When we think of knights, we often think of shining armor, King Arthur and his fabulous court, fair maidens, and of course chivalry. These are considered to be literary ideals, almost too fantastic to be real. However, knights did live in the Middle Ages into the 14th century where some of the greatest knights lived. One is known as The Black Prince; the other was John of Gaunt. Both were brothers, sons of Edward III, the one who helped launch the Hundred Years’ War with France. The Black Prince might have a pretty cool nickname, but the one who really stole the show was John of Gaunt. The subject of Norman F. Cantor’s book “The Last Knight: The Twilight of the Middle Ages and the Birth of the Modern Era” is none other than the third son of Edward III, John of Gaunt.
Now I know what you are thinking, why do a book review for about someone who lived in the 1300s when this blog is focused on the Wars of the Roses and the Tudors. The answer is simple. It is because John of Gaunt and his children with his third wife and mistress Catherine Swynford would create the Beaufort line, the same family of Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor, the founder of the Tudor Dynasty. It was also with John’s first wife Blanche of Lancaster, that the line of Lancaster was formed. He may have only been a third son but he became one of the wealthiest men in Europe and his family would shape the future of England forever.
Cantor, in this book, explores the world that John of Gaunt called home. What was it like in not just in England but in all of the medieval world? What about religion and literature? What was life like for women and knights in court? All of these aspects are explored throughout this book as well as elements in John of Gaunt’s life that made him unique, including his wealth and becoming King of Castile after he married his second wife Constance. Through wars and plagues, politics and rebellions, exploration and the beginning of the Renaissance, John of Gaunt navigated through it all.
It sounds like a very complex time, however, Cantor has a way of explaining it all in such a way that is both engaging and educational. Cantor through his writing style makes it easy to understand John of Gaunt’s legacy, not only is his time but how his legacy affected even our time. It was through his patronage that men like Chaucer and John Wyclif were able to complete their best works.
Shakespeare gave John of Gaunt a very patriotic speech, “this sceptre’d isle…This other Eden, demi-paradise”. Shakespeare was speaking as though John of Gaunt was an old man, reminiscing about the good times as the younger generation was taking over like Henry Bolingbroke and Henry the Navigator. Cantor brings to life the legend of John of Gaunt. Towards the end of his book, Cantor nicely sums up John of Gaunt’s life:
Above all, Gaunt’s taste for war, his frenetic energy, and his physical strength, as well as his love of women and his wealth and lifestyle, set the model for European aristocratic behavior, which went unchallenged until the nineteenth century and is still the pattern for all effective and durable social elites. (Cantor, 239).
John of Gaunt was a Renaissance man of his times. He wasn’t just some old man of Shakespearean lore. Cantor makes John of Gaunt and his world of the Middle Ages come alive. If you want to learn more about John of Gaunt, his family, and his world, Norman F. Cantor’s book “The Last Knight” is the book for you.
Cantor, Norman F. The Last Knight: The Twilight of the Middle Ages and the Birth of the Modern Era. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.