John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster

Born: March 6, 1340

Ghent, Belgium

Died: February 3, 1399

Leicester, Leicestershire, England (Age 58)

John of Gaunt in History

Prince John, the future Duke of Lancaster, was born the third surviving son of King Edward III and Philippa of Hainault at some point in March 1340 while the royal family was stationed in the Flemish city of Ghent. Unsurprisingly, the new prince would take on the moniker John “of Gaunt” (an Anglicization of his birthplace); this is the name by which he is best known to history. The royal couple’s presence in Flanders was due to the alliances which Edward III had formed with the various princes and nobles of the Low Countries in order to create an effective coalition against his fellow monarch, Philip VI of France, with whom he was at war. In the opening years of what has come to be known as the Hundred Years’ War, it was common for the English to launch attacks from this region, and it was in Ghent that Edward first proclaimed himself King of France, giving the city a degree of significance. By the fall, John was in England and, by the following year, he was elevated to the peerage as Earl of Richmond (thought this was not officially confirmed by the king for another ten years). The title, which had been affiliated with the Counts and Dukes of Brittany since the mid-twelfth century, had become vacant when Duke John III had died without a direct heir.  Clearly, the king and queen wanted to make sure that all of the members of their growing family were well provided for.

Relatively little information is available pertaining to John’s formative years, including his education and general upbringing, though it appears that he was a member of the household of Edward the “Black Prince,” his eldest brother, from a young age. John got his first taste of martial experience in 1350, at the age of ten, when he was a passenger on his father’s ship during the bloody Battle of Winchelsea, where the English defeated a French-allied Castilian fleet in the English Channel; obviously, John played no role in the actual fighting. In 1355, John accompanied his father to Normandy in what was supposed to be a campaign of conquest (though this is questionable) against the French and their king, now John II. However, the credit for victory was destined to go to the Black Prince, who the following year would win his great victory over the French at Poitiers. The contingent led by the king, which included John, was forced to return to England when it was discovered that the Scots had captured the important Anglo-Scottish border town of Berwick. John accompanied his father into Scotland and took part in the largely unsuccessful raiding campaign that took place. As a reward for his services, the king granted John an important northern lordship and, more importantly, had him betrothed to Blanche of Lancaster, a co-heiress of Henry of Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster, arguably the wealthiest noblemen in England. The marriage between John and Blanche duly took place in the spring of 1359 and was highly significant, as Lancaster had no male heirs and his vast fortune was due to be split between his daughters upon his death, ultimately making John one of the kingdom’s premier noblemen in right of his wife.

That fall, John took part in the Rheims campaign – the result of unsuccessful peace negotiations between French and English moderators after the capture of John II at Poitiers three years earlier – and accompanied the force led by his brother, the Black Prince. The English forces did besiege Rheims but were unable to take the city where, for centuries, the Kings of France had been crowned. John did take part in some of the raiding that took place in the areas surrounding Paris, but the Rheims campaign was, overall, ineffective. Though John was back in England by the spring of 1360, he returned with his father to English-controlled Calais in the summer to take part in the final ratification of the Treaty of Bretigny, which had put an end to this first phase of the Hundred Years War (though many important details remained ambiguous). All of this activity, however, seems menial compared to what would happen just months later. In perhaps the most significant event of John’s life, the Duke of Lancaster succumbed to the plague in March 1361. Now, at the young age of twenty-one, John (and his wife) were due to inherit half of the greatest personal fortune in England.

Upon his father-in-law’s death, John inherited the earldoms of Lancaster, Derby and Lincoln (in addition to his own earldom of Richmond) and all of the vast estates and incomes that went with them. The following year, John sister-in-law Maud died childless, delivering the remaining portions of the Lancastrian inheritance to John and Blanche, including the earldom of Leicester. Now that John held all of the duchy of Lancaster lands, he was free to style himself as Duke of Lancaster, in addition to being an earl four times over – all by the age of just twenty-two. John’s elevation to the highest level of the English peerage brought with it added responsibility – a prospect that John seemed to embrace. In addition to administering his vast estates, he played a much more active role in domestic and foreign politics, both as a diplomat and as a soldier. John was an important member of the royal council and was sent to take part in some important ambassadorial tasks, including the job of negotiating a marriage proposal between his younger brother, Edmund of Langley, and the daughter of the Count of Flanders – a plan that would, unfortunately, never come to fruition.

By mid-1366, it was agreed that John would sail to Aquitaine to provide military aid to his brother, the Black Prince (now ruler of an independent principality of Aquitaine), who had impulsively decided to involve himself in the Castilian civil war between the now-deposed King Pedro “the Cruel” and his illegitimate, French-backed half-brother, Enrique of Trastamara. Arriving in Aquitaine in January 1367, John invaded Castile with his brother and led one of the divisions at the Battle of Najera in May – a decisive victory for the English and their allies, even if it did nothing to help pay for the expensive campaign in which the Black Prince had just engaged in. It soon became clear that the Black Prince had gotten in over his head by involving himself in the volatile politics of Castile; John, sensing that, left his brother to his own fortunes and returned to England. By no means, however, was it to be John’s final involvement in the affairs of the Iberian peninsula.

John was back on the continent by the summer of 1369 as the sole commander of his own army. It is not completely clear what the primary objective of this campaign was, but the French, by this point, had the momentum in the Hundred Years War, and it seems likely that an army was sent to France to distract them from possible plans of an invasion of England; there were indeed rumors that Charles V was making such plans. John and his forces landed at Calais, an English foothold on the northern French coast since 1347, and was successfully able to strengthen defenses of the city and its surrounding areas, which were also under English control. The English forces performed some raiding in the region around the Pale of Calais and, at one point, were on the verge of engaging in a pitched battle with a French army under the command of Charles V’s brother, Duke Philip of Burgundy, but this was prevented when English reinforcements arrived, forcing the French to retreat. With his morale boosted by what he viewed as a cowardly retreat by the French, John decided to lead his army into Normandy to attack the coastal city of Harfleur, where Charles V was supposedly laying his plans to invade England. Unfortunately, the French were informed of John’s plans and were easily able to repel the English army, forcing them to retreat back to Calais; by the year’s end, the campaign was over. While it cannot be said that the campaign John led to France in 1369 was a complete failure, it was certainly not a great success – especially when considering the immense cost of the journey.

