Ok, today’s ancestry and history lesson has nothing to do with the Viking era or the early Anglo-Saxons. No, today we are going to move forward a few centuries to some equally interesting family members. I have to admit that finding these ancestors has made me more appreciative of my more boring, average and mundane life! This week’s ancestry research has connected me to some families that I am not really sure I necessarily want to be descended from? I am beginning to realize why so many of my ancestors tried to stay on the edge of Royal and Nobility politics, why their fortunes may have took a down turn eventually and why they might have jumped at the chance to head for the wilds of America first chance they got! I have found myself caught up in the web of Nobility and Royalty of the 1300s- a web of scheming, plotting and feuding families that would equal to anything earlier generations could have thought of! After trying to sort through some of it, I will no longer complain about sifting through generation after generation of plain ordinary families who left little trace of their history.
This family history update is brought to you by the Gaunt family… John of Gaunt and his rather illustrious family that includes some royalty, some nobility, some rather famous friends, plus assorted wives, and a professional mistress who made good.
I am not going to share the entire book that it would require to document events of this family. I just want to share the beginning of this family saga that will eventually drag us through the War of the Roses with ancestors on both sides of the long drawn out battle for the crown and the power of the English monarchy. A family saga that will come to include the Gaunt descendants, the Beaufort, Nevilles and the Percy families.
John of Gaunt is my 17x great grandfather by way of his daughter Joan Beaufort with Mistress turned wife, Katherine Swynford.
Many people who have some interest in medieval history may be familiar with Katherine Swynford, one of the more famous or infamous mistresses who made good and managed to retire comfortably to wifedom… You may not realize that she was also a pre-cursor to the now somewhat familiar and infamous idea of the not so trusted Nanny idea. She is also some proof that occasionally the role or career of long term mistress does pay off if one is willing to stick it out and ignore the bad press and scandal associated with the career.
Let’s look at John of Gaunt first… he was no stranger to bad press and rumors himself! John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster, (6 March 1340 – 3 February 1399) was a member of the House of Plantagenet, the third surviving son of KingEdward III of England and Philippa of Hainault. He was called “John of Gaunt” because he was born in Ghent, then rendered in English as Gaunt. When he became unpopular later in life, scurrilous rumours and lampoons circulated that he was actually the son of a Ghent butcher, perhaps because Edward III was not present at the birth. This story always drove him to fury.
As a younger brother of Edward, Prince of Wales (Edward, the Black Prince), John exercised great influence over the English throne during the minority of Edward’s son, who became King Richard II, and the ensuing periods of political strife. Due to some generous land grants, John was one of the richest men in his era. He made an abortive attempt to enforce a claim to the Crown of Castile that came courtesy of his second wife Constance, who was an heir to the Castillian Kingdom, and for a time styled himself as such. So, let’s just say that John was a pretty catch even if he wasn’t in line for a crown! John of Gaunt’s legitimate male heirs, the Lancasters, include Kings Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI. His other legitimate descendants include his daughtersQueen Philippa of Portugal and Elizabeth, Duchess of Exeter (by his first wife Blanche of Lancaster), and Queen Catherine of Castile (by his second wifeConstance of Castile). John fathered five children outside marriage, one early in life by a lady-in-waiting to his mother, and four by Katherine Swynford, Gaunt’s long-term mistress and third wife.
John was the fourth son of King Edward III of England. His first wife, Blanche of Lancaster, was also his third cousin, both as great-great-grandchildren of King Henry III. They married in 1359 at Reading Abbey as a part of the efforts of Edward III to arrange matches for his sons with wealthy heiresses. Upon the death of his father-in-law, the 1st Duke of Lancaster, in 1361, John received half his lands, the title “Earl of Lancaster”, and distinction as the greatest landowner in the north of England as heir of the Palatinate of Lancaster. He also became the 14th Baron of Halton and 11th Lord of Bowland. John inherited the rest of the Lancaster property when Blanche’s sister Maud, Countess of Leicester (married to William V, Count of Hainaut), died without issue on 10 April 1362.
John received the title “Duke of Lancaster” from his father on 13 November 1362. By then well established, he owned at least thirty castles and estates across England and France and maintained a household comparable in scale and organisation to that of a monarch. He owned land in almost every county in England, a patrimony that produced a net income of between £8,000 and £10,000 a year.
Since we are looking more at his personal life here, I am not going to go into great detail about his professional life as in his politics, or his battle accomplishments-or lack of them. Despite any other faults or errors he may have made, he was loyal to his King. When Edward III died in 1377 and John’s ten-year-old nephew succeeded as Richard II of England, John’s influence strengthened. However, mistrust remained, and some suspected him of wanting to seize the throne himself. John took pains to ensure that he never became associated with the opposition to Richard’s kingship.
