Book Review: “The Red Prince: The Life of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster” by Helen Carr

55710502When one studies the history of the English monarchy, we tend to consider those who ruled and those who advised the ruler as significant characters. We rarely study the family members of the monarch who did not win the right to rule the kingdom. Yet, they are often either extremely loyal or they desire the crown with such ferocity that they rebel against their own family. It seems like a rather cruel world, but that was the life of a medieval monarch. True loyalty for one’s family was a rare feat. One man showed the depth of his loyalty to his family, even when the people despised him. He was the son of King Edward III, the brother of the famous Black Prince, the uncle of King Richard II, and the father of Henry Bolingbroke who would become King Henry IV. Gaunt’s reputation and legacy have been marred by his wealth and the role that he played with the Peasants’ Revolt, but was he such a bad person? In Helen Carr’s brilliant debut biography, “The Red Prince: The Life of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster”, she looks to uncover the truth about the man behind the throne and why he never desired the crown for himself.

Carr has chosen to call John of Gaunt “The Red Prince”, which makes a lot of sense for someone who understands the significance of his legacy in history. His son by his first wife Blanche of Lancaster, King Henry IV, was the first Lancastrian King of England. Obviously, they were represented by the red rose in the rather poetic sounding Wars of the Roses in the 15th century and their half-siblings, the Beauforts (who were descended from the children of John’s third wife and former mistress Katherine Swynford) would continue the legacy in their own way. There would be no Lancastrian Kings of England or Wars of the Roses or Tudor dynasty without John of Gaunt.

I am getting a little ahead of myself. After all, during John of Gaunt’s lifetime, none of this happened. He was just the son of Edward III and the brother of the Black Prince when he earned the title of the first Duke of Lancaster. He earned his reputation as a loyal soldier fighting alongside his brother and father in the conflict with France that would be known in history as the Hundred Years’ War. His loyalty to his brother and father and his bravery as a knight was legendary. He gained vast amounts of wealth from his marriages to Blanche of Lancaster and Constance of Castile. He was a patron of the arts, especially to Geoffrey Chaucer, and championed those who wanted to challenge the way religion was understood during the 14th century.

He had everything he could ever want until his world came crashing down around him. The Black Prince died of illness and his father King Edward III would soon follow, leaving the throne to his nephew King Richard II. To say things got off to a rocky start would be an understatement as John of Gaunt and other government officials were accused of raising taxes so high that it triggered what we know as the Peasants’ Revolt. On top of all of the problems in England, John of Gaunt decided to become King of Castile with his wife Constance. John of Gaunt led a life full of adventure, risks, and above all, loyalty to his family.

Carr does a magnificent job of bringing Gaunt’s life into focus. So much of his reputation has been tainted over time, but Carr did not shy away from the challenge. This is one of the best biographies that I have read this year so far. John of Gaunt deserved to have his story retold and Helen Carr was the perfect historian to tell his story for a newer generation. Carr’s writing style is engaging with meticulous attention to detail. This is a gorgeous debut biography and I cannot wait to see what Helen Carr will write next. If you want to read a biography about the founder of the Lancastrian dynasty, “The Red Prince: The Life of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster” by Helen Carr is a must-read.

Biography: King Henry IV (aka Henry Bolingbroke)

(Born April 3, 1367- Died March 20, 1413). Son of John of Gaunt and Blanche of mw03072Lancaster. Married to Mary de Bohun and Joan of Navarre. He had 7 children with Mary, including the future Henry V. He was the 1st king from the house of Lancaster.

Henry was the son of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster and was born at Bolingbroke Castle on April 3, 1367. Early in his life, he became one of the Lords Appellant who were opposed to the rule of Richard II. He stepped down from this role in 1389 and in 1390, went on his first adventure, journeying with the Teutonic Knights to Lithuania. Two years later, he went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. During this time, he visited numerous courts in Europe and was held in high regards. He was a handsome young man, but it was early in life where Henry’s ill health that plagued him during his reign started to appear.

Henry was a good person to help the king, however the only one who failed to realize this was Richard II. He banished Henry in 1398 for ten years, but when John of Gaunt died the following year and Henry became the next Duke of Lancaster, Richard II took all of his lands and banished him forever. This was the last straw for Henry. While Richard was occupied with unrest in Ireland, Henry took his chance and invaded England, forcing Richard to abdicate. The next one in line to the throne was Edmund Mortimer, earl of March, but he was only eight years old, so Parliament agreed that Henry would be a better choice to be king. His reign as Henry IV began on September 30, 1399.

