Bits and Bobs about John O'Gaunt

Foreman: John O'Gaunt in this scept'red isle - John of Gaunt is usually best remembered as that kindly old gent in Shakespeare's play about Richard II, where he makes an affecting speech about England's scept'red isle.

"This royal throne of kings, this scept'red isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

John O'Gaunt's unpopularity - He was easily the most unpopular man in England as can be seen in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. The peasants burnt John O'Gaunt's Savoy Palace in London, executed John O'Gaunt's ally Bishop Sudbury, destroyed John O'Gaunt's palace in Cambridge and just to make sure he took the hint they demanded that he should be executed. Fortunately for John O'Gaunt, at the time he was up in Yorkshire and the peasants couldn't get at him.

John O'Gaunt was equally unpopular with the citizens of London too and he only narrowly escaped being lynched by a mob a few years earlier in 1377 when the City was up in arms about his treatment of the Bishop of London. He learnt that the Londoners were out for his blood as he was sitting down for a meal and he got up so precipitously that he barked his shins against the table, which rather restricted his gait and escape till he could get to a horse. The Londoners wanted to burn the Savoy Palace then as well, but were persuaded out of it by the Bishop of London himself.

Of course what John O'Gaunt had his eye on was the enormous tracts of land owned by the Roman Catholic church and his designs on church property lead him to support John Wycliffe who was a forerunner of the Reformation in England.

Quite appropriately, by the way, for a chap who was the biggest landowner in England the name "John of Ghent" is a nick-name for the cormorant in Flemish.

The later history of the succession of England, through the Wars of the Roses and right up to the Tudor dynasty was all determined by John O'Gaunt's dynastic ambitions since it was his eldest son (Henry IV) who deposed Richard II, starved Richard to death and took the throne. John O'Gaunt's younger brother, Edward of York, also had a claim to the throne through his marriage to a Mortimer and hence followed 150 years of battle and bloodshed until York and Lancaster were united by none other than ANOTHER descendant of John O'Gaunt. Henry VII who united York and Lancaster was none other than a descendant of Katherine Swynford, sister to Philippa Chaucer and John O'Gaunt's mistress for many a moon. Her children were declared legitimate in 1394 but at the same time a law was passed to say that they would have no claim to the throne. Since Henry VII gained the throne by "main force" he wasn't too fussed about old laws which stated that he couldn't be king. He just became king and made his own law stating that he was king and lawmaker from now on. That's the way to do it !!!!

Of course both of the Kings of Portugal and Spain had a much better and more legitimate claim to the throne (again through descent from John O'Gaunt's daughters by Blanche his first wife and through Constance's daughters) but the Gaunt / Swynford / Beaufort branch of the family were obviously not going to let considerations of legitimacy hinder their progress.

The Swynfords were renamed the Beauforts when John O'Gaunt married Katherine on the death of Constance. I don't know if this was after one of John O'Gaunt's French estates or whether it was because they were "beau" and "fort" or "beautiful and strong".

Henry VII's son, the famous Henry VIII of the six wives (another one following the family tradition of being paranoid about the succession) finally got to do what John O'Gaunt was itching to do a couple of centuries before when he broke away from Rome and seized all the lands owned by the church in order to line his own pockets. But that's another story.

Next: English National Identity