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Blanche of Gaunt to Margaret Beaufort
By Amy Licence
The History PressCopyright © 2016 Amy Licence
All rights reserved.
BLANCHE OF LANCASTER, 1345–68
... the brightest lights and the darkest shadows meet.
On the last day of December 1347, a ship limped into the harbour at Genoa in northern Italy. Its journey had been long and perilous, 'delayed by tragic accidents' as it brought survivors home from the siege that was taking place at Caffa, far away on the Baltic Sea. The Genoan citizens nervously watched it approach. After months of hearing terrible reports of atrocities inflicted by the Mongols on the Christians trapped behind Caffa's walls, news of the ship's arrival spread through the streets and people left their homes and businesses and hurried down to the docks. As Gabriele de' Mussis of Piacenza, who is thought to have been among those on board, recounted, 'relations, kinsmen and neighbours flocked ... from all sides,' hoping to hear news of their loved ones. And yet, those staggering off the ship on to the quay had brought home more than they had bargained for. 'To our anguish,' says de' Mussis, 'we were carrying darts of death. When they hugged and kissed us, we were spreading poison from our lips even as we spoke.' Within days the first ominous signs began to appear. Genoa's citizens fell ill with icy chills that developed into burning fevers, racking headaches and the glands in their armpits and groins swelled up, hard, painful and discoloured. The signs of plague were unmistakeable. Tragically, they were also unavoidable. Thus began one of the worst pandemics of the medieval era: the Black Death.
In the mid-1340s, the bubonic plague had crept slowly across Europe: a tiny bacterium, invisible to the naked eye, which thrived in the guts of fleas. Those fleas burrowed into the fur of rodents running through the city sewers, or crept into the folds of cloth brought by merchants from the east. It had devastated the Mongol army at Caffa, who loaded their trebuchets with piles of bodies and propelled them over the city walls and on to their enemies, in the belief that the stench of the dead would infect the very air the Christians breathed. De' Mussis believed that 'one infected man could carry the poison to another, and infect people and places with the disease by look alone.' Genoa would prove to be its foothold in Europe. By the end of January, the disease had taken hold in Venice and Marseilles, the ports along the Ligurian Sea and the Côte d'Azur. Then it started to spread north.
By April, the first cases were being reported in Avignon. Its resident pope, Clement VI, was the fourth of seven to choose to base himself in the French city instead of Rome. Louis Heyligen of Beeringen, a musician at the papal court, in the service of Cardinal Colonna, wrote that 'when one infected person dies everyone who saw him during his illness, visited him, had any dealings with him, or carried him to burial, immediately follows him, without any remedy'. He reported that people were afraid to drink from wells or to eat sea fish, in the belief that it could have been contaminated by bad humours, and no one dared eat spices less than a year old in case they came from infected Italian ships. The pope ordered anatomical examinations of the corpses, which were found to have infected lungs filled with blood; he also consulted astronomers, who blamed the conjunction of Jupiter, Mars and Saturn, while popular opinion conformed to type by pointing the finger at the Jews. Yet the true cause of the pestilence, and the cure, continued to elude them. Heyligen's employer, Cardinal Colonna, was among the casualties, dying on 3 July 1348. Another of Avignon's victims was Petrarch's beloved Laura.
By the summer, the pandemic was approaching the English Channel and the kingdom of Edward III, the seventh Plantagenet ruler. In Paris, Carmelite Friar Jean de Venette described how 'those who fell ill lasted little more than two or three days, but died suddenly, as if in the midst of health, for someone who was healthy one day could be dead and buried the next.' Five hundred bodies were being buried every day in the cemetery of the Holy Innocents. At Tournai, just 80 miles from the port of Calais, Gilles il Muisis, Abbot of St Giles, wrote in his Chronicle that 'the mortality was so great that in many places a third of the population died, elsewhere a quarter or a half, and in several places only one or two people out of ten survived.'
Its island nature could have been England's salvation. However, as the cause of the contagion was not understood, nothing was done to curb the flow of maritime activity that was usually the country's lifeblood. The household accounts of Edward III from this period show that over 15,000 mariners were currently in the king's employ, divided among at least 700 ships, from Bristol in the west to Sandwich in the east, Southampton in the south, all along the coastline to Newcastle in the north and abroad in Spain, Ireland and Flanders. In fact, on 6 May 1348, instructions were issued to the collectors of customs at the ports of Sandwich, Winchelsea, Southampton and Chichester, to allow freer export of wool to Flanders. Additionally, towards the end of that month, free passage was given to Benedictine monks in England through Calais to St Mary's Abbey at Lire, 80 miles west of Paris, where the plague was raging. As late as 6 August, Edward III ordered that a group of Knights Hospitaller must be allowed to embark from Sandwich for Rhodes 'with their household and reasonable expenses in gold'. By this point, it was already too late. England was infected.
