(photo from a tapestry)
The woman to whom “The Book of the Duchess” by Geoffrey Chaucer is dedicated to, Blanche of Lancaster, was the first and beloved wife of John of Gaunt (yes, he who later married his mistress Katherine Swynford from whom the Tudors claimed the throne). Even though she was deeply loved by her husband, and the mother of the future Henry IV, Blanche is not the woman we hear about the most when it comes to John of Gaunt, as his mistress (and later wife) tends to overshadow her (as the mighty Tudors descended from Katherine and John’s issue).
Blanche was born at Bolingbroke Castle on the 25th of March in 1345. Her parents were Henry of Grostmont, the 1st Duke of Lancaster, and Isabel de Beaumont. She is described as to have been beautiful, with blonde hair, blue eyes, and she was a calm and peaceful person.
She was married to her third cousin, John of Gaunt on the 19th of May 1359, when she was fourteen years old. He was the third son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainhault. It was a very happy and loving marriage, and Blanche quickly became pregnant and gave birth to the couple’s first child, Philippa, only five days after Blanche herself had turned fifteen. She gave birth to five more children, but out of the six, only half survived infancy.
In 1361, Blanche’s father died without male issue, and the title of Duke of Lancaster became extinct. Together with her sister Maud, Blanche was the co-heiress to the Duchy of Lancaster. A year later her sister died, and the title of Duke of Lancaster was later bestowed on Blanche’s husband.
When the bubonic plague struck in 1369, Blanche was one of its victims, and she died at the age of only 24, the 12th of September at the same castle as she was born.
Her funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London was preceded with a magnificent cortege attended by most of the nobility and clergy. Her husband had Geoffrey Chaucer, then a young squire and mostly unknown writer of court poetry, commissioned to write The Book of the Duchess, in her honour. In short, the poem tells the story of the poet’s dream. Wandering through a wood, the poet discovers a knight clothed in black (John of Gaunt), and inquires of the knight’s sorrow. Throughout the poem, pieces of the knight’s story become more and more apparent, until the cause of the mourning (the death of Blanche) is plainly stated and the dream abruptly ends. It is a very long poem, consisting of nearly 9000 words! Blanche was honoured indeed.
What is interesting while studying the poem is that it seems that at least one of its aims was to make John see that his grief for his late wife had become excessive, and so Chaucer tried to make him overcome it.
When John of Gaunt died 25 years after his first wife, he was buried next to her, and the two of them are buried in an unknown place somewhere in St. Paul’s Cathedral.