John O'Gaunt in Spain Again

Foreman: In 1366 Edward had control of much of South West France (known as Aquitaine). He had already made an alliance with King Pedro the Cruel of Castile and when king Pedro was ousted by his half brother Henry of Trastamara, Pedro asked for English help in regaining his throne.

Robin: Why was he called "Pedro the Cruel" ?

Foreman: I don't know why they called Pedro, "Pedro the Cruel" but he must have been pretty diabolical to be called "cruel" in those days. Rumour was that he had poisoned his missus.

Robin: So Henry was the goodie ?

Foreman: Not exactly, he was a bastard in more ways than one. The English saw an opportunity here perhaps to create a kingdom which spanned the Pyrenees. Because the Pyrenees had few passes, this would give Edward III a defensible base to intervene in both the Iberian peninsular to the South or to maintain or retreat from the English conquests in Southern France. The Pyrenean area in other words was like an enormous fortress, which could be used as a haven for retreat and as a base for attack. The kingdom had viable ports on the North coast on both sides of the Pyrenees, so that if the French rolled back the English out of Gascony, the English could retreat to their fastnesses in the mountains. At some later time troops and supplies could be landed in Northern Spain (San Sebastian) to effect a re-invasion from the mountains. A similar process would apply if the English continued to occupy South West France/ Gascony. They could land troops and supplies at Bordeaux or at Biarritz if they wanted to make incursions into Northern Spain. Well I don't know what the English court were really thinking, but that seems a viable idea to me. The idea of uniting the crowns of England and Navarre went back a further century to the reign of Henry the Fat of Navarre. You can see why Pedro readily agreed to concede to the English the whole of the Basque country if they would help him regain his throne. After all, Pedro currently had no kingdom at all, so to lose a big chunk of his domain in order to regain the whole lot was not a bad gamble. The Black Prince (Edward III's eldest son) lead the force of English, Gascons, Flemings and Spaniards which was intending to restore Pedro the Cruel to his throne. The Black Prince's younger brother, John of Gaunt (Edward's third son) lead the vanguard of the English force. (Well actually, Sir John Chandos, a very experienced and able English soldier, did all the leading but John of Gaunt, as a prince of royal blood, was nominally in charge.) The English force managed to out flank and rout the opposing Spaniards at the battle of Najera, which gives us an exact date (April 7th 1367) for the conjectural start point for the introduction of Morris Dancing into English culture. We know that the victory at Najera was celebrated by a pageant which included "danzas de espadas" (sword dances) and quite likely an appearance by St. George as he is the patron saint of Navarre as well as England. (The order of the Garter, or the Knights of St. George was inaugurated in 1346 by Edward III) In the Battle of Najera the Black Prince in the English royal coat of arms and a couple of the English/Welsh archers who played so large a part in several English victories in this period of history. It would appear that soldiers from England, Flanders and the Low Country were impressed by these Spanish pageants and took home ideas for public shows linked with celebrating the calendar customs associated with the main dates of the Christian year: Easter, Whitsun, Corpus Christi and Christmas. We should remember again at this point that the tradition says soldiers of John O'Gaunt acquired the dance not John O'Gaunt himself. However the Plymouth Morris Men's website says that John O'Gaunt brought back a troop of dancers in 1386 from his second campaign in Spain, so it looks like he was a patron to the dance. I don't know where that reference is from, I'll have to ask them. There would appear to bit more evidence that the dance was patronised at an early date by court circles in the Low Country as well. For instance we have a record of Rupert of Pfalz requesting that Peter of Aragon's wife send him a dance troupe of "Mauros sive Sarracenos Nigros" in 1367. Also, there are quite a few representations of the Morris stemming from Germany and the Low Countries in the 15th / 16th Centuries, some of which feature at least one "blackamoor" type figure. I can't tell for sure but they may depict 5 Christians (with possibly symbolic hats) and 5 Moorish (turbaned) figures including one "Blackamoor" or negro figure.

Robin: Do you think that is that the origin of the black faces of the Border Morris sides like the Shropshire Bedlams and Silurian ?

Foreman: Might be. There is often a "black connection" with several folk customs. In Chipping Campden, for instance the dancers used to carry around a grotesque black dancing doll (female) (see picture of Campden dancers in 1898) This doll last made an appearance I think in a photo taken during the 1951 Festival of Britain celebrations. She also used to accompany the Chipping Campden "Jazz Band" which played "Darkie" style music. There is a relict of "Darkeying", that is going around playing Negro Minstrel style numbers at Christmas in, would you believe, Padstow of all places. There was an article about it in "The Sunday Independent" sometime back. I didn't see the write up myself but I believe it revolved around Padstow's only black inhabitant and whether he felt it was offensive discrimination. He's a nice sensible guy and said he didn't give a hoot nor a holler as the "Darkeying" was there way before he was. "Darkeying" might have gone on in other areas too. Great fun, participants black up, dress up and go round the pubs playing "rough music" tin cans filled with dried peas, dustbin lids (old style dustbins of course), banjo, home made guitars fashioned from biscuit tins, swanee whistles, kazoos. GREAT.

Robin: Accordians too ?

Foreman: No. No accordians. You could have melodians but not accordians. The idea is to go around and make a racket annoying people but there are limits to how annoying the noise should be, so accordians are not allowed. Robin: So there is a lot of truth in these old traditions, then, even though they claim to go back 600+ years. And I never knew much about John O'Gaunt before, I must confess. Foreman: Now you can see that it perhaps makes a bit of sense that ideas for carnival processions and the related traditions featuring Saint George on horse back, Queen of the May, Morris dancing, Hobby Horse and Fool were picked up in Spain at this period. It doesn't sound very feasible until you understand that there was quite a lot of interchange culturally speaking between England, Flanders and the North of the Iberian Peninsula. Had the Black Prince survived the 1367 campaigns (he contracted dysentry in Spain and later died of fever in France on the return journey) the tradition might well have said that the Morris was brought back by the troops of the Black Prince. Of course it may be that the troops in John O'Gaunt's division at Najera, who formed the vanguard, were mainly the English contingent of the army. I wouldn't mind betting that if the Black Prince had come back to England, we'd have more popular customs like Whitsuntide Ales which would be associated with his name. As it is they aren't linked with John O'Gaunt so closely because John O'Gaunt was most definitely not a figure who was popular with the common people. Even so, the Black Prince is associated with a few English folk customs (such as the flower boat festival in Kingsand/Cawsand, East Cornwall) and I wouldn't mind betting that had he survived, he would have taken the role of the cavalier leading the Whitsuntide procession, but that is all conjecture. Of course if you go to the flower boat festival in Kingsand/Cawsand at the beginning of May you will find plenty of Morris Dancers attending the ceremony. Despite John O'Gaunt's unpopularity, it is worth looking in further detail at the doings of the Lancaster dynasty, just to see what cultural influences were in play at this point in history.

Next: John O'Gaunt and Chaucer