The House of Lancaster

The House of Lancaster


A short history of the House of Lancaster. Over the course of thirty character studies, five generations of a medieval dynasty are brought to life.

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The House of Lancaster was a royal family made up of an extraordinary group of men and women. Heirs to great riches, and onerous responsibilities, they conducted their lives and pursued their ambitions across decades of turbulence and danger. They deposed kings and were themselves overthrown. They raised palaces and watched them burn to the ground. They were gentle with their friends and raged against betrayal, and, in the battlefields of England and France, they bound their destiny to the fortunes of a kingdom.

This book describes the people who might be said to make up the second house of Lancaster. The first earldom, created by Henry III for his son, Edmund Crouchback, was attached to a large territory based around Lancaster on England’s north west coast. By the time Edward III made his fourth son duke of Lancaster in 1362, the territories were more dispersed, with holdings across the midlands and Wales, as well as the north. The duchy immediately became the richest and most prestigious property in the kingdom besides the crown itself, a situation which inevitably inspired intrigue, resentment and, eventually, war.

The lives of this dynasty encompass a period of just over a hundred years, from the creation of the dukedom, to the death of King Henry VI, in 1471. These were violent years, an age of uncertainty and hazard, and successive members of the Lancastrian lineage were always at the centre of the storm. Their activities and fortunes reveal the brutal realities they faced but also contain glimpses of the richness of their world, the colours and textures, flavours and sounds. With death all around them, they seized life, without compromise or hesitation.

These are their stories; of their rise to power, their determination to hold it, and their inevitable fall.

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Medieval scribes loved to write notes and commentaries in the margins of the books they studied and copied. Sometimes serious, often frivolous and irreverent, these additions invariably brought new dimensions to the main text and the memos in this book aim to recapture some of the same spirit.

1. Blanche

Duchess of Lancaster

A daughter of the blood, descended from queens, Blanche was born into the most affluent family in England. She and her sister grew up in the richly appointed castles and estates of their parents. The seclusion gave the girls some protection from the devastating epidemic which swept through the country during their childhood. This highly infectious disease was, at the time, called the ‘Great Mortality’ as, outside the castle walls, more than a third of the population died, and whole villages were emptied of their inhabitants.

Somehow, against this tide of devastation, Blanche flourished, even passing a few of her early years in the royal court where, amid its pageantry, feasting and music, she encountered the man she later married. Prince John was the fourth son of the king and, though somewhat in the shadow of his older, more successful brothers, was on his way to becoming an established and active general by the time of their wedding.

Although the match was politically advantageous to both the crown and Blanche’s family, and the result of careful negotiations between the two parties, the couple apparently enjoyed an affectionate and tender relationship and their first child was born within a year of the wedding. At around the same time however, a second wave of contagion passed through the cities and towns and Blanche saw the funerals of both of her parents in succession. When her older sister also died a few months later, Blanche and her husband inherited the family estates in their entirety. With the addition of other grants from her father-in-law, the king, they controlled the most extensive territories of all the English noble families.

While her husband was abroad for months at a time, engaged in wars in Normandy and Castile, Blanche, as Duchess, became head of a household circulating between the various properties belonging to the duchy: Kenilworth, Bolingbroke, Hertford, Leicester, all with their familiar halls, chambers, and corridors.

It was imperative for young nobles of her standing to produce heirs and Blanche was almost perpetually pregnant during her adult life. After eight years of marriage, she had carried six children, of whom two daughters and a son were growing hardily. Her own strength and spirit stayed with her through the years but with the seventh pregnancy, her fortune changed. Her last child, a girl, did not survive and, a few weeks after the birth, Blanche also died quietly in Tutbury castle.

She was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral where the duke ordered a leading architect to design an alabaster tomb for her remains and provided for prayers to be said in her name until the end of time. The anniversary of her death was celebrated every year by her widowed husband with elaborate ceremonies; requiems sung over her grave, followed by banquets. The Death of Blanche the Duchess, later known as The Book of the Duchess, was probably composed for one of these events by Geoffrey Chaucer, a lawyer and diplomat with links to the family. In the poem, a classic work of English literature, a mourning knight recalls the loss of his ‘good, fair White’. The composition is formalised, patterned with the tropes of courtly poetry, but describes a distinctly warm personality; an attractive, sincere and good-natured woman. She was happy, he remembers, honest, fresh and full of life, the fair lady whom men call Blanche.

Blanche of Lancaster, born Bolingbroke 25 March 1342, died Tutbury 12 September 1368.

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The Great Mortality
Originally, the disease was thought to have been caused by an unusual conjunction of the planets and physicians attempted to cure it by using leeches to draw blood from the legs of infected patients.

In the early twentieth century, historians advanced the alternative idea that this was a plague, caused by the bacteria Yersinia Pestis, basing their thinking on research which showed how fleas were able to pass the deadly microbes from rats to humans. However, the disease of the fourteenth century spread far more voraciously than the modern plague and not all the symptoms described in writings of the time match those of sufferers today. So there have been suggestions the epidemic might have been due to a completely different infection, perhaps a strain of anthrax or a virus that no longer exists. But plague is still the most widely accepted theory.

The kingdom of Castile was a territory on the Iberian peninsula, between Portugal and the Pyrenees. By this time, it had grown to cover most of what is now central and northern Spain.

St Paul’s Cathedral
This is the church now referred to as Old St Paul’s, a magnificent gothic cathedral, renowned for its colourful windows and magnificent spire, one of the tallest structures in Europe. Its interior was richly painted in bright colours and contained the shrine of St Erkenwald, one of the first bishops of London. The nave was a popular meeting place, used for discussing business deals, picking pockets and hiring prostitutes. The building was completely destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and many graves, including Blanche’s tomb, were lost.

Seventh child
Studies of monuments for their children, combined with a little speculation, suggest Blanche and John had seven babies, of whom four died in infancy. Their second child was born around 1362, and christened John. He was probably still alive when their second boy, Edward, was born in 1365 but most likely dead by the following year when another boy was given the name John. Both Edward and the second John may well have been alive when their brother Henry was born in 1367 but did not live more than a few years. The couple’s last daughter, Isabel, died in 1368 around the same time as her mother. This pattern was not unusual even for a noble family and was a tragic fact of life at the time.

2. John of Gaunt

Duke of Lancaster

Born in Ghent, or Gaunt as it was called in England, John was the fifth child of King Edward III and Queen Philippa. A military training was essential for a royal son in a time of war and he was introduced to the battlefield from his childhood onwards. He experienced hostile action for the first time at the age of ten when he took part in a sea battle off the south coast. During the skirmish, his ship was sunk by enemy galleys and he was forced to scramble across to the vessel alongside. Encounters on the kingdom’s borders in Scotland and France came soon after.

The king’s first son, the prince of Wales, was a popular and dynamic leader and John’s accomplishments were largely eclipsed for the first part of his life. But following the early deaths of his older siblings, and a fortuitous marriage to the heiress of the richest inheritance in the kingdom, John’s position improved. He was the most senior lord and effectively ruler of England during the last years of his father’s reign. Although a competent and intelligent governor, he attracted resentment when the hardships suffered by the English population became too much. During the southern uprising later known as the Peasants’ Revolt, his luxurious London property, the Savoy palace, was singled out by the rioters and ransacked.

He was also the target of persistent gossip. The real prince, went the rumours, had been swapped in the cradle for a changeling, a malevolent shapechanger, or simply for the son of a Ghent butcher. Suspicions also surrounded the unexpected and convenient deaths of his wife’s family which cleared his path to the dukedom of Lancaster. When John’s father died, and his young nephew was crowned Richard II, the duke cut an uncomfortable figure for many: the battle-hardened warrior prince with only a ten-year-old boy between him and the throne. But in the event, he was a loyal captain, acting in the capacities of general and diplomat for the young king, even when it was not necessarily in his own interests.

After the death of his first wife, John quickly remarried but also began a relationship with his children’s governess, Katherine Swynford. This proved an enduring liaison, lasting the rest of John’s life, and, eventually, he and Katherine married, an event which, due to the disparity in the couple’s standings, received the disapproval of many of their contemporaries.

As part of a strategy to oppose the French, the English supported King Pedro of Castile against the campaign of his half-brother, Enrique, to take the Castilian throne. John took an active part in the hostilities which culminated in a fierce battle on the northern plains and a decisive victory for the English forces. But after John returned home to visit his newborn son, Pedro’s position unravelled and he was ambushed and murdered. Two of Pedro’s daughters survived as heirs to his throne and, when his first wife died, John married the oldest, Constanza, and began to describe himself as the king of Castile. He devoted considerable time and resources to pursuing this claim in the succeeding years, even marrying his oldest daughter to the king of Portugal as the basis of a coalition, but his attempts to conquer Castile by military means were eventually frustrated.

As the king’s uncle, John became an important advisor to Richard II, and his position at the head of the aristocracy was firmly established. He was given devolved powers in the Lancaster territories, making the duchy a separate kingdom within a kingdom, and created duke of Aquitaine for the remainder of his life. As a result he spent much of his last decade away from England and took no part in a short-lived rebellion against the king’s rule, led by his younger brother and involving his own son, Henry.

He watched his son grow into an accomplished and headstrong young noble. A contemporary of King Richard, Henry was the outstanding knight of his generation, participating in jousts at an early age and progressing to a successful military career. But he could also be rash and, following a violent dispute with another baron, was banished from England for life. John interceded on his son’s behalf and persuaded the king to reduce the length of his exile to just a few years, but his own health declined rapidly after that and he died within a few months. According to his wishes, he was entombed beside his first wife, Blanche, duchess of Lancaster.

John of Gaunt, born Ghent March 1340, died Leicester Castle 3 February 1399.

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Sharing a land border with England, and always in conflict with its neighbour. Briefly ruled by Edward I of England, the Scottish kings regained sovereignty after fierce wars of independence. But border disputes continued to run as landowners on both sides fought to increase their territories.

When fairies stole a newborn baby, they would leave a changeling in its place, a simulacrum which was indistinguishable at first but, as it grew, might betray more sinister qualities, turning bitter, melancholic, or malevolent.

Also known as Pedro the Cruel, although the nickname was given by chroniclers working for his enemies. In later years, he was referred to as Pedro the Just. His campaign ended when his half-brother, Enrique, tricked him into going to his battlefield headquarters, supposedly to discuss the terms of a truce. When he arrived, Enrique himself attacked Pedro, pushed him to the ground and stabbed him to death.

A principality in the region around Bordeaux. It was controlled by the English but the extent of its borders shifted constantly, along with their fortunes.

3. Philippa of Lancaster

Queen of Portugal

Ten months after her parents’ wedding, Philippa was born in Leicester Castle. The first years of her life saw a rise in their fortunes with her mother and father inheriting the vast duchy of Lancaster. She grew up in the properties of the family and was exposed to a rare education, exceptional even for a noble household. Her father was a patron of arts and music and their social circle encompassed some of the most prominent literary figures of the time including Geoffrey Chaucer, the chronicler Jean Froissart, and the theologian John Wyclif.

When Philippa was eight years old, her life changed dramatically with the sudden death of her mother. But her father made careful provision for the care of Philippa and her sister, bringing a noblewoman, Katherine Swynford, into the household to look after them. As a consequence, Katherine figured prominently in Philippa’s formative years, managing her expenses as well as providing for her education. The governess also established a strong position in the household, conducting a relationship with the duke which was pursued discreetly but without subterfuge.

There was soon another influence in her life too, in the form of the exotic Constanza of Castile, Philippa’s new stepmother. Constanza was the daughter of King Pedro, claimant to the throne of Castile, who had been killed by his half-brother in a brutal fight for dominance. This young but determined princess, finding herself orphaned, in exile, and in the custody of an English duke, had managed to turn the situation to her favour, persuading John to marry her and take up her cause on the battlefield. She arrived in England amid a magnificent procession, taking the title of duchess and establishing a residence at Hertford Castle.

Though she didn’t know it at first, Constanza’s claim to the Castilian throne was to change the course of Philippa’s life. Several potential husbands had been suggested during her youth, including French and Flemish nobles, even the heir to the French throne, but by the age of twenty-six she was still unmarried, an unusual condition for a noblewoman of her time. Even her younger sister had been wed before her. But in support of her stepmother’s claim to the throne of Castile, a match was eventually agreed with the king of Portugal.

Philippa met her husband for the first time a few weeks after their wedding. The marriage ceremonies had been carried out by proxy with both the king and Philippa taking their vows in different places, and stand-ins representing their partners. As a political act, the union marked a decisive moment in the history of her adopted country. Her husband, an illegitimate son of the former king, had only a slender claim to the crown of Portugal and it was his marriage to Philippa, and the promise of a fruitful alliance with her country, which established his authority.

Their marriage was tense and unpromising in the beginning. Philippa arrived in Lisbon to find her husband’s court dominated by his mistress and his administration stretched by the demands of her father’s military expeditions across the border. But within a few years, her situation became easier. A final settlement was reached in the conflict in Castile, her father and stepmother agreeing to abandon their claim to the throne in favour of a marriage between their daughter, Catalina, and the rival claimant. And, as time went on, Philippa and her husband grew closer and enjoyed a more harmonious and supportive relationship. Both cultured, considerate partners, they raised a family of energetic and successful children, among them a king, a duchess, a saint and an explorer; siblings who were remembered, hundreds of years later, as the country’s ‘illustrious generation’.

Philippa was influential in introducing English literature and fashions to Portugal and her presence fostered a strong channel of communications between the two kingdoms. She also encouraged new developments in church architecture and liturgy emerging in Portuguese culture during her time. She had always been diligent about her faith and religious practice, often keeping monastic hours and rites, a habit which became even more pronounced towards the end of her life. On her deathbed, she had some parting gifts for her children: finely jewelled swords and fragments of the true cross.

Philippa of Lancaster, born Leicester castle 31 March 1360, died Odevillas 19 July 1415.

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Jean Froissart
A diplomat who was part of the retinue of Philippa of Hainault, the queen of England. He kept a detailed written record of his experiences and wider events in England and France, full of details and gossip.

John Wyclif
The most controversial of all English theologians, Wyclif developed a philosophy which formed the basis of a religious movement. He was critical of many aspects of the church, particularly the wealth and power of the clergy. His views were initially attractive to some of the nobility who were always keen to control the reach of the church and the duke of Lancaster supported him for several years. Later his views were officially determined to be heretical and his followers, known as Lollards, were hunted down and forced to renounce him or face execution.

The True Cross
Monarchs and bishops were enthusiastic collectors of religious relics. The most prized, the crown of thorns, was housed in a magnificent, specially built chapel in Paris. The bones and preserved organs of saints were also venerated. The actual structure used for the crucifixion of Christ was believed to have been kept in Byzantium. Over the centuries, fragments were sometimes sent as gifts from Byzantine emperors to European kings and queens.

4. Elizabeth of Lancaster

Duchess of Exeter

Where her sister was sincere and obedient, Elizabeth was headstrong and unruly. She took her own direction, refusing to conform to the meek and humble protocols promoted in courtly literature. A few years younger than her sister, she was only five when her mother died. She grew up in the care of governesses but, in the household of her stepmother, Duchess Constanza, Elizabeth enjoyed an indulgent upbringing, full of expensive gifts, magnificent banquets, music and dancing. Her family’s castles at Kenilworth, Hertford, and especially the Savoy palace in London, were some of the finest properties in the country.

The marital potentials of her sister, Philippa, and Catalina, her half-sister, were the subject of detailed planning and negotiations. Marriage was an important dynastic tool, used to forge alliances or reward supporters but the most strenuous efforts were reserved for older daughters. Elizabeth’s position was less important to family ambitions and her betrothal was arranged relatively hastily. At the age of seventeen, she was married at Kenilworth to John Hastings, heir to the earldom of Pembroke. It was a modest but comfortable prospect, improved by a guaranteed income granted by her father at the same time.

The main problem was the age of her husband; he was only eight years old. It would be some years before they could live as a couple and in the meantime, Elizabeth moved to the royal household which offered more to interest an outgoing and vivacious young woman. While at the court, she inevitably attracted the interest of her contemporaries, in particular Sir John Holland, who began to pursue her determinedly. John was a half-brother to the king, son of the Queen Mother by an earlier marriage. In his early thirties and a senior knight of the realm, he was a fiery and ebullient individual, very much to Elizabeth’s tastes, and the pair began a relationship.

Her new lover already had connections to her family. He had been mentored by Elizabeth’s father to some extent, joining the duke on expeditions to France, where he had shown himself to be rash, short-tempered and capable of impulsive violence. He was known to have murdered at least two people while in the service of the house of Lancaster. Nevertheless, a man like Holland was useful to the duke; in a savage and unstable political landscape, there were always opportunities for unscrupulous operators. At Plymouth, where her father’s invasion force prepared to set sail for Castile, Elizabeth’s first marriage was annulled and she and John were wed. She was already pregnant with their child.

In the stormy years that followed, Elizabeth’s new husband seized opportunities to develop his prospects and his ambitions led him away from the duke’s influence and into the king’s closest circle. Willing to do some of the unsavoury and necessary tasks the crown required, he was rewarded generously in return and Elizabeth became countess of Huntingdon, then duchess of Exeter. As the reign of King Richard progressed, the couple saw their income and property grow substantially with castles at Berkhamsted, Tintagel, Trematon. They also ordered the construction of a grand new house of their own: Dartington hall in Devon. Their family grew too, the couple raising three daughters and three sons.

