bishops and the Commons. Unsurprisingly, they sought to retaliate.
One evening, John of Gaunt was dining with the new marshal, Henry Percy, on fresh oysters in the City of London, when he received news that angry rebels, who had made threats on his life, were close by. He apparently jumped up so fast he banged his knees on the table, before making a quick getaway by boat down the Thames with Henry Percy to Kennington, where they could seek refuge with Princess Joan, widow of the Black Prince.
The situation escalated. In a small-scale violent rebellion, angry Londoners besieged the Savoy and hung John of Gaunt’s arms back-to-front, an act that symbolically accused him of treason. As a further insult, a rumour was spread that claimed Gaunt was not a true-born son of Edward III but the offspring of a Flemish butcher. In the end, Princess Joan was forced to mediate before the situation snowballed out of control.
John of Gaunt was reeling with rage and was probably deeply insulted by the painful rumour spread about his legitimacy. Initially, he intended to make an example of the rebels; however, he was persuaded to take the moral high ground, possibly by Princess Joan who was desperate to protect the interests of her son, Richard.
Equally, John of Gaunt sought to protect the interests of the crown and his family, above his own. The line of succession dictated that the crown would pass to Richard. In his feud with the citizens of London, John sought to protect Richard’s interests and help him cultivate the love and respect of the people, whose rightful place – he considered – was beneath the crown.
John of Gaunt never sought to disallow the Commons a voice. In fact, he endeavoured to hear their pleas. However, he would not entertain the notion that they could rise above their station to make demands upon a king. Despite the actions of Latimer and Lyons, which were clearly corrupt, John of Gaunt had no other choice than to pardon them – as a means to rehabilitate royal control.
Alice Perrers was a different matter. He wanted to be rid of her for good, and had it not been for the king’s sudden downturn in health, John of Gaunt would never have allowed her back to his father’s bedside. He only did so because he believed it was one of the king’s final wishes.
The king died in June 1377, and Richard was crowned shortly after. John of Gaunt retired to his northern estates for a time and conducted diplomatic missions on the Scottish Borders. This suited him, for he was able to stay out of the public eye and away from his enemies in London. However, the wound between John of Gaunt and the Londoners was cut too deep. His unpopularity quietly festered until the uprising against him in 1381, during which (fortunately for him) he was negotiating with the Scots in Berwick-upon-Tweed as his magnificent home went up in flames.
Ultimately, John of Gaunt sacrificed his reputation to protect the authority of the monarchy against the will of the Commons. This was his greatest mistake. By doing so, he underestimated the voice of the people – and that cost him his home, his influence, and almost his life.
Helen Carr is a historian, writer and producer.