11 September 2018

A Wise Financial Decision: Blanche of Lancaster

Detail from The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry
via Wikimedia Commons
Some kings have too few sons and some kings have too many. When the prolific Edward III and his Queen Philippa of Hainault produced five strapping sons (plus five daughters) who lived to adulthood, the royal line certainly seemed secure. More fragile, however, was the royal treasury. Grown-up princes are luxuries that most kingdoms can rarely afford. How to provide lands and income for so many sons? Edward III had a perfect solution: heiresses!

Fortunately, some of England's richest lords had not been as prolific as Edward and Philippa, leaving no sons to claim their vast holdings. First son Edward Prince of Wales married his cousin Joan, who was Countess of Kent in her own right. Second son Lionel married Elizabeth de Burgh, 4th Countess of Ulster. (See my post about her.) While fourth son Edmund Duke of York married a Spanish princess, fifth son Thomas Duke of Gloucester married Eleanor de Bohn, co-heiress of the great Earl of Hereford. But, the one who really hit the heiress jackpot was third son John of Gaunt, who at age 19 married Blanche of Lancaster, the younger of two daughters of Henry 1st Duke of Lancaster.

Henry was not only Duke of Lancaster; he was also Earl of Derby and Earl of Leicester. He was the second person ever to be created a Duke in England, a favor he earned for his service to the king at the Siege of Calais. Although most peerages today cannot be inherited by daughters (neither of Prince Andrew's daughters will become Duchess of York), in those days, a man's titles and riches could go to his daughters, but they were split among multiple daughters. Thus, Blanche and her older sister Maud were set to inherit his riches upon his death.

John and Blanche married in May 1359. He was 19. There is some historical debate over Blanche's birthdate, but she was likely in her early teens at the time. Ten months later, their first child Philippa was born. In March 1361, both Henry Duke of Lancaster and Blanche's mother Isabella de Beaumont were killed by the plague and Henry's vast fortune was divided between Blanche and Maud. Among other properties, Blanche received the earldom of Lancaster and John, as her husband, received the right to use that title. His father, the king, later elevated him to Duke of Lancaster, like his late father-in-law. Just one year after that, Maud also died from the plague. Since she had no children, all of her inherited titles and properties went to Blanche and therefore also to John. They were now among the richest people in Britain. Their household was comparable in size to the king's household and their annual income was equal to several million dollars a year in today's money.

With their financial future set, John and Blanche continued building their family. Sadly, their second child, a son named John died as a baby as did another little boy named a Edward, a second baby also named John, and a little girl named Isabel. However, their third child Elizabeth thrived and their youngest son Henry of Bolingbroke was also hearty and healthy. All seven children were born in the first nine years of the marriage.

The Marriage of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster in Reading
Abbey on 19 May 1359
by Horace White, 1915, via Wikimedia Commons
Blanche was considered a very lovely young woman and John is thought to have been in love with her, something that was assuredly not true of most royal and noble marriages of the day. They were also leaders of society and a huge establishment in London, that was later destroyed by fire. Among their wide circle was a young man named Geoffrey Chaucer, who as a poet, would become one of the most famous people of the 14th century. Another interesting person associated with their household was a gentleman named Hugh Swynford. One of Hugh's daughters was named Blanche after the Duchess and the Duke was godfather to the child. The Swynford girls were placed in the household of the two Lancaster daughters, Philippa and Elizabeth. Eventually, Hugh's wife Katherine even became governess to the Lancaster princesses. Katherine Swynford (whose sister Philippa was married to Geoffrey Chaucer -- read my post about these sisters) would later play a very significant role in John of Gaunt's life.

For a woman who lost every member of her family to the Black Death, Blanche is supposed by some to have been terrified of the relentless pestilence. And, it may have been the plague that took her life, too, on September 12, 1368. Unlike her birth date, we do know her death date, but we know little else. Was it indeed the Black Death or was it that other relentless killer of young women: childbirth. What we know for sure, is that John was overseas and that he seems to have entered into a true mourning. This is at least the belief of many who interpret Chaucer's poem, "The Book of the Duchess," as retelling of John's grief over his "young and pretty," "fair and bright" duchess. However, it is not certain that John commissioned the work or that Chaucer even modeled his characters on them, but I would say it is likely.

