21 August, 2009

A Verray Parfit Gentil Knyght: Henry of Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster (1)

This is the first of several posts about one of the most fascinating and likeable people of the entire fourteenth century: the wonderful and marvellous Henry of Grosmont, first duke of Lancaster, who was a renowned warrior, famous jouster, brilliant diplomat, writer, lover, the epitome of chivalry; who was brave, devout, intelligent, courteous, sensual, kind, generous, cultured, wise, gracious, flamboyant, humble and charismatic; who went on fifteen military campaigns and eighteen diplomatic missions and was a wildly successful commander during the Hundred Years War, yet found the time to write a remarkable devotional treatise, to challenge the duke of Brunswick to a duel in Paris, to go on crusade to Algeciras and Prussia, to be a founder member of the Knights of the Garter, to joust without bothering to wear protective clothing, to get drunk, to kiss lots of lowborn women, and to appreciate flowers, good food, dancing and birdsong, among much else. And was just completely and utterly fascinating and wonderful. Yes, I'm gushing, but I fell a bit in love with Henry, or more than a bit if I'm honest, while writing these posts. His contemporaries also gushed about him: the Scalacronica described him as "sage, illustrious and valiant...enterprising in honour and arms," Jean Froissart called him "a great and famous soldier," and Edward III praised his "many magnificent services." The pope thought highly of him, too; Benedict XII wrote in February 1345, before Henry's career had reached the dizzying heights of later years, that Henry's "coming speedily to the pope will console him not a little." [1]

Henry was born around 1310, probably at Grosmont Castle, as the only son of Henry, future earl of Lancaster (c. 1281-1345), himself the younger son of Edward I's brother Edmund and the brother of Thomas, earl of Lancaster, executed by their cousin Edward II in March 1322. Henry of Grosmont had six sisters: Blanche, Lady Wake; Isabel, prioress of Amesbury; Maud, countess of Ulster; Joan, Lady Mowbray; Eleanor, Lady Beaumont and countess of Arundel; and Mary, Lady Percy. Blanche and Isabel were certainly older than Henry, Eleanor and Mary certainly younger, though the birth order of the three middle children Henry, Maud and Joan is unclear. Henry was the first cousin once removed of Edward II and the first cousin of Isabella of France, his father being the younger half-brother of Isabella's mother Queen Jeanne of Navarre, and was also the nephew of Hugh Despenser the Younger through his mother Maud Chaworth (1282-c. 1321), Hugh's half-sister - not a connection Henry boasted about after 1326, I'm sure. Maud was heir to her father Patrick Chaworth (died 1283) and passed on to her son lands in South Wales, Wiltshire and Hampshire, but far more importantly, as Thomas of Lancaster had no legitimate children, his brother Henry and nephew Henry of Grosmont were heirs to his vast inheritance, which included the earldoms of Lancaster, Leicester and Derby. The two Henrys also inherited from Edmund of Lancaster other lands in South Wales, the Marches and Gloucestershire, and held the French lordships of Nogent-sur-Marne near Paris and Beaufort in Champagne (Beaufort passed to Henry's son-in-law John of Gaunt, who used the name for his illegitimate children).

Almost nothing is known of Henry's early life. His mother Maud died in about 1321 when he was young, probably ten or eleven, and he must have been horrified and dismayed when his uncle Thomas of Lancaster was beheaded for treason in March 1322. He spent his adolescence during the tyranny and chaos inflicted on England by his other uncle Hugh Despenser and cousin Edward II, and was about sixteen when Hugh was executed and Edward incarcerated in his (Henry's) father's castle at Kenilworth, no longer the king. Henry is not known to have played any role in the equally chaotic events of his cousin Isabella and Roger Mortimer's regency, nor in their downfall in October 1330, though he was knighted and married that year and began to represent his father Earl Henry, who had gone blind, at parliament and in public life. The Lancasters seem to have been a close-knit family: Henry and several of his sisters spent most of their time living with their father even after marriage and received large amounts of money from him for their expenses, and Henry often travelled around England and abroad with his brothers-in-law, especially the earls of Ulster and (after 1345) Arundel.

