No One Ever Remembers Joan Beaufort

Or, Henry Tudor sucks

The main characters:

John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster

Edward of Woodstock, called The Black Prince, Duke of Aquitaine

Richard of Bordeaux, future Richard II

Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence

Edward of Windsor, future Edward III

Edmund of Langley, Duke of York

Katherine Swynford

Joan Beaufort, daughter of John of Gaunt

Margaret Beaufort, great granddaughter of John of Gaunt

Henry Tudor, future Henry VII

Henry Bolingbroke, future Henry IV

Henry of Windsor, future Henry VI

Richard Duke of York

English inheritance has always been a little bit tricky.  Like the English language, English royal inheritance laws are the hybrid of several different traditions.  England itself emerged (after the Anglo-Saxon invasion) around the 10th century under the rule of Alfred the Great’s grandson, Æthelstan.  The Anglo-Saxon kings were defeated in 1066 by William the Bastard/Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy.  The Anglo-Saxon kings had wildly different inheritance traditions than the Normans, but the Normans were forced to adopt some of the local traditions by the English barony.  As a result, English inheritance traditions were a sort of blend between the two.

Anglo-Saxon inheritance traditions tended to be disorganized.  Instead of having a clear heir, such as the eldest son of the king, there was always a sort of “pool” of heirs.  When a king died, the earls – the landowners and power of the land – chose who they wanted to become the next king.  Usually that person was the eldest son of the last king.  But when the eldest son was a young boy, they would often choose a brother of the dead king, or a cousin.  The point was to choose a strong leader rather than a blood descendant.

The Normans, on the other hand, tended to be very strict.  Only males could inherit, and, as would be enacted later, the crown could only be passed through the male line.  If a king died without a male heir, the crown would revert to the closest male relative through the male line.  That meant, on occasion, that entire chunks of the royal tree were circumvented and a distant cousin was crowned.

Once William the Bastard invaded, no one wrote down or enacted clear inheritance laws.  Each king approached the inheritance as they saw fit.  Usually the eldest son inherited.  However, William the Bastard’s male line died out relatively quickly.

When William’s son Henry I died, he left a daughter, Matilda (also called Maude).  Matilda was married to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou (nicknamed Plantagenet after planta genista, a plant he liked to stick in his hat, which is where we get that name), who had a son named Henry.  Before Matilda could be crowned, her first cousin, Stephen, stole the throne.  Stephen was a grandson of William through his daughter, Adela.  In this case, the English people went with the fastest guy to get to the throne, even if that meant going through the female line.  Stephen even had an older brother who had a better blood right, but Stephen’s ass was the first in the chair so they went with him. After decades of fighting, Matilda’s son was crowned as Henry II – again, through the female line.

Several generations later, Edward of Windsor became Edward III. His mother, Isabella (the princess from Braveheart) was a princess of France.  The direct male line of the French royal family, the Capets, died out in her generation.  Her son claimed the throne of France in her name, being a male descendent of the French royal family.  It was at this point that the French enacted Salic Law, or absolute agnatic primogeniture – that is, only the direct male line can inherit.  They traced the royal family back to the counts of Valois, whose current count was a direct male descendent of a French king.  Edward III kept pressing his claim to the French throne, which finally culminated in Henry V’s victory at Agincourt – but I’ll get to that later.

When Edward III died, his grandson, Richard of Bordeaux, was crowned Richard II since his father, Edward the Black Prince, had died.  Richard was ten years old.  Here’s the thing about regencies (where a child becomes king and the country is ruled by a series of regents).  They’re usually complete disasters.  The regents fight tooth and nail for power, the king is caught in the middle and rarely grows up a well-adjusted adult, and the country suffers.  This is why the Anglo-Saxon kings would usually pass over a child and crown the closest adult relative.  When Richard of Bordeaux became king, the country did end up in a nasty situation, although it mostly happened after Richard became an adult.  While he was a child, the country was largely ruled by his uncle, John of Gaunt.

