John The Big O Gaunt

One of the most powerful men in England during Edward III and Richard II's reign. He was granted by his father, Edward III, the title 5th earl of Lancaster & 2nd duke of Lancaster, thus holding the vast Duchy of Lancaster and Pontefract castle.
Gaunt was born in the first half of 1340 at Ghent or 'Gaunt', Flanders. In 1342 he was created earl of Richmond and in 1361 a Knight of the Garter. As with Thomas 2nd earl of Lancaster, Gaunt was styled 'earl of Derby' holding manors within the Appletree hundred [See John Speed's map for Derbyshire, 1610] and was also created earl of Lancaster from 1361 which he held in right of his first wife, Blanche, daughter of Henry duke of Lancaster. He also garnered the French Lordship of Beaufort and Nogent, from which his natural children, by his third wife Katherine Swynford [nee Roet of Guienne], were named as Beauforts. The Beaufort genetics were to eventually enter the Tudor line by the marriage of Margaret Beaufort to Edmund Tudor 1st earl of Richmond in his line. Their son was Henry Tudor [King Henry VII].  

In 1372 Gaunt also assumed the style and title of King of Castile and Leon in right of his second wife, Constanza de Castile. He died in 1399, possibly in Leicester and was buried at Old St. Paul's Cathedral, London.5 John of Gaunt was part of the 'Lancastrian Line' whilst his brother Edmund de Langley, 1st Duke of York, was the progenitor of the 'Yorkists'. The name Plantagenet was not used by either family from Richard I to Richard II but thereafter was employed by Henry IV as a form of superiority over his siblings. Thus technically Gaunt was a Plantagenet, John of Gauntthis surname originating as a nick-name for "Geoffrey the Fair", Count of Anjou, who wore a sprig of broom in his hat [Fr: genet=broom] hence Planta genesta.

John was the fourth son of King Edward III  and Queen Philippa of Hainault, he married :

1] Blanche Plantagenet in 1359 who held the Duchy following her father's death.
Blanche was his cousin and heiress to the honour of Lancaster. On her father's death in 1362 John became Duke of Lancaster and the greatest landholder in England. In 1369 Blanche died at the early age of twenty-nine after giving birth to three children the eldest of whom became Henry IV of England and another, Elizabeth Plantagenet [b.1364] who married John Hastings, 5th Lord Hastings [his first marriage]. The marriage was annulled in 1383, Elizabeth died in 1425 at the age of 61. Secondly, Lord Hastings 5th Baron married Philippa Mortimer. This was the second time one of the Hastings line had married into Edward III's pedigree for earlier John 3rd Lord Hastings had married Margaret Plantagenet the tenth child of Edward III. This would indicate, why later, William Lord Hastings became such a friend and confidant to Edward IV. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a poem to Blanche Plantagenet entitled "The Deth of Blaunche the Duchesse" in1369 to commemorate her death.

John of Gaunt's  heraldic arms from John Speed's maps, 1610. 2] Constance [Constanza] of Castile in 1371, this gave John a claim to the title of  King of Castile and Leon.  John of Lancaster was in France to 1375 and supported Alice Perrers, Edward III's mistress and William Lord Latimer. In 1376 the "Good Parliament" formed in opposition to Alice Perrers influence over Edward. But John of Lancaster managed to reverse most of the decrees in 1377.  As a result, during the "Peasants' Revolt" on 13th June 1381 under Wat Tyler ["Jack Straw"?] his residence in London, the Savoy Palace, was sacked and burned. His hereditary arms were hung up-side-down by the crowd in a sign of humiliation and insult. The heraldic arms were originally meant for identification during battle and at tournaments and symbolised the bearers prestige.

                                                                                               John of Gaunt's Adviser
In 1361 Lord William Latimer was honoured as a Knight of the Garter. He became a close adviser to John of Gaunt during Edward III's decline. In 1376 he was tried in the House of Lords after being accused of corruption and fraud by the House of Commons in the "Good Parliament". Latimer along with Alice Perrers was found guilty including others such as Richard Lions a London banker. Edward III arranged Latimer's pardon and he was appointed to Richard II's council in 1377, although there was open public disgust at this. Lord Latimer served as Governor of Calais from 1380-1 and afterwards served in France, dying in 1381.
      Link:  Baron Lord Latimer


In 1394 or 1396 his second wife, Constanza, died  and he married his mistress Catherine Swynford.

