From The Wall Street Journal:
John of Gaunt is among the best-known figures from medieval England. One reason is the speech that Shakespeare gives him in “Richard II,” a hymn to England itself: “This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, / This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, / This other Eden, demi-paradise.” Who, in history, was the man we know mostly from his eloquence on stage?
Shakespeare calls Gaunt “time-honoured Lancaster,” a reference to the duchy that he acquired as the result of the first of his three marriages. The liaison made him, as Duke of Lancaster, the richest nobleman in 14th-century England. He was also royal-born, the third (surviving) son of Edward III and the brother of Edward, the heir apparent, who died too young to assume the throne. Edward was called the Black Prince—no one is quite sure why, perhaps it was an allusion to the color of his armor. Helen Carr’s fascinating biography of John of Gaunt is called “The Red Prince,” a coinage meant to refer, presumably, to the heraldic red rose associated with the House of Lancaster.
As Ms. Carr reminds us, England’s 14th century was turbulent, to say the least. Two kings—Gaunt’s grandfather Edward II and his nephew Richard II—were deposed and then murdered in prison. England was intermittently at war with France. The bubonic plague—the Black Death—killed at least a third of the English population. A violent peasants’ revolt erupted.
Other aspects of the period were less disturbing. Most notably, English gradually replaced French as the language of the governing class, leading to the first flowering of English literature: Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” and Langland’s “Piers Plowman.” Chaucer, a government official, would become, late in life, John of Gaunt’s brother-in-law.
Maturity came early in those days. At the age of 15, Gaunt was serving in France alongside the Black Prince, who was “without doubt,” Ms. Carr says, Gaunt’s “role model.” Gaunt shared the glory of his brother’s victory at Poitiers, one of the few decisive pitched battles of the war, which was otherwise a matter of sieges and plundering raids. Exhaustion led to a treaty and a temporary peace, but war soon broke out again. By the late 1360s, the health of the Black Prince was in decline, and the king himself, Edward III, was drifting into senility. John of Gaunt became, of necessity, the pillar of the regime. He was loyal, rich and capable.
Even so, his task was formidable and at times beyond even his capacities. The taxation required to finance the French war was immensely unpopular. In 1371, Parliament became assertive, attacking the government for corruption and inefficiency. To appease the Commons, the old king’s mistress, Alice Perrers, was banished from court. According to Ms. Carr, Gaunt “was furious that the king’s dirty laundry had been aired before Parliament.” The Black Prince died in June of that year, the king a year later. The new king, Richard II, was still a child, and discontent seethed.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal