Saturday, March 19, 2016

John of Gaunt


Rating: 3.5 Stars


I received a copy of this text for free directly from the publisher, Endeavour Press, in exchange for an honest review.

I am wavering back and forth on this one a bit, three stars or four. This was an incredibly informative read, in particular when it came to the Duke of Lancaster's military exploits (and unfortunate lack of success in most cases), but it was lacking in the areas I was most interested in - his personal life. I wanted to know more about his relationship and eventual marriage to Katherine Swynford and while the book touched on it, it never got quite as much attention as I would have liked. However, one must remember when reading this book, that it was first published in the early 1900s. Times have changed and new information may have come to light in that time that was not available to the author then. Or, perhaps more likely, the author was less concerned with that aspect of Lancaster's life. Either way, the book is heavy on the details of battle plans, which is not necessarily my area of interest. I kept reading though, because the book is still a well-written of a most interesting life, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster - founder of the House of Lancaster and what would eventually lead to what we call today the War of the Roses.

Early on, the book is just as much about Lancaster's older brother Edward, the Black Prince, as it was about John. One would expect as much, seeing as how Lancaster was the fourth son (but third to survive to adulthood) of King Edward III and as a son so far down the line it was never expected that he would eventually play such an important role behind the throne. It is easy to understand then why there is not nearly as much information about him as we may like, and what we see from that time comes in relation to what is known of his older, just as famous, brother.

As an interesting (to me, at least) aside while on the topic of the Black Prince, I recently read an article concerning the siege at Limoges - where in the book it is discussed that the prince had roughly 3,000 thousand men, women, and children massacred. It actually may not have happened that way. New documents that have been discovered indicate that after the siege, this massacre may not have taken place but instead 300 hostages were taken. While we may never know for sure, it is an important point to make when reading older texts such as this that new information is being discovered all the time. And I would like to believe it did not happen, but the Middle Ages were quite a different world altogether and it can not be dismissed entirely; massacres like that occurred often in battle.

One of the most interesting sections to me occurred when it came to the non-battle-oriented aspects, such as the management of Lancaster's lands, who was in charge of what, etc. While this information was specific for Lancaster, it also could have been about any other noble with large landholdings, and I could appreciate the information as being just about the time period in general as it was about him. I love the Middle Ages and there are certainly times where the book focuses more on the period itself. I feel like maybe that was due to the fact that there were simply times in Lancaster's life that could not be accounted for, so generalities had to take the place of Lancaster-specific info. I am not entirely opposed to that practice, but there does need to be a balance between subject and general information.

I also enjoyed the sections detailing Lancaster's retreat and seeking refuge in Scotland. I do not think most people (who know of the time period) realize quite how many times Lancaster had to defend himself against his enemies who sought to bring him down. Many thought he was angling for the throne himself, which may well have been true. But time and again when he could have gone after it, he did not. It is intriguing to think about how different England might look today had that happened and he been successful. Or maybe not, seeing as how his son Henry Bolingbroke would go on to become King Henry IV anyway. Or, history could have gone a completely different direction had any of the Edwards (Edward III, Edward the Black Prince, and the Black Prince's son, also Edward) managed to live just a bit longer. Richard II might never have been king at all and that would be something to contemplate.

After I muddled through the Castile battles and plans and the like, I was excited to see a chapter regarding Katherine Swynford. I thought finally, what I have been waiting for. But alas, it was not solely devoted to this aspect of Lancaster's life and so I was a bit disappointed. I wanted to know so much about their life and their children, and perhaps I simply have to seek other books to find more information on this topic, for reasons I addressed above.

Overall, I can say that I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the Middle Ages and the larger-than-life figures who lived in that age. This text will be of special interest to those who are keen on military information and the Hundred Years' War, as well as Lancaster's forays into Castile and Leon. Despite its age, the book is still very informative and would be a great addition to a medieval books collection.

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