John of Gaunt, dressed in the royal ermine, with his coat of arms. 3] Catherine Swynford married 1396, his long standing mistress but importantly the succeeding  line led to links with the Tudor line, a line often over-emphasised in popular history  because of the economic and social advances achieved during the reigns of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I. Catherine was born in 1350 and died 1403. She became the Duchess of Lancaster at her marriage. Her first husband was Sir Hugh Swynford, who was a retinue member of John of Gaunt. Hugh died in 1372 and she became  a governess of his children by his second wife & John's mistress. She bore John four children who were given the name Beaufort after one of John's estates, Beaufort Castle in Champagne. The Beauforts were all legitimised in 1397 under King Richard II by an act of parliament with the proviso inserted in 1407 that they had no claim to the throne.* Catherine's maiden name was Roet, a Flemish name, she was the sister to Geoffrey Chaucer's wife, Philippa Roet who had been one of Queen Philippa's chamber ladies. John Chaucer, his father had been in attendance on Edward III in 1338 and this association led to Geoffrey's employment with the King's Court, when he was engaged as a page in the household of Duke Lionel & Elizabeth. [Duke of Clarence] In 1359 Geoffrey Chaucer joined Edward III's army when France was invaded. He was taken prisoner and Edward III himself had to pay the poet's ransom. In March 1360 Geoffrey was given his freedom when Edward parted with 16 pounds for this yet to be celebrated author's liberty. In 1367 Chaucer was given a life pension for being a valet of the King's household, Lionel died in1368 so Chaucer transferred his services to John of Gaunt. * However, later the Beaufort's gained entry into the royal successsion when John of Gaunt's great-granddaughter, Margaret Beaufort, married Edmund Tudor [Tewdor] whose son became Henry VII, thus beginning the ruling Tudor dynasty.

                                              .Tomb of Katherine Swynford and daughter

                                                        Tomb of Katherine Swynford and her daughter Joan 'Beaufort' in Lincoln Cathedral.
                                                    Note that the coat of arms were removed by Parliamentarians in 1644 during the Civil War

John Montague, a contemporary in the King's Court was part of the literati of the Court of Edward III and Richard II. John is believed to be the writer of some of the early "Robin Hood" ballads. Interestingly there is a township named after Gaunt, "John O' Gaunts" about five miles north of Wakefield not far from the township of "Robin Hood" near Rothwell a part of the honour of Pontefract.
John  of Gaunt died in 1399 and his possessions were seized by Richard II. Richard was to soon suffer the same fate after his return from a campaign in Ireland when Henry Bolingbroke [later Henry IV] returned from exile in France and had Richard incarcerated in Gaunt's old stronghold, Pontefract Castle [possibly in the Gascoigne Tower]. Here Richard is traditionally thought to have died from starvation, a death which would leave little trace of any nefarious deed.

John of Gaunt's armour
John and Blanche's tomb
 John of Gaunt's armour in    the White Tower, London
The tomb of John of Gaunt and Blanche Duchess of Lancaster in Old St. Paul's Cathedral. Destroyed in the Great Fire of London, 1666.

The ownership of the Duchy of Lancaster made Gaunt the overlord of the knight's fees of the honour of Pontefract. Gaunt presented to the church at Elland as did his wife, the Spanish Constanza of Castile and her brother Ferdinando. As further evidence of Gaunt's overlordship in the honour, his heraldic arms are found in the east window of St. Mary's Chapel. Elland 'became the home of the main branch of the Savile family, who became lords of the manor of Elland through their alliance with the Eland heiress, was at Thornhill, of which church Robert Frost, chancellor to Prince Arthur, was the rector, a circumstance which would readily account for the arms of this Prince being found at Elland.6 Among the families of the honour were those of Midgley in William de Miggeley  [b. ~ 1280, d.1336] and his descendants. As a Parliamentary knight and Yorkshire Court Lawyer, William had probably invested  in the wool trade such that his descendants were well invested at Halifax, Midgley near Halifax, Shelf, Thornton, Stanley and Midgley near Wakefield.


                                                             A painting of Elland Church about 1840.


                                        The interior of the so-called 'John of Gaunt's Cellar' under the great hall of Leicester Castle.


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1. Hallam, Elizabeth [Ed.], The Plantagenet Encyclopaedia, Tiger Books, London, 1996.

2. Johnson, Paul, The Life and Times of Edward III, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1973.

3. Bedingfield, Henry, Heraldry, Bison Books, 1973.

4. Speed, John, The Counties of Britain, 1610.

5. Weir, Alison. Britains Royal Families, The Complete Genealogy. Pimlico, 2002

6. Crossley, E.W.,  Y.A.J., vol. 25, (1920), p. 444.

Copyright © Tim Midgley, February 2002, internal links revised August 2023..