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John of Gaunt, the Last Medieval Knight. A review of Norman Cantor's The Last Knight.
John of Gaunt was an extraordinary man who lived at the end of an era. With the close of the medieval ages, nobles changed the identity that had been created by them for a medieval aristocrat and became renaissance nobility. John of Gaunt was the last medieval man, as described in The Last Knight by Norman Cantor.
Throughout the medieval Era, chivalry dominated the great courts of Europe, and the English court was no exception to this. Chivalry was the primary means by which men and women interacted throughout the medieval era. John of Gaunt had several relationships with different women throughout his life. Cantor contends that Gaunt was a serial monogamist that married each of his wives for different reasons, and had different relationships with each. These relationships helped to enforce his medieval status.
Gaunt married his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster, as a means to gain estate. Despite the primary cause of the marriage being inheritance Gaunt’s first marriage was successful. With this first wife Gaunt was a truly medieval man, by revering his wife, and creating an elaborate tomb for her in London. This was the only wife that was to be treated in a proper chivalric fashion.
Gaunt’s second wife, Constance, was married solely as a diplomatic ploy to gain land in Spain, as Gaunt was second in line to the throne of England. In his treatment of Constance, Gaunt was not genteel at all. The noble courts of the time allowed noblemen to carry on with mistresses, so long as they treated their established wives with dignity. Gaunt did not carry on this tradition. He allowed his wife Constance to die alone in a castle and then he legitimized his bastard children by his mistress. Cantor believes this is one of the points in which Gaunt was unlike his fellow medieval noblemen. This is an accurate portrayal of medieval noblemen, because their bastard children were often forced to go into clerical work, or merchant work when they did not inherent anything.
John of Gaunt was a warrior at heart. In this manner he was completely a medieval man. His occupation was as a knight, an icon of chivalry and the middle ages if there ever was one. Gaunt’s training began early in his life like most knights, but because of the Hundred Years War Gaunt was placed into the battlefield at an early age. This would have a profound effect on the rest of his life.
The Duke was more than just a fighter, he was a general. He would have had many knights that fought underneath him, serving him in times of war and peace. This is the action of a medieval man, as opposed to a renaissance prince. The English army under Gaunt would have been trained knights and men-at-arms owing personal loyalty to the Duke. Cantor goes into great detail to explain how Gaunt was able to keep this entire military machine moving, by using hundreds of trained bureaucrats.
An important factor in the medieval world of Gaunt was the giving of gifts to his supporters. Unlike the renaissance period to follow Gaunt’s death, the people underneath Gaunt were directly loyal to him, and not to the nation as a whole. The Duke could have given his followers anything from deer, to simply having them feast with him.
The Dukes’ warrior habits led him down as far as the Iberian Peninsula in his quest for glory. Because of the marriage to Constance, Gaunt had a claim on the Castilian throne, and he led an army down to Spain to uphold that claim. The Gaunt did not properly fund an army to take Castile seems rather mysterious. Cantor claims that it was because Gaunt had family concerns. This seems to be an odd conclusion, as victory in Spain would have secured Castile and Lancaster under the Dukes realm, while his Nephew ruled England, and his son-in-law ruled in Portugal. This would have secured great glory for the Duke, and immense security for his line.
It would seem that Gaunt gave up Castile for a different reason. Maybe it was because of his loyalty to the King, as Cantor describes. It would appear that despite the Dukes bureaucratic capabilities, and personal combat ability, he was never able to secure a genuine military victory. In his older age, perhaps the Duke determined it would be easier to simply cut his losses, and leave Spain with whatever he could.
In many ways Gaunt was a medieval man, but in his early views towards the Church, he was deeply radical. His early support for Wyclif and his Lollards was something that a medieval man, who was supposedly loyal to King and Church, did not do. Gaunt’s patronage of these heretical views would not become common among nobles until the Protestant Reformation.
In his later life, Gaunt left the Lollards for a more conservative group of monks. This seems to be more in line with what Medieval nobles would support, as the clergy typically helped to support the nobles. Cantor states that “[Gaunt] could not conceive of the Church... being other than highly beneficial.” Gaunt’s support for the Carmelites may have simply been a means to look out for himself, and his family as he became elderly.
In his role as a Duke, John of Gaunt imposed a great many taxes on the peasantry. He seems to have been very efficient in this work, as the peasants singled out his manor in London to burn down during the Peasant Revolt of 1381. That even helps to establish Gaunt as a leading aristocrat, the primary Medieval Man of his time.
John of Gaunt was a knight, a patron of arts, bureaucrat, and lover. He followed the code of Chivalry until his death, fighting wars until he was too old to carry on. His actions prove him to be one of the worlds last Medieval Men. Norman Cantors’ book, The Last Knight helps to illuminate the era and times in which Gaunt lived, and how he lived up to the role of a Medieval Man.
Norman F. Cantor writes with a descriptive and flowing style that helps to move along the narrative that he is presenting for his reader. Cantor’s book The Last Knight provides a beautiful narrative to describe the life of John of Gaunt while being suitable for lay readers.