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The Illegitimate Royals: The Beaufort Children


John of Gaunt (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

John of Gaunt, born in 1340, was the third son of King Edward III. Through advantageous marriages and land grants, John became exceedingly wealthy and influential at his father’s court. John’s influence increased when his brother Edward – who was the heir to the throne – became unwell and died leaving his young son to succeed as King Richard II. At this time, John of Gaunt took over many aspects of ruling on behalf of his young nephew. After John’s death, his son Henry deposed his cousin Richard and became king himself as Henry IV. John, the founder of the House of Lancaster was not alive to see the first of his descendants reign as king and was unaware of all that was to follow for the dynasty.

John, Duke of Lancaster was married three times; his first wife was Blanche of Lancaster whom John had seven children with before she died at the age of twenty-six in 1368. One of the couple’s daughters named Philippa went on to become Queen of Portugal and so all Portuguese kings from then on were descended from John of Gaunt. Also one of the pair’s sons became the future Henry IV of England. After Blanche passed away, John married again to Constance of Castile in a union that produced two children. During this marriage, John tried to claim the crown of Castile and failed, but his daughter Catherine later became Queen of Castile through her marriage and was an ancestor of Catherine of Aragon.

Through John’s first two marriages he produced nine legitimate children, many of whom went on to have important parts in European history. However today we are here to discuss the four children from his third relationship with a long-term mistress of thirty years, Katherine Swynford.

The couple were together from around 1371 after the deaths of Blanche of Lancaster and Katherine’s husband Hugh. The pair met because Katherine was the governess of John and Blanche’s children and her own daughters from her marriage lived in the royal nursery with John’s children. The relationship continued on while John was married to his second wife Constance of Castile and the couple had four illegitimate children. In 1381, the relationship had to be formally renounced by John, in part to maintain his popularity during the Peasants’ Revolt. Katherine left for a while after this but continued to visit more discreetly. In 1396, after the death of Constance and after over twenty-five years together, John and Katherine were married and the four children were from that point declared as legitimate by the Pope and by King Richard II. The King, however, added a clause saying that the children were barred from the line of succession.

The four children were given the surname Beaufort which was taken from a Lordship held by John in France. The first child born to the pair was John Beaufort, 1st Earl of Somerset who was born in 1371. Little is known about his childhood, probably due to the fact the Beaufort siblings were not legitimised until 1390 by King Richard II, then in 1396 by Pope Boniface IX before Richard II had the legitimation confirmed by Parliament in 1397. Before this, John spent a lot of time in military service and away on crusade. In the month after the legitimation by parliament, things started to look up for the Beaufort children in regard to their rank and recognition. John was created Earl of Somerset, then Warden of the Cinque Ports, Constable of Dover Castle and Admiral of the Irish Fleet which was later extended to add in the Northern Fleet. Within just weeks of being recognised by parliament, John was given considerable responsibility which continued to grow over time. After serving Richard II, John was later created Marquess of Somerset and of Dorset and even became a Knight of the Garter. John’s elevation in rank afforded him a good marriage match in Margaret Holland who was a niece of Richard II. During the reign of his half-brother Henry IV, John became just Earl again but was loyal to Henry and later became Constable of England as well as being given substantial amounts of confiscated lands from Wales. John Beaufort is mostly remembered today for being the grandfather of Margaret Beaufort – the mother of King Henry VII, the victor of the Wars of the Roses. It is only because King Henry VI rescinded the barring of the Beaufort line from the throne that Henry VII was able to usurp the throne at all, however.

