John [John of Gaunt], duke of Aquitaine and duke of Lancaster, styled king of Castile and León (1340–1399), prince and steward of England
by Simon Walker

John [John of Gaunt], duke of Aquitaine and duke of Lancaster, styled king of Castile and León (1340–1399), prince and steward of England, was the fourth son of and his wife, .

The king's son, 1340–1369

Gaunt was born at St Bavo's Abbey, Ghent, in March 1340. His godfather, from whom he took his forename, was John, duke of Brabant, one of Edward's current allies in the Low Countries. The infant John was granted the first of his many titles in September 1342 when he was invested with the earldom and honour of Richmond, traditionally valued at 2000 marks p.a.; this estate was later augmented by grants of the honour of Liddel, Cumberland, in 1357 and the castle of Hertford in 1360. The young earl of Richmond grew up in the household of his elder brother, , and was soon initiated into the strenuous military traditions of the Plantagenet family. He was in the prince's ship during the bitter Anglo-Castilian sea battle off Winchelsea in August 1350 and was knighted at the start of the abortive Norman campaign in July 1355. He joined his father in the brief flurry of raids launched from Calais that November and followed him northwards to the relief of Berwick, captured by the Scots in a surprise attack, and on the ‘burnt Candlemas’ campaign of 1356. John of Gaunt played a more prominent role in the great chevauchée Edward III launched in October 1359, commanding his own retinue for the first time and taking an active part in the sieges and skirmishes of the long winter campaign until its conclusion in May 1360. In the autumn of the same year he returned to France in order to witness his father's ratification of the treaty of Brétigny at Calais. It was in recognition of these early signs of military prowess, as well as of his princely blood, that Gaunt was invested as a knight of the Garter in April 1361.

From his earliest years, the young earl of Richmond's marriage had been the subject of diplomatic exchanges but, despite suggestions that he should marry a daughter of Alfonso IV of Portugal (in 1345) or Marguerite, daughter and sole heir of Louis, count of Flanders (in 1351), it was to an English noblewoman, Blanche of Lancaster (1346?–1368), younger daughter and coheir of the king's most trusted captain, , and his wife, Isabella Beaumont, that John of Gaunt was eventually betrothed. The marriage took place amid great festivity at Reading in May 1359 and the considerable financial prospects it opened up were realized within two years, following Henry of Lancaster's death in March 1361. Gaunt was immediately given temporary custody of all the duke's lands and the death of Blanche's sister and coheir, Maude, duchess of Zeeland, a year later in April 1362 cleared the way for a further grant to him of the whole Lancastrian inheritance, together with the titles of duke of Lancaster, and earl of Derby, of Lincoln, and of Leicester, in the following November. At the age of twenty-two the new duke was suddenly the richest nobleman in England—a status he was to retain throughout his life. At their greatest extent, the duchy of Lancaster estates yielded c. £12,000 p.a. gross (£10,000 p.a. net), an income at least double the amount enjoyed by any contemporary English magnate.

Such wealth, together with the absence of his elder brothers, Edward and , in Aquitaine and Ireland respectively, quickly enabled Lancaster to assume a prominent place in his father's plans and counsels. Between the autumn of 1362 and his own departure for Aquitaine, Gaunt was the most frequent witness of royal charters among the lay magnates, while he led diplomatic missions intended to secure the marriage of the daughter of the count of Flanders for his younger brother, , to Calais in September 1364 and to Bruges in October 1365. Grandiose schemes for his own future were also in the air. In March 1364 the Scottish parliament discussed, only to reject, a proposal that the duke should succeed the childless David II as king of Scotland and in 1366 the long-dormant Lancastrian claim to the county of Provence was briefly revived on his behalf. More practically, Gaunt was dispatched to Aquitaine in January 1367 with reinforcements for the prince of Wales, who was preparing an expedition against Castile in aid of the legitimate but exiled king, Pedro I. The campaign that followed established Gaunt's military reputation. Entrusted with the task of leading the English forces over the pass of Roncesvalles, Gaunt drove off the attacks of the army of Enrique da Trastamara in early skirmishing around Vitoria and, when the two sides met in pitched battle at Nájera (April 1367), his command of the English vanguard was credited with an important part in the Black Prince's crushing victory.

The king's lieutenant, 1369–1376

New and more onerous responsibilities followed on Lancaster's return to England in October 1367. The death of Lionel, duke of Clarence, and the increasing ill health of both the king and the prince of Wales meant that, after the resumption of Anglo-French hostilities in March 1369, the task of commanding English armies overseas was chiefly entrusted to John of Gaunt. During the next five years of strenuous campaigning the duke spent almost half his time abroad and raised nearly 5000 men-at-arms and archers for the king's service from the resources of his own estates. In June 1369 he was appointed the king's captain and lieutenant in the realm of France and sent to Picardy in order to forestall the threat of a French invasion along the south coast. After some minor successes around the Calais pale the English forces encountered a French army, commanded by the duke of Burgundy, at Tournhem on 23 August 1369 and entrenched themselves in a strong defensive position. Neither side proved willing to risk a decisive encounter and, after a fortnight, Burgundy withdrew, leaving Gaunt free to pillage the Pays de Caux and to mount an unsuccessful assault on Harfleur, before returning to Calais at the end of October. Although the duke's reluctance to bring the French to battle incurred some contemporary criticism, he was entrusted with another important command in the following year, when he was sent with a retinue of 800 men to bolster the defences of Aquitaine. Gaunt was present at the siege and sack of Limoges on 19 September 1370, where he supervised the successful mining operations against the town, and was formally constituted the prince of Wales's lieutenant in Aquitaine in October, when ill health finally forced the prince back to England. He maintained a vigorous defence of the principality throughout the early months of 1371, recapturing the town of Montpont in February and strengthening several more border fortresses, before an acute shortage of money to pay his troops forced him to resign the lieutenancy in July.

