Monday, February 6, 2017

3 February 1399: Death of John of Gaunt

John of Gaunt; a 16th C. Portrait by Corneliz.  Gaunt's heraldic tunic, seen in
the full original,  shows his adoption of the arms of Spain in right of his wife.

Shortly after the New Year, John, called 'of Gaunt' for his birthplace in Ghent, Belgium, son of England's King Edward III and Queen Philippa 'of Hainaut,' acknowledged the ending of his mortal existence and died at Leicester Castle.  He was 58 years old.

He had been ill for months, since at least the prior September when, after his son's unexpected banishment, he had perhaps become weary of his life.  Henry of Derby had thought to go on pilgrimage but held back after reports that his father wasn't likely to live long.

The man described as the last knight never wore a crown of his own but his son and daughters were kings or queens of England, Spain and Portugal.

One happy life achievement happened when he married his longtime mistress, Katherine Swynford, and obtained papal and parliamentary legitimation of their four adult children, the Beauforts, in 1396.  The Duchess Constanza, living largely apart from Gaunt, died in 1394 while Gaunt was abroad and was buried with fitting pomp in the medieval Collegiate Church of Leicester, also the burial place for Gaunt's daughter-in-law, Mary de Bohun, who died within the same year.  The church, no longer extant, had just been established as a Lancastrian favorite by Blanche of Lancaster's father.

Digitally reconstructed interior of the Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was the royal chantry chapel of the Dukes of Lancaster in the the Chantry College of the Annunciation of St Mary in the Newarke, Leicester, founded in 1353. (text and information here.

Richard II also lost his wife, Anne of Bohemia, in that year and his grief was well known and may have been a turning point in the development of his personality as well as his relationships with others.
Lilleshall Abbey Lodge

At the close of the year, John of Gaunt, his wife Katherine and squire William Chetwynd, lodged for two evenings at Lilleshall Abbey (January 1398) when Gaunt fell ill with fever following the close of the Shrewsbury Parliament.

Little exists now of the abbey but Gaunt's lodging there, following that of his nephew Richard II, his queen Isabella of Valois, five dukes and three earls there at the beginning of the 24th Parliament doubtless helped revive the abbey from poor financial management.  Gaunt's retinue alone was likely to have been considerable (his visit was recorded as cum familia copius nimis), and his gift to the abbey of  twenty pounds of gold as well as the abbey's admission of John and Duchess Katherine to the abbey's confraternity led to newfound influence of the abbey and in Lancastrian knights' financial support.

Lilleshall Abbey West Front Carving.  Splendid ruins remain of the sandstone building.

The buildings on the east and south sides of the cloister, which lay south of the church, were completed in stone in the late 12th century.... The range contained an outer parlour next to the church, the abbot's or guest hall on the first floor, and the abbot's lodging in a projecting wing near the south end. The first-floor hall may have been a rebuilding of an earlier one, mentioned c. 1272... in the same position. In the early 19th century it was recorded that the hall measured 66 feet by 28 feet; it had a number of small rooms below and a staircase leading to an upper story. Many floor-tiles, some with armorial bearings, were being carried away at that time. Foundations of buildings have been uncovered in the outer court to the south of the cloister but, pending scientific excavation, their function remains unknown. The position of the infirmary has not yet been established and the guest accommodation of the abbey was clearly on a scale that could house, albeit with some difficulty, the huge retinue of John of Gaunt. Traces of the precinct wall have been discovered, but the exact location of the great gate is not known (Source).
G. Vertue; 18th C. Engraving.

From the Shrewsbury Parliament to Lilleshall Abbey, John, Katherine and his retinue continued south to Leceister Castle, where he settled in, signed his will, and passed away after receiving a visit from the King.  Richard's demeanor towards his uncle appears to have changed considerably by the end of Gaunt's life: always outwardly courteous but with a glint of sharp, hardened metal behind his gaze.  It has been widely speculated that Richard's reception of him when he returned from abroad in 1395 while correct, was not cordial, and one naturally ponders Richard's advancing the Beauforts while settling his gaze on their half-brother as *the* threat to his reign.

After extending the banishment of Gaunt's son Henry of Derby from 6 years to life and the confiscation of his inheritance, Richard apparently had one last score to settle with his uncle:  he is said to have met with Gaunt, leaving him with a set of documents.  We will likely never know the contents of those documents, but it is said that Gaunt expired shortly after they were read to him.  All that was left was the execution of his will and his burial next to his first wife in old St. Paul's Cathedral in London.
Wenceslas Hollar engraving of the alabaster double tomb of John of Lancaster
and his wife, Blanche, in St. Paul's.  It was completed in the 1380s.


Armitage-Smith Biography of Gaunt Online

Lilleshall Abbey History

Images of Lilleshall

Historic England: Lilleshall

Collegiate Church of Newark, Leicester

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