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Authors: Ian Mortimer

Tags: #Biography, #England, #Royalty

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Henry’s closest relations in his infancy were his sisters Philippa and Elizabeth. Philippa, the elder, was seven when Henry was born. She was the steady, dependable one. Elizabeth, four years older than Henry, was more flighty. All three children were looked after by their great aunt, Blanche, Lady Wake. She had no children of her own but, as one of the six sisters of Duke Henry, she was well positioned to introduce her young charges to other members of the extensive Lancastrian family. Besides Henry, Blanche’s great-nephews included John and Thomas Mowbray, John Arundel, Henry Percy (the future Hotspur) and his younger brothers, Thomas and Ralph Percy, all of whom were between one and three years older than Henry. It was probably through Blanche that Henry first met his much older cousins, the children of the earl of Arundel: Richard, Thomas, Alice and Joan. In later years Richard and Thomas Arundel had the greatest influence on young Henry, as did their friend and kinsman, Thomas Beauchamp, earl of Warwick. Joan Arundel grew particularly close to Henry, for one of her two daughters by her husband, the earl of Hereford, later became Henry’s wife.

In this way we can build up a picture of Henry’s early childhood, travelling around the Lancastrian estates with his older sisters in Lady Wake’s household. Their governess was a young Hainaulter woman, Katherine Roët, whose sister Philippa was married to Geoffrey Chaucer. Katherine had entered Lancastrian service before Henry’s birth, and married a Lancastrian knight, Hugh Swynford. She had two children: Thomas and Blanche.
Thomas Swynford was born within a year of Henry, and remained a faithful friend throughout his life. So even though Henry almost entirely lacked the attention of a father and mother, he was not without close companions in his governess, his sisters and all his Lancastrian cousins and companions.


In November 1371 Henry and his sisters were taken to London to stay at the Savoy Palace with their father, who had just returned from Gascony. John had not returned alone. While he had been away, he had married Constanza, heiress of the ousted King Pedro of Castile. Two months later he claimed the title king of Castile and León in right of his new wife, and added the arms of Castile to his own.

John did not bring Constanza into his household immediately. Instead he spent the Christmas season at the Savoy with his children and their governess. When he did welcome Constanza to his London palace, all those who saw her remarked on how attractive the new duchess was. But at about this time John fell for the attractions of the young widow Katherine Swynford, whose husband had died in Gascony that November.
Quite what twelve-year-old Philippa thought of this introduction of a stepmother into the family, and her father’s method of comforting her own widowed governess, we can only guess. But she and her younger siblings now found themselves and their governess transferred from Lady Wake’s household to Constanza’s, with an allowance of £200 per year for their expenses.
The Mowbray brothers now became Lady Wake’s full-time charges.

The other collective development for all these young aristocratic children and their cousins was the arrival of Richard of Bordeaux. Until now, the younger son of the Black Prince had been nothing more than a name to them. But in 1371 he returned from Gascony with his parents, and it is highly likely that at some point in 1372, Henry, his sisters and his peer group of four- to seven-year-olds all came face to face with the five-year-old prince.

What did they make of him? He was strange, insecure and very French. His accent was different; and, unlike most of them, he spoke no English. He was both lacking in confidence and extremely self-conscious.
Henry and the other English noble children cannot have been easy. Here were all these boys and girls who knew each other already, who played together, and spoke differently from him. There were some boys, like Thomas Mowbray, Ralph Stafford and Robert de Vere, with whom he got on well. But there were others – and Henry was probably one – with whom he felt uneasy. These children were confident in their status and surroundings. Furthermore, they were used to each other’s company. Richard was not used to any company but that of his father, mother and servants. Until now his closest companion had been his recently deceased elder brother. It is not clear that he was a boy who welcomed a mass of new playmates.

