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The House of Lancaster in seven people


Before the Wars of the Roses culminated in victory for Henry Tudor and the House of Lancaster at the Battle of Bosworth, one of English history’s most famous noble houses had a fascinating history.

Edmund of Lancaster, Earl of Lancaster and Leicester (1245-96)

Edmund was the founder of the House of Lancaster. He was born in January 1245 as the fourth child and second son of Henry III (b. 1207), king of England, and Eleanor of Provence (b. c. 1223), and was the younger brother of King Edward I. Edmund was married firstly to the great heiress Aveline Forz, who was much younger than he, but she died at only 15 years old in 1274 and he married the widowed Blanche of Artois, niece of Louis IX of France and dowager queen of Navarre in Spain, in c. late 1275. Blanche’s daughter from her first marriage to Enrique I, Juana I (b. 1273), was queen-regnant of Navarre and queen-consort of France, and the mother of three kings of France and the queen-consort of England, Edward II’s wife Isabella of France. Edmund and Blanche’s eldest son Thomas was born at the end of 1277 or beginning of 1278, and another son, Henry, followed in 1280 or 1281. A third son, John, lived most of his life in his mother’s native France.

Edmund received the earldom of Leicester after the death of his uncle-in-law Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, at the battle of Evesham in 1265; in 1267 he received the brand-new earldom of Lancaster, which gave his dynasty its name, from his father Henry III; and in 1269 he was given most of the lands belonging to Robert Ferrers, whose earldom of Derby was taken from him to benefit Edmund. King Henry died in November 1272 and was succeeded by Edmund’s older brother Edward I (b. June 1239). Edmund was very loyal to his brother and they got on very well, and Edmund faithfully supported the king for the rest of his life, taking part in Edward’s Welsh wars in the 1270s and early 1280s. He sailed to Gascony as one of the leaders of his brother’s forces in 1296 after Edward I went to war against Philip IV of France, and died in Bayonne in early June 1296, aged 51. His widow Blanche of Artois returned to her native France, ruled by her son-in-law Philip IV, and died in May 1302.

Thomas of Lancaster, Earl of Lancaster and Leicester (1277/8-1322)

The eldest son of Edmund of Lancaster and Blanche of Artois, Thomas was 19 when his father died, and received Edmund’s earldoms of Lancaster and Leicester and the lands of the earldom of Derby. He married the great heiress Alice de Lacy (b. 1281) in 1294, and when her father Henry died in 1311 became earl of Lincoln and Salisbury as well. His childhood, given that he was the nephew of the king of England and brother-in-law of the king of France, is strikingly obscure. Thomas served his uncle Edward I loyally on campaign in Scotland and elsewhere until the king’s death in July 1307 at the age of 68. Edward was succeeded by his eldest surviving son Edward of Caernarfon (b. 1284), now King Edward II, Thomas of Lancaster’s first cousin. Seven months after his accession, Edward II married Isabella of France, Thomas’s niece. For the first 16 months or so of his cousin’s reign, Thomas of Lancaster was one of Edward’s most loyal supporters even in the face of the excessive favouritism the king showed to a man called Piers Gaveston, his beloved favourite, but in late 1308 it appears that the two cousins had a serious quarrel, and Thomas moved into a position of opposition to Edward II and remained there for the rest of his life.

Thomas of Lancaster and his ally Guy Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, kidnapped and killed Piers Gaveston in June 1312, and one chronicler comments on the ‘mortal hatred which lasted forever’ between Thomas and his cousin Edward II as a result. Thomas refused to fight for Edward at the battle of Bannockburn in June 1314 and raised an army against the king, and for some years he and Edward battled for control of the English government, unable to work together and co-operate. Each man took to marching around the kingdom with a large armed force deliberately avoiding each other. A treaty of friendship between the two cousins in August 1318 lasted only for a while, and when a group of English barons rebelled against the king’s latest powerful favourite, Hugh Despenser the Younger, in 1321, Thomas of Lancaster was their leader. He lost the battle of Boroughbridge to a royal army on 16 March 1322, and was beheaded outside his own castle of Pontefract six days later. His wife Alice had left him in 1317 and he had no legitimate children.

Henry of Lancaster, Earl of Lancaster and Leicester (c. 1280/81-1345)

Henry was the second son of Edmund of Lancaster and Blanche of Artois, and the heir of his childless brother Thomas. In early 1297 he married the heiress Maud Chaworth, who brought him lands in Wales and the south of England. They had seven children: one son and heir, Henry of Grosmont, and six daughters, Blanche, Isabella, Maud, Joan, Eleanor and Mary. Henry of Lancaster went on campaign to Scotland with his uncle Edward I in 1296 when he was only 15 or 16, and was first summoned to parliament in 1299. For the first few years of his cousin Edward II’s reign he played little if any role in politics or in public life, seemingly preferring to live quietly on his own lands with his wife Maud (d. 1322) and their growing family.

