The Most Successful Mistress: Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster

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It’s about time we got to Katherine Swynford given the number of times I’ve referenced her and the Beauforts in other posts. I deem her the most successful royal mistress for three reasons: 1) the longevity of her relationship with John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, 2) the fact that said relationship ended in marriage and 3) all monarchs since Henry VII have been descended from her. That’s a pretty good career for a woman who was certainly never queen and, quite frankly, had little business being a duchess in the opinion of many.

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Did Henry IV Repent?

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I think it’s safe to say that March became the month of Henry IV here. After covering the usurpation of 1399 and its implications in the Wars of the Roses compared to Edward III’s 1376 entail, today we’re going to skip forward to 1413, the year Henry IV died. The moment was captured most famously by William Shakespeare when young Prince Hal picks up his father’s crown before he’s dead, but the real King’s illness in his last years, his increasing isolation and hibernation and his tumultuous relationships with his sons – particularly the future Henry V – has long led to speculation that Henry grew to regret his actions against Richard II.

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The Dynastic Dispute

Payne, Henry Arthur, 1868-1940; Plucking the Red and White Roses in the Old Temple Gardens

Two days ago, we covered the usurpation of 1399 and the events leading up to it. Today, we’re going to examine the issue raised at its end, which dealt with the supposed dynastic crime against nature that the accession of Henry IV rendered. This, of course, links the beginning of the royal House of Lancaster with its end, when Henry IV’s grandson, Henry VI, was deposed in favor of his cousin, Edward IV.

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The Usurpation of Henry IV

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The usurpation of the English throne by Henry IV in 1399 is an issue we’ve touched upon a number of times, but never directly covered. It’s a significant one, for it not only brought about an abrupt end to the House of Plantagenet, but it arguably set into motion the dynastic divide that would later feed into the Wars of the Roses half a century later. The latter question is one that we’ll delve into in a bit more detail later this week, but for the purposes of today I want to cover the events of the actual usurpation, from its causes to its immediate impacts.

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The Child Queen, Isabelle of Valois

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Isabelle of Valois was born on November 9, 1389 to Charles VI of France and Isabeau of Bavaria. Though she would eventually become the eldest of her parents’ children to reach adulthood, at the time of her birth she joined an older sister, Jeanne, and followed a son, Charles, who died as an infant. Jeanne died in 1390 and was followed by another Jeanne in 1391, Charles in 1392, Marie in 1393 and Michelle in 1395. These would make up the siblings that Isabelle grew up with before her first marriage.

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The First Princess of Wales

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If there ever was a case study for a Medieval woman’s life taking the shape of a romance novel plot, it would be Joan of Kent, England’s first Princess of Wales. Born “royal adjacent,” she grew up close to the throne, married three times (though not all of them were legal), delivered seven children and constantly found herself going up against the power brokers of court and the Vatican.

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The Good Parliament & The Death of Edward III

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One of the most pivotal Plantagenet reigns was that of Edward III between 1327 and 1377. Part of that is due to its sheer length – 50 years would be a remarkable reign today, so imagine how that felt in the 14th century. Another facet is everything that was accomplished during that time, not least of which were strategic victories against the French at Crecy and Poitiers. But its greatest legacy was the dynasty that Edward left behind, one which in some respects was night and day from the England which he inherited as an adolescent, and in others was an eerie mirror image of it.

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The Mother of Too Many Sons: Philippa of Hainaut

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Philippa of Hainaut had the opposite problem of Henry VIII’s wives. Over the course of her 41-year marriage to Edward III she gave birth to 13 children, eight of them sons. Of those eight sons, five lived until adulthood. That might not seem extraordinary today, particularly in light of the fertility of Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in the 18th century or Queen Victoria in the 19th century, but for the 14th century’s infant mortality rate it was remarkable. Usually, in instances where the monarch had multiple sons they would slowly be picked off through warfare or illness, but the issue remained that several adult princes was both expensive and a liability, for all that it shored up the succession.

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The “Rightful” King: Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March

On this day, January 18, in 1425, Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March died at Trim Castle, on the south bank of the River Boyne in County Meath, Ireland. At the time of his death, Edmund was only a distant cousin of King Henry VI of England, with limited fortune and slim career prospects at court. However, he was a controversial figure in England and his death caused the royal family a certain amount of relief since some of his contemporaries maintained he, and not Henry VI, was the rightful king.

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The Old Palace of Westminster

Henry VI’s grandfather, Henry IV, was the founder of the House of Lancaster after deposing the last Plantagenet king, Richard II, in 1399. Richard II’s claim to the throne was undeniable – he had been the only surviving son of the monarch’s eldest son (Edward, the Black Prince) – and he had smoothly inherited the throne from his grandfather, Edward III, in 1377 at 10 years old. It was less clear, however, who his own heir was since he, despite two marriages, was childless.

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Richard II

While today the laws of succession are clearly defined, it was bit murkier in the 14th century and Richard II’s own choice of his many uncles and cousins would have held significant sway, even if they were not next in birth order. The most powerful of Richard’s uncles – the sons of Edward III – was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. He was enormously wealthy, politically savvy and had decades of governing and military experience – he also had a capable heir, Henry of Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford. However, Gaunt wasn’t popular with his nephew the King and there were many at court that mistrusted his ambition – afraid that he would end up with too much centralized power during Richard’s minority or, worse, would attempt to seize the throne for himself.

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The Wedding of Richard II & Anne of Bohemia

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On this day, January 14, in 1382, Richard II, King of England and his first wife, Anne of Bohemia, were married at Westminster Abbey in London. The wedding was the fifth royal wedding to take place in the Abbey and, coincidentally, the last until Lady Helena Cambridge, a niece of Queen Mary, was married to Major John Gibbs in 1919.

At the time of the wedding, Richard II was 15-years-old and had been king since the death of his grandfather, Edward III, five years before. Due to his minority, however, he only held power nominally, governing being led by various councilors, marked by growing unpopularity that culminated in the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. Richard II emerged from the Revolt defiant and ready to rule, and one of his first acts was to marry Anne of Bohemia, the 15-year-old daughter of Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor and his wife, Elizabeth of Pomerania.

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