Henry only met Richard occasionally before 1376. Richard remained in the household of his father, the Black Prince, based at Kennington, south of London. Henry, his sisters and governess lived with Constanza, probably at Hertford Castle, twenty-five miles to the north of the city. Their lives and their expectations were very different. Although no memoirs of the period survive, it is not difficult to imagine the Lancastrian hall echoing with children shouting and playing, and a comparatively large number of women in and around the castle attending to them and the duchess. Every time the duke appeared, a mass of Lancastrian men would arrive, for John liked to be surrounded by a huge entourage, maintaining as many as 150 retainers. In contrast, at Kennington there were no other children and very few visitors. Normally there was just Richard, his mother and her ladies, and the regular staff of their household, with physicians and nurses attending his invalid father. Knowing how Richard developed in later years, it would not be surprising if the princess and her ladies made rather a fuss of the boy.

Between Christmas 1371 and April 1373 Henry spent much more time with his father.
This must in part have been due to his governess being his father’s mistress. John was a great lover of women, and, though proud and haughty, he was also a deeply loyal man. Most mistresses of the royal family were discarded as soon as they had ceased to give delight but John of Gaunt, like his father the king, was different. In fact John showed surprisingly little shame in recognising Katherine as his concubine. In May 1372 the letters in his register refer to her as ‘our very dear demoiselle’, the ‘very dear’ echoing the form in which he described his wives and closest companions.
In about 1373 Katherine gave birth to her first child by him, John Beaufort, and he acknowledged the child as his own without any qualms.
Three more illegitimate children followed: two boys and a girl. In 1372 John also had a daughter by Constanza, baptised Catalina, and a short-lived son by her in 1374. Given that he had already sired five
children by Blanche and another illegitimate daughter by one of his mother’s ladies-in-waiting, it is easy to appreciate why these four children by Katherine Swynford and two by Constanza caused one medieval writer to refer to him as a ‘great fornicator’.

On 13 April 1373, on the eve of Maundy Thursday, Duke John gave out a number of gifts to members of the royal family and Lancastrian retainers. To Henry he gave a silver hanaper (a stemmed drinking goblet with two handles and a lid).
That summer he left England at the head of an army. Henry did not see his father for over a year, as he made his brave but ultimately futile march all the way across France from Calais to Bordeaux. It was a miserable expedition, as the French resistance prevented him from approaching Paris or joining up with his allies in Brittany. The English were forced to march east and then south. John forbade his troops from looting, thus depriving them of food, and weakening them. Hundreds of horses died. Men bashed their armour out of shape – to stop the enemy using it – and then threw it away rather than march with so much weight. It took John until December to arrive in English-held Gascony. He did not return to England until the summer of 1374.

John spent several weeks at Hertford in December 1374 and January 1375. Henry was then seven and a half years old, and his father decided it was time for his formal education to begin. On 10 December 1374 he appointed Thomas Burton to be Henry’s governor.
By so doing, he placed his son in the care of an esquire who had served the great Duke Henry, thus strengthening Henry’s Lancastrian identity. At about the same time his clerk and chaplain, Hugh Herle, was given the responsibility of teaching Henry to read and write. Clearly Henry attended to his lessons. Later examples show he had no aversion to writing comments on his own formal letters on occasion (whereas most aristocrats, even those who could read and write, normally delegated the task of writing to others). His writing exists today in three languages: English, Latin and French.
There can have been few worries for the young, confident Henry, looking out from the towers of Hertford Castle, attending to his grammar and spending occasional days with his father, hunting and talking, or practising sword-play, and listening to Thomas Burton telling him again how Duke Henry had won his battles in Gascony.


It was in 1376 that the first cracks appeared in this picture of privileged existence. Everyone knew that old King Edward was dying; now it became apparent that the prince was even nearer to death. This raised a very important question: if the prince died before the king, who would succeed?
A nine-year-old boy, Richard? Or would it be John of Gaunt, the ‘great fornicator’?

