Posts Tagged ‘John of Gaunt’

John of Gaunt

Posted in General, On This Day on March 6th, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Queen Philippa of England, wife of Edward III, was in a constant state of pregnancy. That was a common situation among 14th century women. What was extraordinary, however, was that she and most of her children survived. This may have been gratifying for Philippa on Mother’s Day, but it also meant six princes and only one throne. This excess of underemployed but ambitious dukes would result in decades of dynastic war and eight Shakespeare plays.

The most conniving of her sons was born this day in 1340, in the city of Ghent. Given the English reluctance to correctly pronounce another language, the prince was known as John of Gaunt. Intelligent and brave, he would have been a promising king; but he was the third son in a healthy family. John had to find other outlets for his energies. Of course, there was always the French to kill. Furthermore, he demonstrated intellectual tendencies that might qualify him as a medieval liberal. At the time, the Catholic Church had become so contorted with politics that it literally had split in two. In the Great Schism (1378-1417), there were two competing Papacies: Rome and Avignon. Many Christians, including John of Gaunt, were so disgusted that they looked elsewhere and found spiritual satisfaction in a reformist movement known as the Lollards. With their emphasis on the Bible and a simplified approach to worship (none of Rome’s theatrical rituals), the Lollards may have been premature Protestants. (When the Church finally ended up the Schism, its first act was to crush the Lollards.) The leader of the Lollards in England, John Wycliffe, had a friend, patron and protector in John of Gaunt.

The Duke, however, still wanted to be King somewhere. He thought that there was a chance of becoming King of Castile. Its ruler, the memorably named Pedro the Cruel, was trying to maintain his throne against an ambitious half-brother. Pedro’s only legitimate heir was his daughter, and guess who decided to become his son-in-law? John’s plan might have worked if only Pedro had won the civil war; John was stuck with a wife whom he disliked. However, he did find solace–no, not in Lollardism–but in the comely governess of his children. In fact, he soon had a family with her, too. (That was his third brood; he had been quite prolific with his first wife Blanche of Lancaster, and reasonably virile with the Spanish princess.)

Although John would never get to be king, he did end up ruling England. Whether it was a disease or the medieval doctors, the Prince of Wales died before ascending the throne. His young son Richard II then succeeded grandpa. Uncle John was only too happy to assist his nephew in governing the kingdom. The Regency proved rather surprising; the Duke had many talents but competence was not among them. He was an abysmal administrator. His misjudgements incited a peasant rebellion that ravaged the country and even seized London. England barely survived John of Gaunt.

But ruling in his own right, Richard proved even more disastrous: he was both unscrupulous and incompetent. Furthermore, he turned out to be conspicuously “artistic.”  The next generation of Plantagenets would not be springing from his loins. He had a number of underemployed cousins (courtesy of the underemployed uncles) who were vying to succeed Richard. Henry, the son of the John of Gaunt, didn’t even bother to wait. He overthrew Richard and established himself as King Henry IV.

If not a king, at least John of Gaunt was the founder of the Lancaster dynasty. In fact, he is also the ancestor of two royal families that are still reigning. King Juan Carlos of Spain is descended from the John’s Castilian marriage. Queen Elizabeth is descended from John’s indiscretions with the governess, but you wouldn’t be rude enough to mention that to her.