John of Gaunt: father of England’s medieval monarchy and self-styled Spanish king

John of Gaunt, third surviving son of King Edward III of England, was wealthy, powerful – and his lineage would go on to irrevocably shape the royal histories of England and Spain. Writing for HistoryExtra, historian Helen Carr shares a guide to the life of the medieval prince – a tale of war, unrest and betrayal…

Portrait of John of Gaunt

John of Gaunt. “What name on the roll of English princes is more familiar?” wrote Sydney Armitage-Smith, Gaunt’s first biographer, in 1904. John of Gaunt is still as familiar in our collective historical consciousness as he was over a century ago, yet over time he has been progressively marginalised in favour of more famous historical figures.

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John of Gaunt: key dates & facts

Born: March 1340, Abbey of Saint Bavon in Ghent

Died: 3 February 1399, Leicester, age 58

Parents: King Edward III of England and Philippa of Hainault

Known for: Third surviving son of King Edward III, and a commander in the Hundred Years’ War. Following the death of his father, and his brother Edward the Black Prince, John became effective regent of England during the minority reign of his nephew, Richard II

Wives: Blanche of Lancaster, m1359–68; Constance of Castile m1371–94; Katherine Swynford, m1396–99

Legacy: In October 1399, after overthrowing Richard II, John’s eldest son was crowned Henry IV, the first Lancastrian king of England. In 1485, Henry Tudor defeated Yorkist king Richard III at the battle of Bosworth, his claim to the throne also through John of Gaunt’s line

 

Who was John of Gaunt?

John of Gaunt (1340–99) was born three years into the Hundred Years’ War, a war of succession that dominated the rest of his life and the interests of his family, the Plantagenets. Gaunt was the third surviving son of Edward III, king of England (and from 1337, claimed king of France) and Queen Philippa of Hainault.

His elder brothers and sisters were Edward of Woodstock (otherwise known as the Black Prince), Isabella Plantagenet, Lionel of Antwerp and Joan Plantagenet, and his younger siblings included Edmund of Langley, Thomas of Woodstock, Mary Plantagenet and Margaret Plantagenet.

Gaunt spent most of his childhood with his older brothers.  In 1349, as plague ravaged England, Gaunt was in York with the Black Prince, and took refuge at Saint Mary’s Abbey. However, his sister Joan succumbed to the epidemic (which ripped through the country and killed as much as half of the population) while on her way to marry the future Pedro I of Castile. Though John of Gaunt was only eight years old when his sister died, he loyally endowed an obit (a mass of remembrance) for her, later on in his life.

John of Gaunt was loyal to the interests of his family and siblings but he was particularly close to his eldest brother, the Black Prince. Gaunt lived with the prince in his household as a boy, learning princely etiquette and land management, and following his brother everywhere, even into battle; at age 10 he insisted on accompanying the Black Prince on board his warship for the battle of Winchelsea (1350) against a mighty Castilian fleet. Their fraternal bond endured into adulthood and John of Gaunt acted as a second to his brother up until the Black Prince’s death in 1376.

The bronze effigy on the tomb of Edward Plantagenet
The bronze effigy on the tomb of Edward Plantagenet, known as the Black Prince), in the Trinity Chapel of Canterbury Cathedral. (Photo by RDImages/Epics/Getty Images)

This made John of Gaunt the eldest surviving son of Edward III (his other elder brother, Lionel, had died in 1368). Were it not for Prince Richard, the young son of the Black Prince, Gaunt would have stood in line to inherit the crown on his own father’s death. Despite rumours of his ill intent and personal ambition to rule England in place of Richard, John of Gaunt remained loyal to the interests of his brother, and subsequently his nephew, for the rest of his life.

Why was John of Gaunt a target during the Peasants’ Revolt?

In spring 1381, a group of rebels marched on the city of London, attacking houses and towns on their way to confront the teenage king Richard II, an event that became known as the Peasants’ Revolt.

