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John of Gaunt

John of Gaunt
John of Gaunt

John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster (June 24,1340February 3,1399), the third surviving son of King Edward III of England, gained his name because he was born at Ghent in 1340. He became Duke of Lancaster by his first marriage to his cousin, Blanche (1359), heiress to the Palatinate of Lancaster, a title which gave its holder considerable independence from the crown. John became a fabulously wealthy prince who maintained a household organised along the lines of a royal household, as well as vast estates across England and France and thirty castles.

After the death of his elder brother, Edward, the Black Prince, John of Gaunt became increasingly powerful. He contrived to protect the religious reformer, John Wyclif, with whose aims he sympathised. However, Gaunt's ascendancy to political power coincided with widespread resentment at his influence. At a time when when English forces encountered setbacks in the Hundred Years' War against France and Edward III's rule had started to become domestically unpopular due to high taxation and to the King's affair with Alice Perrers, political opinion closely associated the Duke of Lancaster with the failing government of the 1370s. Furthermore, while the king and the Prince of Wales had the status of popular heroes due to their success on the battlefield, Gaunt had never known any such military success which might have bolstered his reputation.

When King Edward III died (1377) and John's nephew, the ten-year-old Richard II of England, succeeded to the throne, Gaunt's influence strengthened further, but mistrust remained and some suspected him of wanting to seize the throne for himself. He took pains to ensure that he never became associated with the opposition to Richard's kingship, but as virtual ruler of England during Richard's minority, some unwise decisions on taxation led to the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, during which the rebels destroyed his Savoy Palace.

In 1386, Richard, who had by now assumed more power for himself, dispatched Gaunt to Spain as an ambassador. However, crisis ensued almost immediately and in 1387 Richard's misrule took the country to the brink of civil war. Only John of Gaunt, on his return to England, was able to bring about a compromise between the Lords Appellant and King Richard, ushering in a period of stability and relative harmony. During the 1390s, John of Gaunt's reputation of devotion to the well-being of the kingdom became much restored. Gaunt died in 1399.

John of Gaunt's later marriages and descendants

Blanche died in 1369. In 1371, John married Constanza of Castile, daughter of King Peter I of Castile, thus giving him a claim on the kingdom of Castile, which he would pursue unsuccessfully.

In the meantime, John of Gaunt had fathered four children by a mistress, Katherine Swynford (whose sister married the poet, Geoffrey Chaucer). Constanza died in 1394. He married Katherine in 1396 or 1397, and their children, the Beauforts, were legitimised but barred from inheriting the throne. From the eldest son, John, came a granddaughter, Margaret Beaufort, whose son, later King Henry VII of England, would nevertheless claim the throne.

John of Gaunt's legitimate son from his first marriage, Henry Bolingbroke, proved less of a diplomat than his father, and Richard II banished him from the kingdom in 1398. When John of Gaunt died in 1399, his estates were declared forfeit to the crown. This caused Bolingbroke to return, and he deposed the unpopular Richard to reign as King Henry IV of England (13991413).

Children of John of Gaunt

The Lancaster city centre has a pub called The John O'Gaunt, noted for its live jazz music and its large collection of whiskies. An administrative ward on the city council also bears the name.

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