Before he sailed for England, however, the duke of Lancaster, a widower since September 1368, contracted a second marriage, in September 1371, to Constanza (1354–1394), the exiled elder daughter of the murdered Pedro I of Castile. She was, at least in the eyes of her legitimist followers, the true heir to the crown of Castile and the duke showed himself, from the first, anxious to make good the rights his marriage to Constanza bestowed. Not only did he maintain a skeleton Castilian chancery to issue documents in his name as king of Castile and León, but his persistent attempts to give substance to the title over the next fifteen years also influenced, and eventually dominated, his attitude towards all the central issues of domestic English politics and diplomacy. Behind the marriage there lay more than private ambition, however. Trastamaran Castile was firmly in alliance with Charles V of France by 1371 and the powerful Castilian galley fleet posed a real threat to English command of the seas. Since Nájera the prince of Wales had intermittently entertained plans to counteract this danger by an Anglo-Aragonese invasion, and eventual partition, of Castile. Gaunt's marriage was an attempt to adapt his brother's ambitious plan to changing circumstances and enjoyed the full approval of Edward III and his advisers. The duke was formally authorized to use the Castilian royal titles on 30 January 1372 and, six months later, Plantagenet ambitions in Castile were further confirmed by the marriage of Edmund of Langley to Constanza's younger sister, Isabella.

Gaunt seems to have intended to attempt to put his new claims into immediate effect, for in the spring of 1372 he was planning a campaign that would take him first to Aquitaine and then to Portugal. The defeat and capture of the earl of Pembroke off La Rochelle by the Castilian galley fleet in June 1372 forced a reappraisal of this ambitious strategy and the duke was directed, instead, to join his father in a naval expedition intended to bring relief to the principality of Aquitaine. In the event, contrary winds prevented the fleet from leaving port and nothing was achieved before the expedition was abandoned in October. English strategic priorities were, in any case, already shifting and the voie d'Espaigne (‘way of Spain’) receded in importance as the possibility of a permanent alliance with John de Montfort, duke of Brittany, came increasingly to the fore. In June 1372 Gaunt was required to surrender his honour of Richmond to the king in order to allow it to be regranted to the duke of Brittany, as part of the price of his adherence to the Plantagenet cause. He was granted extensive royal estates in compensation, including the honours of Tickhill, Yorkshire, Knaresborough, Yorkshire, and the High Peak, Derbyshire, in an exchange that gave him a still greater concentration of landed authority across Yorkshire and the northern midlands.

In the following year Lancaster was once again given command of an English army abroad. Although this force was initially intended to bring aid to John de Montfort in his struggle to retain control of Brittany, Duke John's flight to England in April 1373 required a late change of strategy. When Lancaster's army of 6000 men departed from Dover in July his intention seems to have been to conduct a destructive chevauchée from Calais to Paris and then to strike westwards towards Brittany. Stiff French resistance kept the English forces away from the Paris basin, however, and forced the duke to march eastwards, to Rheims and Troyes, and then southwards through the Auvergne to Aquitaine, which the duke and his army reached in December. Despite the severe losses his troops had suffered on this long march through difficult country, Lancaster remained in the principality until April 1374, seeking to strengthen its defences against the threatened invasion of the duke of Anjou and attempting to draw the count of Foix and Pedro III, king of Aragon, into an effective anti-Castilian alliance.

Although Edward III and his advisers did not immediately abandon their aggressive intentions after Gaunt's return to England, the failure of his expedition to yield a decisive victory inclined them to consider the possibility of a final peace with France more seriously. Desultory negotiations towards a peace, sponsored by Pope Gregory XI, had been in train since February 1372 and the changing fortunes of war now persuaded the English government to assign to them a greatly increased priority. A powerful delegation, led by the duke of Lancaster, was dispatched to the peace conference that began at Bruges in March 1375 and continued, with one substantial intermission, until March 1376. The discussions at Bruges attempted initially to resolve the central question of sovereignty over Aquitaine. One early proposal of the papal mediators, rejected by the English, was that Gaunt should give up his English estates and become the ruler of an independent duchy of Aquitaine, to be held as a fief of the French crown. Once the issue of sovereignty proved insoluble, however, attention shifted to negotiations for a forty-year truce on the basis of the existing territorial status quo. Here, too, agreement proved impossible to reach and the only concrete result of the talks was the conclusion of two short truces, lasting until April 1377. The leading role the duke played in these negotiations attracted some contemporary criticism, in part because the conclusion of the first of the truces in June 1375 deprived an English army led by Edmund Mortimer, earl of March, of a rare success at the siege of Quimperlé, and partly because so little had apparently resulted from such long and lavishly funded discussions. It was from Bruges, too, that the damaging rumour circulating among the diplomats, that Gaunt was using his dominant position in the negotiations to mobilize support for his plan to secure the succession to the English throne on the death of Edward III, spread to England and began to gain a wider currency.

The political crisis of 1376–1377

Such criticisms and suspicions were only a particular expression of the general frustration induced by the heavy incidence of taxation and the consistent lack of military success the English had experienced since 1369. This frustration was forcibly expressed in the Good Parliament (April–July 1376), when the parliamentary Commons, with tacit encouragement from some members of the nobility, successfully demanded the prosecution of several royal councillors for financial corruption and secured the establishment of a council of nine lords to advise the king. As the ‘lieutenant of the king to hold the parliament’ (Anonimalle Chronicle, 83), in the absence of his father and his dying elder brother, responsibility for managing this volatile assembly devolved on John of Gaunt. He adopted a generally conciliatory attitude towards the demands of the Commons and was aggrieved not to be named among the nine lords chosen to be the king's councillors when the parliament ended. Once the parliament was dissolved, however, political initiative passed rapidly back to the court, with the result that, for the first time in his career, the duke of Lancaster was required to play a leading part in domestic politics. One chronicler, Thomas Walsingham, says that the king ‘now wholly laid down the government of the Kingdom and put it into the hands of the duke, allowing him to do all that he wanted’ (Chronicon Angliae, 102).