John of Gaunt was the third surviving son of Edward III (the second oldest, Lionel of Antwerp, had also died by this point).  He married Blanche of Lancaster, and through her became Duke of Lancaster and one of the richest, most powerful men in history.  He did a pretty bang up job of ruling the country.  Unfortunately, this was in the time of the black death, when the serf class was shrinking and the economic lifestyle of the country shifted rapidly as the population dwindled.  The populace looked for someone to blame, and they settled on John.  Of course, he didn’t exactly help his cause, starting an affair with a foreigner named Katherine Swynford…

John loved his wife Blanche.  They had three children together, and rose above the knightly myth of courtly love to have an actual, loving marriage.  Sadly, Blanche died relatively young, leaving John heartbroken.  His second marriage was purely political, to Constance of Castile.  Made entirely so he could claim the throne of Castile, he cared for Constance as best he could…while also shacking up with his children’s governess, a foreigner named Katherine Swynford.  Their love affair – and it was more about love than just sex – lasted for decades and eventually produced four children.  It pissed off the court and it really pissed off the populace, mostly because Katherine was baseborn and not even English.  Eventually they had to break it off…until Constance died and John finally said fuck it and married Katherine.  He negotiated with Richard II and the pope and had his four bastards legitimized, giving rise to the Beaufort family.  See Alison Weir’s 2008 novel, Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and His Scandalous Duchess.  You can also read the historical fiction book Katherine by Anya Seton, which is where most closet romantics start.

Anyway, this love story becomes relative to the royal inheritance in a little while, I promise.  For now, back to Richard II and the regency.

Despite such calamities as the Peasant’s Revolt and various smear campaigns, John did a pretty good job of running the kingdom until his nephew, Richard, came of age.  Sadly, when Richard grew up, he turned into a tyrant who executed one of his uncles and set his eyes on John’s estates.  Shortly before John died, Richard had John’s son and heir, Henry Bolingbroke, exiled to France forever, essentially destroying the Duchy of Lancaster.  When John died, Richard claimed the Lancastrian inheritance for the Crown.  Henry Bolingbroke was, naturally, royally pissed off.

During Richard’s reign, he married twice but failed to have any children.  His designated heir was first his cousin once removed, Roger Mortimer, grandson of Lionel of Antwerp (through the female line).  Upon Roger’s death, Richard’s heir became Edmund Mortimer.  When John died and Richard truly lost his shit, the heir to the throne was a boy.  Which meant that overthrowing the king would invite yet another regency into the kingdom.  As I mentioned, regencies were usually disastrous.  Besides, Edmund’s claim was through the female line…

Henry Bolingbroke refused to see his father’s legacy absorbed into the Crown.  He invaded England and stole the throne, using the logic that he had a better claim than Edmund since he was a direct male descendent of Edward III, an adult, and not crazy as shit like Richard II.  Richard II was locked up in Pontefract Castle, and starved to death, probably by Thomas Swynford.  Recognize the name?  It was his stepbrother.

A note on the attached family tree.  John of Gaunt is shown after Edmund of Langley, Duke of York.  Edmund was the younger son; he is shown before John of Gaunt for arrangement’s sake.  The same thing goes for the order of John’s marriages.  He married Blanche first.  His second marriage to Constance isn’t even shown.  His marriage to Katherine Swynford was last.  And lastly, the same goes for the children of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt; Joan was the youngest child.

Henry Bolingbroke, now known as Henry IV, was a paranoid king.  He knew that he had stolen the throne, and spent much of his reign in paranoia that someone else was going to steal it from him.  Specifically the Mortimers.  Depending on what type of inheritance you looked at, they had a better claim to the throne.  They were from Lionel of Antwerp’s line, which was senior to John of Gaunt’s.  And in fact, there were a few uprisings that attempted to put the Mortimers on the throne.  They all failed, but it set the kingdom on edge.

When Henry IV died, his son, Henry V, became king and everyone adored him.  He’s the one who finally conquered France with a resounding victory at Agincourt.  He was also played by Tom Hiddleston in The Hollow Crown, so even though he was kind of a tyrant and smashed a Welsh uprising, I have a soft spot for him.  He married the Valois princess Catherine, with their son supposedly uniting the two countries.

Unfortunately, he died when his son, Henry of Windsor, was only a year or so old, which meant another regency.  And SURPRISE.  It was a disaster.  Henry of Windsor, now Henry VI, had no clue how to be king, was married to a partially psychotic French princess that everyone hated, was overruled by his councilors, and fell into two waking comas.  It was during his reign that Joan of Arc fought back and regained France for the Valois.  In short, he sucked as king.

In the meantime, the Mortimer claim had been united with the Dukes of York when Edmund’s sister Anne married Edmund, Duke of York’s son, Richard of Conisburgh.  Their son, the third Duke of York, was therefore descended from two sons of Edward III, with one being the senior line and one being a direct male descendent.  Essentially, he had a better claim to the throne than Henry VI (though, according to the French, still secondary since the senior line to Lionel of Antwerp didn’t count).  Plus, he wasn’t insane.

