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: 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.