John’s next military endeavor came in the summer of 1370, when he was dispatched to Aquitaine with a force to relieve the Black Prince, who was in failing health and rapidly losing control of his principality to the French. After relieving the city of Limoges from a French attack, the Black Prince surrendered his authority and, soon after, departed for England, leaving John as lieutenant of the increasingly volatile region. Being that there was little that he could do from a military standpoint to slow the momentum of the French, who continued to make significant progress in taking back Aquitaine piece by piece from the English, John decided to take a diplomatic approach. In 1368, John’s beloved wife Blanche had passed away, leaving the duke as, undoubtedly, the most eligible bachelor in England. John decided that it would be a wise strategy to take Constance of Castile, the daughter of the deposed King Pedro (who had been assassinated in the spring of 1369 by followers of Enrique of Trastamara), as his new bride. The marriage, which duly took place in September 1371 (the month after John surrendered the lieutenancy of Aquitaine), seemed to make complete sense at the time. After all, if John was able to successfully press his wife’s claim to the Castilian throne, not only would the English have considerably less to worry about when it came to the defense of the increasingly vulnerable region of Aquitaine, but John would be able to call himself King of Castile through right of his wife, substantially adding to his already prestigious position in England. John’s ego had become so bloated by his new marriage that he soon began styling himself King of Castile and Leon and sporting the Castilian arms publicly. Despite John’s superflux of confidence, he was in no position to press his claim to Castile’s throne in the immediate aftermath of his marriage to Constance, as Enrique was now firmly planted on the throne (relatively speaking) and had the enthusiastic backing of the French, while English resources were stretched very thin. Unlike John’s marriage to Blanche, which was a genuine love match (an anomaly in the Middle Ages for members of the upper classes), the union with Constance was carried out for strictly political purposes: John wanted a kingdom and the English wanted Aquitaine to have a hospitable neighbor. Neither Constance nor John seemed to have any intense affection for the other, made evident by John’s affair with Catherine Swynford, who bore him four children in the 1370s (the Beauforts) and would eventually become his third wife.

John once again crossed over to Calais with a sizeable army and the supposed backing of the Duke of Brittany (to whom John was recently forced to surrender his earldom of Richmond in order to win his allegiance) in the summer of 1373. In what has come to be known as the “Great March” John and his army travelled all the way from Calais to Bordeaux (still under English control), and caused a great deal of damage to the French countryside, but was unable to encounter Charles V on the battlefield or regain any territory in Aquitaine which had been lost over the previous few years. All in all, the campaign of 1373-74 was an expensive failure and would represent John’s last military endeavor for some time (though pressing his claim to the Castilian throne through military force was frequently on his mind). The years following this unsuccessful campaign saw John focus more and more on diplomacy and domestic politics. It appears that John was more geared towards peace, rather than war with France, made clear by his fervent participation in the negotiations held at Bruges for much of 1375. Unfortunately, an agreement was not reached between the two parties, and the peace was kept in place by a series of short-term truces.

Once he returned from these largely unsuccessful peace negotiations on the continent, John was forced to turn most of his attentions to the swiftly deteriorating domestic situation within England. By the time the 1370s began, both Edward III and the Black Prince were nothing more than invalids who played only a nominal role in the day-to-day operations of government. The king’s second surviving son, Lionel of Antwerp, had died in 1368, and the Black Prince’s son and heir, Richard, was still a minor. This lack of leadership from the royal family led to a small group of courtiers – such as William Latimer, Richard Lyons and the king’s mistress Alice Perrers, among others – gaining an undue amount of influence over royal policy. Up to this point, John had been far too busy with foreign diplomacy and military expeditions (not to mention administering his vast landholdings throughout the kingdom) to play a significant role in governing the country.

Yet, effective leadership was exactly what the realm needed by this point, with much of the population disillusioned with the current regime over high taxes (which paid for seemingly pointless foreign campaigns) and the general unpopularity of the king’s influential ministers. At the so-called Good Parliament, which commenced in the spring of 1376, John was the primary spokesman for the royal cause, while the commons chose the charismatic Peter de la Mare to speak on their behalf. Unsurprisingly, the main issues revolved around taxes and the removal of the king’s unpopular favorites from their positions of power. The commons absolutely refused to allow any new taxes to be levied until serious reforms were made to the taxation system and insisted that figures such as Latimer, Lyons and Alice Perrers be expelled from court. John defended the royal prerogative vigorously, but the commons were united against him, and he had little choice but to agree to their demands – at least for the time being. By the end of the parliament, in July, Latimer and Lyons had been impeached and arrested, Alice Perrers was forcefully removed from court (albeit with a generous income) and no new taxes were levied to replenish the royal exchequer after years of fruitless warfare. For all intents and purposes, John had been effectively neutralized (not to mention humiliated) and refused to attend the festivities which accompanied the closing of the parliament.

Despite John’s somewhat embarrassing defeat at the hands of the commons, he maintained his status as a political force to be reckoned with. Soon after the Good Parliament ended, John did his best to reverse any progress which the commons had made during the proceedings. He did so by annulling many of the the charges against the royal favorites (including, reluctantly, Alice Perrers) and by putting Peter de la Mare in prison in their place. At the Bad Parliament (as it has come to be known), which began in January 1377, de la Mare remained in prison while the reversals of the impeachments of Latimer, Lyons and others were confirmed. Perhaps most significantly, a significant “poll” tax was levied (the first of several in the coming years) in which no one, lay or clerical, was exempt. The tax was immensely unpopular, particularly amongst the clergy and the city of London, and the Londoners assumed that John was attempting to take away their cherished civil liberties. A full-scale rebellion within the city was just narrowly avoided, and John himself barely escaped with his life. The Londoners then proceeded to spread rumors that John was illegitimate, greatly angering him in the process. Yet the Londoners were not able to back up their threats and harsh words and begged forgiveness when they were summoned to appear in court, handing John a decisive victory. This was fortunate, as John had more important matters to deal with as the expiration date for the temporary truce with France was nearing its end. Preparations were made to defend the realm against enemy attacks; it also appears that an invasion of France was being planned. Unfortunately, the death of Edward III and the accession of John’s ten-year-old nephew, Richard II (the Black Prince had died during the midst of the Good Parliament the previous year), in June 1377 put all of these plans on hold, and John had to do his part in transitioning the kingdom into a new reign for the first time in fifty years.