Until recently, historians did not consider that there was any doubt about the succession in 1376. Richard was, after all, the eldest son of the eldest son. But although this became the established pattern of legitimacy thereafter, the situation at the time was not so clear. Law books were divided on the issue, even the oldest and most respected ones. In 1199 the throne had passed to Henry II’s fifth and youngest son, John, despite the existence of Arthur, the twelve-year-old son and heir of Geoffrey, the king’s fourth son.
Subsequently the succession had not been interrupted, and so the question had not arisen. In 1290 Edward I had forced his daughters’ husbands to swear an oath that the heirs of his eldest son were to take precedence over any other sons he might have, and that his daughters should only succeed to the throne failing his sons and their heirs. But the male line had not failed and so Edward I’s provisions had not been put to the test. Richard had been acknowledged as keeper of the realm in 1373, but in 1376 he had yet to be recognised as the official heir over and above Henry’s father.

The problem for the Lancastrians was that John of Gaunt was hugely unpopular. Compared to his brother, the dying Prince Edward, hero of the battles of Crécy and Poitiers, he was a disappointment. He had not been a military commander of any great note; his most notable individual achievement had been the great march across France in 1373, during which many men and horses had starved to death. His role in the peace negotiations at Bruges in 1375 was seen as unsuccessful, resulting only in the withdrawal of an English army led by the earl of March. He was considered arrogant and proud, and his claim to be king of Castile did not help. Why did a great English lord need to pretend to be a foreign king? As the richest man in England, he did not need a greater realm, people said, unless it was a matter of greed. Worse still, he had protected and helped a number of unpopular royal officials. As King Edward III slipped further into melancholy he could not help but be manipulated by his mistress Alice Perrers and men like William Latimer (his chamberlain), John Neville (his steward) and Richard Lyons (Warden of the Royal Mint). John’s friendship with Latimer especially, at the very moment when people were beginning to realise that their beloved Prince Edward would not live to inherit and that John might be the next king, led to widespread shifting of opinion against him.

Henry, aged nine, was probably only vaguely aware of the political danger his father was facing. For John it was nothing short of a crisis. The king and Prince Edward were both too ill to attend the parliament of 1376,
both turning up only for the opening ceremony. John was appointed the King’s Lieutenant to hold the parliament.
This exposed him to criticism from the Speaker, Sir Peter de la Mare, the steward of the earl of March. De la Mare accused various royal officials of corruption, in particular Latimer and Lyons: men associated with John. With the support of the commons essential for the provision of taxation, John was left with no option but to acquiesce to demands that the corrupt officials be brought to justice. Latimer and Neville were stripped of their offices of state. Lyons was imprisoned for life and Alice Perrers ordered to leave the king’s presence. In addition, a council was appointed to oversee all royal business. And John himself was not to serve on it. Instead it was to be led by the earl of March.

While this was going on, the Black Prince neared death. Although he and John had been close in earlier years, their friendship had waned since the prince’s weakness had left him bedridden. The prince’s dislike of the royal officials now under attack further highlighted their differences. And then there was the succession question. On his deathbed, the prince called both the king and John to him and asked them to recognise the right of his son, Richard, to succeed in his inheritance.
Both men solemnly did so, and furthermore swore that they would protect him. Prince Edward died on 8 June and parliament immediately called for the king to recognise Richard as his heir.

John’s oath, together with parliament’s acclamation of Richard as the heir, eliminated the Lancastrians from the direct line of succession. John could not inherit now, not while Richard lived. But there remained the question of who would succeed Richard if he remained childless. Would it be John? Or would it be Philippa, the daughter and heiress of his deceased older brother, Lionel? John sought to tackle this issue head on, in parliament. He asked for it to be enacted that no woman should be allowed to succeed to the English throne, as was the custom in France.
This was a direct threat to the earl of March, Philippa’s husband. They now had a son, Roger Mortimer, born in 1374. What John was saying was this: very well, Richard is now the heir – the king and I have both recognised him as such and sworn to support him – but if Richard dies without an heir of his own, who should inherit then? Philippa? Her son, the three-year-old Roger Mortimer? Or me?

BOOK: The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England's Self-Made King
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