Lancaster's response was to initiate a vigorous and aggressive policy designed to discipline those groups and individuals who had appeared to question royal authority, while rallying the lay nobility and gentry to the court by an appeal to their common interests. The courtiers and financiers impeached in the Good Parliament were rapidly pardoned and punitive measures taken against those most closely associated with that parliament's defiance; latent anti-clerical sentiment was mobilized by the sermons of John Wyclif, who preached in London against the temporal endowments of the church during the autumn of 1376; the privileges of the city of London were threatened by the efforts of Henry, Lord Percy, an ally of the duke, to extend the jurisdiction of his office as marshal of England over the city; and the burden of taxation was shifted further down the social scale by the introduction of a flat-rate poll tax in the parliament of Hilary 1377. Such vigorous policies inevitably generated tensions, which came to a head in February 1377 when William Courtenay, bishop of London, summoned Wyclif to be examined on the content of his sermons. Gaunt and Percy arrived at St Paul's in order to support their protégé and, in the altercation with Courtenay that followed, Gaunt offered to drag the bishop from his throne by the hair. This threat of violence, added to the Londoners' resentment at the attack on their judicial liberties, sparked off riots in the city against the duke. His policies were, nevertheless, generally successful in quashing criticism of the king's ministers and his own pre-eminent position within the English nobility was further emphasized by the grant to him on 28 February 1377 of palatinate rights within the duchy of Lancaster.

The king's uncle, 1377–1386

The animosity that John of Gaunt's policies created during his brief dominance, together with the lingering popular suspicion that he intended to claim the throne for himself, meant that the duke was not called upon to act as regent of the kingdom on Edward III's death (21 June 1377) and the accession of his eleven-year-old grandson, Richard II. In other respects, however, these altered circumstances relieved many of the political tensions generated in the previous year. Reconciliation with the Londoners in June was followed, in October, by a public vindication of Gaunt's conduct from the parliamentary Commons. The duke protested his loyalty in full parliament and challenged anyone who still suspected him of treason to come forward and make good their accusations. The Commons hastily accepted his avowals, nominated him as a member of the peers' intercommuning committee, and announced that they had chosen Lancaster to be ‘their principal aid, strength and governor’ (RotP, 3.5). This was to prove an accurate description of the position the duke occupied in English political life between Richard II's accession and his own departure for Castile in 1386. The precedence his royal blood demanded was enforced and underwritten by his great wealth, which allowed him both to maintain an exceptionally large indentured retinue of about 170 knights and esquires and to emphasize his princely status by an extensive programme of building work at Hertford, Dunstanburgh, Kenilworth, and several of his other residences.

Although Lancaster was not a member of any of the nominated councils that had formal responsibility for government from October 1377 to January 1380, his status as the king's uncle assured him an honourable prominence in affairs of state, as well as considerable informal influence with Richard himself throughout these years. In October 1377, for instance, Lancaster and his two brothers, Edmund of Langley and , were commissioned to investigate any allegations of corruption that might arise against the king's nominated councillors, while in November 1381 the duke was named at the head of a committee to investigate the costs and personnel of the royal household. When the king clashed angrily with the earl of Arundel in open parliament at Salisbury in April 1384, only Gaunt possessed sufficient personal authority to intervene and compose their quarrel. If any magnate sought to question this pre-eminence, as Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, did in October 1381, he was forced into a humiliating public submission to the duke. Equally, once serious negotiations for a permanent peace with France were resumed, Lancaster acted as the chief English spokesman, attending inconclusive conferences at Calais in September 1383 and at Leulinghem between July and October 1384.

This pervasive political influence had its price, for it became clear during the peasants' revolt of 1381 that it was John of Gaunt whom the common people chiefly blamed, despite his lack of formal office, for the military failings and financial exactions of government. The duke's name headed the list of traitors about the king whose arrest and execution the rebel army at Blackheath demanded, while the general distrust of Gaunt's motives among the rebels was articulated by the Kentishmen, who declared that they would have no king named John. Popular hostility towards the duke was further expressed by widespread attacks on the Lancastrian estates in East Anglia and upon several of his servants, while his great palace of the Savoy was burnt to the ground by the London rebels. Gaunt himself, conducting truce negotiations on the Scottish march when the rising began, was forced to take refuge in Scotland for ten days in order to escape the fate of the chancellor and treasurer, Simon Sudbury and Robert Hales, who were both summarily executed by the rebels. Even the duke's relatively lenient response to the rebellion, both on his own estates and as the leading commissioner to punish rebels in Yorkshire, did not entirely dispel the distrust his person and policies aroused. In February 1382 the citizens of London pointedly requested that they should have only one king and be ruled by him alone.

In reality, John of Gaunt's lively ambition to rule as a king in his own right remained fixed on the Castilian crown he could claim in the right of his wife. Throughout these years the duke tirelessly advocated the large-scale English intervention on the Iberian peninsula that would allow him to vindicate his claim to the Castilian throne. Success in realizing this objective proved for a long while elusive, since it required the favourable alignment of two unrelated and unpredictable sets of circumstances: the diplomatic situation within the Iberian peninsula itself and the strategic preferences of the English parliament, on whose financial support for his scheme the duke of Lancaster was ultimately reliant. One important obstacle to parliamentary approval of the voie d'Espaigne was the fear, forcibly expressed in January 1382, that the prolonged absence from the kingdom of a large army commanded by the duke would unacceptably imperil domestic security. A central object of Gaunt's policy during these years was consequently to allay this fear, as far as he was able, both by his active participation in expeditions designed to improve the realm's defences against French attack and by his efforts to maintain peace along the Anglo-Scottish border. Preparations for a naval expedition, in which Gaunt was to be one of the retinue leaders, had been well advanced in July 1377, when the death of Edward III forced the campaign's cancellation. Between July and September 1378, however, the duke patrolled the channel with a naval force of 1000 men and then, in pursuit of the council's strategy of securing a series of defensive barbicans along the northern coast of France, launched an unsuccessful attempt to capture St Malo. He was required to array his troops again in August 1383, stationing them in the Isle of Thanet in readiness to go to the aid of Bishop Despenser's beleaguered army in west Flanders.