As I mentioned, we are looking more at his personal life here- his marriages, and affairs of the heart so to speak. On 19 May 1359 at Reading Abbey, John married his third cousin, Blanche of Lancaster, daughter of Henry of Grosmont, 1st Duke of Lancaster. The wealth she brought to the marriage was the foundation of John’s fortune. Blanche died on 12 September 1368 at Tutbury Castle, while her husband was overseas. Their son Henry Bolingbroke became Henry IV of England, after the duchy of Lancaster was taken by Richard II upon John’s death while Henry was in exile. Their daughter Philippa became Queen of Portugal by marrying King John I of Portugal in 1387. All subsequent kings of Portugal were thus descended from John of Gaunt.
Jean Froissart described Blanche (following her death) as “jone et jolie” (“young and pretty”). Geoffrey Chaucer described “White” (the central figure in hisBook of the Duchess, believed to have been inspired by Blanche: see below) in such terms as “rody, fresh, and lyvely hewed”, her neck as “whyt, smothe, streght, and flat”, and her throat as “a round tour of yvoire”: she was “bothe fair and bright”, and Nature’s “cheef patron [pattern] of beautee”. Of course she was young and probably pretty… she was born in March 1345, although the year 1347 has also been suggested. So, given that birth date she was all of 13 or 14 at the time!
Gaunt and Blanche’s marriage is widely believed to have been happy, although there is little solid evidence for this. The assumption seems to be based on the fact that Gaunt chose to be buried with Blanche, despite his two subsequent marriages, and on the themes of love, devotion and grief expressed in Chaucer’s poem (see below) – a rather circular argument, as it is partly on the basis of these themes that the couple’s relationship is identified as the inspiration for the poem. Blanche and Gaunt had seven children, three of whom survived infancy.
Blanche died at Tutbury Castle, Staffordshire, on 12 September 1368 while her husband was overseas. She was 23 years of age at the time of her death, although Froissart reported that she died aged about 22. It is believed that she may have died after contracting the Black Death which was rife in Europe at that time. Her funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London was preceded by a magnificent cortege attended by most of the upper nobility and clergy. John of Gaunt held annual commemorations of her death for the rest of his life and established a joint chantry foundation on his own death.
It may have been for one of the anniversary commemorations of Blanche’s death that Geoffrey Chaucer, then a young squire and mostly unknown writer of court poetry, was commissioned to write what became The Book of the Duchess in her honour. Though Chaucer’s intentions can never be defined with absolute certainty, many believe that at least one of the aims of the poem was to make John of Gaunt see that his grief for his late wife had become excessive, and to prompt him to try to overcome it.
In 1374, six years after her death, John of Gaunt commissioned a double tomb for himself and Blanche from the mason Henry Yevele. The magnificent monument in the choir of St Paul’s was completed by Yevele in 1380, with the assistance of Thomas Wrek, having cost a total of £592. Gaunt himself died in 1399, and was laid to rest beside Blanche. The two effigies were notable for having their right hands joined. An adjacent chantry chapel was added between 1399 and 1403.
While John probably did love Blanche, and possibly grieved excessively for her, I have to think that he was not grieving too excessively for her… we have only to look at the appearance of Katherine Swynford in his household to give some proof of this. That is aside from the fact that he also married again in 1371 to Constance of Castile.
Katherine was the daughter of Paon de Roet, a herald, and later knight, who was “probably christened as Gilles”. She had two sisters, Philippa and Isabel (also called Elizabeth) de Roet, and a brother, Walter. Isabel later became Canoness of the convent of St. Waudru’s, Mons, c. 1366. Katherine is generally held to have been his youngest child. However, Alison Weir argues that Philippa was the junior and that both were children of a second marriage. Katherine’s sister Philippa, a lady of Queen Philippa’s household, married the poet Geoffrey Chaucer.
In about 1366, at St Clement Danes Church, Westminster, Katherine, aged sixteen or seventeen, contracted an advantageous marriage with “Hugh” Ottes Swynford, a Knight from the manor of Kettlethorpe in Lincolnshire, the son of Thomas Swynford by his marriage to Nicole Druel. She had the following children by him: Blanche (born 1 May 1367), Thomas (21 September 1368 – 1432), and possibly Margaret Swynford (born about 1369), later recorded as a nun of the prestigious Barking Abbey nominated by command of King Richard II.
