Author examines John of Gaunt's life in fascinating new biography

Was Bard’s patriot Prince really a butcher’s boy? Author examines John of Gaunt’s life in fascinating new biography

  • Helen Carr has penned an absorbing new biography about John of Gaunt
  • Son of king Edward III and the father of Henry IV, owned Savoy palace in London
  • Centuries after his death, Shakespeare included the ageing Gaunt in Richard II 



by Helen Carr (Oneworld £20, 304 pp)

During the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, a mob attacked a palace in London which was where the Savoy Hotel now stands. The attackers burned much of what they found. Delighted by the wine cellars, many of them proceeded to get outrageously drunk.

At one point, two boxes of what were thought to be further spoils were thrown on to the flames. They actually contained gunpowder and the ensuing explosion blew the Savoy Palace to bits, burying many of the drunken rioters.

Luckily for him, the palace’s owner was away. His name was John of Gaunt and he was one of the most important figures in medieval Europe.

Helen Carr has penned an absorbing new biography about John of Gaunt (pictured) who was the son of king Edward III and the father of Henry IV

He was the son of one king (Edward III) and the father of another (Henry IV). His elder brother was a war hero — Edward, the Black Prince, teenage victor at Crecy, a major battle of the Hundred Years’ War. Two centuries after his death, Shakespeare included the ageing Gaunt in Richard II and gave him a patriotic speech — the famous one that describes England as ‘this scepter’d isle’. (Shakespeare, who reputedly took ‘old man’ parts as an actor, may well have played Gaunt himself.)

John of Gaunt continued to be a familiar name in English history books until the 20th century.

His fame has faded in recent years but Helen Carr’s absorbing new biography returns him to his rightful place. He was born in 1340 in Ghent (hence the ‘Gaunt’ bit of his name), the third son of Edward III. His father was away, engaged in the medieval English monarch’s favourite pastime — fighting the French.

Gaunt was to see his own share of war in his lifetime. He witnessed his first battle aged ten and, by his 20s, he was campaigning with his brother, the Black Prince. Contemporary chroniclers describe him as ‘full of valour’ and fighting ‘so nobly that everyone marvelled, looking at his great prowess’.

At home, he was not so popular. As the destruction of his Savoy Palace indicates, Londoners hated him. There were rumours that he was not the true son of the king but the offspring of a Flemish butcher, smuggled into the birthing room to replace a stillborn girl.

Reports that he had been in league with a Genoese envoy named Janus Imperial, to divert trade from London to Southampton, did nothing to improve his standing with the capital’s merchants.

THE RED PRINCE by Helen Carr (Oneworld £20, 304 pp)

Imperial was murdered outside his lodgings in Cheapside, stabbed twice in the head, and Gaunt gained no new friends by pushing for the severest of punishments for his killer.

After the death of his father and older brother, Gaunt enjoyed his greatest power during the reign of his nephew, Richard II, who came to the throne as a boy of ten.

Gaunt became Richard’s wisest adviser, although he had to endure accusations of treason. In 1384, a friar named Latimer claimed Gaunt was plotting against the king. Richard, now 17 and increasingly volatile in temper, ordered his uncle’s execution. Cooler heads eventually persuaded him that this was not a good idea.

The unfortunate Latimer was hauled off to prison, where he was tortured to death after his tormentors ‘lit a fire beneath him . . . and hung a heavy stone from his genitals.’

Away from the dangerous turmoil of medieval politics, Gaunt emerges from Carr’s biography as a rather attractive individual. He was loyal to his long-standing mistress, Katherine Swynford, and, after the death of his second wife, he married her, despite the huge gulf in social status. He was interested in the arts and proved a generous patron. The poet Chaucer was a beneficiary.

Gaunt died in February 1399, just short of his 59th birthday. He was never crowned a king himself, although he pursued for many years a claim, through his second wife, to the throne of Castile in Spain.

But his son overthrew the increasingly tyrannical Richard II only a few months after his father’s death to become Henry IV. And another son by Katherine Swynford was the ancestor on his mother’s side of Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty. As Carr points out at the end of this excellent biography, John of Gaunt ‘became the father of a long line of famous monarchs’.

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