What is known for sure is that John, after he was already married to his second wife Costanza of Castile (for whom he fought unsuccessfully to claim her Spanish throne), ordered a extravagant tomb to built for Blanche and for himself at St. Paul's Cathedral. In almost certain sign of affection, their figures are holding hands on the tomb. By the time he died in 1399, he had married his third wife, the above-mentioned Katherine Swynford, who became his mistress sometime after Blanche's death and throughout his marriage to Constance. The relationship between Katherine and John is considered another of the era's great romances, but at the end of his life, John still chose to spend eternity next to Blanche. Sadly, their monument was destroyed along with a huge chunk of London in the Great Fire of 1666.

Despite her death at a young age (somewhere in her 20s), Blanche and John's marriage left two lasting legacies to the British monarchy. First, their surviving son Henry of Bolingbroke became King of England as the first monarch in the House of Lancaster. Despite having grown up with his cousin King Richard II, young Henry had several serious quarrels with the king as an adult, one of which led to Richard banishing him from the kingdom. While he was abroad, John of Gaunt died and Richard denied Henry the right to succeed his father to the title and wealth of the Duchy of Lancaster. This inspired Henry to raise an army, depose Richard, and have himself declared king. This was the first spark that eventually led to the Wars of the Roses. (Interestingly, the wars were ended by a descendant of John of Gaunt's legitimized Beaufort children by Katherine Swynford.)

As king, Henry ensured the permanent impact of Blanche and John's second legacy: the Duchy of Lancaster itself. He attached the duchy to the monarch himself (or herself) as a private estate. Since Henry IV, every English and later British monarch has also been the Duke of Lancaster, regardless of gender. The duchy is held and administered separately from the Crown Estate for the benefit of the monarch. (The Duchy of Cornwall is similarly held for the heir.) Today, the Duchy of Lancaster includes more than 45,000 acres of property and other investments, which in 2018 are valued at nearly $700 million. However, the monarch cannot touch the capital in the portfolio, but does get to use its income, an amount equal to about $26 million per year. As Duke of Lancaster, the Queen is not required to pay tax on the portfolio or on its income. Nevertheless, she voluntarily pays income tax and capital gains tax on it.

When Elizabeth II's great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Edward III, married his sons off to heiresses, he knew that he was making a wise financial decision, but he could never have imagined just how well it really would pay.

For More about Blanche of Lancaster
Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster on History...The Interesting Bits
Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster in Modern Philology
Blanche of Lancaster on English Monarchs
Blanche of Lancaster on Meandering Through Time
Blanche of Lancaster on Royal Women
Blanche of Lancaster, Duchess of Lancaster on Unofficial Royalty
Blanche: The Woman Behind the House of Lancaster on Rebecca Starr Brown
The Complicated Love Life of John of Gaunt on English Historical Fiction Authors
The Lady & the Unicorn on Plantagenet Dynasty
The Date of Birth of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster on Edward II
The Marriage of John of Gaunt & Blanche of Lancaster on Naked History
'Nature's Chief Patron of Beauty' on History of Royal Women
#OnThisDay in 1368 on Royal Central

05 September 2018

An African Honeymoon

Via Wikimedia Commons
The royal newlyweds emerged from their safari tent and headed to their favorite spot to watch the sun rise on another happy day far from the world back home. The tiny bride was dressed more casually than history would ever have cause to remember her. Her white cotton trousers and blouse draped over, catching with every breeze. Her dark hair hung in a long braid to her waist, for once free of the eternal updo that was usually tucked under the fashionable cloche of the day and would later be hidden under giant feathered hats with upturned brims or fuzzy turbans in bright colors. For these brief weeks, the new Duchess of York was free to be just Elizabeth, just Bertie's wife. Still nervous, perhaps, about the future before her, but blissfully unaware of what the decades would bring.