Henry married Isabella Beaumont, second daughter of Henry, Lord Beaumont, shortly before 24 June 1330, and his younger sister Eleanor married Beaumont's son and heir John later that year. Henry Beaumont was in voluntary exile on the continent in 1330, plotting an invasion of England against the regime of Isabella and Roger Mortimer, and Henry of Lancaster was in disgrace following the failure of his rebellion against the pair eighteen months earlier. The double marriage alliance between Beaumont and Lancaster's children was therefore a powerful political statement by two of Isabella and Mortimer's most influential, active and vocal opponents, and Beaumont had already married his eldest daughter Katherine to the earl of Atholl, another prominent rebel. Henry of Grosmont, heir to the enormous Lancastrian inheritance and the most eligible bachelor in England at the time, might perhaps have been expected to make a better match than the second daughter of a baron, who was not an heiress. Isabella Beaumont's date of birth is not known, but she was certainly a few years younger than Henry and probably born sometime between 1316 and 1320, so may have been as young as ten when she married.

Henry and Isabella had only two children in thirty years of marriage: Maud, born between 1339 and 1341 and named after Henry's mother, and Blanche, born between 1342 and 1345 (there is much debate over the women's dates of birth, which I won't get into here) and probably named after Henry's paternal grandmother Blanche of Artois, queen of Navarre and countess of Lancaster. Their daughters were born a very long time after Henry and Isabella's wedding and perhaps also with a long gap between them, which may indicate that Isabella was too young to consummate her marriage until a few years after it took place, that one or either of the couple was not particularly fertile, that they didn't spend much time together, or that they had other children who died young.

There is little to suggest that Henry found much contentment or fulfilment in his marriage. Although Isabella was the first English duchess (except for the queens of England, who were also duchesses of Aquitaine) and the grandmother of a king of England and a queen of Portugal (Henry IV and Philippa of Lancaster), and Henry was one of the most famous and talked-about men of his day, she is remarkably obscure, and even the year of her death is uncertain. Nothing indicates that Henry was particularly close to or had strong feelings for his wife, and Isabella played little if any role in his public life. No chronicler of the age even mentioned her, and Henry's own 244-page devotional treatise of 1354, Le Livre de Seyntz Medicines (see my next post), which includes many personal insights into his life, loves and passions, doesn't mention her either. Although there is nothing to suggest conflict between them, here is an example of an arranged marriage where the couple proved rather less than compatible.

Henry, however, had other consolations. In his Livre, he admitted that he had made love with many women and sung love songs to them, and although he thought that noblewomen smelled nicer, he preferred common women as they were more responsive when he kissed them (or had sex with them; he used the word beiser, which can mean both). He wrote that he stretched out his legs in his stirrups when competing in jousting tournaments so that women would admire his calves, admitted that when he was young he took "very great delight in lust," and had a "great desire to be praised, then loved, then lost" by women (grant desir d'estree preisez, puis amez, et puis perduz). It's hard to imagine that Henry had any difficulties finding willing partners; not only was he enormously wealthy, powerful and royal, he described himself in the Livre as tall, fair, slim, strong and good-looking - and yes, he also admitted that he was guilty of vanity by taking pleasure in his own beauty! Henry's self-description was probably accurate, though: a chronicler described his uncle Thomas of Lancaster as greles et de bel entaile, "slim and of fair size," i.e. tall, both Geoffrey Chaucer and Jean Froissart wrote that Henry's daughter Blanche was tall, blonde and lovely, and the Lancasters were close kin to Edward II, whose uncommon height and good looks were remarked on by many chroniclers.