In 1375, another son named Henry Beaufort was born to Katherine and John. Henry did not leave behind any historically important children for the dynasty but this is because his career path did not allow it. Henry became a clergyman and had great success. Henry was educated for a career within the church from early in life, but as with his brother John, it was when the children were declared legitimate that his career prospects began to rapidly improve. Henry became Bishop of Lincoln in 1378 and then, once Henry IV was on the throne, he made his half brother Lord Chancellor of England. Henry only stayed in the position for a year at this time due to church commitments including being made Bishop of Winchester but was appointed Lord Chancellor again under the reigns of the following two kings. It is clear that Henry was an important political figure as well as clergyman. Henry was created a Cardinal of Rome in 1426 and then Papal Legate for Bohemia, Germany and Hungary. Henry then even went on to lead a Crusade against the Hussites in Bohemia. Henry lived until he was around seventy-two and continued to carry out important political and ecclesiastical works until his death, it is even reported that he was present at the trial of Joan of Arc.  

The third child born to John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford was Thomas Beaufort, born in 1377. Thomas, like his two full-brothers, went on to become an important figure in English history, his impact was in a military capacity. Records on Thomas mostly come from after the accession of his half-brother Henry IV. Here we can see that he was made a Knight of the Garter like his brother John, became Admiral of Calais, Constable of Ludlow and Admiral of the North and West. In his role as Admiral, Thomas suppressed the 1405 Northern Rebellion. For a brief time between 1410-1412, Thomas became Chancellor of England before focusing his attention back on military works. In 1412, he was created Earl of Dorset. Under the next King, Henry V Thomas continued in his success. He became Lieutenant of Normandy and of Aquitaine and Captain of Harfleur. At this time Thomas lived in Normandy working in his role as Lieutenant. In 1416, he received the title Duke of Exeter which he is remembered by. For the rest of his lifetime, Thomas was involved in conquests, sieges, the negotiation of treaties and even the organisation of Henry V’s will. He was always involved in the action and was a well-respected man. Thomas was married to Margaret Neville and they had a son together named Henry who sadly died young. Thomas died at the age of forty-nine. We can see a portrayal of him in popular culture even today, as the character Exeter in Shakespeare’s Henry V is based upon him.

In 1379, a daughter was born to Katherine and John, her name was Joan. As an illegitimate daughter, we know little of Joan’s early life, with even her date and place of birth being disputed. We first hear of Joan upon her marriage in 1392 to a Baron named Robert Ferrers and the couple and two daughters before Robert passed away. As an important political pawn, Joan could not remain unmarried and was married again to Ralph Neville, 1st Earl of Westmorland. This higher ranking match was due to Joan’s legitimation. Joan had a good relationship with her half-brother Henry IV and her husband supported Henry when he usurped the throne of Richard II. For this loyalty, the couple were greatly rewarded with extensive pensions, wardships, lands and titles. Their connection to the King meant they could arrange brilliant marriage matches for their own children. The couple had fourteen children together and Ralph already had twelve from his first marriage, adding in Joan’s two other daughters, the pair had a rather large brood to provide for. Ralph and Joan hatched a rather cunning plan; they purchased the wardships of orphaned aristocrats. They would then raise the child and marry them off to one of their own children making sure all of their lands and titles would remain within their sphere of influence. One such match was that of Cecily, the pair’s daughter and Richard of York, 3rd Duke of York. Through this marriage match, Joan became the grandmother of Edward IV and Richard III of England. Joan Beaufort, as well as her brother John, were both the great-grandparents of King Henry VIII of England. J.R. Lander called the Beaufort children’s marriages “the most amazing series of child marriages in English history”. Another of Joan’s grandchildren was the famous “Warwick the Kingmaker” one of the most important leaders in the Wars of the Roses and also father to Anne Neville, Queen of England. Even during her own lifetime, Joan saw her children come in to great wealth and positions, before she died she was mother to a nun, three duchesses, a bishop, a countess, three Barons and an Earl but it was following her death that her Neville descendants went on to change the face of English history.

Due to the legitimation of the Beaufort children, four people who could have faded into obscurity were allowed to fulfil their potential as children of a King. This act of legitimation and the marriage of their parents meant that the Beauforts were matched in good marriages, given high ranking positions in the church, government and military and many of their grandchildren went on to become high-ranking politicians and monarchs.