Elizabeth’s loyalties became more strained after her brother, Henry, was banished from the kingdom though she was still a colourful character and popular in the court. But a more severe test came with her father’s death. While the king and her husband attempted to subdue unrest in Ireland, Elizabeth’s brother arrived back from exile to assert his claim to the duchy of Lancaster. Carried on a wave of popular support, he then went a step further and challenged the king’s right to the throne.

For a moment, Elizabeth was caught between the two factions. When her husband returned hastily across the sea with the king, and attempted to negotiate with his brother-in-law, he was arrested and imprisoned and circumstances turned quickly against him. Within a few weeks, her brother was accepted as the new king of England and she persuaded her husband to support the new regime. It was enough to get him out of immediate trouble but Elizabeth and her children paid a price for her husband’s close association with the former king. Many of the lands granted so easily by Richard were contested by their original owners and the new ruler, eager to establish a wide base of support, moved quickly to restore them. Elizabeth and her husband lost their title to the duchy of Exeter and many of their properties.

Elizabeth may have been satisfied with that but her husband was not. He was angered too by his wife’s readiness to support her brother. He began secretly plotting to overthrow the usurper with a group of barons in a similar position. But their scheme failed. Henry was alerted to the plot and, when his accomplices were intercepted, John fled. He was captured in Essex and executed, his head taken back to London to be displayed on Drawbridge gate alongside those of other traitors.

Henry granted his sister a substantial annuity in exchange for the loss of her husband and territories. That and her remaining estates were enough to keep her for the rest of her life and she had no need to find another husband to guarantee her comfort. But despite her years at the turbulent heart of a nation’s politics, her appetite for life was undimmed and she did marry again. In the summer of the same year her husband was executed, she pursued and married a young knight, Sir John Cornwall.

She was in her late thirties, he somewhat younger and recently widowed. He was of substantially lower rank than Elizabeth, an inappropriate match for her and, in any case, according to custom, the king’s permission was required for any wedding. But he had been an impressive participant at the summer tournaments and, as ever, she acted impulsively. She did not wait for permission.

Elizabeth of Lancaster, born around 1363, died Ampthill castle 24 November 1426.

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Queen Mother
Joan of Kent, King Richard’s mother, was a woman with an intricate past. At one point, she had been married to two men at once. But she was a widow by the time of her marriage to the prince of Wales and, in later life, became a respected and steadying influence in the English court and an astute politician, more popular than her brother-in-law, John of Gaunt. She enjoyed an extravagant lifestyle and, shortly before she died, was said to be so fat she could barely walk.

Drawbridge gate
London bridge, the only road crossing of the Thames for miles, incorporated a drawbridge which could be raised for tall ships to pass. The heads of prominent traitors were often displayed on spikes above the gate on the northern section of the bridge.

An island notionally protected and governed by the king of England. In practice, English lordship was unstable and, in many areas, insignificant, and the territory supported a rich plurality of governments and tribes. At this time, the English controlled a small area around Dublin and could rely on the support of a few local lords in the south of the island.

5. Constanza of Castile

Duchess of Lancaster

Constanza was the second daughter of King Pedro of Castile and his mistress, Maria de Padilla. Her parents had married in secret and, although Pedro was later forced by his family to renounce his first wife and take a different queen, he and Maria remained close throughout their lives and had four children together.

When Constanza was a young woman, her father’s right to the throne was challenged by his half-brother Enrique and the rivals soon became enmeshed in a fierce and costly civil war. Since Enrique’s claim was backed by the French, the English crown naturally supported Pedro and, with armies commanded by the prince of Wales and John of Gaunt, initially won a dominant position in the conflict. But when Pedro proved unable to meet the financial demands of the invasion force, the alliance foundered. Constanza and her younger sister, Isabella, were passed to English custody as security for the outstanding debts. The girls were moved to Aquitaine, while around them the English knights and their retinues began to desert Castile.

Constanza watched from exile as her father’s hold on power disintegrated and, when he was finally ambushed and murdered by his half-brother, she was left in the most precarious situation. Her mother and younger brother never lived to see her father’s fall, her oldest sister had taken holy orders but was also dead by this time, so Constanza was left heir to her father’s claim. But at fifteen years old, she was living in a humble village dwelling, separated from her homeland by a wall of mountains, reliant on a foreign power for her survival and watching her prospects dwindle. Yet she was a resilient and resourceful character. She did not give up hope and embarked on a determined campaign to recover her inheritance.

Through the involvement of her Castilian contacts and new allies made in exile, she convinced her captor, the duke of Lancaster, to take up her claim. As one of the wealthiest nobles in Europe, he had access to the resources she would need. He was also an established military commander and his involvement in her country’s politics in recent years had marked a high point in her father’s attempts to maintain his rule.

The notion also suited the duke. As a younger son of the English king, he was unlikely to inherit his father’s crown, but a marriage to the heir to Castile would give him a claim to a different kingdom. Soon after the death of his first wife, Constanza and the duke were married at Roquefort in the English territory of Aquitaine. A few months later, she arrived in London in a magnificent ceremony, formally recognised as the queen of Castile. Her younger sister, Isabella, followed Constanza into the ranks of English royalty with a marriage to one of the duke’s younger brothers.

However, it quickly became clear the duke was not in a position to launch an immediate campaign. Although he had been operating as the English king’s lieutenant in Aquitaine, he had recently been forced to resign the position, unable to pay troops and losing ground to the French forces. Years of frustration were to follow. A series of plans to mount a Castilian invasion came to nothing as parliament proved unwilling to support Constanza’s bid. Meanwhile she accepted few of the duties expected of her role as duchess, reluctant to learn English and preferring to maintain her own separate household of courtiers based in apartments at Hertford castle.

She and the duke spent little time together, and although they had a daughter in the first months of the marriage, their partnership was a political arrangement, strained by the difficulties facing their ambitions in Castile. Perhaps it suited Constanza that, soon after her arrival in England, a young widow with family ties to the duchy, Katherine Swynford, began a discreet love affair with the duke.

A popular uprising revealed the distrust and hatred her husband attracted when their palace in London was attacked. During the riots, Constanza was forced to flee with her attendants and travelled north through the restive countryside, passing along forest tracks by lantern light to reach the relative safety of one of the duchy’s more remote castles. The sunlit plains of her homeland were never so distant.

Eventually, after more than a decade of fruitless delays in England, a change in conditions further south brought new hope. The king of Portugal died without a male heir, prompting Constanza and her court to support the claim of his half-brother, Joao, who was able, with assistance from English mercenaries, to assert his right to the crown. With this promising development, Constanza and her husband tried again to secure backing for a campaign in the peninsula and this time were successful. The pope lent his support, proposing a crusade in Castile to restore Constanza’s line. When parliament also gave their agreement, arrangements were made for a new expedition.

Constanza, her husband, and a large retinue sailed for Galicia in northern Castile. Although they failed to achieve military success, the mission resulted in significant diplomatic developments. A marriage between the king of Portugal and John’s oldest daughter was settled and then, finally, Constanza and her husband agreed to give up their own claim to the throne, in return for the marriage of their daughter to the son of the king of Castile. This effectively brought an end to the long-running dynastic conflict and Constanza lived to see her daughter become Queen a few years later.

Against considerable odds, Constanza had regained the inheritance granted by her father. She arranged for his remains to be moved from their hasty battlefield grave to a fitting tomb in Seville cathedral, the burial place of the Castilian kings. Then she returned to England, spending most of her remaining years at Tutbury castle. She was buried in St Mary’s Newarke in Leicester, beside other members of the house of Lancaster.

Born Castro Kerez 1354, Died Leicester castle 24 March 1394.

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Enrique Trastámara shared the same father as Pedro but by a different mistress, Leonor. His challenge for the throne was the beginning of a bitter civil war in Castile. He lured Pedro to his tent on the battlefield on the eve of battle and then personally attacked him, his generals looking on as he knocked his opponent to the floor and stabbed him repeatedly.

Constanza’s younger sister married John of Gaunt’s brother Edmund, duke of York. She had a reputation for fun-loving and wayward behaviour and had an affair with John Holland, later husband of Gaunt’s daughter Elizabeth.

6. Catalina of Lancaster

Queen of Castile

The daughter of Duchess Constanza and Duke John of Lancaster, Catalina was born in Hertford castle and raised in her mother’s household with her half-sisters Philippa and Elizabeth.

Then, at the age of fifteen, she boarded a ship with her parents and crossed the seas to her mother’s homeland, to be thrown into the political turmoil of the kingdom of Castile. She was not entirely unprepared for it. Though born in England, she had grown up with her mother’s restless desire to regain her grandfather’s crown, constantly among Castilian voices and customs, and schooled in the accounts of her family history. So her wedding in the cathedral of Palencia, with the nine-year-old heir to the throne of Castile, was a kind of homecoming and it became a turning point in the history of the region. It marked the end of hostilities with England, and provided some measure of redress for the wrongs inflicted on her ancestors.

Just two years after her arrival, Catalina’s father-in-law died and she fulfilled her mother’s long-held dream, becoming queen of Castile. She carried three healthy children during her twenties but took little direct role in politics until the early death of her husband forced her into government. Her son, the new king in name at least, was still only a year old and Catalina now faced the prospect of a lengthy period as regent on his behalf, a responsibility she was required to share with Fernando, her brother-in-law.

There was constant friction between the pair as, over the next few years, they engaged in a difficult and tangled struggle for control. For a time, they reached an agreement by which she would govern the northern part of the country and he the south. But their relationship was always difficult and at one stage, Catalina ordered construction works to fortify her strongholds, so she could better protect her infant son.

Ruthless and ambitious, Fernando pursued more aggressive policies than his brother, drawing the kingdom’s resources into a costly campaign against the emirate of Granada to the south. But when he was elected king of the neighbouring territory of Aragon, he soon became preoccupied with establishing his rule there, leaving Catalina as the sole regent of Castile.

Without his interference, Catalina was a capable and skilled governor, building stable alliances with the church and nobility. She was able to take advantage of her family connections, through Philippa in Portugal and her half-brother Henry in England, to develop trade and cultural developments. Her royal links also helped in the conclusion of a formal truce in the long-running conflict between Portugal and Castile.

Although she continued to govern for the rest of her life, Catalina suffered poor health, particularly in her last years, and died of a stroke at the age of thirty-five. A year later, her son Juan eventually began his direct rule, going on to enjoy one of the longest reigns of all the Castilian kings.

Born Hertford Castle 31 March 1373, died Valladolid 2 June 1418.

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Emirate of Granada
A territory in the mountains of southern Spain, controlled by the last muslim dynasty in the peninsular, the emirs of Nasrid. Although it gradually lost territory to Castile, the emirate survived as a self-governing state and mediterranean trading outpost until 1492.

A kingdom between Castile and the Pyrenees mountains. When the last of its dynastic rulers died without an heir, its ministers invited Fernando to take the throne. He agreed and his descendents later brought about a union with Castile.

Although he ruled for forty-eight years, Juan was a reluctant king, preferring poetry and hunting. His second wife was the granddaughter of Philippa of Lancaster.

7. Katherine Swynford

Duchess of Lancaster

Katherine Roet, born in Hainault to a respected courtier, grew up largely in England’s royal houses, playing in the same nurseries and attending the same banquets as Blanche of Lancaster and other English noblewomen. She was a lady-in-waiting in the household of Duchess Blanche when she married Sir Hugh Swynford, a knight in the service of the duchy. The couple had two children, a son and daughter, but when Katherine was still just twenty years old, her husband was killed in the French wars. She remained a loyal follower of the Lancaster household and, following Blanche’s death, acted as governess and companion to the duke’s daughters. At around the same time as he returned from Aquitaine with his new bride Constanza, Katherine also began a secret love affair with the duke.

There were good reasons for privacy. Duke John was, at the time, the richest and most powerful man in the kingdom with no shortage of enemies eager to degrade his reputation. His father’s own mistress, Alice Perrers, had been regarded as a self-serving and harmful influence on the good government of the realm. A similar situation for the duke may have threatened his claim, through his wife, to the Spanish kingdom of Castile. Katherine was also a foreigner in a time of war, and recently widowed when women were expected to mourn in seclusion for at least a year after the death of a husband.

But Katherine was a discreet and cultured character, known and respected in the highest circles and, over the next decade, their relationship was increasingly conducted in the open. She also took more responsible positions in his household with the duke entrusting her with many aspects of his daughters’ welfare. The couple eventually had four children together whom the duke acknowledged freely as his own. Taking the description of one of John’s former properties in France, they were given the surname Beaufort.

But the affair increasingly drew criticism from the duke’s enemies. A number of contemporary writers and commentators resented the duke’s wealth and power and treated the affair as evidence for his bad character. Monks in their scriptoriums readily dreamed up detailed and colourful descriptions of his sexual depravities which were given a wider audience in rumour and gossip.

After riots broke out in London and the duke’s properties were overrun and ransacked, he made a public show of renouncing his relationship with Katherine, apologising for his illicit affairs and reaffirming his commitments to Duchess Constanza. Katherine was forced to give up a formal role in his household as a result but, partly thanks to the rewards of her service to the duchy, had sufficient other income to rent a comfortable house in Lincoln. This became a second base alongside Kettlethorpe manor, a property of her husband’s family, which had been substantially improved with some help from the duke.

She also remained well connected and highly regarded in royal circles and, by a combination of intelligence and congeniality, continued to advance her position in society. The king made her a lady of the Garter, the most prestigious knightly order in England and an honour usually bestowed only on queens, princesses and the highest ranks of the aristocracy. In Lincoln, she became a prominent member of the community. Her sister, Philippa, was also employed in various roles in the ducal household and married Geoffrey Chaucer, an administrator and diplomat who often worked for the duke.

Despite the public change in her status, the duke and Katherine were in regular contact throughout the pursuit of his wife’s claim to the throne of Castile. She also stayed on good terms with his family and was a regular guest of the duke’s son, Henry, and his wife. During these years, it seemed possible the focus of the duke’s activity might shift permanently to Spain, but when agreement was reached to settle the inheritance on his daughter Catalina, he and the duchess returned to England and, in time, Katherine and the duke rekindled their liaison.

Not long after the death of the Duchess Constanza, the duke and Katherine married in Lincoln cathedral. Their union was widely derided by contemporaries but it was a product of the sincerity and affection which had characterised their partnership from the beginning. Importantly, it also provided a means for the legitimisation of the Beaufort children. She and the duke secured the consents of both pope and king, ensuring their offspring would have the right to own and inherit property and titles. The duke had always acknowledged his children by Katherine and they were looked after well. They received gifts and allowances, were invited to festivals and state occasions and grew up among the properties and people of the ducal household. Their parents were also careful to find suitable marriage partners for them and they were popular and well known in royal circles, going on to play distinguished roles in the years that followed.

After the death of her husband, Katherine returned to her adopted city of Lincoln where she spent the final years of her life and, when she died, was given the honour of a prominent burial in the choir of the cathedral.

Born Hainault around 1350, died Lincoln 10 May 1403.

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Historically a part of the Holy Roman Empire but French-speaking, the region was ruled as an independent state by the counts and countesses of Hainault. At the time of Katherine’s birth, the rights to govern the territory were subject to a family dispute between William, count of Holland and his mother, Empress Margaret.

A castle and lordship in Champagne which formed part of the duchy of Lancaster. It was leased to a man called John Wyn who defected to the French, so taking it out of the hands of the duke. It was not a significant property.

Katherine was famously described by one chronicler as the duke’s ‘unspeakable concubine’.

Sexual depravities
According to propaganda designed to damage his reputation, the duke ‘was dishonoured by every kind of outrage and sin. A fornicator and adulterer, he had abandoned lawful wedlock. He not only dared to do such things secretly and privately, but also took the most shameless prostitutes to the beds of these wives, who, grief-stricken as they were, did not dare to protest.’

8. Blanche

Lady Morieux

The product of a youthful indiscretion at the heart of the royal court, Blanche was the daughter of Marie de St Hilaire, a lady-in-waiting to the queen of England. Her mother was in the queen’s entourage when she met and began a relationship with the young Prince John, the future duke of Lancaster.

There was no question of a formal union between the pair. The marriage of the prince to a suitable heiress in England or abroad was an important means of advancing the interests of the crown and already under careful consideration. So the affair, and Marie’s pregnancy were handled quietly. However, John did acknowledge his daughter in later years and made provision for her welfare, paying her mother a modest annual income for the rest of her life. The duke’s support and patronage also helped to secure a good marriage for Blanche and in her early twenties, she married Sir Thomas Morieux, a hard-working soldier and veteran of the duke’s retinue.

Sir Thomas, an accomplished and effective commander who served on all the major battle fronts of his time, was known for his dry humour as well as his military achievements. When the duke finally obtained backing for an invasion force of Castile, Sir Thomas was appointed marshal of the duke’s forces. He also served in other eminent roles including constable of the Tower and master of the King’s Horse. He also owned the estate of Thorpe Morieux, of which Blanche became the mistress. It may have been in this capacity that she appears briefly in government records petitioning for the pardon of a murderer.

In a time when the prospects for illegitimate children were dubious, Blanche was fortunate to be the natural daughter of a wealthy man. His support ensured she was suitably supported during her lifetime and provided lavish gifts for her wedding: silver cutlery and plates, bowls and ewers, a basket with a silver lid.