John of Gaunt's participation in the traditional theatre of Anglo-French conflict was nevertheless overshadowed during these years by the responsibility he assumed for English efforts to maintain the peace with Scotland. Anglo-Scottish relations were regulated by a fifteen-year truce concluded in 1369 but conditions on the march had begun to deteriorate by 1376, as hostilities between the Percy and Douglas families escalated sharply. The duke of Lancaster's presence in the region, as one of the few magnates possessed of sufficient authority to impose an agreed settlement, was soon requested by both sides. John of Gaunt attended his first march day, at which infractions of the truce were redressed, in January 1378 and was appointed the king's lieutenant of the marches towards Scotland in the following year; he retained the supervisory powers of this lieutenancy until April 1384. The duke led a large force, intended for a military campaign against the Scots, to the march in October 1380 but eventually negotiated a reaffirmation of the existing truce, which was extended for a further three years at a second march day in June 1381. An already difficult situation in the region was further complicated when Gaunt's quarrel with the earl of Northumberland, which had its origin in the earl's failure to offer him shelter at either Alnwick or Bamburgh during the rising of 1381, led the duke to seek the wholesale exclusion of the Percys from marcher office. This proved detrimental to the maintenance of good order and a further march day conducted by Gaunt, in June 1383, secured a continuation of the existing truce only with difficulty. The Scots were quick to take advantage of its formal expiration, launching a successful assault on the English outpost of Lochmaben in February 1384. Gaunt retaliated with a large-scale raid in April, marching unopposed through the Lothians and ransoming Edinburgh. Further hostilities followed in July 1385 and the duke, at the head of a company of 3000 men, commanded the vanguard of the royal army that briefly ravaged the lowlands.

The renewal of hostilities against Scotland, coupled with the real possibility of a French invasion of southern England in 1385, appeared to render the possibility of Gaunt's gaining parliamentary consent and financial support for his projected Castilian expedition ever more distant. His attempt to engineer a favourable diplomatic alliance among the powers of the Iberian peninsula enjoyed, for many years, no more success. Negotiations for an alliance between England and the kingdoms of Aragon and Navarre were initiated in 1377, when Gaunt's was the guiding hand behind English strategy, but this diplomatic offensive was overtaken by the Castilian invasion of Navarre in June 1378 and parliament's preference for the more orthodox tactic of an invasion of northern France. By July 1380, however, persistent diplomatic efforts on the part of the duke's advisers had secured a renewal of the treaty of alliance between England and Portugal, which provided for an English force of 2000 men to be sent to Portugal under the command of Gaunt's brother, Edmund of Langley, earl of Cambridge. This was to be the advance party for a larger Lancastrian army, led by the duke himself, which would invade Castile from the duchy of Aquitaine. Finance remained the stumbling-block, however. Gaunt's proffer to lead an army of 4000 men to Castile, financed by a crown loan of £60,000, repayable within three years, met with little enthusiasm in the parliament of January 1382, while the failure of Edmund's expedition meant that the duke's hopes of an imminent Castilian campaign came to seem badly misplaced.

It was not until 1385 that circumstances began to favour Lancaster's ambitions once again. Portuguese rebellion against the imposition of direct rule from Castile, culminating in the devastating victory of Aljubarotta in August 1385, held out the prospect of a reliable Iberian ally for the Lancastrian pretender at precisely the time that increasing tension between John of Gaunt and Richard II was serving to persuade the king's advisers that the cost of a Castilian campaign might be a worthwhile price to pay for the greater political freedom the duke's absence from England would bestow on the king. Trouble between Richard and his uncle had been brewing for more than a year, fomented by a group of young nobles and chamber knights, led by the earls of Oxford and Nottingham, who sought to undermine Gaunt's influence with the king by promoting a series of accusations against him. These first surfaced at the Salisbury parliament of April 1384, when a Carmelite friar accused the duke of treachery, to such good effect that Richard allegedly gave orders, hastily countermanded, for John of Gaunt's summary arrest and execution. Tension flared again in 1385, when rumours of another plot to arrest and execute the duke began to spread, following his criticism in council of Richard's irresolute defensive plans. Despite the assurances Gaunt was given on this occasion, obtained only after he had taken a body of men-at-arms to confront the king at Sheen, Richard's mistrust of his uncle was forcibly expressed again during the subsequent Scottish campaign, when he accused the duke of treachery for advising that the royal army should advance northwards beyond the Firth of Forth. The willingness of the parliament that met in October 1385 to allow part of the subsidy it granted to be devoted to a Lancastrian invasion of Castile consequently offered a welcome resolution to a threatening political impasse. Richard was even prepared to speed Gaunt on his way by advancing a loan of 20,000 marks to defray the costs of the expedition.

King of Castile and León, 1386–1389

Accordingly, Lancaster spent the early months of 1386 making careful financial and military plans for his long-anticipated invasion. The fleet carrying his army, which probably numbered about 5000 men, set sail from Plymouth in July and made a brief landfall at Brest, where the Lancastrian forces temporarily raised the siege of the English garrison, before landing at La Coruña in Galicia at the end of the month. In the short campaigning season that was left to them Gaunt and his troops brought the rest of Galicia under their control before establishing themselves at Orense for the winter. Despite this initial success, the heavy fatalities the Lancastrian army suffered from disease during the autumn and winter rendered further unaided advance from this bridgehead into the rest of Castile impractical. This difficulty was resolved by the alliance the duke concluded with João I of Portugal at Ponte de Mouro in November 1386: João undertook to bring a Portuguese force of 5000 men to the aid of the Lancastrian war effort in return for the promise of marriage to Gaunt's eldest daughter, , and the cession to him of some Castilian territory. A joint Anglo-Portuguese army accordingly invaded León in March 1387 but the shortage of forage and the effective defensive tactics adopted by the Castilians caused the allies to abandon their campaign within six weeks. Negotiations for a settlement of the outstanding differences between the duke and Juan I of Castile began almost immediately and terms were agreed at Trancoso in July 1387. These were fully ratified, with only minor modifications, a year later at Bayonne.

