Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster

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The wedding of Blanche of Lancaster and John of Gaunt, painted by Horace Wright, 1914

Blanche of Lancaster is one of those ladies of history more famous because of her children and the antics of her husband. Blanche’s life was pitifully short, but her legacy would see the unravelling of peace in the fifteenth century, and the decades of civil war called the Wars of the Roses.

Blanche of Lancaster was born around 25th March 1345, at Bolingbroke Castle in Lincolnshire. She was the 2nd and youngest daughter of illustrious parents; Henry of Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster and Isabella de Beaumont. Henry of Grosmont was the grandson of Edmund Crouchback and a great-grandson of Henry III. Isabella was the daughter of Henry, 1st Baron de Beaumont and Earl of Buchan by right of his wife, Alice Comyn.

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Henry of Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster

Blanche had only one sibling, her older sister, Matilda, who was married, 1st to Ralph de Stafford and later to William V, Duke of Bavaria, Count of Holland, Hainault and Zeeland. Blanche herself was betrothed to John de Segrave as a child, but this seems to have been set aside soon afterwards.

By the late 1350s Blanche was a part of King Edward III’s plans to provide for his growing number of sons. As one of the country’s richest heiresses, Blanche was chosen as the bride for Edward’s 3rd surviving son, John of Gaunt. Blanche and John were 3rd cousins, being great-great-grandchildren of Henry III.

The couple was married on the 19th of May 1359 at Reading Abbey in Berkshire. Blanche had just turned 14 and John was 19 years old.

In 1361 Blanche suffered a double tragedy; her father died of bubonic plague in Leicester in March and her mother succumbed to the same disease before the end of the year. While her sister inherited the earldoms of Leicester and Lincoln, John of Gaunt inherited those of Derby and Lancaster by right of his wife; however, the title of Duke of Lancaster became extinct with Henry of Grosmont’s death.

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John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster

By April 1362 Blanche’s sister had also succumbed to the Black Death; there were some rumours of poison, but this seems unlikely. Maud had died childless and so Blanche inherited the remainder of her father’s estates. Blanche – and by extension John of Gaunt – now added the earldoms of Leicester and Lincoln to their vast holdings. John was invested with the title of Duke of Lancaster and was now the most powerful magnate in England; holding more than 30 castles, his lands and possessions were second only to those of the king.

Blanche herself was pregnant for most of her married life, giving birth to 7 children between 1360 and 1368. 3 sons, John, Edward and a 2nd John, and a daughter, Isabella, died young. Two daughters and a son did, however, survive into adulthood.

The eldest daughter, Philippa, was born on 31st March 1360  and would marry King John I of Portugal. Philippa was the mother of 8 children, known as the ‘Illustrious Generation’ in Portugal, including Edward, King of Portugal, Prince Henry the Navigator and Ferdinand the Holy Prince. Philippa herself would die of plague in 1415.

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Tomb of Henry IV and Joanna of Navarre, Canterbury Cathedral

A 2nd daughter, Elizabeth, was born around 1363 at Burford, Shropshire. Although her 1st marriage to John Hastings, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, was annulled, her 2nd marriage, to John Holland, 1st Duke of Exeter, would end with his execution for treason in 1400; they had 5 children. Elizabeth would marry for a 3rd time to John Cornwall, 1st Baron Fanhope, with whom she had a daughter before she died in 1426.

Blanche and John’s last surviving child, Henry of Bolingbroke, was born at Bolingbroke Castle in 1367, probably on 15th April. Having been exiled in the later years of the reign of his cousin, Richard II, Henry would return to England following the death of his father and confiscation of his inheritance by the king. Richard was forced to abdicate and Henry succeeded to the throne as King Henry IV.

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Bolingbroke Castle, Lincolnshire, where Blanche of Lancaster was born, and died.

Henry’s 1st marriage, to Mary de Bohun, produced 7 children, including the future King Henry V; his 2nd marriage was to Joanna of Navarre, Duchess of Brittany. Henry IV died on 20th March 1413 and was buried at Canterbury Cathedral; Joanna would be buried beside him following her own death in 1437.

By 1365 Blanche had taken Katherine Swynford into her household. Katherine was the wife of one of John of Gaunt’s Lincolnshire knights. Moreover, John was godfather to their daughter, Blanche, who was named after the Duchess. Young Blanche Swynford was lodged in the same chambers as the Duchess’s daughters, Philippa and Elizabeth and accorded the same luxuries as the princesses.