Her husband did not survive the Spanish expedition. He died in Galicia during a frustrating and unsuccessful campaign and Blanche’s death followed soon after. They had no children.

Blanche Morieux, born around 1359, died around 1388.

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Marie de St Hilaire
Attendant to Queen Philippa, John’s mother. She is thought to have been born around 1340 but little is known of her life. She continued to receive grants from the duchy of Lancaster throughout her life. She was still alive in 1399.

Constable of the Tower and master of the King’s Horse
The constable of the Tower was the most senior appointment at the castle and was responsible for the operation of the facility and the management of its supplies, armed forces and prisoners. The master of the King’s Horse looked after the king’s personal transport arrangements.

9. Henry Bolingbroke

King of England

Born at Bolingbroke castle in Yorkshire, Henry spent his early years with his older sisters in the care of governesses including Katherine Swynford. His mother died when he was very young so the children were raised in the household of his stepmother, Duchess Constanza. But from the age of seven, Henry began combat training under the tutorship of a Gascon veteran who had worked for his father. He learned quickly and by the age of fourteen was already taking part in jousts and tournaments several times a year and earning a reputation as a tough opponent.

Henry grew up in the orbit of the future king Richard, the two boys similar in age and regularly spending time in the same household. The pair were made members of the Order of the Garter in the last year of king Edward’s reign when they were both only ten years old. Their relationship was complicated, often strained and difficult, and exposed the differences in their characters. Henry, outgoing and adventurous, had been raised in a large retinue of Lancastrian followers, surrounded by hundreds of servants, officials and guards. Richard, on the other hand, had grown up in much smaller courts, often of only a few close retainers, with his first years spent in Aquitaine. Both enjoyed an attentive and supportive family but where Henry was a rambunctious and spirited youth, Richard was more refined and introverted.

Henry’s marriage, when he was thirteen, was controversial. His bride, Mary, and her sister Eleanor were jointly heiresses to a large fortune. The duke of Lancaster’s younger brother Thomas had already married Eleanor and was keeping his sister-in-law under his protection. He was encouraging the possibility of Mary taking holy orders, which would have put the entire inheritance at his disposal and, initially at least, she seemed amenable to the notion. However, while Thomas was away fighting in France, her wedding to Henry was hastily organised. Henry was only thirteen at the time and his bride ten, but it was a calculating manoeuvre and soured relations between the duke and his brother. Although too young to cohabit initially, when the pair did begin to live together a few years later, they made a stable and affectionate couple, raising healthy children and keeping a happy and colourful household, full of music, literature and feasting.

While his father was waging war in Castile and Aquitaine, Henry was coming into his own as a young noble in the English court which, given his personality, inevitably involved friction with his contemporary, the new king. There was already some discontent in England towards the inexperienced monarch. He had soon come to rely heavily on a small group of favourites who were able to turn the situation to their own profit. Several prominent nobles appealed to the king to broaden his circle of advisors, and they persuaded Henry to join them. The large Lancastrian retinue was at his disposal and he provided the muscle they needed to back up their complaints. When the group showed they could field substantial numbers of troops, they were effectively able to force the king to accept their demands. Henry’s allegiance to the whole undertaking was lukewarm and he took little direct action but he played a part in pushing the king into an uncomfortable position. It was a relief for many when Henry’s father returned from Aquitaine. The duke intervened to clarify and reassert the king’s rule. The crisis was resolved but Richard resented the episode and was determined to make the conspirators pay for their actions.

Henry, meanwhile, was not one to dwell on political issues. He was soon making preparations to go to on crusade, eventually coming up against the swords of pagan tribes in Lithuania. He was away for about a year, with his thirty-two knights, esquires and a large retinue of soldiers during which time he thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality of the Teutonic Knights in Konigsberg. In the following year he went to Jerusalem on pilgrimage, passing through Frankfurt, Venice, and Cyprus on the way and visiting all the sights of the holy land.

He had become a confident and forthright young baron, proud of his heritage and secure in his status as a wealthy and entitled member of the nobility. His travels helped bring him to the attention of rulers and leaders across Europe. He visited a number of royal courts and established relationships with kings, emperors and merchant families.

But when he eventually returned home, it was to a difficult and painful period of his life. His wife died soon after giving birth to their sixth child, a girl. Their daughter survived but Henry was deeply affected by the loss of his partner. At around the same time, Duchess Constanza died and, soon after, Queen Anne, the consort of King Richard, bringing a sombre, bitter mood to the English court. At the queen’s funeral, the king was so upset by the behaviour of one of the peers, he took a ceremonial staff and beat him with it until his blood was spattered on the pavement of the church.

These ominous signs marked a swing in the political balance. The king now arrested three of the nobles who had moved against him earlier in his reign and, in order to protect himself, Henry was obliged to give evidence against them. Though able to avoid prosecution, he was left in a shaky position, especially when one of the collaborators was imprisoned and another executed. Henry, together with his friend, the duke of Norfolk, soon heard rumours the king’s clique were plotting against them and feared their lands would be confiscated.

Henry and his father tried to reason with the king and although this seemed to have an effect at first, the duke of Norfolk was arrested without warning and, in captivity, accused Henry of betrayal. Now Henry found himself at the mercy of the king’s increasingly unpredictable behaviour. His livelihood, the entire Lancastrian estate, was put at risk when, in accordance with the usual customs, the king decreed the matter would be decided by a trial of combat between Henry and the duke of Norfolk.

Henry made careful preparations for the contest, arranging for a new suit of plate mail to be fitted by Milanese armourers and refreshing his combat training. But, on the day of the trial, the king himself stopped the fight before it began and sent both men into exile.

So Henry found himself in Paris, where he was welcomed by the French king and offered a temporary residence in palatial apartments. There was talk of a permanent peace with England at the time. Both sides were running out of resources and appetite for the seemingly endless war and had been brought closer together when Richard agreed to marry a young French princess. The restless Henry began to look for a prospective new bride of his own. He also considered another crusade, and was making plans to visit his sisters Philippa in Portugal and Catalina in Castile, when he received the news that would change the course of his life. His father, the Duke of Lancaster, was dead.

One of the conditions of Henry’s exile had been that his Lancastrian inheritance would remain his right but, two days after his father’s funeral, the king revoked this promise. In a distant city, without a wife or father at home to protect his interests, Henry received letters describing how new landholders and stewards had been installed in his territories and his castles were being taken over by strangers. The king did guarantee him some rights. Although he would have to surrender the Lancastrian territories, Henry would be allowed to keep ownership of his late wife’s lands and was assured a lucrative pension for life. Some might have been tempted by this prospect of a comfortable and serene existence in exile, but not Henry. Angry, disinherited, and determined to regain his rightful title, he began to marshal his forces in secret.

When, a few weeks later, Henry sailed out of Boulogne with a small retinue of soldiers, the king was in Ireland where he was attempting to recapture lands under the control of rebel lords. Many of his most loyal troops and commanders were with him and Henry was able to return to English soil without opposition. His ship landed at Ravenspur in Yorkshire where he met with a few trusted retainers. He had only a few dozen followers with him in Paris but returning to England, soon found he could depend on the loyalty of his family’s retinues. Many of them had been dismayed to see the king’s partisans taking over their properties and regarded Henry to be their rightful lord.

Henry’s uncle, the duke of York, who was governing in Richard’s absence, was expecting the return of his nephew. He had raised a force to intercept him but misjudged his landing site, forming his army in the lands further south. As a result, Henry was able to progress easily from one Lancastrian castle to the next: Knaresborough, Pontefract, Leicester. He also persuaded other nobles in the north to stand by him, most of whom were sympathetic to Henry’s position. They had been unsettled by what had happened to him, knowing that if his inheritance could be snatched away so easily, the same could happen to them. Under the reign of an increasingly extreme and unpredictable king, they were persuaded to add their forces to Henry’s.

The conditions were beneficial for Henry and within weeks, he was moving through the country on a tide of gathering support. Richard, hearing the news and now fearful of his own position, made urgent arrangements to return with his armies to England. But his plans did not unfold as he wanted. Blustering winds scattered his ships and he made landfall with only a handful of knights. Intending to meet up with the duke of York’s forces, he found their numbers had also dwindled significantly in the face of a growing Lancastrian movement. Hurriedly, he withdrew with a small group of supporters to Conwy, a heavily fortified stronghold on the north coast of Wales.

He arrived to news that the duke of York had been captured and several of the king’s other supporters had been tried and executed. He sent one of his closest circle, John Holland, husband of Henry’s sister Elizabeth, to open negotiations but Holland never returned. When Richard reluctantly agreed to meet Henry himself, he found their relationship transformed. Henry now had the support of a growing faction of nobles, while Richard’s own allies were melting away.

The king was left with little choice. He agreed to Henry’s reinstatement and accepted his assistance in government. From that moment, he was effectively in Henry’s custody, sent first to Chester and then to the Tower of London. Assuming his title as duke of Lancaster, Henry summoned a parliament and when the lords assembled in the magnificent, newly-reconstructed Westminster Hall a few weeks later, they found the throne empty. The king, Henry explained, had decided to abdicate. He then laid out his own right as the next in line to the throne and asked for parliament’s assent. The gathered lords may have doubted Henry’s assurances, but none were prepared to stand up for Richard. They gave their unanimous agreement and, shortly afterwards, were standing in Westminster Abbey for Henry’s coronation as king of England.

It was an exceptional departure from the normal rules of succession but the governing classes perhaps hoped for a return to more ordered and conventional authority. Henry moved quickly to repeal some of the more extreme acts of the previous reign but dealt reasonably with many of the former king’s supporters. Richard himself meanwhile, was quietly moved to Henry’s castle at Kenilworth, and then to Pontefract where, far away from the centre of government, he died of unknown causes.

Henry soon found himself in the midst of intractable difficulties. Rebellions resurfaced in Scotland and Wales and any hope of peace with France disappeared as their forces gained new ground in Aquitaine and raided the south coast of England with galleys and ships. As Henry discovered, the kingdom was suffering an acute shortage of funds and he was forced to send out endless requests for financial support.

There were some promising signs. His sons took quickly to their new, princely roles, demonstrating themselves to be effective commanders and scoring some military victories against the rebellious Welsh. Henry found suitable marriages for his daughters in the ranks of European aristocracy. He also married again himself, to the duchess of Brittany. But he could not overcome the crippling financial issues and, within a few years, he was struggling to put down a revolt among disaffected English nobles.

His health, always relatively fragile, also declined and he developed a debilitating disease, thought by his physicians to be a form of leprosy. The work of direct government was increasingly taken by a council of powerful nobles, dominated by his son, the prince of Wales. Henry continued to be an active ruler as far as he could but, during a parliament in Westminster, he collapsed and was taken to the abbot’s house where he was laid in a room known as the Jerusalem chamber. When told where he was, he said it had always been his intention to return to the holy city. He died a few hours later.

King Henry IV, born Bolingbroke 15 April 1367, died Westminster 3 February 1413.

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Teutonic Knights
A knightly order similar to the Templars, officially called the Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem. Like monastic communities, its members were bound by religious vows of chastity, obedience and poverty but their objectives were military rather than liturgical. Originally formed to defend Acre in the holy land, after the fall of Jerusalem they concentrated their efforts on forcibly converting Lithuania, the last pagan state in Europe, to christianity.

Milanese armourers
The full suit of plate armour was being developed around this time in Lombardy, in northern Italy. It was a major advance in military technology, offering its wearer better protection and more mobility than heavy chainmail coats.

Galleys and ships
During this period, there was a trend away from galleys propelled by rowers to larger ships which relied on sails. Though less manoeuvrable than galleys, ships were more sturdy and could carry greater volumes of cargo and troops. With higher sides, they were also much more difficult to board.

Henry was good business for medical practitioners and retained a number of doctors through his life. Even as a young man, he made use of the king’s surgeon and when he was in Lithuania, he was offered the services of the Master’s physician. When he returned to England, he began to pay a full time doctor and on becoming king, recruited physicians from Italy and other parts of Europe.

10. Mary de Bohun

Countess of Derby

Mary’s father, a wealthy English nobleman, died when she was three years old, leaving no sons and two young daughters. Within a few months, her eight-year-old sister Eleanor was married to the earl of Buckingham.

The girls were taken into the earl’s house and the young Mary encouraged to consider a religious life. Living in the earl’s castle at Pleshy, she was instructed by nuns and educated in the customs of holy orders. This was a common enough career for a young noblewoman but, for the earl, had the additional convenience that he and his young wife would inherit the full wealth of her father’s estates. But other eyes were fixed on the same inheritance and, when the earl was out of the country taking part in the wars in Brittany, Mary’s life took a sudden change in direction.

Only a few days after he left port, the earl’s brother, the duke of Lancaster, went to the king seeking permission for a marriage between Mary and his own son, Henry. The royal grant was given and shortly afterwards, Mary and Henry were married. There were indulgent celebrations funded by the duke, with feasts and minstrels, and Mary received expensive gifts from her new family, including diamond and ruby rings.

Mary would not be considered a woman until the age of fourteen at least and so the first years of the couple’s marriage were spent apart. She lived a few more years with her mother, to whom her husband’s family paid an allowance for Mary’s expenses. By the time they did begin to live together a few years later, Mary and her husband quickly established a close and loving bond. They formed parallel households, moving between the principal castles of Henry’s family, but were often at Kenilworth where major rebuilding works were under way.

Their first child was born at the Lancastrian castle of Monmouth in Wales. Mary’s husband was with her at the castle for at least part of her pregnancy although, in the custom of the times, she passed the final weeks in segregation, in a specially-prepared chamber where she was attended only by a small group of ladies. Her resumption of normal duties and society was marked by a ritual church service around a month after the birth. The child was a healthy boy, whom they christened Henry.

Their second child was born in London but, over time, Peterborough castle became a favourite base for the young couple. From here, Mary sent messengers to maintain contact with her husband whenever they were apart. He responded with frequent little gifts of nuts, fruits, sweets and fancies. He returned from his trip to the holy land with a special present for his wife: a popinjay, which she kept in a cage in her chamber.

Mary socialised in a lively circle of noblewomen. Katherine Swynford and her daughter Joan Beaufort were frequent visitors to Mary’s household and she became well acquainted with Duchess Constanza after her return from Castile. She also regularly saw her own mother and sister.

Her family were renowned as patrons of the arts and Mary continued this tradition, helping to inspire loves of literature and music in her husband. She played the harp, ordered tuning forks and pitch pipes as well as a special ruler to assist with writing out music on parchment. She was also fond of richly decorated manuscripts and she and her mother commissioned several books, often inscribed with arms of Bohun and Lancaster.

Mary had six children with her husband, all healthy, well cared for and surviving to adulthood, but she died in Peterborough following the birth of Philippa, their last. She never saw her husband, then son become kings of England, her daughter queen of Denmark. She was buried on the day after her mother-in-law Constanza, in the same church in Leicester.

Born Essex around 1368, died Leicester castle 1394.

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Earl of Buckingham
Thomas of Woodstock was Gaunt’s younger brother and the last child of Edward III and Queen Philippa. He was later made duke of Gloucester and was a powerful figure in English politics. But he was not so adept as his brother and, following an unsuccessful rebellion against King Richard, was murdered while awaiting trial for treason.

One of the largest of the Lancastrian castles was extensively remodelled by John of Gaunt around this time with the addition of new suites of rooms and a spectacular great hall. Mary’s son Henry continued the development with the construction of a jousting arena and a separate banqueting house nearby.

This was the usual practice for pregnant women of the time. The womb-like seclusion was intended to comfort and ease the expectant mother and continued for weeks after the birth. The ritual ceremony at the end of the period was known as churching and marked a woman’s return to society.

The medieval name for a parrot or exotic bird. Henry brought other animals back from his travels, including an ostrich and a leopard given to him by the king of Cyprus. The leopard had its own keeper and a horse-drawn cage and ate a third of a sheep every day.

11. John Beaufort

Marquess of Somerset and Dorset

When the duke most wanted a male heir by his Spanish wife, it was instead his mistress who gave him sons. Their first boy was named John after his father but initially had no surname. He could hardly be called Swynford after his mother’s dead husband, nor could there be any suggestion he was formally a member of the Lancastrian family, so his parents conferred on him the title of Beaufort, in reference to a former territory of his father’s, lost in the French wars.

Illegitimate children like John were not entitled to inherit lands and titles, but providing they were acknowledged, could still expect to be afforded the same respect and social rank due to their parents. So, although much of his youth was spent quietly away from the ducal household, in his mother’s manor of Kettlethorpe in Lincolnshire, John also mixed with his aristocratic contemporaries, like Henry, the duke’s son and Thomas Swynford, Katherine’s first child.

Like any first son of a noble family, John was given a comprehensive combat training and, at the age of seventeen, was competing alongside the most celebrated knights of his generation at an annual tournament outside Calais. Within a few months, he was commanding the English contingent of an international crusade in Tunisia and later served under his father in France, developing his reputation as an able and ambitious soldier.

In his twenties, he married a distant cousin of the king, Margaret Holland, but the wedding of his parents, at around the same time, might have been an even more significant turning point in his life since it enabled the duke and his new duchess to take the highly unusual step of legitimising their children. Confirmed first by order of the pope, and then later by an act of Parliament, the Beaufort siblings were formally recognised as legal heirs of the duke. John was made earl of Somerset in an elaborate ceremony in which the king buckled his sword belt around his waist and placed a velvet cloak on his shoulders.