It is likely that such an agreement represented Lancaster's preferred outcome, for his approach to the Castilian war had, from the first, been as flexible and pragmatic as Edward III's pursuit of the crown of France. The duke had been prepared to consider the possibility of a final peace settlement even before his expedition set sail. As his campaign unfolded, it became clear that his strategy was to use the well-tried English device of the destructive chevauchée in order to harass his opponent into an advantageous settlement rather than to attempt the near impossibility of an outright conquest of Castile. The terms he obtained were certainly generous. In return for his undertaking to renounce his claim to the Castilian throne and abandon occupied Galicia, John of Gaunt was offered a marriage alliance between his daughter, of Lancaster, and Don Enrique, the Trastamaran heir to Castile, together with an indemnity for his renunciation of 600,000 francs and a further annual pension of 40,000 francs. It was a settlement that both satisfied his dynastic aspirations and further strengthened his domestic political position, for successive instalments of the Castilian pension over the next decade provided the duke with the resources to expand his following still further and to subsidize the ambitions of his children.

Lancaster left Portugal for Aquitaine in September 1387 and, once established in the duchy, began to work towards the general European peace that would, coincidentally, ensure the permanence of his Iberian family settlement. Appointed the king's lieutenant in Aquitaine in May 1388, the duke resisted the attempts of the appellant regime to involve him in an ambitious campaign against the French and negotiated, instead, a local truce covering all territories south of the Loire. Although his plans for a summit meeting of the Iberian powers to consider his proposals for a definitive Anglo-Castilian peace proved abortive, the conclusion of a general Anglo-French truce in July 1389 went some way towards securing his objectives. Gaunt did not, however, neglect the duties of his lieutenancy. The duke's efforts to build up support for the English allegiance among the Gascon nobility meant that, when he returned to England at Richard II's request in November 1389, he left the volatile duchy of Aquitaine in an unusually stable condition.

Duke of Aquitaine, 1390–1395

On his arrival in England Lancaster found the political atmosphere, and especially the king's attitude towards himself, transformed during his three-year absence. The reconciliation between Richard and the former lords appellant—one of whom was Lancaster's eldest son and heir, Henry Bolingbroke—was already showing signs of fragility by the autumn of 1389 and the duke's proven ability to maintain the political peace was consequently welcomed by both sides. At a royal council held at Reading in December 1389 he enjoined harmony on the nobility and, as an example to them, resolved his own long-standing quarrel with the earl of Northumberland. In return, the king confirmed Gaunt's pre-eminent political position by a series of grants and concessions: it was agreed that no royal grant with financial implications should be valid without the assent of the duke or his brothers; in the parliament of January 1390 the palatinate of Lancaster, which the duke held for life, was entailed on the heirs male of his body; and, most significantly, Gaunt was also created duke of Aquitaine for life, holding the duchy of Richard and his heirs in their capacity as kings of France and reserving to the king direct sovereignty and resort. Despite these reservations, the grant of Aquitaine to Gaunt marked a significant change in the status of a duchy that had previously been held only by the king himself or by his eldest son. It conferred on John of Gaunt a status superior to the rest of the royal dukes and promised him a principality that he could govern in partial independence of the crown. It meant, too, that the duke of Aquitaine acquired a vested interest in promoting a permanent peace with France, in order to guarantee the territorial security of his new duchy. It was to these two, closely-related, ends that much of John of Gaunt's attention was directed over the next five years.

Following preliminary discussions between Lancaster and the French negotiators at Calais in May 1391, the parliamentary Commons approved the king's suggestion that the duke should be entrusted with the principal role in Anglo-French peace negotiations ‘because he is the most sufficient person in the realm’ (RotP, 3.286). Gaunt accordingly led an English delegation to Amiens in March 1392 where, in two months of diplomatic exchanges that taxed to the full the duke's talent for conspicuous display, the French submitted proposals that sought to break the deadlock surrounding the issue of English sovereignty over Aquitaine by suggesting that the duke and his heirs should hold an enlarged duchy as vassals of the king of France. Although this proposal created alarm among the Gascons themselves and attracted some domestic criticism in England, the renewed negotiations that Gaunt undertook at Leulinghem (March–June 1393) yielded a draft treaty in which the English conceded the central point that Richard II should himself perform liege homage for Aquitaine; this was to be in return for substantial territorial concessions and subject to a final resolution of the question of the duchy's feudal status by a panel of legal experts. So fundamental a concession proved unacceptable to parliament, however, and once Lancaster and his fellow negotiators had failed to find a way out of this impasse at a further conference at Leulinghem (March–May 1394), both sides were forced to abandon the search for a final peace.

While these prolonged negotiations provided Lancaster with a prominent and congenial international role, the considerable latitude the duke was allowed in defining the English terms began to revive domestic suspicion, epitomized in the Monk of Westminster's complaint that ‘the duke of Lancaster does what he likes without check’ (Westminster Chronicle, 518), that he was prepared to sacrifice the wider national interest to the pursuit of his own ambitions in Aquitaine. This mistrust was first publicly manifested by an armed protest in Lancashire and Cheshire in May 1393 against the apparently imminent conclusion of a final peace and, specifically, against the part played by the dukes of Lancaster and Gloucester in negotiating it. Although Gaunt was able to pacify this disturbance during the following autumn, taking many of the local gentry implicated in the rising into his own service, Richard (III) Fitzalan, earl of Arundel, sought to make political capital out of the continuing unease that surrounded the progress of the peace negotiations by launching a bitter personal attack on the duke in the parliament of January 1394, criticizing him for his excessive influence over the king and over the formulation of royal policy. Gaunt was easily able to outface this attack, extracting from Arundel a humiliating public apology, but his conduct was once more beginning to be questioned by those about the king. The duke was forced to write to Richard in August 1394, denying the rumours of his disloyalty that were said to be circulating at court.