The death of the long-time monarch and the accession of his prepubescent grandson was bound to bring about a confused, complex and possibly dangerous situation, given the fact that the new king was obviously too young to rule independently. Normally, in situations such as this, the standard procedure would have been to appoint a regent (or protector) who would wield sovereign-like authority until the sitting monarch came of age. The last person to officially hold this position was William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, who served  as regent for the first three years of Henry III, who became king at the age of nine in 1216. Edward III himself came to the throne as a minor, and his mother, Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, ruled the kingdom in his name as unofficial co-regents. When Richard II ascended England’s throne under similar circumstances in 1377, John would have been the most logical choice to serve as regent. After all, he had vast experience in both foreign and domestic affairs, after virtually ruling over the kingdom during his father’s period of incapacitation, and was the oldest living male member of the royal family. Yet he was dangerously unpopular amongst three major groups within English society: the clergy, who were none too happy that he had included them in the highly unpopular poll tax which had been levied at the Bad Parliament; the citizens of London, who felt that John was doing all he could to strip them of their unique civil liberties; and the commons, who inevitably blamed John, as the most influential man in the kingdom, for high taxation and the rapidly deteriorating situation in the war with France.

For all these reasons and more, it would not have been a wise idea to put John in an official position where he would have had the authority to wield power equal to that of a monarch. It does not appear as if John wanted any of these responsibilities in an official capacity anyway, as he knew that the blame for any policies considered to even remotely unpopular would be placed squarely on him. Therefore, it came as no surprise that, instead of naming a regent to rule in the young king’s name until he reached his majority, a series of “continual” councils were created to govern the kingdom. Neither John nor his two younger brothers, Edmund of Langley and Thomas of Woodstock, were members of the council, though it was assumed (and rightfully so) that they would still wield considerable influence over royal affairs. From the outset of the reign John did his best to mend his reputation. He genuinely attempted to make peace with the Londoners (and vice-versa), and he made it one of his top priorities to destroy the late king’s mistress, Alice Perrers, a move that was widely praised, after he had reluctantly agreed to allow her to return to court following her expulsion at the hands of the commons at the Good Parliament. Unsurprisingly, John preferred to engage in more of a hands-off form of running the kingdom’s daily operations.

During the opening years of the new reign, he spent more time on his own estates in the north than he did at court specifically to deflect attention away from himself. It appears that John was heavily involved in peace negotiations with the Scots during this period as well. It was in the best interests of both John and the kingdom as a whole that Anglo-Scottish relations remained cordial. John held vast estates in the north that were vulnerable to Scottish raids, while the Scots, if rubbed the wrong way, could easily renew the so-called Auld Alliance with the French, putting pressure on England from the north and the south. Peace negotiations were largely successful, and the Scots seemed to have held John in high esteem, frequently showing him an unprecedented amount of hospitality – almost certainly more so than they showed most Englishmen. John was also active in affairs on the continent during these years, both as a military commander and as a diplomat. He sailed with a sizeable force across the channel in the summer of 1378 to unsuccessfully lay siege to the important port city of St. Malo in Brittany, where Castilian troops were apparently stationed at the time. It must also be assumed that John played some sort of role in the negotiations for a treaty with Brittany which led to Thomas of Woodstock’s largely unsuccessful French campaign in 1380, which saw him march from Calais to Brittany, accomplishing very little (if anything) along the way. Woodstock’s failure would turn out to have far-reaching consequences.

The expedition had been a costly one, and new taxes now had to be levied in order to further fund the war in France. At the parliament that met at Northampton in the fall of 1380, yet another poll tax was approved to keep Woodstock’s flailing campaign from completely collapsing. This poll tax (the third levied since the Bad Parliament) was different than its two predecessors because it was agreed that all citizens of the kingdom over a certain age were to pay a flat rate – a proposal that was highly detrimental (for obvious reasons) to farmers, tradesmen and other commoners who generated meager incomes even in the best of times. Wealthy landowners, on the other hand, were little effected by the tax. The direct result of the poll tax was the outbreak of the Peasants’ Revolt in the spring of 1381. Beginning in separate incidents in Essex and Kent and swiftly expanding into London, the rebellion, led by Walter “Wat” Tyler and others,  had very simple objectives: to force the removal of the king’s “evil” counselors (i.e. those who had been responsible for subjecting the people of England to the poll tax) by any means necessary –violent or otherwise – and to bring about reforms to the taxation system which would be fair to all Englishmen, not just the very wealthy; unsurprisingly, John topped the list of those whom the rebels deemed to be “evil.” 

The rebels’ intense animosity towards John was made evident by the fact that any person who had any association with him was an immediate target, with many of them being killed during the rising (John’s son and heir, Henry Bolingbroke, nearly became a victim of the mob himself). John’s magnificent palace in London’s suburbs, the Savoy, was burnt to the ground. To show that they were not concerned with acquiring wealth, just destroying anything John held dear, there was very little in the way of looting of the many rich prizes contained within the Savoy; most of the treasures were either destroyed in the fire or dumped en masse into the Thames. When the rebels met personally with the king, one of their primary demands was John’s execution, a request Richard could not possibly grant. Luckily, John was able to avoid the fates of the chancellor, Archbishop Simon Sudbury of Canterbury, and the treasurer, Robert Hales (both of whom were seized from the Tower and savagely beheaded in the streets), because he was in the north serving in his capacity of lieutenant of the Scottish marches, a position he held intermittently during these years. When he got word of the revolt, John was horrified and now understood why his associate, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, would not allow him entry into any of his castles in the north: the earl was not sure whether or not the king would hand his uncle over to the rebels (or at least have him arrested) to appease them. Northumberland did not want to seem as if he was supporting a “traitor” to the crown. Not daring to head south until the disturbances had been brought to an end, John was forced to take refuge with the Scots, who welcomed him into their kingdom with open arms. Fortunately, John did not need to take advantage of the Scots’ hospitality for long, since the revolt in London was only to last for a few days before being brought to a screeching halt with the death of Wat Tyler. John was even more relieved when he received correspondence from the king which indicated that his nephew was not dissatisfied with him and (supposedly) never had any intention of turning him over to the rebels. Regardless, to say that John was fortunate to have been far away from London at the time of the Peasants’ Revolt would be the understatement of the century.