Further honours were to come in the later years of Richard’s reign when the king was anxious to secure the allegiance of his most essential commanders. John was made marquess of Somerset and Dorset, then warden of the Cinque Ports and constable of Dover Castle. Finally, he succeeded his father as lieutenant of Aquitaine.

Like others in his family, John also demonstrated the dexterity required to negotiate difficult political positions. When the death of his father and the king’s confiscation of the Lancastrian lands prompted Henry Bolingbroke to challenge the authority of the crown, John was one of the nobles called upon to defend the realm. He responded, and led forces into the field, but he also agreed privately with his half-brother to offer no resistance and nimbly stepped across the boundary between one regime and the next.

With Henry’s coronation, John’s position at the heart of the government was sealed. He became captain of Calais and featured prominently in the king’s campaigns in Scotland and Wales. When his first son was christened, the boy had the king as his godfather and, upon Henry’s marriage to Joanna of Navarre, it was John who had the responsibility of escorting the new bride to England.

When John died at the age of thirty-seven, there was still one final royal attachment to come. His widow married one of the king’s own sons and, in time, all three were to share the same tomb in Canterbury Cathedral.

John Beaufort, born around 1371, died London 16 March 1410.

12. Henry Beaufort


The second son of Katherine Swynford and the duke of Lancaster, Henry was, from an early age, marked out for a career in the church. No marriages were arranged for him, nor was any military training given, and when he came of age at fourteen, he had already been in Oxford for some time learning the basics of the curriculum. He matriculated at Queens College where he studied for several years but also travelled abroad to learn from masters in Aachen and Aix-la-Chapelle.

The religious life offered meaningful opportunities for someone like Henry. His birth into an aristocratic family gave him access to the more senior offices and helped in making the allies and contacts needed to progress quickly. But Henry was also the possessor of rare intelligence and foresight and he deftly negotiated a path through the ranks of ordained priests to become bishop of Lincoln in his early twenties. The appointment was criticised due to his age and the perceived abuse of privilege, commentators asking why a boy had been appointed to such a prestigious bishopric. But Henry was more than equal to its responsibilities and, for a man of his ambitions it was little more than a step on the ladder. He went on to be bishop of Winchester and, in his late forties, was made a cardinal. There seemed no limit to his abilities and at one point he came close to being elected pope. In later life, he was selected to be one of the judges in the trial of a French peasant girl called Jeanne of Arc, the improbable leader of a military campaign against the English.

He was active in politics too, serving several terms as chancellor, and became a trusted advisor to three consecutive kings of England. Like any senior churchman, he enjoyed a prosperous way of life and he was among the wealthiest men in the kingdom. He also had at least one child, a daughter named Joan. Since clerics were supposed to be celibate, and therefore unmarried, she was necessarily illegitimate but thanks to her father’s connections found a husband and secured a livelihood among the gentry.

Henry Beaufort, born around 1375, died Wolvesey 11 April 1447.

13. Joan Beaufort

Countess of Westmorland

Katherine’s third child by the duke was a girl, Joan. She spent most of her childhood at Kettlethorpe manor. Of all their children, she was closest to her mother and accompanied her to a variety of events and festivities. They were frequent guests of the duke’s son and his wife for Christmas celebrations and regularly travelled to Kenilworth castle, Tutbury and Hertford.

She was around fourteen when she married a knight, Sir Robert Ferrers, a retainer of the duke. The marriage had been arranged for several years and after the wedding, the couple remained in the duke’s household where they were able to take advantage of a rich social circle and comfortable lifestyle. When the king remarried to the eight-year-old princess Isabella of France, they were among the wedding guests gathered in Westminster Abbey while outside, crowds pressed to catch a sight of the new queen.

As Lady Ferrers she had two daughters but her husband died unexpectedly only five years into their married life. By this time, Joan’s mother and father had married. Although it was highly unusual for a prince to marry his mistress, and the decision attracted widespread muttering and disapproval, it bestowed a significant improvement in status on Joan and her siblings. At the age of nineteen, the newly-widowed Joan was suddenly a desirable partner for any unmarried English nobleman.

She chose Ralph Neville, one of the marcher lords responsible for maintaining the security of the kingdom’s northern border. It was the second marriage for both, though Ralph was somewhat older, already with twelve children by his first wife. As she became Countess of Westmorland, Joan travelled north to view the estates of her new family. She would see her mother rarely from this point on.

For the Nevilles, the marriage strengthened their bonds to the duchy of Lancaster, connections that were reinforced when the duke’s son, Henry, returned from exile to take back his inheritance. Ralph was one of first lords to support his claim, bringing his retinue into the field as Henry swept towards his confrontation with the king.

Henry’s accession to the throne promised more benefits for Ralph and his wife, who had gone from illegitimate daughter of a duke’s mistress to the half-sister of the king.

She was in her middle forties when her husband died, after which she began to gravitate towards a religious life and, in later life, took some religious vows. She developed an interest in the introverted spirituality which was becoming popular in the English nobility, inspired by the writings of mystics like Margery Kempe.

Although she had funded a chantry chapel in the traditional resting place of the Nevilles, she asked to be buried next to her mother, in Lincoln cathedral. There was no way for her to know, but her offspring would found a new English dynasty and among her grandsons, there would be two Yorkist kings.

Joan Beaufort, born around 1379, died Howden 13 November 1440.

14. Thomas Beaufort

Duke of Exeter

The last child of Katherine and the duke, Thomas grew up in his father’s household. He was close to his half-brother Henry and was given a martial training like his older brother, John. From the age of twenty onwards, he was in the king’s service, on an annual retainer and he married Margaret Neville, a distant cousin of his sister’s husband. Like his brothers, he was quick to pledge his support to Henry when he claimed the throne and, soon after, joined him on an expedition to Scotland.

The command of Ludlow castle in the Welsh marches, which he was assigned in his early twenties, marked the beginning of a long military career. He followed his older brothers into a number of distinguished roles and ranks, serving as chancellor of England, captain of Calais and admiral of the northern fleet.

He fought alongside his half-brother’s son, Henry V, at the siege of Harfleur and the battle of Agincourt and, as earl of Dorset, became the king’s chief lieutenant in Aquitaine. When the tide of the war turned back against the English, he was captured and for a time was a prisoner of the French forces. In recognition of his long service, he was made duke of Exeter.

He had only one child, a son who died in infancy and so his line ended with him. He was buried at Bury St Edmunds.

Thomas Beaufort, born around 1377, died Greenwich December 1426.

15. Joanna of Navarre

Queen of England

Born in the lands beyond the Pyrenees, Joanna came to prominence in French society following her marriage to the duke of Brittany. The daughter of Carlos, King of Navarre and Joan, of the French house of Valois, her marriage to the duke was contracted when she was very young.

Though formally a part of France, Brittany had a complicated history. It had, in the past, enjoyed strong links to the kings of England and many of its people could remember a time when it was considered an English territory. It was treated, and often behaved, as an independent nation, caught between the bickering kingdoms of the English and French. John, duke of Brittany, was forced to tread a difficult path between the two enormous powers but in his wife, he found a confident and skilled diplomat and advisor.

She and her husband had eight children together. When the duke died, the oldest was still too young to rule the duchy in his own right so Joanna acted as regent on his behalf. Although she was a capable administrator, she quickly appreciated the vulnerability of their situation and, to strengthen their position, she looked abroad for a potential marriage partner and ally.

There could be no stronger candidate than the king of England. As it happened, he had not yet remarried after the death of his first wife some years earlier. Furthermore, she and Henry knew each other personally having met on several occasions, including the wedding of the former English king to Princess Isabella of France. The couple clearly liked one another and wasted little time in pursuit of the match. Their marriage was agreed hastily, with furtive diplomacy and hurried exchanges of messages and letters.

Henry was hopeful the marriage would reinforce his own position. There was the possibility it might even avert the impending renewal of hostilities with France. But if not, it would at least give him the opportunity of a stronger base for military operations in Brittany. Most importantly, Joanna’s pedigree helped to confirm the legitimacy he needed. His claim to the throne was tenuous and the manner of his accession tangled with questions and uncertainties. Joanna, on the other hand, was not just princess of Navarre and duchess of Brittany but also, through her mother, a member of the French royal family.

But there were obstacles to be overcome. Joanna and Henry were distant cousins and so required papal dispensation in order to be married. Frustratingly for them, there were two popes during this time: one at Avignon who was the authority recognised by Joanna and the French nation; and another in Rome, followed by the English crown. In order to marry, the couple had therefore to obtain dispensation from both. Henry also had to work to convince his ministers of the benefits. They all advised strongly against marriage to a French princess.

Opinion was equally hostile on the other side of the channel. The French court had naturally been opposed to the deposition of King Richard and his French queen, Isabella. They had also been angered by Isabella’s treatment during the usurpation of the throne. Deprived of her queenship, the princess had been held in custody for months, treated like a prisoner and eventually despatched back across the sea without ceremony and, more pointedly, without the return of her expensive dowry. When Joanna’s intentions became more widely known, they provoked outrage in the French court and an immediate reaction from the powerful duke of Burgundy. Going to Brittany himself, he assumed political control of the region and declared Joanna would only be permitted to take her daughters to England. Her sons would be placed in Paris, under his control.

The people of Brittany and Joanna’s own advisors were also against the marriage. Yet in the face of all opposition, she and Henry held to their plans and in the middle of a cold winter, Joanna endured a difficult sea voyage over to England. The couple were married by Henry’s half-brother, Bishop Beaufort, in the newly-rebuilt cathedral at Winchester and afterwards gave a magnificent banquet where their guests dined on venison, fieldfares, and pears in syrup.

From there they travelled to London for Joanna’s coronation ceremony, and then on to Eltham, the king’s favourite residence. This was not a fortified property, but a pleasant country retreat which the king was furnishing with a new suite of royal apartments with bays and oriels, stone fireplaces, a bath house, and even secret chambers. Its windows were glazed with images of flowers, birds and animals, its gardens filled with herbs and vines.

But the fineries of royal life cannot have masked the fact that Joanna had married a sickly king, burdened by civil discontent and financial difficulties. She was soon forced to make economies in her own household, but took to her new role with characteristic energy and resourcefulness. From her own office at Westminster, she managed the English properties granted on her wedding and corresponded with royal contacts across Europe. In the following years, she was a loyal ally of the king, and a useful advisor on political affairs, though she lacked the power to halt his declining health and could only watch as his strength diminished.

She and Henry had no children together. Joanna took care to behave properly towards her stepchildren, but had a difficult relationship with the heir, Prince Henry and, on the death of her husband, she was drawn into a difficult game with her stepson. Accused of using witchcraft to try to kill the new king, she was placed under house arrest in a strongly fortified castle where she spent several years. She lived in some luxury, but under the constant threat of trial and a worse fate. In fact, nothing came of the accusations, which seemed little more than a cynical manoeuvre to enable the crown to seize control of her lands. As the young king lay dying in discomfort on the French battlefields, he ordered her to be pardoned.

She was allowed to go free and most of her property was released back to her. For her remaining years, she lived quietly, doing her best to evade the attention of the ruling factions.

Joanna of Navarre, born Normandy 1368, died Essex 10 June 1437.

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A mountain kingdom on the south slopes of the Pyrenees, part of an area later known as the Basque region. Though small, it had a proud history as an independent state. Joanna’s father, King Charles II was a notoriously untrustworthy ally, regularly swapping sides in the wars of England, France and Castile to increase his territory. He died in a freak accident when brandy-soaked bandages, wrapped around his body to treat a disease from which he was suffering, were ignited by a spark from a pan of coals and he burned to death on his bed.

Banquets usually featured an overwhelming array of dishes. This particular feast also included cygnets, capons, pheasants, venison, quails and woodcock, jellies, almond tarts, and croustades. Each of the three courses were served with subtleties, artistic arrangements in the forms of crowns and eagles. There was also a cake shaped like a panther.

House arrest
Joanna was held in rooms at Leeds Castle and did not leave the property for three years. But her household expenses over this period were discussed at length by the king’s ministers and stewards and show she survived in some comfort. She also received frequent guests from the nobility including her son-in-law Humphrey, duke of Gloucester.

Joanna was accused by a Dominican friar who claimed she had asked him to fashion a wax doll of the king to be used in ceremonies designed to kill him. Curiously, he did fall ill at around the same time and eventually died of the sickness he contracted. However, the king himself did not appear to hold her responsible and on his deathbed gave instructions for her to be pardoned and released.

16. Henry of Monmouth

King of England

The first child of Mary de Bohun and Henry Bolingbroke was born in the Lancastrian castle at Monmouth. After the death of his mother when he was seven or eight years old, he spent much of the rest of his childhood with his father and grandfather where he had chance to observe at first hand the conditions of medieval kingship.

When his father acceded to the throne, Henry became prince of Wales and was involved in a number of military actions alongside his father, most notably in the Welsh marches where he helped to put down several rebellions led by Owain Glyndwr. In his twenties, he was made constable of Dover and then captain of Calais, roles which helped to develop the leadership qualities he would need as monarch. And, in contrast to his father, he also earned a reputation for wildness and indulgence.

But on the death of his father, Henry soon showed he was ready for rule. He quickly reversed some of his father’s more unpopular decisions and restored the lands and honours of a number of disinherited families. He also convinced his ministers that difficulties at home were best resolved in the renewal of war with France, and most of the years of his reign were occupied with that purpose. He announced his claim to the French crown and within months was sailing for France at the head of the largest force assembled in living memory.

But the campaign did not proceed as planned. The first step, to besiege the coastal port of Harfleur, took much longer than expected and, though eventually successful, disease and terrible conditions depleted his army. He struck out with his forces into the countryside, intending to make for Calais but was surrounded by the French armies and brought to a confrontation near the village of Agincourt. The English were outnumbered and in poor shape but fortunate in their choice of terrain where their archers were able to find cover in wooded hills. The tactics adopted by the French forces also happened to work in the favour of the English as the cavalry found themselves stuck in heavy mud within range of the longbows. Arrows rained down on the French army.

Encouraged by their victory, the English forces regrouped and returned to France with swollen ranks, recapturing Normandy the following year. Within a short time, Henry had agreed a famous treaty at Troyes and, following his marriage to the daughter of the French king, Henry now stood to inherit the kingdom.

Some French factions resisted the treaty and despite pressing his claims with further military engagements, he never lived to achieve his ambition. After spending so much of his adult life in the filthy conditions of the battlefield, he fell sick and, after a long illness, died in his castle near Paris.

His marriage to the French princess Katherine of Valois did take place and although they spent relatively little time together, she mostly in England while he was on campaign, their union produced a single son and heir. While Henry lay dying in France, it was his infant child back in England who was about to become the ruler of both kingdoms.

Henry of Monmouth, born Monmouth castle 16 September 1386, died Vincennes castle 31 August 1422.

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One of the Lancastrian castles in the south of Wales, a large fortification at the time of Henry’s birth.

From its capture by the English forces in 1346, Calais remained an English stronghold for over two hundred years. It became an important trading post and point of interaction between the two regimes. Exports of England’s produce were required to pass through its customs office, known as the Calais Staple, where tariffs were calculated and paid.

17. Thomas of Lancaster

Duke of Clarence

Probably born at Kenilworth where Mary was based for most of the year in which he was born, Thomas spent his first years in his mother’s household. He was close to his father Henry and went with him to France when he was exiled by King Richard. Following Henry’s accession to the crown, Thomas was knighted along with forty-five other Lancastrian supporters at his father’s coronation.

At the age of fourteen, his father made him lieutenant of Ireland. The appointment was intended to be the beginning of more concerted efforts by the English to assert their control. As well as a figurehead in the young prince, the English lords in the region were also promised an increase in their annual budget, perhaps prompted by Owain Glyndwr’s efforts to engage Irish support in his own rebellions in Wales. However, most of the funds never arrived and at the age of fifteen, Thomas was accumulating more debts than he could feasibly repay. He eventually returned to England having accomplished little during his time in Dublin. Although he continued to hold the office for a further twelve years, he spent only a small proportion of that time in Ireland and during his tenancy, the English presence in the country grew disparate and inconsistent.

In his mid twenties, he married Margaret, the widow of John Beaufort, the king’s half-brother. The other Beaufort siblings, especially Bishop Henry, opposed the match. It went ahead after some delay but the Beauforts were able to restrict Thomas’ access to the fortune he intended to inherit.

He often tangled with his older brother, Henry of Monmouth. Thomas was his father’s favourite son and often appeared to be the preferred candidate for prestigious offices, leading to frequent bickering between the siblings. Their relationship became most strained over an expedition to recover the territory of Guyenne. Prince Henry disagreed with his brother and father on the best strategy and Thomas was appointed commander of the invasion force and given the title duke of Clarence. The mission was the highlight of Thomas’ military career in which he led a series of successful engagements with the French, securing a large cash payment and a beneficial treaty.

He died in battle, without an heir and his body was brought back to England where it was buried in Canterbury cathedral.

Thomas of Lancaster, born London autumn 1387, died Normandy 22 March 1421.

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Part of the duchy of Aquitaine which had been seized by England’s former allies in the region, the lords of Armagnac.

Duke of Clarence
The courtesy title was first given by Edward III to his second son. Its nomenclature refers to the de Clare family, a Norman dynasty with estates in the Welsh marches and around the town of Clare in Suffolk.

Without an heir
Thomas had an illegitimate son, Sir John Clarence, who was with him when he died in France. Sir John later petitioned the king for financial help, requesting a military role. He was eventually granted lands in Ireland but died soon after.