Fortunately, a developing crisis in Aquitaine required Lancaster's presence there. He set sail for the duchy in November 1394 with an army of approximately 1500 men. The purpose of this expedition was to stabilize the borders of the duchy and to enforce the still disputed recognition of Gaunt's authority there. Gascon resistance to the duke's authority had its origins in their objection to the separation of Aquitaine from the English crown that the original grant to Gaunt entailed and it had been further exacerbated in the last two years by the insensitive actions of ducal officials. Opposition to Gaunt's rule in Aquitaine had mounted to such a point that, in April 1394, the three estates of the duchy swore an oath of union by which they refused to accept his authority as duke. Faced with so delicate a situation, Gaunt acted circumspectly on his arrival and, by skilful conciliation, eventually succeeded in negotiating an acceptable compromise. In March 1395 the estates agreed to recognize Gaunt's authority as duke in return for a guarantee of their existing liberties and agreed restrictions on the scope of his officials' actions. With his principal objective obtained, Gaunt spent the summer working with his French counterparts to regulate infractions of the truce along the border of the duchy before travelling overland back to England in November 1395. He broke his journey in Brittany in order to make a treaty of mutual alliance with Duke John de Montfort and to arrange a marriage between his grandson, Henry of Monmouth (the future ), and the duke of Brittany's daughter. Although nothing finally came of this agreement, it indicates the ambitious scale on which John of Gaunt was still continuing to plan: if successful, the marriage alliance would have created a sphere of English, and specifically Lancastrian, influence along the entire western seaboard of the French kingdom.

Last years, 1396–1399

On his return to England Lancaster was received by the king, some said, ‘with honour but without love’ (Thomae Walsingham … historia Anglicana, 2.219). This lukewarm reception marked the beginnings of a retreat in the duke's influence. The conclusion of a twenty-eight-year truce with France at Leulinghem in March 1396 meant that Richard II was no longer so dependent upon Gaunt's natural authority among the peers to carry through a potentially unpopular policy, while the emergence of a new group of noble courtiers, closer to Richard's own age than to Gaunt's, reduced the duke's influence over the formulation and direction of royal policy. Gaunt himself, now afflicted by bouts of ill health, seemed happy to acquiesce in this development and, while still assigned a conspicuous and honourable role at important state occasions, such as the festivities that accompanied the king's marriage to Isabella, the daughter of Charles VI of France, in November 1396, increasingly concentrated his attention on promoting the interests of his children and securing for them the safe transmission of the heritage of Lancaster. The priority the duke of Lancaster assigned to this task was signalled in February 1396 by his decision to marry his long-standing mistress and companion, Katherine Swynford (1350?–1403), widow of Sir Hugh Swynford (d. 1371), the former governess of his children [see ]—a social mismatch that astonished contemporaries but formed the essential preliminary to the formal legitimation of their Beaufort children by papal bull, in September 1396, and by royal patent approved in the parliament of February 1397. Further royal favour towards the duke's plans was shown by the creation of as earl of Somerset in the same parliament and by the provision of to the see of Lincoln in February 1398.

The greatest threat to the security of the Lancastrian inheritance lay, however, in the person of Gaunt's son and heir, Henry Bolingbroke. By participating in the appellant rising of 1387–8, Bolingbroke had put himself permanently at risk from the king's revenge. His actions consequently tied his father to acquiescence in the royalist counter-coup launched by Richard in the summer of 1397. In his capacity as steward of England, John of Gaunt presided at the parliamentary trials of the earls of Arundel and Warwick and passed sentence upon them. He was rewarded for this public endorsement of Richard's policies by the creation of Henry Bolingbroke as duke of Hereford and John Beaufort as marquess of Somerset during the parliament of September 1397. The political future of the house of Lancaster nevertheless remained under threat. Soon after the Westminster session of parliament ended, rumours began to spread that four of Richard's most favoured courtiers were plotting the death and disinheritance of John of Gaunt and his family. In a related incident, Thomas (I) Mowbray, duke of Norfolk, attempted to ambush the duke as he travelled to Shrewsbury in January 1398. Lancaster sought to counter these threats by a rapid expansion of his indentured retinue, while Bolingbroke's delation of Mowbray to the king for treasonable conversation, made on his father's advice, appeared to confront successfully the rumoured plot against the Lancastrian family. The duke was named as one of the small committee nominated to terminate all unfinished business at the end of the Shrewsbury session of parliament and in March 1398 he undertook a final diplomatic mission, concluding a further extension of the Anglo-Scottish truce with the earl of Carrick. Another mark of royal favour followed in August, when Gaunt was created hereditary constable of Richard's new principality of Chester. The outcome of the judicial duel between Hereford and Norfolk held at Coventry in September 1398, when the king unexpectedly exiled Lancaster's son from the kingdom for six years, was consequently all the more shocking. It seems to have precipitated the final decline in John of Gaunt's health: overtaken by a ‘suddane langure’ (Wyntoun, 3.68), the duke retired to Leicester Castle, where he died on 3 February 1399.

In his will Gaunt established perpetual chantries for himself and Blanche of Lancaster at St Paul's, and for Duchess Constanza at St Mary Newarke, Leicester; he also expressed his desire that the king should receive one-third of all outstanding arrears of the Castilian pension and ordered his executors to discharge all his debts, always excepting those arising from the expedition of Edmund of Cambridge to Portugal, for which he would accept no responsibility. By a further provision he required that his body should lie unburied and unembalmed for forty days after his death. He was eventually buried at St Paul's Cathedral on 16 March 1399, beside his first wife.