Beside her, Prince Albert is uncharacteristically serene. The second son of an overbearing father and a distant mother (who also happened to be King George VI and Queen Mary) and the product of neglectful, even abusive nursery staff, Albert Duke of York, was slender and sickly. Leg braces had forced most of the knock out of his knees but it would take years of speech therapy, encouraged and supported by Elizabeth, to control the anxious stammer he developed from his insecure upbringing. Compared to his confident, exuberant, athletic older brother the Prince of Wales, Bertie looked fairly pitiful. But, he was a hard worker, brave and tenacious. Despite lifelong battles with stomach ailments, which often sent him for long convalescences during the Great War, he had fought courageously on HMS Collingwood during the Battle of Jutland. After the war, he devoted himself to improving working conditions and even launched his own series of programs and camps for young man.

From the Royal Collection via Wikimedia Commons
No one expected much of him. Even Elizabeth turned down his marriage proposal not once, but twice. Her concerns were less about the shy young man with a flash of temper and more about what it would mean to be a princess. The youngest daughter of an Earl, she had been born into a large, boisterous and joyful family. Their homes in Scotland and England were always filled with guests and family, parties, singing and fun, except during the war when Glamis Castle became a hospital and teenaged Elizabeth helped look after the recovering soldiers and sailors, many of whom fell half in love with her, and all of whom she would recognize again years later and miles away when her duties brought them together again. Vibrant and charming, Elizabeth had many suitors from which to choose and the son of a king was no particular catch for her. But Bertie was persistent and eventually won her hand, much to his parents' delight. They welcomed their first daughter-in-law with more warmth than they are usually credited and it is rumored that only she (and later her daughters) could turn her gruff father-in-law into a Teddy bear.

Elizabeth thought that interest in her as a royal bride would soon fade. Once Bertie's older brother married and had children, Bertie would move further and further from the throne, and they would be able to simply enjoy their life together: dancing until the early hours in London or Paris, dashing off to country house parties, fishing in freezing Scottish rivers, interrupted occasionally by royal duties. She was grateful for this holiday far from the attention back in Britain. What an adventure! But, even their African safari honeymoon had been interrupted by their royal responsibilities.

Embed from Getty Images


Now, however, they were just two young people tramping across the African landscape. Their trip had been planned to serve the British Empire, which was still strong and growing in the 1920s. In fact, Britain had taken over two million square miles from Germany after the Great War, but the strains on the continent were still growing, too. The government sent the happy, young couple to shake hands and say thank you to the African nations who had sacrificed to much in the war. They were the first British royals to visit East Africa in nearly 15 years, and so they traveled far and wide and people traveled from either further afield to see them. They came to Kenya, Uganda and the Sudan from the Congo and Nyasaland. The couple opened parks and clubs, met with government and tribal officials, attended Christmas Day services at an English church and again at an African one. Engagement after engagement, they smiled and charmed their way across African society at every level.

Until, at last, they were granted this treat: three weeks on a safari, a kind of belated honeymoon for the Duke and Duchess, who had married 20 months earlier. The couple who had spent their courtship and early marriage in the clubs all night and sleeping until the crack of noon, soon found themselves enjoying early mornings creeping through bushes to watch zebras, rhinos, lions and giraffes. They walked and walked, as much as 20 miles in a day, soaking in the tropical sun and enjoying their wild new companions. Elizabeth was a keen reporter in her letters back home, "Rhinos are very funny," she wrote, "very fussy, like old gentlemen, & very busy all the time, quite ridiculous in fact."

They camped in wild areas on some nights, unable to sleep for the noise of lions and hyenas circling round, unaware of the royal status of the humans in the tents. They shot big game. The Duchess herself took to rifle, becoming quite a crack at killing zebras and rhinos, but frequently opining that it broke her heart to do so. When at last they drove 200 miles back to civilization in Nairobi, Elizabeth had her hair washed and set for the first time in weeks. "Feel clean again!" she told her diary.

The official royal duties carried on as though they had never ceased. More clubs, more dinners, more railway platforms, more tribal ceremonies before being interrupted by another little safari, walking and boating in Uganda, where she had a close encounter with an elephant. "It came bearing down on us at full speed, so we slipped behind an ant hill & flew past."

Through all the adventure, one thing was clear to the couple's hosts and guides: the Yorks were in love. "Left no doubt as to whether it was a love match," one of their guides wrote. "He utterly adores her."

