A Plantagenet powerhouse, John of Gaunt was the 4th son of King Edward III, but would go on to become arguably the most powerful and successful of his brothers. Marrying into the Duchy of Lancaster, he amassed a fortune, claimed the crown of Castile and was a highly influential political figure of the time.
Divisive in his life time, his legacy would go on to shape an era, with his descendants fighting the Wars of the Roses and ultimately becoming kings of England. Here are 10 facts about the royal ancestor, John of Gaunt.
1. Gaunt is an anglicisation of Ghent
John of Gaunt was born in the abbey of Saint Bavo in Ghent, modern-day Belgium, on 6 March 1340, while his father, who had claimed the throne of France in 1337, was seeking allies against the French among the dukes and counts of the Low Countries.
Correctly, he should be known as ‘John of Ghent’, but the town of Ghent was called Gaunt in his own lifetime, and, significantly, over 200 years later in Shakespeare’s lifetime as well. John is very well-known as ‘John of Gaunt’ thanks to his appearance in Shakespeare’s play about his nephew, Richard II.
2. He was the 4th son, so unlikely to inherit the throne
He was the 6th child and 4th son of King Edward III and his queen, Philippa of Hainault and had 6 younger siblings, three brothers and three sisters. One of his three older brothers, William of Hatfield, died at a few weeks old in 1337, and so did one of his younger brothers, William of Windsor, in 1348.
4 of John’s 5 sisters died before reaching adulthood, and their father outlived only 4 of his and the queen’s 12 children: John, his older sister Isabella, and his younger brothers Edmund and Thomas.
3. He had illustrious royal lineage
John’s father Edward III had been king of England for 13 years when John was born, and ruled for half a century, the 5th longest reign in English history after Elizabeth II, Victoria, George III and Henry III.
As well as his royal English origins, John was descended from the royal house of France via both parents: his paternal grandmother Isabella, wife of King Edward II, was the daughter of Philip IV of France, and his maternal grandmother Jeanne de Valois, countess of Hainault, was Philip IV’s niece.
4. He lived in a multicultural household
In the early 1350s, John lived in the household of his eldest brother, Edward of Woodstock, nicknamed the Black Prince. The royal brothers spent much time at the royal manor of Byfleet in Surrey. The prince’s accounts record that John had two ‘Saracen’, i.e. Muslim or North African, companions; the boys’ names were Sigo and Nakok.
5. He received his first earldom when he was just 2 years old
John’s father bestowed the earldom of Richmond on him in 1342 when he was just 2 years old. Due to his first marriage, John also became Duke of Lancaster and Earl of Lincoln, Leicester and Derby.
6. He was just 10 when he saw his first military action
John first saw military action in August 1350 at the age of 10, when he and his brother, the Prince of Wales, took part in the naval Battle of Winchelsea. This is also known as the Battle of Les Espagnols sur Mer, “the Spaniards on the Sea”. The English victory resulted in the defeat of the Franco-Castilian commander Charles de La Cerda.
In 1367, the brothers again fought side by side at the Battle of Nájera in Spain. This was a victory for Pedro, king of Castile and Leon, against his illegitimate half-brother Enrique of Trastámara. John married Pedro’s daughter and heir Costanza as his second wife in 1371, and became titular king of Castile and Leon, two of the four kingdoms of medieval Spain.
7. He married a Lancastrian heiress
In May 1359 at Reading Abbey, 19-year-old John married his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster. She was the semi-royal daughter of Henry of Grosmont, the first Duke of Lancaster. Duke Henry died in 1361 and Blanche’s older sister Maud died childless in 1362. As a result, the entire Lancastrian inheritance, with lands across Wales and in 34 English counties, passed to Blanche and John.
When Blanche died at the age of 26, she left three children. Thanks to a custom called the ‘courtesy of England’, which allowed a man who married an heiress to keep her entire inheritance in his own hands provided they had a child, John of Gaunt was entitled to retain all of Blanche’s lands for the remaining 30 years of his life. At that point they passed by right to their only surviving son Henry.
8. He eventually married his mistress, Katherine Swynford
During his second marriage to Costanza of Castile, John was involved in a long, intense and intimate relationship with Katherine Swynford née Roet, widow of Sir Hugh Swynford of Lincolnshire.
They had four children together, the Beauforts, in the 1370s. They were legitimised after John married Katherine as his third wife in 1396.
9. He wrote a very particular, specific will
John made a very long will on the day he died, 3 February 1399. It includes some fascinating bequests. Among much else, he left his “best ermine blanket” to his nephew Richard II and the second-best one to his wife Katherine.
He also left his two best brooches and all his gold goblets to Katherine, and gave to his son, the future Henry IV, a “great bed of cloth-of-gold, the field partly worked with gold trees, and next to each tree a black alaunt [a breed of hunting dog] tied to the same tree”.
A chronicler writing 50 years later claimed that John died of venereal disease. In a revolting twist, he apparently even showed his nephew Richard II the decaying flesh around his genitals as a warning against lechery. This is, however, extremely unlikely. We do not know the true cause of John’s death. Another chronicler wrote, briefly and unhelpfully: “On this day, died Duke John of Lancaster.”
He was buried in Old St Paul’s Cathedral in London next to Blanche of Lancaster, though sadly their tombs were lost in the Great Fire. His third wife Katherine Swynford outlived him by four years and was buried in Lincoln Cathedral.
10. The British royal family is descended from John of Gaunt
As well as being the son, uncle and father of English kings (Edward III, Richard II and Henry IV respectively), John of Gaunt was the grandfather of three kings: Henry V of England (reigned 1413-22), by his own son Henry IV; Duarte I of Portugal (r. 1433-38), by his daughter Philippa; and Juan II of Castile and Leon (r. 1406-54), via his daughter Katherine.
John and his third wife Katherine were also the great-grandparents of Edward IV and Richard III, owing to their daughter Joan Beaufort, countess of Westmorland.
Kathryn Warner holds two degrees in medieval history from the University of Manchester. She is considered a foremost expert on Edward II and an article from her on the subject was published in the English Historical Review. Her book, John of Gaunt, will be published by Amberley in January 2022.