Open main menu

LANCASTER, HOUSE OF. The name House of Lancaster is commonly used to designate the line of English kings immediately descended from John of Gaunt, the fourth son of Edward III. But the history of the family and of the title goes back to the reign of Henry III., who created his second son. Edmund, earl of Lancaster in 1267. This Edmund received in his own day the surname of Crouchback, not, as was afterwards supposed, from a personal deformity, but from having worn a cross upon his back in token of a crusading vow. He is not a person of much importance in history except in relation to a strange theory raised in a later age about his birth, which we shall notice presently. His son Thomas, who inherited the title, took the lead among the nobles of Edward II.'s time in opposition to Piers Gaveston and the Despensers, and was beheaded for treason at Pontefract. At the commencement of the following reign his attainder was reversed and his brother Henry restored to the earldom; and Henry being appointed guardian to the young king Edward III., assisted him to throw off the yoke of Mortimer. On this Henry's death in 1345 he was succeeded by a son of the same name, sometimes known as Henry Tort-Col or Wryneck, a very valiant commander in the French wars, whom the king advanced to the dignity of a duke. Only one duke had been created in England before, and that was fourteen years previously, when the king's son Edward, the Black Prince, was made duke of Cornwall. This Henry Wryneck died in 1361 without heir male. His second daughter, Blanche, became the wife of John of Gaunt, who thus succeeded to the duke's inheritance in her right; and on the 13th of November 1362, when King Edward attained the age of fifty, John was created duke of Lancaster, his elder brother, Lionel, being at the same time created duke of Clarence. It was from these two dukes that the rival houses of Lancaster and York derived their respective claims to the crown. As Clarence was King Edward's third son, while John of Gaunt was his fourth, in ordinary course on the failure of the elder line the issue of Clarence should have taken precedence of that of Lancaster in the succession. But the rights of Clarence were conveyed in the first instance to an only daughter, and the ambition and policy of the house of Lancaster, profiting by advantageous circumstances, enabled them not only to gain possession of the throne but to maintain themselves in it for three generations before they were dispossessed by the representatives of the elder brother.

As for John of Gaunt himself, it can hardly be said that this sort of politic wisdom is very conspicuous in him. His ambition was generally more manifest than his discretion; but fortune favoured his ambition, even as to himself, somewhat beyond expectation, and still more in his posterity. Before the death of his father he had become the greatest subject in England, his three elder brothers having all died before him. He had even added to his other dignities the title of king of Castile, having married, after his first wife's death, the daughter of Peter the Cruel. The title, however, was an empty one, the throne of Castile being actually in the possession of Henry of Trastamara, whom the English had vainly endeavoured to set aside. His military and naval enterprises were for the most part disastrous failures, and in England he was exceedingly unpopular. Nevertheless, during the later years of his father's reign the weakness of the king and the declining health of the Black Prince threw the government very much into his hands. He even aimed, or was suspected of aiming, at the succession to the crown; but in this hope he was disappointed by the action of the Good Parliament a year before Edward's death, in which it was settled that Richard the son of the Black Prince should be king after his grandfather. Nevertheless the suspicion with which he was regarded was not altogether quieted when Richard came to the throne, a boy in the eleventh year of his age. The duke himself complained in parliament of the way he was spoken of out of doors, and at the outbreak of Wat Tyler's insurrection the peasants stopped pilgrims on the road to Canterbury and made them swear never to accept a king of the name of John. On gaining possession of London they burnt his magnificent palace of the Savoy. Richard found a convenient way to get rid of John of Gaunt by sending him to Castile to make good his barren title, and on this expedition he was away three years. He succeeded so far as to make a treaty with his rival, King John, son of Henry of Trastamara, for the succession, by virtue of which his daughter Catherine became the wife of Henry III. of Castile some years later. After his return the king seems to have regarded him with greater favour, created him duke of Aquitaine, and employed him in repeated embassies to France, which at length resulted in a treaty of peace, and Richard's marriage to the French king's daughter.

Another marked incident of his public life was the support which he gave on one occasion to the Reformer Wycliffe. How far this was due to religious and how far to political considerations may be a question; but not only John of Gaunt but his immediate descendants, the three kings of the house of Lancaster, all took deep interest in the religious movements of the times. A reaction against Lollardy, however, had already begun in the days of Henry IV., and both he and his son felt obliged to discountenance opinions which were believed to be politically and theologically dangerous.

