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There may not be a more fascinating a historical period than the late fourteenth century in Europe. The Hundred Years' War ravaged the continent, yet gallantry, chivalry, and literary brilliance flourished in the courts of England and elsewhere. It was a world in transition, soon to be replaced by the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration -- and John of Gaunt was its central figure.

In today's terms, John of Gaunt was a multibillionaire with a brand name equal to Rockefeller. He fought in the Hundred Years' War, sponsored Chaucer and proto-Protestant religious thinkers, and survived the dramatic Peasants' Revolt, during which his sumptuous London residence was burned to the ground. As head of the Lancastrian branch of the Plantagenet family, Gaunt was the unknowing father of the War of the Roses; after his death, his son usurped the crown from his nephew, Richard II. Gaunt's adventures represent the culture and mores of the Middle Ages as those of few others do, and his death is portrayed in The Last Knight as the end of that enthralling period.



John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and in the last eight years of his life also Duke of Aquitaine, was born in 1340 and lived until 1399. Thus at his death he was quite old for someone of his generation, particularly a male engaged in warfare. Fighters of his generation rarely lived past their fiftieth birthday. Although John of Gaunt was the second surviving son of King Edward III, he inherited the Lancaster title and fabulous properties not from his father but from his father-in-law, the first Duke of Lancaster, who died in 1363.

Thereby John of Gaunt became the richest man in Western Europe who was not a crowned head (it is impossible to separate crown lands of the English and French monarchies from their personal possessions). At least three hundred lords and gentry were personally loyal, under written contracts called indentures, to the Duke of Lancaster. Gaunt had vast landholdings, especially in the north of England, and the finest house in London. He ruled over thousands of peasants.

Two of the best epic romances written between 1150 and 1400 were Lancelot, or the Knight of the Cart, written in northern France around 1180 by Chrétien de Troyes, and a work of unkown authorship called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in central England around 1375. What do these works tell us about the world of John of Gaunt?

In each poem the hero pursues a perilous quest -- alone, having left behind King Arthur and his Round Table. In each there are amorous adventures with beautiful women. Lancelot succumbs to the women's charms, but Gawain does not. There are also many military adventures from which Lancelot and Gawain emerge triumphant or at least get off by fighting to a draw. Both Lancelot and Gawain return in triumph to King Arthur's court. Running through both poems is a strain of sadomasochistic sexuality. There is a pronounced psychological sexual adventurism in both poems. This, along with the military adventures, is what grabbed the attention of the contemporaries who listened to these great romantic epics.

In many ways, John of Gaunt epitomized the ideals of these stories. In some ways, he surpassed them. In both Lancelot and Gawain the knights of the Round Table mount modest operations, simply described. The two knights go off on their lonely and perilous quests. In reality, John of Gaunt would travel only with many companions. The other difference in the mise-en-scène is that Gaunt lived in elaborate castles, such as his home base of Pontefract. He spent lavishly on décor, which was much more impressive than that of the battlements occupied by Arthur and his knights. This was the age that inaugurated the building of the elaborate French châteaus. In addition to occupying palatial mansions, the high aristocracy spent lavishly on dress and diet, and on gift-giving (especially gifts from men to women), far more so than the modest and austere world the Arthurian Round Table would allow.

Casting a dark shadow, however, was what we call the Hundred Years' War. It really began in the 1350s and '60s. That period was followed by thirty years or so of long truces. The war flared up again the second and third decades of the fifteenth century, to be followed by the ignominious expulsion of the English monarchy's forces from all but one port city in France. Joan of Arc is alleged to have played a significant role in that expulsion.

Meanwhile, for long periods, much of the western third of France was ravaged by the English lords and knights. Even when there were no military campaigns under way, the French countryside and towns were heavily affected by guerrilla warfare. Why should the lavishly living aristocracy of England and France, with so much to be grateful for, have gotten involved in this almost interminable conflict? Glory and greed are what motivated the nobles to undertake a century of intermittent warfare. For glory on the battlefield, they wanted to put on elaborate armor and show their valor, even though the cost of war was beyond the resources of the English and French monarchies.

Greed entered the picture as well. The English sought to keep the French out of the wine-growing region of Gascony (Bordeaux). The English sought to dominate the textile-manufacturing cities of Flanders (Belgium). Past the dazzle of burnished steel there were strategic reasons for the Hundred Years' War.

Beyond the glory and greed there lay the dynastic claim of Edward III to the French crown, sheer nonsense that was taken seriously by some members of the English aristocracy, including John of Gaunt.

This was John of Gaunt's world -- a society of great propertied wealth for the aristocracy, where the nobility could live very well on its income. It did so in any case, but billions of dollars were drained away in warfare. The arts and humanities, higher learning and exquisite craftsmanship played significant roles in Gaunt's world, though this culture did not fulfill its potential because a cloud of poisonous conflict hung over English and French society.

