In early February, 1399, John of Gaunt died in Leicester. He was fifty-eight years old – not a bad age-scale for the fourteenth century. His body was brought for burial at the old St. Paul’s church in London, the mourners dressed in black. King Richard II had been to see his old councillor on his deathbed, who warned him against lechery.
John was the third son of the great Plantagenet King Edward III. The son and heir was Edward the Black Prince, black armour, black humours, fabulous in battle. The second son was Lionel of Clarence, who had died in 1368. John had first married Blanche, only daughter of the Earl, then first Duke of Lancaster, Henry Grosmont. Grosmont was extremely rich, and Blanche had inherited land, farms and castles spread across medieval England. Through marriage, John became the first (Plantagenet) Duke of Lancaster and whatever was Blanche’s became his. Blanche died in the same year as brother Lionel of Clarence, providing the opportunity for John to marry Constance (Constanza) of Castile in Spain. John, who was son of kings and father of them too, had no kingdom, and thought that he might, through diplomacy or warfare or both become King of Castile (Castilla) too. But Constance died in 1394, so John married his mistress of many years – Catherine Swynford – with a quiverful of illegitimate children whom he intended to make legitimate. When this was done the children became John, Henry, Thomas and John Beaufort. They were all of the House of Lancaster, and from them descend the ducal line of Beaufort, still very much in existence now. The first, John Earl of Somerset, was great-grandfather to the horrible first Tudor, Henry VII, through his mother Margaret Beaufort.
John of Gaunt, whose character appears in Shakespeare’s history plays ( “this scepter’d isle . . .” etc) had not been blessed with much popularity during his life and career. He was suspected much of the time of planning to become king of England himself, though historians tell us correctly that he had no such ambition, though he certainly had his eye on another kingdom far away in Spain. He life was one of loyal and faithful service to the Plantagenet family, often under difficult circumstances. As a diplomat he had few fourteenth century equals, and as a soldier he led huge armies. He had no crown, though possibly a man like him deserved one, but two of his daughters became queen consort to the kings of Castile and Portugal. At the end of the reign in England of Edward III, whom he greatly admired, John fought for the rights and protocol of the crown of Plantagenet. During the reign of Edward’s grandson Richard he was loyal, but used his position to strengthen and enrich even more the Duchy of Lancaster. He built the large mansion called The Savoy by the bank of the Thames in London, lost in during one of the countless rebellions against Richard, who, with John I and Henry III, could be termed one of the unusually stupid Plantagenets, though all three had terrible tempers, a family trait.
Above all, by good husbandry, he became the richest magnate in England, with an income of at least twelve thousand pounds in that epoch, perhaps worth twelve million a year today, and counting. He was probably richer, certainly in land, than the king, and perhaps more powerful too. But, strange as it may seem in that century, he made no attempt to remove even a bullying, tempestuous, luxury-loving and unpredictable monarch like Richard. He left that to his son, Henry Bolingbroke, his oldest son. This fine and warlike young man must have frightened Richard as he was heir to the whole duchy of Lancaster.
Bolingbroke had been banished by Richard, and had gone to France, where he was welcomed in the court of King Charles VI. In Paris his beady eye watched as Richard II strove in his thoughtlessness to conquer his own kingdom. English lordship and properties fell into the hands of Richard’s old mates. After elimating their lordships, Richard had grabbed the lands and castles of Warwick, Gloucester, Arundel and Norfolk, no less. Then news of Richard’s taking of his inheritance reached Bolingbroke, and it came as no surprise to him. He had known Richard all his life, and had even hidden with him in cupboards in the Tower of London during the Great Rebellion of 1381, when the young King Richard was at war with ‘The Lords Appellant’. Bolingbroke knew in his heart that Richard had never been a man to trust.
When Richard rushed off to Ireland to put down some rebellion, the oportunity was too good to miss. He had enemies everywhere, in France and in England, and Bolingbroke contacted them all. Fitzallan the archbishop of Canterbury whom Richard had stripped of office and humiliated was his first ally. His brother the Earl of Arundel had been executed at the order of Richard. In the north, Henry knew he could rely on Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland and Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmoreland.
In July, 1399 Bolingbroke landed at Ravenspur in the north with barely a hundred men-at-arms with him. According to a chronicler of the times, ‘a great multitude of knights and squires came to him’ – including Harry ‘Hotspur’, son of the Earl of Northumberland. All England shouted with joy at the news of Henry’s arrival. Within a short time Henry had a disciplined army of 100,000 men. The outcome was inevitable.