John Plantagenet (1340-1399)

Relation to me: 18th Great Grandfather

John was a member of the House of Plantagenet and the third of five surviving sons of King Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. He was born in Ghent in Flanders, which is now Belgium. In English, Ghent is translated to Gaunt, thus his better known name is/was John of Gaunt.

When John became unpopular later in his life, scandalous rumors and lampoons circulated that he was actually the son of a Ghent butcher. These rumors were made possibly due to his father, Edward III, not having been present at his birth. When the story was brought up around John, he was thrown into a furious rage.

As the younger brother of Edward, Prince of Wales, John had exercised a large influence over the English throne during the minority of Edward’s son who’d later become King Richard II. He’d also exercise his influence during the periods of political strife during Richard’s majority. Due to some generous land grants, John was one of the richest men of his time. He had made an abortive attempt to enforce a claim to the Crown of Castile that had come courtesy of his second wife, Constance of Castile. She was the heir to the Castillian Kingdom, so for a time, John styled himself as the heir to Castile.

John’s legitimate male heirs, the Lancasters, had included the Kings Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI. Other legitimate descendants of his included his daughters, Queen Philippa of Portugal, Elizabeth the Duchess of Exeter, who was born to him by his first wife Blanche of Lancaster, and Queen Catherine of Castile, who was born to him by his second wife Constance of Castile. John had also fathered five children outside of marriage, one of these children came from a lady-in-waiting to his mother and the four others came from Katherine Swynford, John’s long-term mistress and eventually his third wife. His children born to him by Katherine Swynford were given the surname of Beaufort and were legitimized by royal and papal decrees after he and Katherine were married in 1396. John’s descendants from this marriage included Joan Beaufort, the Countess of Westmorland and a grandmother of kings Edward IV and Richard III; John Beaufort, the 1st Earl of Somerset and great-grandfather of King Henry VII; Joan Beaufort, Queen of Scots and for whom all subsequent sovereigns of Scotland starting in 1437 descend from. All sovereigns of England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom from 1603 to the present day are also descended from her, as are the three houses of English sovereigns that succeeded the rule of Richard II in 1399. The House of Lancaster, York and Tudor also are descended from John’s children Henry IV, Joan Beaufort and John Beaufort, respectively. In addition, John’s daughter Catherine of Lancaster was married to King Henry III of Castile, which made John the grandfather of King John II of Castile and ancestor of all subsequent monarchs of the Crown of Castile and united Spain. Through John’s daughter, Philippa, he was grandfather of King Edward of Portugal and an ancestor of all subsequent Portuguese monarchs as well. Through John II of Castile’s great-granddaughter, Joanna ‘the Mad’, John is also an ancestor of the Habsburg rulers who would reign in Spain and a large portion of central Europe.

Henry Bolingbroke, the eldest son and heir of John and his first wife Blanche of Lancaster, was Duke of Hereford. Bolingbroke was exiled for ten years by King Richard II in 1398, as a resolution to the dispute between Henry and Thomas de Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. When John died in 1399, his estates and titles were declared to be forfeited to the crown, since Richard II had named Henry a traitor and changed his sentence to exile for life. Henry would return from exile to reclaim his inheritance and depose Richard, he then reigned as King Henry IV of England, being the first descendant of John of Gaunt to have held the throne of England.

Duke of Lancaster

John was the fourth son of King Edward III. In 1359, he would marry his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster,

Blanche of Lancaster
Blanche of Lancaster

who was also his third cousin. Both John and Blanche were great-great-grandchildren of King Henry III. The couple married at Reading Abbey as part of some efforts being made by Edward III to arrange matches for his sons with wealthy heiresses. When John’s father-in-law, the 1st Duke of Lancaster, had died in 1361, John received half of his lands, including the title of Earl of Lancaster. He also received the distinction of the greatest landowner in the north of England, as the heir of the Palatinate of Lancaster. John would also be given the titles of the 14th Baron of Halton and the 11th Lord of Bowland. He would inherit the rest of the Lancaster property when Blanche’s sister, Maud, the Countess of Leicester, died without having issue, on the 10th of April 1362.

On the 13th of November 1362, John received the title of “Duke of Lancaster” from his father. By this time the title was well established, and John had owned at least thirty castles and estates across England and France. He also maintained a household comparable to that of the organization to the monarch. John owned land in almost every county in England, a patrimony that had produced a net income of between 8,000 and 10,000 pounds per year.

