This day in 1340 John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, was born in Gent, from which his “of Gaunt” originate. Third son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. It is said that the best way to get him to throw a fit of rage was to refer to the rumour that said that he was not the son of Edward III, but of a Gent butcher.
John´s knowledge of active service started at a young age, when he only 10 years old accompanied his father and elder brother Edward, the Black Prince, on a naval expedition in the war with France. In all it was a successful expedition, as several of the enemy vessels were captured, but it could also have been the end of young John and his father, because the ship carrying the King and his sons was rammed and began to sink before they all were rescued by Henry, 1st Duke of Lancaster and the father of John of Gaunt´s first wife.
Apparently it was Edward who was the hero, alongside of above mentioned Duke, in the life of young John, and between the ages of 10 and 15, John lived at the household of Edward. He functioned as a mentor to his younger brother and referred according to Froissart to John as his “very dear and beloved brother”
The Black Prince was the heir to the throne who never got to claim it, as he died before his father Edward, and the succession went on to his own son Richard, who became Richard II. John of Gaunt enjoyed quite a lot of influence during the minority of his nephew, but he actual governing, however, was in the hands of a council, as most of the nobility preferred this to having John of Gaunt as an actual regent.
Only a few years into the reign of Richard II, the Peasant´s Revolt broke out as a protest to the ambition to collect poll taxes in 1380-81, which was initiated by John of Gaunt. This was the only time an armed rebellion has managed to break through the gates of the Tower.
Unlike his brother Edward, John was never a distinguished war commander, and he was the first to conclude that the war with France was impossible to win due to the superior manpower and financial resources commanded by France. As early as in the 1370´s, he took the first steps to peace negotiations. One can hardly expect him to have known that his grandson Henry V would be in command of at least one glorious victory over the French, that in Agincourt in 1415, 16 years after the passing of John of Gaunt.
John of Gaunt was married three times, to Blanche of Lancaster, Infanta Constance of Castile and last but not least, Katherine Swynford, long-time mistress and mother of his children with the name Beaufort who became his wife after Constance had died. Katherine Swynford, probably born in Hainault as one of three daughters – of which one, Philippa, later would marry the poet Geoffrey Chaucer – and a son of the herald and later knight Paon de Roet. She entered the household of John of Gaunt as a governess of his daughters Philippa of Lancaster and Elizabeth of Lancaster.
The marriage between John of Gaunt and Kathrine Swynford took place after she had given birth to the children, but they were legitimised after the fact.
People sometimes point out, normally to invalidate the Tudor claim to the throne, that the Beaufort offspring had been barred from ever inheriting the throne, but it should be known that this was by no means done by John of Gaunt himself, but by their half-brother Henry IV, on dubious authority and most likely for self-serving reasons.
John of Gaunt was thereby the paternal great grandfather of Margaret Beaufort, herself mother, as we all know, of Henry VII.
Through his wife Blanche of Lancaster he was also the father of Henry IV and grandfather and great grandfather of Henry V and Henry VI respectively.
He died at the age of 58 in 1399, and was buried in St. Paul´s Cathedral at the side of his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster. Their tomb was unfortunately lost in the Great Fire of 1666.
The Plantagenets: the warrior Kings and Queens that made England – Dan Jones
Mistress of the Monarchy: The life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster – Alison Weir