- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 21, 2004


By Norman F. Cantor

Free Press, $25, 250 pages


Most people know John of Gaunt (1340-1399), the “last knight” of medieval historian Norman F. Cantor’s newest book, only from Shakespeare’s play “Richard II.”

There Gaunt, uncle of the soon-to-be-deposed Richard and father of Richard’s successor, Henry IV, delivers one of English literature’s most famous patriotic speeches: “This sceptered isle … this precious stone set in the silver sea … this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”

They would be surprised to learn that John of Gaunt, far from being the ultranationalist that Shakespeare portrayed, devoted nearly 20 years of his life to pursuing his claim to be king of Castile and Leon, in Spain.

His second wife, Constance, was the daughter of Pedro the Cruel, king of Castile. Her husband, after leading a fruitless excursion in 1386 against another claimant to the Castilian throne (also named John), finally abandoned his ambitions to become Spanish royalty by betrothing his daughter by Constance to John of Castile’s son Henry in 1387 and returning to England.

The Spanish adventure was typical of John of Gaunt. The fourth son of the long-reigning Edward III (1312-1377), Richard II’s grandfather and predecessor, Gaunt was, as a younger son in a dynasty full of offspring, in no good place to become king himself, and he was too smart to try.

He instead, by a combination of astute marriages and political alliances, managed to become the wealthiest and most powerful man in England, indeed in all of Western Europe, who was not a crowned head.

His mother was a Low Countries princess, Philippa of Hainaut, and John was born not in England but at Ghent in Flanders (the sobriquet “Gaunt” is an alternative spelling of “Ghent”). Through his marriage to his first wife, Blanche, in 1359, John of Gaunt became duke of Lancaster and heir to vast revenue-generating landholdings, not only in northwestern England but all over the country.

His nephew Richard II made him duke of Aquitaine as well in 1389, although by this time, the claim of the English royal family, the Plantagenets, to the huge French holdings that Eleanor of Aquitaine had brought with her when she became queen of England during the 12th century existed mostly on paper and in the territorial claims of the English crown during the protracted Hundred Years’ War between France and England.

Edward III had launched that war in 1337 by proclaiming himself king of France as well as England, and Gaunt led an unsuccessful excursion from Calais to Bordeaux on behalf of his father in 1373.

Indeed, as his failed French and Spanish adventures indicate, John of Gaunt was a terrible military commander; in France his army marched in a swathe that devastated the countryside but accomplished little. Mr. Cantor writes of the sally, “During this time Gaunt lost nearly half his army of fifteen thousand men to disease and hunger and thoroughly wasted the precious tax-raised resources Edward III and Parliament had given him.” Gaunt was so depressed by this disaster, Mr. Cantor notes, that he retired to one of his country estates in England to brood for 10 solid months.

Gaunt’s forte was domestic politics in England. He aligned himself with the court faction led by Alice Perrers, the lubricious and luxury-loving mistress of the aged (and by then, senile) Edward III, and effectively ruled England during the tumultuous two years before Edward’s death in 1377.

Edward’s successor was Richard II, the 10-year-old son of Edward’s eldest son, Edward the Black Prince, who had predeceased Edward in 1376. With a child on the throne, Gaunt was able to wield enormous influence, but he was careful to remain at least outwardly loyal to the young king.

Richard was not a popular monarch, and he sired no children, raising suspicions about his masculinity. Mr. Cantor believes that Richard was homosexually attached to at least some of the coterie of young, unmarried men who made up his court (other historians are not so sure). Richard made many enemies among the English nobility, whose dissatisfaction led to his forced abdication in 1399, a few months after Gaunt’s death.

Gaunt mediated between Richard and his nobles until the very end, refusing even to support his own eldest son, Henry Bolingbroke, who led the insurrection against Richard and became king himself, Henry IV, later that year.

As a reward for his pains, Gaunt was able to live in ostentatious, clearly resented wealth. His London residence, the Savoy Palace on the banks of the Thames, was the most splendid house in the city (London’s plush Savoy Palace Hotel bears its name today).

In 1381, after yet another round of taxes levied to finance the interminable Hundred Years’ War, there was a rising of peasants in southern England that quickly spread to the urban tradesmen of London, who burned the Savoy Palace to the ground. In perhaps the bravest deed of his reign, the 14-year-old Richard II personally went out to meet the insurgents and persuaded them to lay down their arms; the ringleaders were later hanged.

It is not entirely clear why the mob targeted Gaunt’s house — because although his career is well-documented, we know little about his personality. As Mr. Cantor points out, some 500 pages of Gaunt’s business letters survive but not a single personal letter.

His religious beliefs are difficult to assess. On the one hand, Gaunt protected the heretical John Wycliffe; on the other, he was a lifelong ally of the austere, ultra-Catholic order of Carmelite friars.

He was devoted to his first wife, Blanche (his literary protege Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a long poem, “The Book of the Duchess,” whose theme was Gaunt’s grief at Blanche’s death). As for Constance, that seemed to have been a marriage of diplomatic convenience. During much of the time he was wed to Constance, Gaunt kept a mistress, the vivacious widow Catherine Swynford, showered her with property, and sired four children upon her.

Two years after Constance’s death in 1394, Gaunt married Catherine — a shocking step for a royal because Catherine was of mere gentry stock — and secured an act of Parliament legitimizing his children by her under the surname Beaufort. From the Beaufort line came Henry Tudor, who became King Henry VII of England in 1485.

Norman Cantor is a well-regarded historian, known for his scholarly yet highly readable studies of 14th-century England, as well as for his gossipy 1991 bestseller “Inventing the Middle Ages,” in which Mr. Cantor dished the dirt on many of his fellow medievalists of the 20th century.

In this latest book, however, he cannot get a grasp on his royal subject. This is not entirely Mr. Cantor’s fault; the man behind John of Gaunt’s public persona as military leader, court politician, and patron of the arts remains intractably elusive.

Mr. Cantor tries to finesse the problem by turning Gaunt’s biography into 14th-century social history, with topical chapters titled “Women,” “Warriors,” “The Church” and so forth, and by fleshing out the facts with colorful descriptions of the medieval mise en scene in which Gaunt moved, especially semi-Islamic, semi-Christian Spain.

But the result of this synchronic approach is a disjointed and confusing narrative in which events do not follow each other chronologically. Furthermore, Mr. Cantor seems unduly dependent upon secondary sources for an academic historian. Had he dipped a little more strenuously into, say, Gaunt’s letters, he might have been able to coax a little more life into his lead character.

Mr. Cantor contends that Gaunt was the “last knight,” exemplifying a dying chivalric ideal together with a thoroughly modern pragmatism that looked ahead to our own age. I could see the modern (or at least the medieval) pragmatist in Mr. Cantor’s book, but not the chivalrous last knight.

That honor more properly belonged to the Black Prince, Gaunt’s dead elder brother, handsome and famous for his flair in tournaments as well as on the battlefield. I wish that Mr. Cantor had written his biography instead.

Charlotte Allen, author of “The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus,” is a doctoral candidate in medieval studies at the Catholic University of America.

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