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

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