It only took one ship. The unhappy vessel had landed at Melcombe in Dorset carrying sailors from Gascony, and the first deaths were recorded as taking place on 23 June. The plague arrived at Bristol a week later and the Anonimalle Chronicle recorded that it 'lasted in the south country around Bristol throughout August and all winter', before spreading north and west the following year, so that 'the living were hardly able to bury the dead.' By Easter 1349, it was raging through East Anglia and July saw the first cases arrive in Lincolnshire, the Cistercian Abbey of St Louth recording the loss of its abbot and that 'so great a pestilence had not been seen, or heard, or written about, before this time'. It did not help that constant rain fell 'from Midsummer to Christmas' or that the harvests failed and the lack of available fish meant that 'men were obliged to eat flesh on Wednesdays', the traditional Catholic day of fasting. Rents went unpaid, lands went to seed, lying uncultivated, and prices soared. The Rochester Cathedral Chronicle reported that 'there were in those days, death without sorrow, marriage without affection, self-imposed penance, want without poverty and flight without escape.' Worse still, most people believed that the plague was a punishment sent directly from God, a divine visitation upon the heads of a world that had somehow offended. In Oxford, John Wycliffe predicted that the world would end in the year 1400.
The plague claimed rich and poor alike. The family of Edward III, King of England for the last twenty years, were to discover that royal blood and thick castle walls would provide no safeguard against its terrible, irrepressible spread. With his wife Philippa of Hainault and their ten surviving children, Edward listened to the reports of the disease's devastating effects on his people and avoided some of the worst afflicted places. Having returned from laying siege to Calais only that October, he came home to a devastated realm and chose to pass the Christmas season of 1347 at Guildford Castle. Behind its stout closed doors, the royal family could forget for a moment that the world outside was disintegrating and throw themselves into celebrations. The court donned fantastic costumes for a masque, which included the heads and wings of fourteen peacocks, headpieces of silver angels and the heads of virgins and 'wodewose' or wildmen. There was also a royal marriage to be planned. In the summer of 1348, Edward and Philippa's daughter, the 14-year-old Joan of England, left England to travel to Castile in order to be married. Her trousseau included a wedding dress of over 150yd of silk, a brown and gold silk dress embroidered with lions enclosed in circles, a gown of green silk sewn with wild men, animals and roses. Yet, as soon as her ship disembarked at Bordeaux, her party started falling ill and, despite fleeing the city, Joan died on 2 September. Two of her younger brothers, Thomas and William of Windsor, then aged about 1 year and 10 weeks respectively, were also lost during that summer.
In Lincolnshire, another family with small children were bracing themselves for the arrival of the plague. At Bolingbroke Castle, situated in the open countryside between the city of Lincoln and the North Sea coast, Henry of Grosmont, Earl of Lancaster, was hoping that his home was remote enough to shelter his family from the coming onslaught. It had been built in the 1230s, with five towers, walls 12ft thick and a moat almost eight times as wide. The ground rose to hills on three sides, which afforded them some natural protection. Animals were kept in the outer bailey and several fishponds would have kept the family supplied with fresh food. By the summer of 1349, it had passed into Lancaster's hands, and the earldom had been created for him, as a great-grandson of Henry III. Lancaster was a veteran of the Hundred Years' War and Scots Wars, having paid his own exorbitant ransom after spending a year in captivity in the Low Countries, on account of the king's debts. He had been married for twelve years to Isabella de Beaumont, the granddaughter of John of Brienne, King of Jerusalem, a French nobleman who had fought in the fifth and sixth crusades and ruled in Constantinople. The pair had at least two daughters: Maud, who was ten in 1349, and Blanche, whose age may have been anything between four and nine. The existence of another daughter, Isabel, is suggested by a gift of white wine made to her and her mother in 1338 by the Borough of Leicester, although she appears not to have survived infancy.
As the plague spread closer, Lancaster was already aware that his best chance of survival was to stay away from London. Along with his peers, he had been due to attend a session of Parliament summoned to Westminster for that Easter but, in early March, letters were issued from the palace insisting that no 'magnates and other lieges' must attend 'until further order, as the king has prorogued that Parliament until a new summons because that mortal plague which caused the previous prorogation ... is increasing' and their assembly would be 'too dangerous'. Members of Parliament heeded this advice, fled their city homes and took refuge on their estates, hoarding provisions, shutting the gates and sitting the danger out. Through that summer, the plague swept up to the walls of Bolingbroke Castle and devastated the surrounding county. A mere 20 miles north, the chronicler of the Cistercian Abbey of Louth described what happened when the first cases appeared that July; many of the monks died, including the Abbot, Walter de Louth, with the illness killing 'confessor and penitent together'. So great a pestilence, wrote the monk, 'had not been seen, or heard, or written about before this time' and 'struck the whole world with immense terror.' The Bishop of Lincoln consecrated new cemeteries to receive the victims of the plague, at Great Easton on 4 May and at Stragglethorpe on 9 June, a further 18 miles north of Bolingbroke. The number of deaths among the Lincolnshire clergy rose from fifteen in June to sixty in July and eighty-nine in August, while the entire nunnery of Wothorpe was wiped out, save for a single nun. It has been estimated from vacant benefices that the Deanery of Bolingbroke lost about 39 per cent of its inhabitants before the plague finally went into decline with the onset of autumn.