18. Margaret Holland

Duchess of Clarence

A wealthy aristocrat, Margaret was the daughter of the earl of Kent and granddaughter of the earl of Arundel. Many of her family were favourites of King Richard and saw their fortunes rise under his rule. Her brother was made duke of Surrey and her uncle, duke of Essex. Towards the end of Richard’s reign, when she was nine years old, Margaret married John Beaufort, son of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster.

But when Margaret was twelve years old, the king was overthrown and replaced with King Henry. Her uncle, John, who was married to Elizabeth of Lancaster, and her brother Thomas were both executed for organising a rebellion against the new king. But thanks to her marriage, Margaret found herself pulled across the divide and her husband and his family were beneficiaries of the new regime.

Once she was old enough to live with him, she and her husband had at least six children, four sons and two daughters. Her daughter Joan went on to marry James King of Scots and her son, Edmund, later caused a scandal at the centre of government when he entered a love affair with Henry V’s widow, Queen Katherine.

When her husband died, she was left a wealthy widow with control of his estates as well as a substantial inheritance of her own. Still only twenty-one, she represented a valuable prospective partner and negotiations for her remarriage were soon under way with Thomas, the second son of the king. Thomas had relatively little income of his own. But the Beaufort siblings, in particular Bishop Beaufort, tried to stop the marriage taking place. He was able to delay matters, but Margaret and Thomas were eventually married. Margaret, who had already been countess of Somerset and, for a few years, marchioness of Dorset, as a result of her first marriage, now became duchess of Clarence.

In the middle part of her life she lived in some style with a large retinue of servants and attendants and, following the death in warfare of her second husband, and the capture of two of her sons in the same battle, she was again in sole control of her lands. John, her son and heir, was held a prisoner for thirteen years during which time Margaret managed the estates on his behalf. During this time, she also developed a close friendship with one of her husband’s captives, the young count of Angoulême, whose captivity she tried to use, unsuccessfully, to gain the release of her own son.

In her later years, Margaret became a devoted benefactor of Syon Abbey on the banks of the Thames, a Bridgettine monastery founded by her brother-in-law King Henry with his sister, Queen Philippa of Denmark. She provided several books for the abbey library and one of the monks dedicated a text he was writing, a biography of St Jerome, to her.

When she died at the age of fifty-one, she was buried between her husbands in a chantry chapel in Canterbury Cathedral for which she had donated considerable sums.

Margaret Holland, born around 1388, died 31 December 1439.

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When the ship carrying the twelve-year-old son of the king of Scotland had been captured by pirates, the boy was delivered to the king of England and he spent the next eighteen years in English custody. He composed a poem about his time at the English court, how he was lost in contemplation of his miserable fate when, from his window, he caught sight of a beautiful young woman, fair and fresh, and immediately fell in love.

The woman he describes was Margaret’s daughter, Joan, to whom he was soon married with encouragement from his captors. James was nearly thirty by that time, Joan eighteen, and the marriage was regarded as a good match for the house of Lancaster. It contributed to James’ release from custody shortly after and the couple returned to Scotland.

So Joan found herself pushed to the forefront of Scottish politics and in the years that followed, she became a significant landowner around her base at Perth castle, narrowly escaped death by the assassins who killed her husband, and occasionally directed armies on the battlefield. For a few months, she ruled Scotland as regent for her son, until her authority was challenged by dissatisfied factions in the nobility and, eventually, she died under siege at Dunbar castle.

The same battle
The battle of Baugé was a famous French victory in the ongoing war. After a series of successful engagements, Henry V returned to England with his new wife for her coronation. He left his French operations in the hands of his brother, Margaret’s husband, who continued the programme of raids across the countryside. When he encountered a large French force on Easter Saturday, he was caught in a difficult position. In order to avoid fighting on Easter Sunday, the duke ordered an immediate attack, only to find the French army was far larger than any he had faced in the previous weeks, reinforced with Scottish knights and their followers.

Chroniclers disagree over who actually killed the duke, but he was unseated from his horse by a lance and killed in hand-to-hand combat on the ground. Many of the English nobles were captured.

The battle was one of the first encounters in the war in which the Scottish forces played a decisive role. Although long allies of the French, their hosts had, until then, dismissed them as ineffective soldiers, ‘wine drinkers and mutton eaters.’

Nobles captured in battle were generally treated with respect by their captors. When James King of Scots grew up in the English court, he received the esteem due to a monarch, living in royal apartments and enjoying fine food and entertainment. After the coronation of Katherine of Valois, he was seated next the new queen at the royal banquet. According to the chivalric code of the time, he was not expected to attempt an escape and, in return, was afforded some freedoms and a comfortable life.

John Beaufort’s imprisonment was one of the longest of any of the English knights. Captured at the battle of Baugé in 1425, he was not released for thirteen years, spending several years in the custody of a Scottish knight, Lawrence Vernon, before his sale to the King of France. As the most prestigious English prisoner of the time, his release came to be contingent on that of the count of Eu, a French nobleman who had been held in English houses since his capture at Agincourt.

Margaret, along with her brother-in-law, Cardinal Beaufort, were involved in long negotiations for the freedom of John and his brother, Thomas, who had been captured in the same attack. After Thomas was released, they made several attempts to exchange the count of Angoulême for John, along with other offers of land and money but he did not come back to England until Henry VI finally pardoned the count of Eu in 1438.

The count of Angoulême was not so fortunate. Although his name was linked to many potential prisoner exchanges, he did not leave captivity until 1444. By then, he had been in the custody of Margaret and her family for over thirty years.

19. John of Lancaster

Duke of Bedford

Named after his grandfather, John was born at Kenilworth or Peterborough. He earned a reputation as a bibliophile and had access to his father’s library, one of the best private collections of books in the kingdom.

When his father was sent into exile, his older brother Thomas went with him but John, at the age of eight, was being educated by a personal tutor and living near London.

He was present at his father’s coronation where he rode in front of the king with his brothers in the procession from Westminster Abbey to the Great Hall. Where his brothers were given commands in Wales and Ireland, Prince John was sent to the northern borders of the kingdom. The defeat of the Percy family uprising in Shrewsbury left a vacuum in the north where they had traditionally maintained control and Prince John was appointed lieutenant in their place. Many of the local gentry remained loyal to the Percys and John, only sixteen when he inherited the role, struggled to deal effectively with the complicated set of rivalries and ancient allegiances.

When his brother came to the throne, John was made duke of Bedford and Henry began to rehabilitate the Percy family, relieving him of some of his responsibilities in the north. During Henry’s expedition to France which culminated in the battle of Agincourt, John was left to govern England as Henry’s lieutenant.

John of Lancaster, born 20 June 1389, died Rouen 14 September 1435.

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Great Hall
Later called Westminster Hall, the structure enclosed the largest room in the world when it was built, shortly after the Norman conquest. By the time of Henry’s coronation, its magnificent hammerbeam roof had recently been installed by master carpenter, Hugh Herland.

The king’s forces defeated Henry "Hotspur" Percy at the battle of Shrewsbury, despite being outnumbered by the rebel armies. According to one chronicler, the hail of arrows was so thick, men ‘fell like leaves in autumn’.

20. Humphrey of Lancaster

Duke of Gloucester

As a fourth son, Humphrey might have been sent into a career in the church and although he never received any clerical education, he was not given the same level of martial training as his brothers. He took readily to books and learning and was not assigned a distinct command by his father in the same way as his siblings.

When his older brother came to the throne, Humphrey was made duke of Gloucester and he did take part in the siege of Harfleur. He was also present alongside the king at Agincourt where, famously, he was personally protected by Henry on the battlefield. He went on to play a role in his brother’s campaign to secure English control in Normandy and later wrote an account of his actions where he emphasised his personal abilities.

On Henry’s death, he initially took a prominent role in the royal council formed to govern on behalf of the infant king. However, his belief that his brother intended him to be regent of England until his nephew came of age brought him into conflict with other members of the council, particularly his uncle, Bishop Beaufort, and his older brother, the duke of Bedford. Humphrey proved less able to establish an effective network of alliances and was left increasingly isolated on the ruling council.

He was in his mid thirties when he married the continental heiress Jacqueline of Hainault and he devoted the next few years to an attempt to recover her territories from the duke of Burgundy. The move deepened his opposition to Beaufort who was working to form an alliance with the duke. Again, Humphrey was unable to capitalise on his position and, when the duke challenged him to a trial by combat for the lands, he returned to England, ostensibly to prepare. The contest never took place. His marriage to Jacqueline was annulled when the pope determined that her previous union with the duke of Brabant was valid.

Humphrey did not contest the ruling and instead took the opportunity to marry his mistress, Eleanor Cobham. He and Eleanor established a small court of their own at their palace in Greenwich where they established and funded a group of poets, philosophers and musicians who brought humanist ideas and texts from Italy and Venice. Humphrey acquired a large library and was interested in the new thinking and developments in art and literature.

In his forties, Humphrey found himself in the position of being next in line to the throne. His nephew, now ruling as Henry VI, had not yet produced an heir and his older brothers were dead. The possibility of accession to the crown was not lost on him, nor his wife, who privately consulted astrologers to determine when the king was most likely to die. This was dangerous speculation and, when discovered, led to her indictment for treasonable necromancy. As part of the sentence, Humphrey was required to divorce her.

Although he took little further role in government, he continued to be critical of official policy and an irritant to the king’s ministers until, while attending a parliament in Bury St Edmunds, he collapsed after dinner and was taken to bed where, after three days of unconsciousness, he died. His body was taken to St Alban’s abbey where he was buried in a tomb near to the saint’s shrine.

Humphrey of Lancaster, born 3 October 1390, died Bury St Edmunds 23 February 1447.

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Palace in Greenwich
Humphrey and his second wife lived at Bella Court, a stone house he constructed on the riverside at Greenwich. It was later taken over by Henry VI’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, who renamed it the Palace of Placentia or La Plesaunce. Substantially remodelled by Henry VII, it was for a time the principal royal palace in London and was the birthplace of Henry VIII. It was later demolished and the site subsequently occupied by the Greenwich Hospital.

Duke of Burgundy
Philip, later known as Philip the Good, became duke when his father was assassinated. Blaming the French dauphin for the murder, he entered an alliance with the English, supporting Henry V’s claim to the French throne. Through a mixture of clever diplomacy and judicious force, he successfully increased his territories in several areas, including Hainault and other lands to which Jacqueline was heir.

Duke of Brabant
Jean inherited the duchy of Brabant, in the heart of the Low Countries, when his father was killed in the Battle of Agincourt. He was only twelve years old when he became duke and was never able to assert his rights amid the rival factions dominating the region. He appointed the duke of Burgundy regent to his lands and, when he died at the age of twenty-three, the duke took direct control.

New thinking and developments
In the fourteenth century, Italian universities were adapting their traditional curricula to place greater emphasis on subjects such as science, poetry and moral philosophy. It marked a gradual movement away from the dominance of church dogma, towards more human-centred studies of ethics, emotion and behaviour and the beginning of a European renaissance in art and thought.

Collapsed after dinner
Humphrey’s sudden death was rather convenient for his political opponents and has therefore been regarded with suspicion. Shortly after his death, popular songs began to circulate in England accusing his political rivals of his poisoning and praising the ‘Good Duke Humphrey.’

21. Blanche of Lancaster

Princess of England

After four sons, Henry Bolingbroke and Mary de Bohun produced a daughter, Blanche. She was born in Peterborough castle but when she was only two years old, her mother died giving birth to her sister. When still an infant, her father was exiled from England and Blanche grew up with her older brother Humphrey and younger sister in the households of family friends.

She was nine years old when her father returned to the kingdom and was proclaimed king and, within a short time, arrangements were made for her marriage to the heir of the King of Germany, Count Ludwig. At the age of ten, Blanche left England and was married in Heidelberg. She never saw her homeland or father again.

She and her husband had their first child when Blanche was fourteen and she was pregnant with a second three years later when, on a visit to Alsace, she fell ill. She suffered from intermittent fevers at first, then fainting and nosebleeds. Her symptoms worsened until, after a continuous fever set in, she died at the age of seventeen. She was buried in Neustadt.

Blanche of Lancaster, born Peterborough spring 1392, died Alsace 22 May 1409.

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Arrangements for marriage
Although negotiations were settled quickly, it took Henry longer than he expected to raise the money for Blanche’s dowry. When he eventually managed to gather the funds, the dowry included a valuable crown, delicately constructed from gold and inlaid with sapphires, rubies and diamonds, which Blanche wore at her wedding.

Twenty-four years old at the time of the wedding, Ludwig was a sensitive and cultured nobleman. He and his young wife formed a close relationship and he was shocked and upset by her death. It was eight years before he married again. After Blanche’s death, he succeeded his father as Elector Palatine, a senior member of the royal family, but he was never elected king.

First child
Their son, Ruprecht, died unmarried at the age of nineteen.

22. Philippa of England

Queen of Denmark, Sweden and Norway

The last child of Henry Bolingbroke and Mary de Bohun, Philippa’s mother died at Peterborough soon after her birth. Her early life was spent in the Lancastrian castles with her older sister Blanche and brother Humphrey. During her father’s exile to France, Philippa remained in England, mostly at Eaton Tregoz castle, with her sister and brother.

On her father’s accession to the throne, her life changed significantly and she lived at Windsor and other royal palaces where she was exposed to a wider set of people and influences, including the household of Joanna of Navarre, who arrived in England with attendants and envoys from Brittany and Spain.

Philippa’s marriage took longer to organise than her sister’s. Her parents had been negotiating for some time with King Erik of Denmark and his mother, both parties seeking to develop their royal links across Europe. Initially there were plans for a double wedding with her older brother Henry marrying Erik’s sister and Erik betrothed to Philippa. Arrangements for Henry’s marriage did not come to fruition but Philippa’s marriage was agreed and, at the age of twelve, she sailed from Lynn in Norfolk on the king’s flagship, the Holyghost de la Tour, with a large retinue of nobles, bishops and diplomats.

She met her new husband at their wedding in Lund Cathedral and spent the early years of her marriage in Kalmar Castle on the eastern coast of Sweden. Here she encountered a court dominated by Queen Margarete, her mother-in-law. Although her husband was king in name, it was Margarete, his mother, who was the real authority in the region. She had recently concluded a treaty to combine the three kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden and Norway under a single crown, an arrangement that would persist for hundreds of years.

An adventurous and strong-minded young woman, Philippa soon settled in her adopted country, becoming familiar with its languages and customs. She developed a close bond with Margarete who found her an enthusiastic and capable ally and later took an active role in the governance of the kingdom. On one occasion, when her husband was out of the country, she organised the defence of Copenhagen from an attack by the Hanseatic League. She achieved a notable victory and was applauded for her heroism and leadership.

Her husband had a reputation as a philanderer and the pair did not have a close relationship. Although Philippa did eventually become pregnant, late in their marriage, the child did not survive and she died soon afterwards, possibly as a result. She was buried in Vadstena abbey, a foundation to which she had close links and made substantial donations over the course of her life.

Philippa of England, born Peterborough castle 4 June 1394, died Vadstena abbey 5 January 1430.

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Eaton Tregoz
A fortified manor house on the River Wye near Hereford, built in the thirteenth century.

Holyghost de la Tour
The king’s largest ship, the same vessel that was used to bring Joanna of Navarre to England a few years earlier. The description ‘de la Tour’ indicates the ship’s home port was at the Tower of London on the Thames.

Philippa was accompanied on her journey by a bishop, eight knights and three squires, eight ladies-in-waiting, eight minstrels, forty valets, fifteen pages, a friar, seven ambassadors and various other officials and their assistants.

Wedding in Lund Cathedral
Philippa is often cited as the first royal bride to be married in white. She wore a white satin cloak with a long train, worked with velvet and bordered with miniver and ermine. She was also provided with plenty of warm clothing for her new home, including a cap decorated with silk buttons and tassels, leather coats and three pairs of fur-lined boots.

Hanseatic League
Trading federation made up of free cities and states in northern Europe which operated as an independent state and was involved in a long dispute with Margarete over trading routes and tariffs. Disagreements escalated into war with both sides employing privateers to destroy or capture vessels and ports.

Notable victory
The situation was reversed within a few months when the Hansa ships returned in greater numbers and destroyed most of the Danish fleet. Philippa later ordered a disastrous attack on the town of Stralsund on the Baltic coast.

23. Katherine of Valois

Queen of England

The third daughter of King Charles of France, Katherine spent much of her early years in the palace of St Pol in Paris. For a short time she was educated in a convent outside the city alongside her older sister and a daughter of the author, Christine de Pizan.

Her marriage to the king of England was contracted at a low point in the fortunes of her kingdom. Her father was descending into madness, troubled by delusions and the young warrior king of England had defeated or captured their forces. She was not the first of their daughters to be betrothed to an English king and her older sister’s experience may have increased her anticipation; Isabella had married King Richard II over a decade earlier but that alliance had come to a quick and unsatisfactory end when Richard was dethroned.

After her hasty marriage, she joined her husband’s war party for a time, lodging in converted apartments in a town near to the castle he was attacking. She went back with him to England for her coronation in Westminster Abbey where she was introduced to the English court and paraded in style around London. She lived in Windsor Castle and other royal palaces while she was pregnant. Her husband returned to war and was not in the country when she gave birth to their first child, a boy, who was christened Henry.