With the first great crisis of the new reign now over, John was undoubtedly anxious to return to court to reestablish his position as the greatest magnate in the realm, a reputation which inevitably suffered by the destruction of his grand London palace and the slander which had been levied against him by the rebels. It appears that John’s first order of business was to avenge the insult that had been inflicted upon him by the Earl of Northumberland, who had refused him entry to any of his castles in violation of the basic laws of courtesy. There is no real evidence to prove that Northumberland had any malevolent intent, but it was unclear at the time as to whether the king planned on giving in to the rebels’ demands of arresting and trying him for his “crimes.” If the earl would have admitted John to any of his castles, there was a chance he would have faced some sort of repercussions for aiding and abetting a traitor to the crown. It also appears that there were rumors (also unsubstantiated) that John was planning on forming an alliance with the Scots to protect his own interests – an act that would have been construed as high treason. John, however, was not interested in what Northumberland’s intentions were, noble or otherwise, he simply wanted to humiliate the earl for insulting him. The quarrel between these two great magnates dragged on for months and nearly led to a civil war, as both men travelled with armed retinues to court. In the end, the king decided to rule in favor of his uncle, and Northumberland was forced to make a very public apology for his actions and  was temporarily stripped of some of his positions in the north.

As it would turn out, the humiliation of the Earl of Northumberland should have been the least of John’s concerns in the years following the Peasants’ Revolt. As the king matured, he began to come under the influence of a small group of favorites at court who held an undue amount of influence over him and who were anxious to remove the old guard, which included John and his two brothers, from the political landscape. These men – with the young Earls of Oxford and Nottingham chief among them – made life difficult for John, and it was, in part, due to their influence that the relationship between the king and his uncle became increasingly tense as the 1380s progressed. The rising dominance of this haughty group of new courtiers was one of several reasons as to why John chose to once again focus his attentions on his ambitions in Castile. To accomplish his goals, however, John would need adequate funding at a time when the kingdom had more pressing concerns in other regions –such as Flanders and Scotland. For this reason, John’s proposals for a Castilian campaign met with a lukewarm reception from the commons in parliament, even if the king and others expressed a certain amount of support for the venture.

John, whose first priority lay with protecting the interests of England, had no choice but to acquiesce and to focus his efforts on Flanders, a region which was in the midst of a civil war between the count, Louis de Male, an avid supporter of the French crown, and the merchants of the county (including, most prominently, those within John’s birth city of Ghent), who wished to maintain cordial relations with England. French influence in the Low Countries had increased ever since the marriage between Duke Philip of Burgundy, the uncle of the young French king, Charles VI, to the daughter and heiress of Louis de Male. This meant that, upon the death of Louis de Male (which would occur in early 1384), Philip would rule Flanders in right of his wife. Yet the economies of the Low Countries and England were both heavily dependent on the wool trade, making it more desirable for the merchants of Flanders to support the English cause. The French cause received a major boost after they defeated the citizens of Ghent at the Battle of Roosebeeke in the fall of 1382, putting even more pressure on the English to intervene. At one point it was discussed that John and/or the king would lead an army to the Low Countries, but this plan was ultimately put aside in favor of a “crusade” to the region led by Bishop Henry Despenser of Norwich. Yet again, John had been humiliated by the commons and forced to travel north to take part in peace negotiations (which were moderately successful) with the Scots. By the summer of 1383, it was clear that Bishop Despenser’s campaign in Flanders was failing miserably. A plan was developed for John to lead an army to relieve the bishop, but this was not meant to be, as the latter was forced, under duress, to come to terms with the French. John had been proven right and had silenced detractors who doubted his military and diplomatic wisdom – but at the expense of English interests in the Low Countries.

Meanwhile, tensions between John and his nephew the king were rapidly reaching their boiling point. In mid-1384, a Carmelite friar, John Latimer, suddenly accused the former of harboring ambitions of murdering the king and seizing the throne himself. When Richard heard this proclamation, he rashly called for his uncle’s execution. Once this initial burst of anger had subsided, however, cooler heads prevailed, and John was able to adequately defend himself against this blatantly false accusation and was cleared of all charges; Latimer was subsequently tortured to death. While John had showed that he was a loyal upholder of the royal prerogative, the Latimer debacle showed that it would not take much to bring the already tense relationship between the king and his uncle/greatest subject to a head, and the two clearly did not trust one another. By the early months of 1385, it appears that a number of the king’s favorites at court were laying down plots to murder John, who was becoming increasingly assertive in parliament and in the royal council; John’s unsuccessful peace negotiations with the French certainly weakened his position, and allowed the favorites to smear his name further to achieve their own goals, but he was still a force to be reckoned with, and was not prepared to allow these upstarts to bring about his downfall. John directly confronted the king about this supposed plot against his life, and Richard relented, bringing about a temporary reconciliation between the two.

By the summer the king and his uncle jointly commanded an army to the north to deal with the Scots, who were causing trouble in the marches. The brief campaign was filled with yet more tensions between the two men, caused primarily by the royal favorites’ insistence that the king followed their advice instead of John’s when it came to tactical procedures. Luckily, major conflicts were avoided, though the campaign itself accomplished relatively little despite bringing the Scots back to the negotiating table. Despite the vigorous efforts of the king’s favorites to destroy him, as well as the neutral results of the recent Scottish campaign, John had reason to be happy with events in the summer of 1385 – in the Iberian peninsula. King Joao of Portugal, the illegitimate half-brother of the deceased King Fernando, who had recently been elevated to the throne, had defeated an invading force led by King Juan of Castile, who was trying to conquer and rule over Portugal in right of his wife, a daughter of the late King Fernando. John, who was still attempting to press his own claim to Castile, was hoping to exploit this situation and win over the Portuguese king as an ally in his quest to win the Castilian throne. Playing up the weakened position of King Juan and the benefit of having an Englishman on the Castilian throne when it came to English interests in Aquitaine, John was finally able to successfully present his case to lead an army into Castile to press his claim to the throne before parliament, and the commons duly granted a subsidy to fund the campaign. In the summer of 1386, John finally set sail to Castile with the hopes of winning a crown he had long sought; he was to be absent from England for three years.

