The name of John of Gaunt - from Gent [Ghent], his birthplace in the Low Countries - is writ large in the history of Hungerford, and is today commemorated in the names of the secondary school and the inn, the latter still owned by the Town and Manor.
John of Gaunt was born in 1340 - the 4th son of the Plantagenet King Edward III, but the 3rd of five sons of Edward III who survived into adulthood. Edward III's children were:
- Edward the Black Prince (1)
- Isabella, Countess of Bedford
- Lionel, Duke of Clarence (2)
- John, Duke of Lancaster (3)
- Edmund, Duke of York (4)
- Mary, Duchess of Brittany
- Margaret, Countess of Pembroke
- Thomas, Duke of Gloucester (5)
Three more sons died in infancy:
- William of Hatfield (1337-1337), second son, died shortly after birth,
- Thomas of Windsor (1347-1348), sixth son, died in infancy of the plague and
- William of Windsor (1348-1348), seventh son, also died in infancy
So... John of Gaunt was the 4th son, but the third to reach adulthood.
John of Gaunt married at Reading, in 1359, Blanche, the younger daughter of Henry of Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster. Within the next 3 years, during which both his father-in-law and his sister-in-law died, and at the age of 22, John of Gaunt became the owner of massive inherited estates in England - including Hungerford.
In 1362, therefore he became "Earl of Lancaster, Richmond and Derby and High Steward of England". It is said that there was a Charter granted at the time conferring rights of grazing, fishing and hunting to the householders of the main street of Hungerford.
The original Duchy Charter of such grant was lost in 1381 when a mob torched John of Gaunt's Savoy Palace in the Strand during the Peasants' Revolt, protesting at the introduction of Poll Tax the first time round!. Perhaps the richest (and most hated) nobleman of his time, he owned some 30 castles and is reputed to have killed the last wild boar in England, in Yorkshire. He also married twice more after Blanche died from the plague in 1369 and fathered a total of 7 legitimate children.
As the brother of Edward, the Black Prince, he became heavily embroiled in the Hundred Years War. He was the uncle of Richard II, the father of Henry IV and the grandfather of Henry V.
- John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster
- Arms of John of Gaunt
Through his second wife, Costanza, the daughter of Pedro the Cruel, he was a claimant to the throne of Castile, but failed to oust his rival, Henry of Trastamare. As a powerful noble, Gaunt was a patron of both John Wycliffe, the English religious reformer, and of Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer - the brother-in-law of Gaunt's third wife - served in Gaunt's army and his wife Phillipa lived in the Gaunt household. One of Chaucer's earliest poems is "The Death of Blanche the Duchess", who was John of Gaunt's first wife.
John's long time mistress and third wife, Katherine Swynford, has her romance with him well chronicled in Anya Seton's biographical novel "Katherine". He married her in 1396, the King legitimising their three sons a year later. It is through their eldest son, John Beaufort, that the Duchy of Somerset, and the Tudor line beginning with Henry VII commences.
John of Gaunt died at Leicester Castle, a few months after his son Henry Bolingbroke was banished by King Richard II. He was buried at the subsequently destroyed St Paul's Cathedral in March 1399, side by side with his first wife. Within a year, his exiled son returned to defeat King Richard and had acceded to the throne as Henry IV, following Richard's murder.
Another consequence of John of Gaunt's key position in the Plantagenet heirarchy was a subsequent claim by Phillip II of Spain to the throne of England, through his descent from Joao of Portugal, who had married Gaunt's daughter Phillipa.
Other local associations with John of Gaunt may be found at Aldbourne, the manor of which was one of his possessions, where he would hunt at Aldbourne Chase and where he is thought to have had a lodge at Upper Upham, now a virtually deserted village.
Shakespeare immortalised "Old John of Gaunt, time-honour'd Lancaster" by having him utter these memorable lines in Act 2, Scene 1 of Richard II:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter' d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm,
- "Katherine" by Anya Seton (first published in 1954)
- Dictionary of National Biography