Blanche of Lancaster – ‘Nature’s chief patron of beauty’

(public domain)

Blanche of Lancaster was the mother of King Henry IV of England and the grandmother of King Henry V, but she was never a Queen herself. Blanche was born in either 1345 or 1347 to Henry of Grosmont, 1st Duke of Lancaster (a great-grandson of King Henry III) and his wife, Isabel de Beaumont. Henry of Grosmont was a favourite of King Edward III and was only the second person in the realm to be given the title of Duke. Henry’s title did not pass on to any heirs after his death as it was created purely for him. Blanche was evidently born into a noble and wealthy family, but she was not expected to become the mother of the King of England.

Blanche became the mother of a Queen due to the fact that her children’s father was the son of King Edward III. Her husband was John of Gaunt and the pair married in Reading cathedral in 1359 when Blanche was around 14; this was part of a scheme by Edward III to marry his sons off to rich heiresses. When Henry of Grosmont died just two years later, John of Gaunt received Henry’s original title of the Earl of Lancaster and half of the vast Lancastrian lands which made him the greatest landowner in the north. When Blanche’s sister Maud died in 1362, John gained the rest of the Lancastrian lands, and the title of Duke of Lancaster was recreated and bestowed upon him by his father. This huge inheritance meant that John and Blanche held as much land and power as monarchs, especially as John also became Lord High Steward of England. This increased fortune and new marriage was also tinged with sadness for Blanche as she had lost her father and the sister to the plague in just one year.

(public domain)

Between 1360 and 1368 Blanche and John had four children, creating a family of their own. Their eldest daughter Philippa went on to become Queen of Portugal and had eight children. Their daughter Elizabeth had three marriages including one to the half-brother of Richard II and the couple sadly lost four children in infancy. Their most well-known child, however, was Henry who was born in 1357 and went on to become King Henry IV of England after deposing his cousin Richard II.

Despite building a happy and successful family, Blanche could not escape the deadly diseases of the period. In 1368, she died aged just 23, supposedly of the plague, while her husband was away on campaign. Blanche did not live to see her children grow up and was unaware that her son Henry would become king.

Though sources on Blanche are scarce, it is believed that she and John of Gaunt had a happy and loving marriage and this is backed up by the way John honoured her after her death. She was written about by Geoffrey Chaucer who was a close friend and later brother-in-law of her husband, Chaucer wrote a poem about Blanche after her death called The Book of the Duchess. In the poem, he wrote of John of Gaunt’s sadness at Blanche’s death and described her as ‘nature’s chief patron of beauty’.  John held a lavish funeral for Blanche and held annual events to remember her by; he did this for the rest of his life. John went on to marry twice more, but he requested that he be buried alongside Blanche when he died. The pair were eventually buried together in a magnificent tomb which showed their effigies lovingly holding hands. Sadly the tomb has since been destroyed.



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