Katherine became attached to the household of John of Gaunt as governess to his daughters Philippa of Lancaster and Elizabeth of Lancaster. The ailing duchess Blanche had Katherine’s daughter Blanche (her namesake) placed within her own daughters’ chambers and afforded the same luxuries as her daughters; additionally, John of Gaunt stood as godfather to the child.
Some time after Blanche’s death in 1368 and the birth of their first son in 1373, Katherine and John of Gaunt entered into a love affair that would produce four children for the couple, born out of wedlock but legitimized upon their parents’ eventual marriage; the adulterous relationship endured until 1381 when it was truncated out of political necessity and ruined Katherine’s reputation. On 13 January 1396, two years after the death of the Duke’s second wife, Infanta Constance of Castile, Katherine and John of Gaunt married in Lincoln Cathedral. Records of their marriage kept in the Tower and elsewhere list: ‘John of Ghaunt, Duke of Lancaster, married Katharine daughter of Guyon King of Armes in the time of K. Edward the 3, and Geffrey Chaucer her sister’.
On John of Gaunt’s death, Katherine became known as dowager Duchess of Lancaster. She outlived him by four years, dying on 10 May 1403, in her early fifties.
- John Beaufort, 1st Earl of Somerset (1373–1410)
- Henry, Cardinal Beaufort (1375–1447)
- Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter (1377–1426)
- Joan Beaufort, Countess of Westmorland (1379–1440)
The descendants of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt are significant in English and Scottish history. Their four children had been given the surname “Beaufort” and with the approval of King Richard II and the Pope were legitimated as adults by their parents’ marriage in 1396. Despite this, the Beauforts were barred from inheriting the throne of England by a clause in the legitimation act inserted by their half-brother, Henry IV, although modern scholarship disputes the authority of a monarch to alter an existing parliamentary statute on his own authority, without the further approval of Parliament. This provision was later revoked by Edward VI, placing Katherine’s descendants (including himself) back within the legitimate line of inheritance; the Tudor dynasty was directly descended from John and Katherine’s eldest child, John Beaufort, great-grandfather of Henry VII, who based his claim to the throne on his mother’s descent from John of Gaunt, a son of Edward III. John Beaufort also had a daughter named Joan Beaufort, who married James I of Scotland and thus was an ancestress of the House of Stuart. John and Katherine’s daughter, Joan Beaufort, was grandmother of the English kings Edward IV and Richard III, the latter of whom Henry Tudor (thus becoming by conquest Henry VII) defeated at the Battle of Bosworth Field; Henry’s claim was strengthened by marrying Elizabeth of York, eldest daughter of Edward IV. It was also through Joan Beaufort, Countess of Westmoreland that the sixth queen of Henry VIII, Catherine Parr, descended. John of Gaunt’s son — Katherine’s stepson Henry of Bolingbroke — became Henry IV after deposing Richard II (who was imprisoned and died in Pontefract Castle, where Katherine’s son, Thomas Swynford, was constable and is said to have starved Richard to death for his step-brother). John of Gaunt’s daughter by his first marriage to Blanche of Lancaster, Philippa of Lancaster, was great-great-grandmother to Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII and mother of Mary I of England. John of Gaunt’s child by his second wife Constance, Catherine (or Catalina), was great-grandmother of Catherine of Aragon as well.
We could just leave the story here and conclude that in this instance, the mistress wins… but does she win by default and longevity or is she truly the love of his life who waited patiently on the side lines until he could marry her? Was Blanche the one he truly loved as Chaucer would suggest in some of his works, and Katherine won by the fact that she survived and stuck it out for that ultimate final pay out of marriage and legitimacy for their children. At the time of their marriage in 1396, all of the children were adults and were legitimized by the Pope- which while they were already set upon high standing positions- would greatly benefit the rest of their futures.
To put his relationships with both women in some perspective and reasoning, we can probably look at John’s character, his ideals and his friendship with one other person of importance, Geoffrey Chaucer.
One account and description of his appearance and character gives some clues to his mindset.
John was dark-haired, with piercing eyes and a narrow, angular face. He was almost two metres tall (as his suit of armour at the Tower of London, “the Giant”, bears out). He was a superb judge of character, which attributed for his political finesse. And he was also an extremely proficient political negotiator. He did not enjoy battle, so was generally not successful in the field.
