John of Gaunt by Kathryn Warner

This is a very valuable new biography of John of Gaunt. As usual with this author, the incredibly complex network of family relationships is successfully navigated.

There is a fair amount of ‘correction of the record’. For example, Duchess Blanche did not die of plague in 1369, but of unknown causes in 1368. Duchess Constanza was not a horrid, smelly, religious fanatic, but a beautiful woman, almost certainly blonde, religiously devout but by no means fanatical or obsessed. Katherine Swynford was probably some years older than was once thought. You will find many more clarifications of this kind.

It is a pity that little of Gaunt‘s personal character shines through, but then this is not a novel but a factual account based on sources. One thing is for sure. He was incredibly wealthy. His brothers were simply not in the same league, financially. It seems he was often thought to be aloof and even arrogant, but he was in fact capable of individual acts of kindness and generosity. Like Mr Darcy, the impression is that he was a ‘good master’ to those who served him and to his tenants.

A very useful part of the book is an almost complete translation of Gaunt’s enormously long and complex will. (However ill he was at the end, if he dictated all its detailed provisions, he must have retained his mental acuity to the day of his death.) His alms to the poor, as intended, were equivalent to millions in modern money. This was only part of the bequests he intended for the welfare of his soul.

This is a book well worth having for anyone interested in Gaunt, his family, or the era in general. Recommended.

5 comments

  1. I have to agree with Sighthound concerning this much-needed biography. Kathryn Warner is always eminently readable, and can be relied upon to dig out small facts that pass other historians by…and to correct the oft-repeated chestnuts. John of Gaunt is not my favourite by any means, and nothing will ever convince me he didn’t set out to force his own line on to the succession. And this was before it could be suspected that Richard II might never produce heirs of his own. Gaunt was busy from the outset. By this I mean that he worked on the dying Edward III to exclude the Mortimers (from a more senior royal son) from the throne because they descended through a female line. Apparently such an entail was indeed forthcoming, which was pretty rich considering Edward claimed the throne of France through his mother, and Gaunt claimed Castile through his wife. One rule for them, another for everyone else. So praise for Gaunt as the epitome of noble, good and fair always rings a little false for me. Nevertheless, Ms Warner managed (from time to time!) to make me actually like him! Such moments were fleeting, I hasten to add, but it’s a mark of the book’s quality that they ever came into being! The upshot is that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and don’t hesitate to recommend it to others.

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