In many ways John’s quest to become King of Castile was doomed from its very outset; there are numerous reasons why the vast majority of historians will take this approach when analyzing the campaign. Firstly, the funds granted for such an ambitious project were completely inadequate, forcing John to take loans from the crown and, in some cases, pay out of pocket. Even after borrowing from his nephew and dipping into his own personal fortune, John lacked the necessary amount of cash for any long term campaign in a foreign land. Secondly, John’s ambitions did not seem to garner much support or enthusiasm – neither within England or on the continent. While King Richard fully acknowledged his uncle as King of Castile and Leon, and provided ample moral support for him to press his claim, not a single member of England’s upper nobility accompanied John to the continent, forcing him to put his trust in minor noblemen, in addition to his own paid retainers and other followers. This is not to say that John did not possess a sizeable army, but nearly all of the great generals who had gained fame fighting for Edward III against the French over the past several decades were either dead or ancient, leaving the Lancastrian force at a distinct disadvantage when it came to military strategy.

To make matters worse, neighboring kingdoms such as Aragon and Navarre (both of which would have normally been regarded as natural allies against the more powerful Castile) chose to remain neutral in the conflict, and Castile had the powerful backing of the French. The most obvious potential ally to win over was King Joao of Portugal, who had no interest in being removed from his newly-won throne by his Castilian counterpart (making an English alliance highly desirable for him), and the famed Treaty of Windsor was agreed upon in the spring of 1386, to be officially ratified the following year. While the Treaty of Windsor has since gone on to be the longest lasting accord of its kind (still in effect after more than six hundred years), it merely states that England and Portugal would defend one another if attacked by a common enemy (i.e. the French or the Castilians); nowhere does it read that Joao was to provide military assistance to John in his attempt to press his claim to Castile. The terms of the treaty provide insight that Joao was not willing to fully commit himself to the English cause, while John did not want to become too dependent on Portuguese assistance, preferring to prove that he could accomplish his ambitious goals on his own before accepting aid from any foreign allies.

Finally, much doubt has been cast over time on the  seriousness of John’s desire to pursue the Castilian throne. It is unclear whether he genuinely believed that he could take the throne or if he was merely attempting to put pressure on King Juan to sign on to a peace agreement that would have been advantageous to English interests. If the latter scenario is the more feasible, John would have been taking a page straight from of his father’s playbook, who seems to have applied a similar strategy by claiming the French throne when he merely wanted to hold Aquitaine in full sovereignty; if John were able to win the crown, so be it. Whatever John’s true intentions may have been at the time he set sail for Castile in the summer of 1386 (if he even had any concrete objectives to speak of), it was now far too late to abandon his quixotic adventure, and he intended to make the best of it and hope for beneficial results.

Despite the daunting nature of the task ahead, John managed to begin his Castilian quest with a great success. Instead of entering Castile via Portugal, as his enemies undoubtedly expected him to do, John chose to land directly on the Castilian coast, in the province of Galicia in the far north-west corner of the kingdom. Within months, the English had, with relative ease, conquered much of this rustic, sparsely-populated region. John received the homage of a majority of the Galician lords (though under highly ambiguous terms) and centered his winter headquarters in the area. While the conquest of Galicia was a substantial victory for the English, and a major embarrassment for King Juan (who was viewed, at this point, as a ruler who could not adequately defend his own people from a foreign invader), John was unable to keep the momentum in his corner. Money and supplies were becoming sparse within the English forces and disease was spreading quickly, leading to mass desertions and casualties. It seems that the most logical plan of action would have been for John to call his conquest of Galicia a victory, procure a semi-advantageous peace agreement with Juan of Castile and return to England, where the political situation was deteriorating rapidly. John, however, was not content with taking the safe route and decided to negotiate yet another accord with Joao of Portugal – this time with martial provisions. In November 1386, it was agreed, through the Treaty of Ponte do Mouro, that King Joao was to provide John with military assistance for a joint invasion of Castile in exchange for the cession of certain lands in the Castilian-Portuguese marches once John became king; the agreement was sealed through the marriage of Joao to John’s eldest daughter Philippa.

The Anglo-Portuguese army invaded Castile in the spring of 1387 with high expectations. While John and King Joao were joint commanders of the invading force, it consisted primarily of Portuguese soldiers, given the fact that the English army had been significantly depleted over the past several months, making it seem as if it was Joao, and not John, who was attempting to seize the Castilian throne. The campaign would prove to be a complete and utter failure – a seemingly pointless venture. King Juan absolutely refused to meet the Anglo-Portuguese army in the battlefield, and attempts to win over the locals to John’s cause were unsuccessful. In May, a mere six weeks after the campaign had begun, King Joao, clearly seeing that no progress was being made, suggested to his father-in-law that it should come to an end; John begrudgingly agreed. The reasons John and Joao decided to suspend the campaign after such a short time were various, but they mainly revolved around a general lack of resources (accompanied by mass desertions within the English army) and the fact that Juan was shortly to be reinforced by French troops, making the task the allied forces faced even more daunting. John and his increasingly dwindling army marched back into Portugal in shame, and negotiations with the Castilians were begun by the summertime.