Fortuitously, Henry was outside England for most of the late 1310s and early 1320s, which spared him from the awful decision of either abandoning his brother Thomas or following him into treason and execution. Edward II allowed him Thomas’s earldom of Leicester in 1324, but not the earldom of Lancaster, and the king kept much of Henry’s rightful inheritance in his own hands. Henry joined his niece Queen Isabella when she invaded England in September 1326 to bring down her husband’s despised favourite Hugh Despenser the Younger, and was given the custody of his disgraced cousin Edward II at his Warwickshire castle of Kenilworth when it became clear that the king’s support had collapsed and he could no longer sit on the throne. Now earl of Lancaster as well, Henry was the official guardian of the new king, the teenaged Edward III, but his niece Isabella ruled for her son and allowed Henry no power or influence whatsoever. Henry’s brief rebellion against Isabella’s rule in late 1328 failed, but he was immediately restored to royal favour when his great-nephew Edward III himself overthrew his mother Isabella in October 1330. Henry lived for another 17 years and seems to have gone blind in the 1330s, which limited his political role, but he had restored his family’s fortunes after Thomas’s execution and made the Lancasters the most prestigious and wealthy family in the country. He died in Leicester in September 1345 at the age of about 65.

Eleanor of Lancaster, Lady Beaumont and Countess of Arundel (c. 1316/18-1372)

Eleanor was the fifth of the six daughters of Henry, earl of Lancaster and Leicester and Maud Chaworth, after Blanche, Isabella, Maud and Joan and before Mary, and was born around 1316 or 1318. In 1330 she married John Beaumont, son and heir of Henry, Lord Beaumont, a French nobleman who spent most of his life in England, and the Scottish noblewoman Alice Beaumont née Comyn, herself one of the two nieces and co-heirs of John Comyn, earl of Buchan (d. 1308). John Beaumont was born on or around Christmas Day 1317, and was very close to Eleanor’s own age. The young couple became parents nine years after their wedding when their son Henry Beaumont was born in late 1339, and John died in May or June 1342, apparently killed while jousting. Eleanor’s son Henry Beaumont (1339-69) continued the Beaumont line, and was an ancestor of Richard III’s great friend Francis Lovell.

In early 1345 Eleanor married her second husband Richard Fitzalan, earl of Arundel and heir to his uncle John de Warenne’s earldom of Surrey. The two had apparently already been having an affair, and in late 1344 Arundel had had his first marriage to Eleanor’s first cousin Isabella Despenser annulled and thereby made his and Isabella’s son Edmund (born c. 1326) illegitimate. Eleanor of Lancaster and Richard, earl of Arundel, had five children together between 1345/6 and 1352/3: Joan, countess of Hereford; Richard the younger, earl of Arundel; Alice, countess of Kent; John, marshal of England; and Thomas, archbishop of York and Canterbury. Eleanor of Lancaster was the great-grandmother of King Henry V (b. 1386), the second Lancastrian king of England, via her daughter Joan, countess of Hereford. Via her other daughter Alice, countess of Kent, Eleanor was also the great-great-great-grandmother of the Yorkist kings Edward IV and Richard III, and via her five children who had children of their own was the ancestor of much of the English nobility in the fifteenth century. She died in January 1372; her and the earl of Arundel’s effigies in Chichester Cathedral inspired Philip Larkin’s poem ‘An Arundel Tomb.’

Henry of Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster, Earl of Leicester, Derby and Lincoln (c. 1310/12-1361)

Henry, born around 1310 or 1312 at Grosmont Castle in Wales, was the only son and heir of Henry, earl of Lancaster and Maud Chaworth, and had six sisters. He was about 10 or 12 years old when his uncle Thomas was executed in March 1322. In 1330, he married Isabella Beaumont, second daughter of Henry, Lord Beaumont and Alice Beaumont née Comyn; Isabella’s brother John, their parents’ heir, married Henry’s younger sister Eleanor the same year. Henry’s cousin Edward III made him earl of Derby in 1337, and for his entire life Henry was utterly loyal to the king and was one of the great European warriors of the fourteenth century. Much more than merely a brutal soldier, however, he was famed for his chivalry and courtesy, was an excellent diplomat, and a thoughtful, intelligent man who wrote a long religious treatise called the Book of Holy Medicines in 1354. Edward III rewarded him for his loyalty by making him duke of Lancaster in 1351, only the second duke in English history after the king’s eldest son Edward of Woodstock (b. 1330), made duke of Cornwall in 1337.