It was a world in which the Middle Ages were passing away and the Renaissance struggled to be born. Gaunt's world was one in which great achievements in literature and the arts were partly inhibited by aspirations to military glory and the dictates of greed. It was a world in transition, and Gaunt was its central figure.

The greatest British historian of the Middle Ages, Sir Richard Southern (1912-2001), in his first and most influential book, The Making of the Middle Ages (1953), showed that the two creative components of medieval culture and society were the Roman Catholic Church and the aristocracy. In the final chapter of Making, Southern portrayed the transition "from epic to romance" in the twelfth century, by which he meant that the blending of aristocracy and Church was impinging on human consciousness and was giving rise to a more emotional sensibility, which in turn led to the flowering of medieval civilization.

In his last two books, Robert Grosseteste (1986) and Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe (1997), Sir Richard explored intellectual movements within the Church in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries that followed from the integration of aristocracy and Church.

The Last Knight focuses on the other side of Southern's original polarity of Church and aristocracy. It is an attempt to explore the aristocracy of the fourteenth century through the life and times of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Through studying Gaunt, we find that the world of the late fourteenth century at all levels of society and with regard to many facets of culture and politics opens up for us as through a prism. Gaunt was the last great aristocrat of the Middle Ages. After his death the European world begins to change in dramatic ways and history moves into the era of Renaissance or Early Modern Times.

Like the elite in all societies, including our own, Gaunt had to respond to challenges appearing on the horizon in peace and war, in politics and the economy, in religion and the arts. Studying Gaunt is an entry point to the complex world of the later Middle Ages. Knowing Gaunt allows us to understand the social and cultural structure of late medieval England, to see how components of that structure melded and functioned integrally.

The elites in all societies, whether the high aristocracy of the Middle Ages or the billionaire American capitalists of today, have to make important decisions with respect to the wealth and power they control. These decisions are heavily conditioned by family, class, and intellectual traditions. Yet the elites encounter new circumstances and novel challenges, and how they respond to these innovations is critical for social stability.

By their very nature elites tend to be conservative of prevailing institutions and ideas. But that does not mean they can avoid interacting with change or providing the means by which elements of the old world can mesh with novel trends. When elites do not perform these accommodating services, revolution is the result. When elites do their job, society makes adjustments but continues to function effectively.

The origins of the aristocracy of which John of Gaunt was a prime exemplar go back to the period between A.D. 800 and 1000. This was the time when the short-lived empire of Charlemagne, the Carolingian empire, which embraced France, western Germany, and northern Italy, was disintegrating because of attacks from the Scandinavian Vikings to the north, the Asiatic Magyars (Hungarians) to the east, and the Muslim Arabs to the south and east.

Since the emperor of the Latin Christian world of Western Europe could no longer protect many of the lords and peasants of the West from this three-pronged invasion, they turned to more local officials, previously appointed by the Carolingian emperor, called dukes and counts. A duke was originally a local military leader; a count was a supervisor of legal matters in a locality.

By 900 the terms "duke" and "count" meant the same thing: a hereditary great landlord who exercised protection and control over a region. To the dukes and counts the ordinary lords in the region owed loyalty, promising to love what the duke or count loved and hate what the duke or count hated. In practice this meant military service, rents, and taxes owed to the duke or count. In return, as he sometimes kissed the lesser lord on the mouth (the "kiss of peace") in an elaborate ceremony, the duke or count promised to protect and help the lesser lord as his "vassal." In origin the word vassus meant simply "boy." The vassals were the "boys" who gathered around a duke or count and fought for him.

The vassals wore tunics of chain mail supplemented by breastplates and open-faced helmets. They learned to fight on horseback -- this was made easier by the introduction of the stirrup. The duke or count was responsible for providing the vassals' armor and horse, free meals in his castle, and a place to sleep in front of the fireplace in his dining hall. He also provided unlimited amounts of beer, ale, and mead (fermented honey). The vassals were essentially companions of and fighters for the duke or count.

A grant of land from the duke or count to his vassal was often part of the deal. It was set down in an elaborate document called a charter, written on parchment (prepared sheepskin). The crux of the ceremony of vassalage was in the lesser lord kneeling before the duke or count, swearing his fealty (loyalty) and homage (obedience); then a two-handed handshake was exchanged between the duke or count on the one side and the vassal-lord on the other.

These arrangements, which lawyers later called feudal, gave the duke or count great military, legal, and political power. The obedience and loyalty of the duke or count to the Carolingian emperor became more nominal and intermittent.

