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John of Gaunt

1340-1399

John, by the grace of God, King of Castille and Leon, Duke of Lancaster and Aquitaine, Earl of Derby, Lincoln and Leicester, Lord of Beaufort and Nogent, of Bergerac and Roche-sur-Yon, Seneschal of England and Constable of Chester

"He was a tall spare man, reserved and proud. He was courageous in battle, and easily roused, but he was loyal to a degree and chivalrous in every sense of the word. He loved the tournament, and specialized in absolutely fair play, a quality rare in his day. He was a great patron, of poets, scholars, clergy, monks, and indeed of the poor. . . . he was nevertheless the ideal Englishman, and like all of his type he did not see where his own virtues lay: a soldier who was far and away at his best at a peace conference, a hot tempered fighting man who restrained the tempers of others."

-- John Fines
Who's Who in the Middle Ages
John, the fourth son of Edward III of England, was born in Ghent, a town whose name was mispronounced by the English as Gaunt.

In 1357 he met a certain Geoffrey Chaucer and was sufficiently impressed to become the man's patron, an arrangement that would foster the young poet's career.

In 1359 he married Blanche, the daughter of Henry of Lancaster, the most prominent noble of England and King Edward's trusted lieutenant. But to the besotted young man's distress, it was a short marriage. Both Blanche and Henry died of the plague three years later. John inherited the Duchy of Lancaster and a power in England second only to the king.

While serving under his elder brother Edward of Woodstock on an adventure in support of Pedro the Cruel of Castille, John began a new love affair of a different sort. Spain became for him an attraction and distraction that would color his subsequent life. In 1371 he made a political marriage with Constance of Castille, the heir of Pedro. Thereafter he styled himself king, and in 1373 he led a chevauchée into France with the intention of going on to take Castille for his own. Alas for his dreams, the army faltered in France.

Alas for England, he also returned feeling that the battle for France was lost. John, convinced that peace was necessary, led the negotiating mission to Bruges in 1375. There he met another soon-to-be notable fellow whom he was to take under his patronage: John Wycliffe, the religious reformer.

During these years in England there was widespread belief in John's ambitions regarding the English throne. It was known that John's brother Edward was dying and that even if he lived to succeed their father, he would soon leave his young son Richard to sit shakily upon the throne. Many thought John would set aside the true heir and take the crown for himself. John, however, seems to have been the victim of bad publicity. He was a staunch supporter of legitimate inheritance regarding monarchies, a devoted supporter of his brother and his brother's family, and, on the whole, much more interested in his own claim on Castille. He did, however, dislike the policies, politics, and ambitions of other prominent Englishmen, and from that much contention arose.

During the early years of Richard's reign, John worked as a peacemaker, arranging truces with both the regularly rebellious Scots and with the French. He demonstrated that he was still somewhat of a soldier by stymieing Scottish attacks after the end of the truce. He even survived two assassination attempts by Richard's court favorites.

In 1386 John began his campaign to acquire the land to which he had long laid claim. He assembled an army and joined the Portuguese (themselves under threat by Juan of Castille) in an invasion of Castille, but it did not win him what he sought. The Castillians retreated before him, burning and destroying what they could not carry away. The campaign foundered as the troops succumbed to privation, dysentery, and plague. John's personal ambitions in Spain halted, he settled them for his heirs by arranging that the son of Juan of Castille marry Catherine, John's daughter by Constance of Castille, and setting all rights and claims to the throne in that marriage.

England meanwhile was suffering from the affair of the Lords Appellant, one of whom was John's son Henry of Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby. John returned in 1389 to be honored by Richard with the Duchy of Aquitaine, and to begin a new period of diplomatic (and occasionally other) action in England, Scotland and France.

John's diplomatic triumph came in 1396: the arrangement of a meeting between the Richard II and Charles VI of France. From that summit came a marriage between Richard and Charles's daughter, and a truce as well, one intended to last 28 years.

John's last years were marred by factional disagreements and Richard's desire for revenge on the Lords Appellant, which resulted in the exile of John's son, Henry of Bolingbroke. On his deathbed, Richard brought him word of Henry's pardon. John of Gaunt, staunch believer in the legitimate passage of monarchy, would never know that he had bred a usurper: his son would soon claim the throne as Henry IV of England.