John of Gaunt was born in March 1340 whilst Edward III was on campaign in France trying to claim the French throne through his mother’s, Isabella of France, bloodline – someone hadn’t explained salic law to him. John was probably born in St Bavo Abbey in Ghent. In later years the rumour would arise that he was no true son of Edward’s but was instead a Ghentish butcher’s brat – no one ever paused to wonder how Philippa of Hainhault might have met this butcher given that queen’s aren’t prone to popping out to do the shopping for the evening meal.
Froissart states that Gaunt’s godfather was John, Duke of Brabant, a reminder of the shifting tides of political affiliation in Europe.
In November the royal family returned to England. We know very little of John’s early year’s although, as ever, it is the accounts that give us some insight. We know for instance from Edward III’s wardrobe account for 1340-41 that the baby was provided with some rather snazzy red and green bedding, that he had silken robes and a household of servants. As well as his nurse there was a female cradle-rocker. And, as if this wasn’t enough, there were two esquire of the body, six chamber servants and three “domicelli.” Domicelli are also servants but they are of a higher social status.
John probably found himself in the royal nursery with his sisters Isabella and Joan and his older brother Lionel as well as the new baby Edmund. At the age of seven he would have been deemed old enough to leave the nursery and begin his training as a knight. We also know, thanks to the accounts again, that Edward set aside £1000 a year for his children and that Philippa of Hainault of seems to have been a very hands on royal mother was granted their guardianship in 1342 whilst Edward was busy across the Channel.
John was also created the Earl of Richmond. This may have been because his father was already scouting around for prospective brides for his young son. The earldom was reconfirmed in 1351.
Ecclesiastical documents also reveal that the young John was admitted to the confraternity at Lincoln and later to St Mary’s in York. The later took place in 1349 just after the Princess Joan had died from the plague.
John’s next step towards adulthood was being placed in the care of his brother, Edward, the Black Prince. John was probably in his brother’s household between 1350 and 1355 – the accounts tell us this because there were purchases of knightly accoutrements for the young prince.
It was in 1350 that John found himself in the middle of the Battle of Winchelsea. He was too young to take part in the fight but according to Froissart John was on board the ship with his father because the king was very fond of his son. Edward III was attempting to intercept the Castilian fleet of Pedro I who had become an ally of France rather than England – despite Edward III attempting to negotiate a marriage between England and Castile. Edward III won the battle but it was touch and go. He knighted his son immediately afterwards according to some versions of Gaunt’s history although others think that the narrator was confused in remembering events that had taken place thirty years previously and that Lionel and John were both knighted in 1355. In either case Philippa of Hainhault spent an unpleasant afternoon with a good view of a sea battle.
This particular image is from Froissart’s Chronicle. It depicts the Battle of Sluys which was fought in 1340 between england and France but it gives a good idea that a sea battle was really about getting the ships alongside one another and then being engaged in hand to hand fighting.
In 1355 John was old enough to join his father and older brother on their military campaigns in Normandy and from Calais. Whilst Edward was occupied in France the Scots took the opportunity to capture Berwick-Upon-Tweed but that’s a different story. The key thing is that John was part of the winter campaign to recapture the town which surrendered on 13 January 1356.
The following year John was granted the lordship of Liddel – John was going to be a northern lord getting to grips with those pesky Scots. The next step in securing John’s future would be his marriage to Blanche of Lancaster. Childhood – such as it had been- was over.
Goodman, Anthony. (1992) John of Gaunt. London: Longman.
yes dear cousin Gaunt. Well put into words but we all make mistakes on typing. Big Capital F for France while a small letter e for dear old England. Never have been taught keybords it s forgiven but at this most political time England must stand for more than a small e. John was Knighted on the deck of a ship as the symbol of that ship was woven into the gold curtains in Lancaster Castle main bed chamber. Still there stored but now a state Prison once belonged to John of Ghent or Gaunt. The master butcher was on Phillipa staff but no place can I find the suggestion an affair went on. This legend seems to have appeared later by no doubt his many enemies.