However, not everyone was happy with Henry as king. Henry IV’s first rebellion that he had to deal with was by the earls of Kent, Salisbury and Huntingdon, just a month after he became king. Henry took care of this rebellion quickly and violently. It is also believed that this was around the same time that Henry ordered the death of Richard II. A few months after the first rebellion, Henry IV had to deal with a second rebellion in Wales, where Owain Glyn Dwr was declared Prince of Wales in September 1400. This revolt was quickly put down, but Owain evaded capture for several years, leading to guerrilla style warfare.

Owain’s supporters grew not only amongst Welsh barons, but English ones as well, including the Mortimers who were upset that Henry was king and not Edmund, who was Owain’s son in law after he married Owain’s daughter. Another supporter was Henry “Hotspur” Percy, the son of the earl of Northumberland who believed that he did not get the recognition that he deserved after he fought against the Scots. These forces came together and fought against Henry at the battle of Shrewsbury on July 21, 1403, where Henry defeated Hotspur easily and killed him. Henry was not going to let the rebel army get away and by 1408, they were all but eliminated.

Two years before this, in 1406, Henry IV took James I of Scotland hostage and his young heir was sent to France. James was in the English court for 17 years as a hostage and for that time, the relationships between England, Scotland and France were good. Things were looking up for Henry IV, except for his health. Starting in 1406, his health was in decline and there was a serious concern for his life. He tried to govern, but he became more reliant on his Parliament. In 1409, Henry’s son Prince Henry was made chancellor over Thomas Arundel, archbishop of Canterbury. Arundel returned in 1411 when Henry and his council were debating if he should step down in favor of Prince Henry, which Henry refused to do. Henry died in 1413 from some sort of wasting disease at the age of 45. His son Prince Henry would succeed him as Henry V.

Biography: Katherine Swynford

(Born November  25, 1350 – Died May 10, 1403). Daughter of Payne de Roet. Sister of Philippa Chaucer, the wife of Geoffrey Chaucer. Married to Hugh Swynford and John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster. Mother of the Beauforts as well as 3 children with Hugh Swynford.

Katherine was probably born on or around November 25, 1350 to Payne de Roet, a herald and later a knight. We don’t know much about her early life.  Katherine was appointed governess to watch over the children of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster in 1365. In 1367, she married Hugh Swynford, a knight, and they had 3 children; Blanche, Thomas and Margaret Swynford.

Hugh Swynford and Blanche of Lancaster would both die in 1371, the same year that rumors began that Katherine and John were having an affair. John quickly silenced those rumors by marrying Constance of Castile later the same year. In 1372 Katherine’s position in John’s household got better and by 1373, their first child John, was born. They would have 4 children; John, Henry, Thomas and Joan.They would adopt the last name Beaufort in honor of their father’s lost of his lordship of Anjou.

During the 1380’s, Katherine left court so John could repair his reputation after the Peasants’ Revolt. When Constance died in 1394, everything changed for the couple. They were married in 1396 and their children became legitimate, however they were banned from the line of succession for the throne of England. John would die on February 3, 1399, leaving Katherine a widow yet again. Katherine would die on May 10, 1403.

Her children with John of Gaunt, the Beauforts and their children, would change English history forever.

Biography: John of Gaunt

gaunt(Born March 6, 1340- Died March 15, 1399). Son of King Edward III and Philippa of Hainault.  He had three wives, Blanche of Lancaster, Constance of Castile, and Katherine Swynford. He was the 1st Duke of Lancaster, the Duke of Aquitaine, King of Castile, and one of the wealthiest men of his time. His children would become the House of Lancaster, the Beauforts, the monarchs of Portugal and Castile, and the Hapsburgs.

 

John of Gaunt was the third surviving son of Edward III. He wasn’t supposed to be as wealthy or influential as he became but he achieved prestige by marrying well. With his first marriage to Blanche of Lancaster, John of Gaunt was able to become the first Duke of Lancaster. Blanche of Lancaster would die in 1369 and John would marry Constance of Castile in 1371. She was next in line for the throne of Castile and for years John fought for her crown against the Spanish. The problem was that they were also fighting the French as the Hundred Years’ War was just starting.   After his brother Edward The Black Prince’s death in 1376, John took John Wycliffe under his protection as he now had more of a political influence.