A preliminary agreement was drafted between the two sides at Trancoso soon after. Its terms, which were fairly straightforward, went as follows: John and Constance were to renounce their joint claim to the Castilian throne and return Galicia to Juan’s custody in exchange for a large cash payment and various grants of land within Castile. The treaty was to be sealed via the marriage of Juan’s eldest son and heir, Enrique, and John and Catherine’s only surviving child, Catherine. Due to various complications (with King Juan’s relationship with the French crown possibly chief among them), final ratification of the treaty did not take place until July 1388 at Bayonne, in English-controlled Gascony. Even after the ratification of the Treaty of Bayonne, John continued to negotiate with King Juan to assure that that Anglo-Castilian relations remained cordial. The two discussed, among other issues, the possibility of an Anglo-French peace, suggestions to bring about the end of the Papal Schism and assurances that English pilgrims would be able to travel to the various religious sites in Castile without harassment. When all is said and done though, John’s Castilian campaign must be looked at as at least a nominal failure. He was able to achieve successes in the conquest of Galicia and by forming what would turn out to be a long-term relationship between England and Portugal, but the massive loss of life within the English army, the enormous cost of the operation and the lack of any real territorial gains all contribute to the campaign’s ultimate failure. John was to play a semi-active role in the affairs of the Iberian peninsula for the remainder of his life, but he now focused his attentions more fully on domestic policies within England – and, as it would turn out, John’s nephew, the king, needed all the help that he could get from his experienced and politically savvy uncle.

When John returned to England in November 1389, King Richard could not have been happier to see him – a dramatic turn of events from when John had departed three years earlier, when relations between the two men were uneasy at best. Many historians will go so far as to say that Richard agreed to support (both morally and financially) his uncle’s Castilian campaign just so he could be rid of him, while John used the expedition to free himself from the king’s hated favorites, who despised him passionately, and their overabundance of influence over royal affairs. As time would tell, the strategy would not be to Richard’s benefit. During John’s absence, the king had, to say the very least, been cut down to size by a group of three disgruntled noblemen – John’s youngest brother, Thomas of Woodstock (now Duke of Gloucester), and the Earls of Warwick and Arundel – who labeled themselves the Lords Appellant. The Lords, who were later joined by the king’s former favorite, Thomas Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham, and John’s son and heir, Henry Bolingbroke, made it their goal to purge the court of Richard’s loathed favorites. They were able to accomplish this at the so-called Merciless Parliament of the spring of 1388, where many of the king’s favorites were exiled or executed and Richard’s authority was temporarily shattered. Had John been present in the kingdom at the time, his moderating influence likely would have prevented these events from occurring.

Considering the humbling and humiliating crisis he had suffered the previous year, it came as no surprise that, when the two met in the month following John’s return, Richard’s mood towards his uncle was a conciliatory one. Uncle and nephew exchanged the kiss of peace, and Richard let it be known that he would value and follow his advice in the future. At the first council meeting after his return, John’s newfound power was more than evident, as  he was able to convince the king to, for all intents and purposes, diminish his own power (though not in as humiliating a fashion as he was forced to do under the forceful hands of the Lords Appellant) and increase that of the royal uncles. For the time being, Richard had no choice but to acquiesce to his uncle’s very reasonable demands (which were more requests) in order to rebuild his own power and reputation in the aftermath of the Appellants debacle. John’s fortunes increased even further in the parliament that met in early 1390. It was here that his duchy of Lancaster was upgraded to palatine status (i.e. as a near independent entity) not only for John, during his own lifetime (as had been agreed upon earlier in the reign), but for his heirs as well; this was good news for Henry Bolingbroke, who was set to inherit the rich dukedom upon his father’s death. In addition, John was created Duke of Aquitaine, giving him control over a considerably smaller version of the principality that his eldest brother, Edward the Black Prince, had ruled over in the 1360s. While the duchy had, thanks to French conquests over the past twenty years, been reduced to the region of Gascony – a small swathe of coastal territory anchored by the important coastal cities of Bayonne and Bordeaux – the title significantly enhanced John’s prestige as one of the great European noblemen and helped ease some of the sting he was undoubtedly still feeling after his largely unsuccessful Castilian campaign.

Within the opening years of the 1390s, John was the dominating force in English politics – both foreign and domestic. The king’s dependence on his uncle is made evident by the fact that, when John departed the kingdom for two months in the spring of 1392 to take part in peace negotiations with Charles VI in France, there was genuine fear that the Lords Appellant would once again stir up trouble; luckily, events in England remained quiet, allowing John to concentrate his full attentions on the creation of a lasting Anglo-French peace treaty, which was one of his biggest priorities. Unfortunately, this was not meant to be (at least for the time being), and John was only able to negotiate an extension of the existing truce. It is worthy of note that John had agreed to hold an enlarged duchy of Aquitaine as a fief of the French crown (the duchy, what was left of it, had been held by the English crown in full sovereignty since the early 1360s), a proposal that was widely unpopular and therefore never put into effect. When he returned from France, John helped to arbitrate a quarrel between the crown and the citizens of London (his old nemeses) over the supposed harassment of royal officials within the city; negotiations between the two sides were ultimately successful, thanks in part to John’s intervention.

John was in France once again in the spring of 1393 to lead peace talks; this time, a preliminary agreement was formed for a lasting peace treaty. When he returned to England soon after, John was informed that a minor rebellion had broken out within the precincts of his own duchy of Lancaster, as well as in the king’s county of Cheshire. It appears that a small group of disgruntled subjects were upset with the fact that a peace agreement with France would mean that Richard would have to relinquish his claim to the French throne. Being that the leaders of the rising were military veterans who had previously fought against the French to press this claim, this was a subject that struck home for them. Apparently, these men of Cheshire and Lancashire were also concerned (for an unknown reason) that their unique palatinate civil liberties were on the verge of being alienated. John, his brother Gloucester and his son Bolingbroke were three of the noblemen that the rebels felt deserved punishment (i.e. execution) for participating in acts which they deemed treasonous. Luckily, John was able to put down the rising with relative ease, and without bloodshed, within a short period of time; the leaders were promptly imprisoned.