Having lost her parents and sister to the Black Death it is not surprising that Blanche was fearful of the disease. In the summer of 1368 she is said to have moved her family away from the city, to Bolingbroke Castle to escape the pestilence.

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1658 etching by Wenceslas Hollar, of the tomb of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster

There seems to be some doubt over the year of her death – some sources say 1368 – and even the nature of it. One theory is that Blanche succumbed to the bubonic plague, the disease she most feared, in 1369. As a daughter, Isabella, who died young, was born in 1368 some have suggested Blanche died in childbirth. However, recent research by Amy Licence has discovered that Blanche died at Tutbury on 12th September, 1368, more likely from the complications of childbirth than from the plague. Her husband was by her side when she died and a letter has come to light in which John arranged to have prayers said for the soul of his lost duchess.¹

Blanche was buried in Old St Paul’s Cathedral, London; where John of Gaunt arranged for a splendid alabaster tomb and annual commemorations for the rest of his life. And despite 2 subsequent marriages, John of Gaunt would be interred next to Blanche following his own death in 1399. The tomb was lost when the cathedral was destroyed during the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Blanche is one of the few ladies of the 14th century of whom we have several descriptions. The Chronicler Froissart noted that she was “jone et jolie” – young and pretty.

The best description, however, is from Geoffrey Chaucer, Katherine Swynford’s brother-in-law, who was commissioned by John of Gaunt to write The Book of the Duchess, also known as The Deth of Blaunche. The poem is said to depict Gaunt’s mourning for his wife, in the tale of a Knight grieving for his lost love.

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Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘The Book of the Duchess’

Chaucer describes Blanche’s neck (yes, her neck) as “whyt, smothe, streght and flat. Naming the heroine “White”, he goes on to say she is “rody, fresh and lyvely hewed”.  Blanche (White) was “bothe fair and bright” and Nature’s “cheef patron of beautee”.

Despite his marrying Constance of Castile just 2 years later, and his eventual marriage to his mistress, Katherine Swynford, being singled out as one of the great love affairs of the age, it was said that Blanche was the love of his life.

Chaucer’s poem and the lavish tomb and commemorations are said to highlight Gaunt’s love for his 1st wife; the fact he was eventually buried beside her has been seen, by many, as the final proof of this love.

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Footnote: ¹Red Roses: From Blanche of Gaunt to Margaret Beaufort by Amy Licence.

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Photograph of the tomb of Henry IV and Joanna of Navarre are © Sharon Bennett Connolly, 2015. All other pictures are courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Sources: Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Red Roses: From Blanche of Gaunt to Margaret Beaufort by Amy Licence; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner & Neil Wenborn; The mammoth Book of British kings & Queen by Mike Ashley; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Life and Times of Edward III by paul Johnson; The Perfect King, the Life of Edward III by Ian Mortimer; Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; unofficialroyalty.com; katherineswynfordsociety.org.uk; The Reign of Edward III by WM Ormrod; The Plantagenets, the kings Who Made Britain by Dan Jones; englishmonarchs.co.uk; oxforddnb.com.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

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Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmazon USAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Edmund Crouchback, Edward I’s Loyal Brother

Arms_of_Edmund_Crouchback,_Earl_of_Leicester_and_Lancaster.svgThe fourth child and second son of Henry III and his Queen, Eleanor of Provence,  and named to honour the Old English royal saint, Edmund was born in London on 16th January 1245.

From an early age, Edmund was involved in his father’s schemes to extend Angevin influence across Europe; in 1254 Henry accepted the crown of Sicily from the Pope for the 9-year-old Edmund, but this came to nought and he was to be officially deprived of the kingdom in 1266, when the Pope handed Sicily to Henry’s brother-in-law, Charles of Anjou.

Henry and Eleanor are known to have been devoted parents and had a very close relationship with all their children. However, Edmund grew up in a time of great upheaval in the kingdom. Henry was locked in a power struggle with his barons, led by his brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. The barons were against expensive entanglements in Europe – such as Edmund’s claim to the Sicilian crown – and what they saw as Henry’s inept and ineffective rule in general.

BodleianDouce231Fol1rEdCrouchbackAndStGeorgeThe conflict known as the Barons’ War would lead to what is now seen as the first recognisable English parliament, and to the eventual defeat and destruction of Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham in 1265.

Although Edmund’s youth during the war years meant he took no major part in the conflict, following de Montfort’s death, Edmund was given his lands and titles, including the castle at Kenilworth, which was still holding out against the king. Edmund commanded the Siege of Kenilworth, which held out for 6 months, until starvation forced the garrison’s capitulation.

