Helen Carr's The Red Prince: The Life of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster reviewed by Mary Hoffman
If you are a student of Medieval history, the Wars of the Roses or the Plantagenets, you will be familiar with John of Gaunt. If not, you might rely on memories of the king's dying uncle in Shakespeare's Richard ll, who is given the patriotic lyric speech about "This sceptr'd Isle."
What no-one quite appreciates is that English and British Monarchs from Henry lV up to George l - with a brief interlude from Yorkists Edward lV to Richard lll - have been descended from this extraordinary lord, at one time the richest and most hated man in England, against whom the people rose up in what used to be known as "the Peasants' Revolt."
The people feared that his immense power made him a second king behind the throne of his weak nephew, Richard ll, and he certainly tried hard to become King of Castile, through his second wife, but had to remain content with his dukedom and his riches. What would he have thought of three hundred years of British monarchs and descendants on the Portuguese and Spanish thrones too?
There hasn't been a full-length biography of Gaunt since Anthony Goodman's in 1992 so Helen Carr's is most welcome. (It's a shorter gap than the last one since Sydney Armitage-Smith's was in 1904!) It's not so much that Carr's book provides any new information but it is compulsively readable and turns the image of this fascinating man a few degrees to shine light on different facets of his complex life.
For example, I didn't know that from the age of ten John went to live with his ten years older brother the Black Prince (as he was not known in his lifetime) and modelled himself on him. That makes sense of his strict adherence to the promise his made his dying older brother that he would protect and support the young Richard when he came to the throne.
John of Gaunt was named, like his many siblings, for the place he was born: Ghent. His immediately older brother was Lionel of Antwerp and his younger brothers Edmund of Langley and Thomas of Woodstock. These names stuck, even when they later became dukes (of Clarence, York and Gloucester respectively). John was the third surviving son of Edward lll and Philippa of Hainault, who had at least fourteen children.
He became Duke of Lancaster through his first marriage, to Blanche of Lancaster, inheriting the title when his father-in-law died. When Blanche's sister also died, the vast wealth of the first Duke of Lancaster, Henry Grosmont, came to his son-in-law along with the title. Among the many properties included in that inheritance was the Savoy Palace, which became the most luxurious home in private hands in the land. It was on the Strand, facing the river Thames and today's Savoy Hotel stands on the same site.
The uprising began in Kent and Essex and the rebels' main target was the Savoy Palace. John of Gaunt was not home and they entered easily, destroying "cloth, coverlets, books, beds, a valuable headboard ... napery and jewels." They threw silverware into the river and ripped up the gorgeous clothes they found in chests. Although Carr doesn't mention this we know from Juliet Barker's England, Arise! that they also destroyed all paper records and killed the clerks so that John of Gaunt's administrative and financial affairs, for which the Savoy was the hub, were still in disarray at least seven years later. He never again had a permanent base in London.
The owner was away in Scotland but had he been at home he would have been in danger of his life. As it was, the looters (although they were not allowed to keep anything for themselves) made a bonfire of his belongings and inadvertently rolled a couple of barrels of gunpowder into it. The resulting explosion and fire killed many rebels, including some who were sampling Gaunt's fine wines in his cellars, and the palace was burned to the ground.
It makes Trafalgar Square in 1990 look rather tame.
The story is vividly re-told by Helen Carr. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Treasurer and John of Gaunt's physician were all brutally killed by the mob. The future Henry lV, Gaunt's only legitimate son, survived only by hiding in a cupboard in the Tower of London. But we are halfway through the book before we reach this pivotal clash between the great lord and the populace.
Before that we have heard of his military prowess alongside his oldest brother, the Black Prince, and his abortive attempts to become the King of Castile and Leon. Much of the resentment against him came because of the taxation to support this vanity project.
That was a dynastic choice and by the time of his second marriage, Gaunt was in a relationship with Kathryn Swynford, the long term mistress who bore him four children, later legitimated by his third marriage, after Constance's death. The personal and the political are both given weight in this well-balanced biography.
What we don't often hear is that John of Gaunt was fearful of returning to London after the uprising, in case the young king decided to scapegoat him for the people's dissatisfaction with the nobility and possibly send him into exile. After several weeks, word came from Richard that his uncle was needed and Lancaster could breathe again. In less than a year he was walking at the side of Richard's young queen, Anne, the premier lord in the land, saving only the crown.
Temporarily, he separated from his mistress and appeared to devote himself to Constance. But his relations with the king were never so cordial as they had been during Richard's minority. Gaunt did not approve of Richard's close relationship with his favourite, Robert de Vere, the Earl of Oxford; he considered that de Vere and other favourites gave the king poor counsel and turned him against his wiser and more experienced uncle.
From now until his death, John of Gaunt maintained an uneasy relationship with Richard and there was also an hostility between the king and Gaunt's son Henry, Richard's cousin and ultimately his usurper. But Gaunt did better than some of Richard's uncles: the Duke of Gloucester, his youngest brother was killed by order of the king.
John of Gaunt died in 1399, anticipating that his son would be robbed of his inheritance by the "volatile" king, who indeed expressed joy at his uncle's demise and did exactly that. Henry Bolingbroke was not prepared to put up with that and it began the chain of events that we know as the Wars of the Roses. Usurpation, even if understood, is not likely to be forgiven.
Helen Carr has given us a fine, fully-rounded portrait of a remarkable man, who was a soldier and a politician as well as a loyal son and brother, a lover and a patron of the arts. It's a "warts and all" depiction, not playing down his ruthlessness and ambition as well as his more chivalrous qualities.
All images from Wikimedia Commons