The unrest was cataclysmic for John of Gaunt. In the late 1370s, King Edward III’s health rapidly declined and the Black Prince died, leaving Gaunt as de facto ruler of the country (his nephew Richard was king in minority, and only 14 at the time of the 1318 revolt). Gaunt was already unpopular in London following a falling out with leading merchant oligarchs in the City, and also with the Bishop of London, William Courtenay. The feud had begun when Gaunt tried to protect the interests and reputation of his father following the Good Parliament in 1376. He angered the Commons, who were furious with a group of corrupt members within the king’s immediate political and personal coterie. Gaunt refused to listen to the demands of the Commons to replace the king’s ill-minded advisors, and his reputation in London never recovered. This resulted in a minor attack on the Savoy Palace, Gaunt’s home on the Thames in 1376, and his coat of arms being reversed – the sign of a traitor.

An engraving of the death of Wat Tyler
The death of Wat Tyler, leader of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt. The unrest was cataclysmic for John of Gaunt. (Image by Getty Images)

The Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 was a much larger, widespread event that emerged out of the Black Death following a series of restrictive labour laws, capped by three punishing taxes on the people. The attack on London came from rebels from Kent and Essex, but Gaunt’s property, the Savoy Palace, was destroyed by mostly London rebels, from inside the City: enemies he had acquired years before the revolt.

Outside of London, particularly in his lands in the north, Gaunt was a popular magnate. His tenants in Leicester even defended his property and reputation from the rebel groups that began to emerge in the midlands. Though Gaunt is considered for posterity as an unpopular figure, this was largely only within London-centric circles.

The consequences of the revolt for John of Gaunt were enormous. Despite his loss of property, he also spent the immediate aftermath of the revolt unaware of the position and intention of the young Richard II. Two leading politicians had been beheaded by rebels in London, and Gaunt was left on the Scottish Borders for weeks, waiting for news from the king regarding his fate.

He was scorned by Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland who he fled to for help, and was made to believe an army of rebels moved north to arrest and likely kill him. For weeks John of Gaunt lived under the protection of the Scots, which was perilous in itself as England and Scotland were near constantly at war with one another. Yet, Gaunt was popular with the Scottish nobles and they treated him generously despite him being an effective outlaw in England.

Following the revolt, Gaunt spent as little time in London as possible and he never re-built the Savoy. The unrest marked an increase in Richard’s confidence and personal power as king, and following the events in 1381 John of Gaunt was not treated with the same level of reverence as he was prior to the rebellion.

 

What were his major romantic relationships, and who were his children?

John of Gaunt was married three times and each of his wives were from incredibly different backgrounds.

In 1359 he married Blanche of Lancaster, who was the second daughter of his father’s friend and wealthy magnate, Henry of Grosmont, the first Duke of Lancaster. After Henry’s death in 1361, Gaunt inherited the entire dukedom of Lancaster by right of his wife, Blanche (an inheritance greatly increased by the death of Blanche’s elder sister Maud). The marriage appears to have been happy, producing three surviving children, Philippa, Elizabeth and Henry of Bolingbroke. However, their marriage was dramatically cut short when Blanche died in September 1368, probably due to complications from childbirth having recently given birth to a new baby, Isabel, who also did not survive. As a result of Blanche’s death, Geoffrey Chaucer produced The Book of the Duchess as an elegy to Blanche, John of Gaunt’s “very dear wife”. It is likely that the ‘Man in Black’, the personification of sorrow and shrouded in grief, is meant to represent John of Gaunt lamenting the loss of his young wife.

Where Gaunt’s first marriage was the result of friendship, nobility and loyalty, his second was borne out of revenge and ambition. In 1371, John of Gaunt married Constance of Castile, the eldest daughter of King Pedro of Castile, the recently murdered Spanish king. Their wedding took place near Bordeaux and was relatively quick and unceremonious. One year later, Gaunt styled himself King of Castile and León, formally changing his coat of arms by right of his wife.