When her husband died, she was still a young woman. Away from public view, she began a relationship with Edmund Beaufort. Although conducted discreetly, the affair alarmed ministers and led to a specially constructed law to prohibit the Queen’s marriage without the permission of the crown.

Her son, the king, was raised in the guardianship of her husband’s brother, John Duke of Bedford, with the assistance of other esteemed members of the aristocracy including Bishop Henry Beaufort. A queen in her position may have taken a role as regent but Katherine was not politically minded and preferred a quieter life, away from the royal court.

Katherine did eventually marry again, in secret, to an official in her household. Owen Tudor, the keeper of the Queen’s wardrobe who was a relation of the welsh rebel Owain Glyndwr. The couple had several children and managed to keep their union a secret for some years. When it was finally discovered, the couple were taken into custody, Owen to Newgate prison and Katherine to Bermondsey Abbey.

Katherine lost her last child during her custody and died soon after. She was buried in Westminster Abbey. Although she lived a troubled and unhappy life, she was of the highest tier of royalty, the daughter, wife and mother of kings. Her son was the first king to be crowned in both England and France. Her grandson later came to the throne as the first monarch of the House of Tudor.

Katherine of Valois, born Paris 27 October 1401, died Bermondsey 3 January 1437.

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Christine de Pizan
Celebrated French author who is considered the first woman in Europe to have made her own living by her writing. She produced some notably original works and is most famous for the Book of the City of Ladies, a treatise emphasising the virtues and strengths of women and their contributions to society.

St Pol
A large royal residence in Paris. According to contemporary rumours, despite living in a large palace, Katherine was largely abandoned by her family and grew up in poverty among its rooms. The French court of the time was burdened with financial problems and dominated by bickering factions.

Charles the Mad, as he has become known, first showed signs of instability when he attacked and killed one of his own bodyguards as a young man. He suffered a series of relapses over the course of his life, running wild in the palaces where he was confined or refusing to wash or change his clothes. He later came to believe he was made of glass and ordered a special suit, reinforced with a metal armature, to protect his fragile body and prevent it from shattering.

His mother, Joanna of Bourbon, suffered a similar breakdown in her mid thirties, from which she later recovered. Other members of her family were also known for their mental fragility.

Edmund Beaufort
Third son of John Beaufort, and therefore grandson of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford. He was around twenty-one and the widowed queen in her mid-twenties when their liaison is supposed to have taken place. His sister Joanna married the King of Scotland who was in custody in the English court at the time and a close friend of Katherine’s.

Specially constructed law
According to commentators, the statute was required due to Katherine’s inability ‘to curb fully her carnal passions’.

Keeper of the Queen’s Wardrobe
An official role which involved the administration of Katherine’s personal expenditure and household including managing her provisions, clothing, servants and living arrangements.

Buried in Westminster Abbey
Her embalmed body was later moved to Henry V’s tomb and sometimes displayed as a curiosity. The diarist Samuel Pepys reported how, on his birthday in 1669, he was allowed to cradle her remains in his arms and kiss her mummified lips.

24. Anne of Burgundy

Duchess of Bedford

The seventh child of Margaret, countess of Flanders and John, duke of Burgundy, Anne was born in Paris and spent her early years in her parents’ rambling palace in the city. Her father, who inherited the duchy of Burgundy shortly before she was born, was an energetic and intrepid baron, readily taking on other powerful factions and nobles and not unwilling to use violence and thuggery to achieve his ambitions. His political wrangling resulted in his assassination by the dauphin when Anne was fifteen years old.

Her brother became the new duke and, in reaction to the death of their father, began to cultivate an alliance with the English, supporting the claims of the king of England, Henry V, to the throne of France. When Henry died from an illness contracted during his military campaign, the king’s brother, John, became leader of the English forces and, following the death of the French king, regent of France. Negotiations for a marriage between John and Anne progressed quickly and the couple were wed at Troyes. Anne was eighteen and her husband in his early thirties.

The duke inherited substantial lands through his marriage to Anne, including the duchy of Anjou, the county of Maine and properties across Burgundy and Paris. For her part, as wife of the regent of France, Anne now occupied a senior role of state and over the next few years, saw the Anglo-Burgundian alliance win important victories across France. Similarly, the first years of Anne’s marriage were happy and secure. She and her husband enjoyed each other’s company and projected an image of stability and optimism.

But the alliance was tested by a dramatic resurgence in French fortunes. After a sequence of resounding victories against the alliance, the dauphin was crowned king of France in Reims. The alliance responded strongly, successfully containing the dauphin’s armies and within a few months, had recovered their position. Anne and her husband attended her brother’s prestigious wedding to Isabella of Portugal in Bruges and, soon after, King Henry VI of England was brought into Paris for his coronation as King of France in Notre Dame.

Anne had seen her family reach a high point in their position in the politics of France, but the following year showed the first signs of illness. Her concerned husband arranged for the relics of St Germain to be processed through the streets of Paris, in the interests of her recovery, but she continued to weaken and died, aged twenty-seven, in the Hôtel de Bourbon in Paris.

In death, her body was divided, her heart buried in the convent of Grand Augustins and the rest of her remains in the convent of the Celestines. Although her relationship with John had been quite content, they produced no children and, after her death, the alliance between England and Burgundy began to unravel. It was the beginning of the long decline of the English hold on France.

Anne of Burgundy, born Paris 30 September 1404, died Paris 14 November 1432.

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Rambling palace
The Hôtel de Bourgogne was acquired by her grandfather and fashioned from a collection of properties. Its precincts encompassed a hectare of land in Paris and was developed substantially by Anne’s parents who constructed additional wings and apartments, including a tall watchtower.

Charles VII was the fifth son of Charles the Mad and the younger brother of Katherine of Valois. After all his older brothers died without children, he became heir of the house of Valois, but initially his inheritance seemed hopeless. With the ascendancy of the Anglo-Burgundian faction, he withdrew to Bourges where he maintained a small shadow court. But when his armies began to make progress on the battlefield, the town of Reims supported his claim and he was crowned King of France in its cathedral. He was eventually able to draw more support and expel the English from almost all of the territories they had held in France.

The name Dauphin was an informal term for the heir to the French throne, referring to the heraldic device of a dolphin on the heir’s coat of arms.

The Treaty of Troyes had been sealed between the French and English Kings in Troyes Cathedral a few years before Anne’s marriage. By its terms, Henry V would become king of France on the death of Charles the Mad but events did not unfold as he expected. Henry died before the old king and it was his son, Henry VI, who inherited the claim.

King Henry VI became king of England and France on the death of Charles in 1422. Henry was less than a year old at the time and so his uncle, the duke of Bedford, was appointed regent on his behalf. The duke’s regency lasted almost ten years, until Henry’s coronation in Paris in 1431.

The revival in the French offensive coincided with the emergence of a talismanic figure, a peasant girl called Jeanne, who led an army to defend the siege of Orléans. She told the dauphin she had been sent by God to restore his throne and, over the course of a few months, inspired several devastating victories over the alliance forces. She was eventually captured by the Burgundians and placed in English custody, then tried by an ecclesiastical court who found her guilty of heresy. She was sentenced to death and burned at the stake in Rouen.

St Germain
An early bishop of Paris, Germain was canonised in 754 and became a favourite saint of the Parisians. His relics were often led through the streets in procession as a response to misfortunes such as plague and famine.

Hôtel de Bourbon
This large palace next to the Louvre, on the banks of the Seine, was the Paris residence of the dukes of Bourbon. Duke John of Bourbon had fought against Henry V at Agincourt, was captured and taken back to England as a captive. He spent the rest of his life in custody while his possessions and properties in France were confiscated for use by the English forces.

It had been common for the body parts of nobles and religious figures to be divided up on their death, allowing them to be shared between foundations they had supported during their lifetimes. In particular, it had been fashionable for the heart to be buried separately from the body but the practice was becoming less common by Anne’s time.

25. Jacquetta of Luxembourg

Duchess of Bedford, Countess Rivers

The eldest daughter of the lord of Beauvoir, Jacquetta spent her early years in Brienne. When she was fourteen, her father became count of St Pol, and soon after, her uncle was made Chancellor of France. Already close to the centre of the English administration in France, her family sought to develop its links further and began negotiations for a marriage between Jacquetta and the king’s uncle, the duke of Bedford.

So at the age of seventeen, Jacquetta married the duke in Thérouanne. He was in his mid forties and had been a widower only a few months at the time of their wedding. But the duke was coming to the end of a long career as a major force in French politics. The alliance between the dukes of Burgundy and the kings of England was showing signs of strain and the dauphin’s forces were beginning to loosen the English hold on large parts of the country. A few months after their wedding, Jacquetta was travelling back to England with her husband, on a trip to raise new money and reinforcements for the next phase of the war.

During their stay in England, her husband’s title as duke was made a hereditary peerage, in expectation that he might soon have an heir with his young wife. But they never did have a child together and, shortly after they returned to France and only two and a half years after they married, the duke died in Rouen castle.

Although the marriage had not resulted in the stronger links sought by her family, at the age of nineteen, Jacquetta was left, on paper at least, a very wealthy woman. The reality was more complicated. Many of her late husband’s lands were dispersed over a wide area in France and, without the means or an established administration, it would be difficult to assert her rights to them.

Jacquetta lacked the appetite for this sort of campaign. When she did marry again, it was to a minor English knight, Richard Woodville. He had little money or land of his own but was much closer to Jacquetta’s age and an attractive and dashing figure. The couple purchased a manor at Grafton in Northamptonshire as their base and over the course of a long marriage, had fourteen children together, seven boys and seven girls.

She remained a prominent character in the English court during her second marriage and was loyal to the king. When he was betrothed to Margaret of Anjou, Jacquetta was chosen as one of the nobles to escort the bride to England. At one point during the political turbulence of the following years, Queen Margaret was outside the London city walls with a large army, and poised to attack, when the city aldermen asked Jacquetta to intercede on their behalf. She and her delegation obtained an undertaking from Margaret that there would be no pillaging and her army later withdrew. Increasingly her family was drawn into the twisting fortunes of the Cousins’ War and her husband and son were captured on the battlefield a few weeks later. Jacquetta was again called on to intervene and she negotiated their release from the Tower of London.

When Jacquetta was in her late forties, there was a dramatic change in the prospects of her family. King Henry VI had been deposed, and replaced by Edward, a member of the rival house of York. During his early years as king, Edward met, and fell in love with, Jacquetta’s eldest daughter Elizabeth. Among a handful of people at her house in Grafton, Jacquetta witnessed the secret marriage of Elizabeth and the king.

The king’s ministers were outraged when the marriage was discovered but Jacquetta and her family were suddenly in favour. The obstacles and difficulties obtaining full access to the income and rights by her first marriage, with which she had struggled for thirty years, were lifted. Her husband, formerly of relatively humble rank, was appointed treasurer of England and made an earl and Jacquetta saw her daughter crowned queen in Westminster Abbey.

The sudden elevation of her family attracted bitter criticism and became the focus of discontent with King Edward’s rule. When a military coup briefly restored Henry to the throne, Jacquetta’s husband and son, prominent among Edward’s supporters, were executed. Jacquetta and her daughter only escaped by seeking sanctuary in Westminster abbey. Her troubles continued however when she was accused of witchcraft and she was forced to defend herself on the charge she had tried to kill King Henry and Queen Margaret by means of magical procedures involving lead facsimiles of their bodies.

Edward reasserted his claim to the throne and defeated the House of Lancaster in battle the following year, so Jacquetta saw her daughter and her grandchildren, among them a future king and queen, restored to relative comfort and security. But after a life passed in the furious centre of the most tumultuous political circumstances, Jacquetta died aged fifty-six. Her path had followed an unlikely course, bound to the rival houses of Lancaster and York but she repeatedly proved herself equal to the most challenging of situations.

Jacquetta of Luxembourg, born around 1415, died 30 May 1472.

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Richard Woodville
The son of a retainer of the duke of Bedford. Although of humble origins, Richard’s father developed an impressive career, serving in many important offices in the English administration in France, including tenures as treasurer and chamberlain of the regent. His son was employed as a young army captain in France and his father’s senior position in the regent’s court likely brought him into contact with the new duchess at the time of her marriage.

Margaret’s army
After the birth of her son and heir, Queen Margaret became increasingly active in defending her family interests in a time of rapidly changing fortunes. When Edward IV was proclaimed king in autumn 1460, Margaret raised an army to challenge his right and she arrived at London in 1461 having defeated the Yorkist forces and freed her husband.

Her hesitation in taking control of the capital may have been significant. Instead she took her forces north where, a few months later, they were massacred in a notoriously bloody battle.

Cousins’ War
The name given by chroniclers to the dynastic struggle between the houses of Lancaster and York, later known as the Wars of the Roses.

There are several stories as to how they met. One account describes how Elizabeth was petitioning the king for help in securing the inheritance of her recently deceased husband. Taken with her beauty, he agreed on the condition that she sleep with him. Horrified, she protested, even threatening him with a dagger. He would have to make her his queen first, she said, and so he did.

In another description, Elizabeth heard the king was hunting near to Grafton and waited for him under a tree with her two children. When he came by and saw the beautiful and hopeless young widow, he took pity on her and promised to marry her.

Contemporaries regarded the secret marriage as shameful because it was motivated by blind affection on the king’s part, rather than reason. Although Elizabeth was described as the most beautiful woman in Britain, the humble background of her father made her an unsuitable bride for a king. Some even argued that more shadowy forces had been at work and there were later suggestions Jacquetta and her daughter used enchantments to beguile and trap the king.

There was a long tradition of criminals or refugees seeking sanctuary in churches and an expectation that armed men would not step on holy ground in pursuit of a suspect. This rule was usually, if not always, respected. But the laws surrounding sanctuary were complicated and in most cases, asylum seekers were required to confess their crimes within forty days and then leave the kingdom as quickly as possible.

Elizabeth and Jacquetta were in a different situation, but Queen Margaret and her faction did not risk the ignoble and inauspicious scene of forcibly removing the women and they remained in the abbey for several months. Furnishings and servants were moved into apartments in the abbey precincts and they lived in what comfort they could. Elizabeth, who was pregnant when she went into the abbey, gave birth to a son, the future Edward V, during their stay.

Charges of sorcery were a common means of discrediting or disinheriting noblewomen. Accusations were easy to manufacture, exerted a great fascination on the public and the clergy, and were impossible to disprove. As Joanna of Navarre found, spurious allegations like this could be used to freeze a widow’s assets or force her cooperation in return for a pardon.

26. Jacqueline of Hainault

Duchess of Gloucester

Born at the Hague palace in Holland, Jacqueline was descended from the royal houses of France and Germany. At the age of five, she was betrothed to Jean, a son of Charles the Mad and brother of Katherine of Valois. The pair did eventually marry ten years later and shortly after their wedding, Jean became Dauphin and heir to the crown of France. However, he died just over a year later, at the age of eighteen, possibly the victim of poisoning.

Only weeks later, her father died and, according to the normal customs of the region, where the succession of daughters was recognised, Jacqueline became countess of Hainault in her own right. However, her claims to Holland and Zeeland, which had been controlled by her father, were challenged by her uncle Johann of Bavaria. As part of a plan to assert her dominance over the territories, Jacqueline contracted a marriage to Jean, duke of Brabant. The endeavour was troubled from the start when she found it difficult to obtain the necessary papal dispensation. When the marriage was finally concluded, her new husband proved to be a weak and ineffective partner, quickly acceding to Johann’s demands. Jacqueline, infuriated by his capitulation, refused to accept the agreement. She publicly repudiated her marriage and instead sought new allies abroad.

In England, she persuaded the king’s younger brother, the duke of Gloucester, to support her cause and the pair married in secret. By the time the marriage was announced, Jacqueline was also said to be pregnant, but she miscarried a short time after. In the following year, she returned to Hainault with her new husband at the head of an English army. She and Humphrey were initially recognised and welcomed by the Hainaulters but political affiliations in the region were shifting and when Jacqueline’s cousin Philip became duke of Burgundy, he also declared a claim on the land. He was a much more dangerous opponent, not least because of a wide network of alliances in France and England which weakened her husband’s ability to act. When the duke of Burgundy challenged her husband to a trial by combat for the territories, he agreed and returned to England to prepare, but it soon became clear that he was not in any hurry to return.

At the same time, the duke of Burgundy was seeking confirmation on Jacqueline’s marital status. After the pope in Avignon declared categorically that her marriage to Jean of Brabant remained valid, and news arrived from England of Humphrey’s marriage to his mistress, Jacqueline gave up hope of any further support from the duke of Gloucester.

Failed by another husband, she had little choice but to accept Burgundian authority over her territories although her title as Countess of Hainault, Zeeland and Holland was confirmed and accepted by the duke. She did take wedding vows for a fourth time, again in secret, when she married the governor of Holland and Zeeland. This may have been part of yet another bid to increase her power but when the marriage was made public, the duke imprisoned her husband and did not release him until she officially renounced all of her territorial claims.

After a determined and eventful life, Jacqueline did finally agree to his demands. She retired to a castle the duke had allowed her and spent her remaining years more quietly with her last husband, hunting and making pottery.

Jacqueline of Hainault, born the Hague 15 July 1401, died Teylingen castle 8 October 1436.

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Jean’s sudden death at the age of eighteen was certainly convenient for some factions. Popular opinion at the time suspected the king of Sicily, a notoriously unscrupulous operator, who had already betrothed his daughter Marie to Jean’s younger brother. After the death of his older brothers, Marie’s husband, Charles, became dauphin and later king of France.