The Lancastrians knew that his claim to the throne was strong, perhaps even stronger than Henry VI’s.  Before he grew up, they sought to quell any claim he might make by marrying him to a staunch Lancastrian supporter.  There weren’t that many direct Lancastrian descendants available for marriage; John’s two daughters by his first marriage married into the royal house of Portugal and the Duke of Exeter, his daughter by his second marriage married into the royal house of Spain, and his son Henry IV and grandson Henry V had no unmarried daughters.  John did, however, have daughters and granddaughters with his mistress, Katherine.  When they married, their children were legitimized, which formed the junior Lancastrian branch called the Beauforts.  The Beauforts were, naturally, staunch Lancastrian allies.  The youngest and only female first generation Beaufort, Joan, married Ralph de Neville, the Earl of Westmoreland and pumped out roughly 3,000 children (I may be off by a few orders of magnitude).  The powers behind Henry VI’s throne decided to marry the youngest daughter of Joan, Cecily, to the young Richard, Duke of York.  Cecily’s job was to keep him loyal to the throne.  With a Beaufort/Lancaster descendant at his side, it was hoped that Richard would forget his stronger claim to the throne.

I wouldn’t be writing this if that had worked.  Henry VI was a terrible king, and his wife, Margaret of Anjou, fought viciously to keep the country under her control.  Even when the people and all of the royal councilors agreed to have Richard be the regent during Henry VI’s insanity and his eventual heir – cutting out Margaret’s son (who may or may not have been Henry VI’s) – Margaret refused to give up power and instead recruited an army of ragtag Scotsmen to invade the kingdom.

In response, Richard fought back and sought to claim the throne outright, putting forward that he had the better claim to the throne.  Margaret captured him and one of his sons, another Edmund, and beheaded them.  Instead of that being the end, his eldest son, Edward, kept fighting and finally won, being crowned Edward IV.  This Edward was descended from three of Edward III’s sons.  The senior line of Lionel of Antwerp, a direct male line from Edmund of Langley, and John of Gaunt through his legitimized bastards, the Beauforts.

So why mention any of this?  Because when Henry Tudor invaded England and crowned himself king, his only blood claim to the throne was through his Beaufort ancestry.  He was John of Gaunt’s great-great grandson through the eldest Beaufort, John.  It was through a female line, however.  He inherited this claim through his mother, Margaret Beaufort.  For some insane reason, Henry Tudor was proclaimed Henry VI’s heir before Margaret of Anjou gave birth to a son.  With this pathetic and formerly illegitimate link to the Lancastrian line, Henry Tudor was supposed to be next in line.  The only other link he had was through his grandmother, Catherine of Valois.  When Henry V died, his widow married a random Welsh squire, Owen Tudor.  Henry Tudor was the grandson of this marriage – a marriage which was never actually recorded.  So Henry Tudor was descended from bastardy on both sides of the family.

In case you hadn’t picked up on it yet, I don’t really like Henry Tudor.

When he became king, he married Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV.  He made a huge deal out of the fact that he was uniting the rival houses of Lancaster and York.  The Tudor rose was created, red and white, to represent the two houses.  The problem with this is that it already happened!

Elizabeth of York herself was descended from a unity of the two houses of Lancaster and York.  Her paternal grandmother was a Lancastrian, and her paternal grandfather was a York.  Elizabeth was red and white without her husband. It’s just that no one ever remembers Joan Beaufort, and the roughly 3,000 Nevilles she gave birth to. 

The royal inheritance after Edward III was murky.  Who actually had the best claim to the throne wasn’t nearly as big of a deal as to who was least likely to be a shitty king.  One thing that is absolutely clear, however, is that Henry Tudor’s claim was terrible.  He based his reign on the same logic as William the Bastard; that of Conquest.  Henry Tudor invaded England and killed the rightful English king, Richard III.  He appeased the English people by marrying Elizabeth of York, who had the better claim to the throne.  During his reign, no one dared breathe mention that her claim was better.  But after one or two generations, it was pretty obvious that the kings traced their ancestry to royalty back through her, not through Henry Tudor.

In conclusion, regencies are terrible, John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford were awesome, the Yorks had the better claim to the throne, Elizabeth of York was the true monarch, and Henry Tudor sucked.

By the way, the majority of US presidents descended from English royalty were descended from the Nevilles – that is, through Joan Beaufort.  But no one ever remembers Joan and her roughly 3,000 children (in all seriousness, she had 14 children by Ralph de Neville and two more from a previous marriage).

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