He was the seventh child and fifth but fourth eldest surviving son of King Edward III (b. 1312) and Philippa of Hainault (b. c. 1314). His elder brothers were Edward of Woodstock, prince of Wales (1330-1376), Lionel of Antwerp, duke of Clarence (1338-1368), and John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster (1340-1399), and he had a younger brother, Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester (1355-1397), as well. Edmund was probably named in honour of his father’s uncle Edmund of Woodstock, earl of Kent (1301-1330), and his godfathers included John de Warenne, earl of Surrey (1286-1347) and Surrey’s nephew Richard Fitzalan, earl of Arundel (c. 1313-1376). In his own lifetime, Edmund was called Sire Esmon de Langele, and when he was 13 in 1354 he petitioned his father the king calling himself son petit fuitz Esmon or ‘his [Edward III’s] little son Edmund.’ Edmund remained in the custody of his mother Queen Philippa until he was 13. He became a Knight of the Garter in 1361, earl of Cambridge in 1362, and duke of York in 1385, a brand-new title bestowed on him by his nephew Richard II (born 1367, reigned 1377-1399).
Edmund’s father attempted for several years to arrange his marriage to the great heiress Margaret of Flanders, a marriage which would have given Edmund control of the continental counties of Flanders, Rethel, Nevers and Artois when Margaret’s father Louis died in 1384, but the powerful kingdom of France prevented the match and Margaret married Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, youngest son of King John II of France and brother of Charles V. Edmund married instead, on 11 July 1372, Isabel of Castile, younger daughter of the late King Pedro ‘the Cruel’ of Castile (the largest and most powerful kingdom of medieval Spain). Isabel was only 16 or 17 to Edmund’s 31, and brought him no lands or income or even the promise of such because her elder sister Constanza – who married Edmund’s elder brother John of Gaunt as his second wife in September 1371 – was their father’s heir. John and Constanza spent many years trying unsuccessfully to claim her late father’s throne from her illegitimate half-uncle Enrique of Trastamara, while Edmund and Isabel were required to give up any claims to the kingdom of Castile and were not compensated. The chronicler Jean Froissart called Edmund of Langley ‘indolent, guileless and peaceable,’ and he perhaps did not have the ambition and drive of his four brothers, though in fairness his lack of landed wealth hampered the exercise of any abilities he might have possessed. His brother John, duke of Lancaster and titular king of Castile, enjoyed an annual income of around £12,000; Edmund of Langley was promised £500 from the Exchequer in November 1377, but by February 1380 none of this small amount had been paid. When he was made duke of York in 1385 he was promised an annual income of £1,000, but this was not much for a royal duke and probably he struggled to receive even this amount.
Edmund of Langley and Isabel of Castile appear to have been rather mismatched on a personal level, and it is surely revealing that in Isabel’s will of 1392 she left items to all her children, her brother-in-law the duke of Lancaster and her sister-in-law the duchess of Gloucester, but nothing at all to her husband. On the other hand, in Edmund’s own will of 1400 he requested burial ‘near my beloved Isabele, formerly my consort.’ The couple had three children. The eldest was Edward, earl of Rutland, duke of Albemarle and his father’s successor as duke of York, born in 1373 or 1374 and knighted at his cousin Richard II’s coronation in July 1377. The only York daughter was Constance, born sometime between 1374 and 1376, and the second son was Richard of Conisbrough, whose date of birth is difficult to ascertain but was perhaps as late as c. 1385. Isabel of Castile, first duchess of York, died in December 1392 at the age of about 37 and was buried at Langley Priory in Hertfordshire. About 11 months later her widower Edmund married Joan Holland, second of the five daughters of the earl of Kent and the half-niece of Richard II, who was, confusingly, her new husband’s nephew. Joan was born around 1375 or 1380 so was decades Edmund’s junior, and the couple had no children. Duke Edmund died at Langley in Hertfordshire, his birthplace, on 1 August 1402 at the age of 61, the last surviving child of King Edward III and the only one to live past 1400. His elder son Edward succeeded him and became second duke of York.
In the 1390s when he reached adulthood, Edmund of Langley’s elder son Edward was a close supporter of his cousin King Richard II, who made him earl of Rutland in 1390 when he was about 16.
Sometime in the late 1390s, Edward of York married, and his choice was a most unconventional one: his new wife Philippa Mohun was many years his senior and twice a widow, and she brought him no lands, income or powerful in-laws. It must have been a love-match, though the couple were to have no children. Edward’s sister Constance had married in 1379 when she was somewhere between three and five years old and her husband six. He was Thomas, Lord Despenser, a descendant of King Edward I and heir of the wealthy and powerful Despenser family. Constance and Thomas’s only son Richard died in 1413 in his teens, and the Despenser heir was their daughter Isabelle Despenser, born posthumously in July 1400 six and a half months after Thomas was summarily executed in Bristol after taking part in a plot to restore the deposed Richard II to the throne. The third and youngest York child, Richard of Conisbrough, married Anne Mortimer, and their son Richard, born in 1411, was the heir both of his mother’s childless brother Edmund Mortimer, earl of March and Ulster, and his father’s childless brother Edward, second duke of York. Richard of York was the father of two kings of England, Edward IV and Richard III; Richard III’s queen Anne Neville, meanwhile, was a great-granddaughter of Constance of York, Lady Despenser. The House of York was descended from Edward III’s fourth son Edmund of Langley, and Anne Mortimer, mother of Richard of York, bequeathed her son a line of descent from Edward III’s second son Lionel of Antwerp, duke of Clarence, as well. This was a key point in the fifteenth-century Yorkists’ claim to the throne, as the Lancastrian kings Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI were only descended from Edward III’s third son John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster.
In October 1398, Richard II exiled his first cousin Henry of Lancaster, duke of Hereford and earl of Derby, from England for 10 years. Four months later Richard’s uncle John of Gaunt died, and Richard made the fateful decision to confiscate the entire vast Lancastrian inheritance and to exile Henry permanently. Henry returned to England in July 1399 to claim his inheritance, and Richard II’s support simply collapsed. A wave of support across the whole kingdom swept Henry of Lancaster onto the throne in September 1399 as King Henry IV. Edmund of Langley, duke of York, caught between two nephews, ended up supporting Henry, though his son-in-law Thomas Despenser was beheaded in January 1400 after plotting to restore the deposed Richard II to the throne. Edmund’s son Edward, second duke of York, was mostly loyal to his cousin Henry IV. He was, however, imprisoned in 1405 after he and his sister Constance attempted to free the young Mortimer brothers, descendants of their uncle Lionel of Antwerp, duke of Clarence, from house arrest at Windsor. This was an attack on Henry IV’s rule, though Edward was eventually forgiven. He was killed fighting for Henry IV’s son Henry V at the battle of Agincourt in October 1415, just a few weeks after his younger brother Richard of Conisbrough, earl of Cambridge, was executed after he took part in a plot to put his brother-in-law Edmund Mortimer, earl of March and Ulster (d. 1425), on the throne. Cambridge’s heir was his four-year-old son Richard of York, who was also the heir of his uncles Edward of York and Edmund Mortimer. Decades later, Richard of York would claim the throne of his Lancastrian kinsman, Henry V’s son Henry VI.
By Kathryn Warner