Although Henry's father Earl Henry lived until September 1345, dying in his mid-sixties, his blindness meant that he was unable to take an especially active role in politics or warfare after the late 1320s, and to all extents and purposes, Henry became the head of the family. He accompanied Edward III to France in April 1331 and took part in the famous jousting tournament at Cheapside in September that year, and in March 1332 Edward III granted him 500 marks a year "for the special affection which the king bears him, and because his father Henry earl of Lancaster has not yet made such provision for him as becomes his estate." [2] 'Affection' is usually a pretty formulaic phrase, yet it is apparent that Edward III genuinely had a great fondness for Henry, who was near his own age and a close relative, a second cousin through Edward II and a first cousin once removed through Isabella of France. Henry took part in Edward III's Scottish campaigns of the 1330s, and was appointed king's lieutenant in that country in 1336. In March 1337, aged about twenty-seven, he was created earl of Derby, one of his father's lesser titles, with an income of 1000 marks (666 pounds) a year. Henry's magnificent style of living, even before he succeeded to all his father's lands and titles, is demonstrated in 1339: when he pawned some of his jewels and plate to raise money for Edward III, included among them were no fewer than seven coronets and eleven gold circlets. He admitted in his Livre that he loved the rings on his fingers, his fine clothes and his armour, and as will be seen in my next posts about him, he was a sensual, tactile man.

That's all for this post, but coming soon: Henry of Grosmont wins crushing victories against the French, dances elegantly, eats salmon with rich sauces, loves the smell of scarlet cloth, violets and women, challenges a German duke to a duel, builds a great palace, goes on crusade, and piously refuses all rich gifts offered to him except for a thorn from the Crown of Thorns.


1) Scalacronica: the reigns of Edward I, Edward II and Edward III, ed. Herbert Maxwell (1907), p. 168; Geoffrey Brereton, Jean Froissart: Chronicles (1978), p. 41; Calendar of Patent Rolls 1350-1354, p. 191; Calendar of Papal Letters 1342-1362, p. 15.

2) Patent Rolls 1330-1334, p. 265.

- Le Livre de Seyntz Medicines
- Kenneth Fowler, The King's Lieutenant: Henry of Grosmont, First Duke of Lancaster 1310-1361 (1969)
- Patrick Ball, ''Mercy Gramercy': A Study of Henry of Grosmont' (BA thesis, University of Tasmania, 2007) (available online as PDF file)
- Brad Verity, 'The First English Duchess: Isabel de Beaumont, c. 1318- c. 1359', Foundation for Medieval Genealogy


Susan Higginbotham said...

Great post! Looking forward to more Henry tidbits!

Carla said...

Do I get the impression that Edward II has a rival in your affections?

Anerje said...

Very interesting post. I can't imagine anyone rivalling Edward II in Alianore's affections :>

Kathryn Warner said...

No-one could ever, ever take Edward's place in my affections, but I do think Henry was rather wonderful. :-)

kate Plantagenet said...

ah...I agree with you. I have fallen a little in love with Henry too. Surely all his attributes are to good to be true! Hmmmmm parfit....good description. Sounds like a yummy desert (parfait)!!!!


Mark Wood said...

Wow, what a man! I can see how you fell in love with him - he seems perfect in every way. He must have had a fault somewhere though - maybe his feet smelled lol!

Really looking forward to the next posts on this fascinating man!

Jules Frusher said...

Whoops, I really haven't had a sex change! I'd just been doing Mark's blog for him and forgot to sign off and sign back on with my own name lol!

Kathryn Warner said...

Kate: Henry certainly is very yummy. :) Glad you share my opinion about him!

Lady D: yeah, he can't have been that perfect - I bet his feet smelled really bad and he snored like a pneumatic drill, if they'd existed back then. :)

Gabriele Campbell said...

Well, if he kissed a lot of women, being faithful in a relationship doesn't seem to have been on his list. Maybe his vice was adultery, though he seems to have avoided any scandal. ;)

Kathryn Warner said...

Gabriele: yes, evidently being faithful wasn't Henry's thing! I find it very interesting to compare the fond indulgence with which his making love to women other than his wife is usually described with the reproaches and endless criticism hurled in Ed II's direction for loving Piers Gaveston and so cruelly 'neglecting' his poor little wife. (This remarkable difference in attitude couldn't possibly have anything to do with the fact that Henry liked women, could it? Surely not.)