For the moment, Lancaster and his family were among the survivors. He received another summons from Westminster in November 1350, for Edward's twenty-ninth Parliament, once it was judged that the danger had passed. Then, with an estimated 1.5 million dead out of a population of 4 million, the magnates would meet between 9 February and 1 March. Five days later, Edward would elevate Henry's earldom to the duchy of Lancaster 'and grant to him all the royal rights pertaining to the county palatine, in that country, to hold for life, and that he should have executions by writs and ministers there'. This might have been as a result of his swift bravery at the Battle of Winchelsea, otherwise known as the Battle of L'Espagnols sur Mer, that had taken place on 29 August 1350. A fleet of Castilian privateers mounted an unexpected attack upon Edward III's ships, which were anchored off what was then the busy port of Winchelsea in East Sussex. Lancaster's swift action saved the king's two sons from the sinking vessel: young John of Gaunt, then aged ten, and the all-important heir, Edward, the Black Prince. According to Froissart, 'during this danger of the prince, the Duke of Lancaster ... approached ... and saw that his crew had too much on their hands, as they were bailing out water, so he drew his ship alongside for the prince to board'.
According to his own memoirs The Book of the Holy Doctors, written in the medieval tradition as penance for a life of vice, Lancaster was tall, fair and slim in his youth, fond of fine clothes and jewels, hunting, jousting, dancing, feasting and the pleasures of the flesh. One source suggests the existence of an illegitimate daughter by the name of Juliane, who was married to a William Dannet of Leicester at some point before 1380. His various foreign crusades had resulted in campaigns, battles, treaties and a narrowly averted duel with the Duke of Brunswick, which was halted when King John II of France intervened. By his forties, Lancaster was ageing and suffering from gout, but his legitimate daughters were two of the most eligible young women in England.
As the daughters of the most senior peer of the realm, Maud and Blanche of Lancaster already had a connection with the household of Queen Philippa of Hainault before they entered it on a formal basis. With Blanche's birth occurring somewhere between 1340 and 1348, an earlier date might suggest that she may have been placed with the queen by 1349, while a later one would indicate her likely presence in Lincolnshire during the plague, followed by her entry to the court in the early 1350s. Lancaster's activities suggest that he was in England during the peak of the epidemic but his later foreign career might have led his duchess to seek the queen's company in his absence, along with the surgeons, alchemists, cures and other benefits of the royal establishment. They also suggest that the young Blanche came into contact with Philippa's third surviving son, John of Gaunt, whose ninth birthday fell three months before the plague ship arrived in Melcombe. Although confined within the domestic, female sphere, the queen's women would have attended formal occasions, religious observances and feast days, where there would be opportunities to talk and perhaps even dance with members of King Edward's household.
Philippa was reputed to be a 'virtuous loving wife' and 'affectionate mother', described by Froissart as 'most liberal and most courteous' and renowned for having pleaded for the lives of the Burghers of Calais in 1347. A description of a child princess of Hainault, which may refer to Philippa or one of her sisters, paints a picture of a girl of 8 with hair 'betwixt blue-black and brown', her head 'clean shaped, her forehead high and broad ... the lower part of her face still more narrow and slender than the forehead. Her eyes are blackish brown and deep. Her nose is fairly smooth and even, save that it is somewhat broad at the tip and somewhat flattened yet it is no snub nose ... her mouth fairly wide. Her lips somewhat full ... she is brown of skin all over and much like her father ... nought is amiss so far as a man may see.' Even if this account, by Walter Stapledon, Bishop of Exeter, referred to Philippa's elder sister Margaret or the younger Joanna, only a couple of years separated the three, so the colouring and general sense may well be taken to describe Edward III's queen. Moreover, at the end of her life, Philippa insisted that her tomb represent a realistic, honest depiction of herself rather than an idealisation. Her effigy in Westminster Abbey, carved by Jean de Liège of Brabant, bears out Exeter's description of what might have been a family nose, smallish and even, with broad nostrils and flattened end.
Excerpted from Red Roses by Amy Licence. Copyright © 2016 Amy Licence. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Time Honour'd Lancaster 9
Prologue: June 1509 15
Part 1 19
1 Blanche of Lancaster, 1345-68 21
2 The Girls' Governess, 1368-71 47
3 Constance of Castile, 1371-94 56
Part 2 81
4 Mary de Bohun, 1380-94 83
5 Richard II's Queens, 1382-97 107
6 Legitimacy, 1394-1403 128
Part 3 145
7 Joan of Navarre, 1403-19 147
8 Catherine of Valois, 1420-26 177
9 Mrs Tudor, 1426-37 192
10 Queen of Scotland, 1424-45 203
Part 4 217
11 Potential Queens, 1437-45 219
12 Margaret of Anjou, 1445-60 239
13 Queen in Exile, 1461-82 267
14 Tudor's Widow, 1471-85 285
Part 5 311
15 The King's Mother, 1485-1509 313
16 Royal Grandmother, 1509 340
17 White Swans, Red Roses 351