Was 29th March a day of retribution for a certain 14th-century lord….?


Charles VI of France receiving English envoys, illustration from Jean Froissart’s Chronicles, 14th century.
The British Library/Robana/REX/Shutterstock.com

For the past two/three years I have been grappling (off and on, so to speak) with some defiant dates. No doubt I’ve bewailed this particular problem before because my interest in the lord concerned is quite considerable. Not least because he may have had great significance for the House of York.

So here goes again. In 1394 John Holand, Earl of Huntingdon (who would become the 1st Duke of Exeter, b. circa 1352, d. 1400), was sent abroad as a diplomatic envoy for his half-brother, Richard II. In those days (according to this site) envoys did NOT take their wives with them. European states frowned upon it because in diplomatic terms, wives were considered to be indiscreet and therefore a source of leaks. How very pompous. A blabbermouth man was necessary before a blabbermouth woman could pass anything on!

The Dukes of Exeter and Salisbury. From Jean Creton, La Prinse et mort due roy Richard, c.1401-5. British Library MS Harley 1319 f.25.

The thing is, John set off from England in January 1394, and didn’t return until March 1395. On 29th March 1395 his wife, Elizabeth of Lancaster (b. circa 1363, d. November 1426) gave birth to their second son, John Holand II (whom I will call John II from now on). Now the dates/years do seem to be correct, so the calendar difference isn’t applicable. John was out of England from January 1394 to early 1395. If he visited his wife at Dartington, Devon, where she was for the birth, he didn’t wait for the baby’s arrival because he’d joined Richard II on campaign in Ireland by 7th March.

Elizabeth of Lancaster’s tomb at St Mary’s church in Burford, Shropshire

A birth date of 29th March 1395 means the baby would have been be conceived around July 1394, when John was most certainly abroad—somewhere between Vienna and Buda by my reckoning. So this particular envoy must have taken his wife with him, yes? Well, with the best will in the world conception couldn’t have taken place if they were over 1000 miles apart.

Woodcut of medieval Buda (Budapest) from the Nuremberg Chronicle

BUT, although I can find information about John himself in Europe, there’s absolutely nothing about Elizabeth. Surely she and her ladies would have had a mention somewhere?

Renaissance diplomats

John is recorded as having appeared/pleaded/negotiated at numerous important cities/states, including Paris, Dijon, Lyon, Savoy, Turin, Milan, Venice, Vienna, Buda etc. etc. If he was breaking a rule by taking his wife with him, he can’t have simply hidden her away all the time! Nor would he even think of such a thing. She was not only his wife but very important in her own right as a daughter of John of Gaunt (and first cousin as well as sister-in-law of Richard II).

Miracle of the True Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo, oil painting by Gentile Bellini, 1500; in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, VeniceSCALA/Art Resource, New York

But then again, I can find no mention of Elizabeth in England at this time either. The lady simply vanishes from January 1394 to March 1395. Well, she does according to the research I’ve been able to do, which admittedly is hampered by my limited amateur skills. If anyone knows anything about Elizabeth during this period, please put me out of my self-imposed misery!

As I continue to assemble all the information I need for my book, time and again I have come back to this niggling problem, always coming to a grinding halt around the birth of John II. Is the above Britannica site wrong about envoys taking their wives along? Maybe there’s a simple explanation for Elizabeth’s apparent absence from all records during the relevant period? Again, can someone please enlighten me?

Edmund Leighton: The End of The Song  – Tristan and Isolde

Of course, the obvious thing is to call the baby’s paternity into question. Was Elizabeth in England all the time, and being unfaithful? Had she taken a new secret lover? But that wouldn’t explain her absence from English records as well. John doesn’t seem to have been the sort of man who’d accept another man’s child as his own, especially as he’d been abroad and the whole world would know he couldn’t possibly be the father. But…nothing. Not a ripple on the surface. John II eventually became his heir and inherited his titles as Earl of Huntingdon and Duke of Exeter.

Isabella of Castile, Duchess of York

Of course, it may have been a case of John deciding to shut up, just as Edmund of Langley (then Earl of Cambridge, later Duke of York, b. 1341 – d. 1402) had over the birth of Richard of Conisbrough (arguably b. 1375, d. 1415). At the time of conception Edmund too had been abroad (or just setting out on campaign and thus in a different part of the realm from his wife, Isabella of Castile, b.1355, d. 1392), but in his case there had been a tiny window of possibility concerning Richard’s conception. If John was in Europe throughout and Elizabeth stayed in England, there was no such window. But in the case of Richard of Conisbrough there is strong suggestion that John not Edmund was Richard’s father. Edmund certainly ignored Richard in his will, but that often happened to second sons. Everything went to the firstborn, to keep lands/estates together. So Richard’s omission may not signify anything, of course, but if ever a second son grew up impoverished, it was Richard of Conisbrough.

Richard of Conisbrough, Earl of Cambridge,

As a second son, John too had made what progress he could up the ladder of fortune. He didn’t start out well. Impulsive and hot-tempered, he was accused of two murders. The first was the torture and death of a Carmelite friar who’d said John of Gaunt planned to murder Richard II. The second was more manslaughter than premeditated murder (see what really happened at Bustardthorpe). But John was definitely involved in both crimes. No lily-white hands for him. So as a young man he wasn’t a shining example of chivalry!

Another thing for which he was famous was jousting. He was one of the finest exponents of this art in Europe, and very popular at tournaments, where he showed off in grand theatrical manner. So I think it’s fair to say his was a flambuoyant personality.

Joust at Betanzos, 1387, between Reginald de Roye and John Holland, which took place in front of John of Gaunt. from Jean Froissart’s Chroniques

As he grew older he calmed down from his hot youth—hence his selection for this diplomatic mission, but in one thing he was constant; he was charismatic, and when he set out to charm he was apparently masterly. Not that his famous charm saved him from summary execution by his enemies at the beginning of 1400.

He certainly didn’t have a spotless record when it came to hopping into beds in which he had no business to be. Not only did he have an affair with Isabella, but his subsequent marriage to Gaunt’s daughter, Elizabeth of Lancaster, hadn’t been without scandal. He’d apparently wooed her so passionately that she eventually gave in, with the inevitable outcome. Claims abound that at the time she was still married to a boy-husband, John Hastings, Earl of Pembroke, but my investigations have it that the marriage had been annulled a year or more before she found herself in trouble. Was John suddenly and hopelessly in love? Or was he a second son making sure he gained a wife who could only further his career? Was he calculating enough to do that? Yes. But love isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility.

The lost tomb of Elizabeth of Lancaster’s parents, John of Gaunt and his wife Blanche, Old St.Paul’s Cathedral

Gaunt—a famous adulterer himself!—accepted the situation and a very hasty wedding was arranged. The newly-weds were then whisked out of England with Gaunt’s great army on a campaign to take the crown of Castile, which he claimed in right of his duchess, Constance, Isabella’s elder sister.

I don’t know of any more amorous shenanigans on John’s part, except for one illegitimate son (possibly born 1388/89) so I don’t think he was the proverbial rabbit. Nor do I think for a moment he was a model of piety and faithfulness. By the time he left on the embassy to Europe he’d acknowledged his illegitimate son (who grew up with the surname Huntingdon, the title John possessed from 1388 on) so Elizabeth almost certainly knew. As did John II, who had contact with his illegitimate half-brother in later years. So it wasn’t brushed under the carpet. Elizabeth wasn’t in a position to say much because of her father’s record.

So, was 29th March 1395 John Holand’s day of retribution? The day the nemesis of his past finally caught up with him? I don’t know, but magnates in those days (or any other days!) seldom admitted to wearing horns. And besides, like Richard of Conisbrough, John II was another second son. Neither was meant to inherit.

Did John now find himself in exactly the same situation that he’d put Edmund of Langley? We’ll never know. And some might say that if he did, it served him right. Tit for tat. One thing though, if he was indeed Richard of Conisbrough’s father, then he was also the grandfather of Richard, 3rd Duke of York and great-grandfather of Edward IV and Richard III. So perhaps he had the last laugh.

Footnote: Since writing the above I have discovered something that may indicate that under certain diplomatic/religious circumstances wives did travel with their envoy husbands I refer to a new knightly order formed by the Frenchman, Philippe de Mézières. John Holand’s embassy was based around this order, the purpose of which was to drive the Turks out of Hungary. To this end King Sigismund of Hungary was also pressing the western countries and states to join together in a crusade.

Mézières was inspired by a vision he had at the age of twenty on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and spent his life promoting the Order of the Passion which the vision had commanded him to form. Mézières accepted that the presence of wives would keep the knights in chaste conjugal lives….no fornication in hot climes! To say nothing of encouraging more men to join the crusade. He also urged knights to marry the widows of their fallen comrades. Mézières was very aware of the usefulness of the right women.

By Mézières’ rules John could take Elizabeth with him. If that was the case the date of his son’s birth isn’t awkward at all.

I found the information about the Order of the Passion at this link.



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