The Direct Descendants of John of Gaunt

Finding out about people in the fifteenth century: The Descendants of John of Gaunt
Let us look at the Beaufort family whose rise and fall parallels that of the House of Lancaster to whom they were so closely related.

John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, had four children by his mistress (later to become his third wife) Katherine Swynford, who were given the surname Beaufort: John, created Earl of Somerset in 1397; Henry, who became a bishop in 1398 and Cardinal in 1427; Thomas, Duke of Exeter, who died without issue in 1426; and Joan, whose second marriage to Ralph Neville Earl of Westmorland produced nine children, including Cecily Neville, mother of Richard III. Cardinal Beaufort, sometime Chancellor of England and a leading councillor and money lender to the three Lancastrian kings, is the most prominent member of his generation of the family. His life is well covered in Cardinal Beaufort: a study of Lancastrian ascendancy and decline by G.L. Harriss (1988); unfortunately this book is not currently in the Library but we do have an article by K.B. McFarlane, ‘At the Deathbed of Cardinal Beaufort’ (from Studies in Medieval History presented to F.M. Powicke, edited by R.W. Hunt and others, 1948), describing his will and his behaviour on his deathbed and what they reveal about his financial dealings.

The next generation of the family are represented by the five children of John the first Earl: Henry, the eldest son died unmarried in 1418, the title passing to his next brother, John, who was present as a boy of 16 with his cousin Henry V’s army in France and was taken prisoner in 1420 — he remained in captivity for 18 years. He died in 1444, two years after his marriage to Margaret Beauchamp, which produced Margaret Beaufort. The title passed to the third brother, Edmund. As one of the king’s chief commanders he was blamed for the loss of English lands in France. The paper by M.K. Jones, ‘Somerset, York and the Wars of the Roses’ (from English Historical Review, Vol. 104, No. 411, April 1989) discusses the enmity between the Dukes of York and Somerset which culminated in his death in the first battle of St. Albans in 1455. There were also two sisters: Joan, who married James I of Scotland and Margaret, who married Thomas Courtenay Earl of Devon.

The third generation are represented by Margaret Beaufort, who as the mother of Henry VII, turned out to be the most significant member of the family, and by the four children of Edmund, the fourth Earl. Henry succeeded his father as one of the leaders of the Lancastrian party and commanded the victorious Lancastrian army at the battle of Wakefield, where the Duke of York was slain. He was attainted when the Yorkists came to power in 1461, but pardoned in 1463: two articles examine Edward IV’s policy of conciliation — ‘Edward IV and the Beaufort Family: conciliation in early Yorkist politics’ by M.K. Jones (from The Ricardian, Vol. VI, No. 83, December 1983) and ‘Edward IV, the Duke of Somerset and Lancastrian Loyalism in the North’ by M.A. Hicks (from Northern History, Vol. 20, 1984). However the policy was not successful and he was captured at the battle of Hexham and executed in 1464. His brother Edmund commanded a wing of the Lancastrian army at Barnet and Tewkesbury and was beheaded after the latter battle, in which John, the third brother, was also killed. Their sister, Joan, married the Earl of Wiltshire.

The standard book on Margaret Beaufort is the excellent biography by Jones and Underwood mentioned above, but there are several others listed on page one of the book catalogue, including C.H. Cooper’s Memoir of Margaret Countess of Richmond and Derby (1874, with extracts from relevant documents), and a number of articles listed on page two of the catalogue of papers in the Library. — HCH