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John of Gaunt

John of Gaunt [Mid. Eng. Gaunt = Ghent, his birthplace], 1340–99, duke of Lancaster; fourth son of Edward III of England. He married (1359) Blanche, heiress of Lancaster, and through her became earl (1361) and duke (1362) of Lancaster. The Lancaster holdings made him the wealthiest and one of the most influential nobles in England. He served under his brother, Edward the Black Prince, in the Hundred Years War and went (1367) on his campaign to aid Peter the Cruel of Castile. After the death of Blanche he married (1371) Peter's daughter, Constance, and thus gained a claim to the Castilian throne. When the Black Prince became ill during the French campaign of 1370–71, John took chief command. In 1373 he led his army from Calais to Bordeaux, but the expedition accomplished little. After a truce was reached (1375) he returned to England, where he allied himself with the corrupt court party led by Alice Perrers, mistress of the aging Edward III. For a short time John of Gaunt in effect ruled England. His party was temporarily dislodged from power by the Good Parliament of 1376, but John was soon able to restore his friends and assembled a hand-picked Parliament in 1377. Hostility to the strong clerical party, led by William of Wykeham, caused him to support the movement of John Wyclif. After the accession (1377) of his nephew, Richard II, John remained the most powerful figure in the government, but he devoted himself primarily to military matters. In 1386, allied with John I of Portugal, who married one of his daughters, he led an expedition to make good his Castilian claims against John I of Castile. John of Gaunt finally agreed to peace in 1388, transferred his claims to his daughter by Constance of Castile, and married her to the future Henry III of Castile. He returned to England in 1389, was made duke of Aquitaine, and helped to restore peace between Richard II and the hostile barons led by Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester. In 1396, John of Gaunt married Catherine Swynford, many years his mistress, and had his children by her, under the name of Beaufort, declared legitimate. He died soon after the king had exiled his eldest son, the duke of Hereford (later Henry IV, first of the royal line of Lancaster). John is also remembered as the patron of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer.

See biography by S. Armitage-Smith (1904, repr. 1964); J. R. Hulbert, Chaucer's Official Life (1912, repr. 1970).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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