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The Birth of John of Gaunt: The Beginning of the Royal Problems?

Updated on March 6, 2014
John of Gaunt was the third surviving son of Edward III.
John of Gaunt was the third surviving son of Edward III.

On March 6, 1340 John of Gaunt was born in Ghent, known as Gaunt during the Middle Ages. He was the third surviving son (actually fourth son) of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. His line should never have been on the throne, but Henry IV changed that after deposing Richard II and imprisoning him. However, that was not the only problem. John of Gaunt was also the father of an illegitimate line, that led to Henry Tudor, later Henry VII of England.

John of Gaunt’s Marriages to Blanche of Lancaster and Constance of Castile

Like many princes of England, John’s first marriage was to his cousin, Blanche of Lancaster. Blanche was his third cousin, so a marriage that would still be legal today. They had three children together but only one son, Henry of Bolingbroke. That child would grow up close to Richard II of England and later depose him and take the throne.

Henry IV would then continue the line until Henry VI, when Richard, Duke of York would attempt to take the crown he believed rightfully his.

Blanche died while John was still at sea. He was young enough to remarry and he married the Infanta Constance of Castile. This marriage gave him some sort of claim to the Castile throne and he did try to pursue. However, it came to nothing for him, but it did for their daughter together. Catherine of Lancaster married Henry III of Castile. This marriage would eventually lead to Isabella I of Castile, who would mother Catherine of Aragon.

John of Gaunt Takes a Mistress, Katherine Sywnford

John already had an illegitimate daughter, who was born before his first marriage. However, this illegitimate daughter, Blanche, never sought for anything more than she was given.

It was during his marriage to Constance of Castile that John decided to take up another mistress, Katherine Swynford. This would lead to Henry Tudor, the end to the Wars of the Roses and the weak claim that the Tudor family would have to the throne—a claim that both Henry VII and Henry VIII worried about.

John and Katherine had four children together but all were while she was his mistress. Constance died in 1394 and the two married two years later. However, Richard II, who was king at the time, agreed that the children would all be made legitimate. The Pope also agreed, and the children were allowed to ascend to the throne. It was Henry IV who changed that.

Henry IV chose to bar his half-siblings from the English throne.
Henry IV chose to bar his half-siblings from the English throne.

The Decision to Bar John of Gaunt’s Children from the Throne

As the eldest son of John of Gaunt, Henry IV may have feared that his younger half-siblings would take the throne from under him. After all, he had deposed his cousin. One of the first things he did was to change the ruling that his previously illegitimate half-siblings would be allowed to ascend to the throne.

There are debates over whether this was allowed. These debates have helped to debate whether Henry VII’s claim to the throne was as weak as the king would have feared.

However, the Beaufort line, which included John, Henry Tudor’s great-grandfather, accepted that they would not becoming kings or queens of England, unless they were lucky enough to marry into that. One of the grandchildren, Joan Beaufort, did become Queen of Scotland through marriage. It was Henry Tudor who decided it was time to take the throne, and that was because of his mother’s belief that he should be king. There were also many other circumstances around his battle with Richard III.

The Career of John of Gaunt

John is known for his children, but he is also well-known for his career and achievements. He was the Duke of Lancaster as the third surviving son, but also a military commander in France and head of the English government upon return due to both his father and older brother being ill (his second older brother was dead by this point). Through all the different positions he had, he became the richest man in England. He is still the 16th richest man in history when inflation is considered.

However he is not remembered favourable. He was the reason for the first Poll Tax to ever hit England. This affected the poorest members of society the worst, and led to rioting all over England.

Rumors spread that John wanted to take the throne for himself instead of his nephew, Richard II, becoming King. There is still no evidence to support this. In fact, when Edward III died, Richard II was young. At no point did John try to overthrow his nephew. Instead, he decided to withdraw from court and back to his own estates.

During the Peasants’ Revolt, he was known to be one of the traitors. It led to him fleeing to Scotland, and wait the crisis out. Luckily, Robert II of Scotland was welcoming, which may have helped set up the betrothal between James I of Scotland and Joan Beaufort.

Patrick Stewart's Portrayal of John of Gaunt

A sketching of the tomb of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster.
A sketching of the tomb of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster.

The Death of John of Gaunt

John died in 1399, while his eldest son had been forced to France in exile. He never got to see Henry IV become King of England.

John was buried in the same vault as his first wife, and a beautiful tomb was created with both of their effigies linking arms. Their burial place remains in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London.

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    • thewritingowl profile image

      Mary Kelly Godley 4 years ago from Ireland

      Interesting, I love the ins and outs of English history and the ever constant battle among them for the throne.

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