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John of Gaunt

John of GauntBorn: Mar-1340
Birthplace: Ghent, Belgium
Died: 3-Feb-1399
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, St. Paul's Cathedral, London, England

Gender: Male
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Royalty

Nationality: England
Executive summary: Duke of Lancaster

John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, the fourth son of King Edward III of England and Queen Philippa, was born in March 1340 at Ghent, from which his name is derived. On the 29th of September 1342 he was made Earl of Richmond; as a child he was present at the sea fight with the Spaniards in August 1350, but his first military service was in 1355, when he was knighted. On the 19th of May 1359 he married his cousin Blanche, daughter and ultimately sole heiress of Henry, Duke of Lancaster. In her right he became Earl of Lancaster in 1361, and next year was created Duke. His marriage made him the greatest lord in England, but for some time he took no prominent part in public affairs. In 1366 he joined his eldest brother, Edward the Black Prince, in Aquitaine, and in the year after led a strong contingent to share in the campaign in support of Pedro the Cruel of Castile. With this began the connection with Spain, which was to have so great an influence on his later life. John fought in the van at Najera on the 3rd of April 1367, when the English victory restored Pedro to his throne. He returned home at the end of the year. Pedro proved false to his English allies, and was finally overthrown and killed by his rival, Henry of Trastamara, in 1369. The disastrous Spanish enterprise led directly to renewed war between France and England. In August 1369 John had command of an army which invaded northern France without success. In the following year he went again to Aquitaine, and was present with the Black Prince at the sack of Limoges. Edward's health was broken down, and he soon after went home, leaving John as his lieutenant. For a year John maintained the war at his own cost, but while in Aquitaine a greater prospect was opened to him. The duchess Blanche had died in the autumn of 1369 and now John married Constance (d. 1394), the elder daughter of Pedro the Cruel, and in her right assumed the title of king of Castile and Leon. For sixteen years the pursuit of his kingdom was the chief object of John's ambition. No doubt he hoped to achieve his end, when he commanded the great army which invaded France in 1373. But the French would not give battle, and though John marched from Calais right through Champagne, Burgundy and Auvergne, it was with disastrous results; only a shattered remnant of the host reached Bordeaux.

The Spanish scheme had to wait, and when John got back to England he was soon absorbed in domestic politics. The king was prematurely old, the Black Prince's health was broken. John, in spite of the unpopularity of his ill-success, was forced into the foremost place. As head of the court party he had to bear the brunt of the attack on the administration made by the Good Parliament in 1376. It was not perhaps altogether just, and John was embittered by reflections on his loyalty. As soon as the parliament was dissolved he had its proceedings reversed, and next year secured a more subservient assembly. There came, however, a new development. The duke's politics were opposed by the chief ecclesiastics, and in resisting them he had made use of John Wycliffe. With Wycliffe's religious opinions he had no sympathy. Nevertheless when the bishops arraigned the reformer for heresy John would not abandon him. The conflict over the trial led to a violent quarrel with the Londoners, and a riot in the city during which John was in danger of his life from the angry citizens. The situation was entirely altered by the death of Edward III on the 21st of June. Though his enemies had accused him of aiming at the throne, John was without any taint of disloyalty. In his nephew's interests he accepted a compromise, disclaimed before parliament the truth of the malicious rumours against him, and was reconciled formally with his opponents. Though he took his proper place in the ceremonies at King Richard II's coronation, he showed a tactful moderation by withdrawing for a time from any share in the government. However, in the summer of 1378, he commanded an attack on St. Malo, which through no fault of his failed. To add to this misfortune, during his absence some of his supporters violated the sanctuary at Westminster. He vindicated himself somewhat bitterly in a parliament at Gloucester, but still avoiding a prominent part in the government, accepted the command on the Scottish border. He was there engaged when his palace of the Savoy in London was burnt during the peasant's revolt in June 1381. Wild reports that even the government had declared him a traitor made him seek refuge in Scotland. Richard had, however, denounced the calumnies, and at once recalled his uncle.

John's self-restraint had strengthened his position, and he began again to think of his Spanish scheme. He urged its undertaking in parliament in 1382, but nearer troubles were more urgent, and John himself was wanted on the Scottish border. There he sought to arrange peace, but against his will was forced into an unfortunate campaign in 1384. His ill-success renewed his unpopularity, and the court favorites of Richard II intrigued, against him. They were probably responsible for the allegation, made by a Carmelite, called Latemar, that John was conspiring against his nephew. Though Richard at first believed it, the matter was disposed of by the friar's death. However, the court party soon after concocted a fresh plot for the duke's destruction; John boldly denounced his traducers, and the quarrel was appeased by the intervention of the king's mother. The intrigue still continued, and broke out again during the Scottish campaign in 1385. John was not the man to be forced into treason to his family, but the impossibility of the position at home made his foreign ambitions more feasible.

The victory of John of Portugal over the king of Castile at Aljubarrota, won with English help, offered an opportunity. In July 1386 John left England with a strong force to win his Spanish throne. He landed at Corunna, and during the autumn conquered Galicia. Juan, who had succeeded his father Henry as king of Castile, offered a compromise by marriage. John of Gaunt refused, hoping for greater success with the help of the king of Portugal, who now married the duke's eldest daughter Philippa. In the spring the allies invaded Castile. They could achieve no success, and sickness ruined the English army. The conquests of the previous year were lost, and when Juan renewed his offers, John of Gaunt agreed to surrender his claims to his daughter by Constance of Castile, who was to marry Juan's heir. After some delay the peace was concluded at Bayonne in 1388. The next eighteen months were spent by John as lieutenant of Aquitaine, and it was not until November 1389 that he returned to England. By his absence he had avoided implication in the troubles at home. Richard, still insecure of his own position, welcomed his uncle, and early in the following year marked his favor by creating him Duke of Aquitaine. John on his part was glad to support the king's government; during four years he exercised his influence in favor of pacification at home, and abroad was chiefly responsible for the conclusion of a truce with France. Then in 1395 he went to take up the government of his duchy; thanks chiefly to his lavish expenditure his administration was not unsuccessful, but the Gascons had from the first objected to government except by the crown, and secured his recall within less than a year. Almost immediately after his return John married as his third wife Catherine Swynford; Constance of Castile had died in 1394. Catherine had been his mistress for many years, and his children by her, who bore the name of Beaufort, were now legitimated. In this and in other matters Richard found it politic to conciliate him. But though John presided at the trial of the Earl of Arundel in September 1397, he took no active part in affairs. The exile of his son Henry in 1398 was a blow from which he did not recover. He died on the 3rd of February 1399, and was buried at St. Paul's near the high altar.

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. He deserves credit for his protection of Wycliffe, though he had no sympathy with his religious or political opinions. He was also the patron of Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Boke of the Duchesse was a lament for Blanche of Lancaster.

Father: King Edward III
Mother: Philippa of Hainaut
Wife: Blanche (dau. Duke of Lancaster, d. 1369)
Wife: Constance of Castile (dau. of Pedro the Cruel, d. 1394)
Wife: Catherine Swynford (m. 1396, four children)
Son: John Beaufort (1st Earl of Somerset)
Son: Henry Cardinal Beaufort
Son: Thomas Beaufort (1st Duke of Exeter)
Daughter: Joan Beaufort (Countess of Westmorland)

    Order of the Garter 1361


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