Upon the death of his elder brother Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince, in 1376, John formed a plan on how to protect the religious reformer John Wycliffe. He did this to possibly counteract the growing secular power of the church. However, his ascendancy to political power coincided with the widespread resentment of his influence. This was at a time when English forces encountered setbacks in the Hundred Years’ War against France, Edward III’s rule was becoming unpopular due to high taxation, and John’s affair with Alice Perrers caused political opinion closely associated with the Duke of Lancaster with the failing government of the 1370s. Furthermore, while King Edward and the Prince of Wales were popular heroes because of their successes on the battlefield, John hadn’t won the equivalent military renown that could have helped raise his reputation, even though he fought in the Battle of Najera in 1367. For example, his later military projects proved unsuccessful.

When Edward III passed away in 1377 and John’s ten year old nephew succeeded him as Richard II, John’s influence strengthened. However, there was mistrust in him that still remained. Some had suspected John of wanting to seize the throne himself. John would take pains to ensure that he never became associated with opposition to Richard’s kingship. As de facto ruler during Richard’s minority, John made some unwise decisions on taxation that would lead to the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, when the rebels destroyed his home, the Savoy Palace, in London. Unlike some of Richard’s unpopular advisors, John was away from London during the time of the uprising, thus avoiding the direct wrath of the rebels.

Savoy Palace
Savoy Palace

During 1386, John left England to seek out the throne of Castile, which was claimed in Jure uxoris by right of his second wife, Constance of Castile, who he had married in 1371. However, crisis had ensued almost immediately upon his absence. A year later, King Richard’s misrule brought England to the brink of civil war. John would return to England in 1389, it was only upon his return that he was able to succeed in persuading the Lords Appellant and King Richard to make a compromise to usher in a period of relative stability. During the 1390s, John’s reputation of devotion to the well-being of the kingdom was largely restored.

Katherine Swynford
Katherine Swynford

Sometime after the death of Blanche of Lancaster in 1368 and the birth of their first born, John Beaufort in 1373, John and Katherine Swynford, the daughter of an ordinary knight, had entered into an extra-marital love affair. This affair would produce four children for the couple, all of them were born out of wedlock, but were legitimized upon John and Katherine’s eventual marriage. The relationship continued until 1381 when it was broke out of political necessity. On the 13th of January 1396, two years after the death of Constance of Castile, Katherine and John married at Lincoln Cathedral. Their children were given the surname of “Beaufort”, after a former French possession of the duke. John’s illegitimate children, three sons and a daughter, were legitimized by royal and papal decrees after the couple were married. A later proviso said that these children were specifically barred from inheriting the throne. The phrase excepta regali dignitate (“except royal status”) was inserted with dubious authority by their half-brother Henry IV.

John would die of natural causes on the 3rd of February 1399 at Leicester Castle, with his third wife, Katherine, by his side.

Ruins of Leicester Castle

John as Military Commander in France

Due to his rank, John had been one of England’s principal military commanders in the 1370s and 1380s. His enterprises were never rewarded with the kind of dazzling success that had made his elder brother Edward, the Black Prince, such a charismatic war leader.

Upon the resumption of war with France in 1369, John was sent to Calais with the Earl of Hereford and a small English army with which he would raid into northern France with. On the 23rd of August, John was confronted by a much larger French army under the leadership of Philip ‘the Bold’, Duke of Burgundy. Exercising his first command, John took the chance of not attacking the superior force, and thus the two armies faced each other across a marsh for several weeks until the English were reinforced by the Earl of Warwick. Upon the reinforcements arrival, the French withdrew without offering a battle. John and Warwick then decided to strike Harfleur, the base of the French fleet on the Seine. Further reinforced by German mercenaries, John’s army marched on Harfleur, but they were delayed by French guerilla operations while the town prepared for the siege. John would attack the town for four days in October, but he had been losing so many men to dysentery and bubonic plague that he chose to abandon the siege and returned to Calais. During John’s retreat his army had to fight its way across the Somme at the ford of Blanchetaque against a French army that was led by Hugh de Chatillon, who had been captured and sold to Edward III. By mid-November, those that had survived the previously mentioned illnesses returned to Calais, where the Earl of Warwick would die of the plague. Though it would seem an inglorious conclusion to the campaign, John forced the French king, Charles V, to abandon his plans to invade England that autumn.

