John of Gaunt's failures in Spain

Foreman: In course of time the English victory at Najera in Spain all came to nothing when Pedro came to a very sticky end a couple of years later in an episode resembling a classic gangland killing. His half brother Henry and some mates caught Pedro lying in bed without his usual extensive bodyguard in attendance, and carved our Pedro up to make mince pies.

Some twenty years on, John of Gaunt made another attempt at carving out a kingdom for himself in Spain. He went on a further expedition between 1386 and 1389. You will recollect that John of Gaunt had married a Spanish princess, Constance, the daughter of Pedro the Cruel, and John went over with a substantial army to enforce his wife's and their daughter's claim to the throne of Castile. It was on this campaign when England formed an alliance with John of Portugal, the start of a long series of alliances between England and Portugal and the origin of the Noble English Practice of Getting the Gout in the Big Toe through drinking too much Port.

Unlike his brother the Black Prince, John of Gaunt was not a great success as a general (in fact I don't think he won a single battle outright) and the fact that he took an extensive retinue of women with him on the 1386 expedition; wife, daughters and sundry ladies in waiting, would indicate that he was intending to conduct diplomacy more by making marriages than by force of arms.

John of Gaunt's wife Constance was pregnant at the time which also slowed up the army somewhat but her condition could have lead to a major diplomatic coup if she had given birth to a male heir on Spanish soil. In the end John of Gaunt's troops caught dysentry and half of them died off. There is quite a possibility that Philippa Chaucer might have been taken along as a lady in waiting on this expedition.

John of Gaunt could hardly take his regular mistress Katherine with him on an expedition designed to establish claims based on legitimacy and so Pippa dear (Chaucer's wife) would have been the next best thing to her beloved sister (Katherine). Poor old Pip might well have died of the dysentry. She seems to have died around then for records of payments to her for services to the court of John of Gaunt cease at this point.

The fact that Chaucer lost status in court at this point in time could indicate that John of Gaunt was more interested in Geoff's wife than his "drasty rhyming that was not worth a turd" (words of the Host to the Pardoner in The Canterbury Tales).

So there were quite a few cultural relations with the Iberian peninsular linked to the household of John of Gaunt. However, it should be stressed again that the tradition has it that it was the soldiers who brought back the dance and not John of Gaunt himself. Nonetheless, it is fairly safe to assume that a court with two Spanish princesses in it might well have featured some entertainments which included something we might recognise as the Morris.

Robin: What did the Morris look like in those days ?

Foreman: Gor luvaduck. I've absolutely no idea. But looking at the carvings and engravings it was done in a pretty grotesque style. Looks very like young Matthew (aged 9) when he is mucking about. Well basically there are about 3 main styles of Morris.

  1. a combat dance using real swords with fairly basic steps. This is the sort of thing you find in carnival processions and the moros v cristianos festivals where the costumes are too elaborate to move about in very freely. This can be done by 4 men (e.g. Plymouth Morris men) or in a long line with dozens of participants.
  2. an individual jig to show off skills and related to this a round dance by a group done in competition to impress a lady.
  3. a sword dance with linked swords which traces an abstract pattern in a circular (6 man long sword dance) or pentagonal (5 man rapper dance) shape. Here are the Newcastle Kingsmen Sword Dancers Est 1949.
  4. a set dance with handkerchiefs or sticks, which transmits an abstract pattern based on the line of the 6 mens morris board. The sticks are not actually a substitute for swords. They are there to make a Rhythmic (hopefully) pattern of clashes.

Types 3 and 4 are what you might call "pure Morris". They have no mimetic function, they are mathematical and they are a translation of the abstractions of music into physical form. Don't be mislead by the titles of some of the tunes and dances ; "Bean Setters" etc. These dances are pure form.

Next: Bits and Bobs about John O'Gaunt