Constance of Castile
John saw his marriage to Constance of Castile as a gateway to power in Iberia. (Image by Alamy)

Gaunt’s marriage to Constance marked a 20-year obsession to claim the throne of Castile to rule as a king in the Iberian Peninsula. The union was cemented in politics and despite the birth of a daughter, Catherine, it did not appear to be happy. The real thorn in their marriage was Gaunt’s mistress, Katherine Swynford.

Katherine Swynford was the former chamber servant of Duchess Blanche. Katherine and John of Gaunt appear to have begun their affair around 1372, shortly after he returned to England with Constance, for a year later their first son John Beaufort was born. Gaunt and Katherine’s relationship was public knowledge and Katherine spent considerable time with Gaunt in the 1370s after he employed her in his service as the ‘maistresse’ (a type of governess) to his daughters Philippa and Elizabeth. Their relationship was considered to be scandalous and the chronicler of Saint Albans Thomas Walsingham named Gaunt a “fornicator and adulterer”, a reputation he suffered for most of his life. Gaunt’s relationship with Katherine came under scrutiny shortly before the Peasants’ Revolt and added to his unpopular public profile.

Gaunt ended his relationship with Katherine shortly after the revolt, but they appear to have remained amicable. It was around a month later that Gaunt built a shrine at Knaresborough in North Yorkshire “to Saint Katherine”, probably a mark of love and respect for the woman he could not marry.

Constance died in 1394. In 1396, three years before Gaunt’s death, he finally married Katherine Swynford and she became the new Duchess of Lancaster. It is endearing to think of this as purely romantic, but it is likely that through the marriage, he sought to dutifully legitimise his four Beaufort children: John, Henry, Thomas and Joan.

What were Gaunt’s final actions before he died and where was he buried?

The final years of Gaunt’s life were spent securing his dynasty and the welfare of his family, and trying to keep the peace in the realm.

In a devastating turn of events, Gaunt’s physical demise went hand-in-hand with the tyranny of his nephew Richard II, resulting in political hostility between the Crown and the House of Lancaster that threatened the legacy Gaunt had carefully constructed. Shortly before Gaunt’s death, his heir Henry of Bolingbroke was exiled and John of Gaunt lay on his deathbed uncertain of the fate of his family and his name.

A portrait of Henry Bolingbroke
John of Gaunt died in fear of his legacy, but his son Henry Bolingbroke (pictured) would become Henry IV. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

He died at Leicester Castle in February 1399 with Katherine by his side, but was buried dutifully beside his first wife, Blanche. Their joint tomb was designed by the master mason Henry Yevele, and showed Gaunt and Blanche with their hands clasped in loving perpetuity. The tomb no longer exists, for Gaunt was buried at Old Saint Paul’s Cathedral, which was destroyed in the 1666 Great Fire of London.

 

What is John of Gaunt’s legacy?

Though John of Gaunt died in fear for his legacy, it was in fact his legacy that has endured for centuries and shaped the English and Spanish monarchies as we understand them today. In 1399, Henry of Bolingbroke returned to England and overthrew Richard II, becoming the first Lancastrian king, as Henry IV.

Margaret Beaufort, great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt
Margaret Beaufort, great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, is often referred to as ‘the mother of the Tudors’. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Gaunt’s children by Katherine, the Beauforts, began the Tudor dynasty through Gaunt’s great-granddaughter, Margaret Beaufort: she was the mother of Henry Tudor (later Henry VII). Catherine of Lancaster, Gaunt’s daughter by Constance, married into the Castilian royal family and became Queen Regent of Castile. Her great-granddaughter was Catherine of Aragon.

John of Gaunt is the father of monarchy as it moved from the Middle Ages into the early modern period. He is the father of the kings and queens who dust the pages of history books to this day.

Helen Carr is a medieval historian, writer and documentary history producer, and the author of the forthcoming The Red Prince: John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (Oneworld Publications, 2021)