When Edward III died, John of Gaunt’s nephew Richard II became king and John was his right hand man. There was a lot of mistrust with the nobility and the common folk which lead to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, which was quickly and brutally taken care of. John went  back to Castile try to take the throne, but as soon as he left, England almost fell into civil war because of how poorly Richard II ruled. John gave up his claim to the Castilian throne to help bring England back to some stability.

 

He would also help sponsor  Geoffrey Chaucer, who was his brother in law since Chaucer married the sister of John’s third wife and long time mistress, Katherine Swynford. John and Katherine met while he was married to Constance and had 4 children out of wedlock. After they were married in 1396, their children were made legitimate and given the name “Beaufort”. There was one catch, they were not allowed to inherit the throne, although their half- brother Henry IV allowed them to have some royal status. John of Gaunt died  of natural causes on March 15, 1399 with Katherine Swynford by her side. He would later be buried by his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster.

Book Review: “The Wars of the Roses” by Alison Weir

911GmwfEpdLThe Wars of the Roses was a series of wars from 1455 until 1487 for the throne of England. It is traditionally taught that it was between the houses of York and Lancaster, yet there were a lot more players involved than these two families. In fact the conflict started much earlier with the children of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. The Lancasters were the descendants of John of Gaunt and his wife Blanche of Lancaster while the Yorks were descendants of Edmund of Langley Duke of York. This was a series over the question of who had the strongest claim to the throne. This question and the series of wars that would try to answer it is explored in depth in Alison Weir’s book “The Wars of the Roses”.

Alison Weir explains the struggle of studying this time period and what she is trying to accomplish in her book:

Sources for this period are meagre and often ambiguous, yet much research has been done over the last hundred years to illuminate a little for us what is often described as the twilight world of the fifteenth century. Many misconceptions have been swept away, yet even so the dynastic conflict still confuses many. My aim has been throughout to eliminate that confusion and try to present the story in chronological sequence, clarifying the problems of the royal succession in an age in which no certain rules of inheritance applied. I have also tried to bring the world of the fifteenth century to life by introducing as much contemporary detail as space permits, in order to make the subject relevant to any read, academic or otherwise. Chiefly, however, I have tried to re-tell an astonishing and often grim story of power struggles in high places that involved some of the most charismatic figures in English history. (Weir, xix).

Weir begins her book by explaining  what England in the fifteenth century was like before diving into the history of Edward III and the Plantagenets in the late 1300s. This may seem a little complex since there were many sons of Edward III, but the throne first went to Richard II, but when he was forced to abdicate, the throne went to Henry of Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV. He was the son of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster. John of Gaunt and his third wife Katherine Swynford had children who would become known as the Beauforts. They would become important later on.

Henry IV’s son would become Henry V who was married to Katherine of Valois. When Henry V died, their son Henry VI became king; he was a baby. His mother would remarry a Welsh man named Owen Tudor and they would have a few children, including Edmund and Jasper Tudor. Henry VI would marry Margaret of Anjou. Richard Earl of Cambridge, the son of Edmund of Langley, would have a son with his wife Anne Mortimer named Richard Plantagenet Duke of York. He would marry the “Rose of Raby” Cecily Neville and they would be the parents of Edward IV, George Duke of Clarence and Richard Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III.

This all may seem a bit complex, but it is important to understand how all of the players in the Wars of the Roses were connected. Henry VI was a weak king who was known for his madness and so someone had to lead the government. Richard Duke of York believed that he should have been Lord Protector, however Margaret of Anjou and her party at court had other ideas. The beginning of this conflict was a battle between court factions, but eventually it escalated rather quickly into a full on rebellion by Richard Duke of York. This was now a battle between the Yorks and the Lancasters. When Richard Duke of York died at the Battle of Wakefield on December 30, 1460, his son Edward took on the Yorkist cause and would become king after the battle of Towton on March 29, 1461, the bloodiest battle on English soil. After Towton, it was a battle between Edward IV and those who supported Henry VI, until 1471 when Edward IV ultimately won, thus ending the conflict between the Yorks and the Lancasters.

Weir chooses to end her book here at 1471 even though the Wars of the Roses will pick back up with the death of Edward IV in 1483 when his brother Richard becomes Richard III. Weir truly brought this time period to life. I have been studying the Wars of the Roses for a few years now and I have to say this book really simplified this complex family struggle in a way that makes sense. I love this book and I have read it several times. If you really want a great book that explains the causes of the Wars of the Roses, I highly recommend this book, “The Wars of the Roses” by Alison Weir. It is a fantastic introduction to this tumultuous time period.