Dog bite
A wound he sustained from a dog bite became infected.

Jacqueline and her first husband, Jean, were cousins, sharing a common ancestor in Louis IV, Holy Roman Emperor. They were just within the prohibited bounds of consanguinity and therefore required papal dispensation in order to marry. This was generally a formality for royal couples, although it could introduce a considerable delay. Jacqueline was five years old when she was betrothed to Jean in 1406 and dispensation for their marriage was not granted until 1411. The couple were eventually married in 1415.

The process was complicated by the fact there were three popes at the time. The dispensation for Jacqueline’s wedding was granted by John XXIII of Pisa, the pope recognised by the majority of Europe. The kingdom of Naples still recognised the Roman pope, while the pontiff based in Avignon was acknowledged by the kingdoms of Scotland and Castile.

The existence of different papal authorities became intolerable to both church and secular authorities in Europe and, following the conclusion of an ecumenical council in 1418, a single pope was elected in Rome, and recognised by almost all nations. The Avignon pope, who refused to accept the decision was acknowledged only by the small kingdom of Aragon, where he reigned quietly until his death five years later.

Jacqueline’s repudiation of her marriage to the duke of Brabant carried no legal weight and her wedding to Humphrey was officially annulled.

27. Eleanor Cobham

Duchess of Gloucester

The daughter of a minor nobleman, Baron Cobham, Eleanor grew up in Sterborough castle in Surrey until, in her early twenties, she became an attendant and companion to Jacqueline of Hainault as part of her English household. Jacqueline married Humphrey, duke of Gloucester during her stay in England, as part of her campaign to recover her ancestral lands in the Low Countries, bringing Eleanor and the duke into the same social circle.

Although Humphrey left with Jacqueline to try to restore her titles, within a few months, he was back in England and involved with Eleanor. Two years later, when his marriage to Jacqueline was officially annulled by the pope, the couple wed. As the daughter of a junior baron, Eleanor was considered an inappropriate partner for the duke but he treated her generously and the couple formed a lively and grandly-appointed household at Bella Court, their large manor house at Greenwich.

The sharp-witted and intelligent Eleanor found a creditable partner in the duke who was a cultivated man, and a lover of books and learning. The couple hosted philosophers, poets and musicians from the continent and their household became the centre of a growing interest in the new humanistic curricula of the Italian universities.

Over time, Eleanor achieved greater acceptance in the English court and she was afforded the full titles and honours of a duchess. Although her husband clashed with some of the king’s ministers, especially Cardinal Beaufort, he was a potent and influential figure during the king’s minority and heavily involved in the wars in France. On the death of his older brother, he also became next in line to the throne but after the king took personal control of the government, the duke’s leverage began to wane.

Eleanor’s readiness to consider new and unorthodox ideas in a very conservative era would also create trouble for the duchess. One of the subjects which appealed to her was the fashionable science of astrology. She commissioned her physician, Thomas Southwell, along with the Oxford scholar Roger Bolingbroke, to cast horoscopes on matters relating to her and her husband and, during the early years of the king’s direct rule, they produced a dramatic and dangerous prediction. Their calculations showed, they said, that within a year or so, the king would develop a life-threatening illness.

When rumours of the prophecy began to circulate in London, the king’s ministers first obtained a rival horoscope anticipating his continued good health, then took steps to discredit the claims of Eleanor’s astrologers. Inevitably, this culminated in her trial for witchcraft. Over the course of the hearings, during which she was confined to one of the royal castles, she confessed to some, but not all of the charges brought against her, and was ordered to perform a penance for her actions. She was also divorced by order of the court and sentenced to imprisonment for the rest of her life.

Stripped of her titles, she spent the last decade of her life in a succession of royal prisons, and died in captivity, aged fifty-two.

Eleanor Cobham, born Sterborough castle around 1400, died 7 July 1452.

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King Henry VI was declared an adult and capable of governing in his own right when he was sixteen and it would be a further eight years before he married.

Life-threatening illness
In fact, the young king remained healthy. It would be another twelve years before he showed the first signs of the debilitating infirmities that would threaten his kingship.

Rumours of the prophecy
It is not recorded how these activities came to wider attention but it is possible the entire episode may have been exaggerated or conceived as a means of discrediting Eleanor and her husband. The duke had taken a position opposing a peace with France and the distraction of the accusations, combined with the public humiliation attached to the proceedings, was telling. Duke Humphrey effectively retired from political life around this time, making it easier for Cardinal Beaufort and his party to press for a treaty.

Trial for witchcraft
Southwell and Bolingbroke named the duchess as their client and she sought sanctuary in Westminster abbey where, over the summer of 1441, she was examined by a court of bishops. She faced eighteen charges, of which she reportedly admitted five, but most of the details of the allegations have not survived. She did confess to having procured potions and spells from Margery Jourdemayne, also known as the Witch of Eye, a woman of humble origins who had become a notorious supplier of enchantments to the nobility. The magical items she purchased were intended to help her conceive a child with the duke but apparently were not successful. After her confession, she was held in custody in Leeds castle in Kent, not far from the estate where she had grown up.

Eleanor was ordered to walk barefoot, carrying a lit candle, to the altars of three London churches. The dates of the journeys, all held during November 1441, were chosen to coincide with market days in the city, ensuring there would be large crowds to witness her humiliation.

Her collaborators were dealt with more harshly. Southwell died in the Tower of London, possibly by swallowing poison to avoid a traitor’s death. Margery Jourdemayne was burned at the stake in Smithfield, outside the city walls. Bolingbroke was hanged at Tyburn cross, then drawn and quartered.

Succession of royal castles
She was held at Chester castle initially, then Kenilworth. There is some evidence she was later moved to the Isle of Man and then, finally, to Beaumaris castle in Wales. Though deprived of her freedom, she was kept in conditions appropriate to a noblewoman. Her captors at Chester had a generous budget for her welfare and, at Kenilworth, she was served by a priest, three gentlemen and a maid as well as several pages and valets.

28. Henry of Windsor

King of England and France

Born in Windsor castle, Henry was the only son of the king and Queen Catherine of France. At the age of nine months, on the death of his father, he became king of England. Two months later, when Charles the Mad died in Paris, he was also king of France.

He grew up within a huddle of advisors, tutors, nurses, and priests, the governance of his kingdom bickered over by his uncles, the dukes of Bedford and Gloucester, and Cardinal Beaufort. Although given the instruction appropriate for a king, even as a child he showed little interest in fighting and weaponry. Instead, he was drawn towards reading, prayer and contemplation. From an early age, he appeared a gentle and sensitive character, often lost in thought.

Nevertheless, he did take an increasing role in government and by the age of sixteen had full responsibility over his kingdoms. With the English forces losing hold over his territories in France, Henry’s tendencies led him towards a peace settlement and he opted to marry a member of the French royal family, Margaret of Anjou. She was not a senior royal and did not stand to inherit any significant titles and lands but the marriage offered the prospect of a renewed peace with France. The negotiations were concluded successfully and the couple married in Titchfield. Henry was twenty-three and his bride fifteen.

In contrast to his predecessors, Henry never stood at the head of an army. He showed no interest in military operations in Scotland or Ireland. He visited France on a single occasion, crossing the channel to attend his own coronation as a boy, only to hasten back to England and the security of his royal palaces. Others were quick to take advantage of his reluctance to engage in war. French warships patrolled the channel and launched attacks on England’s southern coastal towns. The English cloth trade was disrupted in Holland, and in England itself, a popular rebellion erupted in the countryside, protesting at supposed corruption in the heart of the king’s regime.

When the king’s uncle died, with the king and queen still childless, questions on the succession of the crown began to grow. For as long as the king remained without a son, it was unclear who stood next in line to the throne. One possible claimant was Richard, duke of York, a great-grandson of Edward III who began to recruit an army in England and tried to persuade other nobles to join a campaign to have him recognised as the king’s heir. Fortunately for Henry, few were willing to openly support the duke and he was forced to back down.

At around the same time, after eight years of marriage, the queen became pregnant. But the news was accompanied by disturbing reports of the fall of the last English stronghold in France. For the first time in three hundred years, the English had no territories beyond Calais. The king received the messengers while on a tour of the west country and a few days later, perhaps overwhelmed by the extent of the losses, he experienced a mental collapse.

The king’s grandfather, on his mother’s side, had famously suffered with mental illness. In Henry’s case, the illness came in the form of detachment and helplessness. He sometimes became completely unresponsive and had to be attended constantly by pages and assistants. He was apparently unaware of the birth of his son. When the symptoms continued for months, a parliament was convened to decide on practical arrangements for running the kingdom and the duke of York, now in a much stronger position, was appointed as protector and defender of the realm.

In the following months, the duke used his authority to imprison his political opponents and place his allies in more senior positions. Edmund Beaufort, his most prominent competitor, was arrested and imprisoned. But the duke’s regime was brief. After eighteen months of debilitating illness, the king suddenly recovered. The duke was forced to resign as protector, many of his decisions were reversed and he and his supporters left the court. Within weeks, the unease between the duke of York and the king’s other advisors became openly hostile.

When a parliament was called to take place at Leicester, the duke feared official charges would be brought against him and his followers. Arguing the king was endangered by malicious factions at the court, he assembled an army with the intention of preventing the parliament taking place. His opponents, led by the duke of Buckingham, recruited soldiers of their own and the two forces met at St Albans where, after a short skirmish in the town streets and alleyways, the Yorkist lords captured the king.

In the following years, the duke of York tried again to consolidate his power but faced resistance from most of his peers among whom Queen Margaret had built a stronger network of alliances. The king and his court spent more time in the royal castles of the midlands where the queen was able to exert increasing control over the government of the realm. Within a few years, she was sufficiently confident, and the king sufficiently compliant, to bring formal charges against the duke of York and his family. The Yorkists again took up arms to defend their political position and again captured the king, this time in a tent on the battlefield in Northampton. He was taken back to London, and the archbishop’s palace at Westminster, a limp puppet in their hands. A short time later, the duke forced a settlement on the king. The compromise would allow Henry to continue to hold the crown in his lifetime with the duke inheriting on his death.

But the duke did not live long enough to become king himself. Queen Margaret was still at large and successfully raised an army in the north to contest the Yorkists. When the duke led his armies to meet her near Wakefield, he was killed in the fighting. In a bitter sequence of battles over the next few months, Margaret recaptured her husband, then saw her forces collapse and fleeing north with the king and her son, sought sanctuary with the queen of Scotland. From afar, they received reports that Henry had been declared unfit to rule and the duke of York’s son crowned Edward IV in London.

The war between the houses of York and Lancaster continued with engagements in the north of England where Henry was captured again. This time, he was chased into a forest where he was found hiding among the trees with just two chaplains and a young squire. He was placed on a horse with his feet bound to the stirrups and led back to London.

He spent the next five years in custody in the Tower of London. Although he was allowed visitors and kept comfortably, he appeared dishevelled and unkempt when he was next seen in public. He was unexpectedly released for a short time when Queen Margaret returned from France with yet more forces at her command but the restoration of his crown lasted only a few months. When Edward of York rallied his army to force a final defeat on the Lancastrians, the fifty-year-old Henry, feeble and vulnerable, was carried at the head of the Yorkist retinues to demonstrate their power.

As for most of his adult life, the king offered no resistance. Valuable only as a figurehead, he was shuffled restlessly around the game board. He was returned to the Tower of London but this time, the stay would be very brief. The queen’s army was broken and Henry’s son was killed in battle and within a few days, Henry was also dead. No one believed the official statement, that he died of displeasure. His body was taken to St Paul’s cathedral where it lay on the stone floor overnight before being buried quietly, modestly away from the city.

Henry of Windsor, born 6 December 1421, died London 21 May 1471.

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Duke of York
The direct descendant of John of Gaunt’s older brother, Richard of York arguably had a stronger claim to the throne than King Henry himself. Son of the earl of Cambridge, Richard inherited the duchy of York when his uncle died at Agincourt. He became regent of France after the death of the duke of Bedford.

The duke was the grandson of Joan Beaufort and her second husband, Ralph Neville.

Last English stronghold
The Battle of Castillon in 1453 is usually considered the last significant contest in the Hundred Years War between England and France. The French made used of small guns to overwhelm the last English forces and Henry’s constable of France was hacked to death in the battle lines. After the defeat, the French forces finally recaptured Gascony. The territory, in the south west of France, had been controlled by English kings for almost three hundred years.

England and France remained at war, officially at least, for another two decades but the English launched no further campaigns.

Edmund Beaufort
Edmund, duke of Somerset, was the oldest son of John Beaufort, and grandson of John of Gaunt. After a notorious love affair with Queen Katherine, Henry V’s widow, Edmund was sent to France where, over the course of a long military career, he watched the English territories fall, one after another, to the resurgent French forces. When he returned to England, he became the most senior among the barons at court where he was a close ally of Queen Margaret, prompting gossip about their involvement.

A short skirmish
The first battle of St Albans, which took place in May 1455, lasted less than an hour but is historically significant as the first engagement of the Wars of the Roses, or the Cousins’ War as the conflict was known to contemporaries. Although there were thousands of fighters on both sides, most witnesses were not expecting a battle and negotiations were still in progress when the Yorkists launched a surprise attack. They first tried an assault down narrow streets towards the centre of town and, when they were pushed back, took a longer way around with infantry soldiers running through the back lanes and crossing gardens to reach the market square where the king’s forces were gathered.

Many of the Lancastrians were resting or preparing food and were not ready for battle. Most fled as soon as the Yorkist forces attacked. The duke of Buckingham was overpowered and badly beaten but the Yorkist’s main objective was to defeat their most outspoken political opponent, the duke of Somerset. He took refuge in an inn but the building was surrounded and, when he tried to fight his way out, the duke was killed in the street.

King Henry himself was present at the battle but when fighting erupted on the market square, he also ran and was found hiding in a tannery. The duke of York and his men took him to the abbey in the town where they swore to defend and uphold his rule.

The king was in a tent in the precincts of Delapré Abbey near Northampton where his forces had prepared their defences. When the leader of the Yorkist army, the earl of Warwick, asked to speak to the king, he was informed he should not attempt to come near or he would be killed. He sent another message saying he would speak with the king or die in the attempt. In pouring rain, the earl then approached with his army. One of the Lancastrian commanders had already agreed to change sides during the course of the battle and this enabled the Yorkist forces to get quickly inside the king’s lines. Several noblemen, including the duke of Buckingham, died trying to defend the king in his tent, but their resistance was overcome and the king taken back to London in York’s custody.

Queen of Scotland
Mary of Guelders was a noblewoman from Burgundy who became queen of Scotland on her marriage to King James II. At this time, shortly after the death of her husband, she was regent of Scotland and initially reached an agreement with Queen Margaret to support her in exchange for the disputed town of Berwick. However, when the Yorkists made an alliance with her uncle, the duke of Burgundy, Mary was forced to abandon Margaret and her cause.

The duke of York’s son
Born in Rouen in 1442, Edward was vigorous and confident, and experienced in fighting and command. After the death of his father, he took up the hopes of the Yorkist faction and eventually victorious in the dynastic conflict. He was crowned king at the age of nineteen.

29. Margaret of Anjou

Queen of England and France

Daughter of the duke of Anjou, Margaret was born in Lorraine, in north-east France. As niece of the queen of France, she grew up close to the centre of power but although her father was formally, at varying times, the king of Aragon, Naples, Sicily, and Jerusalem, in practice he was not able to secure his rule and the kingdoms were controlled by rival claimants. He also spent several years of Margaret’s childhood in the custody of the duke of Burgundy due to disputes over complicated rules of inheritance.

With King Henry of England eager to settle a truce with France, a marriage with Margaret was offered as a gesture of peace. The king was pleased with the prospect and quickly agreed the treaty but it was not popular with the English nobility who disapproved of terms which required the king to give up too much land for a bride of Margaret’s modest standing. All the same, aged fifteen, Margaret travelled to England with an escort provided by the king and the pair were married in Titchfield abbey. From there, the couple went to London where, a few weeks later, Margaret was crowned queen.

She found in her new husband a gentle and unassuming character, quiet and refined but anxious to provide suitably for his queen. Without a large retinue of her own, arrangements were quickly made to establish Margaret’s household, and she was granted the annual income of a number of estates in the midlands. In the first years of their marriage, the pair lived together for much of the time and began to form a companionable relationship while, around them, the affairs of the realm were falling into disarray.

The fears of the English nobility after the treaty of Tours were realised quickly. Unwilling to wait for diplomatic niceties to be observed, the king of France seized Anjou and Maine by force and then launched an attack on English lands in Normandy. Over the space of a few months, all the gains made at great expense by the king’s father were lost. A furious parliament placed the blame on Henry’s leading minister, the newly elevated duke of Suffolk, who was exiled from England for his failure to defend the kingdom’s interests. Popular resentment towards the losses in France erupted later the same summer when an uprising of peasants from Kent and Sussex marched into London. Under the leadership of a rebel known variously as John Mend All, or Jack Cade, they held judicial hearings in the city and published a manifesto demanding that the king abandon his false friends and advisors.