By A.D. 950 the vestiges of the Carolingian empire had vanished and the dukes and counts had gained a high degree of wealth, prestige, power, and autonomy. In the eastern half of the Carolingian empire, between the Rhine and the Elbe, the dukes of Saxony in the north made claim to the imperial title. In the west, in France, the counts of Paris took the title of king. But in neither case did these titular claims interfere with the rise of the new aristocracy of hereditary dukes and counts.

In the twelfth century members of the new aristocracy had to accommodate themselves to the ambitions of French kings and German emperors. The responses of the dukes and counts varied greatly from one noble to another and from one decade to another and were heavily influenced by the personal political skills of individual monarchs.

In 1180 the German emperor's power over the dukes and counts in his territory was strongly entrenched. By 1250 the emperor's power was at best nominal. In 1150 the kings in Paris were still, in effect, only counts of the principality in and around Paris. By 1225 the Parisian kings dominated the north of France and were beginning to exercise ambitions in the south.

Meanwhile, other factors besides these political ones affected the life of the aristocracy. The spread of literacy to the courts turned the word "court" from a purely legal term to one that also had a social meaning. A code of civilized behavior developed for the aristocracy.

Another factor was the rise in the value of real estate owned by the dukes and counts. Whatever their relationship to an emperor or king, the high noble families became phenomenally wealthy, as real estate prices steadily inflated between 1150 and 1280 as the population tripled or quadrupled. The term "aristocrat" now signified a very wealthy landed person of distinguished lineage and also distinctly civilized behavior.

Severe limitations on the expansion of European aristocracies also affected political and social development. The Latin Christian elite succeeded in reconquering Iberia and Sicily from the Muslims, but attempts to establish European principalities in the eastern Mediterranean met with only partial and temporary success.

The First Crusade of 1095 gained Jerusalem and a significant part of what is today the state of Israel. None of the succeeding six Crusades was able to stave off the inexorable Muslim reconquest in the eastern Mediterranean. Fifty years after Jerusalem was taken by French crusaders in 1095, the Holy City was again in Muslim hands, and it remained so until 1917. By 1290 the last stronghold of the European aristocracy in the Middle East, the fortress of Acre on the sea in what is now northern Israel, was again taken by the Muslims.

The failure of the Crusades to establish permanent European aristocratic enclaves in the Muslim world greatly affected the politics of Western Europe between 1150 and 1450. Unable to push outward to establish colonies in the eastern Mediterranean, the kings and nobles were left to fight each other over contested lands inside Western Europe. The Germans tried to conquer northern Italy. The English and French fought over control of the western third of France.

With a renewed close attention to the history and literature of ancient Rome in the twelfth century, the medieval aristocracy saw itself mirrored in the accounts of the ancient Roman nobility. Some made doubtful claims to direct descent from the ancient Roman aristocracy. These specious historical claims were part of an effort to give clear identity to an aristocracy that was differentiating itself from the mass of ordinary knights or gentry who served as vassals of the great lords.

The historicizing ideology that harked back to Rome had little impact. What counted in the crystallization of aristocracy were more pragmatic interests, such as the grant of an inheritable title of duke or count by a Carolingian emperor, supplemented by grants of high titles by later monarchs. The holding of great tracts of land was also important, and it allowed for a degree of social mobility -- very wealthy upper-middle-class gentry could sometimes gain aristocratic title. Serving as frontier chieftains on the borders of England and Scotland, or on the eastern German frontiers against the Slavs, was another route into the titular aristocracy. After 1300 such social mobility became more rare, although it was not entirely blocked off, as even merchants and bankers sometimes made their way into the entitled aristocracy.

In the fourteenth century members of the European aristocracy stressed their bloodlines as descendants of the companions of Charlemagne or some other famous king, such as William the Conqueror of England. The aristocrats, partly in response to the existence of hundreds of thousands of ambitious, socially mobile ordinary knights, saw themselves as more of a closed caste.

An emotional aura now surrounded the high aristocracy, drawing upon cultural and literary developments.

John of Gaunt stood at the very top of the European aristocracy of his day, in the late fourteenth century. His royal bloodline, his vast estates, and his ducal title defined his top-level social status. But there was something beyond his tangible and definable assets. Gaunt was Gaunt, a brand name, like Rockefeller, Murdoch, or Agnelli today.

Like bearers of the great capitalist names of today, Gaunt symbolized not only wealth but a particular culture. He stood for something in the world of the fourteenth century simply by being Gaunt. Therefore he is a key entry point into what the aristocracy of his day was like.

Scrutinizing Gaunt allows us to learn much not only about war and property, but also about women, entertaining, government, diet, religion, and the arts. Focusing on John of Gaunt allows us to uncover the aristocratic world at the end of the Middle Ages.

