Blanche of Lancaster
Updated: Nov 15, 2020
On 12th September 1368 Blanche of Lancaster dies, aged just 23, but would be remembered for centuries after as the mother of the great Lancastrian Dynasty, grandmother of the victor of Agincourt and a model of the perfect Medieval Duchess.
Blanche was born in 1345, in Bolingbroke Castle, Lincolnshire, the youngest child of Isabel de Beaumont and Henry of Grosmont, Duke of Lancaster. She had a single sibling, her elder sister Matilda, and they were co-heiresses of some of the greatest estates in England. Edward III quickly realised this and sought a marriage between Blanche and his third son, John of Gaunt as a way to provide land and estates to his ever-growing brood of sons.
Blanche's estates had come from Edmund Crouchback, Earl of Leicester, Lancaster and Derby, the second son of Henry III.
(Unfortunately the Family tree maker used wasn't quite able to cope with the complexities of Medieval Family Trees and wouldn't let me show that Edmund Crouchback and Edward I were brothers)
Edmund had been granted estates by his father, Henry III, and had been awarded the forfeited states of Simon de Montfort, becoming Earl of Leicester in 1267, as well as governing his wife's, Blanche of Artois' estates in Champagne. These rich lands passed to his son Thomas (not on the family tree) and on Thomas' death in 1322, to Henry, the younger son.
Blanche and Matilda spent some of their childhood in the Queen's court where they were educated in what were viewed as essential skills of the time - how to be a mother and a wife. In 1359, Blanche's long anticipated marriage occurred, with the King and most of his court in attendance at Reading Abbey. Blanche was about fourteen at the time to John's nineteen. Within weeks of the marriage, Blanche was pregnant, and John was off on campaign with Blanche's father and Edward III in France. During John's absence, Blanche was taken into the royal household again, to stay with the Queen who was showing concern over her condition. In March 1360, Blanche gave birth to a daughter, Philippa (who would go on to be Queen of Portugal), the first of her seven children.
In 1361, Blanche encountered tragedy when both her parents died of an outbreak of Bubonic Plague. The grand estates were divided between Matilda and Blanche. Blanche received the Earldoms of Derby and Lancaster, while Matilda got those of Leicester and Lincoln. Matilda had been married to William I Duke of Bavaria-Straubing (the second son of the Holy Roman Emperor and Margaret II of Hainault) in 1352 when she was about twelve, and was living in Bavaria. The next year, Matilda returned to England to claim her inheritance, but also died of the plague, leaving Blanche as her heir since her only child, a daughter had died in 1356. Matilda's body was returned to Bavaria where she was buried in Rijnsburg Abbey. Through his wife, John of Gaunt was the biggest land-owner in England beneath the King. While the Duchy of Lancaster became extinct on Henry of Grosmont's death, it was created for a second time and later bestowed on John of Gaunt.
In just under ten years of marriage, Blanche had seven children, although only three survived infancy: Philippa, Elizabeth and Henry. Henry would go on to depose his cousin, Richard II, and become Henry IV, while Elizabeth would blaze her own trail, being married three times. The first marriage was to John, Earl of Pembroke, who was nine years younger than her, and of whom she quickly tired. When she was twenty-three she forced her father to annul this marriage and instead married John Holland, Duke of Exeter, in 1386. When Holland was executed for treason in 1400, and in the same year, she married Sir John Cornwall, 1st Baron Fanhope and Milbroke, a love match.
When Blanche died, at just twenty-three, probably from complications of childbirth (although possibly from the bubonic plague), she was deeply mourned by her husband, who commissioned Geoffrey Chaucer to write 'The deth of Blaunche'. Although John of Gaunt remarried twice, to Constance of Castile and later Katheryn Swynford, it was Blanche that he chose to be buried beside in the Choir of St Pauls Cathedral although their tomb was damaged or destroyed in 1649-1660, and anything that remained was destroyed in the Great Fire of London (1666).
Blanche had a short, but probably happy life despite yearly pregnancies during marriage, and lived on in her descendants through her daughters, Elizabeth and Philippa and son, Henry.