Henry of Grosmont’s marriage to Isabella Beaumont produced two daughters, Maud and Blanche, though it seems that their relationship was not a particularly happy one and Isabella is an oddly obscure figure who played no role whatsoever in her husband’s public life (even the year of her death is uncertain, probably either 1359 or 1360). Duke Henry died in Leicester in March 1361, barely even 50 years old, and was buried at the Newarke in the same town, a foundation of his father in 1330 which he had extended.

Blanche of Lancaster, Duchess of Lancaster, Countess of Richmond, Leicester, Derby and Lincoln (1342-68)

Blanche was the younger daughter of Henry of Grosmont, duke of Lancaster, and Isabella Beaumont. Her older sister was Maud, and according to the evidence of Duke Henry’s inquisition post mortem in 1361, the two sisters were born on 4 April 1340 and 25 March 1342. Blanche married Edward III’s third son John of Gaunt (b. 1340), earl of Richmond, in Reading in May 1359, and their eldest child Philippa of Lancaster, later queen of Portugal, was born 10 months and 12 days later. Two other children of Blanche and John lived into adulthood (in addition to at least three others who did not): Elizabeth, born 1363, duchess of Exeter and countess of Pembroke and Huntingdon, and Henry, born 1367, earl of Derby, duke of Hereford and Lancaster, and crowned as King Henry IV of England in 1399.

Blanche of Lancaster lost her father Henry in 1361, and the following year her sister Maud unexpectedly died too at the age of only 22. Maud had married Wilhelm of Bavaria (b. 1330), a nephew of Edward III’s queen Philippa of Hainault, but around 1357/8 the unfortunate man became insane and had to be confined for his own safety, and the couple had no surviving children. Maud returned to England after her father’s death but outlived him by just a year, and the entire vast Lancastrian inheritance thus passed to her sister Blanche and John of Gaunt, who became second duke of Lancaster. Blanche, like her sister, lived a short life: she died in September 1368 at the age of only 26, when her youngest child Henry was not even 18 months old. She was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, and John of Gaunt was buried there with her 30 years later, though he had been married to two other women in the meantime: Constanza of Castile, rightful heir to the Spanish kingdoms of Castile and Leon, and his long-term mistress Katherine Swynford, mother of four of his children.

Henry IV, King of England, Duke of Lancaster and Hereford, Earl of Derby (1367-1413)

Born at Bolingbroke Castle, Lincolnshire on 15 April 1367, Henry was the Lancastrian heir from the moment of his birth, and was a grandson of both King Edward III and of Henry of Grosmont, first duke of Lancaster. He cannot have remembered his mother Blanche. Henry had at least two and perhaps three older brothers who died in infancy, and older sisters Philippa, queen of Portugal, and Elizabeth, duchess of Exeter. His father’s subsequent relationships gave him a half-sister Katherine or Catalina, queen of Castile in Spain (b. 1372/3), and four Beaufort half-siblings born in the 1370s, John, Henry, Thomas and Joan, as well. Henry was knighted and made earl of Derby as a 10-year-old in April 1377, and two months later his grandfather Edward III died and his first cousin Richard of Bordeaux succeeded to the throne as Richard II. Richard was just three months older than Henry.

Henry of Lancaster married the great heiress Mary de Bohun (b. c. 1369) in 1381; she and her older sister Eleanor, married to Henry’s uncle Thomas of Woodstock, inherited their father’s earldoms of Hereford, Essex and Northampton. Henry and Mary’s first son Henry of Monmouth was born in September 1386, and they had younger sons Thomas, John and Humphrey and daughters Blanche and Philippa as well. Henry appears to have had an uneasy relationship with his cousin Richard II for most of the king’s reign, and although Richard made Henry duke of Hereford in 1397, he had never forgiven Henry for his actions as a Lord Appellant, one of five noblemen who tried and executed some of Richard’s chief supporters, in 1388. In October 1398 Richard seized the opportunity to exile Henry from England for 10 years, and a few months later when Richard’s uncle John of Gaunt died, he confiscated the entire vast Lancastrian inheritance. Henry returned to England in July 1399 to claim his lands, and Richard’s support collapsed completely. Henry took the throne as King Henry IV, the first Lancastrian king of England, in September 1399, and Richard died at Pontefract Castle in February 1400. Henry IV survived a number of rebellions against his rule, and died at the age of not quite 46 in March 1413, passing on his throne to his eldest son Henry of Monmouth, who succeeded as King Henry V.

By Kathryn Warner

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