Accusations had been made against John of Gaunt more than once during the earlier part of Richard II.'s reign of entertaining designs to supplant his nephew on the throne. But these Richard never seems to have wholly credited, and during his three years absence his younger brother, Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, showed himself a far more dangerous intriguer. Five confederate lords with Gloucester at their head took up arms against the king's favourite ministers, and the Wonderful Parliament put to death without remorse almost every agent of his former administration who had not fled the country. Gloucester even contemplated the dethronement of the king, but found that in this matter he could not rely on the support of his associates, one of whom was Henry, earl of Derby, the duke of Lancaster's son. Richard soon afterwards, by declaring himself of age, shook off his uncle's control, and within ten years the acts of the Wonderful Parliament were reversed by a parliament no less arbitrary. Gloucester and his allies were then brought to account; but the earl of Derby and Thomas Mowbray, earl of Nottingham, were taken into favour as having opposed the more violent proceedings of their associates. As if to show his entire confidence in both these noblemen, the king created the former duke of Hereford and the latter duke of Norfolk. But within three months from this time the one duke accused the other of treason, and the truth of the charge, after much consideration, was referred to trial by battle according to the laws of chivalry. But when the combat was about to commence it was interrupted by the king, who, to preserve the peace of the kingdom, decreed by his own mere authority that the duke of Hereford should be banished for ten years-a term immediately afterwards reduced to five-and the duke of Norfolk for life. This arbitrary sentence was obeyed in the first instance by both parties, and Norfolk never returned. But Henry, duke of Hereford, whose milder sentence was doubtless owing to the fact that he was the popular favourite, came back within a year, having been furnished with a very fair pretext for doing so by a new act of injustice on the part of Richard. His father, John of Gaunt, had died in the interval, and the king, troubled with a rebellion in Ireland, and sorely in want of money, had seized the duchy of Lancaster as forfeited property. Henry at once sailed for England, and landing in Yorkshire while King Richard was in Ireland, gave out that he came only to recover his inheritance. He at once received the support of the northern lords, and as he marched southwards the whole kingdom was soon practically at his command. Richard, by the time he had recrossed the channel to Wales, discovered that his cause was lost. He was conveyed from Chester to London, and forced to execute a deed by which he resigned his crown. This was recited in parliament, and he was formally deposed. The duke of Lancaster then claimed the kingdom as due to himself by virtue of his descent from Henry III.

The claim which he put forward involved, to all appearance, a strange falsification of history, for it seemed to rest upon the supposition that Edmund of Lancaster, and not Edward I., was the eldest son of Henry III. A story had gone about, even in the days of John of Gaunt, who, if we may trust the rhymer John Hardyng (Chronicle, pp. 290, zgr), had got it inserted in chronicles deposited in various monasteries, that this Edmund, surnamed Crouchback, was really hump-backed, and that he was set aside in favour of his younger brother Edward on account of his deformity. No chronicle, however, is known to exist which actually states that Edmund Crouchback was thus set aside; and in point of fact he had no deformity at all, while Edward was six years his senior. Hardyng's testimony is, moreover, suspicious as reflecting the prejudices of the Percys after they had turned against Henry IV., for Hardyng himself expressly says that the earl of Northumberland was the source of his information (see note, p. 353 of his Chronicle). But a statement in the continuation of the chronicle called the Eulogium (vol. iii. pp. 369, 370) corroborates Hardyng to some extent; for we are told that John of Gaunt had once desired in parliament that his son should be recognized on this flimsy plea as heir to the crown; and when Roger Mortimer, earl of March, denied the story and insisted on his own claim as descended from Lionel, duke of Clarence, Richard imposed silence on both parties. However this may be, it is certain that this story, though not directly asserted to be true, was indirectly pointed at by Henry when he put forward his claim, and no one was then bold enough to challenge it.

This was partly due, no doubt, to the fact that the true lineal heir after Richard was then a child, Edmund, who had just succeeded his father as earl of March. Another circumstance was unfavourable to the house of Mortimer-that it derived its title through a woman. No case precisely similar had as yet arisen, and, notwithstanding the precedent of Henry II., it might be doubted whether succession through a female was favoured by the constitution. If not, Henry could say with truth that he was the direct heir of his grandfather, Edward III. If, on the other hand, succession through females was valid, he could trace his descent through his mother from Henry III. by a very illustrious line of ancestors. And, in the words by which he formally made his claim, he ventured to say no more than that he was descended from the king last mentioned “ by right line of the blood.” In what particular way that “ right line” was to be traced he did not venture to indicate. A brief epitome of the reigns of the three successive kings belonging to the house of Lancaster (Henry IV., V. and VI.) will be found elsewhere. With the death of Henry VI. the direct male line of John of Gaunt became extinct. But by his daughters he became the ancestor of more than one line of foreign kings, while his descendants by his third wife, Catherine Swynford, conveyed the crown of England to the house of Tudor. It is true that his children by this lady were born before he married her; but they were made legitimate by act of parliament, and, though Henry IV. in confirming the privilege thus grant ed to them endeavoured to debar them from the succession to the crown, it is now ascertained that there was no such reservation in the original act, and the title claimed by Henry VII. was probably better than he himself supposed.

We show on the following page a pedigree of the royal and illustrious houses that traced their descent from John of Gaunt.

(J. Ga.)