A less-than-chivalric move in 1269 saw Edmund and his older brother, Edward, conspiring against Robert de Ferrers, Earl of Derby, a former Montfort supporter, depriving him of his titles and lands – all of which were passed to Edmund.

In April of the same year, Edmund married Avelina de Forz, daughter of the Earl of Devon and Aumale. The marriage produced no children and Avelina died in 1274.

In 1268 Edward and Edmund had both taken the cross, promising to take part in Crusade to the Holy Land. Although logistics meant they didn’t leave immediately, the brothers travelled separately and Edmund arrived in the Holy Land in September 1271. It is likely that his soubriquet of ‘Crouchback’ comes from him wearing a cross on his back during the Crusades, as there is no evidence of any physical deformity.

After some minor victories, but realising their force wasn’t big enough to retake the Holy Land, and reinforcements from Europe were not forthcoming, Edward signed a 10 year truce with the Muslim leader, Baibars. The following month, May 1272, Edmund sailed for home.

150px-BlancheArtoisHenry III died in November 1272 and Edmund’s older brother ascended the throne as Edward I. Edmund was loyal to his brother, throughout his reign, playing a supporting role, both militarily and diplomatically. In 1276, Edmund married again; to Blanche of Artois, the widowed Countess of Champagne, whose daughter, Jeanne of Navarre, would marry Philip IV of France in 1284, making Edmund step-father to the French Queen.

Blanche would outlive Edmund, dying in Paris in 1302. They had 4 children together. Thomas was born before 1280 and was executed on the orders of Edward II, following a failed rebellion and his defeat at the Battle of Boroughbridge. Their second son, Henry would eventually succeed to his brothers titles of Earl of Lancaster and Leicester. Born around 1281, he married Matilda, daughter of Sir Patrick de Chaworth, and they had 7 children together; their eldest son being Henry of Grosmont, 1st Duke of Lancaster. A third son, John, Lord of Beaufort and Nogent, was born before May 1286 and died around 1317, leaving no children. Their only daughter, Mary, died young in France.

In Edward’s 1277 Welsh campaign Edmund, the biggest landowner in south Wales, was given the command of the southern army. This second, smaller contingent of the invasion of Wales provided support to Edward’s main army. Having set out shortly after 10th July, Edmund’s force drove deep into Wales, facing little opposition compared to Edward’s army. The main landholders of the south had already capitulated, or had fled to join the Welsh prince, Llewellyn, in the north. Edmund’s army had reached their objective of Aberystwyth by 25th July and, at the start of August, began the construction of the castle there. By September the war was over, Edmund disbanded his army on the 20th – leaving a small contingent to garrison the castle – and returned to England.

Edmond1In 1294 Edmund used his familial connections with the French crown to broker a peace deal with France; an agreement intended to foster a long-lasting peace and to see his widowed brother Edward married to Margaret, Philip IV’s sister. Edmund agreed to hand over several cities, including Bordeaux, in Gascony, on the understanding they would be returned to Edward on his marriage.

The French had no intention of returning the Gascon lands, and in April 1294, Edmund realised he had been duped; the French ejected the English Seneschal of Gascony and Edward prepared an invasion force, ordered to muster on 1st September.

However, rebellion in Wales meant the postponement of the Gascon expedition and Edmund and his forces were ordered to Worcester. The Welsh having been subdued and Edmund having recovered from unspeicifed illness that struck him at the end of 1295, Edmund and his army finally set sail for Gascony in January 1296.

It was to be Edmund’s last campaign. The French were well entrenched and the English failed to retake Bordeaux, or any of the towns along the Garonne. His money running out, Edmund was forced to retire to Bayonne, where he fell sick, dying there on 5th June 1296.

A devastated Edward I called on his churchmen to pray for ‘our dearest and only brother, who was always devoted and faithful to us…and in whom valour and many gifts of grace shone forth’.

He was buried in Westminster Abbey, recently completed by his father, Henry III.

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Pictures of Edmund’s coat of arms, seal and Edmund with St George, and of Blanche of Artois, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Further reading: Marc Morris A Great and terrible King; Sara Cockerill Eleanor of Castile: Shadow Queen; Roy Strong The Story of Britain; Mike Ashley The Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens; Derek Wilson The Plantagenets; Alison Weir Britain’s Royal Families.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

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From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Aethelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

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Be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

©2015  Sharon Bennett Connolly