Elizabeth of Lancaster, granddaughter of Edward III and sister of Henry IV, was a bit of a royal rebel back in her day. Married three times, she has garnered herself a reputation for being a headstrong and difficult young woman whose character was reportedly the complete opposite of her elder sister, Philippa. But as one must ask themselves when a historical female figure is brandished “problematic,” is this unfair?
Elizabeth was born between 1363 and early 1364 to John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and his wife, Blanche of Lancaster. She joined Philippa in the nursery, as well as a short-lived brother, John, who may have died before Elizabeth was born. She was followed by two more brothers, both of whom also died shortly after their births. Finally, on April 3, 1367, John and Blanche produced a healthy male heir, Henry, but unfortunately the happiness was short-lived. The following year, Blanche gave birth to a third daughter, Isabel, and then succumbed to the plague.
Only 23 and a famed beauty in her day, the Royal Family was plunged into mourning at Blanche’s passing. John of Gaunt, who owed his title and his fortune to his wife, was heartbroken and commissioned an ornate double tomb for the two to be buried in – even after two more marriages, John still chose to be interred next to Blanche. He may have also commissioned “The Book of the Duchess” from Geoffrey Chaucer, which is believed to have been written as an ode for Blanche.
Elizabeth was four or five at the time of her mother’s death and likely had few if any memories of her. Her day-to-day care eventually came under the command of Katherine Swnyford, a widow, who had long been attached to the Lancaster family, and she was raised alongside Katherine’s children.
In the meantime, John needed a new wife. On September 23, 1371 he married Constance of Castile, a contender for the Castilian throne, in Guienne. The idea behind the union was that John would help Constance claim the crown, thus making himself king of Castile. Five months later, they made their ceremonial entry into London, however the marriage was essentially a business arrangement and John was ultimately unsuccessful in his goals of conquest.
In 1373, Constance gave birth to a daughter, Katherine. Ironically, at the same time, Elizabeth’s governess, Katherine Swynford, gave birth to a son, John, fathered by none other than John of Gaunt. While Constance went on to have a son in 1374, Katherine also produced three more children.
We’ll save the famous relationship between John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford for another day, but for the purposes of Elizabeth it’s worth considering how these dynamics impacted her. She had a half-sister and a stepmother, however she was cared for by her father’s mistress and raised alongside a growing brood of “Beauforts,” her illegitimate half-siblings.
In theory Elizabeth would have been able to escape this situation by getting married, but when she married on June 24, 1380 at the age of 17 it was to John Hastings, Earl of Pembroke, an eight-year-old child. She was given her own household as the Countess of Pembroke and had a newfound level of independence, however for all practical purposes her father was still the man to whom she answered.
In the summer of 1386 she prepared to join her father and step-mother, as well as her sisters, Philippa and Katherine, for an expedition to Castile on the next leg of the Lancasters’ military campaign. At Plymouth, preparing to embark, it came out that Elizabeth was pregnant, but not by her husband. Hastings was by then 14, but it’s unlikely the marriage had ever been consummated. Instead, Elizabeth had started an affair with John Holland, Duke of Exeter and the pregnancy was at a late enough stage that there was no hiding the reality of their situation. Holland wasn’t a nobody – in fact, he had very close ties to the Royal Family. His mother was none other than Joan of Kent, the Dowager Princess of Wales, while his father had been Joan’s first husband. As such, Holland was a half-brother of the future Richard II – navigating the fallout of his and Elizabeth’s affair was thus sensitive.
John of Gaunt had no choice but to have his daughter’s first marriage quickly annulled and Elizabeth and Holland wed on June 24, 1386. By all reports, John wasn’t particularly angry about the situation – Elizabeth was his favorite daughter and he was fond of Holland, but it’s also possible that given the brazenness of his own behavior and the plethora of his bastards with whom his daughter had grown up, even in the 14th century he realized he didn’t have much of a leg to stand on.
Elizabeth’s son, Richard, was born during the expedition and several months in she and Holland left the rest of her family in Castile to travel to Portugal. While they were away, the military endeavors of her father devolved into two separate treaties, both of which resulted in her sisters’ marriages. Philippa married to King Juan of Portugal and departed for Lisbon later that year, while Katherine married Prince Henry of Castile, an heir for the rival sect of the family in 1388. In 1390, Henry and Katherine became the king and queen of Castile (as well as ancestors of Katherine of Aragon).
Not too much is known of Elizabeth’s second marriage, but it appears to have been a success and they went on to have five more children, three daughters and two more sons. The name of her eldest daughter may give some indication of what she thought of her father’s indiscretions, for she christened her Constance in honor of her step-mother.
In 1394, Constance died at Leicester Castle after over two decades of unhappy marriage and failure to claim her birthright. John of Gaunt responded by finally marrying Katherine Swynford two years later.
Three years later, Elizabeth’s brother, Henry, had a rather famous falling out with his cousin, Richard II, and was banished from England. He settled in France while he plotted his revenge with the House of Valois. While Henry was gone, John of Gaunt died on February 3, 1399 and when Richard II attempted to bar Henry from inheriting the wealthy duchy of Lancaster, he launched an invasion under the pretense of claiming his father’s land. In fact, he was successful – Richard was deposed and Henry was crowned King Henry IV on October 13, 1399.
For Elizabeth this meant she was now the King’s sister, but Richard was also her husband’s brother. Henry stripped Holland of his dukedom, demoting him to the Earl of Huntingdon. Holland responded within months by launching his own invasion, known as the Epiphany Rising, with the goal of assassinating Henry and his four sons and reinstating Richard. The rebellion failed and Holland was arrested and executed on January 16, 1400.
Not only did his actions lead to his own downfall, but his widow and children saw their lands and titles revoked and Henry took the extra step of having Richard assassinated in February. Elizabeth’s grief was only compounded by the death of her eldest son that September, then around 13 or 14. Even so, in the middle of this, Elizabeth decided to marry for a third time. Without waiting to ask her brother’s permission, she married Sir John Cornwall, later named Baron Fanhope and Milbroke…yes, that’s three husbands all named John.
The marriage scandalized Henry’s court and resulted in Cornwall’s brief arrest, but Elizabeth’s pressure on the King soon worked. All was forgiven and in 1401, the dukedom of Exeter was restored to Elizabeth’s eldest living son, John, while she gave birth to her first child with Cornwall, Constance. (Yes, this also means that she had two daughters named Constance, a practice less weird in the Middle Ages.) Another child, John – (I know, I know) – was born in 1404. Even less is known of Elizabeth’s third marriage, but it is believed to have been a love match.
Elizabeth continued to play the role of a senior courtier at her brother’s court, but for the most part her time was spent living on her and her husband’s estates and raising her children. When Henry died in 1413, she was on hand for the coronation of her nephew, Henry V, while her sons played active roles in his campaigns in France over the coming decade.
Elizabeth died on November 24, 1426 in her early 60s and is buried in Burford Church in Shropshire.