The rising, however, gave John’s political opponents (with the Earl of Arundel chief among them) ample fodder to use against him. Arundel and others claimed that it was the unpopular provision with the treaty with France (which stated that he would hold Aquitaine as a vassal of the French king) had helped cause the rebellion; therefore the treaty should be completely annulled. The accusation turned into a full-blown attack on John’s general influence over English affairs, but was ultimately unsuccessful, as the king came to his uncle’s aid. An unfortunate result of the quarrel, however, was the collapse of the proposed Anglo-French treaty in early 1394 – an event that was helped along by Charles VI’s delicate mental state, which was now beginning to show. That fall, John decided to travel to Gascony to assert his authority as Duke of Aquitaine in person. He faced the same difficulties that his elder brother, the Black Prince, and any other man who attempted to rule over the region faced: to consolidate ducal authority without seeming as if he was attempting to take away the customs, traditions and general autonomy of the locals, particularly within Bordeaux. John remained stationed in Gascony for a year, with very little, if anything, to show for his efforts, making his trip to the duchy seem quite superfluous.

Returning to England towards the very end of 1395, John surprised many of his contemporaries by marrying his long-time mistress, Catherine Swynford, whom he had four children with (Constance of Castile had passed away in 1394). While many members of England’s peerage frowned upon this act (being that Catherine was a commoner), the marriage was a happy one, and John ultimately succeeded in legitimizing his children by Catherine (the Beauforts as they were called, after one of John’s French lordships) both by papal and royal decree. King Henry VII would later claim the throne through his descent from John Beaufort, John and Catherine’s eldest child. After his return from Gascony, John’s influence at court was considerably less prominent, as a second group of young courtiers had emerged to greedily devour the king’s attentions, just as had been the case in the years leading up to crisis of the Lords Appellant in 1386-88. This is not to say that John’s influence from royal affairs dissipated all together, but its decline is made apparent by the fact that, when a long-term peace accord with France was finally ratified in the spring of 1396, John’s role in its creation was considerably smaller that it had been previous negotiations.

In the summer of 1397, the political climate within England took a radically dramatic turn. It was at this point that Richard decided to suddenly, and for reasons which remain obscure to this very day, take his revenge on the Lords Appellant; Gloucester and the Earls of Arundel and Warwick were duly arrested (and later charged with treason) while John was tending to his estates in the north. The king’s decision to destroy the Appellants created somewhat of a dilemma for John. While he was more than happy to see the destruction of the Earl of Arundel, who had never been anything but antagonistic towards the house of Lancaster, and could not have been anything more than indifferent to Warwick’s fate, John could not have been comfortable in passing judgment against Gloucester, his own brother. In addition, it must be remembered that John’s son Bolingbroke had later joined the Appellants, leaving him vulnerable. Luckily, Richard seemed to focus his rage only on the three senior Appellants. John played a substantial role in passing judgment on the Appellants. It was he who refuted much of Arundel’s defense against the charges of treason, leading to the earl’s execution. John also likely helped persuade the king to commute Warwick’s sentence to life exile. Gloucester, as is well known, died under mysterious circumstances at Calais while in the custody of the fifth Appellant, Thomas Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham (since returned to royal favor), most likely murdered under direct orders from the king himself. It is doubtful that John was pleased by this latest development (though his exact reaction is not recorded), but he was certainly happy with the rewards which the king dispensed in the aftermath of the so-called Revenge Parliament. Bolingbroke was created Duke of Hereford; John Beaufort was upgraded to Marquis of Dorset; and John himself received a number of lands which had belonged to his former nemesis, the recently executed Earl of Arundel – a bitter irony indeed.

It would turn out, however, that the two junior Appellants, Bolingbroke and Mowbray (now Duke of Norfolk), would not be free from the king’s wrath. The Bolingbroke-Mowbray quarrel is more appropriately discussed in detail in a biography of Richard II or Henry IV, but, needless to say, the two men accused one another of treason after they supposedly heard rumors that they were to be punished for their participation as Lords Appellant ten years earlier. Bolingbroke directly accused Mowbray of the murder of his uncle, Gloucester, and it was also rumored that Mowbray had conspired to murder John as well. John was assigned to serve as one of the commissioners to investigate the quarrel, but was unable to fulfill his duties due to diplomatic obligations with the Scots. While John was absent in the north, the committee decided that Bolingbroke and Mowbray should settle their quarrel by combat. John was in attendance at the duel, at Coventry in September 1398, which saw the king take matters into his own hands by preventing the duel from occurring and exiling the two combatants – Mowbray for life and Bolingbroke for ten years. It is believed that John pleaded with Richard to reduce, or relinquish, his son’s exile, and certain chroniclers reported that the king listened to his uncle and reduced Bolingbroke’s exile to six years, though there is evidence that this reduction never occurred. While it cannot be proven, it is certainly plausible to say that his beloved son’s exile worsened John’s already fragile health, as he seems to have steadily declined over the following months, and his participation in the daily activities of the kingdom seems to have come to a near standstill. John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, died on February 3, 1399, a month short of his fifty-ninth birthday. To show his “appreciation” for years of faithful service, King Richard decided to seize all of his uncle’s assets and extend his son’s exile to life. The move was to lead directly to the king’s downfall, and his honorable uncle was not around anymore to protect him.

Assessment and Analysis

John of Gaunt has always been a figure who has been difficult to pass judgment on – whether good or bad. Much of his reputation depends on the opinions of the various chroniclers and other writers during John’s own time and in years since. For example, John is painted in a very sympathetic light by the great William Shakespeare in his play Richard II. He is portrayed as a sympathetic father, brother and friend, as well as a man who only wants what is best for England. Contrarily, John is painted as highly antagonistic in the anonymous Elizabethan play Thomas of Woodstock, though this particular play is known for its blatant historical inaccuracies, especially since it portrays John as a member of the Lords Appellant, despite the fact that he was in Castile while the Appellants crisis was occurring in England. The medieval chroniclers, some of whom had personal knowledge of the English court and may have even known John personally, have similar differences in opinion. Some of them label John as a greedy lecher who only cared about advancing his own interests whose timely death was brought about by a venereal disease due to his excessive promiscuity. Others will portray him as a man who was a staunch upholder of the royal prerogative and, like Shakespeare, as someone who cared about the general welfare of England above all other things – including his own ambitions. While these portrayals represent the complete opposite side of the opinion spectrum when it comes to John’s character, they demonstrate just how divided opinions were on this well-known figure during, and soon after, the span of his lifetime.