John of Gaunt and his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster, made a glamorous and wealthy couple and Blanche's early death on 12 September 1368 was widely mourned. Gaunt's provision in his will that he should be buried beside Blanche may suggest that she retained a special place in his affections. Their tomb in St Paul's, of which a seventeenth-century engraving still survives, was at least partly the work of the great architect Henry Yevele. Surmounted by their alabaster effigies, it was of appropriate magnificence. Blanche's early death was lamented by both Froissart and Chaucer, whose Boke of the Duchesse was probably written for Gaunt. The commemoration of her death became a principal event in the Lancastrian liturgical calendar. There were three surviving children of the marriage, besides two sons, John and Edward, who died in infancy: Philippa, who married João I, king of Portugal, in 1387; , who married John Hastings, earl of Pembroke, in 1380 and, after this marriage was dissolved at her insistence, John Holland, created earl of Huntingdon in 1388, in 1386; and his only surviving son, Henry Bolingbroke, earl of Derby and duke of Hereford, the future , who married Mary, younger daughter and coheir of Humphrey (IX) de Bohun, earl of Hereford, before February 1381. Constanza, Gaunt's second wife, was a valuable source of advice to him on Iberian affairs, accompanying him to Castile in 1386, but the duke seems to have preferred the company of his mistress, Katherine Swynford, in most other respects. His liaison with Swynford was openly acknowledged and, after Gaunt's renunciation of his Castilian claims, Constanza appeared only rarely in the Lancastrian household, maintaining a separate establishment at Tutbury, Staffordshire. Besides a son, John, who died in infancy, the surviving child of this marriage was Katherine, who married Enrique, prince of Asturias, later Enrique III of Castile, in 1387. Following Constanza's death in March 1394 Lancaster married, as his third wife, Katherine Swynford, with whom he already had four children, born between 1372 and 1377. They were given the dynastic name of Beaufort, a lost French lordship of the duke's: John Beaufort, earl of Somerset, who married Margaret Holland; Henry Beaufort, bishop of Lincoln and Winchester; , who married Margaret, daughter of Thomas Neville of Hornby; and , wife of Sir Robert Ferrers of Overseley and, second, Ralph Neville, earl of Westmorland. The duke had one other illegitimate child, Blanche, who married Sir Thomas Morieux in March 1381; her mother was Marie de St Hilaire, a Hainaulter lady-in-waiting of Queen Philippa.


Among his contemporaries John of Gaunt generated strong but very diverse reactions. To Thomas Walsingham, he appeared at times to be a traitor to the realm, abandoning those he commanded in war and betraying those he should protect in peace (Chronicon Angliae, 75). The priority the rebels of 1381 attached to the duke's capture and execution makes it plain that such views were widely shared. To Henry Knighton, however, Gaunt was the ‘pious duke’, a lover of peace and concord who had been unjustly defamed by his enemies (Knighton's Chronicle, 234). Even those enemies were forced to acknowledge that the duke of Lancaster was a powerful and able politician. The Monk of Westminster, who generally distrusted the duke's motives, commented that the other magnates feared him ‘because of his great power, his admirable judgement and his brilliant mind’ (Westminster Chronicle, 112) and his opinion seems confirmed by the earl of Arundel's complaint in 1394 that Gaunt often used such ‘harsh and bitter words’ in council and parliament that the earl and others did not dare to state their true views (RotP, 3.313). In reality the duke's political influence, though considerable, was never all-pervasive. Although his preference for aristocratic self-regulation rather than legislation as the solution to the problem of illegal maintenance, expressed at Salisbury in 1384, exercised considerable influence over the formulation of royal policy on the issue, for instance, his intermittent sponsorship of John Northampton's faction within the city of London failed to alter the balance of power in London politics decisively.

John of Gaunt's most characteristic political position was an unwavering defence of the crown and its prerogatives, even in the face of the considerable provocation offered by Richard II in 1384–5 or the threat to the security of the Lancastrian inheritance posed by the exile of Henry Bolingbroke. Popular suspicions about his loyalty arose partly from the duke's great wealth and influence and partly from hostility to the strategic options he advocated: Gaunt's decision to offer financial concessions to the papacy in 1375, his opposition to full-scale intervention in the Low Countries in the early 1380s, and his advocacy of a negotiated peace with France a decade later were all unpopular policies. In each case, much of the hostility was created by the suspicion that, in the conflict of interests generated by the duke's ambitions in Castile and Aquitaine, he was too ready to sacrifice national security to his private advantage. The policies he argued for nevertheless had much to recommend them. He was quicker than most of his contemporaries to appreciate that the revival of the Valois monarchy required a new strategy of negotiation and containment, while his persistent pursuit of the voie d'Espaigne kept open a second front that eventually proved vital in preventing the concentration of French forces for an invasion of England planned by Charles VI.

As a military commander in the Anglo-French conflict Gaunt lacked the audacity of his father and elder brother but his record compares favourably with that of other English captains after the resumption of hostilities in 1369. He was outwitted once, in 1373, but he kept his army together in difficult circumstances. He made a reliable second in command to the Black Prince, fought some effective defensive campaigns in the marches of Aquitaine, and, once arrived in Castile, successfully allied military force to dynastic diplomacy in exemplary fashion. Indeed, it was in such negotiations that the duke's greatest talents lay. He was seen to best advantage in the courtly world of international diplomacy, where his wealth allowed him to display a ceremonial magnificence at least equal to that of his French counterparts and he appeared to observers as fluent in speech, self-controlled, and good-humoured—qualities that were not always on display in domestic politics, where Gaunt had a tendency to use his wealth and royal blood to brush aside criticism.

