30 November 2009

Dynasties: The Lancasters

By Margaret Mallory

We will finish the month as we started it, with John of Gaunt's descendants. While Blythe Gifford wrote about the Beauforts, the side of the family born on the wrong side of the blanket, I'll cover the Lancasters, the legitimate heirs who became kings.

I love this painting of John of Gaunt. Hot and dangerous, wouldn't you say? And he liked poetry too. What a man.

John of Gaunt (1340-1399) played an important role in government during the minority of his nephew, Richard II. He also became perhaps the wealthiest man in England.

Richard II turned out to be a poor king who lacked the military skills of his father, the famous Black Prince. When John of Gaunt died, Richard made the fatal mistake of disinheriting John's son Henry Bolingbroke and taking the Lancaster lands for the crown. Bolingbroke, who was in exile in France, landed in Northumberland allegedly to take back his inheritance. As he rolled across England, disgruntled nobles joined his cause. He took the crown from his cousin to become Henry IV, the first Lancaster king.

Henry IV (1367–1413)

When Henry Bolingbroke challenged Richard II for the crown, Richard took Bolingbroke's eleven-year-old heir hostage. The boy was not his father's favorite; Bolingbroke did not even pause. Fortunately, Richard had grown fond of the boy and spared his life. His cousin was not so merciful. The deposed king died in imprisonment...some say of starvation.

Henry IV spent much of his reign foiling conspiracies and putting down rebellions. Apparently, usurping the throne weakened the perception that the king held the throne by divine right. The king began to see plots everywhere. He was jealous of his son, Prince Harry, who was popular with the people and lauded for his military victories.

Henry V (1386/87–1422). Apparently this diligent king was too busy leading armies and running the kingdom to sit for a better portrait.

Henry V is the "king" in my series, "All the King's Men," and an important secondary character in the first two books. While many other royals seemed to put their personal welfare above their kingdom's, Henry V appears to have devoted every waking hour to his duties. He was the best of the Lancasters and a king for the ages.

In my first book, KNIGHT OF DESIRE, he is still Prince Harry, he is in command of the English army charged with putting down the Welsh rebellion. In my new release, he is king and at the height of his powers. He has returned two Normandy two years after his great victory at Agincourt to reclaim the lands his predecessors lost to France.

The painting, below, is of the famous Battle of Agincourt, in which a young King Henry V defeated the French against overwhelming odds. So many French nobles were killed in the battle that it is often said the "cream of French chivalry" died at Agincourt.

Henry V eventually laid claim not only to Normandy, but to the French crown. Under the pressure of the English king's military successes, Charles VI of France, agreed to marry his daughter to Henry. Henry allowed the ailing French king to keep his crown, so long as the French king disinherited his own son and named Henry as his heir.

Henry needed better lawyers, however, for no one seems to have anticipated that he might die before his father-in-law. Who knows what the map of Europe would look like today if Henry had not only inherited the French crown but lived to be an old man? Instead, he died at the age of thirty-five, probably of dysentery, a soldier's illness. His father-in-law died a few weeks later. With their deaths, Henry's nine-month-old babe was heir to two kingdoms.

Henry VI (1421–1471) King of England 1422–1461 and 1470-1471.

Not surprisingly, Henry VI's claim to the French throne was challenged early-on by the dauphin, Charles VI's disinherited heir. Eventually, Joan of Arc would be instrumental in turning the tide against the English.

Henry VI's right to the English crown might never have been challenged, however, if he had been a strong and skilled king like his father. A loyal cadre of Lancaster and Beaufort men made sure England was ruled competently during his minority. Once Henry VI ruled in his own right, however, he proved to be poorly suited to the task. Later, he suffered from bouts of severe mental illness, probably inherited from his French grandfather, "mad" King Charles. As was the case with Richard II, his disastrous rule opened the door to a challenge. And so began the War of the Roses....

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