Between the late 1940s and early 1960s the American novelist John O'Hara, in a series of novels -- Ten North Frederick, From the Terrace, The Lockwood Concern -- depicted wealthy people. Although O'Hara was dealing with a class slightly below that of the top stratum of American society, he has many acute observations on how his people functioned, particularly on how the families tried to preserve their wealth and status beyond the first successful generation.

Gaunt benefited from the medieval world's mechanism for transmitting inherited wealth and power and from a considerably more static class structure than anything the modern West knows. But a few days on the campus of Princeton University -- which at its core has not changed since I was a graduate student and teacher there for eight years in the 1950s -- and perusal of the "Sunday Styles" section of the New York Times will disabuse anyone of the notion that there is an absolute difference between the very rich in the medieval world and in our own. Perhaps the changes have been greatest at the level of the working class, in that today's American billionaire capitalists find their most downtrodden and malleable workers in the factories of East Asia and Latin America, rather than in the local peasantry.

William Shakespeare, in Richard II, left us an impression of John of Gaunt that is indelible. (I was fortunate to see the play at Oxford in 1955, with Paul Scofield in the leading role.) Shakespeare presents Gaunt as old and doddering, but he also puts into Gaunt's mouth the most patriotic speech in the English language. To Shakespeare's Gaunt, England is "this sceptre'd isle...This other Eden, demi-paradise."

A second literary depiction of Gaunt is in a best-selling novel, Katherine (1954), by American writer Anya Seton. The lengthy novel is about Gaunt's relationship with his mistress and third wife, Catherine Swynford. Swynford comes across as a vigorous, beautiful, loving, and very intelligent woman. Gaunt comes across as a perfect knight, a gentleman, but somewhat colorless. It is obvious that Seton had in mind Clark Gable's portrayal of Rhett Butler in the 1939 film Gone With the Wind.

In the third volume (1962) of Thomas B. Costain's best-selling swashbuckling four-volume history of the Plantagenets, Gaunt gets short shrift: "Then there was John of Gaunt, suave, cultured, with great ambition, but lacking in the resolution that is the first of the great Plantagenet traits and thus is condemned to a rather shabby role in history." It is Gaunt's elder brother Edward the Black Prince who gets all the guts-and-glory in Costain's view. Costain artfully reinforces in this fictionalized history the image and information his readers already have about the Middle Ages.

There have been two efforts at a major scholarly biography of Gaunt in the twentieth century, both by English writers. The first, in 1904, was by Sydney Armitage-Smith, who after four hundred pages comes to a somewhat nebulous conclusion: "Gaunt remained true to the ethical standard of society as he knew it."

Anthony Goodman (1992) sees that Gaunt's "lifestyle provided one of the most notable examples of that multi-faceted conspicuous consumption characteristic of princely European families in the fourteenth century." I agree with this statement. Goodman sees Gaunt as mainly a political figure, a hard-working administrator. "He was the later medieval noble who most notably upheld royal authority."

I do not see any of these projections of Gaunt, from William Shakespeare through Anya Seton, Thomas B. Costain, Sydney Armitage-Smith, and Anthony Goodman, as wrong, even if I might quibble a bit with each portrait. History and biography and historical fiction are imaginative presentations of points of view, shaped by the author's own frame of mind and by the social and cultural context in which the author wrote.

Mine could be called a sociological approach. It places Gaunt in the social, economic, religious, and political structures of his lifetime and seeks to suggest why these structures came into existence and how they functioned. I am also interested in eliciting Gaunt's character and personal life, which is not an easy thing to do for a medieval figure, giving the sparse nature of medieval sources.

Gaunt also inevitably comes up in the three best biographies of Geoffrey Chaucer, by Donald R. Howard (1987), Paul Strohm (1989), and Derek Pearsall (1992), but these eminent scholars cannot agree on the extent and significance of the relationship between the Duke and the poet. My account is closest to Howard's.

K. B. McFarlane's much-admired 1952 biography of John Wyclif does very little to illuminate Gaunt's relationship with the theologian and Oxford don. I have explored that relationship more closely.

There is a need for a study of Gaunt as a person and as someone involved in key aspects of the world of late-fourteenth-century England and Europe. I have tried to respond to that need, addressing lay readers and students, but drawing on the substantial research done on the era in recent years.

Copyright © 2004 by Norman F. Cantor

About The Author

Norman F. Cantor (1929–2004) was a professor of history, sociology, and comparative literature at New York University. Among his many academic honors are appointments as a Rhodes Scholar, Porter Ogden Jacobus Fellow at Princeton University, and Fulbright Professor at Tel Aviv University. He was nominated for the NBCC Award for Inventing the Middle Ages.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (May 11, 2010)
  • Length: 272 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439137581

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