In the summer of 1370 John was sent with a small army to Aquitaine to reinforce his ailing older brother, the Black Prince, and his younger brother Edmund of Langley, the Earl of Cambridge. With them, John participated in the Siege of Limoges and took charge of the siege operations. At one point, they would engage in hand-to-hand combat in undermining tunnels. After this event, the Black Prince surrendered his lordship of Aquitaine and sailed for England, leaving John in charge. Even though he had attempted to defend the duchy against the French encroachment for almost a year, a lack of resources and money meant that he could do little but husband what small territory the English had still controlled. John resigned from his command in September of 1371 and returned to England. Just before leaving Aquitaine, John married the Infanta Constance of Castile at Roquefort, near Bordeaux, Guyenne. In the following year, John would take part, along with his father, Edward III, in the abortive attempt to invade France with a large army, which was frustrated by three months of unfavorable winds.

John’s most notable feat of arms had probably taken place in August through December of 1373, when he had attempted to relieve Aquitaine by land. John would lead an army of somewhere around 9,000 mounted men from Calais on a great chevauchee from northeastern to southwestern France on an about 560 mile raid. This four-month ride through enemy territory, evading French armies along the way, was a bold stroke that impressed contemporaries, but it achieved virtually nothing at all. Beset on all sides by French ambushes and plagued by disease and starvation, John and his raiders battled their way through Champagne, east of Parish, into Burgundy, and across the Massif Central, then finally down into Dordogne. They were unable to attack any strongly fortified forts or cities. The raiders would plunder the countryside, which weakened the French infrastructure, but military value of the damage was only temporary. Marching during the winter across the Limousin plateau, with stragglers being picked off by the French, huge numbers of the army, even larger numbers of horses, died of disease, starvation and the cold. The army reached English-occupied Bordeaux on the 24th of December 1373, they were severely weakened in numbers with the loss of at least one-third of their force in action, and another one-third to disease. Upon their arrival, many more would succumb to the bubonic plague that was raging throughout the city. Sick, demoralized and mutinous, the army was in no shape to defend Aquitaine, and the soldiers began to desert the army. John had no funds of which to pay them to stay and despite his pleas for reinforcements from England, none were sent. Therefore, in April of 1374, John abandoned the enterprise and sailed back home.

His final campaign in France would take place in 1378. John had planned a ‘great expedition’ of mounted men in a large armada of ships to land at Brest and take control of Brittany. There weren’t enough ships to be found to transport the horses and the expedition was tasked with a more limited objective of capturing St. Malo. The English would destroy the shipping harbor in St. Malo and began an assault on the town by land on the 14th of August. However, John was soon hampered by the size of his army, which was unable to forage because the French armies under Olivier de Clisson and Bertrand du Guesclin occupied the surrounding countryside, harrying the edges of his force. In September, the siege was abandoned and the army returned ingloriously to England. John would receive most of the blame for the debacle.

Partially due to these failures and those of other English commanders at this time, John was one of the first important figures in England to conclude that the war with France was an unwinnable cause because of France’s greater resources of wealth and manpower. He began to advocate peace negotiations in as early as 1373 during his great raid through France. John would make contact with Guillaume Roger, the brother and political adviser of Pope Gregory XI, to let the pope know that he would be interested in a diplomatic conference under papal auspices. This approach would lead, indirectly, to the Anglo-French Congress of Bruges in 1374-1377, which would result in the short-lived Truce of Bruges being made between the two sides. John, himself, was a delegate to the various conferences that would eventually result in the Truce of Leulinghem in 1389. The fact that he became identified with attempts to make peace added to his unpopularity at a time when the majority of Englishmen believed that victory would be in their grasp, if only the French could be defeated decisively as they had been back in the 1350s. Another motive of John’s was his conviction that it was only by making peace with the French that it would be possible to release the sufficient manpower to enforce his claim to the throne of Castile.

John at the Head of Government

When John returned from France in 1374, he took a more decisive and persistent role in the direction of English foreign policy. From then until 1377, John was effectively the head of the English government due to the illness of his father and elder brother, who were unable to exercise their authority. His vast amount of estates made him the richest man in England, and his great wealth, ostentatious display of it, autocratic manner and attitudes, enormous London mansion, the Savoy Palace on the Strand; and association with the failed peace process at Bruges combined to make him the most visible target of social resentments. First, his call to grant a massive war taxation to the Crown would turn into a parliamentary revolution, with the Commons, supported to some extent by the Lords; and the suspected endemic corruption among the ruling classes. John would end up being isolated, even by the Black Prince who supported the need for reform, and the Commons who refused to grant money for the war unless most of the great officers of the state were dismissed and the king’s mistress, Alice Perrers, another focus of popular resentment, was barred from any further association with him. Even after the government had acceded to virtually all demands, the Commons then refused to authorize any funds for war, losing sympathy of the Lords as a result.

The death of the Black Prince on the 8th of June 1376 and the onset of Edward III’s last illness at the closing of Parliament on the 10th of July, which left John with all of the reigns of power. He’d immediately have the ailing king grant pardons to all officials that had been impeached by Parliament and Alice Perrers would also be reinstated at the heart of the king’s household. John also impeached William of Wykeham and other leaders of the reform movement and secured their conviction on old or trumped-up charges. The Parliament of 1377 would see John’s counter-coup. Crucially, the Lords no longer appointed the Commons and John was able to have most of the acts of 1376 annulled. He had also succeeded in forcing the Commons to agree to the imposition of the first Poll Tax in English history, a viciously regressive measure that bore the hardest on the poorest members of society. There was organized opposition to his measures and rioting that occurred in London. John of Gaunt’s arms were reversed or defaced wherever they were displayed. Protestors pasted up lampoons on John’s supposedly dubious birth. At one point he was forced to take refuge across the Thames, while his Savoy Palace only just escaped looting. It had been rumored, and believed by many in England and France, that he intended to seize the throne for himself and supplant the rightful heir, his nephew Richard, the son of the Black Prince. However, there seems to have been no truth in this and upon the death of Edward III and the accession of Richard II, John sought no position of regency for himself and withdrew to his estates.

John’s personal unpopularity would continue. The failure of his expedition to Saint-Malo in 1378 did nothing for his reputation. By this time, too, some of his possessions were taken from him by the Crown. For example, his ship, the Dieulagarde, was seized and bundled with other royal ships to be sold to pay off the debts of Sir Robert de Crull, who during the latter part of King Edward III’s reign had been the Clerk of the King’s Ships, and advanced monies to pay for the king’s ships. During the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, John was far from the center of the events on the March of Scotland. However, he was among those named by the rebels as a traitor to be beheaded as soon as he could be found. The Savoy Palace was systematically destroyed by the mob and burned to the ground. Nominally friendly lords and even his own fortresses had closed their gates to John and he was forced to flee into Scotland with a handful of retainers and throw himself on the charity of King Robert II of Scotland until the crisis was over.

John, King of Castile

When John married Infanta Constance of Castile in 1371, he assumed the title of King of Castile and Leon in the right of his wife. He would insist that his fellow English nobles address him as ‘my lord of Spain’ and impaled his arms with those of the Spanish kingdom. In 1372, John gathered around himself a small court of refugee Castilian knights and ladies. He would set up a Castilian chancery that would prepare documents in his name, according to the style of Peter of Castile, dated by the Castilian era and signed by himself with the Spanish formula ‘Yo El Rey’, translated into English as “I, the King”. He’d hatch several schemes to make good on his claim with an army, but for many years they were still-born due to the lack of finance or conflicting claims of war in France or with Scotland. It was only in 1386, after Portugal, under its new name, that King John I had entered into full alliance with England, was actually capable of landing with an army in Spain and mounted a campaign for the throne of Castile, which would ultimately fail. John would sail from England on the 9th of July 1386 with a huge Anglo-Portuguese fleet carrying an army of about 5,000 men, plus an extensive ‘royal’ household and his wife and daughters. They would pause to use his army to drive off French forces who were then besieging Brest. He landed at Corunna in northern Spain on the 29th of July.

The Castilian king, John of Trastamara, expected that John would land in Portugal and had concentrated his forces on the Portuguese border. However, Trastamara was wrong-footed by John’s decision to invade Galicia, the most distant and disaffected of the Castile kingdom. From August to October, John set up a rudimentary court and chancery at Ourense and received submission of the Galician nobility and most of the towns of Galicia, even though they had made their homage to him conditional on his being recognized as king by the rest of Castile. While John gambled on an early decisive battle, the Castilians were in no hurry to join the battle. He would begin to experience difficulties with keeping his army together and paying it. During November he’d meet King John I of Portugal at Ponte do Mouro on the south side of the Minho River and closed an agreement with him to make a joint Anglo-Portuguese invasion of central Castile early in 1387. The treaty was sealed by the marriage of John’s eldest daughter Philippa to the Portuguese king. A large part of John’s army had succumbed to sickness though and when the invasion was mounted they were greatly outnumbered by their Portuguese allies. The campaign of April through June of 1387 was an embarrassing failure. The Castilians refused to offer battle and Galician-Anglo-Portuguese troops, apart from time-wasting sieges of fortified towns, were reduced to foraging for food in the arid Spanish landscape. They were harassed mainly by French mercenaries of the Castilian king. Many hundreds of English, including the close friends and retainers of John had died of disease and exhaustion. Many had been deserted or abandoned to ride to the north under French safe-conducts. Shortly after the army had returned to Portugal, John closed a secret treaty with John of Trastamara, under which he and his wife renounced all of their claims to the Castilian throne. In return they would receive a large annual payment and the marriage of their daughter Catherine to Trastamara’s son Henry.