The official tour continued down the Nile into Sudan, still rife with anti-British rebellions. Then, it was on to Tonga. At every stop, they were greeted by British officials and tribal leaders and welcomed with great ceremony to see new buildings and inspect new dams. After nearly four months of interwoven royal tour and private safari, the Duke and Duchess at last set sail back to Britain. "It is very sad having nothing to get up for now!" she confided to her diary.

Throughout her long life, Elizabeth would return again and again to the African continent. Perhaps the most famous visit would be the couple's post-World War II tour of South Africa and Rhodesia. By then, her brother-in-law had shirked the throne, making the Duke and Duchess King and Queen. They triumphantly led the nation and the soon-to-crumble empire through the war and emerged on the other side ready to celebrate a new future. For this tour, they brought along their daughters, Margaret and Elizabeth, who on that trip turned 21 and pledged that her whole life, "whether it be long or short shall be devoted...to the great imperial family to which we all belong."

SOUTH AFRICA 1947
Embed from Getty Images

Just five years later, their daughter Elizabeth would be deep in Kenya when Bertie's life slipped away in his sleep back in England, and older Elizabeth's life would take another new and unexpected course that would stretch five decades into a new millennium.

Throughout the years of her long widowhood, Elizabeth, now best known as The Queen Mother, her gentle smile and untiring devotion to duty helped heal many of the rifts that decolonization brought as the Empire transitioned to the Commonwealth. In 1953, she made her first tour as a widow back to Rhodesia. For the first time, Bertie was not by her side as she retraced many of the steps that they had taken as a family in 1947. On a visit to Kenya in 1959 with Margaret, she arrived following a terrible drought. In her opening speech, she hoped for rain. Within an hour, the rains finally arrived and she was hailed as a rain-maker by the local Masai. A year later, she was back in Rhodesia to open a dam, where she understood the need to shift to black rule, but was concerned about the growing gulf between whites and blacks. When the divide erupted into a white-ruled Rhodesia and an apartheid South Africa, she was deeply disappointed but never surrendered her interest in these countries. When apartheid ended and South Africa was readmitted to the Commonwealth, she was beaming with delight at the celebration service in London.

Embed from Getty Images

Elizabeth continued her world travels well into her 90s, rarely slowing her pace for the younger people who traveled with her. Often, they would schedule "time off" during her tours, but she always filled those hours up with some new adventure, just as she had done so many decades earlier following the Nile with her husband.

In her last moments, 50 years and one month after Bertie's death and nearly 80 years after that first safari dawn, Elizabeth's thoughts might have slipped back to those precious, private moments when it was just her and her sweetheart alone in a giant world far from the crown they would carry.

For More About Elizabeth



31 August 2018

Empress and Mother

By Andreas Moller via Wikimedia Commons
Among Empress Maria Theresa of Austria's many accomplishments is one that none of her male counterparts could ever have achieved: she was pregnant for more than 13 years! The first three of her children were born before her accession at age 23, but the remaining 13 children arrived after her contested rise to the throne. She spent the first several years of her reign battling against opponents who thought a woman should not be empress, and for much of that time, she was heavily pregnant. If not for that, she said she herself would have taken to the battlefield to defend her right.

It was a right that her father, Emperor Charles VI had sought desperately to assure. In a nation hampered by Salic law that barred female accession, Charles realized early on that his death could mean the end of his dynasty on the throne. After his older brother's death leaving only a daughter, Charles was the only male left standing. After three years of childless marriage, he began to worry about the issue. If he had no children, he wanted his brother's daughter, Maria Josepha, to succeed him. In 1713, he issued the Pragmatic Sanction declaring that a woman could inherit his hereditary possessions, which at that time included Austria, Hungry, Croatia, Bohemia, Milan, Naples, Sicily, and the Austrian Netherlands. He spent the rest of his life trying to convince foreign rules and rival claimants to respect this decision. Once his own daughters were born, he became even more obsessed by it. (His first child, a son born in 1716 died that same year.) He even traded off territory and made financial commitments to convince them.

