Sunday, April 12, 2015

The last knight

Subtitled the twilight of the Middle Ages and the birth of the modern era, this book by Norman F Cantor is a biography of John of Gaunt (1340-1399), the third son of Edward III and Philippa de Hainaut. John of Gaunt through his marriage to Blanche of Lancaster became one of the richest men in Europe when Blanche inherited her father's fortune.

The book looks at John of Gaunt as a landowner, a leader as a soldier and in the political scene, relationships with women, relationship with the Church and patron of the arts. He owned large estates, particularly in the north of England, as well as the Savoy Palace in London. He was a soldier and with his bother, the Black Prince, was involved in successful battles against the French however his quest to become King of Castile was not so successful. As the uncle of Richard II John of Gaunt was a man of power, particularly in the early years of his nephew's reign. Cantor looks at Gaunt's role, not just in national politics but also at the local level. The political unrest known as the Peasants Revolt made John of Gaunt one of its main targets destroying his property in London. Fortunately John of Gaunt and his family were not in London at the time. Political change was also evolving with the development of elected parliaments. John of Gaunt strongly supported the succession of the monarchy but after he died his son took over the throne from his cousin.

John of Gaunt was married three times - first to Blanche, a woman he loved as well as being a successful marriage financially, then a purely political marriage to Constance of Castile and finally to Catherine Swynford, his long-time mistress. He had fourteen children and is reputed to ensuring that they were all well looked after. Family members held positions of power in Europe for many generations.

The author also devotes chapters to Gaunt's religious beliefs - his patronage initially of John Wyclif and later of the Carmelite monks - and also his patronage of the arts, particularly in regard to Geoffrey Chaucer. Cantor argues that the Reformation was beginning to evolve during the life of John of Gaunt. There were changes in attitudes towards the Church long before Henry VII had a disagreement with the Pope. There were also changes in literature with writers such as Chaucer writing in English and reflecting on life as they saw it. John of Gaunt supported some of these changes but as he grew older his views became more conservative.

John of Gaunt had the money and the power to live in style and he did. However the end of the fourteenth century was a time of cultural and social change in England and, argues Cantor, John of Gaunt and members of his family after him were part of the these developments.

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