John of Gaunt

John of Gaunt
(duke of Lancaster)
   John of Gaunt, so-called after the mispronunciation of his birthplace, Ghent, was born in 1340 as the fourth son of King Edward III and Queen Philippa of England. As an infant Gaunt was declared earl of Richmond and was admitted into the Order of the Garter through that title. In 1359 Gaunt married Blanche of Lancaster, the younger of two daughters and coheiresses of Henry, duke of Lancaster (the most prominent and wealthy man in the kingdom next to the king). His marriage to Blanche made him the earl of Derby, Lincoln, Leicester, and Lancaster, and steward of England. Following the deaths of his father-in-law in 1361 and his sister-in-law in 1362, Gaunt became duke of Lancaster and recipient of one the largest English inheritances of all time. The duke and duchess had three children: Henry, duke of Hereford and Lancaster, earl of Derby, and eventually King Henry IV; Philippa, who married King John I of Portugal; and Elizabeth, who married John Holland, duke of Exeter, and Sir John Cornwall, Lord Fanhope.
   When Blanche died of the plague in 1369, the duke was deeply heart-broken, but perhaps he found comfort in the commemorative BOOK OF THE DUCHESS, which Geoffrey CHAUCER intended as both a tribute to Blanche and a source of consolation for Gaunt, his patron. In The Book of the Duchess, Chaucer describes Blanche as beautiful, kind, and gentle. The poem’s combination of a “love-vision” and an elegy made Chaucer’s first major poem a truly unique work of literature. Besides providing Chaucer’s financial livelihood (Gaunt bestowed a life pension upon him), John of Gaunt had a fairly close relationship to Chaucer: The poet’s wife, Philippa, was governess to John of Gaunt’s children when she married Chaucer and remained in the service of Gaunt’s household, favored by the duke of Lancaster for years into her marriage. Philippa was also the sister of Katherine Swynford, who later became Gaunt’s third wife. John of Gaunt is also distinguished in literature as a major character in Shakespeare’s Richard II, in which (as in real life) he is the uncle to the king and the father to Richard’s rival Henry Bolingbroke.
   After Blanche’s death, Lancaster married Constance of Castile, the daughter and heir of Pedro the Cruel, and the couple shared a strictly political marriage that made Gaunt king of Castile and Leon. Constance died in 1394, leaving John with one daughter by her, whom he married to Juan of Portugal’s son. Eventually Gaunt’s son-in-law became Henry III, king of Castile and Leon. The descendants of this alliance ruled Spain until the death of King Charles II in 1700.
   After Constance died Gaunt married Katherine Swynford and had the pope and the king legitimize his four children with her, known as the Beauforts (Swynford had been Gaunt’s mistress for most of Gaunt’s marriage to Constance of Castile, perhaps as long as 20 years). This marriage made Chaucer and Gaunt lawfully related as brothers-in-law. The Beaufort children were John Beaufort, earl of Somerset and marquis of Dorset; Henry Beaufort, cardinal and chancellor of England; Thomas Beaufort, duke of Ester; and Joan Beaufort. The Beauforts were active in Henry Tudor’s rise to the throne. Although he was never king, John of Gaunt exercised nearly royal power during the last year of Edward III’s reign and during Richard II’s minority. He was unpopular with the public (his London home, the Savoy, was destroyed in 1381 during the PEASANT’S REVOLT as a mob cried,“We will have no king called John”) because of his demonstrations of power, his defense of his elderly father’s government, his attacks upon the church and on the privileges of London, and the people’s suspicion that he had sinister ambitions.
   Gaunt was without a doubt one of the most influential and important political figures during the latter half of the 14th century. He is remembered for acquiring the county of Lancaster for his successors and as the founder of ruling houses in 15th-century England, Portugal, Castile, and Aragon and even the Tudor dynasty. Gaunt died in 1399 and was buried (according to his will) beside his first and evidently favorite wife, Blanche, in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
   ■ Armitage-Smith, Sydney. John of Gaunt: King of Castile and Leon, Duke of Aquitaine and Lancaster, Earl of Derby, Lincoln, and Leicester, Seneschal of England. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1964.
   ■ Dillon, Bert. “John of Gaunt.” In A Chaucer Dictionary: Proper Names and Allusions, Excluding Place Names. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1974.
   ■ Goodman, Anthony. John of Gaunt: The Exercise of Princely Power in Fourteenth-Century Europe. New York: St.Martin’s Press, 1992.
   ■ Mehl, Dieter. Geoffrey Chaucer: An Introduction to his Narrative Poetry. A revised and expanded translation of Geoffrey Chaucer, eine Einführung inseine erzä Dichturgen by Erich Schmidt, Verlag Gmbh. 1973. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
   Leslie Johnston

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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