Maria Theresa and Francis Stephen with 11 of their children.
By Martin van Meytens via Wikimedia Commons
All to no avail. Upon his death in 1740, Maria Theresa, who had been born in 1717, succeeded him but the War of the Austrian Succession began almost immediately. Her father's policies had left her with a depleted treasury and weakened army. He'd also done little to prepare her as a monarch. She was in a poor position when France, Prussia, Bavaria, and Spain opposed her accession, mostly for territorial not moral reasons. Fortunately, she had strong support from most of her own territories, particularly Hungary and Croatia. The war (or wars since several other European conflicts are tied to it) carried on for eight years. Maria Theresa was ultimately successful although she did lose Silesia to Prussia (an incredible economic boon to Prussia and a victory that helped earn its king the epithet Frederick the Great). Her husband, Francis Stephen of Lorraine, was elected Holy Roman Emperor, a title that had usually been given to the Habsburg ruler of Austria.

She would fight Frederick the Great two more times, but he always had the greatest respect for her, calling her "the only man among my opponents."

Maria Theresa was one of the earliest examples of a successful "working mother", taking her dual roles equally seriously. She was keenly aware of her children's value to the Hapsburg dynasty (which had often used marriage as a means of acquiring riches, lands and allies) but she was also deeply in love with them and highly involved in their education and upbringing. When her daughters went off to marry foreign princes, her frequent correspondence advised them not just about their duties as wives and mothers but of their political roles as daughters of Austria. Two of her daughters became queen consorts: Maria Carolina of Naples and Sicily and the most famous of her children, Marie Antoinette of France, whose struggles with fertility and with "fitting in" in the Parisian court deeply concerned her mother, who thankfully did not live long enough to see Antoinette's execution in the French Revolution.

By Martin van Meytens via Wikimedia Commons
Once she had secured her throne in the war, Maria Theresa set about creating a better nation for her people. She tightened and simplified the relationships between the many nations over which she ruled, strengthening the political and military bonds between them. She addressed every area of society, including health care with new hospitals and the championing of the newfangled idea of inoculation, with which she controversially treated her own children against smallpox. She revised the civil code, banning the burning of witches that had so possessed Europe in the previous centuries. She provided more protections and freedom for the serfs against their landlords. She also expanded educational opportunities for both boys and girls. Strangely for a ruler of her times, she was less interested in culture and the arts, failing even to recognize the brilliance of the young Mozart. Despite this, Vienna emerged as a cultural center in the German-speaking world and in Central Europe.

Throughout her early reign, she relied upon a strong relationship first with her husband, whom she loved dearly. After his death in 1765 she appointed her son Joseph as co-ruler, but their relationship was less smooth, mainly due to temperamental differences but also some fundamental political disagreements. She strongly disagreed with Joseph's support of partitioning Poland between Austria, Germany and Russia, only changing her mind after realizing that Germany and Russia would gladly leave Austria out.

Maria Theresa passed away in 1780 at the age of 63, leaving behind a much stronger Hapsburg empire than she had inherited.


More about Maria Theresa
Consort Profile: Empress Maria Theresa of Austria on The Mad Monarchist
Fit for an Empress: 2017 Exhibition for Maria Theresia on Royal Central
Franz I, Emperor of Austria on Unofficial Royalty
A Letter from Maria Theresa on Tea at Trianon
Maria Theresa on Biography
Maria Theresa on Enlightenment and Revolution
Maria Theresa on History's Women
Maria Theresa on The Love of History
Maria Theresa on New Advent
Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria on Women's History
Maria Theresa Inherits a Throne But Not Much Else! on Every Day is Special
Maria Theresa Obituary on The True Life of an Austrian Empress
Maria Theresa, the Original "Lean In" Woman on Castles & Coffeehouses
Maria Theresia of Austria, A Working Mother of 16 on Motherhood in Prehistory
Maria Theresa's Throne in 1740 on Lo Que Paso en la Historia
What made Austria's Maria Theresa a One-of-a-Kind Ruler on DW
The Year of Maria Theresa: Holy Roman Empress on History of Royal Women
The Year of Maria Theresa: Marriage to Francis of Lorraine on History of Royal Women