John of Gaunt, First Duke of Lancaster: Biography & Family Tree

Instructor: Victoria Savage
This lesson explores the life and family tree of John of Gaunt, first Duke of Lancaster. He was the immediate ancestor of the three 15th-century Lancastrian monarchs, Henry IV, V, and VI. Today, John is probably best known through Shakespeare's play, Richard II.

Family Tree

John of Gaunt, first Duke of Lancaster was a member of the house of Plantagenet. He was the third surviving son of King Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. John had three wives in his lifetime and had several children, some of which were illegitimate that he later made legitimate. John's legitimate male heirs, the Lancasters, included Kings Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI. His other legitimate children by his first wife were his daughters Queen Philippa of Portugal and Elizabeth, Duchess of Exeter; and by his second wife, his daughter Queen Catherine of Castile. John gave his four illegitimate children titles as well, and they became known as the Beaufort children. Through his children, John of Gaunt was ancestor to three houses of English sovereigns: The houses of Lancaster, York, and Tudor.

Early Years

John of Gaunt was born in March of 1340. His parents King Edward III and Philippa of Hainault had 14 children, of whom John was the fourth, but third surviving son. He was called 'John of Gaunt' because he was born in Ghent, but in English the spelling was changed to Gaunt.

John became the richest man of the era thanks to his marriages to wealthy women. He married his first wife, Blanche in 1359 and gained the duchy of Lancaster, thus becoming the greatest landowner in northern England. John's wife Blanche died after ten years of marriage and after bearing three children: Philippa, Elizabeth, and his heir Henry.

John married his second wife, Constance of Castile in 1371. Before the death in 1376 of his older brother Edward of Woodstock (also known as the 'Black Prince'), John served as a commander in the Hundred Years' War against France. Despite serving in the war, John never gained military recognition, and as a result was extremely unpopular and had many enemies. He formed an alliance with the religious reformer John Wycliffe.

When John's father died in 1377, John's ten-year-old nephew became King Richard II. It was at this time that John's power and influence grew. Although some accused John of wanting to seize the throne for himself, he was a trusted adviser and served as an unofficial regent for his young nephew.

Marriage of John of Gaunt and his first wife Blanche
marriage of John of Gaunt

Later Years

In 1386 John traveled to Spain to pursue his claim to the throne of Castile through his marriage with Constance. Although he was unsuccessful, he managed to marry his daughter Catherine to a young nobleman who eventually became King Henry III of Castile and Leon.

Back in England, things were not going very well. King Richard's bad decision-making brought England to the brink of civil war. John returned to England in 1389 and succeeded in establishing stability once more by getting the King and Lords to compromise.

John's wife Constance died in 1394, and two years later he married his long-time mistress Catherine Swynford. He had his four children born to her before their marriage made legitimate. This family, the Beauforts, would go on to play an important role in 15th-century politics.

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