Duke of Aquitaine

John had left for Aquitaine from Portugal and would remain in the province until returning to England in November of 1389. This effectively would keep him off the scene while England endured a major political crisis of conflict between Richard II and the Lords Appellant, who were led by John of Gaunt’s younger brother Thomas of Woodstock, the Duke of Gloucester. Just four months after his return to England in March of 1390, Richard II had formally invested John with the Duchy of Aquitaine. This provided him with the overseas territory that he had long desired. However, he wouldn’t immediately return to the province, but remained in England and mainly ruled through seneschals as an absentee duke. His administration of the province was a disappointment and his appointment as duke was greatly resented by the Gascons. Since Aquitaine had always previously been held directly by the king of England or his heir it was not felt to be a fief that a king could bestow on a subordinate. From 1394 through 1395, John was forced to spend nearly a year in Gascony to shore up his position in the face of threats of secession by the Gascon nobles. He was one of England’s principal negotiators in the diplomatic exchanges with France that led to the Truce of Leulingham in 1396. Initially he agreed to join the French-led Crusade that ended in the disastrous Battle of Nicopolis, but withdrew due to ill-health and political problems in Gascony and England. For the remainder of John’s life he occupied the role of a valued counsellor of the king and loyal supporter of the Crown. He wouldn’t even protest, it would seem, when his younger brother Thomas was murdered at Richard’s behest. It might have been that he felt that he’d maintain his posture of loyalty to protect his son, Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV, who had also been one of the Lords Appellant, from Richard’s wrath. However, in 1398, Richard had Bolingbroke exiled and upon John’s death the following year Richard disinherited Bolingbroke completely by seizing John’s vast estates for the Crown.

John’s Friendship with Poet Geoffrey Chaucer

John was a patron and close friend of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who is best known for his work “The

Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer

Canterbury Tales”. Close to the end of their lives, John and Geoffrey became brothers-in-law when Chaucer married Philippa de Roet in 1366. John took his mistress of nearly thirty years, Katherine Swynford (de Roet), who was Philippa’s sister, as his third wife in 1396. Even though Philippa died in about 1387, the men were bound as brothers. John’s children by Katherine: John, Henry, Thomas and Joan Beaufort, were Geoffrey’s nephews and nieces.

The “Book of the Duchess”, also known as “Deeth of Blaunche the Duchesse”, that was written by Geoffrey was written to commemorate Blanche of Lancaster, John’s first wife. The poem refers to John and Blanche in allegory as the narrator relates the tale of:
“A long castel with walles white

Be Seynt Johan, on a ryche hil”

who is deeply mourning the death of his love:

“And goode faire White she het

That way my lady name ryght.”

The phrase “long castel” is in reference to John, “walles white” is thought to have likely been an oblique reference to Blanche. The phrase “Seynt Johan” was John of Gaunt’s name-saint and “ryche hil” is in reference to Richmond. These thinly veiled references reveal the identity of a grieving black knight to be John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and the Earl of Richmond. “White” is the English translation of the French word “blanche”, implying that white lady was Blanche of Lancaster.

John’s Burial

John of Gaunt was buried next to his wife, Blanche of Lancaster, between the choir stalls of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England. Their magnificent tomb had been designed and executed between 1374 and 1380 by Henry Yevele with the assistance of Thomas Wrek at a total cost of 592 pounds. The two alabaster effigies were notable for having their right hands joining together. An adjacent chantry chapel was added between 1399 and 1403. The graves and monuments were destroyed, along with the cathedral, during the Great Fire of London in 1666. A modern monument in the Cathedral’s crypt lists John’s grave as among the important graves that were lost during the fire.

Saint Paul’s Cathedral


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