This was not the only contradiction in John of Gaunt's character. In his religious attitudes he seems to have combined some sympathy towards reformist criticisms of the institutional church with a practical reluctance to abandon the material benefits his control of ecclesiastical resources provided. Although he was prepared to mobilize popular anti-clericalism for political ends, as he did in 1376–7, he could also manifest a sincere devotional piety. The duke chose his confessors from among the Carmelites, the most ascetic of the mendicant orders, while the insistence in his will that his body lie unburied for forty days aligns him with a movement of penitential spirituality prevalent at Richard II's court. Equally, although John Wyclif first attracted Gaunt's attention by the virulence of his anti-episcopal rhetoric, the duke showed some sympathy for the broader criticism of ecclesiastical corruption that Wyclif and his Oxford disciples developed: ‘he believed them to be holy men of God, because of their pleasing words and manner’ (Knighton's Chronicle, 312) and it was only in May 1382 that his disapproval of Wyclif's eucharistic teaching finally caused him to sever his ties with the movement.

Despite these inconsistencies the characteristic features of John of Gaunt's life and career seem clear. What distinguishes him from other English magnates of the period is the fact that his domestic policies can only be properly understood in the light of his ambitions abroad. In his wealth and his liking for display, as well as in the breadth of his strategic interests, Gaunt bears comparison with the greatest of European princes and, among them, only the dukes of Burgundy could rival his successful pursuit of dynastic advantage.



TNA: PRO, DL 29/728/11980–11985 · Chancery records · RotP · Rymer, Foedera · S. Armitage-Smith, John of Gaunt (1904) · A. Goodman, John of Gaunt: the exercise of princely power in fourteenth-century Europe (1992) · P. E. Russell, The English intervention in Spain and Portugal in the time of Edward III and Richard II (1955) · R. Somerville, History of the duchy of Lancaster, 1265–1603 (1953) · [T. Walsingham], Chronicon Angliae, ab anno Domini 1328 usque ad annum 1388, ed. E. M. Thompson, Rolls Series, 64 (1874) · Knighton's chronicle, 1337–1396, ed. and trans. G. H. Martin, OMT (1995) [Lat. orig., Chronica de eventibus Angliae a tempore regis Edgari usque mortem regis Ricardi Secundi, with parallel Eng. text] · L. C. Hector and B. F. Harvey, eds. and trans., The Westminster chronicle, 1381–1394, OMT (1982) · Thomae Walsingham, quondam monachi S. Albani, historia Anglicana, ed. H. T. Riley, 2 vols., pt 1 of Chronica monasterii S. Albani, Rolls Series, 28 (1863–4) · John of Gaunt’s register, ed. S. Armitage-Smith, 2 vols., CS, 3rd ser., 20–21 (1911) · John of Gaunt’s register, 1379–1383, ed. E. C. Lodge and R. Somerville, 2 vols., CS, 3rd ser., 56–7 (1937) · E. Perroy, ed., ‘The Anglo-French negotiations at Bruges, 1374–7’, Camden miscellany, XIX, CS, 3rd ser., 80 (1952) · A. Tuck, Richard II and the English nobility (1973) · G. Holmes, The Good Parliament (1975) · S. Walker, The Lancastrian affinity, 1361–1399 (1990) · J. J. N. Palmer, England, France and Christendom, 1377–99 (1972) · R. Delachenal, Histoire de Charles V, 5 vols. (Paris, 1909–31) · W. W. Shirley, ed., Fasciculi zizaniorum magistri Johannis Wyclif cum tritico, Rolls Series, 5 (1858) · V. H. Galbraith, ed., The Anonimalle chronicle, 1333 to 1381 (1927) · Œuvres de Froissart: chroniques, ed. K. de Lettenhove, 25 vols. (Brussels, 1867–77) · F. Lopes, The English in Portugal, 1367–1387: extracts from the chronicle of Dom Fernando and Dom Joao, ed. and trans. D. W. Lomax and R. J. Oakley (1988) · J. J. N. Palmer and B. Powell, eds., The treaty of Bayonne (1388) with preliminary treaty of Trancoso (1387) (1988) · Andrew of Wyntoun, The orygynale cronykil of Scotland [rev. edn], ed. D. Laing, 3 vols. (1872–9) · Chandos herald, Life of the Black Prince by the herald of Sir John Chandos, ed. M. K. Pope and E. C. Lodge (1910) · R. L. Storey, ‘The wardens of the marches of England towards Scotland, 1377–1489’, EngHR, 72 (1957), 593–615 · J. W. Sherborne, ‘Edward III's retinue and the French campaign of 1369’, Kings and nobles in the later middle ages, ed. R. A. Griffiths and J. W. Sherborne (1986), 41–61 · C. Given-Wilson, ‘Richard II, Edward II and the Lancastrian inheritance’, EngHR, 109 (1994), 553–71 · GEC, Peerage, new edn · M. C. B. Dawes, ed., Register of Edward, the Black Prince, 4 vols., PRO (1930–33) · Adami Murimuthensis chronica, ed. T. Hog, EHS, 8 (1846) · J. B. Post, ‘The obsequies of John of Gaunt’, Guildhall Studies in London History, 5 (1981), 1–12 · T. Gascoigne, Loci e libro veritatum, ed. J. E. Thorold Rogers (1881)


E. Sussex RO, household records, GLY 3469 |  TNA: PRO, duchy of Lancaster, DL 28, 29, 42


alabaster effigies, 1360–99 (with his first wife), repro. in W. Dugdale, History of St Paul's, ed. H. Ellis (1818); formerly in St Paul's Cathedral, London [now destroyed] · stained-glass window, 15th cent., York Minster · stained-glass window, 15th cent., All Souls Oxf.; repro. in F. E. Hutchinson, Medieval glass at All Souls College (1949), pl. 24 · A. Strayler, miniature, BL, Liber benefactorum of St Albans Abbey, Nero D.vii fol. 7r · manuscript painting, BL, Royal MS 14 E.iv, fol. 245 [see illus.]

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John (1340–1399): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/14843
Blanche of Lancaster (1346?–1368): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/54463