There is certainly ample evidence to demonstrate that, at certain points within his life and political career, John was extremely (some may say dangerously) unpopular. During the final years of the reign of Edward III, John was, for all intents and purposes, the “uncrowned King of England,” as some historians have labeled him. His vigorous defense of royal interests during the Good Parliament gained him few supporters amongst the commons in parliament, who were easily able to paint him as a man who cared little for the general population of the kingdom. His reversal of many of the reforms and policies passed at the Good Parliament (at the Bad Parliament) only furthered this view. On this occasion, he passed the first of the three highly unpopular poll taxes, immediately gaining him the hatred of the clergy, who did not appreciate being included in this burdensome demonstration of royal authority. He soon after gained the enmity of the important citizens of London, who insisted that he was attempting to strip them of their precious civil liberties . General hatred for John within the English populace is made even more evident by the fact that it was his execution that the rebels called for above all others during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The flat poll tax that John had pushed through parliament was regarded as overly harsh and downright insensitive to England’s poorer citizens, and the rebels vented their angst by murdering John’s supporters and destroying the Savoy, the symbol of his wealth and power within London.

John’s foreign policies, in many ways, made him even more unpopular in England. He did take part in the Black Prince’s great victory at Najera in 1367, but most of his other campaigns within France and the Iberian peninsula during those years were, at best, mediocre, and costly, efforts which did nothing to enhance his reputation as a military commander. His efforts in later years to assert his ducal authority over Gascony were equally futile, and his suggestion to Charles VI of France that he should hold the duchy as a vassal of the French crown was not one which most Englishmen found desirable. By far though, it was his attempt to press his claim to the Castilian throne in 1386-88 that has helped to damage his reputation. This is not to say that there was nothing good to come out of the Castilian campaign. The famed Treaty of Windsor between England and Portugal has gone on to become a landmark piece of diplomatic legislation, and the fact that it has endured for over six hundred years demonstrates that two nations can exhibit good will with one another throughout the centuries, no matter how tense events within the world as a whole can be. In addition, John’s swift conquest of Galicia showed that, when he was provided with adequate resources, he could accomplish much. This, however, is where the positives end and the substantial negatives begin. The Castilian adventure was a financial flop and caused mass fatalities within the English camp all so that John could press a claim that was, at best, far-fetched.

Yet, in other ways, John was a wise councilor and a moderating figure in a time when the political situation within England was less than settled. Had John been present in the kingdom when the Lords Appellant took their stand against Richard II, it is highly unlikely that the situation would have escalated to such disastrous proportions. It should come as no surprise that Richard welcomed his uncle back into the kingdom with a loving embrace when he returned from his Castilian campaign in 1389, or that the period of John’s dominating influence over from 1389-96 were years of peace within England. By that point in his life, John had gained the reputation as an elder statesman and, once again, as someone as a man who cared for England above all else. He had demonstrated this loyalty to king and country in earlier years, particularly when he continuously put off his own personal ambitions (i.e. claiming the Castilian throne) to take care of diplomatic issues in Scotland, Flanders and other areas where there were more pressing concerns pertaining to English interests. It does not seem as if the king fully appreciated his uncle’s valuable advice during the opening years of the reign; this indeed did not come about until he had been humiliated by the Lords Appellant.

While John of Gaunt was by no means perfect, it would be difficult to brush him off as a greedy, self-serving womanizer, which some chroniclers have done. All evidence points to John being a loving father, who wanted to provide for all of his children (even the illegitimate ones), and a loyal subject, who never would have done anything to disturb the royal standard. While it is true that John was not a completely faithful husband, it must be remembered that his marriage to Constance of Castile was made for completely political reasons, and his primary mistress at the time, Catherine Swynford, was someone that he loved deeply, much like his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster, who he seems to have remained faithful to during her lifetime. John was always known for being liberal with his patronage as well, and as a man who was more inclined towards mercy rather than punishment; his hatred for the Earl of Arundel was a rare exception. It is also true that the Castilian campaign can be looked at as entirely self-serving, but it must be remembered that John may have only engaged in the expedition to further English interests in Aquitaine and the Iberian peninsula. If there are any doubts about John’s status as a loyal subject and as the wisest councilor his nephew, Richard II, ever had, there is a two part question that begs to be answered: Is it a coincidence that, when John’s influence over the king waned, Richard turned into a tyrant, or, when John died, that Richard’s reign came to an abrupt and tragic end? Most historians will conclude that Richard’s tyranny and ultimate downfall and death were directly correlated to his uncle’s lack of influence over him. There is no coincidence to speak of.

John of Gaunt in Woodstock

John of Gaunt appears in Thomas of Woodstock as one of King Richard II's uncles who is against his favoring of his friends within the court party and participates in the rebellion against the king at the play's end, which the rebels are successful in. Historically, John was not even in England while the said rebellion was going on (he was pressing his claim to the throne of Castile) and never rebelled against his nephew at any time throughout the reign.

John of Gaunt in Shakespeare

Appears in: Richard II

John of Gaunt is portrayed in a very sympathetic light by Shakespeare. He appears as a loyal servant to the king and gives his advice willingly. When his son, Bolingbroke, is exiled, he advises him to accept his sentence and take things in stride. On his deathbed, he talks with his brother York about their nephew's wretched governing in England. Finally, when the king enters to John's final resting place, John harshly rebukes him for his shabby governing and warns him that he cannot continue for long in the same fashion. John dies and King Richard is looked at as a double tyrant for immediately seizing his possessions to pay for the Irish expedition. Bolingbroke, in turn, is looked at as an avenger of sorts who defies a king who has exiled him unjustly and stolen his inheritance that was left to him by a loyal and noble father.


Empson, Charles William. John of Gaunt: His Life and Character

Goodman, Anthony. John of Gaunt: The Exercise of Princely Power in Fourteenth-Century Europe

Walker, Simon, ‘John , duke of Aquitaine and duke of Lancaster, styled king of Castile and León (1340–1399)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, May 2008 [, accessed 12 Oct 2009]

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