He had very strict ideas about chivalry, which he also expected from his knights. The pastimes he enjoyed were gaming (dice and chess) and hunting. He loved splendour but not pomp, was richer than the King (to quote R. Gablé: “as rich as a heathen caliph”), which was probably why he was in charge of the exchequer during Richard II’s reign. Those who disliked him would probably not have believed it, but he was a strongly loyal person. His far-sightedness and political expertise were held in great esteem abroad; but in England his true character was not appreciated, particularly by the people and the Church. It was one reason why he became very unhappy in later years, in spite of the fact that he was able to conceal his feelings in this (and many other respects). According to Candace Robb, he enjoyed a laugh but was quick to hold a grudge.
Blanche was the perfect lady. She was blonde, with an angelic appearance and had had an excellent upbringing. John loved and, above all, admired her greatly. He never really recovered from her death, although they could be said to have been companions rather than lovers. In an arranged marriage, one could probably consider a relationship of this kind a happy one.
Constanza was dark-haired and small. John evidently married her in a fit of euphoria (the throne of Castile) and under his father’s instructions. He was quick to see that he and Constanza would never see eye to eye, as they differed too greatly. She had a penchant for the Church, was fairly prude and, to John’s mind, too austere.
Katherine was a redhead and tall. She was, so to speak, the sunshine of his life. His mood brightened whenever she entered the room. When she was near him, or merely at the thought of her, his “troubled lot” became half as bad. Lists still exist of the many gifts he gave her (wine, money, estates etc.), which were intended to make her life easier and in consideration of what she had done for him. The fact that he could not marry her and love her officially troubled him greatly. In his view, their marriage was all too short.
To put his relationships with both women in some perspective and reasoning, we can probably look at John’s character, his ideals and his friendship with one other person of importance, Geoffrey Chaucer. I have not made reference to John’s relationship or marriage to second wife Constance or Constanza because I think in all probability it was not any love, or lust match at all. It was an arranged marriage for political and economical reasons and did not play any part in his romantic notions or feelings for dead Blanche or living Katherine. It probably was more of a hindrance as he grew older and wanted to legitimize his relationship with Katherine for her benefit and for the benefit of their children.
John believed in the idea of chivalry, honor and most probably that ideal of romantic courtly love. His marriage to Blanche was arranged but obviously there was some attraction and care for each other. After all, apparently she spent much of the short lived marriage pregnant. They were married for ten years and she bore seven children although only three survived. Their marriage was cut short by her untimely death at the fairly young age of 22. Added to the tragedy of her death was the fact that she died while he was away. Being the chivalrous man that he was and also given that he held some ideal or notion of that romantic love, he most likely would have indulged or dwelt on that idea of eternal love ever after. As often happens with the death of someone close, the relationship takes on a more positive or glowing light than it may have actually been in reality. While they might have been relatively happy or at least not entirely miserable together, he may have put more outward mourning and grief over her death because of some feelings of guilt in not being there for her. Thus in death, she became that epitome, that idol of romantic love that the living could not compete with. Having went through a similar experience myself, I completely understand the adage that you can not compete with a dead lover. No matter how he felt about Katherine, there would probably always have been a shadow or presence of “perfection” Blanche
This could be what Chaucer was referencing and referring to when he suggested to John that he was over doing the grief stricken husband role and it was time to move on. He had already moved on partially but he needed to finally put closure to it all and give everyone a chance to go on as well.
Geoffrey Chaucer was a life long friend of John Gaunt and most probably influenced him a great deal.
Geoffrey Chaucer ( c. 1343 – 25 October 1400), known as the Father of English literature, is widely considered the greatest English poet of theMiddle Ages and was the first poet to be buried in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey.
While he achieved fame during his lifetime as an author, philosopher, and astronomer, composing a scientific treatise on the astrolabe for his ten-year-old son Lewis, Chaucer also maintained an active career in the civil service as a bureaucrat, courtier and diplomat. Among his many works, which include The Book of the Duchess, the House of Fame, the Legend of Good Women and Troilus and Criseyde. He is best known today for The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer was a crucial figure in developing the legitimacy of the vernacular, Middle English, at a time when the dominant literary languages in England were French and Latin.
Chaucer was a close friend of and served under the patronage of John of Gaunt, the wealthy Duke of Lancaster (and father of the future King of England). Near the end of their lives Lancaster and Chaucer became brothers-in-law. Chaucer married Philippa (Pan) de Roet in 1366, and Lancaster took his mistress of nearly 30 years, Katherine Swynford (de Roet), who was Philippa Chaucer’s sister, as his third wife in 1396. Although Philippa died c.1387, the men were bound as brothers and Lancaster’s children by Katherine—John, Henry, Thomas and Joan Beaufort—were Chaucer’s nephews and niece.
Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, also known as the Deeth of Blaunche the Duchesse, was written in commemoration of Blanche of Lancaster, John of Gaunt’s first wife. The poem refers to John and Blanche in allegory as the narrator relates the tale of “A long castel with walles white/Be Seynt Johan, on a ryche hil” (1318–1319) who is mourning grievously after the death of his love, “And goode faire White she het/That was my lady name ryght” (948–949). The phrase “long castel” is a reference to Lancaster (also called “Loncastel” and “Longcastell”), “walles white” is thought to likely be an oblique reference to Blanche, “Seynt Johan” was John of Gaunt’s name-saint, and “ryche hil” is a reference to Richmond; these thinly veiled references reveal the identity of the grieving black knight of the poem as John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and Earl of Richmond. “White” is the English translation of the French word “blanche”, implying that the white lady was Blanche of Lancaster.
Believed to have been written in the 1390s, Chaucer’s short poem Fortune, is also inferred to directly reference Lancaster. “Chaucer as narrator” openly defies Fortune, proclaiming he has learned who his enemies are through her tyranny and deceit, and declares “my suffisaunce” (15) and that “over himself hath the maystrye” (14). Fortune, in turn, does not understand Chaucer’s harsh words to her for she believes she has been kind to him, claims that he does not know what she has in store for him in the future, but most importantly, “And eek thou hast thy beste frend alyve” (32, 40, 48). Chaucer retorts that “My frend maystow nat reven, blind goddesse” (50) and orders her to take away those who merely pretend to be his friends. Fortune turns her attention to three princes whom she implores to relieve Chaucer of his pain and “Preyeth his beste frend of his noblesse/That to som beter estat he may atteyne” (78–79). The three princes are believed to represent the dukes of Lancaster, York, andGloucester, and a portion of line 76, “as three of you or tweyne,” to refer to the ordinance of 1390 which specified that no royal gift could be authorised without the consent of at least two of the three dukes. Most conspicuous in this short poem is the number of references to Chaucer’s “beste frend”. Fortune states three times in her response to the plaintiff, “And also, you still have your best friend alive” (32, 40, 48); she also references his “beste frend” in the envoy when appealing to his “noblesse” to help Chaucer to a higher estate. A fifth reference is made by “Chaucer as narrator” who rails atFortune that she shall not take his friend from him. While the envoy playfully hints to Lancaster that Chaucer would certainly appreciate a boost to his status or income, the poem Fortune distinctively shows his deep appreciation and affection for John of Gaunt.
On a final note, there are a few books related to Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt that you might find interesting. I have not read them as yet, but am suggesting them because I trust the author! I do plan to read more about her now.
Acclaimed author Alison Weir brings to life the extraordinary tale of Katherine Swynford, a royal mistress who became one of the most crucial figures in the history of Great Britain. Born in the mid-fourteenth century, Katherine de Roët was only twelve when she married Hugh Swynford, an impoverished knight. But her story had truly begun two years earlier, when she was appointed governess to the household of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and fourth son of King Edward III. Widowed at twenty-one, Katherine became John’s mistress and then, after many twists of fortune, his bride in a scandalous marriage. Mistress of the Monarchy reveals a woman ahead of her time—making her own choices, flouting convention, and taking control of her own destiny. Indeed, without Katherine Swynford, the course of English history, perhaps even the world, would have been very different.
George III is alleged to have married secretly, on 17th April, 1759, a Quakeress called Hannah Lightfoot, daughter of a Wapping shoemaker, who is said to have borne him three children. Documents relating to the alleged marriage, bearing the Prince’s signature, were impounded and examined in 1866 by the Attorney General. Learned opinion at the time leaned to the view that these documents were genuine. They were then placed in the Royal Archives at Windsor; in 1910, permission was refused a would-be author who asked to see them. If George III did make such a marriage when he was Prince of Wales, before the passing of the Royal Marriages Act in 1772, then his subsequent marriage to Queen Charlotte was bigamous, and every monarch of Britain since has been a usurper, the rightful heirs of George III being his children by Hannah Lightfoot, if they ever existed.’ From Britain’s Royal Families
Britain’s Royal Families is a unique reference book. It provides, for the first time in one volume, complete genealogical details of all members of the royal houses of England, Scotland and Great Britain – from 800AD to the present. Here is the vital biographical information relating not only to each monarch, but also to every member of their immediate family, from parents to grandchildren. Drawing on countless authorities, both ancient and modern, Alison Weir explores the royal family tree in unprecedented depth and provides a comprehensive guide to the heritage of today’s royal family.