With Margaret and the king yet to produce an heir, unrest among the nobles was distilled into a contest between rival claimants as next in line to the throne, the dukes of York and Somerset. Although the authority of the king was not directly challenged, the weaknesses of his rule were clearly visible and any prospect of the peace Margaret once embodied was now lost. Surrounded by the hostile manoeuvres of powerful and enraged magnates, Margaret remained close to the king as they moved between their royal palaces: Windsor, Sheen, Eltham, Westminster.

Finally, after eight years in England, Margaret realised she was pregnant. When the news was made public, there was a brief sense of hope that the kingdom’s fortunes were about to turn. But what optimism there was evaporated when reports began to reach England of a new French offensive in Gascony. As messengers brought despatches confirming that the distant outpost, part of the kingdom for three hundred years, had surrendered to the French forces, Margaret’s husband suffered a mental collapse. Isolated and distrusted, her king inert and unresponsive, enclosed in the clustered buildings of the palace of Westminster, she gave birth to a son.

The boy was christened Edward but for the first year of his life, was unknown to his father who had fallen into a dissociative state, ignorant of his surroundings. A French noblewoman in the heart of the English court, Margaret could only watch as the duke of York assumed control as protector of the realm. If the duke still harboured any hope of being king himself, her son represented a direct challenge to his ambitions. But then against all expectation, when Edward was just over a year old, his father seemed to wake up.

Over the subsequent weeks, the king was able to resume some appearance of normal life. He was briefed by his council and the duke of Somerset was released from custody. But although the duke of York gave up his position as protector, he still had the support of a number of noble families. A fissure was opening in the ranks of the ruling elite.

Margaret was in London, a short time later, when she heard the king had been caught up in a skirmish between the opposing factions. He returned to London in the custody of the duke of York, by which time Margaret had taken her son into the protective fortifications of the Tower of London. Swords had been drawn, the members of the noble houses were facing up to one another and it was becoming clear to Margaret she now had to choose a side.

Although the duke of York declared publicly he was acting on the king’s behalf, and on his return to London, arranged a crowning ceremony in St Paul’s cathedral, he had demonstrated he was prepared to defend his interests on the battlefield, and had the capability to take on the king’s armies. While he struggled to establish a formal protectorate amid the suspicious and infighting court, Margaret withdrew her son from the capital, going not to the royal castles, but to the Lancastrian fortresses of Hertford, then Tutbury. From there, she began to build a network of supporters.

Where her husband was weak and tentative, Margaret was steady and decisive and began to rally a core of nobles who were equally disturbed by the duke’s ambition. Within a short time, as his protectorate crumbled for lack of support, Margaret and her allies brought formal charges against the duke and his followers, accusing them of treason. The duke and his men fled to Ireland.

But Margaret also came up against substantial opposition. Many of the nobility, and the citizens of more northern towns such as Coventry and Chester were fully behind her. But other areas, and many other barons, were not content to be ruled by a French queen. The people of London increasingly supported the Yorkist faction and the duke had no difficulty raising forces. As constable of Calais, he also had a large standing army at his command, men he now summoned into the field. Led by his son and other supporters of the duke, Yorkist forces faced the crown army again at Northampton and again captured the king. They led him back to London and tried again to install a government dominated by Yorkist ministers. The emboldened duke returned from Ireland and arrived in the capital in a magnificent procession, received like a king.

Behind the walls of her castle on the Welsh coast, Margaret planned her next move. She and her son still had strong allies among the lords loyal to the Lancastrian side. Between them, they marshalled a large army in the north, with the intent of seizing the duke’s lands and marching on London and, in the depths of winter, won two powerful victories over the opposition. Near Wakefield, they killed the duke of York and dispersed his retinues, then marched south where a second battle took place in St Albans. Margaret’s forces seized the town and she was reunited with her husband. She continued south with her army until she stood outside the walls of the capital.

At London, Margaret appeared to hesitate. She did not order her forces into the city and instead moved away to the north. The earl of March, now duke of York following the death of his father, returned to London, resupplied his armies and set off in pursuit. A few weeks later, in the most costly slaughter of the civil war, the Lancastrian armies were destroyed.

Margaret fled with the king and their son to Scotland. She had lost almost everything. But in an extraordinary show of resilience and determination, she refused to surrender the interests of her husband and son. While she received bulletins of the coronation of a new king, Edward IV, in London, she began to formulate new plans. At first she hoped for an alliance with the queen of Scotland, but when that possibility seemed to fade, she left her husband in the care of the loyal Northumbrian lords and sailed with her son for France.

With her close familial ties to the French king, she now attempted to build a wider alliance and established a base at one of her father’s castles, a few days’ ride from Paris. Over the following years, she watched her son grow to adulthood, and tried steadily to win the support of the French king. Although her husband was again captured, and this time held as a prisoner in the Tower of London, it was not long before cracks in the new establishment began to show.

It did not happen quickly but Margaret waited patiently for a new opportunity and the French king’s help did eventually come. When the earl of Warwick, the most powerful noble of the Yorkist group, fell out with the king and sought the help of the French, Margaret joined him in an almost unthinkable deal. The earl had been one of her most prominent opponents during the wars in England but the course of events now brought him into an unlikely alliance. With the help of the king of France, and after ten years of exile, Margaret returned to England.

This last campaign was short and bitter. Initially, the signs were promising for the new allies. The earl arrived back in his home territories and quickly found strong support among old family and friends. As they moved south, the sudden emergence of a rebel force shocked King Edward whose armies were dispersed and not ready for battle. Without any realistic chance of resisting them, he withdrew to the Low Countries to prepare. As Margaret made arrangements to return to her husband in England, Edward reached a hasty alliance with the duke of Burgundy and made his own journey back to face his cousin, and former ally, the earl of Warwick.

When Margaret landed at Weymouth, it was to news that the earl had been killed by the returning Yorkists. She successfully raised more troops in the west country, then made for Wales where she was likely to find more support. But her troops were intercepted by the king’s army and, as he led his forces into battle in his first experience of warfare, Margaret’s son was chopped down. A few days later she was taken into custody, then brought into London at the head of Edward’s victory parade, defeated and stripped of her royal title, arriving to the news that her husband was also dead.

She remained in King Edward’s custody for a few years, until the French king paid her ransom and she crossed back across the channel for the final time, returning to her father’s lands in Anjou where she lived quietly for the remainder of her life.

Margaret of Anjou, born Lorraine 23 March 1430, died Anjou 25 August 1482.

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The treaty provided for a twenty-one month truce, in addition to the marriage with Margaret. In return, Henry agreed to give up the lands of Maine and Anjou, a concession which angered English commanders who had fought a long campaign to secure the territories in the first place. Margaret’s family were also too impoverished to offer a dowry so it was apparent to many of the English nobles that the French had made significant gains at little or no cost. The treaty became a symbol of the mismanagement of the war under Henry’s rule.

The marquess of Suffolk led a delegation to bring Margaret back to England which included Jacquetta of Luxembourg and her new husband, Richard Woodville. The party was delayed considerably due an illness which affected Margaret at the time. She was reluctant to travel and it was several months before she felt able to make the trip. During these months, there may have been concerns that the marriage might not go ahead. A proxy betrothal had already taken place at the sealing of the treaty, with the earl of Suffolk standing in for the king. There is some evidence of a second proxy wedding during the lengthy delay in Margaret’s departure. As the bride was too poorly to attend an elaborate procession planned for her entry into the English-held city of Rouen, her place was taken by Suffolk’s wife, Alice Chaucer, granddaughter of the English poet.

When Margaret did finally cross the channel, she again fell sick in Southampton. Around this time, the king reportedly paid a visit to Margaret in disguise, in order to see her for the first time and perhaps convince himself that, over a year after their betrothal, his bride had finally arrived.

The duke left for Calais soon after his impeachment by parliament but his ship was intercepted by privateers who carried out their own mock trial of the duke. Sentenced to death, he was beheaded on board ship and his body later washed up on Dover beach.

Jack Cade’s uprising
When the rebellion became more violent, with the execution of several courtiers and looting of properties, the London citizens themselves forced the rebels out of the city walls, culminating in a bloody fight on London bridge. Jack Cade himself was violently arrested a few days later and died from his wounds. His body was symbolically beheaded outside Newgate prison and his head placed on a spike on its towers.

Hopes of being king
A few years earlier, before Margaret fell pregnant, the duke had sought formal clarification of his position as next in line to the throne. He was a descendant of King Edward III through John of Gaunt’s older brother, Lionel.

Seemed to wake up
The first signs came on Christmas day, 1445 and a few days later, Henry saw his son for the first time and expressed thanks and amazement that he had an heir.

Received like a king
When the duke rode into London in October 1460, it was to a clarion of trumpets, flying the banners of his great-great-grandfather Lionel, duke of Clarence, older brother of John of Gaunt. His men also flew the royal standard. It was a shocking statement of his intent and a step too far for parliament who could not endorse the removal of a reigning king. As autumn turned to winter, a compromise was agreed whereby the king would continue to rule with the duke as his heir.

Strong allies
Among her most loyal followers were Jasper Tudor, the king’s half-brother and son of Catherine of Valois, and the earls of Northumberland, descendents of the Percy family with estates and interests on the Scottish border.

Marched south
The queen’s progress was made possible by the actions of Jasper Tudor. He engaged the duke’s son at Mortimer’s Cross in Herefordshire. This weakened the Yorkist forces available to fight Margaret at St Alban’s and contributed to her victory, but came at a heavy cost. Jasper’s forces were soundly beaten and his father, Owain, captured and beheaded.

The skirmish was also notable for an unusual meteorological event which took place on the dawn of the day of battle. As the sun rose, a parhelion occurred, briefly giving the impression that three suns were rising instead of one. The duke’s son, the earl of March, later interpreted this as an omen of his victory and he adopted the sun as his symbol on flags and badges.

Reunited with her husband
According to contemporary reports, her men found him sitting under a tree, singing songs.

Appeared to hesitate
London was very well defended with a strong system of walls and fortifications but, arriving with the king, Margaret may have hoped the citizens would open the gates and welcome back the rightful monarch. Behind the city walls, there was anxious debate among the aldermen. Above all else, they wanted to avoid a damaging conflict and were keenly aware that another army, led by the earl of March, was approaching from the west. They delayed for as long as possible.

Margaret meanwhile, was faced with the need to provision and supply a large body of men. During the journey to St Albans and then London, they had foraged for as much food as possible but it was February and there was very little produce to be found. After a short time, she turned back towards the north where they could be assured of assistance from the towns loyal to the Lancastrian cause.

Most costly slaughter
The battle of Towton, fought in a snow drift in March 1461. Thousands of men were killed in the fight, the snow soaked red with blood.

A new king
Edward, earl of March, son of the duke of York, was crowned in June 1461. His supporters declared Henry unfit to be monarch and his accession came as a relief to many. Edward was tall, healthy and dynamic and, following years of impotent leadership and stagnating diplomacy, offered the prospect of a new era in the kingdom.

Alliance with the queen of Scotland
Mary of Guelders, regent of Scotland, was initially open to discussions and the two women framed a deal in which the Scots would provide military support in exchange for the long-disputed town of Berwick. But the prospect was overtaken by international diplomacy after Scotland’s powerful allies on the continent agreed a treaty with King Edward.

The French king
Louis IX had recently succeeded his father as king of France. A highly intelligent and judicious man, he was earning a reputation as a master of strategy and diplomacy.

Cracks in the new establishment
During his rise to power, King Edward had relied heavily on the support of the wealthy and powerful Richard Neville, earl of Warwick. This earl, later celebrated as Warwick the Kingmaker, had provided the financial and military backing to secure Edward’s bid for the throne. The earl, at first the king’s most trusted lieutenant, was infuriated by Edward’s secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, daughter of Jacquetta of Luxembourg. As the Woodville family increasingly enjoyed royal favour, the earl was increasingly alienated . He eventually gave up his offices and sided with Queen Margaret.

King Edward’s custody
Margaret stayed in apartments in Windsor and the Tower of London, before being moved out of London and into the custody of an old friend, Alice Chaucer, who had welcomed her as a new queen twenty-six years earlier.

30. Edward of Westminster

Prince of Wales

Born in Westminster palace, only son of the king and queen, Edward lived and died in a time of crisis for his country. His father, struck by mental illness during his mother’s pregnancy, was not aware of him for the first year of his life. But Edward was made prince of Wales during the protectorate of the royal council, led by the duke of York. Provision was made for a discrete household for the infant prince with dozens of servants and officers.

The birth of Edward, combined with his father’s sudden collapse, galvanised his mother who, until then, had not been involved in government. As two factions emerged at court, with the duke of York at the head of one and the other led by the duke of Somerset, the queen favoured the second.

Edward was only eighteen months old when the bickering nobles around him clashed on the battlefield and his father was, for the first time, taken into the duke of York’s custody. The security of the young prince, as heir to the kingdom, was of great importance in the upheaval of the following years and his mother guarded him closely. But, when the Yorkist lords strengthened their position, they forced a deal on Edward’s father by which the young prince was disinherited. The principality of Wales was taken from him, along with the duchy of Cornwall and the other offices traditionally awarded to the heir to the throne.

Under his seal, the council responsible for his household and hereditary titles, rejected the authority of the act but, a short time later, when he was eight years old, Edward was condemned as a traitor. With England no longer safe, his mother took him to France, an exile.

He grew up in his grandfather’s castle of Koeur, in eastern France. While Edward was trained in combat and noble conduct, his tireless and determined mother worked to restore his kingdom. Years of frustrating negotiation and diplomatic manoeuvres followed but, when Edward was sixteen, there was finally a breakthrough. A fracture in the English court had led to a rebellion by the earl of Warwick, the most powerful nobleman in England, who was persuaded to make an alliance with his former enemy, Edward’s mother. The collaboration was sealed with a marriage between Edward and the earl’s daughter, Anne Neville.

Edward remained in France with his mother while the earl returned to England to raise an army. News of his success arrived quickly and the progress was much better than they expected. The Yorkist king had fled from England to the Low Countries and the earl had already taken London and released Edward’s father from his imprisonment in the Tower of London.

Edward and his mother began preparations to return to England as soon as possible but, by the time they landed at Weymouth, the tide of the war had turned again. King Edward had arrived back in England with fresh troops and recaptured the capital. The earl and his followers had been beaten on the battlefield and executed.

He pressed on with his mother in any case, leading a growing army to unite with friendly forces in Wales. His route was cut off by the king’s army near Tewkesbury where Edward realised he would have to lead his men into battle. It was his first military command, and also his last. When an initial assault by his forces was repelled, his battle formations began to pull back but their movement was slowed by a stream they had to cross. Large numbers of his men were hacked to death in the waters of the brook. Left with only a small personal guard, Edward was caught in a small stand of trees by the king’s forces. As a pronounced traitor, he was shown no mercy. The young nobleman was beheaded on the spot.

There was now no heir to the house of Lancaster and no hope for its restoration. A few miles away, when his mother heard of his death, she sent a messenger to the king acknowledging her defeat, and placed herself at his command. Within a few days, Edward’s father was also dead. The ambitions of his family, carried on the most tempestuous tides, its line of inheritance, died with him.

Edward of Westminster, born 13 October 1453, died at the battle of Tewkesbury 4 May 1471.

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Dozens of servants
Edward’s household accounts provided for up to thirty-nine attendants and a council to govern his affairs. In practice, the young prince was kept in his mother’s household, moving frequently across the country, and the queen exerted a strong influence on his council.

Condemned as a traitor
Technically this was due to his refusal to accept his disinheritance. The young prince’s reputation was also damaged to some extent by gossip circulated eagerly by his Yorkist opponents. One story related how, following a victory by his mother’s forces, Edward was taken to see two captured noblemen who had been found guarding his father, the king. When the seven-year-old boy was asked how they should be dealt with, he said they should be executed. On the boy’s orders, the two knights were beheaded.

Most of the propaganda about Edward was designed to call his inheritance into question and the circumstances of his birth allowed plenty of room for uncertainty. His mother had been childless for eight years of marriage, and it was widely supposed the other-worldly king was incapable, or spiritually disinclined, to have intercourse with his wife. Her pregnancy was therefore widely supposed to be the result of an adulterous relationship. The duke of Somerset, who in his younger days had a love affair with another queen, was a candidate. Others suspected his aging uncle, Cardinal Beaufort.

His grandfather
Duke René of Anjou had many impressive titles, including king of Jerusalem, Naples and Aragon but he had been unable to assert his claims and, in practice, was only a minor political player. While Edward was in France, the duke was spending more time writing poetry and gardening.

Trained in combat
From an early age, Edward’s character was wildly different from his father’s. He took readily to his military training and was clearly expecting to have to win his kingdom by force.

Anne Neville
The fourteen-year-old daughter of the earl was in France at the time, having fled to exile with her family after her father’s rebellion against the king. The couple were married in December 1470, in the town of Bayeux.

Although her first marriage was short-lived, she was later a queen. She married the king’s younger brother, the duke of Gloucester who went on to reign as King Richard III.

A stream they had to cross
The Swilgate, a small river curving behind the Lancastrian positions. Although it could be crossed on foot, it slowed the troops down enough to allow them to be caught.

A few miles away
Although Margaret directed the strategy of the Lancastrian forces, she was not a battlefield commander. She would find a suitable place nearby where she could use messengers to report on activities in the surrounding countryside. In this case, she was at an unnamed religious house in the area when she heard that her long struggle had failed.

A stick figure with a crown

The House of Lancaster
Published in England by the Mechanical Bird Press
First imprint in paperback and e-book 2017

Words and pictures by David Guest
Set in Libre Baskerville